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Developments in Figurative Art

In the second half of the twentieth century also developments in figurative art were made. These were strongly influenced by abstract art and by Surrealism in their complete freedom of representation. Categorisation of the newest figurative art tendencies is very difficult, for the distance of time lacks in the process of discrimination of important works. The coagulation of seemingly disparate works into main trends is not yet clear.

Contemporary art is very diverse. It combines many elements of previous styles, as these styles have now been thoroughly analysed and as art historians’ views have matured. Definite opinions on art styles have been published and popularised, so that modern artists know well the history of art and have absorbed the past styles. Freedom of expression, combination of the most diverse elements of form, and combination even of various media are some of the most obvious characteristics of contemporary art. A synthesis is all the more difficult to make because individual artists have adhered to several movements, as they experimented and grew in their art.
Contemporary art is best described with the words of experiment and freedom in all elements of the form of painting.
An overview of this art will therefore necessarily be a long list of many movements and trends. We describe briefly the most important of these trends.

New Realism

After World War II Abstract Expressionism was the main art style in the United States of America, but in Europe various styles of realism co-existed with other styles. Painters of the New Realism were still socially engaged.
French painters were Fernand Léger (1881-1955), André Fougeron (b. 1913) and others.
This movement led to a Parisian school called "Nouveau Réalisme".
Artists of the United Kingdom that applied this style were Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960), Meredith Frampton (1894-1984), Laura Knight (1877-1970), the Euston Road School (among whom Willian Coldstream (1908-1987) and Victor Passmore (b.1908)).
In the United States, painters of this style were Leon Kosoff (b.1926), Frank Auerbach (b.1931), Edward Middleditch (b. 1923) and others.
In Italy worked in this way Renato Guttuso (1911-1987), Giuseppe Polzà de Volpedo, Alberto Giacometti and others.

Pop Art

Pop Art is the abbreviation of "Popular Art". The British critic Lawrence Alloway used the term for the first time. The Institute of Contemporary Art in London then took up the term for works of Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter Blake, David Hockney, Peter Philips, Allen Jones and Ronald B. Kitaj.
The trend was founded in the 1950s in the United States and in Great Britain.
Painters of Pop Art were in the United States: Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselman, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Jim Dime, Rober Indiana, Stuart Davis, Raymond Hains.
In Germany worked Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter.
Pop artists got their inspiration from images of the mid-twentieth century consumption society and from popular sources. Ugliness was turned into beauty. The artist did not create but chose. Art was in the discrimination of objects. Objects of art were typical, banal, every-day. The Pop artists also sought inspiration in comic strips, in publicity, and in mass production. The art works were to be popular, short-lived, and cheap in cost, young, sexy, witty, gimmicky, glamorous, and yet spiritual. Photography techniques were often used, as well as collages and assemblage of common objects or images.
Pop Art had no emotional commitment to the subject matter that was represented.

"Nouveau Réalisme" and "Figuration Narrative"

In France the Pop-Art movement of the 1960s was called "Nouveau Réalisme" and "Figuration Narrative".
Its artists were Gérard Fromanger, Jacques Monory, Jacques de la Villeglé and Bernard Rancillac among others. The artists Arman, François Dufrêne, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely and Jacques De la Villeglé founded "Nouveau Réalisme" in 1960 with the critic Pierre Restany, who was their spokesman and who wrote their manifesto. Other artists were Yves Klein, César, Gérard Duchamps, Mimmo Rotella, and Nikki de Saint-Phalle.
These artists proposed even more complete realism in their art. They showed less images and more real objects. They dealt directly with reality, and for instance tore off advertising posters from public places, which they proposed then as works of art. The "Nouveau Réalistes" represented reality as "perceived in itself, not through conceptual or imaginative transcription".

Conceptual Art

In this art form, the concept of the artist was more important than his technical skill.
The French artist Marcel Duchamp may have founded the art around 1917. The Californian artist Edward Kienholz originally gave it its name in the 1960s.
Conceptual art grew in the 1960s to an international phenomenon of great variety. It ended around 1974-1975.
The American group consisted of Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler and Joseph Kosuth among others. It was founded in 1965 and promoted by the publisher Seth Siegeloub.
The English group was called ‘Art and Language’. It was founded in 1968. Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin, and Harold Hursell were part of this group.
In Conceptual Art, ideas or concepts could be conveyed not just in pictures but also in the arrangement of objects such as the pictures themselves. Conceptual art thus lacked a coherent style. Practically all means were allowed and also applied. Its main basis remained the concern with meaning and with the content matter as a means by itself. Conceptual art was often polemical. This art remained cool, and rarely moving to emotions. It helped to revitalise art by humour and irony.
The emphasis in this kind of concepts was more on the making of designs and on the idea of the project than on the objects and the arrangements and thus this art trend broke with the traditional views on art. Painters and sculptors of Conceptual Art were Daniel Buren, and Bruce Nauman, On Kawara, Bill Viola, Kemth, and Richard Long, Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Land art

Land art was mainly a tendency in sculpture. It can be considered as a sub-movement of the more general Conceptual Art stream. American and British artists like Richard Long (painting) and Tony Cragg (sculpture) placed in the early 1970s various materials and objects in landscapes. They either imitated landscapes or used natural landscape as part of their work. Landscape could be an integral part of the work of Conceptual Art, such as in Long’s structure or in the "Environmental Art" of Christo. Christo enveloped architectures in white canvas or placed large numbers of the same objects in a landscape.


This from of art began in 1977 with the publication of Charles Junks’ "The Language of Post-Modern Architecture". Postmodernism sought to replace Minimalism in design. Postmodernism is the name given to the arts of the 1970s and 1980s.
Postmodernists challenged Minimalist beliefs in the separation of representation and reality. They emphasised the specificity of the artist’s position and his subjectivity towards objects and art.
Issues of identity were crucial in this art. Identity took many forms: national identity, sexual, feminist, gay, environmentalist, and ethnic. The pictures often were provocative. These became central forces in the development of Postmodernism.
Postmodernism was driven for a great part by the Feminist and Gay (AIDS) activism of the 1970s. Examples of the most well known groups were ACT-UP, the "Aids Coalition to Unleash Power" of New York, founded in 1987, the "Guerilla Girls" of 1985, also in New York, and the Feminist lesbians of "Kiss and Tell" of Vancouver. Graffiti art can be considered also as belonging to this trend.
Painters of Postmodernism were, among many others, Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jack Pierson, Lyle Ashton Harris, and David Wojnarowicz.


This was a group of German artists working from the middle of the 1960’s. They applied a violent technique to representations mostly of the human figure. They took a few ordinary subjects and reduced these in paintings to a few harsh lines and very contrasting colours. Georg Baselitz even inverted his human figures so that they became tortured objects. Painters of this movement were Georg Baselitz, Lucian Freud, Jörg Immersdorf, Anselm Kieffer, Markus Lüpertz, A.R. Penck, and Sigmar Polke. Other painters and sculptors of this movement were Joseph Beuys, Marcel Broodthaers (Brussels) and Gérard Garouste (Paris).

Arte Povera

The Italian critic Germano Celant (b. 1940) founded Arte Povera in 1967. The movement lasted from 1967 to about 1972. Painters and other artists were Giovanni Anselmo, Mario Merz, Giuseppe Penone, Alighiero Boetti, Jaunis Kounellis, Pino Pascali, Giulio Paolini, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Gilberto Zorio and Luciano Fabito.
Celant referred with the name "Arte Povera" to the "Poor Theatre" of the Polish director Grotowski, who reduced language for gesture in his theatre. He emphasised mime and simple gestures.
For Arte Povera, ordinary objects were heightened to the status of art. These artists gave much attention to matter and materials, especially new materials such as marble, glass, and neon lighting and they often combined media like photography and painting. They contrasted amorphous, weak materials (bags of wool) with strong and geometric materials (iron). Their works looked ephemeral. Arte Povera thus also emphasised the concepts in their creations.

Arte Cifra

"Arte Cifra" was an Italian reaction on "Arte Povera" and on Conceptual Art, which came to be born in the 1970’s. Young Italian artists made a very individual, abstract and figuratif art that was encrypted, "keyed". "Arte Cifra" was an eclectic synthesis of former art forms. It dared to delve as well into classic art history as in folk art and comic strips. Painters were Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, and Mimmo Paladino. The Italian critic Achille Bonito Oliva called this group of painters (and others) by the name "Transavanguardia" or Transavantgarde, but besides Paladino, Clemente and Cucchi also Georg Baselitz, Markus Lüpertz, Anselm Kiefer and Sigmar Polke could be counted in this broad definition.


This was a style of mainly North American artists. The painters imitated photography in their paintings so that their style is also sometimes called Photorealism. They took very modern subjects like urban scenes, aeroplanes or warships as subject, and painted these very realistically in all detail, in crisp lines and clear hues.
Painters were Malcolm Morley (b. 1931), Robert Cottingham (b.1935), Robert Bechsle (b. 1932), Richard Estes (b. 1932), Alex Katz (b. 1927), Chuck Clare, Thomas Struth and others.


Neo-Academicism is a very young tendency in art that started only after the 1990s. It is a global tendency that rallies artists from many countries at the same time. Its two most dynamically innovating centres are probably St Petersburg and Rome.
In St Petersburg Timur Novikov gave new directions in the Novia Akademia.
In Italy, several schools belong to this movement. Bonito Oliva brought a group called "Transavanguarda Italiana" together in 1979 already, whereas in Rome a group called "Anacronista" was founded.
But also United States artists, Belgian and Dutch and even Chinese painters can be counted to this art tendency. Neo-Academist painters prone a return to classical themes, symbols and images, but they use the classical themes in newer ways that refer to modern technology and modern society. The artists refuse the "ready-made" and look again for the old concepts of harmony and beauty in a return to higher cultural values. They inherited of Postmodernism its sensuality, and its antagonistic or sarcastic ways of viewing society.
Painters are Evert Thielen and Micha Klein (Netherlands), Zhao Bandi, Wei Dong and Zeng Hao (China), Antonella Cappuccio, Paola Gandolfi, Bruno Civitico, Carlo Maria Mariani, Wainer Vaccari, Stefano di Stasio and Bruno d’Arcevia (Italy), Genia Chef, Judy Chicago, Alfred Russel, Katherine Doyle, and Alan Feltus (United States), Georgy Gurjanov, Oleg Maslov, Olga Tobreluts, Victor Kuznetsov, Timur Novikov, Bella Matveeva, Vitali Komar and Alexander Melamid (Russia), Stephen Mc Kenna (England), Barbara and Michael Leisgen (Germany), Odd Nerdrum (Norway), Jan Deconynck and Wouter Deruytter (Belgium), and many other.

Figurative Developments in general

Mostly very clear lines are used in these developments.

In most of the new figurtaive developments, form is completely free, which means that it could also be very academic and strict. Great attention is given to balance, harmony, contrast and the emotions induced by strict form

All these art forms gave much attention to colour. All colour hues can be used, contrasting or not.

The new tendencies are characterised by a great variety of contents, but mostly directed towards the individual object or to landscapes. Devotional images, genre, classic scenes of several figures are rarely used. Rarely more than a one or two figures are painted. Titles and phrases can be inserted in the picture.

Volume and space is not sought in the majority of schools, but applied when necessary for the subject. The art forms do not particularly experiment in perspective or the formation of illusions of volume, space and depth.

These tendencies may be seen as counter-weight movements to abstract art in the twentieth century. More than ever before the new media (photography, film, video, etc.) are exploited, and the specificity of painting and sculpture and any of the new media become more and more blurred. In expression these modern art forms return to clear lines and forms, and also to absolute freedom in composition and content. The trends of Postmodernism stress specific situations of society such as the minorities and the sexual differences.

Untitled (Joan Crawford says …)

James Rosenquist (1933 - ). Museum Ludwig. Köln. 1964.

The artists of all the paintings that we present here are still living, except for Antonio Saura who deceased recently. All works represent more or less tendencies of contemporary art but all works are very individualistic and should be considered in the first place, as representing the artists and only in a few aspects the art trends into which the artists are categorised.

In 1957 Richard Hamilton wrote a letter in which he stated that Pop Art was "popular (designed for a mass audience), transient (short term solution), expendable (easily forgotten), low cost, mass produced, young (aimed at youth), witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and big business".
Many of these features can be seen in James Rosenquist’s "Joan Crawford says".
Joan Crawford was a famous actress of Hollywood, and posters with her figure were well known in the 1960s. Rosenquist’s oil painting shows part of one of those posters that you could see in any street cinema of the sixties. It was certainly witty, glamorous, low cost, and even sexy by its subject. Pictures like this need not to be analysed for its style elements to be recognised, though they can. Our first impression is of a nice, readily made image that makes any viewer smile and feel happy. It is a witty picture that shows us with all the presence of the moment a piece of reality, and that aspect alone makes it interesting and unforgettable art.
Hamilton was wrong in at least two points. This kind of art is definitely neither transient nor expendable, even if it was designed to be so. Pop Art has proven particularly strong as an art form and regularly elements, and features of Pop have re-surfaced in the last years of the twentieth century.

James Rosenquist was a North American artist who made viewers see elements of everyday life with insistence, in another way than the spectators were frequently used to see reality. He showed the reality to which we passed by regularly, looking without seeing. In this novel way he forced the viewer to take conscience of his or her life, with a presence that resembles the teachings of oriental philosophies. These philosophies also insist on the present moment and on heightened awareness of reality.
Rosenquist returned to an old adage of the fourteenth century, to the "carpe diem" or "pluck the day", to the awareness of all the humble things, such as cinema posters, of our lives. Moreover we usually only look at parts of those objects, as parts suffice to identify them and we are not even interested in the whole picture. James Rosenquist also only painted part of the poster. The painter showed something quite impersonal, an object – here an actress – who is the possession of every cinemagoer in the world. Yet, by putting the image in oil painting, it acquired something of the magic and respectability of true art. Rosenquist tells that art is to be found everywhere, suffice it to see and not just to look. The image is just of a movie actress, but Richard Hamilton also once stated in 1961 that "It is the Playboy ‘Playmate of the month’ pull-out pin-up which provides us with the closest contemporary equivalent to the odalisque in painting". G86 . Rosenquist realised that modern odalisque.

James Rosenquist was born in 1933. He was still young when he made this picture. It does remind us of the fact that Rosenquist worked in advertising. He created publicity panels as a young man. He was a billboard painter. After 1960, he became one of the great representatives of New York Pop Art, together with Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Tom Wesselman, who were somewhat older than he was.

Telephone Boots

Richard Estes (1936 - ). Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid. 1967.

When Pop Art was essentially funny, other painters took some of their accents very serious. Pop Art looked at reality with an insistent view, and even in this view at common objects. The Hyperrealists of the 1960’s were mainly North American and New York artists who took reality as the absolute subject of their paintings. Pop artists always looked in a funny way at reality, with a smile and a wink, but Hyperrealists swore with reality, as it existed, naked and real.
Maybe the Hyperrealist painters were impressed with the new media of photography and of the moving pictures. They tried to use the same means, that is a direct observation, and they had an impeccable technique of rendering reality in all detail, as if indeed a photography had been taken. Of course, these artists also knew that, in order to show reality in an interesting and original way, reality has to be twisted somewhat. And so they did.

Richard Estes was a great artist in that the reality he showed was always interesting and surprising. Thus "Telephone Boots" surprises by the repetition of its vertical patterns. We have written earlier in this book about the qualities of vertical lines and here these vertical lines are even enforced by connecting short horizontal lines. We wrote about the qualities of harmony of repetition. These elements form the essence of Estes’ painting.

There are two realities in Estes’ picture. There is the inside reality of the booths on a corner of a New York street, and there is the outside reality reflected on the metal doors. Estes worked the combination of these two realities into a surprising image. In the reality of the booths, people are present. But they turn their backs to the viewer. That makes of this picture a cool, cold work that gives an impression of loneliness and distance. The cold purity of the glass and the reflecting metal of the doors enhance this effect, as anything that reflects or is transparent is impersonal and cold since it does not absorb anything.
Richard Estes shows our contemporary world but not with impartiality. He also explains and maybe reproaches us for having made the world so impersonal. He reproduced reality into the smallest detail, like a camera would have done. And indeed, a camera could have produced a representation like this. It would have been sufficient for a photographer to have the same artistic eye as Richard Estes. But Estes had the advantage of being able to represent a reality as could have been difficult to find, and fix in the moment. Estes had all the time to think and assemble reality.

The painterly technique and skill of Estes was astonishing. But the art form of Hyperrealism, however interesting, did not win over photography. Few painters could bring themselves to the same patience and skill as Richard Estes to paint pictures of Hyperrealism. Few painters followed Estes’ example and tried to beat photography at its own game.

While these developments of Pop Art and of Hyperrealism were going on in England and the United States of America, individual painters of Europe were combining style elements derived from Abstract art and from Cubism with the brutal expression of the Expressionists from before World War I. Many European painters had not yet coped with all the horrors of the World Wars. They did not put their full hope in the new industrial society. They looked at the continuance of ideas like of Communism and Existentialism.

Shout No. 7

Antonio Saura (1930-1998). Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Madrid. 1959.

A Spanish painter started somewhat before 1960 to make a series of expressive paintings that took as theme the very old icon of Spanish religious art. Antonio Saura, born in 1930, had been very much impressed in his youth by the Spanish tenebrist paintings of the Crucifixion. During his teens the Spanish Civil War had waged and afterwards had come another five years of war in Europe so that in most of Saura’s childhood he had suffered and known war. Saura painted contorted images of Christ hanging on the Cross in quick and black strokes, not unlike the way Georges Rouault had drawn. The artist aimed to express his own fears and doubts in mute and powerless frustration as Francisco de Goya had done. Saura’s "Shout No. 7" is a remarkable cry, in many respects not unlike Pablo Picasso’s "‘Guernica".

Antonio Saura made a picture of violent, broad lines that are as many rapid sweeps of a brush on the canvas. The paint of the black strokes dripped down in places, like blood drips from a wounded animal. We see a white canvas and on that only black and grey lines. A picture that is more expressive of horror and absurdity is difficult to find. If this is a representation of a body, then the face is like a snout of a ferocious dragon. The arms are far outstretched in a furious movement. The legs and feet are shown as claws. Saura’s emotions while making this picture must have been violent, sudden, energetic, and the emotions must have been filled with frustration and protest.

There are two brushstrokes or knife-strokes in this painting, one series in black and the other in grey colour. These strokes are intertwined. Saura explained that they were "a Crucifixion and a female nude mixed, with arms raised to the sky in desperate supplication". Saura’s art is halfway between abstraction and figuration and of course very Expressionist. These were images of the new European Expressionists of the second half of the twentieth century.

Saura’s work is evidently an expression of violent inner feelings. Yet there is a strong balance in the energy shown here, as the directions of the arms and legs are fixed along the diagonals of the frame. That again shows a figure torn to pieces by violence. The tension and passion in this picture is very Spanish.

Dusk in the little Cup

Mario Merz (1925 - ). Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Madrid. 1979.

Art in Europe towards the end of the twentieth century was very diversified. The North American scene was clearer. There were the sixties of Pop Art and after that Abstract art reigned. Pop Art has been something of a new Baroque outburst, and Pop Art lingered on. But North American art became more limpid, logical, rational, in Minimalism and Conceptual art. In Europe existed various art movements and each individual artist was almost a movement by himself or herself. In Italy at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, the artists gathered around ideas and vague theories that were derived from Pop Art. Centred on Turin, Milan and Rome, artists turned away from Pop and from pure geometrical abstraction to use all kinds of new themes, in all directions. This group proposed originality in art once again, as Pop had reached maturity and did not rally new ideas anymore. It was called Arte Povera for "Poor Art".

The style of Arte Povera defies definition. It was mostly an art of sculptures, even though the word "sculpture" may be hard to apply to the constructions of the group. The placing of the work of art was as important as the object itself. As its name indicated, "poor" materials were employed, often used materials, and non-industrial thus artisan materials, but that did not always mean low-cost substances. A few artists tried to blend sculpture and painting. One of the artists who did that was Mario Merz.

Mario Merz was from Milan, where he was born in 1925. He first sculpted or assembled sculptures, then painted. At one period Merz built igloos in museums. He would need a large hall, darken it and hang here and there on the ceiling and walls gleaming tubes of light representing numbers. He would place an igloo in the room, built of small, filled sacks of cloth. The sacks were stacked in layers according to a precise number series, the series of Fibonacci. On the igloo, Merz would implant lighted neon tubes with the Fibonacci numbers. Mario Merz built his Fibonacci series of sculptures and paintings to indicate in a novel way old mathematical and art principles. The Fibonacci series of numbers were supposed to be the ultimate proportions of harmony of nature, so that Gothic and Renaissance artists used them in painting and in architecture. The Fibonacci series is also found in the proportions of the spiralling houses of certain water snails. So here was a strange series of numbers, which linked geometrical, mathematical and natural phenomena.

The painting "Dusk in a little Cup" of Mario Merz shows the image of a drinking cup with a dark interior. Merz used acrylic paint on canvas but the figures 1, 2, 3, 5 of the Fibonacci series are realised in light tubes that emit blue light under electric power. The painting thus combines old, traditional elements such as paint and canvas with the new media of the fluorescent tubes, as used in many Op-Art (optical art) sculptures. The tubes are only used however to represent the few first numbers of the Fibonacci series, whereas the series continues written down on the canvas beneath the light tubes. The diameter and the height of the cup are in the same Fibonacci or "golden mean" proportions. As the numbers descend into the cup, they seem to enlighten the darkness at the bottom. The viewer may feel himself or herself to be at the bottom of the cup in the darkness. The magical numbers seem to enlighten our minds, as given or as representing a message of divine inspiration. The Fibonacci numbers thus also grow out of the dark of our mind and ascend to the heavens, since they are the product of our mind. This could mean a meagre understanding of the divine or of the rules of nature. As in all Arte Povera, we see here few means, and a puzzling picture at first impression; There is little to discover further, but a serious explanation of the concept and idea as proposed by the artist. Knowledge of this idea and knowledge of the character of Mario Merz is necessary to grasp some of the painter’s meaning, to understand his work and maybe to be interested in the same idea. Thus Arte Povera works opened up common life experiences of viewers to astonishing ideas.

Head Rack

Carlo Maria Mariani (1931- ). Carlo Maria Mariani and Carol Lane. 1990.

The last painting of that I propose to look at is made in the newest, contemporary style of creation. Carlo Maria Mariani ‘s picture represents a rack on which we see several sculptures of heads of classical antiquity. There is also a hand holding a painter’s brush and a skull adorned with laurels. The picture is a surprising view. The rack and the sculptures are painted with considerable skill in a very realistic way. The various forms of the rack and the heads are not easy to paint or to draw and yet the shadows are diligently shown on them. The picture could have been a photograph. The general feelings that this painting evokes are of distance, of a lifeless scene, of a quiet universe that exists in a strange dream world. The soft colours of white and faint yellow with only a patch of grey-blue enforce the feeling of coldness, of non-commitment. The picture makes of think of remnants of an ancient civilisation. We pass by this painting, experience the impression of a void, admire briefly the painterly skill, and we might walk on.

All realistic details are shown of the objects. The rack has a conical form, thus shows a pyramid structure as could not be more traditional in painterly composition. But the rack has fine elongated forms and the viewer can see the background through the lathes. Thus the viewer sees through the object to open space, much as in Pietro Perugino’s pictures he or she could view through open temple structures. This definitely creates a strong feeling of depth and space, even if there is no far landscape behind to show perspective. The heads on the rack all have aspiring, longing expressions, expressions of silent pain and sadness, as of remembrance of times past. The heads have all closed eyes, so they are inwardly directed. Each head is closed unto itself. All these elements enhance in the viewer emotions of exclusion and of distance. Only cold and subdued colours are used. The heads are planted in a seemingly random way, but there is an ascending line from right to left in them, a repetition of forms that leads upwards, to space also. These directions added to the strongly aspiring shape of the rack evoke emotions of spirituality. Mariani combined two elements of content, which when combined always inspire emotions of coldness. He used a very inanimate object, the rack, dominating the image and yet he painted heads, references to organic life on the rack. Life is impaled, killed and stuck on the rack in a cruel view so that the viewer is indeed astonished, maybe even feels aversion and thus stays to look at this picture, puzzled an caught in the surprise.

The idea represented by the picture is pregnant with symbolism and with profound reflections on art, shown in just a few elements. This painting is so cleverly constructed that it may well become one of the masterpieces that epitomise our contemporary art. This is a painting on which history will look with kindness, and that will be represented over and over again in art history texts.

The picture represents a rack. Mariani did not show this element by chance. The simple and common kitchen utensil is already a well-known symbol of art. It was one of the very symbols of Pop Art. Marcel Duchamp proposed in the 1950’s that art was foremost the making of a choice. So he took everyday objects such as a bottle rack and took it out of its familiar environment – the kitchen or the cellar – to be exhibited in the sacred halls of museums. The ready-made object, worth a few dollars, was thus placed in museum rooms worth millions of dollars. The amateurs of art and the intellectual elite of society passed by it and admired it there. Duchamp had by his choice elevated a common object to the higher status of art. Carlo Maria Mariani took the bottle-rack, now known by every art historian and amateur of art, and thus one oft ha main images of Pop Art as the basis of his painting. We expect bottles or hats on the rack, but Mariani planted sculptures of heads on the spikes. The heads are classical sculptures, painted in the nicest academic way of classic ideal. The heads are of Greek or Roman sculptures. Mariani referenced Pop Art as an art style that did away with the classic ideals of beauty and that introduced the ready-made in an ironic way.

The images present however that idealised beauty, that sublime in art that was pursued by the Renaissance artists when they re-discovered the Roman and Greek sculptures deeply buried in their grounds. These heads are so harmonious that they cannot but be admired by viewers and impress in viewers a feeling of timeliness and of higher aspirations, and of spirituality. Mariani shows a strange, alien, cold world of an unknown universe, as the rack floats in space without any reference to earthly landscape in the background. This is a picture that transcends our physical world. Mariani’s picture is thus much in the same view as of his giant predecessor in Italian art, Giorgio de Chirico. Look at the paintings of de Chirico in this book, and you will remark the similarities of ambiance. De Chirico’s style of representation has been called Meta-Physical art and Carlo Maria Mariani’s picture seems just to continue de Chirico’s great tradition, which had affinities with the current of Surrealism in Europe. Pop Art, Surrealism, Pittura Metafysica are all combined styles in Mariani’s painting.

There is also a hand holding a long, stylised brush, below on the rack. Here is the irony of the symbol of the art of painting. The hand is magnificently drawn and it is the only object painted in a different colour than the rest of the picture. The hand is the hand of a painter, yet the hand doesn’t pain but is painted itself. Moreover the hand is in the coldest dead blue whereas a warm, rosy hand would have been at work. René Magritte could not have imagined a more astonishing symbol of self-reference. The head rack and the heads are sculptures and so is the hand, but we are not looking at a sculpture but at a painting. The painting only represents the illusion of volume. So the hand is a failure, a fraud since it is the hand of a painter and a painter always will always fail at creating three-dimensional shapes. Therefore the hand is incomplete, a failure in itself.

The hand is bound to a skull. The skull wears the laurels of a Roman Emperor. The sculptures higher up could be Roman heads, once beautiful, haughty and noble citizens of the great City of Rome. But the heads are impaled and they are the images of suffering humans, long since dead. The heads have turned into skulls. So the classical beauty that we as viewers have admired so often in the solemn, pure, marble statues of Roman dignitaries, philosophers, emperors and generals, is a only a memory. The memories can be handled with disrespect since they are reality finished and done with. The Roman heads are a bit of an illusion, as is a painting made by a hand. Behind the images of classic beauty, which might have affected our first impressions, we find now biting irony. Carlo Maria Mariani mixed Pop Art with classical images, detailed realism with irony, organic and mineral matter to a meta-physical representation. He reflects on art history and makes us think of what art is about.

The name we give to this art is again contemporary Neo-Classicism, or in the line of the name of the contemporary school of art founded in Saint Petersburg, Neo-Academicism. Carlo Maria Mariani’s painting has indeed all the characteristics of a Neo-Classicist style. It is a serene, quiet picture with few dramatic show of emotions. There is not much ornament. The presentation is simple, direct and frugal. The picture radiates feelings of solemnity, and of dignity. It represents a very moral idea in its references to the passing of time, and to the eternal failure of painters. It has an epic breadth in the Roman sculptures impaled on a common object but anyhow so arranged as to give an aspiring view. So the "Head Rack" is a very classicist picture, as it contains many design elements of Neo-Classicism.

The "Head Rack" adds by its irony and reference to previous funny art styles biting irony and it communicates a deranging message. There is no confusion in the images, but the picture poses a strong question. The picture seems to state that art has come at a crossroads once more. Pop art is still very much with us. It is an art form of our contemporary times even if it has evolved in strange ramifications. We have a longing for certainties in our lives and for new ideologies, now that all ideologies have proved to be failures. Religion and Communism both seem not to have provided the definite answer to the question of how to live, the answer the youth of the twenty-first century is eagerly seeking. Our forefathers could have strong convictions, now all is relative; life hangs in the void on an absurd frame. Carlo Maria Mariani expresses the longing. The longing is for a new art too, which may be Classicism, but Mariani tells with irony that we are not there yet. Mariani does provide parts of the answer as he points to Classicism, but the content of his picture contradicts the means.

Carlo Maria Mariani shows the future in a very viable contemporary art. He blends art styles. He is very capable of that because of his erudition. Now is definitely the time for reflection on our society, on the society that we will live in for the next decades. Now is the time to gather energies for a next great leap; in the past similar periods have occurred. Classicism then always at first appeared in art. This was partly so during the Renaissance, partly in the Classicism that was contemporary to early Baroque and also happened during the Neo-Classicist period in France of the beginning of the nineteenth century. Early German Nazism and Russian Communism, periods in which hopes were adamant even if the hopes later turned to horror, knew classicist tendencies in art. Each time out of these periods grew extremely fertile art periods. The Classicist periods were very fertile in art also and o art historian would claim that Classicist art was decadent art. Classicist art was always strong.

Most painters know well in our times the elements of design and how the elements of design were varied and combined in the historical art styles. Painters have at their disposal the very best sources in literature and in the museum of the world to know as never before what evolutions of style in the art of painting has passed in the many previous centuries. We analysed in this book many elements of design. Schools of painters have tried to express beauty in merely one or in just a few of these elements. Thereby they usually rejected works painted by previous schools that preferred other elements of their form of art. After all these experiments the time has come to recognise that all the elements of the form of the art of painting can be used and that the more of the means are used that are naturally, by the medium itself, at the disposal of the artist, the better, the clearer the artists’ message can be conveyed. This is the main message of the Neo-Academicism. Contemporary Neo-Academicism builds and combines all that knowledge, and constructs a synthesis. Painters have at their disposal the very best sources in literature and in the museum of the world to know as never before what evolutions of style in the art of painting has passed in the many previous centuries.

We analysed in our lessons many elements of design. Schools of painters have tried to express beauty in merely one or in just a few of these elements. Thereby they usually rejected works painted by previous schools that preferred other elements of their form of art. After all these experiments the time has come to recognise that all the elements of the form of the art of painting can be used and that the more of the means are used that are naturally, by the medium itself, at the disposal of the artist, the better, the clearer the artists’ message can be conveyed. This is the main message of the Neo-Academicism.

I have the impression that Neo-Academicism prepares us for a next leap in art production as it forces artists to reflection and stating the need for an entirely new art form that will not be Classicism, but an art style as yet not defined.

That is a very optimistic, hopeful and positive note to end on, Artemisia, so dear! Our contemporary art is not decadent, very much alive, surprising and truly interesting and what is more, its artists are definitely preparing us for the next great leap. Hopefully that will be a leap of peace and love. I have only shown you paintings from Western Europe and from the United States. Please learn to know also the art of the other continents. There are wonderful developments going on in the art of the world and though the subject is so vast, there are surprises to be had in this art. Let your heart be a world-heart that loves as well South-American and African, Asian and Australian paintings as our own.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: November 2010
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