Monday, June 30, 2008

Art: Klimt, Kandinsky, Ernst. Art Nouveau, Modernism, Surrealism/Dada

Saw a wonderful, full length, documentary about the life of Marx Ernstlately. It occurred to me that you could trace a sort of path of transformation from the Art Nouveau period exemplified by Klimt to the Modernist period exemplified by Wassily Kandinsky, onto the Surrealism and Dada movements. Sort of a thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis model.

The thing about Art Nouveau that sort of grated on contemporaries and inspired a stripped down revolt was the gap between the effort put out for making the paintings and installations look nice and the meanings that they were supposed to embody. Take Klimt's Beethoven Frieze for example, a series of paintings that interprets Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in sort of an allegorical way, giving it a set of meanings that deals with the relationships between men and women in a sort of higher sense. All of that meaning is well and good but for the level of ornamentation that Klimt put out there the result seems kind of weak. Not to say that it doesn't look nice, but with both this and in a kind of amplified way most of Klimt's other works including "The Kiss", you have to wonder whether or not the ornamentation is there just for ornamentation's sake, if this is art or interior design. What does it all add up to?

Kandinsky provides a very sharp counterpoint to Art Nouveau, as do the rest of the abstract expressionists. Instead of form and ornamentation without a lot of meaning you have meaning without ornamentation or most form, at least most conventional representational form. It's art that's stripped down to the very basics of what's ultimately intended by artists. It can be easily argued that abstract art is already present in conventional, representational art in that the same kind of extra-representational forms are integrated into the works in order to add extra meaning, somewhat invisibly.

Ernst , the Dadaists and the Surrealists, this time including Picasso in his synthetic Cubist phase, resurrect conventional formal figures in a distorted yet recognizable shape. The insights of the Modernists, wanting to create pure communication of ideas without intermediaries, are there but life has been let in. The ornamentation of Art Nouveau has been sacrificed and the strange embellishments now exist in the service of meaning, not in the service of decoration.

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