By the early 1940s, the largely self-taught, Armenian-born Arshile Gorky had formed close friendships with several members of the Surrealist group in New York, including Roberto Matta, who encouraged him to develop his own personal abstract language through experimentation with automatism and biomorphic forms. Gorky turned to the subject matter of fertility and nature; at the same time, he frequently visited the Connecticut and Virginia countrysides, which reminded him of his homeland.
Combining these ideas around 1944, the artist began to work on the theme of The Plough and The Song (1946). Though the organic forms and sinuous, curving lines here seem spontaneous, Gorky planned the composition very carefully, systematically developing the imagery of this canvas in at least three drawings and three oil paintings.
Surrealism was identified by its proponents as a way of reuniting the conscious and unconscious realms of experience so that the world of dream and fantasy could be joined to the everyday rational world — or what one critic called “an absolute reality, a surreality.” René Magritte accomplished this by merging dreamlike imagery and naturalistic detail, as in his iconic canvas Time Transfixed (1938). He also worked carefully on his titles, and he was ultimately unhappy with the English translation of the title of this painting. The original French, La Durée Poignardée, literally means “ongoing time stabbed by a dagger.” Magritte hoped that when his patron Edward James purchased this painting, he would install it at the bottom of his staircase so that the train would “stab” guests on their way to James‘ ballroom. In an ironic twist, he hung it over his fireplace, to Magritte’s great dissatisfaction.
Like the side chair designed by Hector Guimard, seen just to the left of this cabinet in the bottom photo of this post, Louis-Desiré-Eugène Gaillard’s Display Cabinet (1900) incorporates bold, animated, plant-like forms in its decoration. Gaillard exhibited similar furniture at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, also known as the Exposition Universalle, which helped popularize architecture and domestic objects with fluid lines and whiplash curves.
Cabinet Design Detail
This cabinet was part of a larger set of dining room furniture that would have been marketed to both middle and upper-middle class consumers. A key idea of design reform at the turn of the 19th century was that well-designed objects should not be reserved only for the wealthy.
Originally trained as an architect, Roberto Matta settled in France in 1933, where he worked with Le Corbusier. During a visit to Spain in 1934, he befriended the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was assassinated two years later by agents of the Fascist leader, Francisco Franco. In a tribute to his friend, Matta composed a screenplay called The Earth Is A Man, and the text’s apocalyptic imagery, rapidly shifting perspectives, and emotional language became the principal source of his artistic work over the next five years.
This large canvas is the culmination of Matta’s project. Exhibited shorty after its completion (in 1942) in New York City, where the artist had immigrated at the onset on World War II, the painting’s abstract and visionary qualities influenced a new generation of artists, who would later become known as the Abstract Expressionists.
Jeff Koons’ Woman in Tub (1988) combines a cartoon-like rendering of a nude woman startled by a submerged snorkeler with the exquisite, hard-paste porcelain finish of typical 18th-century Rococo figurines. Part of Koons‘ Banality series, which is characterized by oddly eroticized, comic and kitsch images, this work takes personal taste — good and bad — as its primary subject.
Koons has explained the work’s biographical origin:
When I was a kid, my grandparents had an ashtray on a table in their television room. It was a small porcelain of a girl in a bathtub. It was white, with pink and blue details, and the legs went back and forth. As a kid, I was mesmerized. My Woman in Tub comes from that, though it references [the toiletry scenes painted by] Manet and Degas. I had such as experience of awe looking at that object.
Although Stuart Davis did not travel to Paris until 1928, he was well versed in avant-garde European art, including the innovative still lifes of of Pablo Picasso. Super Table (1925) experiments with the nature of the genre, toying with issues of illusion and perspective. Davis was also influenced by popular advertisement imagery, and his graphic style evokes the mechanical, cartoon like forms of commercial printing that were the hallmark of American culture
Though Edward Godwin initially worked in the Gothic Revival style, beginning in the 1860s he was increasingly influenced by the culture of Japan; collecting Japanese art and studying that country’s architecture and furnishings in ukiyo-e prints and Western publications. Inspired by such sources and frustrated with the commercial furniture then available, Godwin created spare designs such as this Sideboard in which the structural supports are the dominant, decorative element. The work’s primary aesthetic is achieved, as Godwin said, “by the mere grouping of solid and void.” Godwin made the first version of this sideboard for his own home in 1867.
After arriving in Paris in 1882, Louis Anquetin studied at the Atelier Cormon, where he met and befriended Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The frenetically innovative Aquetin was, in Lautrec’s words, “the glory of the studio.”
Both artists focused on la vie moderne, particularly the nocturnal life of Paris. This painting (1888) depicts an unescorted woman walking through the garden of Élysée Montmartre, a dance hall that predated the Moulin de la Galette and the Moulin Rouge, both locations also painted by Lautrec. Who she is remains a mystery, but her unusual printed dress and extravagant hat, more costume than fashion, suggest she might be an off-duty performer. In contrast to the female figures who lurk among the trees in the background, Anquetin’sélégante appears at ease in the spotlight, not a visitor but a part of this popular entertainment spot.
An Elegant Woman at the Élysée Montmartre was photographed in the Art Institute Chicago.
Hailed as “the perfect painter” by avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein, Juan Gris developed his signature approach to Cubism beginning in 1911. Using classic café subject matter — such as the newspaper, seltzer bottle, and glass seen here — Gris made subtle adjustments to the conventions of picture making that render ordinary objects both familiar and newly intriguing. For example, in The Checkerboard (1915) and its bird’s-eye view of a tabletop, a cunning reorganization of pictorial space places objects that should have volume into a single compressed plane. With a nod to play, Gris shows us a fragmented checkerboard, an emblem of the strategy and gamesmanship at the center of his art.
One of Surrealism’s most important patrons, Edward James, was a willing collaborator whose sense of play initiated commissions for his homes from such artists as Salvador Dali and Leonora Carrington. James was impressed with the work of Rene Magritte, which was displayed in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, so he invited the artist to paint three decorative canvases for the ballroom of his London home. Magritte painted On The Threshold of Liberty during his stay there in 1937, as the centerpiece of the three works. Originally set behind two-way mirrors, the works would become visible when James changed the lighting, provoking what he called “a profound sensation.”