Modernism’s Future

Jon Whiteley

  • The Meanings of Modern Art by John Russell
    Thames and Hudson, 429 pp, £18.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 500 27248 4
  • The Oxford Companion to 20th-Century Art edited by Harold Osborne
    Oxford, 656 pp, £19.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 19 866119 3
  • Abstract Expressionism: The Formative Years by Robert Hobbs and Gail Levin
    Cornell, 137 pp, £17.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 8014 1365 6

Has the art of our century an identity of its own? Is it consistent? Has it common interests? The Oxford Companion to Art, published in 1970, is not helpful in answering these questions. It has no entry for ‘Modern Art’ while the title of the new companion, the Oxford Companion to 20th-Century Art, also edited by Harold Osborne, cautiously avoids the issue. Yet 90 per cent of the artists mentioned inside the recent book (although not, of course, 90 per cent of 20th-century artists) are the spiritual progeny of two or three French artists working at the turn of the century. Not a movement, perhaps, but certainly a family. The founding fathers of the High Renaissance never had success like this. In a century from now, when the nature of ‘Modernism’ will be clearer, the pundits may, after all, decide that ‘Modern Art’ (as distinct from Cubism, Surrealism, Minimalism and the many lesser eddies all conscientiously described by Harold Osborne) is no more useful as a term than Romanticism or Classicism have been in helping us to understand the art of the past.

John Russell, meantime, in his new book, Meanings of Modern Art, is a little bolder. He begins conventionally enough with Manet and the 1860s, but, unlike the formalists who also took this line when formalism was in fashion, he attributes the shift in art perceptible in this decade to events in the intellectual and political life of the times. It is one of the axioms round which this book is written that ‘the history of modern art, if properly set out, is the history of everything,’ so that the publication of Das Kapital, the invention of dynamite and the impending Franco-Prussian war are somehow significant. Exactly how is never clear. But Russell returns repeatedly to his theme by relating the heroic novelty of modern art to radical advances in other fields. So the Michelson-Morly experiment of 1887 (which proved that no material object has an absolute velocity) is ‘not without parallels in the work of Cézanne’, and Bergson’s ideas about duration and contingency are ‘often strikingly similar to Cézanne’s procedures’. The notion that each age calls into being a new art, which lies behind Russell’s approach to Modernism, is, nevertheless, fascinating, not because (as Russell passionately believes) it is necessarily true, but because it has had such a successful run of luck ever since Stendhal made it fashionable to think that while Raphael was all very well for the men of the Renaissance, the 19th century needed artists of its own. Stendhal’s answer was Horace Vernet, who, indeed, strides across European art in the 19th century much as Picasso does in ours. ‘What was truth for the painters of yesterday is falsehood for the painters of today,’ said the Futurist Manifesto of 1910: but, as the statement itself could have proved to the artists of 1910, some of yesterday’s truths were made to last. This belief in the necessity of the modern leads Russell from time to time to adopt the incautious tone of the polemicists whose work he chronicles. ‘Nothing but neurosis,’ he declares, ‘could justify continued subjection to such fundamentals of old-style architectural practice as the load-bearing wall, the small fixed window or the design that was thickest and fattest at the point of junction with the earth.’ Tempting though it may be to pause over the neurotic architecture of the Barratt House, it should, in fairness, be pointed out that this is not the language of an art-historian but of an eloquent apologist for Modern Art, addressing a readership that is American and non-specialist. In fairness, too, it should be said that as an account of Modern Art that hasn’t much to offer in the way of novelty, it is vivid, enthusiastic and sincere – like television at its best. And if the warmth of the spoken word and the clatter of superlatives seem excessive in hard print, that should not detract from its real qualities as a plain man’s guide to MOMA (which is how, in 12 monthly issues, it began life). It is well set out, beautifully illustrated (like most Thames and Hudson books nowadays) and, for a book of its size, inexpensive.

Russell’s view of art as a mirror of society leads him to link the decline of European Modernism in the mid-century to the collapse of European society as a whole, and he ends his argument, more or less, with the hegemony of the United States after 1945. As in political and economic strength, so in art. Without going so far as some higher critics who trace the success of Abstract Expressionism to a plot by the CIA sponsored by the multinationals, Russell might have presented the details of his argument more carefully. The links between art and society are not that obviously simple. Venice, after all, did very well in her declining years, and France in 1874 (the year of the first Impressionist exhibition), and in 1907 (the year of the Demoiselles d’Avignon), was hardly in good shape. The authors of Abstract Expressionism: The Formative Years, first issued in 1978 to accompany an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art and at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum, put more stress than Russell does upon the influence of the European exiles in the late 1930s and less upon the buoyant optimism of America in the late 1940s. The debt to Picasso in the American art of this period is well-known, but the influence of Kandinsky and Miro has never been so well illustrated. In addition to the introductory essays, setting the record straight on the role of subject-matter and the influence of Europe, the book contains brief lives of 15 artists who contributed to the New York school in its early years. While Robert Carleton Hobbs overstresses the importance of peripheral vision in accounting for their fuzziness, his freshness of approach (shared with his collaborator Gail Levin), and the new material gathered at first hand from survivors, make this book an essential preface to the classic histories of New York abstraction by Thomas B. Hess, Irvine Sandler and Harold Rosenberg.

The original texts from which John Russell’s book has been compiled were issued serially in 1974-5. Since then a little updating has been attempted in the manner of a whistle-stop tour of recent tendencies, but the effect is out of character with the breadth of the main text and leaves the reader suspecting (unfairly perhaps) that Russell’s enthusiasm for the contemporary (as distinct from the ‘modern’) is not quite matched by his passion for the idols of his youth. ‘Trumpery Op’ is his one comment on that brand of recent art, while those who turn to him for an explanation (or a mention) of Carl André will be disappointed.

Of course John Russell has every right to pick his favourites as he rambles through his imaginary museum. He would be a more entertaining companion than Harold Osborne’s new book. But, perhaps, less useful. Osborne’s task, taken on almost single-handed, in compiling a handlist of 20th-century art, is tougher than Russell’s, and he meets the challenges of leaving in and putting out with conscientious thoroughness’, occasionally enlivening his text with a brief dismissal or a word of praise. If we are to take Osborne at his word, however, these assessments are not his own but represent the voice of the ‘general consensus of critical opinion’. As it is hard to imagine a period in the history of art when there has been less consensus about contemporary art than the present, it would be interesting to meet the ghost at Mr Osborne’s elbow who has collaborated on this wise and useful book, guiding him through the awful problems of selecting and assessing. Plainly he is Western European or American. Art outside the Atlantic circle is dealt with summarily and with a European slant. The article on Japan begins only in the 1950s, the account of Russian art ends in 1934, and Deineka is the only Socialist Realist to have an entry of his own. He isn’t Irish, since he forgot Jack Yeats. A Scot would not have left out MacTaggart. His enthusiasm for Gertler seems English and a little old-fashioned, but he banishes Russell Flint and remains calm in the face of Body Art. He can’t be German or Italian as he devotes only three and two and a half columns respectively to Germany and Italy. The United States leads the field with 22 columns, while France, with 18, takes second place. But could anyone but an English writer have given nine columns to the artists of Britain? Not that they are unworthy, but John Russell (who is, after all, an Englishman, although in exile and addressing a public of Americans) gives no idea that British artists, with isolated exceptions, have ever heard of Modern Art and this surely is the consensus (for art before 1960, at least) everywhere but in Britain.

The scope of Osborne’s handlist ends in the mid-Seventies. The problem of where to begin the 20th century, however, has been less neatly resolved. The date of Munkacsy’s death (1900) must be a misprint – he died in 1909 – but his inclusion, even so, is odd; and if the reader wishes to consult a brisk, informative summary of Monet, who died in 1926, he must turn to the earlier Companion. The Oxford Companion to 20th-Century Art can certainly be used as a reference book on its own (and a very good one it is), but it is not as independent of the previous volumes as the cover states. Surely the founding fathers of Modern Art, the idols of the consensus, the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, would have had more space if they had not already been fully treated in the Companion to Art, while the short entry for the Bauhaus refers the reader to the notices in the earlier Companions. It is less enjoyable for browsing through than its fellow volumes, but, in its field, far more comprehensive as a book of reference. It is the only handbook of its kind as far as the 20th century goes, and will be valuable a century from now in giving the scholars of the time a detailed picture of what a British observer, in the later decades of the 20th century, thought was of interest in the art of that century. But how much of it, I wonder, will still be familiar (or even comprehensible) to the general consensus of critical opinion?