Throughout the period that covered the last half of the nineteenth century, Western Europe enjoyed the gatherings of a great wealth that was accumulated by the industrial-colonial economy. The revolutionary changes in the stratification of the society and the functioning of the production system brought new perspectives to view the individual and the world that surrounded him. The bourgeoisie reached the summit of its rise since the French Revolution, and industrial European cities became the centers of world economy and politics.
The immense change that Europe went through was not reflected in any part of life as dramatically as it was in the arts. The struggle between the avant-garde and the conservative artists represented (politically, economically and culturally) the fear of the society against the unpredictable and the new. The depiction of the contradictions in the society visualized the undesired realities, and therefore, the more realist a painting was, the more it was attacked. The non-bourgeois activities were seen as degenerate and morally corrupt.
In Paris, by the last decade of the nineteenth century, a popular form of entertainment, ‘quadrille naturaliste’ (the street dances), became the object of attraction for the Parisians. However, their popularity in the streets did not find expressions among the intellectuals and the politicians. Andr? Chadourne expressed in a treatise, in 1889 that such forms of popular entertainment were degraded and base; and in 1891, senator Ren? B?renger as the president of ‘The League against Licence in the Streets’, campaigned against the quadrilles .
Though the quadrilles were considered as anti-establishment by the upper classes, their popularity continued, and they found expressions in the popular press. Ferdinand Lunel drew the dance of La Goulue (with Valentin le D?soss?, they were the most popular couple among the quadrille dancers) for the cover of ‘Le Courrier Fran?ais’ on 12 May 1889. In December, a two page engraving followed, but this time Lunel also included Valentin as her companion .
However, the most well-known, and probably one of the most successful quadrille depiction was completed in 1890, by Toulouse-Lautrec. At the age of 25, Lautrec was one of the most innovative artists of his time, and his move into the avant-garde circles dated back to 1888 . As Maurice Denis points out in his article ‘From Gauguin and van Gogh to Neo-Classicism’ that was published in L’Occident, in May 1909, with Emile Bernard, van Gogh and Anquetin, Lautrec was the rebel of the Cormon studio, sympathetic to everything new and subversive .
‘Au Moulin Rouge, la danse’ was one of the first works of Lautrec’s maturity, and reflected his distinctive style. The painting depicts Valentin performing the quadrille with a new girl. Around them is a crowd that varies from uninterested passersby to careful viewers. While the dancing takes place in the middle ground, at the front, a woman, explicitly dressed in pink watches the incident. The dressing and her make up probably signifies that she is a prostitute.
Lautrec’s extensive use of lines makes his work resemble a drawing rather than painting. His free treatment of figures gives the expression of a quick sketch. However, the most striking and distinctive characteristic of his work is the use of color. In terms of quantity he may be considered as a minimalist, but the quality and the representative power of his colors is incomparable to most of his contemporaries. The whole setting of the painting is based on a contrast between natural/soft colors and bright ones. A mixture of green and brown is dominant in the work. However, we see a line of three figures which contrast with the general color balance. In the foreground, there is the probable prostitute with the pink dress. In the middle, there is the female dancer who wears a light brown dress and bright red socks. Finally, at the very back there is another woman. She is dressed in red and with her lipsticks of the same color and the light colored hair she is the prominent figure of the background. She, too is probably a part of the Parisian night-life, but it is hard to tell her position. Nevertheless, the three figures make up a line of brightness within a setting which is very much homogenized in a boringly stereo-typical way. Therefore, the popular perception of the night-life (that Lautrec also shared) that takes it as a middle/lower class entertainment which can bring color to the highly ordered and bourgeois dominated social life, and which can ‘carnivalize’ it, is visually represented in Lautrec’s painting.
In 1891, Lautrec made a color lithograph called ‘La Goulue au Moulin Rouge’. This poster announcing the new season in Moulin Rouge, was his most innovate product up to that period. As the spectators, there is a line of black silhouettes in the background. In the foreground, there is the profile of Valentin, again as a silhouette, but of a lighter color of brown. In the middle La Goulue performs her dance in a red and white dress. The three levels of depth composed by different colors and the yellow-red dominance of the poster allude to the passionate night-life of Paris, and moreover it is a direct invitation to this life. When the two works that I have mentioned are combined, the outcome is the mixture of popular culture, life of the common people, the street and a work of art intended for mediatic consumption.
In 1901, Toulouse-Lautrec died of alcohol abuse, a year before 15 year old Marcel Duchamp painted his first oil on canvas landscape. Taking steps into maturity, by 1911 this young artist became interested in motion and the operation of the machine. The same year, he painted the ‘Coffee Mill’ for the decoration of his brother’s kitchen; and in 1912 he finished the ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’, a cubist work with a futuristic prominence given to movement.
In 1915, when Marcel Duchamp arrived in New York harbor, he not only changed the course of his carrier, but also the course of the twentieth century art. In an interview, he explained that he had not come to New York because he could not paint, but because he had no one to talk with . The account summarizes the fact that the cultural center of the Western world was moving from Europe, and mainly Paris, to New York. This move was not only a geographical one, it also signaled a total change in the European perception of art, and a rendering of avant-garde ideas within the unique culture of America. Duchamp made the following account in another interview: ‘…And I believe that your idea of demolishing old buildings and souvenirs, is fine…The dead should not be permitted to be so much stronger than the living.’ For him European art was surely dead, and even ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ was not worth of further discussion, since it was what to do that Duchamp cared and not what he had done .
Here, my main concern will be Duchamp’s ‘ready-mades’, and his understanding of art, very much in relation with a new notion of movement. This new motion is not of a single machine or a man, but of the society itself. It is the temporality of daily life, consumption and the visible change that the individual experiences everyday. On the other hand, Duchamp’s treatment of this movement, was very much like that of a comedian. He represented it in the most explicit and marginal way, breaking all existing understandings about art. In 1917 edition of ‘The Blind Man’, Duchamp wrote an article on the ‘The Richard Mutt Case’, the urinal that was rejected by the Independents exhibition of 1917. He said: ‘Mr. Mutt took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view- created anew thought for that object . For Duchamp, the significance of a work of art did not reside in the object itself. Urinals and bottle dryers are equally devoid of artistic richness, but when presented as works of art, they can serve as stimuli to the widest possible range of speculations .
Duchamp took the canons of modern society and of art; and then he ‘carnivalized’ them like his predecessor Lautrec. The tie between art and mass produced consumer goods were broken. A mustache on Mona Lisa not only questioned the idea of artistic value, but also the validity of the bases upon which such an idea was constructed. How and by whom the boundaries of artistic contribution could be drawn? Was the norm for art, the material used (oil on canvas versus the bicycle wheel), or the totality of the work? And could permanency be a criteria in such a rapidly changing society? These questions that were raised by the works of Duchamp would soon become even more controversial, with the arrival of a young man from Pittsburgh into the New York scene of art.
The New York career of Andrew Warhola began in the ‘Glamour’, in 1949, as an illustrator of foot wear. The road that finally made him Andy Warhol, the pop-artist went through years of work in fashion magazines and unsuccessful exhibitions. However, by the year 1960 he started producing paintings of popular comic strip characters like Superman, Dick Tracy and Popeye. The idea that any subject is fit for art, and the fact that for his paintings he could choose from the existing images instead of creating new ones was an influence of his contemporary artist Rauschenberg. For years, Warhol had produced commercial art from photographs, therefore this was not a brand new practice for him. The only thing new was using his talent purely for his own artistic ambitions .
Warhol started to paint his Campbell Soup can portraits by the end of 1961. Long before they were exhibited, they had created controversy and scandal. The identical reproduction of a consumer good was not even practiced by the so called Neo-Dadaists; Johns and Rauschenberg. However, made the following account on the issue: ‘If you take a Campbell Soup can and repeat it fifty times, you are not interested in the retinal image. What interests you is the concept that wants to put fifty Campbell’s Soup cans on a canvas .’
The manifestation of an artistic view that defined itself as ‘fad’, the mass production of mass consumed goods which were seen as the representatives of life, and an artist who declared to be a machine signify the inseparable integration of art and popular culture idols, and the commercialization of life. As Warhol himself once said; ‘if you are not promoted right, you will not be one of those remembered names .’ Such an integration had different effects on Warhol’s works. First of all he worked in his ‘silver Factory’, and produced his paintings within a stereo-typical discipline. Secondly what he painted was not the object itself, but rather the popular image that was created in the minds of the people. In other words, the depiction of Elvis, or a car accident did not intend to represent the realities that accompanied those themes; but it rather represented the iconic imagery that these ‘objects’ had gained through the manipulation of the popular media. Therefore, his paintings were the representations of the everyday life which could no longer be considered without its idols, from the Campbell Soup to Superman and Marilyn Monroe.
The three artists that I tried to examine represent an important evolution in the history of art. This gradual transition can well be considered in relation with the terms avant-garde and popular culture. The interest in the ‘common’ and the anti-bourgeois activities of the popular culture that was evident in Toulouse-Lautrec moved towards a formal interest in the common with Macel Duchamp. While the content of art was very much debated in the late nineteenth century, Duchamp broadened the discussion to a level that covered also the nature of the object and the meaning of art, and he deconstructed the machine of modernity into its individual pieces. Andy Warhol followed the tradition of ready-mades that Duchamp had introduced. However, his contribution was in terms of an involvement in the ‘machine’ as one of its parts, or becoming the machine itself. To conclude, what Warhol manufactured in his factory were the continuations of Lautrec’s popular posters which were rendered in the Dadaist perception of Marcel Duchamp.
Bourdon, David. Warhol. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.
D’Harnoncourt, Anne and Kynaston McShine, eds. Marcel Duchamp. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1989.
Murray, Gale B. Toulouse-Lautrec, The Formative Years 1878-1891. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
Naumann, Francis M. The New York Dada 1915-23. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994.