Art Criticism Art has always been the honest reflection of society’s concerns and experiences, with a wide range of means and instruments used by artists to attract audience’s attention to the issue of the day. Particularly, painting has always reacted promptly to social problems using multiple art-making techniques and rich symbolism. That is, painters undertake an important task of communication with help of visual imagery. In the 20th century setting, George Tooker can be considered one of the most prominent American artists working in the field of social realism, while complexity of his chosen means of expression matched the complexity of social issue addressed by him. One of Tooker’s most renowned painting, Government Bureau (1956) is a figurative portrayal of bureaucratic system: the viewer sees the depiction of a typical government office in the mid1950s’ America: walls painted light yellowish color, square pillars support the ceiling, pendant ball-shaped lamps, numerous desks arranged carefully in the office space with clerks peeping though the portholes in matte glass, and people waiting for their turn to be processed.
As we look at the foreground, we see a man in a coat who is possibly waiting for his turn or observing the scene.
It seems that he is the ‘newcomer’ who is a little confused by the arrangement of the office and numerous lines. However, as the glance shifts to the left, we identify another identical man standing farther. Then, looking at other people in the office, we see that all of them are identical: copies of men and women stand in queues or at the desks. On the other hand, clerks’s faces – or their fragments visible though the holes in matte glass – are identical, too.
Moreover, they are holding their hands over the call buttons “ready to summon the next client” (McKiernan 140). While the clients’ faces are hidden from the viewer, wary faces and hands over the call buttons are all the viewer can see of the clerks’ figures. Government Bureau is a good specimen of realistic painting, while the technique applied by Tooker is rather unusual for the preriod – egg tempera painting on wood. Due to this, the overall texture of the painting is more similar to that of pastel picture that to a n image painted with oil or acrylic.
That is, the entire composition lacks contrast and high color values: even red head kerchiefs covering women’s heads are painted in dilute red. The painter didn’t create any color accents in the painting, while color transitions are seemingly made with help of crosshatching rather than color mixing traditional for acrylic or oil. At the same time, geometric clarity of the image is immediately noticed, with numerous clear and fine lines of the ceiling, the clerks’ desks and columns organizing the space of the composition and creating the sense of order.
Geometric figures match throughout the image: pendant lamps match round holes of the clerks’ desks, rectangles of columns harmonize with rectangles on the lower parts of the desks, and entire space of the picture is lined with parallel vertical lines. The overall atmosphere created by the bleak faces of the clerk’s peeping through the holes in glass and faceless clients queueing in this minimalistic room is rather sombre and even somewhat daunting.
Being a social painter, Tooker created a reflection of alienation and isolation in the moden society. As an observer of society, as he called himself (McKiernan 140), the painter addressed the problem of social withdrawal and dehumanization of individuals in conditions of bureaucracy. All characters in the painting are depicted in a completely anonymous way – there is no chance to even try to see their unique identities or to speculate over their peronal features, occupation and emotions. Faceless and dressed in identical clothes, these figures are waiting to be processed by the clerks and have no control over this situation.
Clerks, in their turn, present a stark example of dehumanizing effect bureaucratic machine produces on people: their faces are bleak and completely emotionless, their hands are always ready to press the call button and engage in an impersonal act of communication with the new client. The manner of depiction, dilute colors and geometric orientation of the painting create an impression of a good setting for Kafka’s Metamorphosis with its powerful message of bureaucracy’s effect: it seems as if the man in the foreground or any other man in this room could be Gregor Samsa, dehumanized and anonymized by the system.
What is also important is that the painter himself had had his share of experience in dealing with bureaucratic machine and expressed his feelings in Government Bureau. To my thinking, Government Bureau is deservedly considered one of Tooker’s best works. Though the composition impresses with its minimalist and order supported by geometric elements, the wide range of thoughts and sensations emerges while looking at it.
Even though the color selection and combinations are rather calm and most of colors are warm, there is an eerie feeling emerging once you look at the clerk’s face that seems to be watching you with indifference. The ability to communicate social context in paiting is rather valuable, and George Tooker created an excellent realistic work, managing to communicate such important issue as bureaucracy, alienation, and social withdrawal using figurativness and subtle symbolism. Despite the fact that the painting is rather minimalistic, it evokes active reflection in the viewer. Work Cited McKiernan, Mike. “George Clair Tooker, Jr Government Bureau (1956). ” Occupational Medicine 59:3 (2009): 140-141.
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