Popular Sources In The Work Of Artists Art Essay

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In what ways have artists and composers used popular, folk and 'primitive' sources in their work and why should they have done so? Enlightenment principles dictated the recognised understanding of art in 19th and 20th century European culture as fine art constituting of painting and sculpture. In response to this many artists and composers took influence from outside sources, which diverged from this understanding in order to subvert and oppose the academic traditions of art and began to work in media, which moved away from fine art and incorporated ideology from different cultures.

The Romantic Movement, which followed the Enlightenment demonstrated a distrust and hatred of industrialism and promoted a return to nature, and a celebration of individuality. With an interest in socialism they projected a dislike of the bourgeoisie, their culture and moral code. With a distrust of logic and rationality, and critical of the concept of materialism, they desired a return to spiritual values. In order to convey these values modernist artists of the day moved away from the academic traditions of fine art towards a more 'primitive' culture, and highlighted the belief that modern society had been corrupted by urbanism, and by losing touch with nature, there would be severe repercussions for society and humanity as a whole.

The Enlightenment philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was one of the first to consider the negative effects that might result from a divorce between man and nature and explored this theory in the concept of 'The Noble Savage,' which valued the instinctive behaviour of the 'primitive' man, "Man by nature is good… he is depraved and perverted by society." With this theory Rousseau stimulated modernist reactions, initially in the Romantics and further into the 19th and 20th century.

With the growth of colonialism a vast amount of 'tribal' or 'primitive' art was collected and brought back to Europe with the intention of highlighting just how 'uncivilised' the 'primitive' cultures were in order to justify colonising them. The Museum of Ethnography in the Palais du Trocadero introduced a range of 'primitive' art to the people of France and Europe. With access to works so inherently foreign from the classicised sculptures of antiquity a number of artists found influence in the works they saw there through its spirituality and innocence.

'Primitivism' represented a move away from the materialistic world of 19th century 'civilised' society and introduced a way of living that had not been corrupted by the impact of commercialism and industry. In art it was considered a direct contrast to the academic style, referring to cultures considered less civilised in comparison with Western society; whereas academic art focused on the importance of realism and naturalism, 'primitive' art, originating from "Africa and the Pacific Islands" emphasised the importance of human instinct and habit, depicting it in abstract and unrealistic ways. The style and technique, which was adapted by modernist artists was the simplistic contours, stylised forms and naïve tone to the 'primitive' work.

Paul Gauguin, having lost his job in Paris after the 1882 stock market crash, sought an escape from city life, to a place abstract from the urban context of Paris, and found this initially in Brittany, and then in Tahiti. In Brittany, Gauguin painted Vision After the Sermon, 1888, which embodied the spiritualism, which the Romantics had previously sought after. The painting, with its symbolic language of unrealistic colours (the red ground on which the figures fight) and distorted proportions portrays the Breton people experiencing a vision of a Biblical scene in which Jacob and an Angel fight. There is a stark contrast, "between the people, who are natural, and the struggle going on in a landscape which is non natural and out of proportion;" the tree bough, which lies diagonally along the centre of the image, divides the two sections of the scene. This use of a diagonal line and stylised use of colour might suggest the influence of Japanese art, which the Impressionists had started to use in their work.

Japanese prints had come to France in the late 19th century and had been used as packing material for parcels sent over to Europe, however they were not considered to be 'art' insofar as they did not comply to the standards of academic paintings. The prints employed flat picture planes with little modeling, and stylised faces and forms with un-naturalistic use of colour. Bold lines, cropped picture spaces and decorative backgrounds were all aspects of Japanese prints that were used by Western artists of the 19th century. The transition from high art to low art, in academic terms, saw artists of the day challenging the, "aesthetic hierarchies of the anciens regimes".

Japanese art had a particular influence on the 19th century artist, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, who used the oriental style of the prints in his work. Japanese woodblock prints and lithography were particularly influential on Lautrec's work and inspired a number of posters he created such as Moulin Rouge, c.1891 from Les Maitres de l'Affiche. The Japanese style was considered to be "particularly suited to the art of advertising" with its bold lines and solid, bright colours.

The influences of folk and 'primitive' sources not only affected the visual arts but both music and literature too. Within music there was an emphasis on "rhythm and percussive elements in music," and this style is best exemplified by the work of Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók. The changes in music and painting coincide; Debussy, like Lautrec followed Impressionist ideals and values opposing the accepted artistic and musical conventions, which had gone before.

Stravinsky employed repetition and unusual uses of instruments such as tremolando and 'flutter-tonguing,' which both imitated primal calls and promoted a 'tribal' sound, reminiscent of a drum that might be played in a ritual. These two techniques are some of the elements that constitute the concept of 'tone painting,' which induced in the mind of the listener the physical tensions within the music; this challenged the idea of, "absolute music, which is to be appreciated in its own rights without reference to anything other than itself." This is typified in Beethoven's 6th Symphony (Pastoral), 1808 with its exploration of the natural world, based almost completely on folk music and is considered to be specifically themed and was "intended to evoke within the listener a depiction of an image, scene or story."

Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps, 1912 demonstrated his belief that, "there is no life without pulse", with its "pulsating violent energy," strong, repetitive rhythm of the ostinati, punctuated with irregular accents. The choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, like the music had clear 'primitive' influences, contrasting against the articulate vocabulary of Classical ballet with use of 'Dalcroze Eurythmics,' a system of raw and expressive bodily movements, "Nijinsky created in Le Sacre a coherent system of ritual dance." The controversy of the 'primitive' costumes; awkward, and ungraceful, drew influence from folk art, and subverted the expectations of the audience. They appeared on stage as "knock-kneed and long braided Lolitas jumping up and down." The combination of these 'primitive' styles provoked violent reactions from its audience and critics and represented a strong contrast and move away from the Classical standards of music and ballet.

Bartók, like Stravinsky drew from folk music, in his particular case, he considered the music of his Hungarian homeland. He desired to "collect the most beautiful folk songs and elevate them to the level of the art song by providing them with the very best possible piano accompaniments" in order to ensure that the rest of the world would "get to know Hungarian folk music." Bartók integrated his folk influences, and the inherently different style and tonality into his own style, and in Allegro Barbaro, 1911, we can see a similar use of ostinati to Stravinsky; the strong rhythmic element and uncomfortable registers of the works responded to Impressionist style of preceding composers such as Debussy.

The Enlightenment had tried to define the arts, and to create a hierarchy, which did not acknowledge craft or art created without professional training as 'high art'; painting and sculpture represented quality culture, however design and craft did not. William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the late 19th century was a great critic of the industrial revolution and the urbanism of the world around him and represented the second generation of cultural thinkers after The Romantics who opposed the Enlightenment views on art and, "rejected this opulence in favor of simplicity, good craftsmanship, and good design." Morris founded the Movement in response to the mass, factory-produced work that he viewed in the Great Exhibition of 1851, in order to move away from the industrialised direction that he felt art was moving towards. Instead, Morris considered Medieval works which possessed a spirituality and individuality about them believing that "a work of utility might also be a work of art, if we cared to make it so."

Morris and his company, Morris & Co. began to experiment with media such as stained glass, furniture and wallpapers and hoped that "the regeneration of art could be brought about by a return to medieval conditions." He promoted and legitimised the influence of folk art, and ornamentation, which had been condemned by the Enlightenment era and opened doorways for artists such as Van Gogh and Matisse to consider the freedom of expression that folk art allowed; and subverted the expectations of the academy.

This influence can also be seen in the work of later designers such as Kaffe Fassett who considers that, "every good bit of decoration is like a piece of music. It has an emotional impact on some surface, decoration worth its salt should make any object… dance with inner movement." Like Morris, Fassett acknowledges the individuality of a piece of craftwork, and this can be seen in his needlepoint, quilt and knit work.

The influence of 'primitivism,' popular and folk sources has been extended and manipulated in ways, which continue modernist ideas of returning spiritualism to culture but also seem to have strong political messages associated with them. Whereas many artists like Gauguin and Picasso have considered the outside perspective of 'primitivism,' from their own cultures, others, such as Frida Kahlo have recognised the power of the 'primitive' and the spiritual nature of a culture, which is not industrialised, from within it.

Born in Mexico City, and with complex yet strong political tendencies, Kahlo's work was infused with forceful messages concerning both Mexico, and her life and place within it.

The Two Fridas, 1939 depicts a double self portrait of Kahlo, in which she considers herself as a mestiza, a Mexican of mixed racial ancestry, and considers both the "'duality' of her personality" and the cultural division between the Western 'civilised' world and the 'primitivism' of Mexico; she relates her European ancestors, dressed in a "colonial-style wedding dress" on the left, and her Mexican roots, dressed in contemporary Mexican clothes on the right. Her heart, on the left is torn open, while on the right, it is whole, yet the symbolic connection of an artery which runs between each figure suggests the inescapability of her heritage, whilst the severing of the artery by the left figure might suggest the betrayal of the Western world, draining the life blood out of the Mexican Frida; thus relating the division between the industrialised Western world and her 'primitive' Mexican home.

In a similar way to Kahlo, The Chapman brothers explore themes of capitalism, commercialism and colonialism through their use of 'primitive' cultures and like Kahlo demonstrate these through divisive use of contemporary images and contentious style of presentation.

'Chapman Family Collection', 2002, is a collection, which, through replications of African sculptures, with painted faces of McDonalds cartoon characters, address the exploitation of African culture, the manipulation and colonising of 'primitive' cultures by capitalism and the extensive influence of commercialism. The collection uses, "virtually unknown primitive trophies and initiation masks" and demonstrates the ethnographic diversity of their work and raises the idea that even now there is so much of 'primitive' culture that the Western world does not understand.

The Chapman brothers use 'primitive' sources to relate to its audience "the history of a culture pillaged by industrial colonialism" and echoes and extends the work of their predecessors, Picasso, Gauguin and Kahlo in their fusion of ethnographic art with Modernism. Just as Picasso in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907 subverted the traditional view of tribal sculptures through integration of tribal masks he had seen at the Trocadero onto the female figures he portrayed, The Chapman brothers manipulate 'primitive' art in order to alter the perceptions of the viewer. Picasso felt that traditional ways of working were no longer applicable to modern artists and as such began to work out a new, modern method for presenting the figure, breaking away from the Renaissance, academic approach to painting and sculpture.

The importance of outside influences such as popular, folk and 'primitive' sources is that artists are able to reunite the arts, which have been categorised and ordered by Enlightenment principles. With a diversity of sources, art can become a 'holistic culture', with each style equally valued. A return to a form of art, which recognises spirituality and individual creativity over absolute academic rules, allows for experimentation and development of styles, enabling further complexity to be added to the canon of art.

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