Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Existential Art

Although there is no truly self-professed movement calling itself this, existentialism naturally influenced numerous mid-century artists agreeing with existentialism’s understanding of existence taking place as an isolated solitary phenomenon in an absurd world but nevertheless affording the freedom for one to define oneself. Simone de Beauvoir said in 1965 that for these artists existentialism seemed to “authorize them to accept their transitory condition without renouncing a certain absolute, to face horror and absurdity while still retaining their human dignity” (qtd. in Dempsey 176). So existentialism refers more to the mood and thought in the art rather than a distinctive and consistent style.

Germaine Richier (1902-1959) explored the power to transcend the horrors of war.

Jean Fautrier (1898-1964), with other hostages, hid out at a mental asylum on outskirts of Paris during the War and could hear prisoners being tortured and executed by the Nazis. His art evokes images of mutilated flesh and truncated body parts, but it also focuses on and commemorates the human origin of these victims. His work typically offers no context for its figures except for the frame and background paint, so there’s a primordial feel.

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) created fragile figures lost in wide open spaces, depicting isolation and struggle.

Man Walking (1960) is isolated and exposed. “Man — and man alone — reduced to a thread — in the delapidation and misery of the world — who searches for himself — starting from nothing…. The pathos of extreme emaciation, the individual reduced to a thread…. Man on a pavement like burning iron; who cannot lift his heavy feet…. They drip around him, his values, his fat; to feed the flames! It is not only that Man has nothing more; but he is nothing more, than this I” (Ponge 615).

Francis Bacon (1909-1992) is known for his theatricality, violence, and claustrophobic environments. He seems the most unforgiving and anguished of the existential artists.

Study After Valasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953).We see the tortured expression of a blood-spattered pope imprisoned in a tubular structure resembling an unpadded throne. The background strokes cruelly blur out the screaming of this helpless figure with his clenched fists.

Works Consulted

The Art Book. London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1996.

Camus, Albert. “Creation and Revolution” from The Rebel. In Art in Theory 1900-1990. Ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Cambridge: Blackwell Pub. Inc., 1993. 615-618.

Dempsey, Amy. Art in the Modern Era: A Guide to Styles, Schools & Movements. NY: Harry N. Abrams Inc., Pub., 2002.

Ponge, Francis. “Reflections on the Statuettes, Figures and Paintings of Alberto Giacometti.” In Art in Theory 1900-1990. Ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Cambridge: Blackwell Pub. Inc., 1993. 614-615.