The escalation of the Cold War, accompanied by the specter of nuclear annihilation and the rise of totalitarianism, led many artists in the West to invest increasing significance in inward-directed experiences. Struggling with the apparent futility of human progress and the inability of nations to establish just societies, they withdrew from producing art in the service of social causes. For many, the retreat led to pictorial investigations based in abstraction; but for others, the body became a site onto which the psychological anxiety wrought by the political and technological vicissitudes of the mid-century world could be mapped. The often anguished but inscrutable approach to figurative art about the human condition, pursued by a loose confederation of artists active during the 1940s and ’50s, would come to be characterized by critics of the day as “New Images.”
For this generation, Picasso’s searing mural Guernica (1937), painted in response to the first fascist air raid on a civilian target during the Spanish Civil War, and Max Beckmann’s dystopian compositions became immediate icons of the era and critical models for an artistic path forward. Guernica was on perpetual tour in the United States from 1939 to 1958. When it was installed at the Fogg in the fall of 1941, a Harvard Crimson reviewer noted the effectiveness of the “horrible, almost indecent distortions” of its figures in conveying the artist’s moral outrage. Beckmann’s large-scale triptych Actors (1941–42), on view here, was included in important exhibitions of the artist’s work in America throughout the 1940s and ’50s, and entered the Fogg’s collection in 1955.
Works by Georg Baselitz and Philip Guston in this gallery point to the broader significance of New Images for the development of diverse approaches to using the body as a discursive subject among a number of key contemporary artists beginning as early as the 1960s and extending to contemporary practice.