NEW YORK - “Modernist art’s drive toward abstraction might not signal its withdrawal from reality so much as reality’s withdrawal from it—that is, from art’s capacity to represent a reality transformed by technology and war” (Hal Foster and Rosalind Krauss, “1916a” in Art Since 1900, Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, New York, 2004, p. 141)

In their varied and unfailingly radical reactions to the horrors of World War II, the avant-garde artists of the mid-twentieth century exhibited an undeniably rebellious spirit –a spirit that would come to signify the ethos of twentieth-century art. In the manner of the Futurists, who had astounded the world with their remarkable push to the edge of abstraction in the wake of the First World War, the younger generation of artists, spearheaded by Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and Alberto Giacometti, challenged many of the naturalist traditions of their predecessors which they considered inadequate and outmoded depictions of societal order. Featured in Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Day sale on 5 November is a wonderful array of works that exemplify these artists’ response to oppression and reaffirms our sense of the apogee in Modern art attained at this defining moment in time.

(left) Picasso in his studio, September 1944. (right) Pablo Picasso's Nature morte aux verres, 1943.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was the unassuming still life that transpired to be Picasso's preferred motif during World War II. In the context of occupied Paris, the artist who had produced Guernica only a few years beforehand found his most potent means of escape and, importantly, resistance in the depiction of commonplace subjects. Rather than documenting the chaotic reality of his surroundings, in works such as Nature morte aux verres, Picasso set out to create an alternative, structured reality which exemplified the mood of bleak subsistence. As Frances Morris explains in his writings on the artist’s still lifes of the early 1940s: “above all it was the still-life genre that Picasso developed into a tool capable of evoking the most complex blend of pathos and defiance, of despair to hope, balancing personal and universal experience in an expression of extraordinary emotional power. The hardship of daily life, the fragility of human existence and the threat of death are themes that haunt Picasso's still-life paintings of the war and Liberation periods” (Frances Morris, Paris Post War, Art and Existentialism 1945-1955 (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1993, p. 155).

(left) Paul Klee in his studio, Kistlerweg 6, Bern, Summer 1939. (right) Paul Klee's Paläste, 1940.

For Klee, the push towards abstraction had begun during World War I, although it reached new heights in 1940 when war was once again rampant throughout Europe. In 1915 Klee wrote, “I dally in that shattered world only in occasional memories. The more horrifying this world becomes (as it is these days) the more art becomes abstract” (Klee quoted in Hal Foster and Rosalind Krauss, “1916a” in Art Since 1900, Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, New York, 2004, p. 138). This sentiment is undeniably evident in Klee’s striking 1940 gouache, Paläste, where he divides the composition into planes of color separated by thick black lines; a motif which became a distinguishing feature of his later works. Here, the central "palace" expands to fill almost the entire sheet, seemingly pushing the other buildings out of the composition. Rendered in a shocking, almost blood-red color, the image radiates from within.

(left) Giacometti sculpting a bust in his studio. (right) Alberto Giacometti's Buste d'homme sur socle, conceived circa 1947 and cast posthumously in edition of 8; this example cast in 1990.

Giacometti’s Buste d'homme sur socle is perhaps the most powerful representation of psychological isolation and vulnerability presented here. Reconciling the quiet life of the mind and the cacophony of existence in 1940s Europe was of central concern to the Existentialist movement in post-war France, and the present work is testimony to Giacometti’s place at the forefront in the investigation of this dilemma. A visit to the cinema during this period had changed the way Giacometti viewed the world and his art. He commented: "I began to see heads in the void, in the space which surrounds them. When for the first time I clearly perceived how a head I was looking at could become fixed, immobilized definitively in time, I trembled with terror as never before in my life and a cold sweat ran down my back. It was no longer a living head, but an object I was looking at like any other object, but no, differently, not like any other object but like something simultaneously living and dead. I gave a cry of terror as if I had just crossed a threshold, as if I was entering a world never seen before" (quoted in James Lord, Giacometti, A Biography, London, 1986, p. 258).