Baroque and Pop Art

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The narrative of Baroque art in every era of art history revolves around the historical misunderstanding that this particular period has faced. During the early 1600s, artists and intellectuals collaborated in academies to explore humanism, introduced during the Renaissance, alongside classical philosophy (such as Plato and Aristotle) and emerging trends in human thought and expression. However, it is worth questioning why the term “Baroque” has acquired a negative connotation. The original translations of this word encompass both the Italian meaning of “tortuous medieval pedantry” and the Portuguese meaning of “deformed pearl” (Honour and Fleming).

Baroque is often associated with peculiarity, strangeness, and theatrics. Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), the most influential sculptor of the Baroque era, made significant contributions to Baroque art. Born into a family of Italian sculptors, Bernini started working with his father at an early age and even crafted a bust when he was just ten years old. Like prodigies such as Dali and Michelangelo, Bernini became immensely popular and formed connections with Europe’s powerful elite. He played a crucial role in creating important architectural and sculptural pieces, especially for the Church.

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At the age of 26, Pope Urban VIII hired Bernini to create the Baldacchino (1624-1633), a 95-foot high canopy that adorns the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. This remarkable bronze masterpiece can still be admired on a Vatican tour. In the late 19th century, Johann Georg Heck recounted the well-known quote, “It would have been better for sculpture had Bernini never existed.” This controversy of that era is evident in Bernini’s unconventional departure from the Renaissance style. In one of his marble statues, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1645-1652), Bernini brought a Catholic theme to life through his unique interpretation.

In the Baroque period (1600-1790), artists depicted divine mysticism by using vivid language and concrete, visual forms. According to Vernon Hyde Minor, mysticism was not solely an inward and hidden experience but also involved a direct intuition of the divine that was clear and palpable. Artists continued to explore religious and secular themes in various artworks such as portraits, paintings, busts, church ceilings, churches, sculptures, and more. The Baroque figures in these works combined realism with spectacle and displayed a fierce independence.

The Baroque period saw the emergence of great artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Nicolas Poussin, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Simon Vouet. Their artworks, including The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, showcased provocative and explicit sexual undertones. Rubens depicted curvaceous women in The Rape of Lucretia (1610) and The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1616-1617), while van Dyck captured the muscular physique in The Mocking of the Christ (1620).

Interestingly, Rubens kept ownership of this painting until his death in 1640. The Baroque period offers a profound sensory experience through its vivid portrayal of reality and symbolism. Baroque art challenges the notion that this era is best characterized as Early Modern, as seen in Bernini’s use of diagonal lines and the grand churches found throughout Europe and the New World. While Pop art is now commonly associated with New York artists of the early 1960s like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Claes Oldenburg, artists who drew inspiration from popular imagery were part of a global movement that witnessed significant advancements in various cities since the mid-1950s.

The Pop art movement first emerged among members of the Independent Group in London, but it also experienced important developments concurrently in New York with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, as well as later in France among the Nouveau Realistes, in Germany with Sigmar Polke, Konrad Lueg, and Gerhard Richter’s ‘Capitalist Realism,’ and in Los Angeles with artists like Ed Ruscha and Billy Al Bengston. Originally, ‘Pop’ referred to popular culture rather than art that drew inspiration from it, but one of the goals of Pop art was to blur the boundaries between ‘high’ art and ‘low’ popular culture. The idea that there is no hierarchical distinction between cultures and that art can freely borrow from any source and mix them together, regardless of their context and history, has been a fundamental characteristic of Postmodernism as a cultural moment.

Despite encompassing a diverse range of work with varying attitudes and postures, Pop art often exhibits an emotionally detached approach towards its subject matter. This stands in stark contrast to the passionate expressiveness of gestural abstraction that preceded it, as Pop art tends to maintain a cool and ambivalent stance. The interpretation of whether this signifies an embrace of popular culture or a jarring withdrawal has sparked extensive debate. Some argue that Abstract Expressionists sought trauma within the depths of the human psyche, while Pop artists sought remnants of the same trauma within the realm of advertising, cartoons, and widespread popular imagery.

Pop artists were the pioneers in understanding the interconnectedness of everything – from the soul to the natural world and the built environment. In 1952, a collective known as the Independent Group was formed in London, consisting of artists like Edouardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, architects Alison and Peter Smithson, and critics Lawrence Alloway and Reyner Banham. They regularly convened to discuss various topics such as the role of mass culture in fine art, the found object, and science and technology.

During the early 1950s, Britain was slowly recovering from the economic hardships of the post-war era. Consequently, their perception of popular culture originating from America was a blend of uncertainty and excitement. Although they held reservations about its commercial nature, they were eager for the potential that pop culture held for a more affluent and diverse world. Their extensive discussions encompassed various forms of imagery such as Western movies, science fiction, comic books, billboards, automobile design, and rock n’ roll music.

The term “Pop art” has multiple origins. In print, it has been attributed to Lawrence Alloway and Alison and Peter Smithson. However, the first artwork to incorporate the word “Pop” is believed to have been created by Paolozzi. His collage titled I Was a Rich Man’s Plaything (1947) included images of a pinup girl, Coca-Cola logo, cherry pie, World War II fighter plane, and a man’s hand holding a pistol. Out of these images emerged the word “POP!” in a puffy white cloud. The iconic Pop art of Warhol and Lichtenstein emerged in New York in 1960, but its roots can be traced back to the Neo-Dada work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg years earlier. In the mid-1950s, Johns challenged the conventions of Abstract Expressionism through abstract paintings that referenced recognizable objects such as targets, flags, handprints, letters, and numbers. On the other hand, Rauschenberg’s Combines incorporated found objects and screen-printed photographs. In France, the equivalent of Pop Art was Nouveau Realisme, which was introduced by critic Pierre Restany in 1960.

The French artists were mostly focused on sculpture rather than imagery, although they shared some concerns with American artists regarding commercial culture. However, German artist Sigmar Polke’s work was closer to the American model of image-based Pop. Like Lichtenstein and Warhol, Polke explored the expressive possibilities of mechanical reproduction. One notable characteristic of the Pop movement is that many of its key figures had connections to commercial art. For example, Ed Ruscha initially worked as a graphic designer to support himself, and James Rosenquist had experience as a billboard painter.

However, Andy Warhol achieved the greatest success in commercial art and gained a strong reputation in New York before venturing into fine art. The art critic Hal Foster has analyzed Pop art as comprising of five distinct image categories, each focused on a slightly different issue, and each having a significant influence on future artists.

The initial example can be found in Richard Hamilton’s ‘tabular’ images, which were inspired by the collages of Edouardo Paolozzi and other members of the Independent Group. Hamilton placed his motifs on the canvas in a casual manner and used the rich texture of paint to highlight the similarities he saw between designed items such as cars and sections of women’s bodies. These similarities were commonly seen in advertising during that time period.

According to Foster, there are three types of images that are characteristic of Pop art. One type is represented by the screened images created by Roy Lichtenstein, which successfully combine popular art with the qualities of a great picture. Lichtenstein’s images possess the immediate impact and artistic quality, utilizing expressive and abstract forms along with powerful compositions. Another type identified by Foster is exemplified by the portrayal of trauma, death, and disaster in the artwork of Andy Warhol.

There are differing opinions about pictures like White Burning Car, III (1963). Some argue that these images indicate a lack of emotional connection from the artist, as if the influence of mass media has numbed their ability to feel. On the other hand, some believe that these images demonstrate Warhol’s interest in the dark realities of modern life. Foster, however, suggests that Warhol used repetition to capture the haunting nature of trauma, akin to an image that lingers and haunts repeatedly. Foster also identifies another type of image in Gerhard Richter’s blending of photography and painting.

Richter’s art incorporates a broad range of photographs from everyday life, implying that the photographic image has permeated our perception to the extent that clear sight no longer exists. Similar to Warhol’s work, there is a presence of tragedy and mortality in these meticulously depicted photographs. However, Richter introduces elements of blur and paint smears, reminding us that we are viewing paintings rather than photographs. These artworks align with a well-established tradition that seeks to preserve historical memory.

The photographs symbolize the danger of forgetting and the sadness of lost time, while the paintings offer a glimmer of hope that these memories can be preserved. In other words, painting still serves a purpose in today’s world by acting as a vessel for memory. Foster also highlights the significance of Ed Ruscha in creating images that respond to the visual environment of Los Angeles. Like his peers on the East Coast, Ruscha appropriates motifs from commercial art and draws connections between their effects and those of abstract art.

Despite learning a lot from cinema, Ruscha’s imagery is often reminiscent of the cinematic image. Foster describes cinema as a space that is simultaneously deep and superficial, illusionistic and flat. In movies, space is both surface and vice versa, and words such as credits and subtitles can be seen on the same level as the images. While Warhol and Lichtenstein were the initial prominent Pop artists in New York during the early 1960s, other artists like James Rosenquist and Red Grooms soon joined them.

The artists discussed in this passage had a significantly different style compared to the Neo-Dada artists who were established in the mid-1950s. Instead of using a combination of different materials like Johns’ targets or Rauschenberg’s Combines, the new Pop artists focused on imagery, specifically popular icons such as President Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s soup cans, and scenes from film noir. The main theme of these artworks was the idea that certain popular images had become so abundant in our daily lives that they had transformed into art themselves, surpassing any distinction between low-quality and high-quality art.

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