Tag Archives: Precisionism

Frida Kahlo: Self-Portrait On the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States

9 Aug

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait Along the Boarder Line Between Mexico and the United States, 1932

In 1932 Mexican painter Diego Rivera was working on a series of twenty-seven frescoes in the courtyard of the Detroit Institute of Arts in Midtown Detroit, Michigan. His wife Frida Kahlo accompanied him on this trip to the States, but she shared none of his enthusiasm for the modernity and industrialised landscape of this city, preferring the ancient ruins over factory chimneys, nature over industry. And she expressed her feelings beautifully in the painting “Self-Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States”. She expressed her disdain for the Americans and their lifestyle: “Although I am very interested in all the industrial and mechanical development of the United States, I find that Americans completely lack sensibility and good taste. They live as if in an enormous chicken coop that is dirty and uncomfortable. The houses look like bread ovens and all the comfort that they talk about is a myth.” But, as a painter, she expressed herself better visually then verbally and this painting is a direct a comment on the differences between the perceived idyll of her beloved Mexico and the coldness of the modern urban landscape.

The painting can almost be read as a story because it is filled with details and each detail has a something to tell. In the middle of the painting is the twenty-five year old Frida dressed in a pretty pink gown and white mittens. A cigarette in one hand and a Mexican flag in the other. On the left is an idealised landscape of Mexico, conjured from her memory and imagination, from her loyaly to her country and the nostalgia that she must have felt, especially in the contrast with the ugliness she felt all around her. On the left is a world led by the forces of nature, the power of sun, rain and soil. The fertile soil which gives birth to vibrant flowers and cactuses, their roots are deep and hard to pull out, just as Frida’s art was deeply rooted in the traditions of her homeland. Ruins of a temple and statues of ancient Gods represent the pre-Columbian Mexico. The sun and the moon represent the ancient gods of Mexico; Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca.

On the right is the industrial landscape; skyscrapers and tall factory chimneys; their smoke is slightly obscuring the flag of the United States and there are no clouds on the sky, the dirty chimney smoke has concealed them all. The word Ford is written on the four factory chimneys. There is an obvious contrast between the natural and artificial in the manner in which the buildings were made, ancient temples, although made by humans, were made from natural material, and are therefore still connected to the earth and nature. The colour scheme also conveys this contrast; the left side of the painting is painted in earthy tones, a bit of orange and green, and the right is greyish-blue representing coldness and sterility. American skyscrapers and ugly factories are the complete opposite of nature, they rise towards the sky as if they want to be as far away as possible from the earth. Precisionist painters such as Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth have portrayed the same industrial landscape in the same years with great fascination and admiration, but Frida doesn’t share their enthusiasm because she sees beyond the glossy facade of the industrial progress and she sees how disconnected from nature people can become.

Tired and weary, surrounded by people who don’t understand her and culture she doesn’t belong in, she is eager to return home. In 1933, Diego and Frida have indeed returned to Mexico, but not because of Frida’s yearning alone, but because by the irony of the faith, Rivera’s contract was cancelled after he incorporated an image of Lenin in one of the murals. Frida got what she wanted in the end, though probably not in a way she had imagined it to be. There is a page from her diary, a watercolour I assume, with the words “ruinas” inscribed bellow which shows a ruin of a temple which made me think of this painting so I included it in the end of the post. In a way, Frida’s love for nature and Mexico’s pagan past is a sentiment shared by many artists before her who have fantasised about an escape from the clutches of the civilisation; escape from everything artificial, cold and conventional; Delacroix’s travels to the vibrant and sunny Morrocco, Charles Baudelaire’s reveries of distant exotic lands and the “langorous island, where Nature abounds/ With exotic trees and luscious fruit” (from his poem “Exotic Perfume”), not to mention Paul Gauguin and his paintings painted during his stay in Tahiti.

Precisionism and Max Weber’s Process of Rationalisation

24 Nov

The fate of our times is characterised by rationalisation, and intellectualisation, and above all, by the disenchantment of the world.”

(Max Weber)

Charles Demuth, Chimney and Water Tower, 1931

Precisionism was a distinctly American and distinctly modern art movement which first appeared in the early twentieth century in the paintings of Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler and others. The favoured motives of Precisionist painters were the objects tied exclusively to the modern world; tall buildings, urban landscapes, industrial architecture and factories. Charles Demuth’s painting “Chimney and Water Tower” shows such a motif in its full glory. The painting is painted in tones of red and grey in its entirety, the lines are precise and clear. The red chimney stands tall and proud alongside the black water tower; they are painted in such a solemn and serious manner that they bring to mind the tall and awe-inspiring Gothic cathedrals.

The clear lines and the cold and impersonal aesthetic of these paintings bring to mind a process of Rationalisation introduced by the German sociologist Max Weber. Rationalisation is a process in which more and more aspects of life are undergoing calculation and prediction, the emphasis is on efficiency and productivity; a worker is a just a tiny piece of the machinery; anonymous and replaceable, and it this process is similar to Karl Marx’s concept of alienation. The world has lost its magic. Weber believed that Rationalisation is the main characteristic of modern society and therefore the art of Precisionism, with its frighteningly tall buildings of Manhattan and dehumanising machines of Detroit, is a product of its time and could not have been painted in earlier eras.

Charles Demuth, Modern Conveniences, 1921

Charles Sheeler, Classic Landscape, 1931

Charles Sheeler, River Rouge Plant, 1932

Francis Picabia, French painter active around the same time, also speaks of “machinery” being the “soul of the modern world”; “Since machinery is the soul of the modern world, and since the genius of machinery attains its highest expression in America, why is it not reasonable to believe that in America the art of the future will flower most brilliantly?” (1915) These industrial landscapes appear eerily silent, and if there is any sound, then it is the sound of the machines, not the bird song or a child’s laughter. If Kirchner’s paintings were screams of despair and revolt against the modern world, if Edward Hopper’s captured the alienating mood of the modern city, then the paintings of Demuth and Scheeler are finely crafted spaces of silence and precision where the human was at last eliminated, erased, wiped out.

Even though Precisionism was a uniquely American art movement, it did borrow from the art on the other side of the ocean. The Precisionists and Futurists share in common their admiration and emphasis on the technological triumph of man over nature, and of course the obsession with dividing space and objects into clear and precise geometrical forms is something that they borrowed from Cubism. Still, the subject matter is uniquely American; factories, machines and industrial spaces was hardly worth the attention of European avant-garde artists at the time. Traces of Cubism are more noticeable in the paintings of Charles Demuth and Sheeler, who was also a photographer, preferred the smooth surface and an almost photographic realism. Indeed, looking at his photographs and paintings, one can scarcely notice a difference in approach, save for the colour.

Charles Demuth, Aucassin and Nicolette, 1921

Sheeler painted and photographed not only factories, but also the vernacular architecture and his comment on the barns near his house give an insight into his perception of beauty: “Their builders weren’t building a work of art… If it’s beautiful to some of us afterward, it’s beautiful because it functioned.” Sheeler also loved the Quaker furniture which was simple in style and made to be useful and not pretty. This love of simplicity and utilitarianism spilled over in his paintings. In 1927, Sheeler was invited by the Ford Motor Company to capture their factory in River Rouge, Michigan; they were releasing a new Model A automobile and Sheeler’s visit was a part of the promotional campaign. You can see the paintings of the River Rouge factory bellow. Mass production of standardised products was connected with the Ford factory and this again is tied to Max Weber’s process of Rationalisation; every worker in Ford factory was working on a specific little thing and thus his work wasn’t very valued and wasn’t well paid. We know that workers existed in that Ford factory, but gazing at Sheeler’s paintings alone we might assume that the machine themselves produce all cars.

Charles Sheeler, American Landscape, 1930

Charles Sheeler, Criss-Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company, 1927

Charles Demuth, End of the Parade: Coatesville, 1920

Charles Sheeler, Skyscrapers, 1922