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Man Ray, Surrealist Chess Board, 1934.

This is a continuation of from the previous post. Click here for Part I.

Object Making:

One genre of art that the Surrealists took from Dada but adapted to their own uses was the construction of Surrealist objects. The artists combed Parisian flea markets and found various elements that they could combine to make assemblages that were not quite sculpture and not quite functional object. Marcel Duchamp was the forerunner of this idea. He chose ordinary objects and deemed them works of art by putting them within the context of a museum. Later he would begin to combine objects to make more complex ‘Readymades’.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1964.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1964.

Marcel Duchamp, Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy?, 1921.

Marcel Duchamp, Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy?, 1921.

Duchamp’s friend, American artist Man Ray continued this trend and bridged the gap between Duchamp and the Surrealists through the creation of works like Gift, Object to Be Destroyed, and The Mystery of Isadore Ducasse titled after the real name of the Comte de Lautréamont. These works took functional objects and made them useless but still somehow inviting like some strange object from a dream. From there the other Surrealists began to create their own strange objects in a similar vein.

Man Ray, Gift, 1921.

Man Ray, Gift, 1921.

Man Ray, Indestructible Object or Object To Be Destroyed, 1958 (replica of 1923 original).

Man Ray, Indestructible Object or Object To Be Destroyed, 1958 (replica of 1923 original).

Man Ray, The Mystery of Isidore Ducasse, 1920.

Man Ray, The Mystery of Isidore Ducasse, 1920.

One of the most famous is Meret Oppenheim’s sculpture Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure). This work (unlike many Surrealist objects) seems to have many levels of meaning. It seems like something out of a dream and has become, like Man Ray’s works, a useless object. It is also a sexual pun (sex and the fear of sex were common theme of Surrealist art) having to do with putting one’s mouth onto a hairy vessel.

Meret Oppenheim, Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure), 1936.

Meret Oppenheim, Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure), 1936.

Another example were the odd works constructed and photographed by Hans Bellmer. Bellmer created built disturbing  dolls of young women which were manipulated in various ways and conveyed themes of voyeurism, molestation, rape, abuse, and even murder. He photographed these dolls in various positions and created some of the most sexually charged and violent of the Surrealists’ works.

Hans Bellmer, Plate from La Poupée, 1936.

Hans Bellmer, Plate from La Poupée, 1936.

Many other Surrealist artists, such as Dali, created objects of these kinds but very few have the importance or staying power of the objects mentioned above. Nonetheless the construction of objects (as well as installations and performance) was an important aspect of the Surrealist movement’s output that would be taken up in a more successful form by later art movements in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Salvador Dali, Lobster Telephone, 1936.

Salvador Dali, Lobster Telephone, 1936.

Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram, 1955.

Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram, 1955.

Photography and Film:

From the late 19th century up until to around 1920, photography had tried to be a form of art on part with others by co-opting the expressiveness of painting, a period of photography known as ‘Pictorialism.’ Then came faster film and more portable cameras. Photographers could now be more inventive and experiment in ways wholly new and not tied to any other minimum.

Leonard Missonne, London, 1899.

Leonard Missonne, London, 1899.

Edward Steichen, Rodin, Le Penseur, 1902.

Edward Steichen, Rodin, Le Penseur, 1902.

The  Constructivists in Russia such as Alexander Rodchenko, and later the New Vision photographers like Lazslo Maholy-Nagy (whose style would become the dominant form of photography during the 1920’s and 30’s) used new light cameras, strange new angles and points of view, sharp focus (Pictorialists had been obsessed with fuzziness that resembled the fuzzy quality of Impressionist painting), and whole new styles of  photo-montage by artists such as the scathing Dadaist political satirist John Heartfield to push photography in totally new directions.

Alexander Rodchenko, Shukhov Tower, 1929.

Alexander Rodchenko, Shukhov Tower,
1929.

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Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, Oscar Schlemmer in Ascona, 1926.

John Heartfield, Hurray the Butter is Gone!, 1935.

John Heartfield, Hurray, The Butter is Gone!, 1935.

Soon photography became not a medium attempting to rise to the level of painting but a medium of art in its own right with the capabilities of experimentation, abstraction, montage, portraiture, and whole new ways of seeing the world. One of the originators of this trend was Man Ray.

Although Man Ray is most famous today for his photography, he wanted to be known for his painting. He only did photography for the money, so he claimed. Though he has some important painted works, the vast majority of Man Ray’s important output was in the form of photography and film. Along with creating whole new grammars in advertising and fashion photography, as well as portraiture, Man Ray invented new forms of the medium in general.

Man Ray, Observatory Time: The Lovers, 1936.

Man Ray, Observatory Time: The Lovers, 1936.

Man Ray for Harper's Bazaar, 1936.

Man Ray for Harper’s Bazaar, 1936.

Man Ray, Arnold Schoenberg, 1927.

Man Ray, Arnold Schoenberg, 1927.

Man Ray, James Joyce, 1922.

Man Ray, James Joyce, 1922.

He invented what he called ‘Rayographs’ (named after the artist) which consisted of placing objects on photographic paper in the darkroom and then exposing the paper leaving odd ghostly white shadows of objects over a black background. He experimented with this technique in film as well. He also invented solarization, the technique of quick exposing full light to the paper during a negative exposure, which creates a kind of halo effect, and played with effects usually thought of as mistakes within photography such as double exposure.

Man Ray, Rayograph, 1922.

Man Ray, Rayograph, 1922.

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Man Ray, Solarized Portrait of Lee Miller, 1929.

In the end he captured some of the greatest images of Surrealist photography including those featuring the notorious Parisian bohemian celebrity Kiki de Montparnasse. His images brought photography into a dreamlike world that had previously not been possible and because of this he was championed by the French Surrealists even before he arrived in Paris and became officially part of the movement.

Man Ray, Kiki, La Violon d`Ingres, 1924.

Man Ray, Kiki, La Violon d`Ingres, 1924.

Man Ray, Les Lames, 1932.

Man Ray, Les Lames, 1932.

Though there were many Surrealists who worked with photography, Man Ray’s works were probably the most important. Nonetheless,  photographers such as Claude Cahun, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, and Henri Cartier-Bresson were embraced by the Surrealists without really being members but doing work tangentially related in subject matter, style, and theme. The strangeness of their imagery, either constructed or captured, aligned with what the Surrealists saw as either he construction of a dreamlike image in the vein of Surrealist painting or moments of the irrational unconscious making itself known to ordinary people in the split second the photograph was taken, what Cartier-Bresson referred to as ‘the decisive moment.’

Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait, Don't Kiss Me, 1927.

Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait, Don’t Kiss Me, 1927.

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Manuel Alvarez Bravo, The Big Fish Eats The Little One, 1932.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Derriere la Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Derriere La Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932.

Man Ray was also an innovator in film along with other important experimental Surrealistl filmmakers. These filmmakers came were heavily interested by developments in film and animation of contemporary practitioners such as Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, the German Expressionists, early silent Hollywood films, the abstract animation of Viking Eggeling, and Dadaist performance and film such as those made by Hans Richter. Probably the most famous of these Surrealist filmmakers were Man Ray, René Claire, Jean Coctaeu, Luis Buñuel, and Salvador Dali.

Hans Richter:

Man Ray:

René Clair: 

Jean Cocteau:

Man Ray and Salvador Dali.

Man Ray and Salvador Dali.

Buñuel and Dali are perhaps the most infamous, at least during this period as they created one of the most controversial short films of all time, Un Chien Andelou, known most critically for its sexual explicitness, strong imagery (ants coming out of a hand comes to mind), and its violence including a scene with a women getting apparently getting her eye slashed with a razor. The film was deeply surrealist in its use of dream pacing and imagery and would in some sense dictate the way experimental film and dream sequences would be filmed in the ensuing decades from Hitchcock to The Sopranos.

Meanwhile, although Dali moved away from film, Buñuel began to make feature length Surrealist parables about bourgeois society and the crisis of identity within capitalist catholic society up until his death in 1983.

Un Chien Andalou:

Hitchcock’s dream sequence in Spellbound designed by Salvador Dali:

A dream sequence from The Sopranos:

Buñuel’s feature-legnth Surrealist masterpiece, The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Decline and Legacy:

Like most of the art movements of the twentieth century, Surrealism had a short shelf-life petering out by the 1960’s. It began to decline because mainly of World War II. Many of the artists came to the United States as a result of the fall of France in 1940 and were influential on American artists, notably Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and filmmakers such as Maya Deren. However, these artists were (besides Deren) only tangentially interested in Surrealism and more interested in abstraction and personal expression. Although they used Surrealist methods for untapping the unconscious such as chance, their art was not cerebral like Surrealism but visual and about the experience of looking.

Arshile Gorky, The Liver is the Cock's Comb, 1944.

Arshile Gorky, The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, 1944.

Robert Mother, Elegy to The Spanish Republic, 1971.

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to The Spanish Republic, 1971.

Jackson Pollock, Number 11 (Blue Poles), 1951.

Jackson Pollock, Number 11 (Blue Poles), 1951.

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Still from Maya Deren’s dreamy experimental film, Meshes Of The Afternoon, 1941.

Surrealism did become influential in another way. It was used by advertising, fashion, and movies in a form known as ‘pop surrealism.’ It became more important to applied art, entertainment, and commerce than it did a revolutionary movement of freedom. All trappings of its communist leanings went out the window when money entered the picture.

An example of 'Pop Surrealism,' Andy Warhol on the cover of Esquire, 1969.

An example of ‘Pop Surrealism,’ Andy Warhol on the cover of Esquire, 1969.

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Surrealist-influenced fashion, 1930’s.

The most well-known Surrealist, Salvador Dali, became more famous as a celebrity figure and personality (not to mention buffoon in an emperor has no clothes sort of way) than as a serious artist. Later cerebral and literary art movements such as Neo-Dada, Pop Art, and Conceptualism became  much more attracted to the original Dadaists during WWI and the 20’S, particularly Duchamp, than they were with Surrealism, although Conceptual artists in particular shared Surrealist’s interest in language.

Surrealism’s fate was sealed by two factors; the rise of the New York art scene during the war and the state of the French Avant-Garde after it. With Abstract Expressionism, the first art movement in America to catch on as truly revolutionary and globally significant, along with a new booming economy, modern art institutions (of which there were few in Europe), and a strong stream of art patronage, the center of world art domination moved from Paris to New York where it would stay until at least the end of the century.

Meanwhile, when they returned to Europe, the Surrealists no longer had the moral authority they had once commanded among elements of the leftist avant-garde. Stalinist and Troskyite notions of communism had been sidelined in favor of an even more unfathomable attraction to Maoism among French communists. The Existentialists and artists like Picasso and Alberto Giacometti had stayed in France during those years and had resisted the Nazi occupiers. By the time the war had ended the Surrealists were no longer able to lead the way as a revolutionary artists, writers, and thinkers in the way that Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Alberto Giacometti, Jean Dubeffet, or even Picasso could. Their style had become stale.

A work of Picasso's during the German occupation of France, Still Life with Blood Sausage, 1941.

A work of Picasso’s painted during the Nazi occupation of France, Still Life with Blood Sausage, 1941.

Alberto Giacometti surrounded by his Existentialist-inspired works, 1951.

Alberto Giacometti surrounded by his Existentialist-inspired works, 1951.

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Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beavoir.

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Albert Camus.

The Paris art scene, severely weakened by the war, continued to have innovative movements such as Art Brut and the Nouvelle Réalistes but Surrealism was the last movement in France that dominated the art world. Breton continued to influence young artists in the Surrealist vein particularly in South America until his death in 1966 but it was really artists like Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists who would have a greater influence on the postwar Avant-Garde. Art in France and later in the U.S. became particularly influenced by philosophical fads such as Existentialism, Buddhism, Phenomenology, and the media theories of Marshall McLuhan that began to dominate the intellectual scene during the 1950’s and 60’s.

A work by Art Brut founder Jean Dubuffet, Limbour as a Crustacean, 1946.

A work by Art Brut founder Jean Dubuffet, Limbour as a Crustacean, 1946.

Yves Klein, L'accord bleu (RE 10), 1960.

Founder of the Nouvelle Realiste movement Yves Klein, L’accord bleu (RE 10), 1960.

Nonetheless, we shouldn’t totally write off Surrealism’s accomplishments. The idea of investigating dreams and other elements of the unconscious was an important precedent that many artists who were interested in deep recesses of the mind would continue to be attracted. Even today, one of the most popular works of art at The Museum of Modern Art is a work by Salvador Dali. Surrealism continues to attract us because the unconscious is a universal that, if we decide to tap it for creativity, can elucidate beautiful, disturbing, and deeply fascinating things.

tumblr_lrmiq2X7Zp1qdu5ijo1_1280 It’s no secret that the conscious imagination can be a powerful driver of creativity. But what about the unconscious? Can ideas born from dreams and other forms of subconscious sources be equally powerful drivers of creativity? During the 1920’s and 30’s one group of international artists and writers centered in Paris believed this to be the case. They thought true creative freedom came not from the ego of the artist but from those elements just under conscious control. These artists called themselves Surrealists after a word invented by French modernist poet Apollinaire signifying the strange place between the real and the unreal.

Poet André Breton was the founder and leader (often dubbed Pope) of the Surrealist movement. It was he who established its definition and mission and acted as arbiter of its rules. He was famous for excommunicating members for not being sufficiently ‘surreal’ or a million other reasons. It was Breton who made the Surrealist movement possible.

André Breton, 1924.

André Breton, 1924.

Influences:

The Surrealist movement had a number of precursors and influences that it sought to co-opt into its philosophy and output. The first was Dada. Dada was started in Zurich in 1916 at the height of the First World War and was a reaction to the madness into which the continent had descended. To protest this irrationality they utilized irrationality in their art in order to force society out of its coma. From Zurich, it spread to Berlin, Paris, and New York among other cities.

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Paris Dadaists including Breton in fake facial hair.

DADA:          

These artists began to create art that was so radical that it shunned all previous forms of artistic expression and all other movements and concentrated on those such as sound poetry, provocative performance, collage, radical typography and graphic design, photography and photo-montage, experimental film, and object making. During and just after the war it was notable for anarchic spirit, its hatred of authority,  and its bravery in standing up to reactionary forces during a time when societies were much more homogeneous in their beliefs in traditions and trust in authority.

A reenactment of one of Hugo Ball’s early Dadaist performances in Zurich from 1916:

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Dadaist assemblage: Kurt Schwitters, Revolving, 1919.

An example of Dadaist sound poetry. Raoul Hausmann,  kp' erioUM, 1919.

Dadaist sound poetry and typography: Raoul Hausmann, kp’ erioUM, 1919.

An example of Dadaist photomontage. Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany. 1919-1920

Dadaist photo-montage: Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany. 1919-1920.

BPL228866  Credit: L.H.O.O.Q., 1919 (colour litho) by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) ©Private Collection/ Photo © Boltin Picture Library/ The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: French / in copyright until 2039 PLEASE NOTE: This image is protected by the artist's copyright which needs to be cleared by you. If you require assistance in clearing permission we will be pleased to help you.

Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919.

By the early 1920’s, Dada was running out of steam and to some in the Parisian Avant-Garde its Nihilism had become counterproductive. Breton was first drawn into the Dada movement. But during the early 1920’s, he decided he wanted to move towards an idealistic vision and back to art from what the Dadaists had called ‘anti-art.’ He became interested in dreams and to believe that the only way to real freedom was through a revolution of the mind to free it from its conscious constraints.

Surrealist expression through manifestos, literature, and visual art was a method to make this possible. As opposed to the Dadaists who tried to work against art, culture, and taste, to destroy the remnants of the stuffy and nationalistic nineteenth century mentality once and for all, the Surrealists really were idealists and they thought they could change the world through art and literature through high-minded expression and radical politics. It was in a way a Romantic movement and though very different in almost every other way, recalled in its marriage of a sensuous and emotional art with socialism in the Arts and Crafts movement and the Pre-Raphealites of the previous century.

The Arts and Crafts movement: frontispiece to William Morris's News from Nowhere, designed by Charles March Gere in 1893.

The Arts and Crafts movement: frontispiece to William Morris’s News from Nowhere, designed by Charles March Gere in 1893.

A Pre-Raphealite painting: John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52.

A Pre-Raphealite painting: John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52.

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The Surrealists in a dream state surrounding Hidden Woman (1929), painting by René Magritte, cover of Second Manifesto of Surrealism, 1932. The text reads, ‘ I Do Not See the [Woman] Hidden in the Forest.’

Much of the forms of art invented or developed by Dadaists such as collage, assemblage and experimental film were co-opted by Surrealism. Additionally, many who had worked in the Dadaist mode such as Max Ernst, Man Ray, Jean Arp, Tristan Tzara, Paul Eluard, and Francis Picabia became important members of the new movement.

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Sigmund Freud.

Freud:

Surrealism would not be possible without the insights and work of Sigmund Freud. Although Freud cared very little for Modernism or for Breton and his movement, the Surrealists worshiped him as the man who’s discovery of the unconscious and developments in the therapeutic benefits of dream analysis had made their art possible.

However, Freud’s belief that the unconscious could tell us a lot about ourselves yet it needed to be suppressed for the individual and civilization to function was lost on or ignored by the Surrealists. Instead they believed that the unconscious should be let loose from its moorings to free the individual from what they believed was the tyranny of civilization and consciousness that had made it possible.

They were anti-rationalists and stood in direct opposition to the philosophy of the Enlightenment with the importance it placed on an objective reality over the subjectivity of the inner mind. Freud was himself a rationalist and saw irrationality as a symptom of pathology not freedom from it. Nonetheless, Freud’s insights were very important to the Surrealists and formed the basis for a lot of their thinking.

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Art of the mentally ill.

In their search for the irrational and the unconscious they also showed an interest in the art of children and the insane. Because neither group was locked up in the straitjacket of modern adulthood and its concentration on the rational, they were able to be completely free and express their unconscious as they wished. They of course did not take in to account  either the suffering of the mentally ill or the nascent science of childhood development. As with Freud, they idealized the parts of the unconscious they wanted to and discarded the rest.

Additionally, the Surrealists were interested in the work of amateur artists like Henri Rousseau who created magical worlds while being naïve and unpolished in their style. They thought the amateur was able to tap into something that was lost when an artist began to hone his or her skills. In this way, Surrealists wanted to get back to basics and even though much of their paintings in particular were polished and technically proficient, they admired art that seemed to go back to basics.

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Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910.

Communism:

One of the more perplexing influences on Surrealism was Communism. Many members of the Surrealist movement were avowed Communists. Breton himself was a Trotskyite and later became friends with Leon Trotsky in Mexico shortly before his assassination there. Trotsky himself, also had a hand in writing elements of the Second Manifesto of Surrealism in the early 1930’s, the treatise that made the Communist influence explicit. Poet Max Jacob went even further, becoming a strident Stalinist during this time.

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Breton with Trotsky and Communist mural painter Diego Rivera in Mexico, 1930’s.

The turn towards Communism was no doubt multifaceted in nature, however it seems strange looking back as Marxists were interested in a purely objective and materialist reality, while Surrealism embraced the opposite. Additionally, the Soviet Union, beginning during those early years of Stalinism in the 20’s, became increasingly hostile towards the Avant-Garde. Some artists were forced to change to new national propaganda style of Socialist Realism, which celebrated great Communists, national leaders, and the people in a traditional way. Others left, were jailed, or even killed.

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An example of Social Realism, the state-mandated style of the Soviet Union and other Communist regimes. Alexander Gerasimov, Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin, 1938.

The state and realistic content in art were what Surrealism was rebelling against, so what accounts for this contradiction? Like with the Freud influence, it is clear that the Surrealists cherry-picked those elements of the Communist doctrine that fit their own philosophy, but intentionally ignored those that didn’t. For instance, the Surrealists embraced the fact that Communism like Surrealism was intended to be an international revolutionary movement while ignoring its censorship (or worse) of artists and writers within the Soviet Union.

Both saw the Bourgeoisie and Capitalism as being responsible for World War I and Communism for helping to end it through the 1917 revolution that took Russia out of the war. They  also were perhaps influenced by the Communist revolts that occurred in Germany around 1919 after the German defeat and the overthrow of the Kaiser. There is also the fact that many on the far-left during the early twentieth century embraced Communism as a new and exciting form of government. They also saw Capitalism as the status quo which they wished to overthrow and Communism provided seemingly the best mechanism to do this.

The Spartacist Uprising, a Communist revolt following the fall of the Kaiser, 1919.

The Spartacist Uprising, a Communist revolt in Berlin following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1919.

Not all Surrealists were Communists, however. Salvador Dali for instance, embraced his strong Catholic roots and Fascism, in particular the Franco regime in his home country of Spain who the Communists backed by Stalin had fought in a bloody civil war.

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Avowed fascist Salvador Dali meeting with the dictator of Spain, Generalisimo Francisco Franco.

Forms of Expression:

Surrealist Games and Literature:

Surrealism was like Dada in that it was playful in spirit yet deadly serious about that playfulness. The most notable form of this was the Surrealist games that various members of the movement, most notably Breton, devised as ways of inserting the unconscious into everyday experience. These games came in various forms and involved different ways of tapping into the unconscious from passing a paper around adding elements to a story or picture without seeing what came before it (known popularly as ‘Exquisite Corpse’) to The Dadaist Poem, ie: putting pieces of cut up newsprint text in a bag and writing poetry by pulling the words out in a random order, to automatic writing. They allowed a new way into the creative process that avoided the conscious mind and decision making. They were also interested in seances and the occult, as the realm of spirits did not behave in a rational manner and therefore could be another point of unconscious contact.

An early example of the exquisite corpse created by some of the Surrealists, 1920.

An early example of the exquisite corpse created by some of the Surrealists, 1920.

Surrealist literature came out of several previous literary movements in France and elsewhere including Symbolism, the absurdest poetry of the Comte de Lautréamont, the dreamlike visions of Arthur Rimbaud, the modernist poetry collages of Apollinaire, the extremity and violence of Antonin Artaud’s plays and the works of the Marquis De Sade, the irrationality and energy of Futurist and Dadaist sound poetry, and the wild plays and poetry of Jean Cocteau. All these influences combined along with an interest in chance in the work of poets and writers such as Breton, Paul Eluard, and Max Jacob. They created in words something very similar to what Surrealists artists later created in images.

Artist Max Ernst proved that you didn’t need words to create works of Surrealist literature. Ernst constructed elaborate, bizarre, and uncanny ‘novels’ made out of collages of nineteenth century book and magazine illustrations that he created by cutting and reassembling and then printing from this hybrid of the original plates on which they were printed creating bizarre and frightening worlds.

Max Ernst, A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil, 1930.

Max Ernst, A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil, 1930.

Painting:

There were two main strands of Surrealist painting. One was to create a vision of a dreamworld through the combination of a realistic painting style and juxtapositions of strange objects. This strand saw its precedents in the strange meeting of objects in The Comte De Lautremont’s prose poem Maldoror and in the ‘metaphysical’ paintings of Giorgio Di Chirico.

Giorgio De Chirico, The Song of Love, 1914.

Giorgio De Chirico, The Song of Love, 1914.

The two most famous artists of this style were René Magritte and Salvador Dali. Magritte’s art was as much about language as it was about images. His paintings seemed real but always made you question what you saw. A giant apple would take up an entire room, dark buildings lit like it was nighttime would sit below a blue daylight sky, hundreds of business men would fall from the sky like rain, and a miniature steam-powered train would come flying out of a fireplace. A pipe would be labeled with the statement “This is not a pipe.”

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René Magritte, The Empire of Lights, 1950-54.

Rene Magritte, The Listening Room, 1952.

René Magritte, The Listening Room, 1952.

Rene Magritte, Infinite Gratitude, 1963.

René Magritte, Infinite Gratitude, 1963.

Rene Magritte, The Invention of Life, 1928.

René Magritte, The Invention of Life, 1928.

Rene Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1948.

René Magritte, The Treachery of Images (This Is Not a Pipe), 1928-29.

Magritte’s paintings were of the slippery place were reality meets fantasy and language loses its meaning. Magritte is one of the most famous and beloved of the Surrealists because his art was fun (though sometimes violent or scary) and it was either easily understood or wonderfully enigmatic as a visual pun or joke or as a mysterious moment where the world began to stop making sense.

The smoothness and realism of his Flemish-influenced Belgian style meant that his art took on an extra surreal quality. What you were seeing didn’t seem possible yet looked as real as anything you could encounter in life.

Salvador Dali is the most famous of the Surrealists. His images are immensely popular because even in their strangeness and dark character they seem to somehow relate to us directly through our own dreams and nightmares.

The famous image of the melting clock in The Persistence of Memory is one of the iconic images of modern art precisely because it seems at once funny and unsettling. Dali’s paintings depict what seem to be realistic worlds, strange as they may be but also appear to be slightly out of control. Like the melting watches they are full of references to time slipping away, to disillusion and decay, to mortality.

Dali’s works also evoke feelings of shame, violence, lust, paranoia, and nightmares. They speak to us because they are universal in a way. Unlike Magritte’s straightforward yet highly intellectual dreamscapes, Dali’s images seem to come directly out of the Id. They are the remnants of the reptile brain bubbling to the surface like out of a fever dream.  Despite Dali’s ego, atrocious political beliefs, and extreme pretension his art still speaks to us because it taps into our own unconscious desires and fears in a way few artists besides perhaps Goya were able to before.

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931.

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931.

Salvador Dali, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War, 1936.

Salvador Dali, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War, 1936.

Salvador Dali, The Great Masturbator, 1929.

Salvador Dali, The Great Masturbator, 1929.

Salvador Dali, The Face of War, 1940.

Salvador Dali, The Face of War, 1940.

Salvador Dali, The Metamorphosis of Narcisssus,

Salvador Dali, The Metamorphosis of Narcisssus, 1937.

The other strand in painting was one of abstraction. It was interested in chance and in the lack of premeditation in the painted subject or in the juxtaposition of abstraction and realistic imagery. The most famous artist of this trajectory of Surrealism was Joan Miró. Like Dali, Miró was a Spaniard (more precisely a Catalan) and his early work is injected with the spirit of his native country. The yellow plains and blue skies, the rich soil, the heat. They combined a somewhat abstracted world with a completely abstract one in the same image.

Juan Miro, Carnaval de Arlequín, 1924-1925.

Joan Miró, Carnaval de Arlequín, 1924-1925.

Joan Miro, Catalan Landscape (The Hunter), 1923-24.

Joan Miró, Catalan Landscape (The Hunter), 1923-24.

Later Miró would go on to move to towards total abstraction, using elements that might allude to reality yet were hard to decipher. He painted on the backs of canvases adding new and interesting textures to his images. They seem childlike and playful and do not have the kind of dread or violence found in either Magritte or Dali’s work. They also come from an even more elemental place that evoke the curiosity of children’s drawings or the mystery of the cosmos. Miró was one of the few artists who was actually able to transcend Surrealism because his vision was so inclusive. It was fun, unlike the work of many of the Surrealists that could be so serious that they verged on self-parody.

Check out Part II of this article coming next week, featuring other forms of Surrealist expression including photography and film and more great images and video.

Joan Miró, Morning Star, 1940.

Salvador Dali, Woman and Bird in the Night, 1971-75.

Joan Miró, Woman and Bird in the Night, 1971-75.

Joan Miro's Studio, Mallorca, Spain.

Miró’s Studio, Mallorca, Spain.

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Francisco Goya, Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta, 1820.

Creating art is not an easy thing. As I talked about in my review of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, it can be a struggle, a battle even. Pressfield’s book was about overcoming the difficulty of getting down to work, of stopping procrastination and doing the thing you have to do. But there is another kind of creative struggle that many go through – the struggle with one’s self, with one’s inner demons.

Whether it be issues of mental illness, depression, physical disability, or addiction, many creative people have had to find ways to overcome their issues in order to create. Some have even used their problems to their own creative advantage.

Three artists who transcended their inner turmoil, at least for a time, and created masterpieces in the process were Francisco Goya, Vincent Van Gogh, and Jackson Pollock. They didn’t always win the war (and the fight sometimes ended up destroying them) but each went on to be regarded as a master of their medium partially because of that struggle.

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Goya, Self-Portrait at 69 Years, 1815.

Goya:

Because of the tremendous range he achieved during his lifetime and the intensity of his work, Francisco Goya was a legitimately one-of-a-kind painter. Although he created work that encompassed neoclassical idylls and portraits of the Spanish royal fantasy, he is probably most famous for his more disturbing paintings: his images of war, of political corruption, and of monsters.

Francisco Goya, La cometa (The Kite), 1778

Goya, La cometa (The Kite), 1778.

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Goya, Carlos IV of Spain and His Family, 1800.

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Goya, The Black Duchess, 1797.

Early on, paintings like The Third of May and The Disasters of War print series – both made in reaction to Napoleon’s brutal occupation of Spain – showed the unfiltered the horrors of conflict. He became a kind of photojournalist (mostly of his own imagination admittedly) decades before the advent of photography.

Goya, The Third of May 1808, 1814.

Goya, The Third of May 1808, 1814.

Goya, Plate 3: Lo Mismo (The Same), 1810-1820.

Goya, The Disasters of war, Plate 3: Lo Mismo (The Same), 1810-1820.

However, to me, his most powerful images, known as the ‘black paintings,’ depicted the darkness that can lie within the recesses of the imagination – the black corners where most of us are too scared to go. Taken off the walls of his home, dubbed ‘the blind man’s house’ these terrifying and magnificent works were incredibly dark, both in subject matter and in color, and remain his most arresting images.

Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823

Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823.

Goya’s turn from portraying an idyllic world of a fashionable aristocracy to plumbing the depths of the id came around the time he lost his ability to hear. His deafness meant a new inability to communicate or interact with the outside world. He was imprisoned within the self. Here he used his frustration with his disability, much as Beethoven did, to create arguably his best work. He dove headlong into the abyss.

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Goya, The Dog, 1819-1823.

Many have mistakenly called Goya crazy. This isn’t quite right. Some of his most poignant images deal with the theme of insanity. But to focus merely on the deranged aspects of his late images is to ignore their more potent intention: as a satire of the craziness of society and the systems of order that led often to war, poverty, and misery for so many.

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Goya, The Madhouse, 1812-1819.

His paintings also move from showing a fear of royal and military power run amok, to a fear of the mob, of witchcraft, and of monsters. What was truly Goya’s gift was his rare ability to go to the darkest most dissolute reaches of his imagination and pull out those aspects, those dark creatures that at once attract us, intrigue us, frighten us, and disgust us.

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Goya, Fight with Cudgels, 1819-1823.

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Goya, A Pilgrimage to San Isidro, 1819-1823.

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Goya, Witches’ Sabbath, 1819-1823.

The black paintings, as well as other works from his later years, are difficult to look at precisely because they are so powerful and so visceral. We may want to turn away, yet we are strangely drawn to the dark images. They fasten our eyes to them like glue. This uncanny quality is precisely what Goya had a rare gift for.

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Goya, Two Old Men Eating Soup, 1819-1823.

Because he could not express himself normally through language, he used his art to tell the story about what was rotten and ugly in humanity as he had told about what was beautiful in his early paintings. In other words he told the truth both as we wish it were, as it truly is, and as we fear it might be. This deeper truth is what gave his works their immediacy and their staying power.

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Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1889.

Van Gogh:

Vincent Van Gogh is one of those artists whose very existence has become a kind of cliché. He’s the mad genius, the misunderstood master, the artist who became famous only after he died. At the same time, these are clichés precisely because they are true. Van Gogh is today one of the world’s most popular artists. The reason for this is half because of his amazing and vibrantly colorful paintings and half because of the manic depression that made them possible.

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Van Gogh, The Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing, 1888.

Van Gogh’s mental issues were something he battled all his life. The ups and downs of his inner state moved between high points of manic energy and creativity and low points of despondency, erratic and sometimes violent behavior, and an inability to work.

Van Gogh, The Night Cafe, 1888.

Van Gogh, The Night Cafe, 1888.

In one of his most infamous moments, he cut off of his own earlobe to give it to a woman in town. It came at a time of creative ebb not long after his disastrous experience trying to form a cooperative art studio with the talented but equally difficult Paul Gauguin in the yellow house in Arles. It precipitated a breakdown that led to a long period at a sanitarium and the beginning of his slow decline towards his ultimate end.

Paul Gauguin, The Painter of Sunflowers, 1888.

Paul Gauguin, The Painter of Sunflowers, 1888.

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Van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889.

Alternately Van Gogh would go through periods of incredible production. At one point he painting a picture a day, including some of his best known and beloved works. He created classics like his many self-portraits and landscapes including the instantly recognizable Starry Night. During his black depressions he did almost nothing, acted erratically, and sometimes violently. It was this back and forth that made Van Gogh both the great artist we all know and the intensely depressed man who would eventually shoot himself in the chest at the age of 37.

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Van Gogh, Starry Night, 1889.

We know a lot about him from the sheer volume of correspondence he had with his art dealer brother, Theo (who tragically died not long after Vincent). From it, we can track his mood swings, as well as discover the incredible wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm he had for his art. He was wild about nature and beauty, a great driver of his work, and very open and honest about his attacks of depression.

Theo Van Gogh

Theo Van Gogh

He revealed that he had once been a preacher with a positively transcendental outlook. It was this feeling of god all around him that imbued his paintings with their characteristic frenzied brushstrokes, vibrant color, and sense of pure and loving energy. A good example is Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun, where the jubilation of nature almost teeters over the edge of sanity, its so intense.

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Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun, 1889.

Other times, such as when he painted the Wheat Field with Crows, the jubilation of those periods seems to go to the other emotional extreme, a kind of foreboding despair, the way drinking too much can move the drinker from joy to darkness. Some have argued that this painting, with its disregard for simulated perspective, frenzied brushstrokes, abstraction, and flatness, is the beginning of modern art.

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Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Crows, 1890.

In the end the incredibly boisterous, frenetic, and sometimes scary nature of his paintings always seems connected to his state of mind. Because of this and the fact that he painted so quickly and frequently, we have a kind of visual diary of his mental state which manages to pull the viewer in to Van Gogh’s very personal and deeply felt vision of the world.

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Jackson Pollock:

Jackson Pollock was an extremely driven artist, but also an extremely difficult and self-destructive character. His work redefined what was considered possible in painting up to that time. With that gift, and the odd kind of notoriety he received from his revolutionary splattered works, dubbed ‘Action Painting’ by critics, Pollock changed the very way we look at art today.

Jackson Pollock,  Lucifer, 1947.

Jackson Pollock, Lucifer, 1947.

With other artists in the Abstract Expressionist movement such as Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and his wife Lee Krasner, Pollock helped to create two new elements in the art world: painting that was completely abstract and unencumbered by metaphor, and the rise of New York as the new center of the art world (replacing Paris which had dominated it for at least a century and a half). He has also come to symbolize (in a kind of interesting reversal of Vincent Van Gogh’s extreme popularity after his death) everything that is difficult and even detestable to many people about modern art.

Willem de Kooning, Excavation, 1950.

Willem de Kooning, Excavation, 1950.

Mark Rothko, No. 16, 1961.

Mark Rothko, No. 16, 1961.

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Lee Krasner, Gaea, 1966.

In some ways Jackson Pollock’s story is similar to Van Gogh’s. He too struggled with periods of extreme highs and lows. He had those of genius, filled with constant and consistent work, and those of complete stagnation and depression as well as excessive drinking to the point that it basically crippled him. Pollock’s alcoholism came to define him in a certain way, much as it did many creative people of the twentieth century. And it also led to his tragic end, drunkenly driving off the road with one young women in the passenger seat and another in the back, neither of whom was his wife.

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Pollock, Mural, 1943.

Despite his wild nature, it is often overlooked that Pollock was an incredibly deliberate artist. He had formal training under the tutelage of Thomas Hart Benton and the Mexican muralists, from whom he would later adopt the idea of working on a large canvas.

Thomas Hart Benton, Archelous and Hercules, 1947.

Thomas Hart Benton, Archelous and Hercules, 1947.

José Clemente Orozco, Gods of the Modern World, Dartmouth Mural, 1932-34.

José Clemente Orozco, Gods of the Modern World, Dartmouth Mural, 1932-34.

He came from the American West, a place that influenced his work with its vast landscapes and Native American cultures. He thought of himself as acting in the way that nature did, creating spontaneity through his application of paint. His splatters and drips were never random. Using sticks, brushes, or even his hands he applied paint to the canvas in a controlled way, much as a jazz musician does when constructing an improvised solo.

Pollock, Blue Poles (Number 11), 1952.

Pollock, Blue Poles (Number 11), 1952.

Pollock’s dark side was very dark indeed. He would get drunk, become brutish and mean, and even commit acts of violence. During a thanksgiving dinner after a disagreement with the photographer Hans Namuth who was making a film about him, Pollock yelled out ‘NOW!’ and pushed over the table. All the dishes and food went crashing to the floor.

Van Gogh, Number 32, 1950.

Van Gogh, Number 32, 1950.

During these long dark periods of drinking he could do nothing but be unhappy. When Lee Krasner was able to convince him to stop for any short or extended period of time, he would go over to his studio on Long Island and paint. She made a concerted effort to keep bad influences away from him so he could remain stable and work.

Pollock, Galaxy, 1947.

Pollock, Galaxy, 1947.

It is partially because of these interventions that we have much of the most famous work. But there was a point at which, as he was losing popularity among the important critics, Pollock descended to his lowest point. Fat, constantly drunk, and cheating on his wife, he lost complete control. This downward spiral would eventually lead him to his premature death at the age of 44, late at night on a Long Island road.

Pollock, Convergence, 1952.

Pollock, Convergence, 1952.

Art and Struggle:

Creation is not usually an easy thing. Even those who love to do it, myself included, often struggle to get down to work, to get something out of it that is truly good. Being creative people, we are often plagued by our own dark thoughts: those of inadequacy, jealousy, and doubt. Sometimes this war is what allows an artist to create their best work as in the case of these three artists who worked to rise above depression, physical or mental issues, or addiction. In the end, whether or not they won that battle, their art serves to show what good can come from this fight with darkness.

Starry_Night_Over_the_Rhone

Van Gogh, Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1888.

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Recently, I decided to revisit one of the books that made me want to write about creativity, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. I wasn’t disappointed.

Daily Rituals delves into the process and lifestyles of many important figures, not just in visual art but in literature, music, choreography, film and even philosophy. The book takes each of these artists and thinkers and then goes into great and fascinating detail about their daily routines: how they structured their day, when and how they ate, worked, and played.  As the author puts it, “All of them found the time to get their work done. But there is an infinite variation on how they structured their lives to do so.” The book proves that there are many ways to success in creative disciplines and is captivating as well as inspiring.

When to Work and How Much:

While it is the variety of the experiences recounted in Daily Rituals that really engages the reader, there are some practices that these creators have in common. The majority of them started work in the morning, mostly between the hours of eight and ten and then worked until lunch. W.H. Auden went so far to state that “Only the Hitlers of the world work at night; no honest artist does.” The novelist Günter Grass also believes only writing during the day was the only way to go because as he says “it comes too easily.”

W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden

This is not true of everyone of course. The short story writer Ann Beattie can only write between the hours of 12:00 and 3:00 AM. The playwright Tom Stoppard says, “I never work in the mornings unless I’m in real trouble.”

There is of course another issue that many creative people have to deal with. How do you do your thing if you also have a 9-5 job? Toni Morrison, for instance, worked at first in the evening after each day at her job in publishing, but had switched to early mornings by the 1990’s saying she lacked intelligence and wit after dark.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

The poet Wallace Stevens balanced a successful career as an insurance lawyer with his poetry, which he would compose while walking to work. Currey quotes him as saying that a job, “introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life. I am just as free as I want to be and have nothing to worry about money.”

One aspect of routine that varies drastically among all the figures in this book is how much to work. Some kept long hours, like Voltaire who worked eighteen to twenty hours a day or Karl Marx who labored from when the British Library opened in the morning at 9:00 until well into the night.  Most worked between two and five hours a day, the limit it seems for the intensity it takes to concentrate on creative projects. Gertrude Stein put in as little as ½ hour, explaining that even that little work every day would add up to a lot after a year.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

The Importance of Routine:

One writer who really understood the value of routine was the German author Thomas Mann. As Currey reports it, he was up and ready to go by 9:00 AM. Then he would steal himself away in his study, completely shutting himself off from everyone including his family. He would limit himself to composing his fiction until noon which would force him to take his work slowly and carefully. Then he could attend to other matters in the afternoon. This kind of regimented schedule worked well for him and allowed him to progress at a relatively consistent rate.

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Thomas Mann

Others were able to get work done despite their relaxed attitudes. Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, reportedly lay in bed and chatted with his mother well into the morning. His writing took him a long time as well. During the writing of Bovary, Flaubert only wrote two pages week, taking nearly five years to complete the novel.

Gustave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert

The Urge to Create:

Patricia Highsmith, author of such classics as The Talented Mr. Ripley (one of my favorite film adaptations) and Strangers on a Train, saw writing as a compulsion. Not working led to unhappiness.“’There is no real life except for working, that is to say in the imagination,’ she wrote in her journal. Fortunately she was rarely short of inspiration; she had ideas, she said, like rats have orgasms.”

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith wasn’t the only person to need to work to be happy. As Freud put it, “I cannot imagine life without work as really comfortable.” But he also understood the value of relaxation. He would take three month vacations with his family during the summer.

Environment and Distraction:

Freud’s onetime friend and later bitter rival in the psychoanalytic community, Carl Jung, also is described by Currey as being a ‘workaholic.’ At the same time Jung demanded something else that is important for the creative disposition: the right kind of environment. He built a home for himself called Bollingen Tower, which contained only the essentials needed to do his work: no electricity, phone, or even running water. This allowed Jung a simple existence, one that he could fill with his psychoanalytic writing, but also with physical labor which he loved.

Carl Jung in his study room _cropped

Carl Jung

Not everyone can work in a conventional environment. As Anne Rice mentions in the book, for some limiting distractions is essential if you want to get anything done. For others, like illustrator and author Maira Kalman, just the ‘right amount’ of distraction, cleaning, ironing, taking a walk.

Anne_Rice

Anne Rice

It is interesting to note just how many creative people discussed in this book took long walks and napped during the day. Apparently these activities, considered time-wasting and frivolous by many over-worked Americans, are quite beneficial to the creative mind.

The Struggle for Discipline:

The urge to create, that drive to express is something that comes up again and again in Currey’s book. Not everybody works that way however. Many struggle to find the work ethic to keep a routine going. Sometimes attempts at a rigid and defined discipline could falter even for the most productive of figures. Take the case of Benjamin Franklin who worked out a very calculated and considered routine for himself.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

“The plan worked, up to a point. After following the course several times in a row, he found it necessary to go through the course just one in a year, and then one every few years. But the virtue of order—‘Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time”—appears to have eluded his grasp.”

What’s great about this passage is that it acknowledges a struggle that many of us have with creative projects: that of staying focused, staying on track, seeing our work through. Many of us (myself included) are great at coming up with a plan but when it comes to accomplishing our goals we have trouble. We falter, sometimes we even fail.

Another great example of someone who constantly struggled with a consistent work ethic was William James. The philosopher who was obsessed with the ideas of routines and believed, whole-heartedly, that one needed to regiment time, focus, and be decisive, was an epic procrastinator.

As Currey relates, “James kept no regular schedule, was chronically indecisive and lived a disorderly, unsettled life.” He was obsessed with routines but was not able to enact the sorts of routines he recommended to others.

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William James

Another famous example of a terminal procrastinator was the creator of the first English dictionary, Samuel Johnson. He had a great deal of difficulty rising in the morning and mostly worked at night after returning from taverns.

Bad Habits:

Rituals can be detrimental as well as beneficial in life as in creation. A constant theme in the book is that of the ritual of drink. It is something that has been tied to both the act of creativity and the social life of creative types for centuries. Sometimes it is a positive force. Some writers, for instance, see it as a way to loosen up their minds, to get ideas flowing. But it can be taken too far.

The Post-Impressionist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec basically drank himself to death. His hard-hitting lifestyle which allowed him to depict the Paris cabarets and brothels which he loved, along with the late nights and constant alcohol consumption that came with them, would kill him at the age of only thirty-six.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Fiction writer John Cheever too had a drinking problem managing to hide it for much of his adult life, eventually spending more time drinking than writing. He also, during the early part of his career, had quite a famously unconventional way of working, getting dressed like he was going to the office and then riding the apartment elevator down to the basement, undressing, and beginning to write.

Jackson Pollock too was notorious for his self-destructive habits, including drinking, that would eventually kill him in a drunk driving accident. It is interesting then that his most productive period occurred when he moved with his wife to Long Island, far from the New York alcohol-soaked art world.

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Jackson Pollock

Why Creatives Have Routines:

There are many myths about creative people: that they are undisciplined, that what they do takes little skill or effort, that they are lazy. The most important success of Currey’s book is to prove that these are indeed untrue. Though many creative people have unconventional lifestyles, most need a strong work ethic to get anything done at all. Writing a book, painting, directing a film: these all take a great deal of work and so one needs to manage ones time wisely.

Most creatives eat, sleep, work, and play at regular times. Many work during the day. Some who live crazy bohemian lifestyles burn out quickly and get little done, and many of those who have difficulty with creative discipline struggle in order enact routines in their life and work. But even those things that may seem like procrastination can be helpful. Naps, walks, and drinking that may come across as luxuries to some are often beneficial in creative work.

In the end,  Daily Rituals is essential reading for anyone who is interested in creativity. It is an revealing and enlightening account of what it is to be a creative person and can act as a kind of blueprint for creatives to get some stability in order to do their best work.

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Three Studies of Lucian Freud   Flickr   Photo Sharing

“Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” 1969.

The unimaginably expensive prices works of art go for these days may leave those who pay attention to the art market either gratified or depressed. The most expensive painting in the world right now is Three Studies of Lucian Freud, which was bought for an incredible 142.4 million dollars at a New York Sotheby’s auction this past November.

Maybe it is appropriate that the painter of the most expensive painting in the world lived a life of excess. Francis Bacon, noted Irish expressionistic post-war painter of the dark, violent, and disturbing lived a personal and artistic life fueled by alcohol, sex and chaos as much as by a search for unconventional beauty. The pure intensity of his works was matched by the intensity of his work habits and lifestyle.

Here are some facts about Francis Bacon:

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He believed a messy environment was conducive to creativity:

Francis Bacon’s studio is preserved in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. Why, might you ask? Well, it is infamously messy, so much so that it garnered a significant reputation and became a symbol for the troubled genius artist. This might be a bit unfair. Bacon believed that his creativity came out of chaos, although he always qualified that it was a kind of organized chaos. His studio was exploding with paint tubes, containers, brushes, palettes, images for inspiration and general detritus. Paint covered the walls where he tested out various colors. He said that a clean studio made it hard for him to work. In his words, chaos “bred images.”

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Bacon's studio 1992

He worked exclusively from photographs:

When people think of portrait painters they usually think of a live model sitting in a studio, trying not to move as a painter painstakingly depicts every facet of their appearance. That is not how Bacon liked to do it. He didn’t believe in live models and instead used photographs as the basis of his memorable images. For his portraits he would ask his sitters to take still photographs of themselves from different angles. The end result resembled police mug shots that were strewn in the huge piles of source material lying on the studio floor.  Bacon would take the photographs and create studies which he would use to make the final painting, either as a single image or a triptych as in the case of Three Studies of Lucian Freud.

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“Three Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud,” 1965.

Bacon also used photographs as inspiration for many of his other paintings. One of his most famous series (which he actually didn’t think was much of a success) was his recreation of Velasquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X.  Of Bacon’s many influences, Velasquez was one of the strongest . He took the image of the Pope  and meshed it with a famous film still depicting a screaming bloody woman from Alfred Eisenstein’s early silent film classic Battleship Potemkin, amongst the most memorable images from the history of film. The result was one of his most classic and unforgettable collections of paintings: a ghostly, haunting, screaming pope- an image of terror and violence.

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Diego Velázquez, “Portrait of Pope Innocent X,” 1650.

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Film still from Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin,” 1925.

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“Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X,” 1950.

Bacon was very interested in motion and as such used the sequential photographs of Eadweard Muybridge as inspiration for many of his figures. Many of the twisting, convoluted, and often disturbing contortions of the figures come from how Muybridge recorded the physical motion of both normal and disabled human and animal bodies. Bacon even used images from radiology textbooks in order to treat physicality in a real and objective way. Much of this objective observation made Bacon’s images appear tactile and real despite their more abstract aspects. He saw the human body as a machine made up of meat and bone, amorphous and twisted.

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Eadweard Muybridge, Successive photographs of the paralytic child, 1901.

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”Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours (from Muybridge),” 1961.

He lived a life of excess:

Much like the subject of my last post, Hunter S. Thompson, Bacon lived life to the fullest. He would eat big meals several times a day, he took drugs to keep himself awake or to put him to sleep, he drank excessively. He was a notorious for staying out until late at night, and when his friends were getting tired he would beg them to come back to his place and drink more. He loved drinking in his studio, at his favorite pubs and clubs, and had a penchant for gambling at casinos.

Bacon used his alcoholism to his advantage. He said that drinking loosened him up and allowed him more versatility. He saw art as a game, similar to his partying, allowing for distraction from the troubles of his life. He even took hangovers as positive, believing that when his body was giving way to effects of too much drink, his brain would become a frizzle of energy.

He could even talk convincingly about his art while absolutely plastered:

He believed in the importance of regular work:

He partied hard but he worked hard too. He thought that inspiration was a positive side effect of getting up every day to the job of painting. He would start when the sun came up and continue until afternoon when the feasting and partying would begin again. Getting to sleep was always a problem for him.

Despite his hard-hitting lifestyle, he managed not to get very overweight, and he lived a relatively long time, dying in 1989 at the age of 83.

His figures may have looked distorted or ugly but he didn’t see them that way:

Three_Studies_for_Figures_at_the_Base_of_a_Crucifixion

“Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion,” 1944.

Margaret Thatcher infamously called Bacon “that man who paints those dreadful pictures.” She was not alone in that opinion. It is hard to look at something that appears so ugly in a conventional sense and to try to find beauty in it. However, there is beauty in ugliness (just as there is ugliness in beauty.) It is true that Bacon was interested in the dark side of existence but it was a darkness that he embraced as opposed to trying to repel. The theme of death pervades his work. He always said that death is part of life, that the two could be separated.

He knew that many would think that his strangely contorted representations of his sitters were insulting, even attacks upon them. He thought they might have been right. Nonetheless he felt that he was being honest. Honesty was important to him.

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“Head I,” 1947-48.

He engaged in what he called a “pitiless analysis” of his subjects, objectifying them in order to find new methods of description. Nonetheless, any meaning in the work was always tied to his search for a beauty within formalism. In this way his images of violence and death were never politicized. He was no Picasso or Goya. Instead, they were existential.

It didn’t matter much to him if people liked his work anyway. If they didn’t, he knew he was doing something right.

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“Three Studies for a Crucifixion” (detail), 1962.

He believed in the power of the unconscious:

Bacon saw the unconscious as a force for creation. He said that he didn’t think out his work but instead let it flow through him and that he allowed his artworks to grow naturally. He did not believe in doing preparation drawings. All the work needed to be done on the canvas. He also preferred not to use the prepared front of the canvas but the unprepared back. Then you couldn’t make mistakes as the unprepared canvas did not allow for alteration but instead forced you to push the paintings in new and unforeseen directions.

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“Untitled (Two Figures in the Grass),” 1952.

Bacon went so far to say that he had nothing to express in his paintings. They did not come from the place of an artist making decisions about his form or anything of the kind. Instead they were an automatic response to whatever felt right in the moment. They were as much about a feeling as they were about imagery. Bacon was always looking to concentrate as much psychic energy into a single image as possible. He never felt like he achieved his goal, but this is probably why his images seem so strikingly claustrophobic or hermetic.

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“Crucifixion,” 1965.

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“Study for Crouching Nude,” 1952.

He believed in the importance of chance:

The amazing price that Three Studies of Lucian Freud fetched may not be a surprise in today’s hyper-over-valuated art market. Nevertheless, I am glad that if it had to be someone whose art would be garnering such prices, it would an artist like Bacon. There are very few with the scope of vision, drive, or talent he possessed that are recognized by the art market.

It would however be different from Bacon’s point of view. His interest in the unconscious also corresponded to his interest in gambling and chance. He always thought that an artwork worth making involved taking risks if it was meant to accomplish anything at all. Even after his work had become chic in the 1980’s, all he could say was, “that’s luck.” That’s probably the same thing he would have said today upon hearing the news of his painting’s record breaking sale. If nothing else, this is evidence that real vision and talent can still be appreciated even in an industry as changeable, cynical, and superficial as the art world.

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Andy Warhol was an extremely complex figure, with a lot depth in his work and personality, despite his own assertion that all that he was, was on the surface. The creation of the persona and brand ‘Andy Warhol’ was probably his most successful work of art, at least commercially. It is hard to know how much of this was real and how much was constructed. What we can gather about Warhol was that he was an incredibly hard worker and was (at least during his first decade of production) redefining what was possible in a number of different artistic modes.

Born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Warhol quickly developed an interest in visual art. He became a promising magazine and advertising illustrator and by the early 1960’s had began working as a fine artist. His early famous works: hand-painted Campbell soup cans, screen-printed Coca-Cola bottles and Marilyn Monroes among other classics were shocking at the time along with his darker images of car crashes, civil rights demonstrations, and electric chairs.

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Cambell’s Soup Cans, 1962.

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Untitled, (image of Marilyn Monroe), 1967.

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Double Jackie, 1964.

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Electric Chair, 1963.

This new Pop Art by artists like Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenberg, James Rosenquist and others was seen as anathema to the art establishment of critics and dealers at the time. This was the tail-end of the New York renaissance of Abstract Expressionism when totally abstract painting was king and artists like Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, and Willem De Kooning were still in favor. The idea that paintings and sculptures of consumer goods, advertisements, and celebrities could be considered art was very challenging at the time. Andy was one of the main catalysts for what would become an art establishment acceptance of Pop Art.

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Willem De Kooning, Gotham News, 1955.

Pop Art would make Warhol famous. He raised consumer goods and celebrities to the level of high art, of icons. At the same time, he liked the way commercial  goods and celebrities were products of a kind of manufactured process and imitated this proliferation of images through repetition in his own. His art was very democratic unlike the conscious elitism of the Abstract Experssionists.

Warhol once said,

You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

Warhol played into the very fame and banality that he depicted in his paintings. He was a media darling. In taking a cue from his hero, Salvador Dali, he developed a persona that would allow him to become famous himself. Instead of fighting against his natural shyness and strange appearance, normally bad qualities for acquiring fame, he heightened them and made them larger than life. He became deadpan and impossibly cool in interviews.

The air of superficiality Warhol demonstrated led to a sense that he was hiding something, to an air of mystery which drew people to him. They would project their idea of ‘Andy Warhol’ onto him and he was all but too happy to allow them to do so. He said he wanted to be a machine, to like everything and everyone. This turned many people off but others found it intoxicating and wanted nothing more than to be around him however they could.

Warhol liked big personalities. He loved rich socialites but he also loved drug addicts, hustlers, drag queens, and other extreme personalities from the fringes of society. They found a haven at Warhol’s Factory and many of them participated sexual and drug-fueled excess, to which Warhol preferred to observe and not participate. The studio came to be the place where misfits and celebrity wannabees felt not only accepted but that they were in charge. It became a haven from the outside world that was cold and hostile to them.

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Andy and some of the Factory regulars, photo by Dennis Hopper, 1963.

Warhol began to extend his influence into aspects of popular culture. He became interested in creating events and happenings including the famous Exploding Plastic Inevitable in 1966. He discovered and managed the Velvet Underground, an iconic sixties rock band featuring the late Lou Reed, John Cale, and later Nico, a German actress, model, and singer.

A film depicting The Exploding Plastic Inevitable with music by The Velvet Underground, 1966:

Despite his love of crazy antics, Warhol had an incredibly strong work ethic. Even at the height of the the Silver Factory, he continued to work feverishly. The only reason he rarely took drugs, specifically Speed, was so that he could stay up all night and keep working.   He maintained a strict routine of phone calls, planning, and meetings into the seventies and eighties.

Warhol’s process was related directly to his considerably affected personality. He said he wanted to be a machine and made much of his early series in a kind of assembly line process, which is how the term the Factory was coined. He would lay out the areas that he wanted to be painted and then would apply the silkscreen. Often assistants did much of the work. He would pick the image to be used in the silkscreen, somebody else would do it, and another person might actually sign the work. Many accused him of stealing ideas and taking the credit for others, including Paul Morissey, who directed his later films. Others laughed it off as they did with much of Warhol’s less amiable qualities.

Clip of Warhol working and interview by the CBC:

Andy often said he was giving up painting in order to try something new (although he always came back). In 1964, he began working with film, claiming that he was doing so because it was easier than painting. His early films are seen by many as his most important and are by far the most experimental. Warhol’s early filmmaking process consisted of eliminating the role of the director (because he claimed he couldn’t do it and didn’t seem that  interested in learning either). Instead, he turned on the camera, leaving it on until the film ran out.

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Warhol working one of his films.

He filmed John Giorno, poet and sometimes boyfriend of Warhol, as he slept for eight hours. He filmed the Empire State Building for six hours straight. He filmed many of the Factory regulars and guests in six minute “screen tests” which acted as portraits of an era. He even revolutionized film projection with Chelsea Girls, a black and white and color double-projection depicting the excitement and excesses of his downtown circle which was the first to achieve some commercial success.

The early films were part and parcel of Warhol’s almost Zen-like love of everything from the most seemingly boring to the most extreme. He flattened out these extremes treating them as equally interesting. At the same time, he saw the films as part of the furniture. He would project them at parties and you could pay attention to them or just see them as background, as part of the atmosphere. It didn’t matter to him. He had no real skill for narrative but understood visuals intently. His early films are impactful and stay logged in the viewer’s memory long after seeing them.

Excerpt from Sleep:

Excerpt from Empire:

Excerpts From Warhol’s Screen Tests:

Excerpt from Chelsea Girls:

Warhol’s personality included some very dark aspects. He had strange coldness and indifference towards the deaths of others, even his friends. Various members of the factory, including most famously Edie Sedgwick, would fall pray to their lifestyle and die from excesses. Sedgwick was Warhol’s darling during the 1960’s but she became addicted to the drugs and alcohol that would eventually contribute to her accidental death. Warhol lost interest in her, did nothing to stop her downward spiral, and showed very little in the way of sympathy when she died.  Many found his coldness to her and other deceased members of the Factory troubling, a more regrettable aspect of his over-the-top persona.

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Warhol and Edie Sedgwick.

When Warhol nearly died himself, due an assassination attempt in 1968, he was annoyed that Bobby Kennedy’s assassination the next day meant he would not get the cover of Time Magazine. He was nearly killed by a crazed woman in his circle, Valerie Solanas who had been obsessed with getting him to produce her play. That near death experience would change him and his world forever.

Warhol would never again trust the kinds of people he had let into his world during the height of the Factory. The new Factory was run like a business. It’s later incarnations became office spaces and his assistants wore suits. Drugs disappeared from the Factory entirely and sex became a less frequent (although not completely absent) quality. Andy lamented to his employees that they were boring, that he missed the old Factory. However, he would never go back to that kind of environment fearing those elements which had led to his shooting.

Many critics began to think Andy was played out by the seventies and eighties. His art (with a few exceptions) became rather predictable and repetitive and he was mostly known as a portraitist of socialites, movie stars, and pop stars. His later films (really directed by Paul Morissey) became exploitative and unimaginative B-movie tripe. Gone was the experimentation and spontaneity of the early films. Nonetheless, Andy rose to the height of fame during this time. He was on TV and in magazines often, in advertisements and appearances, although he was still reticent about being interviewed and when he was, he rarely said anything of substance.

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Muhammad Ali, 1978.

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James Earl Carter, Jr., 1976.

Warhol being interviewed for a World Wrestling Federation (WWF) promo:

Warhol became a magazine publisher with Interview Magazine and claimed that he now was working in the highest form of art: the art of business.  Being a sellout never bothered him as it did other artists. He had come full circle in a way, back to his commercial art roots. Nonetheless, he never  totally gave up his mantle as the king of a certain kind of New York avant-garde artistic circle.By the eighties, that circle included the likes of graffiti artists and painters Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat and other members the MTV generation.

Warhol hadn’t totally lost its edge. He was still interested in dark and sexual themes and some of his most explicitly gay images date from this time. Warhol would die in 1987, ostensibly from medical malpractice while recovering from a routine surgery. Both extremes of his circle throughout the years, the high and the low, would mourn together during his funeral.

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Warhol and Basquiat.

To me, the superficiality, coldness, and passivity he exhibited throughout his life was a carefully constructed distraction from the real Warhol (Andrew Warhola if you like) who was capable of real depth and profundity while at the same time being an admirably hard worker and man of action. Many people forget that Warhol was a very religious person; a devout catholic throughout his life and someone who loved his mother dearly and lived and cared for her through the last years of her life. He was a real and an intelligent person despite his (and others’) assertions to the contrary.

Warhol pushed the boundaries of what was possible in art and created a whole environment around him which, besides being interesting for historical reasons, helped him create revolutionary and important work. When that world disappeared, so did much of the excitement and inventiveness of the early years as well as the quality of his work replaced for a lust for business and celebrity. Luckily, it is his better and more important work that he is mostly remembered for and that will endure.

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Charles and Ray Eames were more than just designers. One of the visual art’s most famous and influential married couples, they redefined much of the world we now surround ourselves. They also touched multiple disciplines, leaving their mark on architecture, furniture design, interior design, exhibition design, toy design, fine art, photography, and film. They saw themselves as educators and they were definitely innovators.

Despite the many types of applied art they had a part of Charles Eames saw himself as an architect first and foremost, while Ray self-described as a painter (although she didn’t really paint much). Like Alexander Calder, they took a playful attitude toward their work in a mission to make work and fun a harmonious unity. They were incredibly successful throughout their career and helped to redefine how people understand information and how it could be displayed. In short, they were two of the most important figures of the last century.

The Eameses are most known for their chairs, many of the designs of which can still be found in corporate offices throughout the world. They were among the first designers to use the new materials plywood and fiberglass in their chair designs. They were also a part of a new movement of designers in the forties and fifties who were turning away from modernism’s fetish for the machine and towards simple organic and natural forms. The styles of chairs they developed for the Herman Miller company would become their trademark and made the career of the Eameses for thirty years afterward. The beauty and functionality of these designs speaks to Eameses’ concern for both aesthetic and technical quality and the pursuit of a central idea which they would work through as they developed their process.

Three of the most popular and innovative Eames chair designs:

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The Eameses were not only designers, of course. They made influential experimental films as well as those for educational purposes, their most famous being Powers of Ten, made for IBM and still used in many classrooms today. They designed huge film installations including a beautiful (if such a word is appropriate) propaganda film for the US to be shown in Russia during the height of the Cold War and one on new technology for The New York World’s Fair in 1964.

Both of these were multi-screen projections and pushed the boundaries of what was technologically possible at the time. The Eameses were also the first to use cartoons as a tool for corporate public relations. Charles was able to get the kind of support and freedom from clients for these projects and others which was rare at the time and even rarer now. It was mainly because they knew they were going to get a quality product and that it would be revolutionary in some way, pushing their brand in new and interesting directions.

Powers of Ten:

Glimpses of the USA, American National Exhibition, Moscow:

7_Glimpses of AmericaThe Information Machine at the IBM Pavillion, New York World’s Fair:

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One area of the Eameses’ work that is often overlooked is the importance of their influence on exhibition design, part of their over-arching mission to find new and creative ways to educate the public. Coming out of the new development of design which mandated a multimedia, exciting, almost over-the-top approach to presenting information, the Eameses began to incorporate in pictures, films, sound, text, and technology to their exhibition projects. They famously designed the successful Mathematica exhibition that can still be found today and many small exhibitions for IBM. The goal was to offer a complex vision that viewers could submerge themselves into and take what they wanted away with them. Their exhibitions were incredibly inclusive although sometimes problematically over-flowing with objects and information, what they proudly described as “information overload.”

Mathematica Exhibition:

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Part of what made the Eameses so unique as well as so successful was their approach to process. They did not believe inspiration, stating that hard work was the only way to have consistency in creative pursuits. They believed whole-heartedly that you start with a bunch of bad ideas and work slowly towards a working solution. Depsite their innovative solutions to problems, they believed innovation was the last thing a designer should resort to. One motto was always to design by doing. Another was “to make the best for the most for the least.”

The Eameses took pride in their understanding of the fundamentals of Modernism: the form of an object was always solidly rooted in its function. They believed wholeheartedly in the utopian concept of good design as a tool for improving life and thought that technology was beneficial and would lead to social progress. At the same time they did not disregard the past, looking to it for guidance. They not only tried to revolutionize design but also designing and its relationship to daily life. They wanted to collapse the distance between working and fun, to make them one and the same seamless experience. Life would become rewarding because of work. Charles was famous for putting it succinctly: “Take your pleasure seriously.”

The Eames office in Venice California was its own kind of playful environment, covered over with art and decoration, both finished and in progress. It was often compared to a circus (something which Charles was obsessed with). It was constantly changing form and mutating. When the Eameses were making a film the whole office would transform into a set and then transform back the next day. This playful atmosphere was echoed by many of the objects they created. They were obsessed with making toys for children and adults, masks, and decorative objects which lined the walls of their office. They saw toys as a creative way to teach design principles and craftsmanship and used decoration as a means enlivening their world with brilliant color and shape.

Eames toy blocks:

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Detail of the Eames Office, Venice Beach, California:

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This playful, colorful atmosphere could also be found in their home in Pacific Palisades, which they designed themselves. It would become the blueprint of the postwar Modernist home, precisely by moving away from the sterility and rigidness of prewar architecture.  It was lively and colorful unlike the metallic monochrome of 20’s and 30’s modern houses.The visual culture of the world was very important to them and surrounding themselves with art objects and knick-knacks of all descriptions provided them a potent environment for creativity in both their work and home life.

Exterior and interior of the Eames House, Pacific Palisades, California:

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The partnership between the Eameses was strong and lasting, despite at least one infidelity by Charles. It is essentially what made them such a successful professional couple. They had an odd kind of symbiosis. Charles took the lead on projects for the most part. He was seen as the face of the studio, was the one who talked to clients, appeared in interviews, and ran the business. His interest in all things visual came primarily from the idea that structure was what was essential to all visual art practices and that the same skills could be applied to various disciplines. He could be stingy about giving credit, running the office like a Renaissance studio where he saw the designers as apprentices, there to learn and assist the master. While he was arrogant in some ways he was humble in others. He didn’t want to call himself an ‘artist,’ stating that it was embarrassing, like calling oneself a ‘genius.’

The Eameses at work on one of their exhibition designs:

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Despite his de facto position as the official communicator for the firm, he was not always very good at it. He was not clear in his explanations in interviews or talks, would ramble and wander around the subject, sometimes unable to express anything at all. Despite his difficulties in communicating through words, Charles was excellent at communicating through imagery and was a visionary of communication technology. He was fascinated by the computer and made it a central focus of much of the firm’s design and educational work during the sixties and seventies. IBM became the Eameses’ most important client.

Charles Eames with IBM clients at the Mathematica Exhibition:

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It is important to point out Ray’s importance as she was often unfairly seen as minor in the collaboration, mostly due to retrograde fifties sexual politics that still taint the conversation about women in the arts. This was not helped by her own shyness in and resistance to talk much about her own role in interviews. The truth was she was very hurt by those who diminished her abilities or the work that she had done. Without her input and assistance, the designs would’ve never been what they became. She had a particularly strong role as a tempering influence, as the person who would keep the designers focused on the “big idea” when they were too concentrated on the details. Nonetheless, she was an extreme perfectionist about her work and put incredible amounts of attention into the detail aspects of projects. Paradoxically, her extreme perfectionism did often get in the way, sometimes crippling her ability to finish work on a project.

Ray Eames working on one of her decorative ‘toy’ objects:

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Ray had been trained under Hans Hoffman, an early abstract European painter who came to New York and helped push American painting towards the Abstract Expressionist heyday of the 1940’s and 1950’s. She used her training to great effect, not so much in painting of which she didn’t do much, but in her use of decoration and injecting of color into the Eameses’ work. It would not be an exaggeration to say that she was at least partially responsible for the abundance of color in midcentury American design objects.

She was also responsible for the look of the many Eames chair advertising photographs for new models, images with a very distinctive look. As the years went on her overall role decreased as Charles’ interests began to move more towards an obsession with technology and math, of which Ray never really had a grasp or much interest. Her influence decreased also due to Charles’ relationship with their male corporate clientele and the affair he had with another female designer. Their relationship recovered and after his death when she took over running the office. She finally had to close it some years after and died ten years to the day after her husband.

Hans Hofmann with students:

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It’s hard to imagine the look of midcentury America without the Eameses. Watch an episode of Mad Men or a movie from that time set in a business office or luxurious modern home and you’ll likely something designed by either them or one of their countless imitators. Not only that but their presence as creators can still be felt. Walk into practically any office building or airport waiting room and there will be something created by or inspired by the Eames. Go into an IKEA and see their influence in many of the objects for sale. I am even sitting in an Eames office chair as I type this!

An Eames chair advertising photo conceived by Ray Eames:

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Design was not the only thing they changed forever. The way we receive information today in advertising, educational films, public relations messages, and exhibitions, especially those on science and history, owes something to the Eameses’ influence. They contributed immensely to America’s interest in and eventual obsession with the computer. Even the toys children play now might be much less sophisticated had it not been for the Eameses. Yet they are less well known to the general public then figures whose work had far less practical application for or import on our everyday lives since. Perhaps that’s the way they would’ve preferred it. Their work speaks first and it has become essential to our daily experience. What more could any creative person ask?

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