ESSENTIAL MODERN ART
I wrote this book in 1999-2000 at the invitation of my friend Mal Peachey, covering the life and work of 59 artists from Paul Cezanne to Bruce Naumann. I was reasonably happy with the text but the book production was so woefully lax that many of the illustrations were printed the wrong way round (that is, flipped) and, in the case of some of the abstract works, upside down!
This is how I introduced the subject.
Modern Art is the art of almost the whole of the twentieth century, but it began in the nineteenth. During the 1880s, three very different pioneers, Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, started to push beyond Impressionism, trying to find for their painting a new moral and emotional framework. The Impressionists had been content to look at nature with attention but without passion. They did not want to question it, or place themselves in it. The Post-impressionists expected to get involved and in this way brought a renewed, almost righteous, ripple of feeling back into their work. In a short time the ripple became a tidal gush of vividly coloured emotions which inundated painting. For a time it became an artist’s duty to fill the canvas with sensibility. This flowed unchecked for the first decade of the new century, until it provoked the reaction of Cubism.
The parameters of Cubism may be gauged by two remarks from its founders. ‘For me painting is a dramatic action in the course of which reality finds itself split apart’ said Pablo Picasso flamboyantly. The quieter, subtler Georges Braque chose to emphasise a less percussive aspect of the new art when he disclosed ‘I don’t believe in things. I believe in relationships’. This kind of talk, and more particularly the painting to which it referred, was met with blank incomprehension by 95% of those who encountered it. They saw only the deranged product of two probable lunatics.
As we see now, Cubism was no more insane than Impressionism was in the 1870s, when it faced the same charge. In any case, this new painting was much more than just an expression of its leaders’ creative force – although there was plenty of that in Picasso and Braque. It was an answer to the problem of unbridled emotion in the Nabis, the Post-impressionists and the Fauves. That answer, so apparently extreme and contorted, was imbued with a very twentieth century sense of paradox. The writer Karl Kraus described as making ‘a riddle out of a solution’, a formula that comes as close as six words can to expressing the spirit of Cubism. Despite its inflammatory reputation, the discourse of this art was intellectual, its methods of composition deliberate and studious and the colouring of its pictures decidedly low-key.
Yet the word ‘inflammatory’ is just. Cubism lit the touch paper for an explosion, the largest intellectual revolution in the visual arts since the Renaissance discovery of perspective. And its pioneers, closeted in their Montmartre studios, brooded on many of the central preoccupations of the twentieth century: the space-time continuum, the atom, the validity of sensual experience. They were not alone in this. It was the age of science, in which twentieth century humanity suddenly caught hold of the suspicion that observable reality might be an illusion, or a confidence trick. And what if, instead of nobility and an immortal soul, we carried inside us only a snake pit of competing desires or, worse, a void? These are profoundly unsettling but, for some individuals, feverishly exciting thoughts which arrived along diverse channels. Einstein and Freud were two of the most important of these. Cubism was a third.
The Post-impressionists said that looking is not seeing. Braque and Picasso’s first task, with their split-open, multiple-aspect forms, was to show that seeing is not understanding. Their next, a challenge taken up energetically by a host of offshoots, was to invent visual languages beyond seeing. Right at the front of what was beginning to be called the avant-garde of art – the metaphor is a military one, referring to those ‘riding point’ at the head of an army – Cubism now began to fly above, or circle around or even pass through solid form. Its followers went on, like a victorious raiding party, to capture the essence of movement, expose misconception and root out the fundamentals of sensory truth. The consequences of all this activity, packed into a few momentous years just prior to the (differently shattering) upheaval of the Great War, were profound and irreversible. For all serious artists Cubism had broken through the wall of protective illusions about pictorial space. The breach was established and the apparently ragged and disorganised forces of ‘the new art’ poured through, proclaiming liberation.
The artists themselves sometimes grasped the same liberty in their private lives, creating the stereotype of the penniless, hell-raising bohemian, always drunk on absinthe. Some, like Modigliani, really were like this. But most were profoundly serious people and occasionally too much so for their own good: Braque’s reputation suffered to an extent because of his personal dullness next to the bravura of Picasso; Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock just suffered.
The absolute creative freedom which modernism claimed was bound to put it on a collision course with the new authoritarian politics which arose in the wake of the Great War. This, after all, was at least in part a reaction to the avant-garde in the arts, which was seen as symptomatic of an overall social sickness and disorder. Stalin’s cultural apparatchniks called it ‘formalism’ and sent many artists to the Gulags. The Nazis condemned it as Degenerate Art and mounted a scathing exhibition of the stuff in Munich in 1937. At its opening Hitler, the failed watercolourist, declared ‘if artists do see fields blue they are deranged and should go to an asylum. If they only pretend to see them blue, they are criminals and should go to prison’. Hitler and Stalin had some reason beyond their own prejudices to hate modern art, because many of its leading figures were sympathetic to, if not deeply involved in, left-wing revolutionary activity. Picasso’s great protest painting Guernica rages against the rise of Franco and his use of terror bombing in the Spanish Civil War. Dada and Surrealism were from the start aligned on the political left. And, in the 1960s, art and of political subversion became in some quarters virtually interchangeable.
On the other hand there were spiritual (and spiritualist) dimensions to Modernism that had little to do with politics, including the extraordinary rise and (by mid-century) fall of Theosophy, an attempt to start a new religion mainly by two women, the Russian Madame Blavatsky and her English acolyte Annie Besant. Theosophy had little to do with Cubism but it left its imprint on modern art through four key avant-gardistes, Vassily Kandinsky, Constantin Brancusi, Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock. The vital constant here is the opposite of Guernica’s public howl. It is an intensely private and inner art, a dialogue with the soul. Pollock, one of its most intense practitioners, called all painting self-discovery. ‘Every artist paints what he is’ he said, though he also insisted that what was created went on to live ‘a life of its own’. The strong implication here is that the artist, as creator of ‘living’ works, bears a solemn responsibility that is unique amongst human activities.
From the first, Modernism felt it should embrace new developments in natural science. For obvious reasons, optical physics and colour theory were to be of lasting importance, from Kandinsky onwards. There was also some input by mathematics into Cubism, Einstein’s physics found parallels in Futurist notions of the fourth dimension and the curious biomorphs of Miró and Klee may be related to creatures seen the biologist’s microscope. But it was in the human sciences – more tenuous but richer in suggestion – that modern art found both its philosophical courage and a fountainhead of source material. The most important of these soft sciences – which appear even softer today than they did at the time – were Freudian and Jungian psychology. The unconscious mind provided nothing less than a new world, a Prospero’s island, in which artists could walk their imaginations and release their fantasies. The Surrealist interest in dreams and automatism – writing, drawing and painting without the mediation of thought – cast an immensely long shadow over the whole culture of the twentieth century, while Jung’s archetypes breathed new life into Symbolism. The latter have persisted long after Jung the clinician has been consigned to the sharps-bin of history. They can be spotted, for example, in the later post-Pop work of Peter Blake.
In more recent times it was not scientific ideas but technological hardware that stimulated the visual arts. While the result has undoubtedly been a preponderance of very ordinary and much bad art, this is beside the point: oil-on-canvas is also mostly mediocre. Artists have grasped at the opportunities which technical advance gives them because that is their nature – to seek symbolic languages appropriate to their time and their vision. In some cases the languages used in the second half of the century were borrowed from those of the first, merely translated into contemporary terms. Much video-installation art, for example, looks like the kind of thing Dada would have been doing had they been lucky enough to possess DVD. On the other hand, because the material from which art can be made has become so radically different, there have been immense changes in what can be produced: stainless steel, plastics, fibreglass, polyester resin, neon, acrylic paints and NASA adhesives have all had their effects, as have airbrushes, aerosol sprays, polaroid cameras, photocopiers and fax machines. Some of these would have delighted advanced practitioners like Malevich or Boccioni, but they would also have utterly changed their art, just as cheap computers and colour printers in the early 1960s would have transformed Pop and Op art.
The artist’s orientation to the world became much more various in the modern era. At one extreme there were the depressives. Gloom-laden and angst-ridden, they contemplated modern society as one might a burnt-out church or a crashed car. Existentialism was the in-house religion of this branch of the avant-garde. It embraced freedom - spiritual, cultural and political – but this was not a particularly comfortable or comforting clinch. Released from irrational taboos, irrelevant religion and unthinking social obedience, the self became a pit in which exhilaration wrestled with boredom, liberty with fear. In life, anything was allowable, but existence was a cul-de-sac and personal extinction a certainty. In this perspective, art often became a desperate and driven activity but also a meaningless one.
In contrast to these intimations of the existential condition, much of modern art has been nothing but an expression of joy. Matisse, Balla, O’Keeffe, Brancusi, Klee, Moore and Johns are merely a few of the artists who felt no compulsion to make their works into public acts of suffering. And one of the most attractive strands in modernist art has been its sense of humour. To spend an hour in a room with the solemn works of a Clyfford Still or a Ben Nicholson is perhaps thought-provoking. To do so with those of Magritte pays the same dividend, but you will also laugh in delight.
Twentieth century art is a broad church, complex and fraught with contradictions. Here is an art that dealt in serene unities and hectic disjunctions, in the private meditations of Rothko and Mondrian and the public interventionism of Picasso’s Guernica. It embraced the metal and machine age and at the same time hankered for the pre-colonial art of the black nations. It sanctioned the excesses of Dali and yet adored the monk-like dedication of Albers. It shouted against consumerism whilst lauding Warhol. And, if very often an art of movement, it was always one of Movements, a forest tangled with an undergrowth of ‘–isms’.
No selection of art from such a period can hope to be complete. What follows is an attempt to trace a path loosely through the briary wood. At its centre may be found a castle and a sleeping beauty: but she is for each of us to discover for ourselves.