The Subject of Jasper Johns' Painting 'Flag'

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Artists use and deliberately manipulate objects in order to provoke or generate a discussion that force their audience to think deeper about personal and philosophical ideas. Jasper Johns is an American painter, sculptor and printmaker whose work is often associated with modernist art movements such as Abstract Expressionism, Neo Dada and Pop Art. Despite the time and place in which Johns worked, his works are often unconcerned with the events and circumstances of post war America. His work is neither political or engaged with social issues, instead he explores more personal, abstract and philosophical ideas. His the most well-known work is “Flag”.

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Flag (1954-1955) is a moderate scale encaustic painting, that is an representation of a recognisable everyday object, the American Flag. Despite not choosing the Flag because of its nationalistic symbolism, he chose it because of its banal, easy recognisable. In his painting John explore the relation between thought and sight. Opposite to Rene Magritte, John collapses the boundary between reality and illusion. John’s deliberately blurred the lines between high art and mass culture through his choice of a mundane subject matter. Despite appearing as a simple, easily recognisable symbol of American culture, Flag is a deeply challenging work that functions as both a paradox and a puzzle. Motifs, flags and targets are conventional, depersonalised and factual symbols that exist throughout mass culture, yet in his work John forces his audience to question and examine these simple and preformed exterior elements, by stripping them of their original meaning to give them a new one. The American Flag is an iconic and powerful flag that carries an array of connotations and meanings that vary from individual to individual, thus providing Johns with an ideal subject. It is blandly familiar that our sense register is mechanically. Despite the newspaper shreds being saturated in coloured wax, some titles and words remain visible, and suggest that the artwork was painted in the context of the McCarthy witch hunt in Cold War America. This has deliberate effect on his audience, as some viewers will continue to see national pride or freedom whilst other will only see imperialism or oppression embedded in the flag.

Overall, Johns Flag adopts sense of ambiguity about whether the artwork is in fact a painting of an American flag or an American flag as it is. It serves to question what a painting its and how it is to be differentiated from the object it represents. John’s idea of showing American flag came to him in a dream, that he in turn put into practice the next day, a similar technique that recalls surrealism. 

07 July 2022

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