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Modern Art

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Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism by T. J. Clark (Yale University Press) In this intense and far-reaching book, acclaimed art historian T. J. Clark offers a new vision of the art of the past two centuries, focusing on moments when art responded directly, in extreme terms, to the ongoing disaster called "modernity." Modern art criticism (and the criticism of modern art) will not easily be the same after this book, and a good thing is that Farewell to an Idea will not provide easy fodder to the multitude of its author's exegetes and followers--- for it is the "full-monty" this time. And one does not imagine imitators.

For what it is worth, the book comprises a vast erudition and experience in the matter and materials of mass culture in the twentieth century, but claims little familiarity with mass society. For it was indeed thought out and written in the "wilds" of Northern California, as Tim Clark is, and for some years has been, Chancellor's Professor of Modern Art at the University of California at Berkeley--- conceived not in the "flats", then, but on high ground. Clark manages to summarize a complex century of art-making and in the process carves out an intellectual vision of our historical isolation as we stand on the cusp of a new, unimagined century. It may be both a epitaph for modernism and manifesto for the yet to be envisioned.


Books about modernism tend to go in for inaugural dates. It all began in the 1820s, they say, or with Courbet setting up his booth outside the Exposition Universelle in 1855, or the year Madame Bovary and Les Fleurs du Mal were put on trial, or in room M of the Salon des Refusés. "An important component in historical sequences of artistic events," writes George Kubler, 

is an abrupt change of content and expression at intervals when an entire language of form suddenly falls into disuse, being replaced by a new language of different components and an unfamiliar grammar. An example is the sudden transformation of occidental art and architecture about 1910. The fabric of society manifested no rupture, and the texture of useful inventions continued step by step in closely linked order, but the system of artistic invention was abruptly transformed, as if large numbers of men [sic] had suddenly become aware that the inherited repertory of forms no longer corresponded to the actual meaning of existence ... In art the transformation was as if instantaneous, with the total configuration of what we now recognize as modern art coming all at once into being without many firm links to the preceding system of expression.

    My candidate for the beginning of modernism — which at least has the merit of being obviously far-fetched — is 25 Vendémiaire Year 2 (16 October 1793, as it came to be known). That was the day a hastily completed painting by Jacques-Louis David, of Marat, the martyred hero of the revolution — Marat à son dernier soupir, David called it early on — was released into the public realm.

       A few minutes after midday on 25 Vendémiaire, Marie-Antoinette was guillotined. Michelet tells us that her death, so long demanded by Hébert and the Paris wards (the so-called sections), in the event went off quietly. People's minds were on other things — the scandal of Précy's escape from Lyon, for example, and the news, mostly bad, from the Army of the North. They knew a great battle was brewing. The cart carrying the queen to the scaffold may well have passed directly under the windows of David's apartment in the Palais du Louvre; in any case we have a pen-and-ink drawing in David's hand of the queen in her final regalia, seemingly done on the spot (fig. 8). "Sinister jotting," its first owner called it. The queen died bravely. Her last fear was that her dead body would be torn limb from limb by the crowd. It did not happen.

    A few hours later there was a second ceremony in the Jstreets — some of them the same streets Marie-Antoinette had been wheeled along on her way from the Conciergerie to the place de la Révolution. The printed Ordre de la Marche for the afternoon's events survives, and we have one or two other reminiscences of the day's final setpiece in the Cour du Louvre. Albert Soboul, in his Les Sans-Culottes parisiens en l'an deux, puts together the following description of what happened: 

On the afternoon of 16 October, the Museum section marched in procession along the quai de l'École, the rues de la Monnaie, Saint-Honoré, and Saint-Nicaise, then stopped in the place de la Réunion to burn the act of indictment against Marat [that is, a copy of the charges drawn up by the Girondins against Marat the previous April], marched on along the quai du Louvre as far as the rue des Poulies, and went into the great courtyard of the Louvre through the colonnade. At the head of the column were ten ranks of drums and riflemen marching in strict order, then a detachment of the armed forces; after them the popular societies with their standards, the sections "preceded by their banners," and various corporate bodies; a detachment of troops came next, flag and drums in the lead, then the whole Museum section passed by en masse; a "corps of musicians"{ ahead of a deputation from the Convention, and following them a group of young conscripts, oak branches in their hands, carrying in their midst the busts of Marat and Lepeletier [sic]; behind them the citoyennes of the section dressed all in white, holding their children by the hand and bearing flowers to deck Marat's tomb; and then bringing up the rear a detachment of the section's own armed forces. In the courtyard of the Louvre, sarcophagi had been erected, and on top of them pictures, painted by David, of the two martyrs of liberty [the other picture, of the regicide Michel Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau, killed by a Royalist on the morning of the King's execution, no longer exists]; a funeral service was held in front of them, with hymns and speeches. As in the ceremonies of the Catholic church, all the arts contributed their magic to the exaltation of the faithful; the sans-culottes communed in the memory of their martyrs.

It is not often that we know so much about the circumstances in which a painting was first shown to the public. But then, it is not often that the circumstances are so carefully stage-managed. No one can be sure that it was David himself who decided who went where that day carrying what. The Ordre de la Marche is signed, for form's sake, by the Museum section's president and secretary. But it would not be surprising if David were responsible. He was the Republic's great expert on matters of mass choreography. He was one of the section's most important Jacobins. And two days previously he had gone before the Convention to announce that the picture of Marat was completed, and to ask his colleagues, "before offering it you, to allow me to lend it to my fellow citizens of the Museum section, as well as that of Lepelletier [sic], so that both can be present, in some sense, at the civic honors paid them by their fellow citizens." Naturally the Conventionnels were not to be excluded from this special event. They could come see their pictures if they wanted to. Even march in the procession. "I invite you to be the first to come view them at my quarters in the Louvre, starting next Saturday."

    The Convention seems to have agreed to David's proposal without much discussion. Among other things, it would probably have struck them as no bad thing for the afternoon of Marie-Antoinette's execution — she was appearing before the Revolutionary tribunal on the day David made his request — to have one or two rival attractions on offer.

    I did say "among other things." By which I mean other possible purposes — other meanings and messages that may have been on the organizers' minds, and maybe even on the participants', as they let their pictures out in public or made their way toward the sarcophagi. I believe that David's procession belongs to its moment — to the days and weeks surrounding 25 Vendémiaire — in ways not necessarily written on the surface. And that the picture of Marat only truly makes sense if its belonging to the same moment is taken seriously, even at the risk of setting an empiricist historian's teeth terminally on edge. For of course the Marat was not done with the procession in view. The procession was thrown together in October. It was part of that month's specific politics. The painting had been under way since July. It had been ordered by the Convention, to be seen in situ by Conventionnels. And so it would be in due course — for a while behind the tribune in the Salle des séances, and later, when Marat's fortunes waned, somewhere in an outer office.

    But it is never the case that we interest ourselves in the circumstances of a picture's first showing because we believe the picture was done for that showing. That showing could only have been imagined, or perhaps phantasized, by the painter as he or she was at work in the first place. And always inaccurately. David, I guess, never had the idea while he did the painting that eventually his Marat and Le Peletier would be "present, in some sense, at the civic honors paid them by their fellow citizens." But the fact that they were, and that in the end he went to such lengths to dictate the terms of their inclusion in the event, tells us something about the nature of David's presuppositions as an artist — his active imagining of what he was doing painting Marat at all. Something decisive: that is my hunch. For my feeling is that what marks this moment of picture-making off from others (what makes it inaugural) is precisely the fact that contingency rules. Contingency enters the process of picturing. It invades it. There is no other substance out of which paintings can now be made — no givens, no matters and subject-matters, no forms, no usable pasts. Or none that a possible public could be taken to agree on anymore. And in painting — in art in general — disagreement most often means desuetude.

    Modernism, as I have said, is the art of these new circumstances. It can revel in the contingency or mourn the desuetude. Sometimes it does both. But only that art can be called modernist that takes the one or other fact as determinant.

BRASSAI: Letters to My Parents translated from the Hungarian by Peter Laki and Barna Kantor, English-Language edition sponsored by The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston ($29.95, hardcover, 274 pages, index, 27 photo inserts, University of Chicago Press, ISBN: 0-226-07146-4)

Nicknamed the "Eye of Paris" by Henry Miller, Brassai was one of the great European photographers of the 20th century. This volume of letters and photos, many published for the first time, chronicles the fascinating
early years of Brassai's life and artistic development in Paris and Berlin during the 1920s and '30s. It follows the young artist’s yearning for self-expression. In these letters he mingles with both the cosmopolitan and the bohemian, including Picasso, who once remarked that Brassai "owned a gold mine but was exploiting a salt mine’ by choosing photography over the fine arts."  Born Gyula Halasz in 1899 in Hungary, Brassai moved to Berlin in 1920 and quickly became part of its intense intellectual life. Among his friends were Moholy-Nagy, Kandinsky, and Kokoschka. In 1924 he moved to France, where he was at the center of the extraordinary art scene in Paris between the two world wars. Oddly, Brassai is one of the least understood of the major twentieth-century photographers, possibly because so little is known of his early life and friendships. He was close to many major artists of the modernist era including Picasso, Andre Breton, Man Ray, and Pierre Reverdy and was recognized as an artist of equal standing in his field.

The amazing letters Brassai wrote to his parents during his years as a student and struggling artist in Paris and Berlin are published here in English for the first time. Just as Brassai captured in his photographs the texture, mood, and mystery of 1930s Paris, so too in his letters, through his candid, detailed and vivid descriptions, he conveys in an immediate and forceful way what it was like to live in that world. An important, revealing work for everyone interested in Brassai and the history of photography, this thoughtful collection will fascinate anyone who wants a firsthand account of Berlin and Paris in the 1920s and 1930s.

STEICHEN by Penelope Niven ($45.00, hardcover, 672 pages, 40 illustrations, notes, index, Clarkson Potter, ISBN: 0-517-59373-4)

This informative and frank study of Edward Steichen focuses upon the development of photography as a fine art in the first half of this century. Niven has given us a biography rich in detail and people. As a biographer, she shows special skills in developing moments in Steichen’s life into broad expanses of time and situation to offer insight into so much that is ‘modern’ in modern art.

While researching a book on poet Carl Sandburg, biographer Penelope Niven discovered an intriguing letter-indecipherable handwriting, unorthodox spelling-from celebrated photographer Edward Steichen, Sandburg’s brother-in-law. As she read, Niven realized that Steichen was much more than an interesting figure in someone else’s story and deserved greater attention. In STEICHEN, Penelope Niven reveals the remarkable man behind the lens: a brilliant, self-taught photographer who almost single-handedly revolutionized the art world in the 20th century by helping legitimize photography as an artistic medium, introducing modern art to America at the turn of the century, curating the world’s most popular photography exhibit at the Museum of Modem Art, and defining fashion and celebrity photography in the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair.

Rich in vivid detail and more than forty black-and-white photographs, STEICHEN is the first biography of the artist since Steichen’s own best-selling 1963 autobiography, A Life in Photography. It was no small task to reconstruct Steichen’s complex and fascinating life: Niven searched the world over for Steichen’s letters, paintings, and photographs, gaining unprecedented access to his public and private papers. Assembled with scholarly care and animated by the personal voices of Steichen’s own family, STEICHEN paints an indelible portrait of a charismatic, complex, and very human individual whose lifetime achievements-as photographer, painter, curator, humanist, scientist, and war hero-outstripped those of his better-known contemporaries.

Edward Steichen is often remembered for his collaboration with other famous artists, including Alfred Stieglitz and brother-in-law Carl Sandburg, but as STEICHEN shows, his influence on the art world was extraordinary in its own right. At age sixteen, Steichen bought his first box camera and began to teach himself the art and science of photography. By the time he was twenty, his photographs were exhibited in the top international shows, and by his death in 1973, he was seen as the most successful commercial cameraman of his time.

Steichen’s photographs are living testaments to his era-illuminations of the human experience from the turn of the century through two world wars and into the Cold War. As revealed in this book, Steichen believed that photography was not just a trade, but a "democratic art" available to all and for all and a means of communicating with people around the world. Indeed, as cofounder with Steiglitz of "The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession," Steichen introduced American audiences to the works of the great modernist artists, including Picasso, Rodin, Matisse, and Brancusi. As the first curator of photography at the Museum of Modem Art in New York City, he created the landmark exhibit "The Family of Man," which has touched a global audience of millions since its opening in 1955 and is still the most widely seen photo show in history.

As a cultural pioneer of the twentieth century, Steichen’s legacy is remarkable. As a fighter for artistic freedom and influence on photography as an art form, his impact is unmatched. STEICHEN is a fascinating, in-depth look at the genius behind the shutter.

PENELOPE NIVEN is the author of Carl Sandburg: A Biography (1991) and coauthor of James Earl Jones: Voices and Silences (1993). She was a principal consultant for the 1982 Public Television film biography Carl Sandburg, Echoes and Silences. She has served as a consultant for international television films on Sandburg and Steichen, as well as a recent Arts and Entertainment "Biography" documentary on James Earl`Jones, based on their book. In 1993 she was one of six American writers to be invited to speak at the London Sunday Times Hay-on-Wye Festival of Literature in Wales.

Exploring the Art of the Infinite
Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Byron Preiss Multimedia Company, Inc.
$55.00, CD-ROM, PC Windows compatible, includes a comprehensive collection of M.C. Escher's art and a multimedia lab for making your own Escher-style works

Harry N.Abrams, Inc. with Byron Preiss Multimedia Company, Inc. co-published its first interactive CD-ROM, ESCHER INTERACTIVE. It is a classy survey of the internationally popular and best-selling images of the late Dutch printmaker and artist M. C. Escher.
ESCHER INTERACTIVE surveys his appealing and visually complex images depicting space and time.
Cleverly inventive, Escher created intricate visions and architectural landscapes that first attracted mathematicians and scientists and then became popular as nearly universal icons. The best feature of ESCHER INTERACTIVE is its gallery of more than 600 Escher works, including commentary and thematic analysis. The audio-visual biography of the artist is also well conceived. Puzzles, games and a drawing workshop offer visual clues as to how to work with images as Escher did. Unfortunately the interactive morphing program did not function on our computers.

Comprised of nine modules, ESCHER INTERACTIVE includes M.C. Escher, an audio-visual tour of Escher's life and art, with two videos of Escher at work, as well as Gallery, Tessellation Workshop, Concave & Convex, Animated Escher, Spheres, Morphing, Magic Images, and Impossible Puzzles.
The Gallery offers the most useful overview of his work. One may study each of Escher's prints and drawings; more than 600 works are featured.
Tessellation Workshop is an inexhaustible advanced drawing program that permits users to create and save their own Escher-like drawings, following formulas that Escher originated. It offers hours of fun as one explores the simple patterns that create complex patterns.
Concave & Convex is a perceptual game derived from a famous Escher print that develops and tests user ability to perceive spatial relationships in two dimensions.
In The Animated Escher, famous Escher pictures come to life in striking 3D animation.
In Spheres, users can move a spherical filter, as Escher did, to see how images can be distorted. Morphing is a playhouse that allows users to morph Escher's animals or their own creations from the Tessellation Workshop.
Six mysterious screens conceal Escher pictures beneath deceptive surface patterns in Magic Images, underscoring Escher's importance to the recent "Magic Eye" phenomenon.
Sixteen Impossible Puzzles, designed by Scott Kim, and based on the type of spatial illusion invented by Escher and Sir Roger Penrose, range from the relatively easy to the fiendishly difficult.
ESCHER INTERACTIVE was created by Michael M. Chanowski of Eyeware Interactive. Chanowski put together an international team of software designers and Escher experts for this ground-breaking project. Commentary by the artist's eldest son George Escher and noted Escher scholar, Dr. Doris Schattschneider, illuminates the artist's work in many useful ways.

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Last modified: November 27, 2016

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