Pasiphae (1943) by Jackson Pollock
Meaning and Interpretation of Abstract Expressionist Painting

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By Jackson Pollock.
Regarded as one of the
great 20th century paintings.

Pasiphae (1943)


Explanation of other 20th Century Paintings


Name: Pasiphae (1943)
Artist: Jackson Pollock (1912-56)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Genre: Abstract art
Movement/Style: Abstract Expressionist painting
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For a grasp of paintings
by 20th century painters
like Jackson Pollock, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Pasiphae by Jackson Pollock

Before 1940 American art merely reflected the current styles of European art movements. During the 1940s this situation was to change dramatically as artists like Jackson Pollock successfully challenged the dominance of the European Schools and, in the process, developed a radically new type of modern art. The most progressive loose-knit group of American painters were called the New York school since most of them worked in the city. It would be these painters - including Willem de Kooning (1904-97), Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Pollock, supported by European expatriates like Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) - who developed the general movement called Abstract Expressionism, as well as action painting (Pollock), gestural painting (de Kooning) and Colour Field painting (Rothko).

Independence, however, was not achieved without a struggle. To Pollock and others of his generation, Cubism and Surrealism were the most important of the European modern art movements, and in many ways Pollock's works of 1942-46 are products of these two influences. The planar scaffolding of Cubist composition provided him with a sturdy base for his painting, and in Picasso's late-Cubist distortion he found a model for his figures. If Cubism inspired the 'look' of Pollock's abstract paintings, Surrealism provided the content.

Surrealist artists, many of them refugees from Europe living in New York during the war years, brought with them an interest in primitive and archetypal subject matter, together with the technique of automatism, in which the artist, by relinquishing conscious control over pencil or brush, creates marks which may trigger visual or conceptual associations.

Pasiphae was completed in 1943, just after Pollock's first one-man show at Art of This Century, the New York gallery owned by Peggy Guggenheim. It is the largest of the painter's "mythological" pictures of the mid-1940s.

Through the rhythmical patterns of tangled brush strokes in Pasiphae, the firm compositional structure of the work is visible. The simple geometric foundation of the painting consists of vertical blocks commanding each end of the canvas holding horizontal bands between them. These forms are in turn broken up by smaller jagged shapes and a complex of 'automatic' flourishes. In the flanking verticals stand a number of totemic figures, reminiscent, in their frontal poses and schematic anatomy, of tribal carvings. Between these figures, across the centre of the painting, is an active and muscular beast enclosed by an oval shape.

Pollock began Pasiphae by lightly painting in the outlines of the figures, and then applied colour in thin washes, gradually building up to thicker, opaque layers of paint. Dramatic linear accents were then introduced - at first around the contours of the coloured patches, and then cutting across these shapes to establish independent rhythms. To control this momentum and to re-establish order, Pollock next overpainted parts of the painting - particularly conspicuous is the grey overpainting at the top of the canvas. He applied each layer of paint directly and with increasing vigour, using not only brush, but palette knife and paint squeezed straight from the tube, to animate and extend the power of his drama.



The struggling white and ochre beast serves as a metaphor for the sexual or violent tension between the opposing figures, whose stance and placement suggest ritual from a mythic past. For Pollock, references to myth are never an excuse to illustrate a specific incident. His attitude to mythology - an attitude shared by his contemporaries - was that myths embodied universal human truths in symbolic form.

The title of the painting is a reference to Greek mythology. Pasiphae was the wife of Minos, King of Crete, who incurred divine wrath by refusing to sacrifice a white bull to the gods. As punishment, Pasiphae was caused to become enamoured of the beast, and the resulting union produced the minotaur, a monster half-human and half-bull. It is generally accepted that the original title of this painting was 'Moby Dick', and it was only later, without altering the picture, that Pollock changed the title to Pasiphae. The new title was suggested by James Johnson Sweeney, then Curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Pollock's first response was apparently: 'Who the hell is Pasiphae?', but upon hearing the story, which concerned the origins of the minotaur (a creature then commonly used by Picasso and the Surrealists to symbolize the conflicting aspects of the human psyche), he renamed his work.

Jackson Pollock's paintings were never pre-planned. They were always improvised and titled after completion, reflecting the artist's interpretation of his work after the fact. Thus the title 'Moby Dick' should not suggest that this painting is a literal portrayal of the Great White Whale of Herman Melville's novel. A powerful white beast serves in each case as the focus for human passions and obsessions, but Pollock's readiness to change the name of the painting indicates that he intended his titles to be loosely evocative and not descriptive.

Explanation of other 20th Century American Paintings

Black Abstraction (1927) by Georgia O'Keeffe.
From her early abstract period.

Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931) by Georgia O'Keeffe.
Symbolism from New Mexico.

Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper.
New York genre painting with film-still quality.

Seated Woman (1944) by Willem de Kooning.
The Beginning (triptych) (1949) by Max Beckmann.


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