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Polka-Dotted Modernity: Art or Obsession?

Why did some artists pass their entire lives in reproducing an infinite series of dots?

3 minutes

 

In the last decades of the 19th century, a small, apparently insignificant, protagonist made its triumphant entrance into the annals of art history: the dot. This little symbol was used by different artists, in different contexts, as a vehicle of expression for the large revolutions of their own modern and industrialized societies. From Georges Seurat to Yayoi Kusama, art became full of dots, sometimes smaller, sometimes bigger, sometimes colorful and sometimes monochromatic. Why did these artists pass their entire lives in such a mad pursuit as reproducing an infinite series of dots on their canvases and works? Is this just another weird obsession of modern artists? Once the contexts and reasons for this figurative choice are made clear, hopefully the answer to these questions will come naturally.

 

In the second half of the 19th century, scientists started to investigate the physiological and psychological mechanisms of the human vision. The impressionists based their works on these discoveries and, following them, George Seurat established his own conception of painting and funded an innovative technique in the 1880s, under the influence of the new color optics. For the first time, in his 1884 work La Baignade, Seurat painted colors, lights, and shades, not as uniform surfaces or juxtaposed color patches, but as thousands and thousands of minuscule dots, one next to the other. These, if seen from faraway, would render a uniform surface and all the luminous vibrations of the tones. Thus, the so-called pointillisme was born. Seurat’s works did not aim to put in practice scientific theories, but to face those problems science could not deal with. He went beyond mere science by ordering the composition through color and light, rather than geometry. Seurat represented a society completely dominated by science, in which people looked like alienated automatons and tree trunks were rigid cylinders. From this symbolism, we can catch Seurat’s subtle irony, and criticism, towards the modern industrial bourgeoisie.

 

George Seurat, La “Baignade,” 1884. Londra, National Gallery.

George Seurat, La Baignade, 1884. National Gallery. Courtesy of the museum. Above: Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkins, Gagosian Gallery, 2009. Courtesy of the gallery.

 

This gentle irony towards the new society turned into strong opposition in the 20th century. Contemporary artists operating in the first half of the 1900s became religiously devoted to creating works without any commercial value. These artists perceived that there was a risk for both scientific and aesthetic research to be subjected to external powers, which would invalidate their uniqueness and value. For this reason, they started to study optical and psychological perception, which led to Kinetic and Op-Art. Artists like Victor Vasarely reproduced geometric and simple forms, very often circular ones, in order to create an illusion of movement, determined by the image itself, by the movement of the viewer, or by external mechanisms. Although the media for these works were very often industrial, the aim was not to improve the aesthetic quality of commercial production. Kinetic artists wanted to make the viewer aware of the mechanisms of perception and to look at their present with conscious eyes.

 

Victor Vasarely, Vega 200, 1968.
Victor Vasarely, Vega 200, 1968.

 

In the second half of the 19th century, mass production invaded the market. No product was made by an individual for other individuals; items were produced in series to reach the biggest mass of consumers possible. Culture also started to be spread by mass-produced vehicles, such as comics and cartoons. Roy Lichtenstein reflected on this aspect of society by choosing a fragment of a comic, enlarging it enormously, and reproducing by hand the mechanical technique of modern printing machines, by painting little dots, one by one, with his brush and paint. By extrapolating fragments of those stories, he made them lose any possible meaning and emphasized their banality. He faked a surrendering to the power of the machine, by imitating its technique, when he was actually criticizing the fast-paced mass production, contrasting it with his manual, accurate artistic practice.

 

The dot got to the apex of its artistic story in our times, with the Japanese artist named Yayoi Kusama. Like all the other artists previously mentioned that used dots in their works, Kusama expresses the same concern for capitalism and, through her works, confronts the viewer with a colorful, peaceful, alternative dimension, where people do not fight but help each other and rediscover their unity with the universe.

Red, green and yellow polka dots can be the circles representing the earth, the sun, or the moon. Their shapes and what they signify do not really matter. I paint polka dots on the bodies of people, and with those polka dots, the people will self-obliterate and return to the nature of the universe.

 

Roy Lichtenstein, Drowning Girl, 1963, oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy of the museum.

Roy Lichtenstein, Drowning Girl, 1963, oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy of the museum.

 

With Kusama and her conception of the dot, it becomes clear that these artists were not just obsessed with a shape and therefore reproduced it over and over. The dot, that little symbol, was enlarged, made smaller, assumed the most disparate colors and was placed on the most diverse media. Each little symbol brought with it a much bigger, more profound, meaning that went beyond its mere nature and was inextricably connected to a reflection on the contemporary societies these artists decided to render through a polka-dotted image.  

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