Select two artists or designers working in any decade of the 20th century and compare their practices. In your answer, you should pay attention to relevant social, cultural, political or community-based issues which may have affected the work they produced.
Twentieth century art – or modern art – encompasses a wide variety of movements, styles, theories, and attitudes. However, there is a general trend towards the repudiation of traditional theories and principles intrinsic to conventional and institutional artistic practice, such as in the choice of subject matter, stylistic depiction and techniques. Artists of this era were confronted with major societal changes including industrialization, urbanization and technological development, thus realizing the need to create an art that would more accurately reflect the physical, social and psychological conditions of a largely transformed society. This essay examines the artistic practices of two eminent artists – Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol – who have produced works that are representative of 20th Century western paintings under the artistic movements of Social Realism and Pop Art respectively. Their works serve as social and cultural commentaries that critically address key issues of the modern American society.
Both artists sought to address critical issues that accompanied the processes of modernization and urbanization, such as global capitalism, consumerism and social suppression, by drawing inspirations from their social surroundings. Hopper is a pictorial poet who depicted the haunting isolation, melancholy and loneliness in 20th Century American life. His paintings effectively captured the sense of loss Americans were feeling as the physical landscape transformed along with urbanization. While the urban city presented new opportunities, it became a lonely and vacuous place where human interactions were calculated and minimal. In Automat (1927), an alienated and uncommunicative figure sits in an empty room with eyes downcast, appearing to be lost in her own private thoughts and detached from her surroundings. This work illustrates the sense of urban isolation that dominated modern American life. Warhol’s works, on the other hand, explore the interplay between artistic expression, celebrity culture, publicity and consumerism that prevailed in the 20th Century. Under the Pop Art movement, he documented everyday objects as art and in doing so, eliminated the division between high and low culture. His paintings are seen as a reflection on American popular culture, including the notion of mass production and proliferation of consumer commodities and icons. They also serve as powerful socio-cultural commentaries on the ills of American materialism and superficiality of American consumer preoccupations at that time. In Marilyn Diptych (1962), Warhol presents to us the glamour of a well-known celebrity – a symbol of fame, an icon of public worship, and perhaps the envy of the whole of American society. He confronts us with her image in a stark, unequivocal manner; with the same image replicated multiple times to draw reference to our fascination with icons of beauty and fame, as well as the way with which such ideals and pictures have been propagated by the mass media. Warhol’s works, while celebrating the seemingly impervious veneer of glamour and fame in a media-saturated society, seek to acknowledge its darker complexity within.
While the works of both artists appear generally realistic, there exist large differences in the composition, style, and mood conveyed in their works. Hoppers’ paintings are poignant and desolating pieces of realism imbued with a timeless quality. His reductionist, cinematic composition and portrayal of solitary figures in vast empty settings create a sense of forlorn attitude and a mood of eerie stillness. This is further enhanced by the use of dramatic color contrasts and harsh, electric lighting in most works. In Morning Sun (1952), a woman sits on her bed in a small yet expansive room, with an expressionless gaze out of the window. She is perhaps contemplating her significance in the vast cityscape that she looks out upon. The sunlight that floods in through the window is destitute of warmth; it resembles a strong, artificial lighting that delineates the geometrical construct of the room and sets a discordant mood. Again, a sense of isolation pervades the scene. Warhol’s works, on the other hand, are coldly detached and devoid of emotions. Executed using the technique silkscreen printing, they feature mechanically reproduced images that appear to be depersonalized. These images are the iconography of consumer culture, including celebrities, famous brands, advertisements and consumer products. Just like how the sheer concentration of such publicity images confront Americans everyday, Warhol’s repeated images produce a similar numbing and desensitizing effect on viewers. Moreover, most of Warhol’s works are rendered in a non-painterly and deadpan style to convey the impression of being mass-produced, similar to everyday consumer goods that are constantly churned out in factories. In Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), an object of mass consumption is appropriated and reproduced using the semi-mechanized process of silk-screening. The images were flat, much like a commercial illustration, and it seemed that the only hint of three-dimensionality came from the shading on the tin lids. Using devices of commercial art, Warhol exposed the mediocrity and exploitative nature of popular culture, as well as the banality and mindless uniformity of American life.
In sum, the works of both Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol are heavily influenced by the sociocultural and political conditions of the 20th Century American society. The artists made their own statements amidst a time when society underwent huge transformations. Hopper’s evocative paintings suggest his personal vision of an isolated urban city, while Warhol’s silkscreens call attention to a culture of consumerism and celebrity worship. In spite of the different styles and methods used, the success of both artists perhaps stem from their depiction of a world that the modern audience could easily relate to.