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8.1: Introduction – Postwar Art (1940-1970)

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    In 1940, the world was engulfed in war. Mainland China had been invaded by Japan in 1937, and Austria and Czechoslovakia were under the control of Nazi Germany. By 1941, the war was global as Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States while Germany attacked the Soviet Union. World War II was fought in Europe, the Soviet Union, North Africa, West Africa, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.[1] During the war, countries devoted significant monetary and human resources for five years to defeat Germany and Japan. It's estimated that about sixty million people died in the conflicts. The worst horror of World War II was the systematic murder by the Nazis of six million Jews and three million other people.

    In the decades following World War II, numerous newly formed sovereign nations emerged worldwide. These countries grappled with the concepts of democracy versus authoritarianism and dictatorial warlords as reform movements swept across Africa, Latin America, and parts of Eurasia, giving rise to anti-colonial wars and nationalism. The United States, having emerged from the war as an economic superpower, was fortunate in that its cities, industries, and economic systems were never bombed or destroyed. The country shifted its focus from producing war machines to consumer goods, forging international alliances to rebuild war-ravaged regions and promote global peace. However, the Soviet Union also rose to prominence in the aftermath of the war. As part of the treaties following Germany's defeat, the Soviets were granted significant amounts of land, including territories they had helped liberate, and absorbed these regions into their vast control system. The ideological conflict between communism and capitalism sparked the Cold War, which resulted in persistent economic and political tensions between the Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States.

    During a tumultuous period in China's history, the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, engaged in a violent conflict against the Nationalist Party. The goal of the communists was to transform China into an industrial powerhouse through the collectivization of agriculture and the development of new industrial areas. However, to achieve these reforms, the communist regime sought to eradicate capitalism and traditional Chinese customs, leading to the deaths of countless individuals, including intellectuals and artists. This resulted in a deep-seated confrontation between the opposing ideologies of communism and capitalism, both intellectually and economically.

    The Cold War also affected the emergence of newly forming countries from old colonial rule or reforms after World War II. Many of these countries had natural resources crucial for industries, making them a target of competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for resources and political control. The world in 1950 was vastly different than in 1900 - Europe was no longer the dominant economy, the population had significantly increased, and there was an expansion in productivity and urban living. Nevertheless, the world was now dominated by superpowers and faced the threat of destructive weapons that could potentially wipe out civilizations. As countries rebuilt from the destruction of World War II, people were eager to purchase new mass-produced homes and consumer goods, which helped to strengthen America's economy. As a leading world power, the United States became the world's policeman, engaging in futile wars in Korea and Vietnam to counter communist expansion. The 1960s saw cultural revolutions against the Vietnam War, movements for civil rights, and women's liberation. Although a global middle class emerged in many countries, large segments of the world's population continued to suffer from persistent poverty.

    The availability of mass communication across the globe allowed even remote villages to access popular culture. Movies, radio, and television helped to spread information beyond newspapers and local cultural values. European artists migrated to the American economy grew the United States to escape the Nazis and the war's devastation in Europe. New York City became a hub for art, attracting new immigrants and shifting the center for Western art from Paris to New York. As American art grew, artists became more interested in the unconscious mind and psychological theories, which became central to the growth of American abstraction. Abstract Expressionism emerged as the first significant post-war movement, with artists aiming to express emotions and the unconscious. These concepts emphasized individual freedom and were often monumental in scale. Color played a crucial role, used to suggest space without any form or figure. Other movements emphasized the importance of geometric shapes or minimal constructions, moving away from recognizable subjects and towards abstraction or non-representational art.

    The Second World War marked a significant moment for women in America. With men being drafted into the military, women stepped into the factories, manufacturing the necessary goods for the war. This movement of women from their homes paved the way for freedom to pursue avenues beyond the traditional roles of wife and mother, resulting in a significant social shift. By the 1960s, younger women were rejecting the lifestyles of their mothers, less constrained, and dismissing the old sexual conventions. By the 1970s, two-career marriages, a higher divorce rate, and single, working mothers became more commonplace.[2] Female artists started to experience the same movement. In the 1950s, a gallery owner said, "We don't show woman artists."[3] Women did not have the opportunities for the same exposure as male artists. By the 1970s, the feminist art movement started a major shift in art history.

    Art movements have constantly evolved throughout history as artists experimented with different materials and styles. Women artists were equally innovative, incorporating their unique perspectives into each movement. One such movement was Abstract Expressionism, which revolutionized how we perceive images by applying paint in large, flat areas of color. Artists often used staining with diluted paint mixed in buckets and poured onto raw canvases. Each artist developed their methods, whether by brushing, rolling, or spraying the paint. Initially, mixing and diluting oil paint was a challenge. Still, the widespread availability of acrylic paint during this period made it easier to use and less damaging to the canvas surface. Acrylics were made of a binder, pigment, and water and dried faster than oils, making them ideal for the staining technique. Pop art and Op art followed with new visions of art, drawing inspiration from everyday advertising, comics, and movie stars. One artist explained, "It's almost like painting mythology," she said, "a present-day mythology – film stars, etc.… the 20th-century gods and goddesses. People need them and the myths surrounding them because they enrich their lives. Pop art colors those myths."[4]

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