Border Crossings

Lauren Kaplan
Oct 28, 2013 4:47AM

Over the past century, many artists, architects, and designers have crossed international borders--or entire oceans--to launch, bolster, inspire, or save their careers. I am currently teaching a class entitled Border Crossings at Parsons the New School for Design. In it, my students and I are investigating how lengthy sojourns, and sometimes permanent migrations, affected the output and identities of many creative minds. Similarly, we are considering how transplanted trailblazers have acted as significant conduits for cultural exchange. Moving in a roughly chronological manner, we are focusing on four paradigms of border crossing: 1) Individuals moving within Europe for inspiration and career advancement before World War I; 2) North and South Americans migrating to European capitals for training; 3) European innovators fleeing to the Americas during and following the Second World War; and 4) contemporary stars who are simultaneously based in multiple countries, thus illustrating the permeability of geographic boundaries today. 

We are nearly half way through the course, and our overarching question remains:  How does travel shape creative development, and how has its role changed over time?  Answers are continually evolving. 

For many artists, the most visible changes relate to color choice. In the case of Vincent Van Gogh, his travels to Provence in 1888-89--first to Arles then Saint Remy--dramatically altered his palette. What had previously been dark and muddy--likely influenced by the dreary weather of Holland and Brussels--grew bright and explosive when confronted with “a stronger sun.” When writing to his brother Theo from Arles, he claimed that “all true colorists must ... admit that there is another kind of color than that of the North.”  

Henri Matisse was similarly impacted by his trips to Saint Tropez and Collioure throughout 1904-6, where he attempted to reproduce the phenomenon of being blinded by sunlight, and aimed to “use color like sticks of dynamite." As the critic Maurice Denis put it, “What Matisse and his disciples restore to us in the retinal trouble, the optical trembling, the painful sensation of dazzling, the vertigo that a white wall or esplanade causes at high noon in the summer.” Matisse, who spent his first 25 years living in Bohain-en-Vermandois, a small town near the French-Belgian border, only came to experience that sensation firsthand when he packed up and headed south. 

Pablo Picasso decamped for Paris in 1904 and became a permanent exile. Yet, even after  six decades in France, he continued to self-identify as Spanish and sought inspiration in the masters of his homeland. In so doing, he frequently returned to a restrained palette of black, white, and grey,  the hues most frequently used by three of his predecessors: El Greco, Goya, and Velázquez. “If you don’t know what color to choose, choose black,” the artist declared, “color weakens.” To this day, Picasso’s daughter Maya claims that his compositions look best when reproduced in grey-scale rather than full color.

While Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso expressed the power of migration through color choices, other artists hint at it with iconography and nostalgia. Wassily Kandinsky left  Russia for Europe in 1896 and returned for a short yet fateful trip home in 1913. Following this voyage, he completed a series of paintings that include a city on a hill, referencing Moscow’s Kremlim, as well as three black lines, which represent a troika (a sled or carriage pulled by a trio of horses). Similarly, Marc Chagall included small villages, alluding to his hometown of Vitebsk, Russia, in many of his paintings done in Paris in the early 1910s. Giorgio de Chirico--whose father’s work as a locomotive engineer required the family to move often--includes trains in his compositions to reference both his father’s profession and his nomadic upbringing. 

Finally, Marcel Duchamp changed his style,  medium, and theoretical framework upon visiting New York in 1913. While here,  he began to experimenting with the idea of ‘readymades,’ a concept that supposedly arose from seeing the abundance of industrially produced clothing and goods in the city. When he moved to New York for roughly ten years in 1915, he wrote: “The readymade would appear to encapsulate the unsettling effects of displacement and memory of place. The readymade object is an expression of transition and expatriation. When an object is relocated from one context to another, its identity becomes unfixed in the process—it is not at home when it is made into art, nor is it ever comfortable again when returned to its usual environment.”

Each of these artists was an outsider at one point or another, and that experience of dislocation ultimately spurred the act of creation. If you are interested in learning more, take my abbreviated version of this course, which is being taught in museums throughout the city. Learn more here.

Lauren Kaplan