Two Artists and Two Palettes: Burlin & Gottlieb’s Expressions on War

Paul Burlin
American, 1886–1969
News from Home, 1944
Oil on canvas
The Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art
Auburn University
Advancing American Art Collection
1948.1.05

Vibrant colors, playful strokes, and thick paint dominate Paul Burlin’s work—all of which reminded me of a child’s imagination. However, when I read the description on the label, I realized that there was nothing juvenile about this World War II-era piece.

At the time Burlin painted News from Home, the Auschwitz concentration camp had not yet been liberated, and the true extent of the Nazis’ destruction and brutality was not yet comprehended. However, though the true degree of destruction and death had not been actualized, Burlin’s piece News from Home shows the chaotic and uncertain nature of a tumultuous war.

The black lines clearly outlining the situation and confining the colors, the masked figures with fangs, and the fiery scene in the background serve as an illustration and new definition of war.

As Burlin demonstrates through this work, color does not necessarily reflect beauty. Through this artistic metaphor, Burlin asks the viewer to delve deeper into themselves as human beings and to examine their role in a global society. This work is a vision of the world gone wrong, and Burlin delivers this message to the audience with force.

Adolf Gottlieb
American, 1903–1956
The Couple, 1946
Oil on canvas
Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art
The University of Oklahoma
Purchase, U.S. State Department
Collection, 1948.1719

Gottlieb uses a contrasting color palette and black and white lines to compose a graphic yet painterly work. Before further close inspection of and introspection into the components of the work itself, I did not truly realize the deliberate implications of the angular and curved shapes that seem childish in execution. There is no simplicity in human nature.

Through the medium of paint and graphic structure, Gottlieb comments on both the growing existential crisis immediately following World War II and the effects of the Holocaust. Taking a step back from the painting, you can see that there are two people within the frame, a man and a woman. Their claws and teeth penetrate each other’s bodies, and you start to see the violent, bestial nature of the work.

Even the simplest pictures have deep-seated roots. With every stroke, Gottlieb interacts with the post-World War II audience. Mirroring Burlin’s message to his audience, Gottlieb reiterates that not everything is as it appears, and that we must be aware of the world around us to recognize how mankind is its own worst enemy. This painting, like the black and white outlines of a tattoo, marks the permanent scars the war has left behind. Gottlieb, through a brush and a canvas, is trying to get the viewer to truly recognize the implications that the war has left behind, the gash it has left on the flesh of humanity.

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Both Burlin and Gottlieb express war and their effects on people in very different manners but ultimately end up achieving the same goal. They show that lines and forms cannot contain the destruction of a fragmented and vicious world. Their execution in color, line, and form are temporary façades that eventually reveal the ills of a global society. They may cover the wounds left behind, but the pain, the suffering, and the residue of a treacherous war will seep through, just like the imagery and symbolism in their works do.

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Stop by the Special Exhibitions Gallery to see these works and to learn more about the other works in the traveling exhibition, Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy. But don’t wait! This special exhibition is only at the IU Art Museum through December 15.

S.D.

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