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Critical Analysis of Audrey Flack’s World War II (Vanitas): Evaluation of Painting from an Art History Perspective

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Using Audrey Flack’s ‘World War II (Vanitas)’, I hope to outline the ways in which visual culture and art historical interpretations of images might differ, and the ways in which they might overlap. First, I will evaluate this painting from an Art History perspective, and then I will go on to critique it using my knowledge of Visual and Cultural studies. After looking at both approaches, I intend to present both the similarities, and differences, between the disciplines of Art History and Visual Culture.

I will do this by referring to sources, including Roland Barthes 'Rhetoric of the Image' in Stuart Hall ed. Visual Culture the Reader

Encyclopaedia Britannica defines Art History as, ‘The historical study of the visual arts, being concerned with identifying, classifying, describing, evaluating, interpreting and understanding the art products and historic development of the fields of painting, sculpture, architecture, the decorative arts, drawing, printmaking, photography, interior design, etc…’

Art History emerged in the early 16th Century. In this discipline, a painting is considered a work of art and is assessed according to its formal qualities, materiality, relation to an art movement and its meaning. Due to the changing nature of art since the late 19th Century, Art History is no longer a sufficient way to study and interpret new media and the idea of ‘the visual’. Now that we have reproductive technologies and mass production, art just cannot be discussed in the same way. Art history is only adequate for art that precedes the 20th century, this is when the discipline of Visual Culture started to emerge.

Before going on to define and analyse what Visual Culture actually is, I will investigate Flack’s ‘World War II (Vanitas)’ from an Art Historical point of view.

‘World War II (Vanitas)’ is a religious and war themed painting that is part of the superrealism and photo-realist movements. It was created between 1976 and 1977, by American painter and sculptor Audrey Flack, who was born in May 1931. This piece and others have been heavily inspired by her Jewish background.

Art History’s most crucial question is probably, ‘Is this object a work of art?’ We can start to answer this question about Flack’s work by looking at the definition of the word itself, Oxford Dictionary defines Art as ‘The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.’

Flacks ‘World War II (Vanitas)’ is a painting, done with oils over acrylic on 8x8 ft canvas. The paint has been applied smoothly with fine brushwork built up in thin layers. She was inspired by photographs and used them as foundations for her work by projecting them onto the canvas. Flack used airbrush to create smooth, soft and realistic tones. The piece has been accomplished with great skill and artistic practice, it also possesses great emotional meaning and depth, therefore it is considered to be a work of art.

This painting was made between 1976 and 1977 and includes the famous holocaust photograph, ‘Buchenwald, April 1945’. American photographer and photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White took this photograph of holocaust survivors at Buchenwald Concentration Camp, Germany during the war, in 1945.

Flack’s aim was to tell a story of war, life and the ultimate breakdown of humanity…the Nazi’s. By using such a jarring and unforgettable photograph, Flack has managed to create an intense contrast between good and evil.

The focal point of this artwork is a black and white photograph of holocaust victims. This is surrounded by an assortment of pleasant objects such as cake, fruit, pearls and silverware. The red, yellow, blue and green tones in these objects contrast with the black and white photo which make it stand out. Bright colours have been used on all the positive objects, but the historic photo is in black and white to contrast feelings of happiness with memories of a horrific past. The composition almost creates a feeling of claustrophobia because every space on the canvas has been filled with an object of meaning. Flack used airbrush to create smooth soft tones and kept to realistic tones and colours when creating her pieces. This makes her work look very representational and almost photo-like.

Flack’s aim was to tell a story of war, life and the ultimate breakdown of humanity…the Nazi’s. Through this work of art, she creates an intense contrast between good and evil. This piece and others have been heavily inspired by her Jewish background, and in this piece, she creates a memorial for the holocaust through her extremely well thought through composition.

Flack intended the red candle to be 'a memorial to bridge time between 1945 and the present, to burn always in the present'. The text at the bottom of the composition is from the Jewish holy book, the Torah, and the star of David also alludes to Judaism which confirms that the black and white photo consists of holocaust victims. The prisoners in the photo have been placed to the back of the painting, giving the idea that they have been forgotten and where unwanted in the war. The composition almost creates a feeling of claustrophobia because every space on the canvas has been filled with an object of meaning. This painting has a thought provoking and sentimental atmosphere, as it makes the viewer focus on how the victims of the holocaust lived before all freedom was taken away and what survivors will remember from pre-wartime.

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The painting may be viewed very differently now than it might have been viewed in the late 1970’s because the war was more recent then, and people may have had far more personal experiences with war, whereas now there might not be as many people still around that have had first hand experiences with World War II.

Visual and Cultural Studies is an interdisciplinary subject which delves into areas of anthropology, sociology, film studies, art history, and many other of the humanities, sciences and social sciences. ‘Visual culture works towards a social theory of visuality, focusing on questions of what is made visible, who sees what, how seeing, knowing and power are interrelated’ (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000).

It is interconnected with anything and everything that communicates through visuality.

‘Visual culture is the visual construction of the social, not just the social construction of vision.’ (Mitchell, W.J.T, 2002)

This new way of reflecting on and studying the visual , allows art to be viewed from several different perspectives and challenges the distinction between high culture and pop culture.

What are we being shown?

This artwork is an image of the contrasts of life and death, war and peace.

It is an oil on canvas painting by a female American painter and sculptor.

How is meaning being communicated through what is shown?

Flack’s aim was to tell a story of war, life and the ultimate breakdown of humanity…the Nazi’s. Through this work of art, she creates an intense contrast between good and evil. T This piece and others have been heavily inspired by her Jewish background, and in this piece, she creates a memorial for the holocaust through her extremely well thought through composition.

What does this visual object/ event reveal to us about the way we, and others, look?

Audrey Flack has created a very educational work of art that can appreciated by a variety of different people and really adds to knowledge of what life was like before the war, the memories of those involved in the holocaust and what was taken away from them during such a traumatic and unforgettable point in history.

It also reminds us that not all suffering is over in the world and that these memories are being relived today all over the world by various groups of people that are being segregated and discriminated against in the present.

This painting is quite timeless and can be viewed from multiple perspectives but gives a clear further understanding of the experiences victims had, and lives they led post, during and after World War Two.

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Critical Analysis of Audrey Flack’s World War II (Vanitas): Evaluation of Painting from an Art History Perspective. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-audrey-flacks-world-war-ii-vanitas-evaluation-of-painting-from-an-art-history-perspective/
“Critical Analysis of Audrey Flack’s World War II (Vanitas): Evaluation of Painting from an Art History Perspective.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-audrey-flacks-world-war-ii-vanitas-evaluation-of-painting-from-an-art-history-perspective/
Critical Analysis of Audrey Flack’s World War II (Vanitas): Evaluation of Painting from an Art History Perspective. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-audrey-flacks-world-war-ii-vanitas-evaluation-of-painting-from-an-art-history-perspective/> [Accessed 1 Mar. 2024].
Critical Analysis of Audrey Flack’s World War II (Vanitas): Evaluation of Painting from an Art History Perspective [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 27 [cited 2024 Mar 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-audrey-flacks-world-war-ii-vanitas-evaluation-of-painting-from-an-art-history-perspective/
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