According to Henry M. Sayre in his book, “A World of Art” (2012), artists have four roles, which are: to help us see the world in new ways, to make a visual record of people, places and events during their lifetime, to make functional objects more pleasurable and give them meaning, and to give form to hidden or universal truths. Two of these roles, to make a visual record of people, places and events during their lifetime, and to give form to hidden or universal truths, are evident in Claude Monet’s Le Ponte de l’Europe, Gare Saint-Lazare, painted in 1877, and in Jasper Johns’ Three Flags, painted in 1958, respectively.
Claude Monet’s Le Ponte de l’Europe, Gare Saint-Lazare, is the perfect exemplification of the role of the artist to create a record of their surroundings. The subject of the painting is the expansion of one of Paris’ busiest railway stations. In this painting, Monet has captured Europe’s zeitgeist – the spirit of the age. The viewer can see the steam and smoke rising from the trains, and there is a sense of the bustling movement which pervaded Europe at that time, with the expansion of travel due to advances in technology. The viewer can see the workers in their functional clothing, and the painting, despite its beauty, has a gritty feel to it. The older, more graceful buildings built in an earlier century can be seen above the haze of the steam engines, juxtaposing old and new – a summation of what was happening in Paris at that time.
Jasper Johns’ 1958 painting Three Flags exemplifies the artists’ role of revealing hidden truths. As an American artist living in an atmosphere of intense patriotism in the aftermath of the Cold War, Johns created a piece of art that suggests to the viewer the political status of the U.S. The painting itself is of three flags of the United States of America, each smaller than the next. lying flat on top of one other. To the casual observer the flags represent American patriotism. However, the underlying message that the artist was trying to convey in this piece was that America was perhaps diminished, and perhaps not as wonderful as people believed, or as powerful as it perceived itself to be, as can be seen in the flags getting smaller and smaller. When this is considered, it is clear that the painting reveals hidden truths. Johns said that the American flag was something that was “seen, but not looked at, not examined”. He sought to reveal the hidden truth about America, that from a distance it may look grand, but upon closer inspection, it isn’t as grand as it seems from afar. Johns was saying that Americans don’t see their country clearly.
Jasper Johns’ Three Flags is a good example of iconic art. The American flag is a significant symbol around the world, representing power, affluence and might. The American flag itself is instantly recognizable worldwide, and arguably inspires emotions more than any other flag in the world. To a patriotic American, the flag is a symbol of freedom and thus a source of immense pride. To a foreigner, the American flag may be perceived as a symbol of brute force and oppression. Regardless of the message that the artist was trying to convey in this painting, he created an iconic artwork by using as his subject something that already had vast symbolic significance.
- Sayre, H.M., (2012), A World of Art (7th ed.). Boston: Prentice Hall.