Vol 1 No 4
The Sources of Contemporary Art
[The first part of a survey which will be completed in the New Year.]
In the exhibition ‘Sources of the Twentieth Century’ (1) there is a remarkable watercolour by Kandinsky, No 283 in the catalogue, painted in 1910, which is a first draft of his Composition VII. The catalogue describes this work as ‘first abstract watercolour’; the collective study edited by Max Bill and published by the Galerie Maeght in 1951 called it ‘first concrete work’; the French version of Will Grohmann’s book on Kandinsky, published by Flammarion just over a year ago, which contains a considerable number of mistranslations (but we know people only buy art books for the illustrations, and contemporary criticism has accustomed us to so much blah-blah-blah about so-called avant-garde painting that we don’t even notice such things), prefers the title: ‘First abstraction’. This is enough to expose the strange mental confusion that befogs aesthetics today. When the same object is taken as a typical example of something and also of its exact opposite, it is obvious that the concepts used are completely inadequate.
The one thing on which these various authors are agreed is the epithet ‘first’. The truth is that we don’t really know what this watercolour means, we don’t know how to interpret it, but we recognize that it is the starting-point for something, and it is easy to see that it is, in fact, the first example of what might be called today the ‘international abstract style’, as we speak of the international Gothic’ of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, a style which is enormously successful throughout the whole world today, which is practised by painters — French, American or Japanese — in their thousands, a figure which in itself is enough to give us grave doubts about the ‘avant-garde’ character, the authentic modernity which is usually attributed to it.
Now Kandinsky’s watercolour was painted over fifty years ago. Let us try to go back, mentally, to that period and see what such a fifty-year-old influence corresponded to then. For an artist painting in 1910, which were the contemporary works inspired by the avant-garde of 1860? The answer is quite simple: Manet had his first exhibition in 1863 and, at that date, Baudelaire was still struggling to win recognition for the genius of Delacroix; the peak of modernity in 1 86o was represented by Courbet, an admirable painter whose significance we have by no means fully exploited even today. In 1910 the great picture-dealers’ galleries, the great exhibitions were swarming with works which were merely summary vulgarizations of Courbet’s, works which today clutter up the lumber-rooms or sometimes the exhibition halls of museums of modern art in every country.
And do you realize how, in 1910, these superficial painters, those of the Salon des Artistes Français, of the Salon de la Société Nationale, etc, and the picture-dealers who sold their paintings so readily, and most of the art critics in the journals of the time, described the painting which was descended from Manet, and which had profoundly understood the experiment of the Impressionists? They spoke of it, in tones of utter contempt, as ‘literature’. You can confirm this from the journals of the day, even from some of the best of them.
This should make us think. At that time, what was called ‘pure’ painting was ‘lifelike’ painting in the most literal sense of the word, painting that dutifully copied nature. The least deviation was condemned as ‘literary’. For more than a century the notion of ‘literary’ painting has served to push aside genuine avant-garde art, genuine modernity, to the advantage of its simulacrum, a fact of which no critic can be unaware today save those who remain deliberately unaware of the history of art and art criticism of that time. Alas, they are legion.
In this exhibition, ‘Sources of the Twentieth Century’, we are shown only those works of the period 1884 to 1914 which had a sequel, which produced noteworthy posterity, that is to say, the painting that had really learnt something from the revolution accomplished by Manet and the Impressionists. The question that inevitably arises, then, is this: today, isn’t the painting that will last, that will produce a genuine posterity, that of those artists who have profoundly assimilated the innovations that appeared between 1910 and 1930, whereas the rest will be as completely forgotten, a few years hence, as their equivalents of 1910? A serious visit to the exhibition shows us that most of today’s most talked-about painters merely play variations on themes of 1910 or 1914, ‘abstract’ themes as they are called, and that their knowledge of subsequent painting is as superficial as that of the painters of the Salon des Artistes Français was of the art of Cézanne and Van Gogh.
The works collected and displayed here invite us to take stock. What do we owe to the artists of that time, and what, since then, is really new? What is merely repetition, diminished, commercialized and more or less cleverly camouflaged? I confess that I should put little trust in anyone who prided himself on being an art critic and who had neglected such an opportunity to check up on his taste, to shake off his prejudices, old or recent, to improve and define his picture of the development of modern art.
True, this exhibition is not perfect, how could it be? But it is far too easy to dodge drawing the necessary conclusions by querulously pointing out that there are a few omissions: Carrière in painting, for instance, Lavirotte in architecture, and that certain artists are inadequately represented, particularly Matisse, whose great compositions of this period are certainly his most memorable achievement (but of course they are in Leningrad and in the Barnes Foundation and consequently could not be included), or that since a place had to be found for Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright in the architectural section, it is not clear why the painting section remains so narrowly European and excludes Whistler and Ryder. Of course every art-lover will take this opportunity to display his knowledge, and deplore the absence of some favourite picture, whereas the real marvel is that so many important works have been gathered together, so many painters — particularly so many painters who are generally unknown in Paris — are represented by first-class canvases, so that it is possible to get a general idea of the renewal of painting round about 1900 and to indulge in some highly fruitful comparisons. It is instructive, for instance, to recognize all the characteristics of Marquet’s landscapes in the Dane Willumsen’s ‘Anthill’, painted as early as 1900, a picture which is greater and more varied than any painted by his too-famous successor.
So, leaving aside all criticisms of detail and organization (everyone is free to supplement, according to the extent of his travels, the general information provided here, by going to see the Klimts in Vienna, the tachiste Kandinskys in Munich or the Marcel Duchamps in Philadelphia), I want to try and bring out a certain number of general conclusions.
I. UNITY OF THE 1900 STYLE
At first sight one is struck by the variety of the display, by the diversity of tendencies, and this is accentuated by the fact that when we search through the trends of contemporary painting for what we can identify as being quite different, as really belonging to another period, we are liable to turn the corner of a room and come face to face with some work so closely akin to what we had settled on, that it is evident the two fit in together perfectly, and the date 1910 or 1913 is no longer surprising. Everyone knows that you merely have to cut out a small square in a painting by Bonnard and enlarge it to two square yards to get a Sam Francis, but this proves nothing, for you’ll be told that the genius, the inventiveness in this case lies precisely in this cutting-out, this change of scale. What is far more disturbing is to discover that the cutting-out process had already been accomplished at the time. We had thought of tachisme, and here are the paintings of Strindberg, a writer; we had thought of action painting, and here is Kandinsky’s Lyricism, etc. Add to this all that division into schools with which we are already familiar: Neo-impressionists, Nabis, Fauves, Cubists; and we wonder how all these painters could have been working at the same time, particularly when we remember academic and semi-academic painting which is not represented in the exhibition and which, nevertheless, was numerically and financially far the most important school at the time.
But everything grows clearer when we pass into the section devoted to decorative art, which is perhaps the most instructive part of the exhibition, since it enables us to replace these canvases in their original setting and thus reveals their true nature to us. We perceive that all these paintings and sculptures, however different they may be, go very well with these articles of furniture, a caryatid by Rodin with a bureau by Majorelle, Mondrian’s chrysanthemum with Carel Adolph Lion’s cabinet for prints and watercolours; that they all play the same sort of rôle in their setting and that, all things considered, their diversity is far more a diversity of manner than of subject. As soon as this thematic unity is grasped, the coherence of the 1900 style, of all the ‘advanced’ art of this period, begins to appear as considerable as that of the Louis XV or Renaissance styles.
I think that the central notion here is that of intimacy. Eugène Vallin’s dining-room, shown here practically in its entirety save for the window hall, is characteristic in this respect. Everything about it is extraordinarily closed in, sealed up. You feel as if you were inside a womb; the walls project, bulge towards you; you are obliged to move gently there; the street noises do not reach you; the light is filtered dimly through glass panes and curtains. The women who live there have no contact with the outside world, save through their servants. They live there in seclusion, sewing, embroidering, picking out Chopin or Debussy on the piano. Their husbands come in without saying a word and crush out their cigars in the ashtray. From time to time they feel stifled and then they have to go to the theatre or into the country, where they have a little house, or else for a walk in the street, a very short walk, to gaze with wonder at the vegetables displayed on stalls, and then they go back into their aquarium.
All the decorative art of 1900 has this enfolding character: lianas, tendrils, arms that clutch or catch you, that restrain you, that prevent you from falling into that abyss of ‘elsewhere’, that world outside home that makes you dizzy.
What purpose will painting serve in such a context? It will play the part of one of those outings, it will bring in a little air, but only so much of the outside world as you see on a walk. Painting provides ‘glimpses’ of the street, glimpses of the intimate life of other people, in particular of that magical figure, that medium, the painter himself, through whom one’s own intimate life can expand without danger; he shows us ‘the countryside’, rather than Nature, and through his eyes we may examine that forbidden object, the nude, which he, the painter, by some special magician’s privilege, has the right to contemplate within the snugness of his studio. The whole art of Munch expresses and exposes this situation perfectly.
An essential feature, then, is the swiftness with which things are glimpsed and seized; obviously, what interests us is not the street down which we go every day to our work, but the exceptional glimpses of it vouchsafed during one of these intervals when we come up for air. The broadness of touch, the swift shorthand handling are guarantees of this immediacy. Matisse will interpret it differently from Bonnard, and Bonnard from Monet; but basically they treat of the same subjects: a moment in the street, the corner of a studio, the outskirts of Paris where you can take a walk on Sundays, the seaside where you go in summer, kitchen stuff, a bunch of flowers brought back from a ramble. To these themes, analytical Cubism was to add those connected with the café: a newspaper, a pipe, a bottle of seltzer water, a glass, etc, which of course were already to be found in Manet’s work.
Closely connected with this swiftness is the variety of which we spoke earlier, for it is important that the subject painted should not be immediately recognized for what it is, and consequently the manner must be renewed fairly frequently.
This acquaintance with the world outside home, by chosen samples, is to play a hierarchizing rôle within the home. Such art being essentially allusive, we retain our liberty before the picture; it offers us some object, some outing, it does not impose them upon us, and in particular it does not impose them on others, on our servants, on our guests; we have the wonderful privilege of being able to read what they cannot yet decipher; we can enjoy our superiority. They are outside; they have dared to stay outside; but only we know how to ‘see’ the setting of their daily life.
The expressionistic Cubism of the negro period, whose superb brutality was so much in reaction against all this, was soon to fade out; its faces, its objects were to recede behind a veil of grey crystallizations.
We have ceased to wonder, moreover, at the absence of a certain number of motifs on which the painter’s eye should surely have lingered. Monet had dared paint the Gare Saint-Lazare but, after him, no other painter ventured to do so. Nothing that formed part of the industrial landscape was allowed into the painter’s world. Picasso’s ‘Reservoir’ is unique among his works at that time. Even a painter like Delaunay retained only those elements associated with fairgrounds and fêtes, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Giant Wheel. Not until the eve of the war and the Futurist movement were the mechanical aspects of industrial civilization to make a timid appearance.
A lengthy study might be made of the gaps in the world-picture offered us by the great paintings of the years round 1900. When the classic themes of these paintings become obsolete owing to the profound transformations of technique and comfort, what endures is the forbidden element, and this is evidently one of the reasons why art, at that time, conceals its subject. It is clear that the worldwide interest aroused today by Kandinsky’s 1910 epigones corresponds simply to the development of this situation.
The strange thing is that despite all the qualities of this decorative art, people began to despise it completely as soon as this type of confined bourgeois life become obsolete (through the progress of electric lighting, transport, etc), and it is certain that a great number of works of this period were destroyed a few years after they were made. Some of the greatest artists were obliged to give up work. The disaffection took place with prodigious rapidity, and the odd thing is that it scarcely affected the painting which belonged to the same style. True, the Kahnweiler collection of Cubist paintings was broken up and the pictures sold cheap during the war, but they soon found their level again. This is due to the fact that paintings had come to be considered more and more as collectors’ pieces; they had lost their connection with the setting around them. The architecture which was to follow was a cold, bare architecture in which painting had no place, in which it could merely be displayed. The logical conclusion of this evolution is seen in the UNESCO palace, where it was decided as an afterthought to hang paintings, since after all this was a cultural organization, but where the architectural setting was in no way adapted to them, so that the works of well-known painters had to be put up haphazard without regard to the suitability of their surroundings.
On the other hand, since the painting of 1900 was essentially an opening on to the outside world, even if this outside world was conceived of as another aspect of intimate life, it could readily be opposed to the interior decoration which it completed. So, after the 1914 war, whereas painting no longer forms an integral part of the decoration of a house, the painter now joins forces with the architect and even inspires him. Mondrian works with the De Stijl group, Kandinsky, Klee and Feininger with Gropius.
II. GERMAN PAINTING
Another great advantage of this exhibition is that it has really been conceived on an international plane, and for the first time a number of great foreign painters have been properly shown in Paris. The fact that Paris was, in 1900, and still is the most important centre of painting and picture-dealing has given rise to a phenomenon familiar in other economic spheres: the attempt to form a monopoly. French picture-dealers and critics have, as we can clearly see today, spontaneously boycotted whatever was not made in Paris, whatever was not controlled by Paris. I have often heard people in responsible positions praise the curators of certain American museums with the words: ‘and above all they have succeeded in imposing French art as against its great enemy, that horrible German painting.’
This boycott was reinforced during and after the 1914 war by patriotic arguments. It was out of the question to take an interest in the painting of the Boches; they had bad taste, by definition.
The Museums of Modern Art in Paris, if they have recently been fortunate enough to acquire a superb collection of Kandinskys, have practically no Klees, nothing by Kokoschka, Kirchner or Nolde, no Munch, no Mondrian, no Pollock, no Tobey.
I have heard visitors, of whose intelligence in other respects I am convinced, make statements which show that such a state of mind is still terribly widespread.
Now one must accept the evidence; and I want to say here what immense admiration I feel for German twentieth century painting. Kokoschka is certainly the greatest portrait painter in Western art since Lautrec, Cézanne and Van Gogh, and there is in some of his late landscapes an impetus which reminds one of Rubens. The German Fauves, although their work tended to decrease in intensity after the 1914 war, and particularly when the advent of Nazism dispersed their group, went much further than the French Fauves in the second decade of this century. The finest Derains and the finest Vlamincks of the Fauve period pale, to my mind, beside certain landscapes of Schmidt-Rottluff’s. The simplification he brings to form and colour owes nothing to the demands of prettiness or of insolent elegance, but it corresponds, as with Van Gogh, to an effort to grasp his subject, or rather the elements he is contemplating, in all their power, to give expression to the full weight of them. He certainly studied African art far more attentively and profoundly than did the painters of the Chatou group, and learned quite different lessons from it; for basically they retained only the exotic element, a superficial strangeness and unfamiliarity. The colours of Vlaminck’s or Derain’s canal-boats and inns on the banks of the Marne, however brightly they are displayed, only render momentary glints; their art is merely a shimmer of which the fragments have been magnified, an impressionism in broad bold strokes instead of Seurat’s methodical dots or the quivering calligraphy of the late Monets.
It is not surprising then that in France the most successful of the Fauves should have been Raoul Dufy, for, combining as he did a swift shorthand method of drawing with coloured notations derived from the practice of watercolour, he concentrated all the most authentic Fauve elements, and he succeeded in enlarging his painting to monumental proportions without spoiling it, achieving gigantic sketches with a brio which recalls that of the eighteenth-century Italians.
For the German Fauves, on the contrary, and for Schmidt-Rottluff in particular, colour is, as it were, distilled in the object contemplated; lighting acts as a reactive agent that forces it to acknowledge its deepest qualities and to declare, before man, its fundamental strangeness.
The subject, henceforward, is no longer ‘the countryside’ but Nature itself, in all her most grandiose and terrifying aspects; no longer the things seen during a walk before returning to the fireside to finish one’s embroidery under the lamplight, but rather that substratum which is anterior to our whole civilization, that primitive horizon which is precisely what the works of ‘primitives’ recall to us.
Remarkable, too, is the development of this sort of understanding in the work of Kirchner; he, too, practises through the purity of his colours a return to untamed nature, to the soil and wild weather, to what lies outside that pleasant rural scene beyond which the French painters of the time never ventured; but this revived awareness is projected on to the town itself, within which he works; that gaze, which is not merely incisive but crushing, is projected on to his contemporaries and on to the street in which they move; whence those impressive urban scenes, those monumentally caricatured citizens bustling towards their evening’s entertainment. Painting here assumes a definitely polemical character. Kirchner is not content to open a window in the homes of those advanced bourgeois who are likely to buy his pictures, who will ensure him a living, he wants to dig a gulf between this section of the bourgeoisie and the rest; he wants to arm the bourgeoisie against itself, and thus to hasten the collapse of those taboos within whose stranglehold he is struggling. When the 1914 war broke out, Kirchner’s polemical tradition was carried on by the humour of Duchamp and of Picabia, who has never since reached the level of his great abstract compositions of that time.
Nolde is certainly as great a painter as Rouault, and he is obviously more varied.
As for those who formed the Blue Rider group round Kandinsky, Franz Marc is the only important painter of the twentieth century to have faced the problem of representing animals, while those who survived the war, Klee, Feininger, Kandinsky himself, by their participation in the Bauhaus, had a decisive influence on the whole evolution of contemporary art. It is certain that this influence is by no means ended; in many respects we are only now beginning to appreciate the real nature of their discoveries.
In 1933 German art received a mortal blow; its artists scattered. Germany has spent fifteen years, since her defeat, patiently recovering her aesthetic tradition and reconstituting her museums; and it is only today that we can hope to see the revival of a movement comparable to those of the beginning of this century.
III. ANTONIO GAUDI
The most triumphial figure of the exhibition seems to me to be Antonio Gaudi. He is certainly the greatest creator of forms of his time; yes, I have weighed my words, greater than the Picasso of that date, one of the greatest creators of forms of all time. Certainly very few of the most distinguished puzzles of our most famous present-day polygon-erectors can hold their own against a fragment of the same size cut from the sublime decoration, made of broken tiles, in the balustrade of the Güell Park in Barcelona, and very few of our modern coagulated erections against the pinnacles of the Sagrada Familia.
The invisible worm at the heart of the 1900 style, of course, was a profound contradiction within the society that maintained it, and the deliberate concealment of some of that society’s most important aspects, which was expressed aesthetically in a contradiction between structure and ornament; one of the most characteristic examples of this dissociation is the Grand Palais, the architecture of which was divided between three separate studios, each of which worked independently from the beginning on its allotted tasks without taking the least interest in what the other two were doing.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh produced a first solution to this problem by rationalizing and accentuating structure as much as possible and subordinating decoration to it, so that in his work the trailing and enfolding ornaments of the 1900 style are drawn out into sweeping curves which only deviate from straight lines for the sake of some subtle commentary. Such an evolution was to lead inevitably to the Bauhaus style.
Gaudi, on the other hand, succeeded in transposing these curves into the realm of architectonics, thanks to a prodigious genius for engineering; he was able to conceive of a dwelling as a gigantic piece of sculpture in which all the furniture, all the ornaments, contributed as details; the Casa Mila at Barcelona is particularly significant in this respect.
Imagining the shapes of his time in what I might describe as a complete architectural space, that’s to say connecting his constructions with every aspect of the civilization within which he was producing them, Gaudi managed to free them from their inner contradictions and to give them, in respect of these contradictions, an extraordinary innovating value, of which we are now reaping the fruit. Obviously, the fact of working in Spain, where life out of doors has always been as important as life indoors, enabled him to go beyond the problem of the snugly enclosed bourgeoisie, obliged him to treat the whole mass of the façade in the same spirit as the furniture, whereas in Paris, for instance in Guimard’s Castel Beranger, there are obviously only a few details of the façade which are in harmony with the new style.
Gaudi’s work was, and still is, a profound criticism of reality in Spain; the architect’s clericalism for a long time concealed this and still prevents many Barcelona intellectuals from appreciating at their true value the masterpieces which transfigure their city; they see in the efforts made to complete the Sagrada Familia just a priestly manoeuvre to clamp the lid down tighter.
If there is anywhere in the world a ruin of the future it is this, and it can never be more than a ruin. Gaudi attained this vast awareness of his time, as was only natural, by taking his stand on that general system of the universe which was stamped deep in the minds of those with whom he worked; but, just as by exhaustively working out the plastic forms of the 1900 style after those of Neo-Classicism, he achieved a genuine transmutation of the former, so, in relation to Catholicism, the profound way in which he probed afresh the question of the relation between the place of worship, the form of worship and the congregation, is itself a radical challenge.
If I am asked how I imagine tomorrow’s art, it is usually to Gaudi’s work that I point.
IV. ART SINCE THEN
The question that worries one about this exhibition is this: what would a similar collection be like, representing the last thirty or forty years? Imagine this in the other half of the exhibition hall; well, what would strike one as really new, with respect to what we have just seen? If we are to believe many books and articles on art, many exhibitions, there would be practically nothing new, since the greater part of what is known as contemporary painting derives directly, without any intellectual reassessment, from the pre-1914 Kandinskys and other works of the same period.
The question, then, is this: what has really happened in between? Who among today’s painters has really learnt something from these, who really comes after them? Because just to have been vaguely interested at some time or other in some tendency or other which the fluctuations of fashion have brought temporarily into the foreground does not, of course, entitle one to rank as ‘coming after’. In 1910 innumerable painters from the Salon des Artistes Français had flirted for a moment with Impressionism but, not having understood its real significance, the advance in awareness which it represented, had rapidly returned to their usual and far more profitable practice. Adopting a few gimmicks, they condemned all the rest as exaggeration and ‘literature’.
What, for our generation, plays the part that Manet, Monet and the Impressionists played in 1911?
It seems to me that the most striking innovations might be divided into three groups.
To begin with, after the Kandinskys of 1911, on which the present abstract international style merely plays ceaseless variations, going round in a circle like a squirrel in a cage, the works that show the most extreme development are those that Kandinsky himself accomplished subsequently, and those of his colleagues of the Blue Rider group assembled round Gropius at the Bauhaus, particularly Klee. To these we must add Mondrian.
On the eve of the 1914 war, modern painting challenged the validity of its own themes: the object that was taken as model was no longer recognizable on the canvas, hence it had become a matter of indifference. Since the relation between two rectangles, or between a red and a yellow, was the significant thing, whether interpreted as a tree, a house or a jar, the painter must take as his subject these forms and colours themselves, but in order to produce a painting rather than mere decoration they must really constitute a subject. Because of this, painters at first chose shapes which are easy to identify. Kandinsky before the war had let himself go, making full use of blots, colours, streaks; afterwards, becoming a teacher and wanting to justify a certain form here rather than there, he painted circles, triangles and bars. This geometrization is correlative with an advance in reflectiveness, and within this geometrization, which moreover gradually becomes considerably more flexible while retaining its essential virtues, it is obviously not the mathematical properties of these forms that are experimented with, but their evocative and emotive properties. So we get the progressive appearance of a new figuration within a considered composition.
Remarkable for their innovating qualities also are the later works of Duchamp and Picasso, both connected with the second of these groups, Surrealism, that other pole of painting between the wars, which obviously influenced almost all the important painters not already represented in this exhibition. Instead of starting from a model and reproducing it on the canvas, the painter starts from the canvas itself, or its equivalent, and deliberately develops his theme on it.
Connected with surrealism are certain painters of the third group, the Americans, the best of whom have been able to establish afresh a live connection with Eastern and Far-Eastern art.
On the one hand, a link with architecture and geometry, on the other a link with psychoanalysis and ethnology. The great task of painting today is the synthesis of these two directions; painting is involved in no less an aim than the recovery of our unity of consciousness. But it will meet with the same sort of resistance that hampers such efforts in other spheres, and consequently it will need knowledge and courage in order to achieve its aim.
Too often, in fact, the language which had begun to appear on the canvas, the shape it was about to take and which could have been perceptible to all, is quickly stifled and camouflaged by the painter. Too many works are thus only beginnings.
One of my friends, with whom I was discussing Franz Kline, whom he admires, said to me that obviously an inscription on a wall, which he had just seen, a great ‘NO to the war in Algeria’ painted in tar and still dripping, contained far more vigour than all Kline’s works but that he was trying to say something of the same sort. True, but the difference is one of explicitness, and we can understand why, in America as well as in Spain, the painter stops after a few strokes, unable to pronounce or write the whole word.
Painters, it’s up to you to free yourselves, to free us from this muteness; open the door at least to all those multitudes who long to get inside your pictures. This involves risks, it demands the greatest prudence and the hardest work, but it is vital.
For, in the last resort, what an exhibition such as this proves, more than anything, is the necessity for a profound moral reform of contemporary art, and above all of art criticism.
(1) Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris, 1960/61
Translated by Jean Stewart
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