Art-State Of Mind

By Fleur Chattillon

The city that never sleeps: 24 hours a day, flashing lights, skyscrapers, shops, bars and nightclubs, the Statue of Liberty, The Big Apple; New York City. But would you think of it as a city of art or even an artistic Empire? Maybe not? Would your city of choice for this creative pursuit be Paris or even Rome, it could be said that in the nineteenth century, Paris was the cultural capital of the world. Everyone who mattered in the art world settled in the city for a while and before that during the period of the renascence Rome was the capital. But New York did end up having a really important moment when it first began to shine as a major art capital. It may have taken world disruption for it to happen but when it did, boy did it step up. Find out more in Art-State Of Mind.

Just as life shifts, so does the art world both reflecting global events. An event with an enormous impact on the world of creativity and particularly art was World War Two. A lot of artist refugees from all over Europe settled in New York, to escape Nazi and other fascist regimes.

This period within the art world was characterized by ‘triumphalism In New York and a feeling of having won, not just a military war but also a cultural one. The French and their school of Paris, alongside many key European cities, were uprooted, and artistic magic was created somewhere else.

As the artistic empire of Paris, where all European artists used to gather, crumbled and moved to New York, new freedom was born, one without the weight of art history that Paris carried with it. Individual freedom was born thus a whole different point of view on art came from the city of New York.

The emergence of New York as an art empire was mostly due to the presence of a diverse group of European artists like André Masson, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, Piet Mondriaan, Max Ernst and many others who came in as refugees. Some arrived because of religious persecution, others for political reasons and some simply because their art was not recognised in their beloved Paris because the work was seen as the work of savages.

The Museum of Modern Art (1929) was founded before the refugee artists went to New York, but the museum played a big part in the exposure of the works of American and newly arrived European artists in the modernist movements that emerged, such as surrealism. And this movement had quite a big impact on the art scene in New York and the world.

Max Ernst, La Planete affolée, 1942, Oil on canvas, 110 x 140 cm,

Surrealism is a form of art that uses creative imagination to generate images or ideas that are impossible in reality. Surrealist works often explore human psychology and sexuality, as well as themes like death and they got a lot of inspiration from their dreams. The word surreal comes from the French word surréaliste, which means “overly real.” It was used in art, literature, film, and theatre.

The movement was also strongly influenced by the writings of psychologist Sigmund Freud. It sought a revolution against the constraints of the rational mind: and by extension, the rules of a society they saw as oppressive. Freud used a lot of techniques to bring to the surface the subconscious thought of his patients.

Surrealists used many of the same techniques to stimulate their writing and art, with the belief that the creativity that came from deep within a person’s subconscious could be more powerful and authentic than any product of conscious thought.

New Yorkers had, of course, already heard of Surrealism. Some American painters, for instance, the “Magic Realists” such as the artist’s Paul Cadmus, Philip Evergood and Ivan Albright imagined that they were producing local versions of Surrealism. But the bona fide proponents were as yet unknown in the flesh. Their impact was larger than was realized even while they were living in New York, and their influence is not yet fully understood. The misunderstandings which surrounded them in the 1940s remain today.

Max Ernst was one of the artists who began the convergence of surrealists in New York, together with literature writer André Breton. They both arrived in the early 1940s and became leaders in this movement.

André Breton not only wrote the Manifesto on Surrealism but also curated Surrealist exhibitions that introduced ideas of automatism and intuitive art-making to the first Abstract Expressionists. These artists not only made surrealism popular but even accomplished making a new movement emerge from their art. Gordon Onslow Ford was one of the last surviving members of the Surrealist group around André Breton who came from Paris to New York around 1941.

Gordon Onslow Ford, Temptation of the Painter, 1941, Oil on canvas, 116.8 x 152.4 cm

Both Americans and European expatriates joined American Abstract Artists, a group that advanced abstract art in America through exhibitions, lectures, and publications.

A good example of an Abstract Expressionist is Jackson Pollock with his action painting, a style of painting in which paint is spontaneously dribbled, splashed or smeared onto the canvas, rather than being carefully applied.

Book page ‘Surrealists of New York, with paintings of Jackson Pollock and Louise Bourgois.

Or Mark Rothko is famous for his Large scale canvases, open structure, and thin layers of colour that combine to convey the impression of a shallow pictorial space. Colour, for which Rothko’s work is perhaps most celebrated, attains an unprecedented luminosity.

But still, the impact of artists like Max Ernst, André Masson, Yves Tanguy and other noted émigrés on the work of Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and the American avant-garde has for too long been quietly written out of art history.

But that stops now: The book ‘Surrealists in New York’ gives us a deep dive into the interesting life and work of all of these artists that set New York on the map in the art world. It tells a vivid story of the ‘liaison’ and the European exiles who bought Surrealism with them as an artistic exchange between the Old World and the New.

The book is also centring on taciturn printmaker Stanley William Hayter and the legendary Atelier 17 print studio he founded. Here artists’ experiments pushed the boundaries of modern art. It was in Hayter’s studio that Jackson Pollock found the balance of freedom and control that would culminate in his distinctive drip paintings.

In an absorbing way, just like Surrealistic works, art critic Charles Darwent explores how exiles from war-torn France brought Surrealism to America, helping to shift the centre of the art world from Paris to New York and spark the movement that became Abstract Expressionism.

Drawing on first-hand documents, interviews and archive materials, Charles Darwent brings to life the events and personalities from this crucial encounter. In so doing, he reveals a fascinating new perspective on the history of the art of the twentieth century.

Book page ‘Surrealists in New york’

So because these refugee artists had to move to New York, Leaving their homes, and former artistic empire behind, they birthed a new art movement and put America on the map as a great place for modern art.

This new story in modern art bought new ways of thinking free from the historical weights of an established artistic city to a country whose very core belief was a call to freedom.

The release of the book ‘Surrealists in New York’ is on the 16th of March 2023 and you can pre-order it here.

If you enjoyed reading Art-State Of Mind why not read Into The Light

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