Optical delusions

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“We should apologise for daring to speak about painting.”
Paul Valery

ART SINCE 1900: Modernism Antimodernism Postmodernism
Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh
Thames and Hudson £45, 704 pages

Karl Ruhrberg, Manfred Schneckenburger, Christiane Fricke, Klaus Honnef
Taschen £19.99, 840 pages

THE VEXATIONS OF ART: Velazquez and others
Svetlana Alpers
Yale £25, 240 pages

Unlike writers, who have always talked eloquently for themselves, artists have needed critics from the moment that they ceased to depend on aristocratic patronage and struggled instead in a democratic market economy. Guillaume Apollinaire and cubism, Andre Breton and surrealism, Clement Greenberg and abstract expressionism: in the 20th century, such flaneurs des deux rives, prophets who rushed madly between studio and print room to spread the latest aesthetic gospel, appeared to conjure entire art movements before our eyes.

Critics and art historians cannot, in the long run, turn the tide from the truth of genius or the march of history - Apollinaire backed many also-ran cubists, now forgotten, as well as Picasso; in all his loftiness Greenberg could not halt the backlash against abstraction. But still they exercise enormous temporary power over taste, wallet and our joy, or not, of looking - which is why the publication of Art Since 1900, a door-stopper by four American academics claiming to be “the most important and influential art historians of our time” is such a lamentable event.

Where does one start with this awful, useless white elephant? The authors open with four self-serving essays justifying their different methods - psychoanalytical, sociological, structuralist, deconstructionist - and close with a preposterously pompous round-table discussion congratulating one another for contributions that “will set the agenda for many years to come”.

Since the real test of such books is as long-term works of reference, I began with the index. Greenberg has 33 mentions, aesthetician Walter Benjamin 30, Breton 24, and semiotics philosopher Roland Barthes 19. By contrast, the score for Matisse, whose “Le Bonheur de Vivre” is acknowledged as the canvas that “opens the gates of 20th-century art” - supposedly the subject of this book - is 24; for Malevich and Kandinsky, twin pioneers of abstraction, under 20. Francis Bacon gets three. Chagall and Modigliani, among the greatest modernists yet ones resisting any theoretical pigeonholes, get two each, which turn out to be en passant references, as do the single mentions of Lucian Freud and David Hockney: none of these is illustrated. Significant painters from Chaim Soutine to Paula Rego are absent.

Meanwhile narcissistic photographer Cindy Sherman (”mass cultural construction of the woman’s image... desire modelled in terms of a transgression against form”) has several pages and illustrations, as have the piles of sweeties and billboard installations of gay campaigner Felix Gonzalez-Torres (”a sense of generosity, a spirit of offering... the making of a gay subjectivity”). Both are presented as pioneers, in terms more sympathetic and laudatory than those used for seminal works of the last century.

”Le Bonheur de Vivre”, that taut balance of order, chaos and joy - and Matisse’s liberation of colour from realistic constraint - is “a polysemic image conjuring up a series of contradictory sexual drives corresponding to... polymorphous infantile sexuality... a catalogue that revolves around the Oedipus complex and the concomitant castration anxiety”. While “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, which smashed the model of naturalistic representation and opened the floodgates to modern art, shows “the problematic genius of Picasso that led him to work his sexual and racial ambivalences into thematic and formal experiments”. The explanation continues: “Picasso called ‘Les Demoiselles’ his ‘first exorcism painting’. This term is suggestive in ways he did not suspect, for much modernist primitivism engages tribal art and primitive bodies only... to exorcise them formally, just as it recognises sexual, racial and cultural differences only... to disavow them fetishistically.”

This book is not “a landmark study in the history of modern art” but, coming from our leading art publisher, a bleak and alarming signpost that the most banal, straitjacketed form of political correctness promoted in the American academy is a frontrunner in our culture wars. The book barely talks about painting and when it does the terms have nothing to do with paint or pigment, line or form, let alone impressions or emotions that these might evoke. Forget art as, in Robert Hughes’ words, opening “the passage from feeling to meaning”.

Art Since 1900 pulls the definitive works of 100 years squarely into the claustrophobic, arid mind of the 21st-century theoretician and heaps on layer upon layer of all-must-have-prizes new media mediocrities, culminating in 2001 - the book is arranged as a calendar of the years - when video-maker Sam Taylor-Wood is “a contemporary version... of Leonardo”.

Year by year the professors diminish the great and exalt the tedious. In 1908 Klimt painted “The Kiss”, Kandinsky moved to quasi-abstraction in the Murnau landscapes, Matisse made “Harmony in Red” and Chagall the seminal “The Dead Man”. But 1908 is heralded as the year that art historian “William Worringer publishes Abstraction and Empathy”; none of the paintings is mentioned. By the 1960s, with conceptualism on its way to triumph, artists are a footnote compared with philosophers. In 1984, the authors have to remind themselves that the visual exists at all and by 1993 they celebrate that “the idea that aesthetic production should be geared to either optical display or ocular pleasure was opened to the severest attack”.

Am I blaming the messengers? The point is that they are conflated. Conceptual art, and much of the installation and video work that has come in its wake in the past two decades, is hugely dependent on being explained in the baffling, killjoy jargon of which Foster, Krauss, Bois and Buchloh are masters. As a result it has assumed a prominence out of proportion to its artistic merit or to the interest of the public. If such abstruse, emotionally blank, emperor’s-new-clothes nonsense is representative of art history as taught in today’s universities, how many potential humanities students are being disconnected from art? For “when the history of art parts company with the history of images”, as David Freeburg writes in The Power of Images, “the power is with the images, and art becomes just a small thing” - fatally, in this over-sized book.

Its rival, Taschen’s recently relaunched two-volume Art of the 20th Century, edited by superb Picasso expert Ingo F. Walther but written by four German art historians, wins hands down for comprehensiveness, generosity of vision, international scope, elegance of presentation and wonderful reproductions - in scant supply in the Thames and Hudson volume, since the thrust is that thinking is the new seeing.

While the approach is broadly conventional, a quirkiness of the Taschen book for English readers is a bias to the Germanic. It repeatedly tilts received versions of 20th-century art history - Paris-led until the 1940s, when New York took over - at bizarre angles. Thus an unrivalled panorama of German expressionism, stunningly illustrated, in four sections tracing the movement’s roots to sources as diverse as Dostoevsky and the baroque, leads to a chapter on the revolution of cubism inexplicably entitled “The calm after the storm”.

Playing the index game, Joseph Beuys gets more references than Matisse. On the world stage today, Sigmar Polke is hardly “the most prolific, restless, humorous and at the same time most enigmatic contemporary artist”; the minor Austrian painter Arnulf Rainer does not “hold a special place... within European art”; and his poseur countryman Hermann Nitsch, whose blood-and-guts abstractions (”Orgy Mystery Theatre”) are so beloved by Charles Saatchi, has no place in international art history at all.

But these are minor ripples in a sweeping narrative flow. The book begins with a sharply focused account of influences at work in 1900 - Munch and Ensor as well as Cezanne and Gauguin. It ends with the latest developments in Russian painting, Chinese photography, Australian performance art - the wired-up, naked figure of Stelarc, exploring “the basic deficiency of the human body... seeking to answer the question whether a two-footed, breathing body with binocular vision and a brain of 1,400 cubic centimetres is a viable biological structure”.

The long view, the gradual shift from painting to new media to meet the challenges of reality when “improving the world is no longer an option for artists... at best one might see oneself as helping to form the world”, is maintained in nearly 900 pages; the new is explored without hype, established artists without postmodern condescension. Art Since 1900 gives a characteristically American perspective - out with the old, especially the non-American old. Art of the 20th Century is moderate, respectful and quintessentially European in its subdued acceptance that decadence and decline, “the disquiet and insecurity that marks an Alexandrine, late culture, as well as scepticism and doubt”, are our legacies from modernism. Modernism was about individuality - the shaping force of the inner life - which is one reason why no collaboratively authored account will ever quite catch its spirit. For that, turn to Svetlana Alpers, professor emerita at Berkeley, one of the most original commentators of the past 40 years, on “the very impossibility of ever arriving at an account of a tradition or ways of looking for once and for all, the contingency of it all, and yet the persistence of our attempts to do so”. Her new book, The Vexations of Art, is an engrossing, passionate attempt to re-engage with painting as a mode of thought at a time when “it is not clear in what form the resource of painting - for surely painting has been a singular resource of the greater European culture - will continue”.

Its core is a beautifully modulated study of the relationship between Velazquez and Manet. It is full of playful visual delights - the fine passages of painting lavished on the grey cat clasping an orange in Manet’s “Young Woman Reclining in Spanish Costume” echoing the tabby animal, fur against naked flesh, in Velazquez’s “The Spinners” - and comes alive through comic anecdotes. Here is snootily Parisian Manet curtailing his trip to see Velazquez because the food is so dreadful at Madrid’s Grand Hotel, where he fights publicly in the restaurant with his great friend Theodore Duret, “on the rebound from even worse food in Lisbon”, who hungrily devours every morsel Manet rejects.

Yet despite the food, Manet found what he wanted in Madrid: a lifelong sustenance and strength - no Bloom-like anxiety of influence here - from an artist who shared his “frankness and an economy in the handling of paint... Latecomers working in a mature tradition... both painters depict the world seen, but also the world obviously, even wilfully, painted... a record, in other words, of thinking through paint.”

From this dazzling focus, Alpers fans out to inquire how “a succession of European painters have taken the studio as the world” - Vermeer, Rubens, Matisse, Picasso - as they dealt with conflict, rivalry, influence but above all the continuity that allowed them to make paintings such as “The Spinners” and “Dejeuner sur l’Herbe”. “They are both unprecedented works,” is how Alpers concludes this magisterial, questing book. “It is not the history of art, or the fact that painting is painting, but the nature of the pictorial tradition they both worked in and the perception each artist had of working in it that made that possible. And now?”

Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s chief art critic

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