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Post-World War II European Art

David Gariff, senior lecturer, National Gallery of Art.
In the years following the Second World War Europe was exhausted and slow to recover. Historians often speak about a shift in the art world's center of gravity from Paris to New York as the abstract expressionists claimed the spotlight. But the late 1940s and 1950s were a fertile, if troubled, time for art in Europe as well. While the Americans believed that they could start from scratch, inventing new techniques and subjects, the Europeans, who had experienced the horrors of war on their own soil, took a darker view of rebirth. The postwar school of Paris engaged raw materials through the art brut expressions of Jean Dubuffet and the thickly encrusted abstractions of Pierre Soulages and Nicholas de Stael. Jean Fautrier tested the conventional limits of painting by mixing powdered pigments, sand, and plaster to create abstract equivalents of the violent dissociation of body and spirit. The existential anxiety of the moment was perhaps best captured by the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, who obsessively subtracted clay from his figures until they loomed up like monuments on the point of disappearance. As part of the series Celebrating the East Building: 20th-Century Art, senior lecturer David Gariff discusses European art and artists in the aftermath of the Second World War. This lecture was presented on August 16, 2018, at the National Gallery of Art.