Pablo Picasso, Massacre in Korea, 1951 - © Musée national Picasso, Paris © Succession Picasso / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016
Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Auschwitz laid bare the failures of Western civilization. In the wake of these shocks came ambivalent political attempts to establish geopolitical systems that would be more just, through such new legal forms as the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — putatively global but in fact dominated by Western authority — and the struggles for full citizenship and autonomy of people in former European colonies. Philosophers and artists sought to inquire more deeply into human nature itself, in debates that included the discourses of négritude and existentialism, and the rights of individuals and groups within larger (often oppressive) social and political entities. “New Images” features pictorial versions of such inquiries, in which humans often appear battered, deformed by the horror of modern life, rent by the question of their own value.
These artists often deliberately combined figuration and materialist facture, refusing the choice between abstraction and representation — or between physical and social life, seeing the binary as not only ideologically false but also deeply destructive. In 1950, at a postwar art conference in Darmstadt, Germany, political opposites Hans Sedlmayr and Theodor Adorno found surprising common ground in bemoaning the missing center of contemporary culture: contemporary art seemed unable to appeal to fundamental human concerns, including emotion and everyday life. This concern was echoed by such East German migrants as Georg Baselitz, who eschewed the politically charged choice between abstraction and socialist realism to render individual figures that were severely deformed but vigorously alive. MoMA’s New Images of Man exhibition (1959) gathered examples of contemporary art from twenty-three American and European artists, including Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning, Albert Giacometti, and Jackson Pollock. In his introduction to the catalogue, theologian Paul Tillich warned of “the danger in which modern man lives: the danger of losing his humanity,” a danger located both in totalitarianism and in technologically-oriented mass society.
The most significant counterforce to universalist Western humanism came, in different veins, from former European colonies. Leopold Senghor wrote in 1961 of the need to particularize and locate the human being, in contrast not only to modernist (Western) universalism but also to Marxist universalism: “Man is not without a homeland. He is not a man without color or history or country or civilization. He is West African man, our neighbor, precisely determined by his time and his place … a man humiliated for centuries less perhaps in his hunger and his nakedness than in his color and civilization, in his dignity as an incarnate man.” The laborers painted by Inji Efflatoun, for example, express this specific dignity.
Sometimes, as with Franz Fanon's “new man,” the formerly colonized claimed a moral right to define humanism broadly and universally, a right abrogated by the West with its inhuman behavior in war and colonization. We see this new humanism in the thinkers depicted by Indian artist Francis Newton Souza — colored bodies appropriating the traditional intellectual and ethical prerogative of Western man. South African artist Ernest Mancoba offered yet another restatement of universalist humanism. For him, differences in identity categories belonged to colonialism and underlie the fracturing of art: “In no domain more than in the arts has this systematic dichotomy caused such destruction of the very foundation to the human identity, as both belonging to nature and sharing in the essence of an ideal being.”