by Hal Foster. Princeton University Press, November 2020. 296 p. ill. ISBN 9780691202600 (h/c), $39.95.

Reviewed May 2021
Shellaine Kelley, MLIS Student, Louisiana State University,

fosterIn Brutal Aesthetics: Dubuffet, Bataille, Jorn, Paolozzi, Oldenburg, Hal Foster compellingly investigates the complex dichotomies that inherently exist within brutalist art theory of the postwar period. Through the lens of five iconic figures and the transformative nature of their respective disciplines, Foster provides substantial evidence for such an examination and lays the foundation for this essential contribution to the literature around the subject. Covering an historically pivotal turning point in Western art, Foster’s research illuminates new insights into the study of brutalism to supplement mid twentieth-century avant-garde art history.

The introduction situates Foster’s research on the premise of Walter Benjamin’s theory of positive barbarism and the paradox it subsequently presents. In an effort to grapple with the intrigue of such a contradiction, Foster poses a series of questions that are both specific and personal; the results of his answer-seeking comprise the chapters of this book. For his figures, the basis of positive barbarism is the jumping off point from which each has established a definition distinct from the next. In these definitions, each figure presents his own paradox: Jean Dubuffet with his Brutes; the contemplative cave paintings of Georges Bataille; Asger Jorn with the consequences of the creaturely; Edward Paolozzi with his iconography; and the transformative power of Claes Oldenburg’s Ray Guns. In support of these topics, Foster does well to discuss the personal relationships among members of the group and the influences that each had on one another as well as further indicating their often-shared interests. Such overarching connections enable the seemingly effortless transition between chapters.

This hardcover text is dressed in a jacket with a full-spread cover image featuring Jorn’s distinctive Untitled (Raphael’s Angels) (1949). With high-quality binding and a succinctly organized layout, its pages include a rich variety of nearly 200 images, many of which are displayed in full color. Portraits of the figures and images of their works are distributed throughout their respective chapters. To expand concepts and support connections, images of other works and influential figures are included where relevant for further context.

Brutal Aesthetics is an indispensable addition to the art library. It may also be found suitable for many libraries, public or otherwise, that keep substantial art history collections. Researchers or patrons interested in the influences of Walter Benjamin or Sigmund Freud on polarizing topics such as the thematic relationships between construction and destruction, law and sovereignty, power and crisis, or mortals and the divine may find this selection abundant with considerable material.

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