European Art after World War II: Existentialism, Pure Expression, and the Reinvention of Tradition

  • Exhib_slideshow_exhibition_postwarabstraction_soulages

    Pierre Soulages (French, born 1919). '17 December 1966,' 1966. Oil on canvas. Gift of Geraldine P. Clark, 1976 (4400.1) © Pierre Soulages.

October 20, 2016 - January 08, 2017
Honolulu Museum of Art


Exhibition Overview

The far-reaching impact of the Second World War brought major changes to the international art scene. Widespread combat and political turmoil in Europe sent its artists and intellectuals nearly wholesale into exile, many of them famously settling in New York where they inspired a new generation of American painters, the so-called New York School. These artists’ renown and notoriety effectively shifted the art-world spotlight to the new world, while European artists, as the story goes, beleaguered by the weight of tradition, and haunted by angst, never managed to restore their pre-war influence.

Yet, mid-century Europe saw a remarkable period of rich, complex creativity, as this focused exhibition of highlights from the museum’s collection illustrates. Beginning with a selection of works by the French painter and printmaker Jean Dubuffet, the show looks at how certain artists dealt with the war and its immediate aftermath by turning to existentialism, and by cultivating pure expression as an affirmation of human existence. It moves on to reveal how the Northern European coalition known as CoBrA, which included the painters Karel Appel and Pierre Alechinsky, took up Dubuffet’s example with free, organic expressiveness. Through major examples of the work of the French artists Pierre Soulages and Arman (Armand Fernandez) and the Spanish artist Antoni Tàpies, the exhibition also examines how Paris became home to a multitude of styles, as artists varyingly practiced elegant forms of gesturalism, gave weight to the materiality of abstraction, and looked to the environment—and especially detritus—for artistic inspiration.