In Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s The Fourth Estate, we see three figures, two men and a woman holding a baby, walking ahead of a large group of people (about fifty of them can be counted), which stretches from side to side of a large horizontal canvas. The crowd is dressed in drab, earth-tone colors and in the distance, we see the countryside. The title refers to the division of society in France during the Old Régime, with three “estates”: the nobility, the clergy, and the Tiers État, the commoners (by far the largest and most diverse). After the Revolution, there was a growing rift between the ruling bourgeoisie and the exploited working class—hence the emergence of a “fourth estate” (a term popular among socialist circles; see Dario del Puppo). In Pellizza’s painting, the three figures who have stepped forward are on their way to defend the crowd’s claims and affirm their rights (an earlier version was titled Ambasciatori della fame, The Ambassadors of Hunger), and the composition powerfully affirms their solidarity and, along with it, the notion of community. These people belong to the same class, and, as such, have the same needs, which they are voicing as a cohesive group. Furthermore, they are from the same place. Born into a peasant family, Pellizza sets the scene in his birthplace of Volpedo in south-eastern Piedmont, on the border with Lombardy. Working in a style referred to in Italy as Divisionism (related to French Pointillism), he paints his hometown (you can visit his studio) and people: many of the figures in the first rows of the Quarto Stato have been identified: they are all Volpedesi, including the artist’s own wife and sister. Today, as you stroll through Volpedo, you encounter reproductions (to scale) of Pellizza’s paintings, sited in such a manner that you can see how accurately he rendered the town and its environs. The town square, where a reproduction of this painting is displayed, was even renamed Piazza Quarto Stato.
Pellizza’s painting is a perfect illustration of the notion of community, simply defined in the dictionary as “a unified body of individuals” (Merriam-Webster), rendered here as a mass of people that occupies most of the canvas and is painted in a limited and uniform color palette. Place is the most basic feature that defines community, but so are the relationships that tie individuals, in this case members of a specific class, united in the expression of their needs. In last year’s MAJ essay on “Graffiti: Captivity and Freedom,” I mentioned sociologist Joseph R. Gusfield, for whom a sense of community develops along two dimensions: territorial and relational. Gusfield also shows how an opposition between “them and us” can contribute to the “symbolic construction” that asserts communal ties. In Pellizza’s depiction, there is a distinctly confrontational dimension as the villagers face the viewer and advance forth. Dario Del Puppo notes that the workers in the painting “seem to be asking the burning question: ‘Are you with or against us?’” (153). This is a painting that declares, in no uncertain terms, that the proletariat is a force to be reckoned with.
Turning my attention to the intersection of the notion of community and artistic practice, and keeping in mind Pellizza’s simultaneous affirmation of workers’ claims and expression of community, I cannot avoid thinking about the Union of Maine Visual Artists and in particular the reference its name makes to labor unions. Today, United Scenic Artists is a “labor union and professional association” for “Designers, Artists, Craftspeople, and Department Coordinators,” who work in the “entertainment and decorative arts industries,” but earlier in the 20th century and for less than ten years, between 1933 and 1942, there was an artists’ union in New York City. Drawing inspiration from the Mexican Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors created a decade earlier, the Unemployed Artists Group became the Artists Union in early 1934 (Monroe). Coincidentally, as I was about to start writing this essay, Abby Shahn, one of the founders of the UMVA, sent me three photos of artists demonstrating in New York City in the 1930s (the one I reproduce here contains the distinctive logo of the Artists Union; Abby’s mother, Bernarda Bryson, was the Union’s secretary). So even though the UMVA is not an actual labor union, the use of the word “union” in its name conveys powerful associations and implications and these are expressed in the language of its mission, with for instance the mention of “upholding the dignity of artists, while creating positive social change through the arts,” showing that protecting and defending artists while working towards a better society are primordial concerns.
A gathering of artists that would function in a manner similar to that of a labor union is far from being new: guilds, which appeared in the Middle Ages as towns grew, were sworn associations for people practicing a trade. Guilds ensured the welfare of their members, maintained standards of production and of compensation, and oversaw the training of apprentices (interestingly, in today’s Switzerland, trade unions still manage training). Eventually, guilds became a political and cultural force, central to civic life—and religious as well (guilds were placed under the protection of a saint, for instance, Saint Luke for painters). In many cities, buildings bear witness to the importance of guilds: just think of Guildhall in London or Orsanmichele in Florence. The latter is not just an imposing structure, but one that boasts the work of the best Renaissance sculptors in the niches dedicated to the guilds’ patron saints.
In addition to anticipating trade unions, the guilds, as bodies administering the training of artists, are forerunners of modern art schools. In my essay on “Plein Air and Beyond,” I mentioned the Accademia degli incamminati, the art academy founded in the late 16th century in Bologna by the Carracci (Ludovico, Annibale, and Agostino) as the model for art schools. Here as well we can underscore the importance of place and see how the name of a region or a city is used to define an artistic “school”: artists who often form a close-knit community and who share similar artistic philosophies.
Thinking about art schools and staying close to home, we can peruse the extensive feature MAJ published in the Winter 2020 issue on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Concept, the school of visual arts in Portland. As former faculty and students reminisce about what Don Voisine calls “a hippie art school” and Maury Colton “a place of equality and promise,” the recurrence of the pronoun “we” (over fifty instances excluding the essays by Polly Kapteyn Brown’s children), underscores the communal dimension of the experience at Concept. Through the impact of what they learned at Concept and the vividness of their memories, these people still form a community. And of course, one can think of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, an institution with a very distinctive DNA, combining elements of a school and of a residency. Its secluded location and the structure itself is, like other famous residencies, meant to foster not only creativity, but also a sense of community.
Maine is a perfect demonstration of the crucial importance place fulfills for an artistic community. We have witnessed this for a long time and specific locales have played defining roles. In Carl Little’s remarkable survey of the landscape tradition in Maine that appeared in MAJ’s last issue (“The Maine Landscape: Painting Place”), we read about many of those places and of their communities. We also read about the crucial and cementing role galleries and residencies play.
Monhegan gives us a local and excellent illustration of how “artist colonies” are born, with one artist visiting and telling his friends, who soon follow. Rockwell Kent went to the island for the first time in 1905 on the recommendation of Robert Henri, his teacher at the New York School of Art. As we know, Kent fell in love with the place. Past and present artists active on the island draw a web of relationships. James Fitzgerald, for instance, “owned at one time or another three of the four structures built by Kent on Monhegan” (James Fitzgerald Legacy) and Kent’s house on Lobster Cove is now owned by Jamie Wyeth.
What is remarkable about Monhegan is how this community continues across time: artists go to the island to join this community, as if the place that inspired past artists would transmit some of their greatness. Even for those of us who don’t make art, we visit Monhegan in a pilgrimage of sorts, to look at the landscape through the eyes of those who have captured it, enshrining it in their works. Art transforms the landscape and by partaking in these vistas, we join the community of those who came before us, especially those who gave the place its artistic lettres de noblesse.
How a place attracts artists who form a community is perfectly illustrated in Winslow Homer’s humorous depiction of artists “triple-parked” to sketch in New Hampshire’s the White Mountains, another place that, just like Maine, attracted 19th-century “rusticators.”
Sometimes, the place attached to a community of artists can be as small as a neighborhood, as is the case for London’s Bloomsbury and the eponymous group that gathered not just visual artists, but also writers and intellectuals such as Virginia Woolf and her husband, publisher Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell and husband art critic Clive Bell, writer Lytton Strachey, and the economist John Maynard Keynes.
It could even be a building like the so called “Bateau-Lavoir” in Paris’s Montmartre neighborhood, which, starting in 1889, housed artists’ studios (the name, meaning “laundry boat” remains mysterious, although it might have been chosen by poet Max Jacob because of the building’s decrepit condition). In 1904, Pablo Picasso moved in and his studio became a meeting point for the likes of Juan Gris, Kees van Dongen, Amedeo Modigliani, and Georges Braque. Cubism owes a great deal to this place.
The birthplace of an artistic community could simply be a room, as was the case for Dada, the avant-garde movement that was created in response to the trauma and absurdity of World War I. Even though it only lasted for six months, from February to July 1916, the Cabaret Voltaire on Spiegelgasse 1 in Zurich became an epicenter for a slew of artists who had taken refuge in neutral Switzerland—and not only those who became Dadaists, but also representatives of several other avant-garde movements.
Of course, when it comes to artistic creation, the most emblematical space is the studio. In Courbet’s allegorical depiction, we see a community of sorts gather around the artist who appears in the center of the composition, painting a landscape from his native region, Franche-Comté. Courbet is surrounded by representatives of society (on the left) and, on the right, those he called in a letter to his friend the critic Champfleury his “friends, fellow workers, art lovers,” among which is Champfleury, along with poet Charles Baudelaire, socialist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and art collector Alfred Bruyas. The presence of Proudhon, has a particular resonance as we reflect on the theme of community. Franc-Comtois like Courbet (ten years his elder, he was born in Besançon, a mere fifteen miles from Courbet’s Ornans), Proudhon is most famous for declaring that “property is theft” and developed an economic theory that became known as “mutualism,” a system in which individuals are justly rewarded for their labor. According to art historian Linda Nochlin, the Studio might also be informed by the philosophy of another important thinker (and Besançon native), Charles Fourier, who envisioned utopian communities he called “phalanstères.” Nochlin concludes her discussion of Courbet’s Studio, stating that it is “’avant-garde’ if we understand the expression in terms of its etymological derivation, as implying a union of the socially and the artistically progressive” (12).
Although the exact meaning of Courbet’s Studio still somewhat escapes scholars, and the lengthy title further muddles things (what is a “real allegory”?), on a very basic level, it is a group portrait. Not surprisingly, group portraits of the members of avant-garde movements are quite frequent. After all, from early on, group portraiture has been one of the ways individuals can affirm their belonging to a community—and that is why this genre is still practiced today, whether it is for school children or sport teams or even a group selfie at a gathering of friends.
There was a well-established tradition of group portraiture in the Netherlands. Rembrandt’s famous Night Watch is a group portrait, but a very unusual one, which completely revises the genre (also the case, although to a lesser degree, are Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp and The Syndics, a group portrait of officials from the Amsterdam Draper’s Guild). The 16th-century group portrait I am reproducing, by Dirck Jacobsz., shows the beginning of the tradition (in fact, Jacobsz. is credited with the earliest of such Dutch group portraits, dated 1529, just a few years prior). The sitters are neatly arranged in orderly rows, each one fully visible. Such portraits depict members of organizations, in this case the volunteer members of a civic guard, and were meant for public spaces (such as the group’s headquarters).
More than a group portrait, the manifesto is the fundamental way for avant-garde movements to express and affirm shared values; revealingly, Courbet’s painting has been called a manifesto for Realism (in my spring 2022 “Art Historical Musings,” I talk about the utopian dimension of avant-garde movements and give references to some of the major manifestoes).
Creating Community Through Art
Of all our social activities, bread-breaking is perhaps the one that contributes to community-building in the most profound and efficacious manner. Ritual meals affirm and cement communities of believers—think about the Jewish seder, the Christian mass, or Muslims breaking fast during Ramadan. So, it’s not surprising that as Judy Chicago created a feminist pantheon of her foremothers, she would set it as a dinner table. The Dinner Party, Chicago’s landmark feminist installation, consists in a large triangular table, with thirty-nine place settings with a hand-painted ceramic plate (with a distinctly vulvar design) and an embroidered placemat, each representing an important woman. On the floor, the names of 919 more women are inscribed. (It is interesting to see how, almost half a century later, The Dinner Party bears witness to the fluctuations of fame: Frida Kahlo, who today would no doubt be granted a place at the table, only appears as an inscription on the floor, her first name visible on this photo, at the base of O’Keeffe’s place.) This symbolic dinner party not only gives shape to a community, but was also the product of a communal effort: Chicago worked with 400 women during several years, between 1974 and 79.
Some artists go even further in generating a community of experience as is the case for Rirkrit Tiravanija. Since 1990, Tiravanija, who was born in Buenos Aires of Thai parents, has cooked meals for gallery goers (his first one was titled Pad Thai and took place at the Paula Allen Gallery). In 2012, for instance, he took over the main nave of the Grand Palais in Paris for a twelve-hour banquet of Tom Kha soup (Soup/No Soup). At Art 42 Basel in 2011, visitors not only partook of the Thai curry Tiravanija cooked and served, but also contributed to a communal wall drawing, commenting on current political events (see the video of the interview of Aey Phanachet, director of Bangkok’s 100 Tonson Gallery, with footage of the event). Tiravanija’s work has been included in what art critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud has called “relational art,” with the art gallery becoming a place for social interaction, thus blurring the boundaries between public and private and institutional and social spaces. Elaborating upon Bourriaud’s definition of relational aesthetics as a “theory consisting in judging artworks on the basis of the inter-human relations which they represent, produce or prompt,” I would say that these works of art don’t stop at representing inter-human relations—and community—but they generate them, indeed creating community (112).
Bourriaud, Nicolas. Esthétique relationnelle. Paris: Les presses du reel, 1998. English: Relational Aesthetics. Trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods. Paris: Les presses du réel, 2002.
Del Puppo, Dario. “Il Quarto Stato.” Science & Society 58.2 (Summer 1994): 136–62.
James Fitzgerald Legacy. “The Rockwell Kent Connection.”
Monroe, Gerald M. “The Artists Union of New York.” Art Journal 32.1 (1972): 17-20.
Nochlin, Linda. “The Invention of the Avant-Garde: France, 1830–1880” ARTnews Annual 1968; reprinted in The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society. “The Invention of the Avant-Garde: France, 1830–1880.” New York: Harper and Row, 1989. 1–18 (PDF available here).
Image at top: Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, The Fourth Estate (Il quarto stato), oil on canvas, 115 x 215 in., 1899–1901, Museo del Novecento, Milan (work in the public domain; photo: Wikimedia Commons).