Austin Artist of the Year and Blanton volunteer Claude van Lingen traces how artists have been influenced by the ideologies and technologies of their time from the Impressionism to Contemporary art movements.

“Call that art?” “My child can do better!”

Exclamations such as these have reverberated ever since the Impressionists first exhibited their work.

Frederic Emile Jean Baptiste Ragot

Frederic Emile Jean Baptiste Ragot, French Landscape, not dated, oil on canvas, Gift of Latane Temple, 1985.

The question is often, “Why do artists create strange work?” The answer: adventurous artists do not work in an accepted style but develop new ideas within the philosophy and zeitgeist of the times in which they live, a concept—central to the creative process—that is not stressed in most books or classrooms.

Impressionism came about because of changed thinking inspired by the French and Industrial Revolutions, technological innovations such as the camera, train travel, and paint tubes, and new ideas about light and color. The Impressionists revolted against the rules of the Academy (a national organization that controlled the art world) and wished to paint daily life with the speed of the camera rather than subjects, such as ancient Greek myths, that were favored by the Academy. Critics and the public alike ridiculed their subject matter and use of brilliant color and quick, visible brush strokes—an attitude difficult to comprehend today.

Max Weber

Max Weber, New York at Night, 1915, oil on canvas, Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, inventions such as flight, the automobile, the electric light bulb, the X ray, telephone, radio, movies, the elevator, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity changed the concept of space and time for everyone. In keeping with these new technologies, and in contrast to photographs and perspective renderings (the representation of objects from a single point of view at a single moment in time) the Cubists painted objects seen from different points of view at different moments in time. This method comes naturally to art created by children and to all cultures before the discovery of the rules of perspective during the Renaissance. In contrast to the perspective-type vision of the right brain, it is the way in which the left brain perceives reality. As Picasso said, “I draw what I know, not what I see.”

Theosophy (with its teaching that all major religions have at their core the same basic beliefs and that their different offshoots added details to suit their needs) led artist Piet Mondrian to remove all recognizable details from his work and search for the core truths in art. Although ridiculed at the time, Mondrian’s ideas permeate our lives to this day. His influence can be seen in modern architecture, furniture, and interior and graphic design.

Joan Mitchell

Joan Mitchell, Rock Bottom, 1960-61, oil on canvas, Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991.

In the WWI era, artists reacted against the war by forming the anti-establishment Dada movement. Freud’s ideas about the subconscious were the source for Surrealism. Dada and Surrealism’s ideas about chance and the subconscious, combined with post WWII Existentialism, underlay Abstract Expressionism. In turn, the products of our consumerist society became the “landscape” within which Pop Art flourished.

Today, for many reasons, individuality is paramount. Therefore, contemporary artists find something to say or do and use or develop the means most appropriate for communicating their ideas, whether those means be sharks, digital media, army tanks, blood, bottle tops—whatever.

The lesson is this: to begin to understand what any artwork is about, one has to research the philosophy of the times and delve into the artist’s background to discover what he or she is trying to communicate—even if it’s a realistic still-life painting. Understanding contemporary art is not always easy, even for those who are well versed in the history of art, but it can always be interesting.

– Claude van Lingen, Blanton Volunteer and Austin Artist of the Year

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