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Jackson Pollock and the Native American unconscious

by Judith Prescott

Article published on the 2008-10-24 Latest update 2008-10-24 13:34 TU

Composition with oval forms, Jackson PollockPinacothèque de Paris

Composition with oval forms, Jackson Pollock
Pinacothèque de Paris

Jackson Pollock died in a car accident at the age of 44. Most talk of  his art revolves around his famous action painting, or "drip technique". These are canvases on which the artist allowed paint to drip in an apparently abstract fashion. An exhibition in Paris takes a look at the influence of Native American culture on his work.

Culture: Pollock and shamanism exhibition

24/10/2008 by Judith Prescott

Until now, Pollock’s fascination with Amerindian art and rituals and their influence on his work has not been studied seriously. But this has changed with the exhibition "Pollock and Shamanism" at the Pinacothèque de Paris.

Untitled, equine series, Jackson PollockPiancothèque de Paris

Untitled, equine series, Jackson Pollock
Piancothèque de Paris

Art historian Stephen Polcari is the exhibition's curator. He says that Pollock, like the Surrealists, was known to be keenly interested in anything related to the unconscious. He believed the origins of art stemmed from the unconscious.

Polcari explains that during the 1930s and 1940s, the unconscious was considered a thinking process that involved a "primitive" reflex that could still be found in non-western peoples.

"Shamanism in American Indian culture is thought to be closer to the unconscious. It was a very big idea at the time", he says. "If you want to do the unconscious, you do primitive. And so Pollock did a lot of quote, unquote, 'primitive', using Shamanism to address the idea of the unconscious."

Alongside some 40 works by Pollock, which came from international museums and private collections, there are ritual and decorative objects from cultures of the Pacific Northwest and the Far North.

These include masks, a soul-catcher, a totem polem and an amulet and clearly show forms and images that Pollock used repeatedly in his own work.

Pollock was painting many of these canvases in period between the two World Wars. This was a time when the US was undergoing great change. Polcari says Shamanism for Pollock was a way of relating to, and understanding, those changes.

Birth, Jackson PollockPinacothèque de Paris

Birth, Jackson Pollock
Pinacothèque de Paris

"I think he was interested in the idea of 'mass man', transforming man and finding the right personality for the new culture," he says. "America went from an 80 per cent rural country in 1880 to an 80 per cent urban country by 1930. And so there were a lot of questions about cultural identity and psychological identity. What is the proper role to have in this new world?"

Psychological theories, especially those of Carl Gustav Jung, were influential in this debate, Polcari says. "But there was a lot of discussion. Some was fearful. If you got the wrong combination it was marching and Nuremberg. There was a fear of mass culture."

The curator believes that even Pollock's famous drip technique can be reinterpreted in the light of his interest in Shamanism. He says people are fascinated by the drippings. Everybody looks at them and sees in them different things, but they don't look at them in the context of his early work.

"The first thing that has changed with the drippings is that we thought they were totally abstract", he says. " Now we see figures in them. 

Number 5, a drip painting by Jackson Pollock (not in show)DR

Number 5, a drip painting by Jackson Pollock (not in show)

"We see he actually mixed in his earlier figures in his abstractions. You don't see them if you're not looking, but if you are attuned to it you see the figures. It's quite shocking, very shocking. For 50 years everyone thought, boom, boom, boom. Now we see that he's mixing this vitality with his previous shaministic figures."

The exhibition took two years to prepare and museum director Mark Restellini admits it was hard work. People are reluctant to lend the paintings because they are very fragile.

A few years ago a painting for an exhibition at Paris's Pompidou Centre was dropped and completely destroyed.

So make the best of this exhibition, says Restellini, because it could be the last time work by Pollock will be on display in the French capital.

Pollock and shamanism, Pinacothèque de Paris, 28 Place de la Madeleine, Paris, 15 October 2008 - 15 February 2009.


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