Neo-Dada and Anti-Art in Japan During the 1960s


The twentieth century saw the formation of new avant-garde artistic movements in Japan by artists and art groups who were largely inspired by (and exchange with) concurrent European art movements. These radical, experimental art groups challenged the status quo, both politically and artistically. Tracing back to the 1920s with the Dada art group Mavo, new experimental art movements built on one another to become more and more radical. By the 1960s these groups and movements were pushing the boundaries of art and social engagement as we know it. The 1960s can be characterized by two movements in the Japanese avant-garde art scene: Neo-Dada and Anti-Art. Both can be framed as reactions to the sociopolitical climate of Japan in the 1950s and 60s. Neo-Dada is characterized by radical deviation from conventional art standards, with high levels of importance placed on the body as an expressive tool; Anti-Art attempted to re-conceptualize the definition of art, aiming for a “descent to the mundane” 1 in which the line between art and non-art was blurred or destroyed altogether. Artists Takamatsu Jiro, Nakanishi Natsuyuki, and Akasegawa Genpei were three Japanese artists whose works exemplify the Neo-Dada and Anti-Art movements of Tokyo in the 1960s. Their performances or ‘happenings’ as the group Hi Red Center, and Akasegawa Genpei’s “1000-Yen Note Incident” provide excellent examples of events that lay out the intentions behind these movements, as well as the methods employed by artists to bring the ideas to life.

The Neo-Dada and Anti-Art movements of the 1960s are widely viewed as responses to historical events. In the fallout of World War II, Japan entered “a period of shock, tragedy, and a struggle for survival […] by 1951, the goals of the Occupation had been achieved: Japan’s military machine had been dismantled, her war-torn economy revived, and a democratic form of government established” 2. The United States still desired to station troops in Japan as a front against the USSR during the Cold War, so the US-Japan Security Treaty was signed. All of the anxiety and animosity of the period generated leftist sentiments in the form of communist, anti-militarist, and anti-imperialist movements, which gained popular traction. One common goal of these leftist movements was to stop the re-ratification of the US-Japan Security Alliance in 1960. Leftists rejected its furthering of US militarism and imperialism; their sentiments taking the form of protests and demonstrations that culminated in a massive riot between demonstrators and police in front of the Diet Building on June 15, 1960. Regardless of public opposition to ratification, the treaty was indeed re-signed. The failure of these leftist movements to achieve their goal contributed to “a collapse of faith in liberal humanism and communism to penetrate the authoritarian and conservative structures of Japanese society” 3 and forms of artistic expression that “dismissed political ideology altogether and celebrated anarchistic revel” 4.

A great example of this artistic response is the avant-garde art group Hi Red Center founded by artists Akasegawa Genpei, Takamatsu Jiro, and Nakanishi Natsuyuki. The group emerged from the art scene at the Yomiuri Independent Exhibition, a place with “optimistic disregard for any cultural authority whatsoever” that embraced “the euphoria of apathy” 5. Many Yomiuri artists “advocated making junk art and violent demonstrations to protest the conventional practice of art. In a messy and anarchistic riot, they experimented with forms of art and performance that parodied and critiqued the social establishment” 6. What set Hi Red Center apart was the artists’ shared interests in “objet as the focus of events that would go beyond the walls of the museum or gallery as well as their informed leftist concern for the inequities of modern Japan” 7 . A work that exemplifies these traits of Hi Red Center is The Yamanote Line Event, a ‘happening’ performed on October 18, 1962. Nakanishi, with his face painted white, crouched on a train station platform and emphatically licked an egg made of clear polymer resin filled with everyday objects such as “wristwatches, bits of rope, sunglasses, bottlecaps, and human hair” 8 . Takematsu stood behind Nakanishi, nonchalantly reading a newspaper with holes burnt in it while holding one of his own objects, a long rope attached to everyday objects. Akasegawa acted as the photographer while Nakanishi boarded the train, hung his egg on the strap hanging from the ceiling meant to be a handhold, and shined a flashlight upon onlooker’s faces to observe their reactions.

What was the point of such an absurd performance, and how does it illustrate a collapse of faith in leftist political movements to dismantle conservativism in Japan? First, Hi Red Center was interested in how space influenced viewers’ interpretations of art. They aimed to “destroy the hierarchical status of art by bringing it into the ‘space of daily activities’” 9 .They had suspicions about the constraints of traditional art exhibition spaces: “what is offered to the public, at which venue, by whom, under what circumstances, resulting in what reception?” 10 . They believed art exhibitions and the institutions that promoted them were constraining, which would be counterproductive for a group trying to engage in anarchistic revel. Furthermore, they were concerned that art spaces could be inaccessible or alienating to much of the public—which would be elitist, and would make art complicit in the “mechanical banality and covert authoritarianism underlying Japan’s mass capitalist society” 11 , and the very social establishment the artists were attempting to critique. The decision to perform in a public space is a clear attempt to disrupt the banality of everyday life that tells citizens to conform to social roles that benefit the state—like, be productive for the economy, which is what most businesspeople on the Yamanote Line were likely thinking about before they saw the event. Second, Anti-Art shows that the context of a designated art space constrains the meaning of something displayed within that space as ‘art,’ which goes against the goal of blurring the lines between art and everyday life. If Nakanishi had licked an egg object at an art exhibition, it would immediately be recognized and consumed as art; though, when he did it on the train platform, the act truly bewildered onlookers, who were merely living their day-to-day lives. Onlookers outside of the exhibition space were able to consume the objects, performance, and artist in new, unpredictable ways. Taro Okamoto said, “utter nonsense might have more power to change social reality than seriousness”12. If riots and demonstrations against the militaristic and imperialist Anpo treaty failed, then perhaps politics had to be engaged with “not only on the social and spatial strata, but also on the subjective level of the individual and the body itself”13 via public performance art that purposefully embodies non-normative, non-productive practices.

Perhaps the clash between the goals of Anti-Art and institutional power is even more evident in the 1000 Yen Note Incident, that occurred when police impounded Akasegawa Genpei’s artworks that utilized copies of 1000 yen note bills such as “Morphology of Revenge,” and charged the artist with counterfeiting. The artist cited money as “most familiar yet forgotten object”14 and by making sculptures out of copies of money, Akasegawa “stripped the authority of the object […] the premise of the money system makes us believe the original money is far more real and valuable than the simulated model,”15 even though the materials themselves were virtually the same. The trial began in 1966, and Akasegawa and other artists turned the courtroom into an exhibition space, where they gave lectures on contemporary art movements and displayed their absurd objets. Akasegawa’s defense was that his work was a model, and not a counterfeit, and the two differed due to intention. He therefore defended his work as art, which reified the boundary between art and non-art, thus not adhering to the premise of Anti-Art. Though he did achieve his goal of garnering an increased audience size, for the event was a sensation in Japan and is now heavily recorded both in art and social history. This brings us to “the riddle of the avant-garde: the eventual institutionalization of even the most radically iconoclastic, vanguard practices within public culture […] the avant-garde, will sooner or later, be separated from the sphere of life and preserved in the realm of art in a historicized, academicized, or otherwise institutionalized form”16.

In conclusion, artworks like “Morphology of Revenge” and The Yamanote Line Event illustrate how social reality can be engaged with and transformed via art; however, they also demonstrate the limit of art to challenge dominant modes of social reality promoted by institutions like the state. Neo-Dada artists can celebrate anarchistic revel and absurdity in their groups and spaces, they are not separate from the sociopolitical environment around them; Anti-Art practitioners can try to eliminate the boundary between art and the rest of life, but when confronted with legal forces, the two categories might have to be upheld as separate. These two artistic movements were two of many developments in the 20th Century avant-garde, and like prior artistic movements like Mavo, Neo-Dada and Anti-Art ran their course before transforming into new movements that continued to challenge the artistic and social status quo.




  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei and

Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 147.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 150.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 151.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 151.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 156.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 151.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 159.

  1. Chong, Doryun. “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde.” Art Anti-Art Non-Art:

Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan 1950-1970. Los Angeles: Getty

Research Institute, 2007: 27.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 159.

  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei

and Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 142.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 159.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 159.


  1. Chong, Doryun. “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde.” Art Anti-Art Non-Art:

Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan 1950-1970. Los Angeles: Getty

Research Institute, 2007: 27.

  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei

and Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 147.

  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei

and Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 150.

  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei

and Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 162.





Chong, Doryun. “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde.” Art Anti-Art Non-Art:

Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan 1950-1970. Los Angeles: Getty

Research Institute, 2007.


Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 149-187.


Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei and

Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 141-72.



some queer shit

here’s a link to a manuscript i made called some queer shit. it’s mostly about queer anarchism and queer ecology.

here’s my statement about it:

I think my manuscript “Some Queer Shit” best reflects my creativity because it is the most interdisciplinary work I have to offer. It’s an assemblage of poetry, critical and philosophical musings, personal accounts, and visual art. Most of the content was produced by me, and I did all the work compiling it, but it also contains work from my sister and closest friends and, as well as cooperative work done with colleagues originally produced for other spaces and events like the Manhattan Experimental Theatre Workshop. I’ll try to provide a concise list of everyone who contributed to the project and would love to share recognition for the award if it comes to that! Beyond that though, I think the work questions dominant notions of authorhood and originality, and subverts the trope of artist as an individual genius that exists outside of encounter with others and social and political systems.

Furthermore, I think the work’s tactility – which is why I am submitting it in person – is important because it makes the work more personal and intimate when read by an audience. I love the manuscript as an object, a sculpture, and ways it can interact with readers beyond merely being read. I like how it looks when it sits on a table, I’ve been reading about the material sublime and a potential resurgence of ‘the real’ through the corporeal and so maybe you can see how queerness and ecology and anarchism manifest in my life personally (as a pansexual polyamorous gender-nonconforming lil thang) by touching the things that I have touched and getting glitter and chalk on your fingers and messing with the iPhone cord I bound some of the book with. It’s super fun, and I learned a lot while making it, so it blurs lines between academic and creative, process and content, form and content, public and private spaces, and the line between work and play, which is all critical to moving towards a more queer-friendly conceptualization of nature that embraces difference as a point of unity—which is important because nature is sort of a stand-in for our broader ontological orientation toward others, a la the ‘human nature’ debate. But really I just think it’s cool and funny so I hope you like it too!

People who contributed:

Hobby Lobby, sadly

Reid Beer, my old roommate who let me use his printer

Sarah Ngoh, it was for her class

Melody Peacock Barnett, my grandma who gave me the calendar I cut up

National Geographic

A bunch of professors at the Queer Ecology Summit 2015

Flora Riley, who gave me many art supplies

Whoever wrote the anonymous anti-copyright zine “Queer Anarchism”

Olivia Bashaw, my sis

Jenny Saville

Kazimir Malevich

Mona Hatoum

Antonin Artaud

Gustave Courbet

Dakota Santiago

Daniel Aramouni

Emma Brase

Evan Hager

Isabelle Diller

Ashley Flinn

Shay Burmeister


Creator of many anon memes

Egon Schiele

Hot Pockets

Tomie Futakuchi

FT Marinetti

Annie Spence

Cherokee Hayden

Alex Brase

Lauren Fischer

Alexander Rodchinko


Hank Willis


And here’s some other releases about my work!

Cut Off Your Head and Arms: An Analysis of Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s Analysis of Théodore Géricault’s Paintings of Severed Heads and Limbs



Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, in her essay “Gericault’s Severed Heads and Limbs: The Politics and Aesthetics of the Scaffold,” (1992) argues that the intention behind Théodore Géricault’s artworks which depict disembodied heads and limbs was to critique early 19th-century policies surrounding capital punishment. Through analysis of Théodore Géricault’s Guillotined Heads (1818-1819) and his Severed Limbs (1818-1819), Athanassoglou-Kallmyer advocates for an interpretation of the works that considers the context and content of the images, as well as the intent behind the painter. Her reading is more warranted than traditional art historical interpretations of the works, which viewed the set of images as studies for Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818). Athanassoglou-Kallmyer does, however, make a few illogical leaps when it comes to making assertions about the intentions of Gericault himself—the art historian reaches unjustified conclusions with reference to the artist’s preparatory work, and also makes essentializing claims about Gericault’s political affiliations and the way they manifest in his art. Overall, however, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer presents a convincing, insightful argument that allows for a more wholesome reading of the works as well as an understanding of their significance in the greater scheme of art history.

In her essay, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer supports her thesis by highlighting three key areas surrounding the artworks which traditional art historians have neglected to explore. More specifically, she discusses the preparations Gericault made in order to produce the works, the political affiliations of the artist, and the greater sociopolitical context of early 19th-century France. Examination of Gericault’s process is critical to the way Athanassoglou-Kallmyer counters the traditional art-historical interpretation of Gericault’s severed heads and limbs, readings of the works as studies. Analysis of the artist’s process is a compelling argument in its ability to dismiss the reductionist interpretation of the paintings as mere studies—once she dispels that idea, it opens up room for her own thoughts which become difficult to dispute. However, one must remember that it is difficult to ever truly know the intent of any artist, especially one that has been dead for two hundred years. Much of Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s analysis revolves around small methodological details that she ascribes heavy meaning to. For example, she points to the fact that a live model was used for the female figure in Guillotined Heads. To Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, that detail is enough to warrant her argument that the paintings represent more than ghastly still-lifes, and instead the psychological horror of decapitation. The author writes, “Trivial as it may sound, this detail is nevertheless significant. For it demonstrates a particular intent on the part of the artist, and, conversely, a particular theme in the painting” (603). While small decisions made by the artist might seem unimportant at first, the artistic is critical because each preliminary decision Gericault made when preparing for the final artwork is reflected in the theme of the artwork. Since Gericault did not leave a written declaration of the intent behind his works, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer resorts to analyzing the record of his artistic process. Every action has an intention, so in order to fully understand the artwork’s theme, analysis has to begin before the final painting was even completed.

Her second point of pontification revolves around the political affiliations of Gericault. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer follows his travels to Rome and London, locations where the artist witnessed and recorded public executions. These anecdotes set up the artist’s alleged political interest in and opposition to capital punishment, which Athanassoglou-Kallmyer uses as evidence for the paintings’ contents. The art historian argues, “Calling forth the social and cultural dimensions of Gericault’s works, therefore, seems not only inevitable but also necessary for a fuller understanding of their meaning and of the strategies by which they convey it” (603).  Artistic process does not exist in a vacuum—personal political opinion might very well influence Gericault’s hand while painting. Regardless, it is an essentializing claim to state that, just because the artist attended public executions and produced artwork based off of them in past travel journals, the same message is contained in the paintings Guillotined Heads and Severed Limbs.

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer strengthens her claims about Gericault’s personal political stance by bringing in a wider consideration of the political and cultural climates within the artist’s environment, early 19th-Century France. Visits to public executions abroad may have not influenced Gericault’s work greatly, but something that would have were larger political institutions and cultural norms that operated around the artist, out of his realm of personal control. At the time, the penal code of the monarchy that ruled over post-revolution France mandated the death penalty as punishment to a litany of crimes—offenses from petty theft to political dissent, debt dodging to murder. The Reign of Terror created the macabre mythos of the guillotine, and that mythos outlived the reign. The guillotine remained a symbol of political terror—do not disobey, or heads will roll. Executions were public spectacles, and popular culture (backed up by popular science) at the time hypothesized that victims of the machine remained conscious for whole minutes post-decapitation. Post-revolution social anxiety, amplified by fear of the ruling ultra-royalist regime, culminated in an aesthetic style known as Horrorschool. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer writes, “Mingling echoes from contemporary social horrors—murders, suicides, rapes, or incests—with touches of the fantastic and the supernatural—ghosts, vampires, and devils—noir themes reaches a paroxysmic height in novels and popular entertainment prior to 1830” (610). The superstition, dread, and fascination with the guillotine is a paragon of the wider cultural aesthetic which celebrated malevolent themes both fantastical and all-to-real. Wider cultural phenomena coupled with social anxiety (if not direct political opposition) toward the contemporary ruling power, easily could have influenced Gericault to the extent that they manifested in his artworks.

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer isolates textual and visual evidence to support the three overarching arguments she makes in her article. The historian backs her claim that the artist did not intend the paintings as studies by asserting that there were preliminary sketches done for the paintings of heads and limbs themselves, which suggests that the images are finished products. Furthermore, there are formal affinities within the paintings that show that Gericault was constructing the compositions very carefully, as if they were their own works. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s visual analysis on Severed Limbs showcases the fineness of the composition.

“The severed limbs look healthy and fleshy, and indisputably lifelike. Piled on top of one another, they gruesomely parody an erotic entwining, male legs tenderly enfolded by female arms, to which Gericault […]adds a bloodstained rag to suggest a woman’s camisole strap sensuously slipping down her bare shoulder. […] Morbid reality and morbid fantasy merge. Black terror and black humor rub shoulders ambivalently.”

So much thought went into the paintings as individual artworks that surely Gericault intended them as more than simple studies. The art historian also uses convincing textual analysis of Georges Clement’s biographical discourse on Gericault, which noted that in Severed Heads he had hired a live model to represent the female head. Clement was one of the earliest biographers to write about Gericault. Inclusion of such an early source lends ethos to the scholar’s argument that Gericault was portraying more than gory still-life paintings, and that the subject of the works was psychological terror.

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer evidences her claims about Gericault’s personal political affiliation with similarly convincing visual evidence, but is sparingly lacking in textual evidence—she cites no direct personal claims made by Gericault at all. Her visual analysis of Gericault’s Execution in Rome (1822) reveals similarities between the image and the severed heads and limbs, not only in regards to the visual language he uses but also to the content of anti-capital punishment. She notices:

“The executioner is planted frontally in the very center of the scene holding the victim’s head out to an invisible crowd. Foreshadowing the severed heads of the paintings, the decapitated head reappears by itself floating against the neutral ground of the right margin, its eyes staring wide open, its feature distorted with what seems to be unspeakable terror and pain” (605)

Stylistic parallels are notable, with the floating, terrorized head in Execution in Rome perhaps representing some pre-formulation of the cranium in Severed Heads. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer also connects Execution in Rome to the common practice of projecting criticism of the state (especially one’s own country) into the classical past to mitigate animosity and avoid social backlash. While the art historian effectively utilizes the evidence she presents, a direct statement from Gericault could have functioned more aptly.

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s analysis respecting dominant sociopolitical practices in early 19th-century France is braced by a compare and contrast between Gericault’s Severed Heads and Villeneuve’s Ecce Custine (1793), a political engraving created during the Reign of Terror.  The images display two disparate representations of political beheadings. Gericault’s paintings humanize the subject and evoke empathy from viewers. He starkly presents two anonymous heads that could have been belonged anyone before they were violently hacked off. Villeneuve, on the other hand, depicts a hand clenching in victory a severed head by the hair, with emphasis placed on nationalistic text that frames the image. The decapitated head has closed eyes and appears peaceful.  Villeneuve’s engraving belonged to a series of propagandistic images that celebrated the defeat of “Enemies of the Revolution” (610), so one can deduct that Villeneuve made purposeful artistic decisions to focus his viewers in on the political significance of the beheading, rather than the element of personal tragedy at play. In direct contrast, Gericault in Severed Heads makes choices that render his heads in a somber, humanizing fashion. The heads of the man and woman rest on a white sheet as if the two are relaxing in bed together. The head of the woman is turned toward the man, and the man’s head is turned toward viewers. It almost gazes at viewers (though not quite directly) with a wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression that communicates the pain of death and the emptiness thereafter. The iconography of the images are obviously similar, and while the content of the works may appear to differ greatly upon first thought, both are expressing political messages. Villeneuve explicitly expresses a theme by identifying the beheaded as a political opponent, a roadblock to progress. Gericault’s message is more contrived—he leaves the subjects anonymous while overtly humanizing their severed heads to remind viewers that the subjects were once ordinary French people who, perhaps due to a small criminal slip-up, had their livelihood robbed away through state-sanctioned terrorism.

Visually, Gericault’s Severed Heads would fit in quite readily into the dominant artistic style of early 19th-Century France—if Horrorschool meant fascination with spookiness and social depravity was in vogue, then Gericault’s guillotined heads can be thought of as products of a wider aesthetic movement. To illustrate the prevalence of Horrorschool, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer draws from a wide body of cultural artifacts.

“From cheap horror novels, which Janin’s L’Ane mort parodied even as it capitalized on their devices, to sinister melodramas by Guilbert de Pixerecourt […] performed to packed theaters at the Boulevard du Temple (appropriately nicknamed Le Boulevard de Crime); and from the ‘horror chambers’ of wax museums, such as Madame Tussaud’s […] with its display of the blood-dripping wax heads of the revolutionary guillotine to crudely illustrated canards recounting grisly faits divers of bourgeois life, horror was in fashion and people unashamedly delighted in it” (611).

By citing such a wide variety of sources, the art historian illustrates how horror permeated French society during the early 19th-Century. Gericault could not have left his studio at the time without experiencing anxiety and morbidity. The man lived under rule of a newly-formed reactionary government known for its abuse of capital punishment as a means for maintaining order. Even if Gericault did not himself experience the risk of execution by guillotine for opposing governmental policy he had friends who did—undeniably, he had stakes in the matter. In fact, even if Gericault attempted to remove himself from politics altogether, he would inevitably run into some form the indirectly political Horrorschool cultural aesthetic that arose as a reaction to the social anxiety generated by the political climate.  After all, as Athanassoglou-Kallmyer explains, “…the morbid genre […] portrayed with unrelenting accuracy the dismal urban realities of industrial Paris and conveyed the helplessness of the individual in the grip of an implacable social mechanism” (600). Manifestation of Horrorschool within Gericault’s paintings are evident—Severed Heads naturalistically depicts a horrific event brought onto the subjects by immovable structures operating above their reach. The supernatural subjects of the painting become the living dead, visually due to their humanization and contextually due to the widespread superstition that victims hold onto consciousness after decapitation.

When reading Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s interpretation of Gericault’s paintings, one must keep in mind any ideological commitments the author had when constructing her essay. By grounding most of her analysis with socio-historical contextual analysis, the art historian allows for insightful interpretations of Gericault’s Severed Heads and Severed Limbs—so much was going on during the early 19th Century that could have influenced Gericault! Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s consideration of Gericault’s process, political affiliations, and sociopolitical environment, combined with astute visual analysis, demolishes the traditional art historical interpretation of the paintings as studies. The grisly paintings take on expanded meaning, becoming more than shocking still-lifes. A social-historical lens limits bias since the author is constrained by historical data—had the author adopted some ideological lens, such as feminism or Marxism, the article would have been more subjective and therefore easier to critique. Regardless, essentializing claims are made concerning the identity of Gericault, and perhaps the author overestimates the amount of sway that Gericault’s society had over the artist, who was a known practitioner of the avant-garde.

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer analyzes the artistic process behind Gericault’s Severed Heads, the artist’s personal political beliefs, and larger 19th-Century French sociopolitical and artistic trends to engage with the artwork. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer argues that the subjects of the paintings are not the heads and limbs themselves, but rather the psychological horror of decapitation and autopsy, a reflection of the greater post-Revolutionary social anxieties that plagued France at the turn of the 19th century. While the art historian makes a convincing argument, her claims are not without problems. For example, she claims political significance of anti-capital punishment for the severed heads, and uses evidence from Gericault’s trips to England and Rome to back up the claim, since he witnessed and recorded executions there. Nonetheless, no direct quotes or evidence from the artist appears in the entire essay, and it is very difficult to know the intent of an artist without direct quotes from the artist himself. Furthermore, some of the visual analysis that Athanassoglou-Kallmyer uses is shaky. For example, she mentions that, by hiring a live model to portray one of the severed heads, that Gericault is attempting to conjure human emotions that resemble the fear of being decapitated. The writer’s visual analysis that backs the claim up points to bloody gashes on the neck of a figure in an entirely different painting—her analysis would have been more poignant had she done visual analysis on the specific painting she was bringing up contextual information for. Overall, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer usage of a social-historical lens provides an intuitive interpretation of artworks otherwise glossed over by art history.



Works Cited

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, Nina. “Gericault’s Severed Heads and Limbs: The Politics and Aesthetics of the Scaffold,” The Art Bulletin 74, no. 4 (December 1992): 599-618