Understanding the Implied Meaning of Jasper Johns’ White Flag

If you are an art lover and an admirer of modern and contemporary paintings, then chances are quiet high that you understand that modern and contemporary art are two different genres. The basic difference between these two artworks lies in the ideologies of the artists. While the modern artists were still looking for solutions for worldly problems in paintings, contemporary artists had accepted the problem and started presenting them in their artwork. One such artist in American history who painted the canvas as the worldly issues presented themselves is Jasper Johns.

Johns is an eminent painter and printmaker in America. He was the forerunner of Pop art. He created vivid contemporary paintings using commonplace symbolic images such as flags or numbers. It was the year 1954, when the small-town southern boy, Johns settled in New York City and began to paint the ultimate symbol of Americans – the stars and stripes. He painted subtle variations on it, but always creating the same familiar image. At the time when most American artists were painting intellectual abstractions, his flags seemed refreshingly new and direct. At that time, critics were wondering whether they were outpourings of patriotic taken further or a different kind of abstraction or something else.

The Metropolitan Museum in New York houses my favorite of Johns’ flags. It is not painted in the usual red, white and blue, but simply white and on a vast scale. When Johns first presented his flag pictures to the American public in the 1950s, he was extremely reticent about their meanings. He said, “I simply paint things the mind already knows.” The implication being that the flag was almost a known subject, what meaning such a universally recognizable symbol what meaning could possibly possess. For some these were purely famous paintings overladen non-sense and for others they were angry, passionate pictures. If you will observe the White Flag closely, you will realize that it is Johns’ way of saying, of expressing what he felt was wrong with American society in the 1950s. The large painting of flag is made of collage of newsprint, a babble of muffled American voices, muffled by a thick, heavy layer of encaustic beeswax oil pint. The picture is a metaphor for Jonhs’ perception that America is a place where you are supposed to have freedom of speech, freedom of behavior, but actually you don’t have any of it. Johns’ had good reasons to be anxious about the moral status quo as he was living in a homosexual relationship with artist Robert Rauschenberg, which was illegal. And, that is why he created the White Flag. Thus, the white flag is a picture of America as it were buried beneath the thick, heavy snow of cold and liberal idea of patriotic duty.

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