“The right to be let alone,” a sentiment expressed by US Supreme Court Justices Warren and Brandeis, is one that contemporaries across the western world have come to truly value. However the premiums placed on innovation and urbanization have led society to a place where isolation is a means to self-preservation. The theme of isolation in art is a post-industrial phenomenon. Modernization brought the rise of industrial cities in which thousands of strangers pass each other daily, avoiding eye contact and recognition of an individual's worth.
When one is operating in a city where around every corner there is a new stranger who could possibly have ill-intent, it becomes a necessity that people insulate themselves. The exploration in art of loneliness and alienation is a theme that is relatable to almost any contemporary viewer. The disjoint between people of a common society, necessarily causes there to be less of an interest in the characters and individual attributes of those around us. The depreciation of the individual is an effect of the barriers that people have erected. It seems the alienation of ourselves, is a modern self infliction.

Alberto Giacometti; City Square 1948 (Bronze, 8 1/2 x 25 3/8 x 17 1/4")
Alberto Giacometti

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) was a Swiss born artist. He worked as a surrealist sculptor until about 1935 when he began working directly from the model. He often illustrates the bleaker side of life in his works, espousing the existential outlook of his friend, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, that humans wander alone and aimlessly in a meaningless universe.
In his piece, City Square, created in the context of postwar Europe, the figures are small, frail, and lumpy; figures of this nature are a motif of many of his works, appearing both alone and in groups. Here the figures cross paths on a tableau, the setting and the people are both essentially nondescript. Each individual is just as rugged and uncharacteristic as the next; they cross, paying no attention to the presence of the other individuals. The ambiguous men and women of the piece are representative of the isolation and alienation of urban society.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner; Street, Dresden 1908 (Oil on Canvas, 59 1/4" x 6' 6 7/8")
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

The early German expressionist group Die Brücke (1905-1913) sought to reinstate authenticity and primitivism in art which had been lost to the innovations of modern life. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) was one of the founding members of this group. He once said, “he who renders his inner convictions as he knows he must, and does so with spontaneity and sincerity, is one of us.”
In his Piece, Street, Dresden, Kirchner really utilizes color and form to express the meaning. The heightened colors are applied roughly. The people’s mask-like faces and vacant eyes are amplified by the thin orange outlining on several of the characters; it subtly contrasts the underlying blues and greens, making the paleness of their faces that much more striking. The scene is of a bustling city street, crowded with people who are well dressed, seemingly of the bourgeois. On the left hand side none of the people’s faces are looking outward at the viewer; each is absorbed in their own task and destination, isolated from one another as well as the viewer. Juxtaposing this, the right side has three women staring out blankly and empty straight at the viewer, and in the center is a young girl stepping out. While at first one feels engaged by the recognition of the women, their stark faces show no acknowledgment, and in the center, the young girl appears to be alone, her circumstances are really unknown as she navigates through this impersonalized world. This void picture captures the physiologic alienation wrought by the modernization of society. On the painting's reverse side, Kirchner painted a nude women bathing in a natural landscape to provide a contrast between the serenity of nature and the jarring city streets of Dresden.

Ed and Nancy Kienholz; Sollie 17 1979-80 (Mixed Media Construction)
Sollie 17 (outside view)
Ed and Nancy Kienholz

Assemblage and installation artists, Ed (1927-1994) and Nancy (1943- ) Kienholz created a small, cramped hotel room in which three figures are meant to represent the same man at three different points in time. Peeling wallpaper, an old portable television, and a collection of various other objects help set a gloomy scene under the florescent light emitted by an uncovered bulb. The room looks like the quarters of someone living on the edge and obscurity of society.
The title of the piece, Sollie 17, was derived from the title of the novel Stalag 17, which is about a prisoner-of-war camp. This enforces the theme of misery and confinement.The man is portrayed reading a book, hanging his head, and looking out the window. This shows that he perhaps wishes to escape the loneliness and tedium of his room through reading or the outside world. His hung posture gives the impression of fatigue or depression. The loneliness of this individual is painstakingly evident upon viewing the piece. Seeing him in three different snap-shots of his life, makes it clear that this lone man feels both mentally and emotionally isolated.

Rene Magritte; Les Amants 'the lovers' 1928 (Oil on Canvas, 54 x 73 cm)
René Magritte

René Magritte began as a commercial artist designing wall paper and fashion ads. In his surrealist work, he used his mastery of realism to defy logic. His gives ordinary objects irrational twists by combining elements of the absurd. He paints illogical images with crispness and clarity, disliking explanations which diffused the enigma of his works.
The Lovers shows a couple mysteriously shrouded in white cloths. One cannot help but perceive an eerie feeling from the covered faces. The lovers stand cheek to cheek as though posing for a picture, however the obstruction of their facial features takes away from their humanity. Magritte made another version of 'the lovers,' done at a similar time, in which the same couple attempts to kiss through their incarcerating cloaks. The subjects stand with their individualizing features covered; these two are affected by alienation as their attempts at intimacy are obstructed by the disenfranchising linens.

George Segal; Gas Station 1963-1964 ( Plaster, metal, & rubber, 2.59 x 7.32 x 1.22 m)
George Segal

George Segal (1924-2000) was an American Pop art sculptor. He created a new art form by placing plaster casts of figures in actual environments. Many of his works are interested in the solitude and vulnerability of the human condition. His stark white figures, created by wrapping surgical bandages around living people, are ghostly and depersonalized, projecting loneliness and isolation. He fused reality with unreality to intensify the impact of ordinary experience.
Gas Station, is a comprehensive example of the alienating effect of what critic Lawrence Alloway called the American highway subculture, with its associations to rootless wandering and personal estrangement. Segal said, "when I first showed The Gas Station, a lot of people were horrified at fifteen feet of blank emptiness in the center of the piece. They cited the then current ad for an art school correspondence course: "Do you make these mistakes in composition?" I was more concerned with how it felt to be in and pass by gas stations." The surrounding 'gas station' is made of a Coca-Cola machine, seventy-one glass bottles, four wooden crates, a metal stand, eight rubber tires, a tire rack, thirty oil cans, an electric clock, six concrete blocks, two windows of wood and plate glass. In the scene are two plaster figures, gloomy and dispirited. The Drained color of these lonely and bored figures evokes a reluctant relatability, a mental confrontation of the harsh reality of isolation in the modern world.

Egon Schiele
Egon Schiele; Self-Portrait Nude 1911 (Gouache and pencil on paper, 51.4 x 35 cm)

Egon Schiele (1890-1918) was an Austrian independent expressionist. His artwork conceptually surrounds ideas of physical and physiological torment. He made numerous drawings and watercolors of women in sexually explicit poses to emphasize the animal nature of the human body.
In his Self-Portrait Nude, his blurry and rugged self impression is emphasized by the bold white negative space that outlines portions of his body. His sickly coloring fits the anguish and daring in his face and his emaciated body. The absence of his lower right arm is suggestive of amputation; this in combination with his inarticulate genitalia has been interpreted as symbolic self punishment for indulgence in masturbation.
This man's self portrait makes it glaringly evident that he feels the need for chastising. He is a man that must have felt isolated and outcast in a society where the morals disallowed him a self-respecting existence.

Edward Hopper; Nighthawks 1942 (Oil on Canvas, 84.1 cm × 152.4 cm)
Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was a major twentieth century American realist. He was raised in a middle class family and always had a tendency to seek solitude, enjoying the insulated exploration of books while growing up. He attended the Chase school of art in New York, his style is characterized by solid forms, sober brushwork, tightly structured compositions, and bold contrasts between light and dark. His carefully laid out compositions portray a fastidiously observed world.
Nighthawks, he said, "seems to be the way I think of a night street. I didn't see it as particularly lonely. I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger. Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city." In this all-night diner, one finds a blaring focus on loneliness and boredom. Inside, there is a seated couple, the woman studies her sandwich, her hand almost touches that of her partner. These two give off a feeling of vulnerability and longing. As a pair, they juxtapose the lone man at the other side of the counter, whose back is severely cut by a shadow. Each person seems somehow isolated from the other patrons; the couple, while evidently there together, does not converse, and are just shy of making physical contact with one another. The man across the counter also projects a propensity for solitude as he ducks beneath the shadowy brim of his cap. The large glass window gives the diner almost the same effect as an aquarium has, the viewer, looking into this scene from the uninhibited outside street, is meant to share in their condition.

The collection of artworks presented above depicts the nature of isolation as a human condition and an aspect of social civilization. Whether viewed as the antagonizing force against which an individual must endure, or the co-habitational context of a society, the idea of isolation has seeped into many post-industrial artworks.
A modern phenomenon is that progression becomes regression. In the contemporary world, as a seemingly exponential number of virtual highways are created to allow people to connect with one another, people are actually becoming disconnected.
The Isolation of an individual can create a mutilated image of the human psyche, as was done with the more representational works of Alberto Giacommeti and Egon Schiele, can be presented in a documenting fashion, as was done by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Edward Hopper, or can be fictitiously simulated, as was done by Rene Magritte, Ed and Nancy Kienholz and George Segal. Whatever the medium of the message's delivery, the exploration in art of issues surrounding loneliness, isolation and alienation is a worthy endeavor of the social commentator.

Works Cited

Barnes, Rachel. The 20th Century Art Book. China: Phaidon Press Limited, 1999.

Hunter, Sam. George Segal. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1989.

Levin, Gail. Edward Hopper; The Art and the Artist. New York: WW Norton Company; in association with The Whitney Museum of American Art, 1980.

Museum of Modern Art. New York, New York. 3 Jun. 2010. <www.moma.org>.

Strickland, Carol and John Boswell. The Annotated Mona Lisa. Kansas City: Andrew McMeel Publishing, LLC, 2007.

Stockstad, Marilyn. Art History. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005.