The Power of Post-War Art

Study for Nude with Bad Abstract Painting by Tom Wesselmann. Dated 1984 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
Study for Nude with Bad Abstract Painting by Tom Wesselmann. Dated 1984 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)

Post-war is among those terms in art — much like Post-Impressionism and Postmodernism — that defies easy definition. Rather than referring to a cohesive movement in art history, the designation serves as an umbrella term for a range of styles that emerged in the United States and Europe following the tumultuous years of World War II until the emergence of Contemporary art in the 1970s. Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptual art and more all technically fall within these chronological parameters, though they themselves are wildly different in both style and ideology. Read on to learn more about these distinctive movements that together define “Post-War Art.”


A Historic Perspective

From World War I and the Great Depression to the rise of Hitler and the Second World War, the events of the early 20th century had a profound impact on artists around the globe. The rationalism and logic of Cubism and the other 20th century art movements inspired by it no longer seemed relevant following the horrors of the Holocaust, and artists were seeking a new frame of mind. As one of the American artists, Robert Motherwell, once said, “The need is for felt experience — intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic.”

One major factor of the changing face of the art world in the mid-20th century was the mass exodus of artists, dealers and collectors from war-torn Europe to New York. Paris, the former epicenter of the art world, was in ruins. Thus, many key artistic figures, including Breton, Chagall, Léger, Lipchitz and Mondrian, arrived in the United States, and New York quickly assumed the title formerly held by Paris. For the first time, American art was at the center of the artistic West.

Untitled by Willem de Kooning. Circa 1978 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
Untitled by Willem de Kooning. Circa 1978 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)

Abstract Expressionism

The first artistic movement to emerge in the immediate post-war period was Abstract Expressionism, and it set in motion a new age of American artistic innovation. Faced with the aftermath of World War II, artists began to concentrate not on the subject of a painting, but rather the act of painting itself. Taking their cues from the Surrealists, whose art was rooted in psychoanalysis, this new generation of painters created images that served as an expression of their innermost beings — and on a massive scale.
Abstract Expressionism was never a cohesive movement in the traditional sense of the word. However, the group of painters, which included the likes of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Clyfford Still, pursued similar ideals of spontaneity and expression of feeling. Historically, the works of these artists have been grouped into two separate categories: “Action Painting,” as embodied by the drip paintings of Pollock, and “Color Field Painting,” such as Rothko’s atmospheric rectangles.

Learn more about famous abstract artists and their artistic influences.

Last Supper Detail: Jesus, John, Peter and Judas by Andy Warhol. Circa 1986 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
Last Supper Detail: Jesus, John, Peter and Judas by Andy Warhol. Circa 1986 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)

Pop Art

Perhaps one of the most well-known genres of post-war painting is Pop art, which emerged on the tail end of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1950s. In many ways, it served as a rebellion against the intellectualism of Abstract Expressionism, bringing back the figurative and realism to the extreme. Its imagery found its roots in the urban environment, elevating "low art" such as comic books and advertisements to the realm of fine art. Common household objects like the American flag, the soup can and the soda bottle were used to create works of art that were accessible, familiar and visually striking.

The movement first emerged in the mid-1950s in the United Kingdom, and American artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol soon followed after. While the Abstract Expressionists who had preceded them were all about emotion and raw feelings, Pop artists created on the other extreme, manufacturing unapologetically ambivalent works plucked straight from popular culture. Not only did their art highlight the rampant commercialism of the modern age, but so too did their method of production. Warhol’s Factory is the most blatant example of this; in his famous studios, he employed dozens of workers to create silkscreens and lithographs under his direction.

Untitled by Frank Sinatra. Dated 1987 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
Untitled by Frank Sinatra. Dated 1987 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)


Alongside Pop art in the 1960s emerged a new genre of art that was nearly its antithesis: minimalism. Like Pop art, Minimalism emerged as a reaction against the intellectualism of Abstract Expressionism, rejecting the dramatic in favor of a “cooler“ approach to the canvas. Yet, rather than a return to the figural, the Minimalists opted for another extreme, shifting their focus instead to the inherent materiality of their creations. Keeping the abstraction of their predecessors, this group of artists abandoned all forms of self expression, leading to the creation of sleek, geometric works with ambiguous meanings.

Thanks to their focus on geometry, the Minimalists — which included the likes of Frank Stella, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Carl Andre — are associated with sculpture as much as with painting. Andre’s tiles laid out on the floor, Stella’s three-dimensional black canvasses that jut forth from the wall and Robert Morris’ geometrically-arranged mirrored cubes are among the masterpieces of the genre, and each is a celebration of materiality above all.


Conceptual Art

One of the last of the Post-War movements, Conceptual art takes its cue from the Dadaists such as Marcel Duchamp, whose use of readymades challenged the very idea of what constituted a work of art. With hindsight, the movement can be seen as the natural apex of all of the concepts that emerged in the post-war era. It is a reaction against everything that came before it: a rejection of formality, materiality, expression and aesthetics. Avant-garde to the extreme, the Conceptualists redefined the idea of “art“ at its very core, claiming the statement of an artistic idea constitutes a work of art in and of itself. Thus, concept became more important than object, and in cases such as happenings and performance art, no object existed to begin with. As Sol LeWitt once said, "Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical."
Because Conceptual art is based more on this notion than an actual aesthetic pursuit, it can be hard to define, as it encompasses a diversity of forms from ephemera and readymades to earth art and performance art. Conceptual art can be almost anything, including the feminist performances of Marina Abramović, the earthwork Spiral Jetty of Robert Smithson and Yves Klein’s Leap Into the Void photomontage. And while it challenged the very structure upon which the art world stood, it was also often politically motivated, supported social, political and environmental causes.
Les Rails by Bernard Buffet. Dated 1982 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
Les Rails by Bernard Buffet. Dated 1982 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)

Post-War European Art

Although the artistic epicenter of the Western art world shifted from Paris to New York after World War II, artist groups continued to thrive throughout Europe. Unsurprisingly in the aftermath of such tragedy, many European artists were attracted to post-war Existentialism, using their art to explore ideas of humanism, morality, isolation, violence and more. The work of Francis Bacon is perhaps the most well-known example of an artistic confrontation with a humanistic distortion and fragmentation of reality. His raw, emotional and often disturbing portraits reflect the brutal aftermath of a war torn society.

Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti created sculptural work in a similar vein following World War II. Already an established artist, the war nevertheless had a profound influence on the sculptor, whose post-war works tended towards extremely tall, thin, nightmarish figures. Undoubtedly the masterpieces of his oeuvre, these bronzes tend to exhibit a sense of tension and alienation that reflected the collective anxiety of Western Europe.

L'ile de Saint-Louis by Marc Chagall. Dated 1981. (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
L'ile de Saint-Louis by Marc Chagall. Dated 1981. (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)

The Russian-born Jewish painter Marc Chagall was living in Nazi-occupied France until 1941, when he fled with his family to the safety of New York. Both during and immediately following the war, he embarked on his own style of artistic protest, leaning into overtly religious themes, portraying Jesus as a Jewish martyr and thus equating the Nazis with Christ tormentors. When Chagall returned to France after the war in 1948, he returned to the dreamlike, lyrical paintings for which he was known. At odds with the prevailing mood of France and the art of his contemporaries, he was nevertheless a successful and respected artist.


These artists and many, many others helped to define the immediate post-war era in Europe, each dealing with the aftermath of one of the most horrific wars in human history in their own personal ways. Today, post-war art is remembered as the most creative, innovative and revolutionary of all art history.


While you can visit various art exhibitions to see displays of post-war art, you can also discover M.S. Rau's fine art collection to find a work that speaks to you and your style.


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