Disrecognized Space

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Modern Art: a multiplicity of traditions

Art in the century spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was marked by a rejection of tradition, yet art has always progressed by rejecting. In this essay I argue that the distinguishing feature of this particular period is not the rejection per se, but the multiple ways this occurred and the rapidity of these changes. In an age of turmoil, war and societal upheaval, artists reflected this in their works, developing new movements at an astonishing rate, while still building on the traditions that led to this period. I will discuss this in particular in relation to two artists: Paul Delvaux and Franz Marc. The way these artists approached their art shows a concern for psychic truth, and a grappling with tradition and new forms in order to express those concerns.Art has altered throughout history by a rejection of tradition. Ancient Eqyptian art, for all its long history of unchanging forms of representation, altered dramatically under the reign of Akhenaton (Kleiner 2009, p. 73). Further examples could be picked at random throughout the history of art where a way of showing the world was transformed or rejected, to be replaced by a new way of showing it. Ultimately, of course, a successful movement that rejects the previous tradition becomes the new orthodoxy. What then, if anything, distinguishes the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? The singular difference is the rate at which traditions were rejected and replaced. Instead of periods of hundreds or thousands of years, changes in art occurred much more frequently (indeed, so frequently that individual artists during this period encompassed multiple styles).

Bronowski (1978, p.48-49) states that every new movement in art is a ‘breaking out into liberty’ as the previous rigidities and limitations are broken through, not by any technical changes, but by a ‘breaking out whenever discovery or imagination opens a first crack in the rigid shell of society’. Each new age, he argues (p. 51) opens up new possibilities, while also setting new limits. It is only when these new methods become fixed that the new age ceases, until the next breaking of boundaries. One of the great changes that occurred since the mid-nineteenth century is that we increasingly live in an environment that is constructed (Bronowski (p. 125) points out that this is particularly reflected in the works of Magritte and the surrealist movement).

Art does not exist in isolation from society, nor is it a simple mirror to society. Rather than changing society, art changes as a result of changes in society, and it is salient to look to what was happening at the time in order to understand this. The Modern period is notable for its rapid changes: it was a period of revolutions (French, American, Russian and, especially, Industrial), of consolidation of states, of scientific discoveries and of societal changes. Bronowski (1973, p. 332) sees art reflecting these changes, but where a scientific paper is analytical, modern art is a way of deconstructing and then reconstructing the world. Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England was published in 1845 (Hunt, 2009), Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859, The Communist Manifesto in 1888 and Einstein’s On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies (which introduced the Theory of Relativity) in 1905. As well as this, inventions such as photography fundamentally changed the artistic process, and society was becoming increasingly urbanised (Kleiner 2009, p. 821-822, p. 909). Change became the order of the day.

Clearly, the old order was no longer acceptable. It wasn’t just change that was happening, but change at an increasing rate (what Kurzweil (2001) calls The Law of Accelerating Returns) that differentiates the modern period. Modernism as a movement encompasses a multiplicity of styles: impressionism, symbolism, realism, fauvism, cubism, futurism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, and many more (Modernism, 2009) which simultaneously rejected the past as well as looked to it (though it should be borne in mind that so many styles are not easily generalised). Futurism directly addressed this in its First Futurist Manifesto, extolling ‘the beauty of speed’ (Gruber, 2008). Art had become, more than at any other time, an individual exercise where inner interpretation was at least as important as exterior representation (Taylor 1954, p. 151, p. 155). At this period the post-Renaissance approach to science and rationalism began to conflict with the darker consequences of enlightenment: a hubris which threatened society (Tarnas 2001, p. 16). By objectifying the world, modern humans have dissociated themselves from the primitive animistic view, alienating themselves from that world (p. 33)

Carl Jung (1933, p.199) points out that the present is always a point of flux between past and future. The modern man [sic] “emphasizes the past in order to hold the scales against his [sic] break with tradition.” Jung was writing at a time soon after World War One, when the Second World War was looming, and perceived that the psychological shocks of the recent past had resulted in a ‘profound uncertainty’ (p. 200). In contrast with the medieval world where the Earth was fixed and everyone knew their place, the modern world is a chaotic place of progress and destructio. Even the psyche is no longer safe (p. 205): ‘Science has destroyed even the refuge of the inner life. What was once a sheltering haven has become a place of terror.’

Others reacted to the rapidity of change of the modern era in different ways. Tolstoy (1995, p. 146) in 1898 wrote that art should increase the good in life, but that modern art was of limited relevance (particularly, in view of Tolstoy’s late embrace of religion, its lack of religious meaning). With an acceptance of religion, art could transform society and eliminate violence (pp. 165-166). Society would then become a (Christian) Utopia. Albert Camus, on the other hand, stated that ‘Art disputes reality, but does not hide from it’ (Camus 1953, p.224). Kandinsky (1912) argues that humanity is a process of pursuing new values until those values become accepted, when they become a ‘wall (…) against tomorrow’ to be replaced by yet newer values. It is a process of constantly creating new limits and overthrowing them. Schapiro (1957) sees the main break is that modern art is not necessarily representational, focussing more on inner expression than imagery.

Artists reacted to these changes in multiple ways, as noted in the list of movements above, but the situation was more complex than simply rejecting ‘tradition’ and creating something new. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sought to return to an earlier tradition altogether (Kleiner 2009, p. 809), while Picasso had his neoclassical period (Jones 2009). It is impossible to encompass all the movements and artists of this period in such a short space. Instead, two artists will serve as examples, in relation to Surrealism and Expressionism respectively: Paul Delvaux and Franz Marc.

Surrealism exemplifies the inner expression of the artist, emphasising spontaneity, and the expression of the subconscious (reflecting the growing interest in such matters by Freud, among others) and the inner workings of the psyche – ‘psychic automatism’ (Breton 1924). Paul Delvaux (1897–1994) emphasised ‘illusionistic Surrealism’ (Voorhies n.d.) in the sense that his images contain conventional, representational objects, though the conjunctions between these objects are disturbing. His paintings are full of recurring figures (naked women, scientists, trains, ruins) that, individually, seem wholly traditional but which in their conjunctions elicit a dreamlike unease. Like a recurring nightmare, logic seems to be almost present but just out of reach. Influenced by the Spitzner Musuem, a collection of objects that resembled a chamber of horrors (Rombaut 1980, p. 12) and de Chirico, Delvaux’s paintings hearken back to the forced perspective of the Renaissance (p. 14). Rombaut states that, despite the many links to earlier artists, Delvaux’s art is modern precisely because it juxtaposes reality and dream as a single object (p.24).

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Figure 1: Paul Delvaux: The Conversation, 1944, oil on cardboard, 50cm x 61cm, The Simon Collection (http://blogdoseditores.blogspot.com/2008/07/aporias-ps-vestfalianas.html)

In The Conversation (1944), a classically posed semi-nude reposes, though her shadow is a skeleton mirroring her pose (the woman’s gesture seems to be indicating where the skeleton’s heart would be). The skeleton’s shadow, in turn, gestures towards the void of a blank wall. A memento mori, painted during the Second World War, the setting in a modern room generates an unease between the traditional format and the location.

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Figure 2: Paul Delvaux: The Phases of the Moon II (Les phases de la lune II). 1941. Oil on canvas 143 x 175 cm. Gallery Patrick Derom, Brussels (http://www.epdlp.com/pintor.php?id=230)

Again, in The Phases of the Moon II, individual objects seem ordinary: a scientist examines an object on the right, a group of figures discuss some matter in the rear (are they businessmen?), while a nude sits at the left. Incongruities intrude, however. The men ignore the nude woman, engrossed in their preoccupations, just as they ignore each other. The nude seems oblivious. Is she another object for their discussion and evaluation? More disturbingly, the exterior world is physically intruding into the room. This element of worry is enhanced psychologically by the use of perspective: Delvaux could be said to be rejecting the tradition of perspective current at the time, though he looks back to a less established understanding of perspective by using multiple vanishing points, as shown below.

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Figure 3: Paul Delvaux: The Phases of the Moon II showing perspective lines.

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Figure 4: Paul Delvaux: La Rue du tramway [Street of the Trams] 1938 – 1939. Oil on canvas 90.30 x 131.30 cm. National Galleries of Scotland (http://www.nationalgalleries.org/index.php/collection/on_loan/4:318/results/50/23859/)

In Street of the Trams the industrial world of the twentieth century is juxtaposed with nude women in a scene that is so traditionally posed it might have been created by Piero della Francesca (Kleiner 2009, p. 572). Yet the gestures and poses remain mysterious, laden with meaning but lacking context. The industrial and mechanical world seems to split the scene, just as the modern world was splitting into factions and movements. Also, again, the multiple vanishing points increase this foreboding so that things seem not-quite-right without any obvious reason why.

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Figure 5: Paul Delvaux: La Rue du tramway showing perspective lines.

Franz Marc (1880-1916) also had his own obsession, depicting mainly animals, but his style changed dramatically throughout his short career though it was always in an attempt to find some inner truth about the world. Marc was concerned with a spiritual renewal in the face of German imperialism and technological changes – something that he wrongly believed serving in the War would also further (Schuster 1988, p. 21).

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Figure 6: Franz Marc: Horse in a Landscape (Pferd in Landschaft), 1910, oil on canvas, 83cm x 110cm, Museum Folkwang, Essen. (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marc-horse_in_a_landscape.jpg)

Generally considered an Expressionist (a vague term itself), after experimenting with movements such as Impressionism, Marc achieved a clearly recognisable style. In Horse in a Landscape the horse that draws the viewer’s eye into the frame is clearly recognisable, though the landscape itself is only understandable in the light of this device (Partsch 1991, p. 20). Apparent, also, is the artist’s individual use of colour. In discussion with August Macke, Marc developed his own ideas of colour theory, seeing colour as separate from light, and assigning principles to different colours. Blue, for example, was the male principle, yellow the female, and red matter (p. 25-26). While his style continued to evolve, his characteristic use of colour to symbolise metaphysical truths remained constant.

In a few years Marc’s ideas continued to develop. In 1911 he wrote how society was ushering in a new age but, being caught up in that change himself, it was impossible to tell what it would be. The artist, however, was creating a new art (Partsch 1991, p. 39).

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Figure 7: Franz Marc: The Tower of Blue Horses 1913. Oil on canvas 200 cm x 130 cm. Location unknown (http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=20966)

The Tower of Blue Horses, now lost, was a dramatically imposing nearly life size work (Partsch 1991, p. 47). Here the landscape and the animals have merged, their forms simplified into large blocks, echoing each other. The horses contain within their forms stars and moons. No horse is really blue, but Marc wanted to depict here a spiritual truth (Gregory 1986, p.3010).

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Figure 8: Franz Marc: Stables 1913. Oil on canvas 73.5 cm by 157.5 cm . Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=21421)

In Stables the animal forms have become more abstract, so that the lines of colour and movement have equal importance. The work shows the influence of Cubism (though Marc was more influenced by Robert Delaunay’s Orphic Cubism) as Marc continued to find ways to show the spiritual truths he felt existed most deeply in colour (Gregory 1986, p. 2986). Von Holst (2000, p. 174) likens the colours in this image to a stained glass Gothic window.

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Figure 9: Franz Marc: Small Composition II (House with Trees) (Kleine Komposition (II) (Haus mit Bäumen)) 59.5 × 46 cm. Sprengel-Museum (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Franz_Marc_014.jpg)

In his final paintings (though still only in his thirties) Marc was moving to totally abstract representations. Here the colours and forms, and the interaction of their lines and energies has subsumed everything else as he rejects not only tradition, but his own previous styles.

These two artists rejected traditional forms of representation while at the same time retaining elements of those traditional forms. What marks them out as artists from previous generations is the desire to express inner truths, and to seek out personal methods and ways of expressing those particular truths. Delvaux, whose style changed little in his mature years, subverted tradition by utilising it to depict a twentieth century where the psyche was disjointed and without a firm point of reference. Marc, in contrast, changed his style repeatedly in a search for what remained constant for him: revealing spiritual truths. Both in their ways, however, express the modern sensibility to reinvent art as a response to the equally multifarious changes happening in society about them.

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