Romanticism Art History

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Romanticism is an interesting name for an art movement that corresponded with the Industrial Revolution.  However, this movement was a time of exciting changes in the world of art as it was in the rest of the world.  It began at the end of the 18th century and it became the voice of the revolution in the early 19th century.  It was still alive at the end of the 19th century at a time in which it was to help establish the modern era of the 20th century.

What made Romanticism so great?  There were so many aspects to Romanticism, but one of the greatest inspirations for it was the common folk.  Through the local folklore and stories of the common people, artists endeavored to capture that which had not been captured before.  They considered the inspirations from these people to be spontaneous and from their very souls, which made the art incredibly meaningful in a unique way.  No coincidentally, this was a time when these artists had as inspiration the likes of William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  From the theater to philosophical writings, the Romantic artist had plenty to choose from in his own era.

In contrast to this peasant connection was the fact that, with the merchant class citizen coming into his own and the wealth of this class available, no longer did artists have to rely on the church or the aristocrats to be paid for their work.  They could be commissioned by anyone who had the money to pay for their talents and the merchant class wanted to support fresh new ideas.  Many new artists were able to expose the world to their raw and unique talents and styles.

Of course, religion has nearly always played a significant role in the world of art, but this role changed dramatically in the Romantic period.  No longer were artists as pious in their representation of the church and religion.  During this period, they portrayed religion in much the same way as the Classicists portrayed mythology and legend.  It was almost as if they didn’t believe in it any more.  This attitude was still mixed with a fascination for the subject.  Of course, this was not to say that mythology did not have a place in the Romantic period.  There were still a large number of artists who reveled in creating works around medieval creatures such as Faeries, witches, and angels.

Nationalism had taken over in the sense that from country to country the styles and the particular flavor if the art varied to a great extent.  Even thought the general movement took place at the same time all over Europe and the United States, the art was dramatically different in each place.  However, one of the most common themes was that man was born “good”.  This is in sharp contrast to the religious influence of previous eras that expressed that man was born “bad” and was guided to goodness by the church and society.  In Romanticism, man was corrupted by society rather than saved by it.

Romantic artists were able to travel far more than their predecessors so they were able to see first-hand the subjects of their work.  They were no longer bound to imagine simply based upon what they read in a book.  They traveled extensively and often women of these lands were depicted as they appeared more exotic than the women that resided at home.

Nature also paid an immensely important role in Romantic art.  From the rugged landscape of north-eastern United States to the picturesque landscapes of England to the symbolic landscape of Germany nature was a powerful and influential force in the artists mind and soul.  Sometimes the violent and unpredictable side of nature was portrayed.  The early part of the Romantic period in France overlapped with the Napoleonic Wars, and so this event inspired many of the artists during this crucial time.

Romantic artists include John William Waterhouse, who took as his inspiration the figures, particularly heroines, from the literary works of the time and of times past such as the Lady of Shallot and Ophelia.  Piotr Michałowski was a highly exceptional portrait artist.  Caspar David Friedrich was famous for his paintings of religious mysticism.  These paintings were not always obvious, but they generally had some meaning that centered on the fall of pre-Christian religion and the rise of Christianity.  He often obscured Christian representation in favor of the pre-Christian themes.

Romanticism was all about emotional intensity and expression, not necessarily about the specific style.  Thus it was the obvious predecessor to the Expressionist and Abstract Expressionist movements as well as almost all of the 20th century art movements, which were also a deviation from style in favor of a more emotionally intense creation.  It was represented not only by the paintings that emerged from this period, but also by literature, poetry, and theatre.

Surrealism History

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Surrealist thought began in 1920 and at its roots it was about freeing the expression of the unconscious.  Surrealism has been defined in two ways in poet Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto of 1924:

  • Dictionary: Surrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought.  Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation (later qualified by Breton, saying “in the absence of conscious moral or aesthetic self-censorship”).
  • Encyclopedia: Surrealism. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.

Due to the fact that World War I loomed large during this movement, Surrealists were influenced by it.  The feeling was that the rational thinking of the Industrial Revolution was the cause of the war and the antidote to such thinking and their obvious results was to turn to the irrational and the dream-state.  Thus, the art during this time period is portrayed as such, with the use of a restrictive overlay of false rationality, which included social and academic convention, on the free-functioning of the instinctual urges of the human mind.

The Surrealists took to the theories of Sigmund Freud, specifically his ideas on unconscious thought and how it influences human behavior.   Freud promoted the idea that free association and dream analysis and believed these would work to reveal unconscious thought.  Surrealism was also heavily influenced by the Dada.  It may even be considered an extension or offshoot of this group.  This was a group that was not about art.  It was about anti-art and they sought to protest the barbarism of war.  Everything art was, the Dada was not.  If they felt that art was to have meaning, they would strive to express no meaning through their work.  Where art was meant to be appealing, they worked to offend.  They were the truly rebellious group and they had something that appealed to the Surrealists.  Other influences for the Surrealist artists were G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx.

Despite these seemingly serious influences, Surrealist artists also drew on many diverse sources for inspiration.  These include Clark Ashton Smith, Montague Summers, Horace Walpole, Fantomas, The Residents, Bugs Bunny, comic strips, the obscure poet Samuel Greenberg, and the hobo writer and humorist T-Bone Slim.  Non-western cultures were also an inspiration to Surrealists because it was believed that these cultures had been able to find a better balance reason and imagination than those of the western world.

Surreal artists were not consistent when it came to politics.  In some areas of the world they were simply concerned with their art while in others politics and political messages were their main goal.  Then there were those that strove to integrate the two.  When they were political, they were extremely left-wing and they even bordered on communist.  It is clear that the Surrealists did not merely consider themselves to be artists, but that this was a truly revolutionary movement.

Surrealism had a far reaching effect on the world, particularly in politics.  Some Surrealists actually joined radical political groups, movements, and parties while others influenced people solely through the impact of their art, which encouraged the freedom of the imagination and the liberation from repressive and archaic social structures.

Salvador Dali was the painter who brought the Surrealist movement to the canvass in the 1920s and 1930s, although he did not remain a member of the group as he had arguments with Breton and was ultimately kicked out.  He went on to create his very famous dreamscapes and dream-like images.  Like Dali, other Surrealist artists captured the dream-like state using a lot of content and technique.  They celebrated the art of children and they also celebrated primitive art because they felt that the untrained eye was better able to put their imagination onto the canvass because they were more liberated.  These were often incorporated into their own work.

Unfortunately, all were not happy with the Surreal movement.  Feminists felt that it was a male dominated movement and that they expressed stereotypical attitudes toward women.  As for Freud, he was more interested in the Surrealists conscious mind despite the fact that he was their main inspiration for delving into the subconscious.  Surrealism had a significant influence on Abstract Expressionism and Magic Realism.  One of the major attractions of Surrealist artists is that they managed to keep the content of their paintings expressive and alive, giving an alternative to the geometric shapes used in art so freely during the 20th century.