Catharsis on Canvas

Catharsis on Canvas explores the students at the California School of Fine Arts that overcame trauma incurred in active service during the second World War. The publication documents the story of G.I.s returning from active military service after WWII and enrolling at the CSFA, thanks to the G.I. Bill creating a new era in Bay Area art. Lesser known is the complex story of how their teachers—including Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Richard Diebenkorn, Hassel Smith, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Minor White, and others—encouraged the students freshly returning from the warships and battlefields of WWII to alchemize the horror and trauma of their experience into cathartic artistic release. Abstract Expressionism was taught by world-class artists from the era and became a potent method of therapy in the treatment of PTSD. The California School of Fine Arts (CSFA; now the San Francisco Art Institute) counted among its staff and students some of the most influential artists, filmmakers, and photographers of the twentieth century. The school served as a central launching-off point for new directions in modern art by nurturing the nucleus of what became California’s avant-garde. The CSFA was strategic in creating a West Coast school of Abstract Expressionism and the development of one of the most important photography workshops in the country. This process was not necessarily overt. It was organic, drawing upon the circumstances of post-war Bay Area life and the people who were drawn to it.


This project describes the untold story of the pedagogic approaches used by teachers at the CSFA, and the breakthroughs in art therapy that resulted. For example, Jean Varda, with the guidance of the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, developed a ritual for students called 'The Labyrinth.' Ad Reinhardt used Lao Tzu and the principles of Zen Buddhism to teach an approach to art: nature as a lesson in engaging with chaos, yes, but most importantly, as a way to give form to the formless. David Park's interest in esoteric traditions and Theosophy offered a discursive means to explore abstract shapes; these shapes were studied as a means to convey lost, atavistic languages. Park volunteered during the war to encourage art practice as an agent of therapy for hospitalized military personnel. Sam Francis began drawing thanks to Park while he was confined in a suspended body-harness; Francis credits Park with saving his life. Other teachers like Hassel Smith, James Budd Dixon, and Elmer Bischoff encouraged listening to jazz, specifically, as a means to train the brain to reach liminal states where spontaneous work could be unleashed without cognitive disruption. The book also looks closely at Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams’ insistence that their classes be integrated with Japanese-American students who had been in internment camps - the effect of utopian objectives leading to practical steps toward cultural reconciliation.
Due to the paralyzing effects of cultural hegemony and common practice, it was practically illegal to speak negatively of combat experiences after the war : the culture at large vehemently discouraged any explicit identification of war-based trauma. The project's completion in 2021 would coincide with the San Francisco Art Institute's 150th anniversary and would also extend to becoming a powerful resource/example of art therapy in Covid 19's global experience of trauma .

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