Futurism by Richard Humphreys (1999)

This is a nifty little book, an eighty-page, light and airy instalment in Tate’s ‘Movements in Modern Art’ series.

In its seven fast-moving chapters it captures the feverish activity of the Italian Futurists from the eruption of the First Futurist Manifesto, which was published on the front page of the French newspaper Le Figaro on 20 February 1909 – until the collapse of Mussolini’s Fascist regime, to which many Futurists had attached themselves – in 1944.

Thirty-five hectic years!

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space by Umberto Boccioni (1913)

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space by Umberto Boccioni (1913)

That founding manifesto is worth quoting at length (this is just the middle part of it):

  1. We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.
  2. Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.
  3. Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.
  4. We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
  5. We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit.
  6. The poet must spend himself with ardor, splendor, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.
  7. Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man.
  8. We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!… Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.
  9. We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
  10. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.
  11. We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.

Humphrey makes the point that, despite the movement’s noisiness and name, there is actually very little about the future in Futurism, not in the sense that H.G. Wells and other contemporary science fiction prophets conceived of a future of shiny space ships, worlds transformed by technology, super-intelligent beings, death rays, aliens and so on.

Futurism was much more about getting rid of Italy’s enormous historical and cultural heritage – a vast albatross round their necks, which the Futurists thought prevented artists and writers from engaging with the exciting new developments of the present. This insight explains their lack of interest in the future, but their obsession with destroying the past, in order to liberate artists and writers to engage with the technological marvels of the present. 

It is from Italy that we launch through the world this violently upsetting incendiary manifesto of ours. With it, today, we establish Futurism, because we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians. For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards.

Museums: cemeteries!… Identical, surely, in the sinister promiscuity of so many bodies unknown to one another. Museums: public dormitories where one lies forever beside hated or unknown beings. Museums: absurd abattoirs of painters and sculptors ferociously slaughtering each other with color-blows and line-blows, the length of the fought-over walls!

It explains their feverish iconoclasm – Italy’s museum culture was strangling the current generation so – Away with it!

In truth I tell you that daily visits to museums, libraries, and academies (cemeteries of empty exertion, Calvaries of crucified dreams, registries of aborted beginnings!) are, for artists, as damaging as the prolonged supervision by parents of certain young people drunk with their talent and their ambitious wills. When the future is barred to them, the admirable past may be a solace for the ills of the moribund, the sickly, the prisoner… But we want no part of it, the past, we the young and strong Futurists!

So let them come, the gay incendiaries with charred fingers! Here they are! Here they are!… Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!… Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discolored and shredded!… Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!

Historical and social background to Futurism

Humphreys gives some historical and social background to Italy’s unification in 1870 and then its troubled history as the economy failed to keep pace with northern Europe. Urban Italians in the north (Milan, Turin) felt ripped off by capitalist industrialism, while Italians in the south (Naples to Sicily) lived in astonishing poverty. The result was forty years of political and cultural turmoil. Seeking distraction, the government launched on colonial adventures, notably in Abyssinia where the Italian army managed to be defeated by the locals at the Battle of Adua in 1896. Humiliation heaped on humiliation.

Marinetti’s Futurism is just one among many voices and movements seeking cures to Italy’s apparent stagnation, including Anarchists, Socialists, Communists, Nationalists, neo-Catholics and right-wing proto-Fascists.

The Futurist present

In the fifteen years or so leading up to 1909 the world of science and industry had generated a dazzling array of new technologies which were transforming human existence and age-old ideas about time, travel, communication, vision, language, space, matter. Might sound exaggerated but the inventions of the period included the electric light, the telephone, the telegraph with its huge cables laid across the world’s oceans, the x-ray, cinema, the bicycle, automobile, airplane, airship and submarine. One of the very first movies was about a manned flight to the moon. Anything seemed possible. Why then, raged Marinetti, were people still queuing up to look at Botticelli, when outside their windows human existence was changing at unprecedented speed?

Futurist manifestos

Futurism was a writers’ movement before it was an artistic one (like Symbolism). The manifestos were themselves embodiments of the new style, the new attitude towards language, the new verbal excitement!

Futurist members

The driving force (pun intended) was car-mad Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. The principal artists were Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, and Luigi Russolo, and the Italian and Swiss architects Antonio Sant’Elia and Mario Chiattone. Offshoots included the wonderful C.R.W. Nevinson, and the Canadian Percy Wyndham Lewis, who set up his own copycat movement, Vorticism, in London, which for a while included the poet Ezra Pound and anti-romantic intellectual T.E. Hulme; in France the artist Robert Delaunay; in Russia the artists Mikhail Larionov and Kasimir Malevich and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Futurist art

Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) was probably the most important Futurist painter. Humphreys shows him developing quickly from social realism in 1909, through a version of Seurat’s Divisionism in 1910, and then – like all the Futurists – responding to the dazzling impact of Braque and Picasso’s Cubism in 1911.

States of Mind - Those who go by Umberto Boccioni (1911)

States of Mind  II- Those who go by Umberto Boccioni (1911)

The French philosopher Henri Bergson was immensely influential during this period, with his idea that human beings are driven by an élan vital or life force, which pushes us forward through the subjective experience of time, bursting through the encrustations of traditional life and traditional clock time. This notion chimed perfectly with Cubism which adopted multiple viewpoints, as if a painting could capture movement in time. Of Boccioni’s States of Mind  II- Those who go Humphreys writes that it includes:

  • lines of force which are intended to convey the trajectory of moving objects, as well as drawing the viewer’s visual emotions into the heart of the picture
  • simultaneity to combine memories, present impressions and future possibilities into one orchestrated whole
  • emotional ambience in which the artist seeks by intuition to combine the feelings evoked by the external scene with interior emotion

Specifically, Those who go depicts ‘the oblique force lines of the passengers’ movement in the train as is speeds past a fragmentary landscape of buildings’ (p.32).

I found all this fascinating and insightful. This is a short but extremely useful book.

Humphreys goes on to analyse how Futurist principles were applied in the paintings of Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla. Abstract speed is a tryptich of paintings intended to show the effect of a car approaching, passing, and having passed. This is the third of the set showing a simplified green landscape against which the lines of force show the air turbulence caused by the car which has just passed by, tinged by pink representing the car’s exhaust fumes.

Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed (1913) by Giacomo Balla

Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed (1913) by Giacomo Balla

Further sections describe:

  • Futurist literature – Marinetti’s wholesale attack on traditional syntax especially in his famous book, Zang Tang Tumb, promised ‘the complete renewal of human sensibility’
  • Futurist sculpture – its movement and lines of force easily grasped in Boccioni’s wonderful Unique forms of continuity in space (1913), now in Tate Modern
  • Futurist music – the attempt by Luigi Rossolo to create a new ‘art of noises’, conveying the sounds of the city through a set of ‘noise intoners’ with names like Exploder, Crackler, Gurgler, Buzzer and Scraper, the use of machine sounds which hugely influenced modernist composers like Antheil, Honegger and Varèse.
  • Futurist photography – from the evidence here, the attempt to capture blurred motion by Anton Giulio Bragalia.
  • Futurist cinema – using every trick available including split screens, mirrors, bizarre combinations of objects and painted frames to convey movement, abrupt transitions, dynamic energy, epitomised by Amado Ginna’s Vita Futurista (1916).
  • Futurist architecture – As early as 1910 Marinetti and collaborators in Venice, from the top of St Mark’s Campanile, threw thousands of pamphlets then bellowed from a loudspeaker at the confused crowd below inciting them to burn the gondolas and tear up the bridges. Futurist architects, led by Antonio Sant’Elia, threw out Art Nouveau curves and natural motifs in favour of soaring vertical lines, rejecting the entire European traditoin in favour of thrusting, machine-led New York. – Construction for a modern metropolis by Mario Chiattone (1914)

The Vorticists

I’ve always thought Christopher Nevinson was a much better Futurist than any of the Italians. Marinetti (who called himself ‘the caffeine of Europe’) recruited Nevinson who became a paid-up Futurist when he signed the ‘Vital English Art’ futurist manifesto in 1914. Nevinson’s paintings are harder-edged, more finished.

The Arrival by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (c.1913)

The Arrival by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (c.1913)

In London Marinetti stirred things up with a Futurist exhibition held in 1912, but drew a blank when he encountered an artistic entrepreneur almost as forceful as himself in the shape of Percy Wyndham Lewis.  In 1913 Lewis created ‘Vorticism’, combining hard-edged Cubist-Futurist inspired visuals with texts supplied by Pound or T.E. Hulme, all wrapped up in their inaugural magazine, BLAST!

I’ve read a lot about Lewis and Pound but Humphrey is the first author I’ve read to identify the fundamental difference between the Futurists (who the Vorticists dubbed ‘automobilists’) and Lewis’s gang.

Whereas the Futurists wanted to throw themselves into the speeding world, to lose themselves in the milling crowd, and their art investigated emotions and ideas stemming from movement – Lewis was an unrepentant individualist, determined to keep the world and the ghastly hoi polloi at a distance. The essence of ‘the vortex’ is that it is the utterly still point at the centre of the incessant motion of the modern world. It is a detached observer. For Lewis the emotional (and in some cases, even spiritual) element in Futurist painting made it soft, made it dispersed. Lewis wanted an art which was hard and clear and focused.

Humphreys also references Edward Wadsworth and the sculptors Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein, all of who showed the clear influence of the Futurists. Epstein’s Rock Drill (1914) may be my all-time favourite work of art.

London had been stunned and stunned again by Roger Fry’s exhibitions of post-Impressionist art in 1910 and 1912, and reeled again from the Futurist exhibition opened on 1 March at the Sackville Gallery and featuring Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo and Gino Severini. In these years just before 1914, for the general public, journalists and their readers, ‘Futurism’ became the generalised term for all avant-garde art.

The Futurists at war

In one of the manifestos Marinetti notoriously wrote that ‘war is the sole hygiene of the world’, and the artists responded to the advent of the Great War with enthusiasm, holding a number of pro-war happenings.

However, their art wasn’t as violent or inspired by war as you might have expected. Boccioni was killed in 1916 and his final works show – astonishingly – a return to the figuratism of Cézanne. Just before the war Carrà was in Paris having second thoughts about Marinettism’, as its critics called it. When he was called up in 1917, he was diagnosed as mentally ill and sent to a hospital where he met Giorgio de Chirico. They collaborated for a while on a new style which they called ‘metaphysical painting’ by which they meant: instead of Futurist movement, stillness; instead of fragmentation, structure. Instead of immersion in the flow of modern life, de Chirico and Carrà sought detachment, poise and simplicity.

It was part of a widespread ‘return to order’ which affected artists and composers across Europe. De Chirico’s odd, dispassionate, abandoned classicism was to be one of the tributaries of Surrealism a few years later.

Nevinson served on the Western Front and made much more exciting images of war than anything – on the evidence here – the Italian Futurists managed, including the wonderful Le Mitrailleuse (1915).

Futurism and Fascism

In the turmoil immediately after the war, despite the death or defection of the first wave of Futurist artists, Marinetti tried to maintain the Futurist brand with theatrical performances and pamphlets. Although attracted by some anarchist and left-wing ideas, he in the end plumped to support Mussolini, whose Fascist Party marched on Rome and seized power in 1922.

Humphreys is good on the surprisingly broad and liberal cultural atmosphere which Mussolini maintained, partly under the influence of his Jewish mistress, partly because he wanted to encourage all the arts to support his idea of a neo-classical resurgent Italy. The first wave of Futurists had died or fallen away during the Great War. Now Marinetti had to whip together and motivate lesser talents.

In the 1930s there was a great vogue for airplanes all across Europe, and the book concludes with some vaguely modernist paintings of cockpits and swooping machines of the air. the brand staggered on into the Second World War with Marinetti, now an overt Catholic, giving his unstinting support to the Duce. But by then the initial buzz and thrill of 1909 Futurism was only a distant memory.

Futurism today

The Futurists insisted that humanity destroy its enervating attachment to clapped-out traditions, accept the violent reality of human nature, reject artificial and sentimental morality, and live on the basis of how life is now – not what it used to be, or how we would like it to be.

I warm to many of these ideas, particularly given the anti-sentimental findings:

  • of modern genetics and evolutionary psychology (which tend to prove that we have much less ‘say’ over our character and behaviour than we like to think)
  • of ever-accelerating computer science (which has already undermined old-fashioned ways of thinking, talking, writing and communicating)
  • of environmental degradation (we are destroying the planet, exterminating countless species every year, filling the seas with plastic, melting the ice caps)
  • of modern war, of which there never seems to be an end (North Korea, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria)

As a thought experiment, reading and falling in with the Futurists’ worship of speed, violence and the utterly modern, at the very least opens up new ways of feeling about our present situation. Stop whining about Brexit and Trump and Weinstein, Marinetti would have yelled! Embrace the chaos!


Related links

Related art reviews

Art Nouveau by Alastair Duncan (1994)

This is one of the extensive ‘World of Art’ series published by Thames and Hudson. On the plus side the texts in this series are always readable and authoritative. On the down side, most of the illustrations are in black and white, and very small. It’s a series in which to read about art and art movements, but not necessarily to enjoy the actual art.

A revolt against Victorian mass production

Duncan emphasises that Art Nouveau wasn’t a style, it was a movement. What he means is that around 1890 a whole generation of designers, illustrators, craftsmen, architects and artisans right across Europe revolted against the heavy hand of mass-produced industrial products, dull designs and routine architecture, and against the Victorian home filled with a horrible mish-mash of clutter and bric-a-brac from all styles and periods – and determined to produce something fresh and new, and integrated in style and look.

He attributes the revolt against mass-produced, machine-made, shoddy tat, and the call to return to the values of hand-crafted, beautiful objects, created in a unified style – to William Morris, who emerges as one of the most influential men in the history of Western Art. Right across Europe, designers, artisans, ceramicists, decorators, fabric-makers and so on took up his Art and Crafts ideas with a passion.

The ubiquity of the impulse and its Europe-wide provenance is reflected in the bewildering variety of names given to it.

In Austria it is known as Secessionsstil after Wiener Secession; in Spanish Modernismo; in Catalan Modernisme; in Czech Secese; in Danish Skønvirke or Jugendstil; in German Jugendstil, Art Nouveau or Reformstil; in Hungarian Szecesszió; in Italian Art Nouveau, Stile Liberty or Stile floreale; in Norwegian Jugendstil; in Polish Secesja; in Slovak Secesia; in Russian Модерн (Modern); and in Swedish Jugend.

The name Art Nouveau simply comes from the Maison de l’Art Nouveau (House of the New Art), a gallery opened in 1895 by the Franco-German art dealer Siegfried Bing to publicise and sell objects made in the ‘new style’, such as the ground-breaking new jewelry by René Lalique. The interior was designed by Henry van de Velde and the American, Louis Comfort Tiffany, supplied the stained glass. The gallery became the place for rich and fashionable Parisians to buy objects in the ‘new look’.

A few years later the art critic turned entrepreneur, Julius Meier-Graefe, who had founded the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) magazine Dekorative Kunst in 1897, opened La Maison Moderne, a gallery that showcased Art Nouveau works in Paris in 1898. These two boutiques led the fashion.

Elements of Art Nouveau

Although Duncan goes into immense detail about the regional variations in the style, I looked in vain for a really definitive verbal description of the characteristic Art Nouveau ‘look’, so recognisable when seen, so hard to put into words.

So I drew up a list of common features. Art Nouveau consists of linear simplicity, but the lines are always curvilinear, with tall sinuous curves explicitly or implicitly based on the stems of flowers – the word ‘tendrils’ recurs, and ‘stems’. The ‘eyes’ in the tails of peacocks became an obsessive motif. 

Chair by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (1883)

Chair by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (1883)

The slender, parallel black lines in Mackmurdo’s pioneering chair design (above) anticipate Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations from the 1890s (below). The Beardsley drawing below actually features a peacock as the source of the peacock-feather head-dress worn by Salome and the luxurious long arabesque lines ending in stylised versions of peacock ‘eyes’.

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

As an example in a different medium, take this Peacock vase produced by the undisputed master of Art Nouveau design in glass and glassware, the American Louis Comfort Tiffany. He had signed an exclusive contract with Bing and via Bing’s boutique became the latest thing in glassware.

Peacock vase by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1896)

Peacock vase by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1896)

Japonisme was important. The fashion for Japanese style derives from the treaty signed between the Japanese and American governments in 1854 which opened up the country for trade after centuries of self-imposed isolation. World fairs held in the 1860s and 70s included more and more Japanese products, but it was the delicacy, the deliberate flatness and decorative design of Japanese woodcuts by the likes of Hiroshige and Hokusai which influenced European artists and designers.

Blossoming Plum Tree with Full Moon by Ando Hiroshige

Blossoming Plum Tree with Full Moon by Ando Hiroshige

Slender, tall, undulating, curving lines with a flower motif underpin the most famous aspects of the style. New at the time, just looking at something like this makes you feel how heavy it would be and how…. dated. The kind of thing you see in junk shops, tarnished and striking but totally out of place in a modern home.

French Art Nouveau glass and bronze table lamp by Emile Gallé

French Art Nouveau glass and bronze table lamp by Emile Gallé

The Glasgow School which flourished from the 1890s was dominated by The Four, comprising the painter and glass artist Margaret MacDonald, architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, MacDonald’s sister Frances and Herbert MacNair. The Four defined the Glasgow Style’s fusion of influences including the Celtic Revival, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and Japonisme. Among their works were the wall decorations for the Glasgow Tea Rooms, which highlight the movement’s interest in tall, elongated figures, in slender, elegant curved lines, in highly stylised flower imagery, and in simplified human features (‘ghost-like visions of attenuated young women’, p.50, ‘attenuated virgin maidens’, p.71). Note the heavy heads of hair of the maidens in this painting, similar to the hair in Beardsley, ornate and heavy like flower-heads.

The Wassail (1900) by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

The Wassail (1900) by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

In Paris the most famous Art Nouveau artifacts to be seen today are Hector Guimard’s entrances to a number of Métro stations. Note the curves, the flower and plant motifs in the ironwork – and also the wonderful lettering.

Hector Guimard's Art Nouveau entrance to the Abbesses station of the Paris Métro

Hector Guimard’s Art Nouveau entrance to the Abbesses station of the Paris Métro

There was never an Art Nouveau school of painting. Art Nouveau was a way of thinking about design, not fine art. That said, many painters shared Art Nouveau themes such as: the simplification of form, the flattening of space, the evocative powers of an undulating line and an affinity for the decorative elements of symbolism.

Duncan singles out Gauguin’s technique of flattening the subject into areas of raw colour divided by strong black lines, before going on to describe the work of his devotees, the self-styled Nabis painters of Paris, and then goes on to namecheck Odilon Redon, Jan Toorop, Burne-Jones, Gustave Moreau and Ferdinand Khnopff – pretty much the same roll call of artists I’ve just worked through in two books about Symbolism.

He ends with Gustav Klimt, the nearest thing to a real Art Nouveau painter, for his use of surface decoration, flowing curves and rich ornamentation, ephemeral beauty, and symbolic female imagery tinged with decadence.

Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt (1907)

Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt (1907)

Art Nouveau was more at home in commercial posters than in painting. The big names are the pioneer Jules Chéret, who produced some 1,000 posters in the 1880s, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec who produced 32 highly distinctive posters in the 1890s, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlein (who I know from Sue Roe’s book In Montmartre was one of Picasso’s favourite artists) and the great Alphonse Mucha.

Michael Gibson’s big book of Symbolism has an interesting section on Mucha which contains several black-and-white photos Mucha took of his female models, placed next to the resulting finished posters. What is immediately obvious is how Mucha made the poster girls not only prettier than the models they were based on – more simple, sweet and innocent – but also more curvilinear – shoulders or arms which are more or less straight in the photos life were given curves and contours to soften them.

In this poster note the elaborate framing of the central image, which echoes the curvilinear and plant-like design of the ironwork in the Guimard Metro entrance, above.

Poster Advertising 'Lefevre-Utile' Biscuits by Alphonse Mucha (1896)

Poster Advertising ‘Lefevre-Utile’ Biscuits by Alphonse Mucha (1896)

If flowery maidens were much in evidence in Mucha’s posters, naked young ladies swarmed across Art Nouveau sculpture. New techniques of manufacture and an interest in new materials, especially combinations of metals with glass or wood or marble or ivory or shell, led to an explosion in objets d’art which featured lithe, elongated nymphs with perfect bodies and rose-tipped breasts.

The book includes examples of nymph-adorned table lamps, electric lamps, inkwells, candle holders, dishes, candelabra, vases, wall brackets, tobacco jars and clocks.

Obsession and Dream, gilt bronze candelabra by Maurice Bouval (1898)

Obsession and Dream, gilt bronze candelabra by Maurice Bouval (1898)

Architects built buildings in the new style all across Europe. Something I noticed many of them had in common was a kind of semi-circular arch above the windows, often ballooning out wider than the window itself. Plus the inevitable fantastical, slender curved lines of the cast iron balcony.

Villino Broggi-Caraceni, Florence by Giovanni Michelazzi (1911)

Villino Broggi-Caraceni, Florence by Giovanni Michelazzi (1911)

It’s a zoomorphic look which finds its climax in the genuinely weird Casa Batlló in Barcelona designed by the great but eccentric Antoni Gaudí in 1904, a building which is evolving into a living organism, made up of biomorphic surfaces and undulating forms.

Casa Batllo, Barcelona by Gaudi (1904)

Casa Batllo, Barcelona by Gaudi (1904)

The decline of Art Nouveau

A key aspect of Art Nouveau is how brief it was. Its high point was the Paris World Fair in 1900, where Siegfried Bing displayed a series of ensemble rooms created by his three top designers, Colonna, de Feure and Gaillard, showing how every element in a modern room could be tailored to the new look. The Fair featured the glassware of Tiffany and the jewellery of Lalique, which were at their peak of popularity.

By 1905 it was all over. Meier-Graefe closed his shop in 1903, as sales fell off. Bing closed his gallery in 1904 and died the next year. The Belgian Art Nouveau, La Libre Esthétique, had dissolved by 1904. Morris died in 1896, Beardsley in 1898, Whistler the great devotee of Japonisme in 1903, Émile Gallé the leading Art Nouveau glass-maker in 1904. Mucha, the great Belle Époque posterist, returned to his native Czechoslovakia in 1910.

It had all seemed so new and exciting in 1895 – but seemed old and boring by 1905. One Mucha poster looks sensational – twenty begin to look predictable. In furniture, lamps, wallpapers, art and architecture, ‘the look’ began to seem tired, not least because (ironically) these lines and motifs had themselves been absorbed into the consumer capitalist machine, copied and mass produced in huge numbers of inferior versions, and in such quantities that the market was flooded. The rich, who set the pace, were looking for new thrills.

Looking back on it from a century later, Art Nouveau – which saw itself as reacting against Victorian clutter and tastelessness – itself seems merely a variation on the same over-stuffed world. Photos of Art Nouveau interiors – a revolution to their contemporaries – now look just as wooden, dark and cluttered as their immediate predecessors.

Art Nouveau dining room at the Casa Requena

Art Nouveau dining room at the Casa Requena (1905)

It’s only with De Stijl, Russian Constructivism and the emergence of the Bauhaus after the Great War, that we feel we are in an entirely new century of open, uncluttered space and modern streamlined furniture.

Key phrases

In trying to nail down what Art Nouveau really means, I noted down tell-tale phrases Duncan uses about architecture, interiors, furnishing, lamps and lights and so on:

  • serpentine configurations… abstracted plant gyrations… curves and fancies… curvilinearity… elaborate and complex ornament… sculpted decoration… integrated design… lavish mouldings and sculpted decoration… the use of nature, specifically the flower and its components… flair for the bizarre… floriform…

And two new terms struck me:

  • Femme-fleur – The dream-maiden with long strands of hair resembling vegetation tendrils, often intertwined with marine-like plant-forms, found in Art Nouveau designs.
  • Femme-libellule – dragonfly lady or damsel.
Femme Libellule by René Lalique (1898)

Femme Libellule by René Lalique (1898)


Related links

Symbolist Art by Edward Lucie-Smith (1972)

Symbolist art does not depict nature as it actually exists, but brings together various impressions received by the mind of the artist, to create a new and different world, governed by its own subjective mood. (p.151)

Although this book is 45 years-old, I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop to compare and contrast with Michael Gibson’s account of Symbolism. Gibson’s massive books is packed with brilliant full-colour reproductions but, as I read it, I did increasingly find myself wondering where ‘Symbolism’ ended and where the simply fantastic or morbid or sensationalist began. So I read this book to further explore whether Symbolism was really a movement in a narrow definable way – or is just the word given to a kind of mood or feeling of other-worldliness apparent in a huge range of artists between about 1880 and 1910.

The World of Art series

Symbolist Art is a typical product of Thames and Hudson’s renowned ‘World of Art series’ in that, although there are 185 illustrations, only 24 of them are in colour. So you’re not buying it for the pictures, which can be better seen, in full colour, in numerous other books (or online); you’re buying it for the text.

Edward Lucie-Smith

Lucie-Smith was born in 1933 and is still alive (aged 84). Public school, Oxford, the RAF during the war, then freelance poet, art critic, essayist, author and curator, he has written over 100 books. His book comes over as significantly more learned and informative than Gibson’s.

Symbolism in Renaissance painting

He starts with a basic consideration of symbols in art starting back in the Renaissance. Renaissance art is packed with symbols – classical gods and goddesses are accompanied by their attributes, kings and queens are shown in allegorical paintings accompanied by war or peace or the triumph of the arts and so on.

To get the most out of Renaissance art you undoubtedly have to have a good eye for its religious, political and cultural symbolism. For example, spot the symbolism in this masterpiece by Rubens.

(In this picture the portrait of Marie de’ Medici – daughter of the Grandduke of Tuscany – is being presented to Henry IV, the king of France, and her future husband. The gods of marriage and love – Hymen and Amor (Cupid), to the left and right – hover in midair. From up in heaven the king and queen of the gods, Jupiter and Juno, look down in approval. Jupiter’s symbol, the eagle of war, clutching lightning bolts in his talons, is literally being squeezed out of the picture, to the left, while Juno’s symbols, the peacocks of love and peace strut (the male) and look down at the scene of love (the female). A pink ribbon symbolising their marriage binds them together. The chariot the peahen sits in bears a gold relief on the front showing Cupid standing on/triumphing over (another) eagle, and holding a garland (symbol of marriage). Behind Henry stands the personification of France, wearing French blue silk embroidered with gold fleur-de-lys (the coat of arms of the French monarchy). She is reassuring Henry that it is a good match for the nation. The burning town in the distance and the dark clouds to the left of the picture, beneath the eagle, symbolise War, as do the helmet and shield at the foot of the painting. These must all be abandoned so that Henry can concentrate on the lighter, feminine arts of peace, subtly emphasised by the light source for the whole scene coming from the right, the side of the Future, peace and harmony.)

Lucie-Smith draws the distinction between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ symbolism.

Open symbolism is the use of publicly available and traditional imagery. All of the symbolism in the Rubens picture is ‘open’ in the sense that any educated person could spot it.

Closed symbolism refers to ‘secret’ knowledge, available only to ‘initiates’. Renaissance and post-Renaissance art features numerous painters who included closed symbolism in their works: some has been investigated and explicated by later scholars; some remains obscure to this day.

Watteau

In other words, symbolism as a strategy or technique, is absolutely intrinsic to the Western artistic tradition.

What Lucie-Smith brings out is the strand of artists over the past few hundred years who brought something extra to the idea: who incorporated open symbolism or straightforward allegory (where x stands for y, where, for example, an hourglass stands for ‘Time’), but something else as well.

He takes an example from the wonderful Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). On the face of it Watteau was painting fashionable fête galantes for the French aristocracy, scenes of dressing up and carefree flirtations in an idealised classical setting, thus:

Yet (apart from the fabulous rhythmic compositions, the draughtsmanship of the figures, the wonderful use of colour) what makes Watteau ‘magical’ is the sense he achieves of a deeper meaning which somehow diffuses a mysterious influence around itself. According to Lucie-Smith, Watteau:

had already abandoned conventional allegory in favour of a use of symbolism which was more pervasive, more powerful and more mysterious. (p.21)

Something else is conveyed above and beyond the ostensible subject and its over symbolism. Somehow it achieves a sense of mystery.

The Romantic roots of Symbolism

There follows a chapter about Romanticism, a movement which I, personally, find boring, maybe because I’ve read too much about it and seen too many times the same old paintings by Fuseli (The Nightmare), Goya (The sleep of reason produces monsters) or Caspar David Friedrich (The Cross in the mountains).

Lucie-Smith’s purpose is to show that ‘Romanticism’ is (quite obviously) the godfather to modern Symbolism – in its use of obscure but meaningful images, nightmares and dreams, scary women and looming monsters – in the use of pseudo-religious imagery which has lost its literal meaning but acquired a spooky, Gothic, purely imaginative resonance.

Victorian symbolists

The next chapter looks at symbolist currents in British art during the 19th century, starting with the self-taught mythomane, William Blake. It then moves on to consider the group of artists who claimed to be his followers and called themselves ‘the Ancients’, including Edward Calvert and the wonderful Samuel Palmer, with his strange visionary depictions of rural Kent (Coming from Evening Church).

Then we arrive at the pre-Raphaelites. Lucie-Smith identifies Dante Gabriel Rossetti as the most ‘symbolist’ of these young idealistic painters, not least because his technique was quite limited. Rossetti wasn’t very good at perspective or realistic settings and so his mature paintings often have a vague, misty background which helps to emphasise the ‘timeless other-worldliness’ of the main subject (generally cupid-lipped, horse-necked ‘stunners’ [as the lads used to call them] as in Astarte Syriaca).

Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877)

Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877)

Burne-Jones and Watts

Lucie-Smith credits Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) with developing the medieval and dream-like elements of pre-Raphaelitism to their fullest extent and in so doing creating a stream of late works devoted to expressionless women moving through heavily meaningful landscapes.

Burne-Jones exhibited at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1889, where he won a first-class medal. (Intriguing to think the Impressionists were almost entirely excluded from this show and forced to mount an exhibition at the nearby Café Volpini – as described in in Belinda Thompson’s book about the Post-Impressionists.)

French symbolist artists were well aware of Burne-Jones’s work. But the most overtly ‘symbolist’ of the late Victorian artists was George Frederick Watts. He was quite clear about his intentions and his own words give quite a good summary of the symbolist impulse:

I paint ideas, not things. I paint primarily because I have something to say, and since the gift of eloquent language has been denied me, I use painting; my intention is not so much to paint pictures which shall please the eye, as to suggest great thoughts which shall speak to the imagination and to the heart and arouse all that is best and noblest in humanity. (quoted page 47)

His many contemporary fans and supporters considered Watts a ‘seer’ and suggested his work be hung in a temple not a gallery (an ambition which sort of came true with the dedication of his final home and studio in the village of Compton, Surrey, to his work, a venue you can now visit – the Watts Gallery).

The dweller of the innermost by Watts (1886)

The dweller of the innermost by Watts (1886)

‘The dweller of the innermost’ is obviously someone important, and something very meaningful is going on in this painting – but who? and what?

Symbolism

All this background is covered in the first 50 pages of this 220-page book in order to get us to the Symbolist movement proper.

Symbolism in the narrow sense was a literary movement, embodied in the poetry of Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé in the 1870s and 1880s. They used real world images but set in shimmering, vague and allusive contexts. By the late 1880s this kind of literary worldview overlapped strongly with a revival of a so-called ‘decadent’ style, in both writing and painting. It was largely to distinguish between the two outlooks that the minor poet Jean Moréas in 1886 wrote the essay which introduced the term ‘symbolist’ and ‘symbolism’.

According to Moréas, both symbolism and decadence turned away from the oppressive mundaneness of the everyday bourgeois world but whereas the symbolists emphasized dreams and ideals, the Decadents cultivated heavily ornamented or hermetic styles and morbid subject matter.

Lucie-Smith asserts that the first phase of symbolism lasted from Moréas’s 1886 essay until he himself rejected the name in 1891. Its central figure was the poet Mallarmé. Lucie-Smith lists the qualities of Mallarmé’s poetry, and points out how they can also be found in the symbolist painters of the day:

  • deliberate ambiguity
  • hermeticism (i.e. closed to easy interpretation)
  • use of the symbol as catalyst i.e. to prompt a reaction in the soul of the beholder
  • the idea that art exists in a world separate and apart from the everyday one
  • synthesis not analysis i.e. while the Impressionists analysed light and its effects, the symbolists brought together elements of the real world – from tradition, myth and legends – into strange and new combinations or syntheses

An important element of synthesis was not only the unexpected combination of real-world elements, but the notion that all the arts could and should borrow from each other. Symbolism always hovered around the idea of a ‘total work of art’ which combines music, dance, art, even smells and touches. Everyone in the 1880s was entranced by Wagner’s massive operas which aspired to just this condition of being Gesamtkunstwerks or ‘total works of art’. The idea was very powerful and lingered through to the First World War – the Russian composer Scriabin composed works deliberately designed to evoke colourful fantasias and artists like Wassily Kandinsky in the 1900s theories about the closeness of painting and music.

Here’s a Symbolist depiction of the hero of one of Wagner’s massive operas, the pure and holy knight Parsifal.

Gustave Moreau (1826-98)

Moreau is the painter most associated with the first phase of Symbolism. He developed an ornate jewel-studded style of treating subjects from the Bible or classical legend.

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau (1895)

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau (1895)

Reviewing the Salon of 1880, the novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans singled out Moreau’s work for being mysterious and disturbing. Four years later in his classic novel A Rebours, which describes a decadent aristocrat who retires to his country house to cultivate sensual pleasures and experiences, Huysmans singled out Moreau as the patron painter of his decadent lifestyle, using a lexicon of late-19th century decadent terms: Moreau’s art is ‘disquieting… sinister… sorrowful symbols of superhuman perversities’ and so on.

Of his own painting Jupiter and Semele, Moreau wrote:

It is an ascent towards superior spheres, a rising up of superior beings towards the Divine – terrestrial death and apotheosis in Immortality. The great Mystery completes itself, the whole of nature is impregnated with the ideal and the divine, everything is transformed. (quoted page 66)

That gives you a strong sense of Symbolist rhetoric.

Odilon Redon (1840-1916)

Huysmans also includes Redon in his short list of artists favoured in the country sensorium of his decadent hero, Des Esseintes. Redon seems to me by far the more symbolist painter of the two, and the polar opposite of Moreau. Whereas Moreau paints relatively conventional mythical subjects in a super-detail-encrusted fashion, Redon strips away all detail to portray the subject in a genuinely mysterious and allusive simplicity.

Redon wrote of his own work:

The sense of mystery is a matter of being all the time amid the equivocal, in double and triple aspects, and hints of aspects (images within images), forms which are coming to birth according to the state of mind of the observer. (quoted page 76)

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98)

Puvis wanted to revive the academic tradition and his compositions of figures in landscapes in one way hearken back to the posed landscapes of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1661). But he did so in a strange dreamlike way which pointed forward, towards the semi-abstraction of Cézanne. He wrote to a friend that he preferred low skies, solitary plains, bad weather – a temperament which resulted in melancholy often mysterious paintings.

I don’t like Puvis because of what I take to be his rather ropey draughtsmanship – his figures seem angular and uncomfortable, especially the faces.

Eugène Carrière (1849-1906)

Lucie-Smith doesn’t like Carrière much because he developed one subject – family members, especially mother and baby – and painted them over and over again, in a very distinctive way, as if seen through a thick brown mist. I can see how this would quickly grow tiresome, but in brief selections Carriere comes over as a powerful element of the symbolist scene.

At about this point in the book it struck me that a quick way of distinguishing between post-Impressionist and Symbolist painters is that the former were experimenting with ways of depicting reality, whereas the latter are experimenting with ways to try and depict what lies behind reality. Of the former, contemporary critics asked, ‘What is it meant to be depicting?’, of the latter they would ask, ‘I can see what it’s depicting – but what does it mean?’

Paul Gauguin and the Pont-Aven school

Gauguin the post-Impressionist is included? Yes, because in the several summers he spent painting at Pont-Aven in Brittany, Gauguin attracted young disciples who both inspired him to become more abstract and ‘primitive’, but also came back to Paris to spread his influence.

The young Paul Sérusier organised a group of like-minded young artists at the private art school of Rodolphe Julian, which included Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, and Maurice Denis – and christened them the ‘Nabis’ (Hebrew for ‘prophets’). Without really intending to, Gauguin found himself being lauded as a prophet to the Symbolists. When he set off for the Pacific he was given a going-away party by the Symbolists, presided over by Mallarmé himself.

Here’s a work from Gauguin’s South Sea period.

Lucie-Smith says it is symbolist work because it has mystery, ambiguity and is clearly an invitation to seek some deeper meaning lying beneath the surface. Well, yes… I find several works by other Nabis more convincingly symbolist:

Lucie-Smith devotes a chapter to the Salon of the Rose+Cross founded by Joséphin Péladan in 1892, which held a series of six exhibitions from 1892 to 1897 at which they invited Symbolist painters to exhibit. Featured artists included Arnold Böcklin, Fernand Khnopff, Ferdinand Hodler, Jan Toorop, Gaetano Previati, Jean Delville, Carlos Schwabe and Charles Filiger.

The Salon combined rituals and ideas from Medieval Rosicrucianism with elements of Kabbala and other aspects of esoteric lore. Charming and distracting though much of this arcane knowledge may be to devotees, it is also, at bottom, a profoundly useless waste of time and intellect. However, the Salon of the Rose+Cross’s practical impact was to bring together and promote a wide range of painters who shared the symbolist mindset:

More impressive are Soul of the Forest by Edgar Maxence (1898) and:

Orpheus by Jean Delville (1893)

Orpheus by Jean Delville (1893)

Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98)

An illustrator who created line drawings in black ink, Beardley’s big breakthrough came in 1894 when Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome, was published in a version with Beardsley’s woodcuts and caused a succès de scandale. Well aware of fashionable taste, Beardsley tackled favourite Symbolist themes like the medieval dreamworld of King Arthur, the femme fatale, Wagner’s operas, and pretty risqué pornography, as in his illustrations to the classic play, Lysistrata.

Beardsley’s clarity of line and hard-edged arabesques make him one of the founders of Art Nouveau.

Symbolists in other countries

This summary only takes us up to half way through the book which beings to risk – like Gibson’s book – turning into simply a list of relevant painters with a paragraph or so on each.

Part of this is because Symbolism was so thoroughly international a style, with offshoots all across Europe. Lucie-Smith makes the point that it was a little like the Mannerism of the end of the 16th century – the product of a unified and homogenous culture, and of a social and artistic élite determined to emphasise the gap between itself – with all its sensitivity and refinement – and the ghastly mob, with its crude newspapers and penny-dreadful entertainments.

Later chapters describe the Symbolist artists of America, Holland (Jan Toorop, Johan Thorn Prikker),  Russia (Diaghilev, Bakst and the World of Art circle), Italy (Giovanni Segantini, Gaetano Previati), Czechoslovakia (Franz Kupka), Germany-Switzerland (Arnold Böckin, Max Klinger, Otto Greiner, Alfred Kubin, Ferdinand Hodler, Franz von Stuck).

The kiss of the Sphinx by Franz von Stuck (1895)

The kiss of the Sphinx by Franz von Stuck (1895)

I particularly liked:

The books ends with extended sections devoted to James Ensor, Edvard Munch (who Lucie-Smith considers the most avant-garde painter working anywhere in the mid-1890s) and Gustav Klimt.

Modernists who had symbolist phases

Like Gibson, Lucie-Smith points out that a number of the great Modernists first passed through identifiable symbolist phases before finding their final styles.

Two great examples are Wassily Kandinsky, whose pre-abstract paintings are admittedly influenced by Fauve and Divisionist techniques but as, Lucie-Smith points out, depict undeniably Arthurian and medieval subject matter, and so qualify for the symbolist team.

The other is Piet Mondrian, the Dutchman nowadays known for his black-lined grids of white squares and rectangles, enlivened with the occasional yellow or red exception. But before he perfected the style that made him famous (about 1914), Mondrian had gone through a florid Symbolist period in the 1910s – in fact he was a keen theosophist (member of a spiritual movement akin to Rosicrucianism).

In a final, surprise move, Lucie-Smith makes a claim for Picasso to have gone through a Symbolist phase, before becoming the father of modern art.

He quotes Evocation, which does look remarkably like something by Odilon Redon (Picasso was only 19 at the time) and whose subject is a characteristically fin-de-siecle one of suicide and death. Or take Life, which uses a handful of meaningful figures to address this rather large topic, not unlike the confessional approach of Edvard Munch just a few years earlier.

Life by Pablo Picasso (1903)

Life by Pablo Picasso (1903)

Finale

As with Michael Gibson’s book, I felt that Lucie-Smith pulled in so many outriders and fringe symbolists that he watered down the core vision and essence of Symbolism.

Beardsley? Gauguin? Whistler? Ye-e-e-s… but no. Beardsley is an illustrator who anticipates Art Nouveau design. Gauguin is a post-Impressionist. Whistler is a type of Impressionist with little or no interest in ‘religion’ or ‘the beyond’…

But that is the difficulty with the Symbolism as an-ism, it is extremely broad and covers themes, topics, ideas which spilled over from earlier movements, spilled into contemporary movements, which touched artists (and illustrators and designers) of all types and genres. At its broadest, it was the spirit of the age. All we can say with complete certainty is that the Great War utterly destroyed it, and ushered in a new, anti-spiritual age, in literature, poetry, music and the visual arts.

And, turning back to the immense and beautifully illustrated Gibson coffee-table book, I’d say that if you were only going to own one of these books, Gibson’s is the one: Lucie-Smith’s text is thorough and informative but Gibson’s illustrations are to die for.


Related links

Symbolism by Michael Gibson (1995)

The most striking characteristic of Symbolist artists is their withdrawal into the realm of the imagination. It is the solitude of the dreamer, of one who, marooned on a desert island, tells stories to himself. It is the solipsistic solitude of one who is sure of nothing outside himself. (p.35)

This is an enormous coffee-table book, some 31.5 cm tall and 25 cm wide. The hardback version I borrowed from the library would break your toes if you dropped it.

Its 227 pages of text contain a cornucopia of richly-coloured reproductions of symbolist paintings, famous and obscure, from right across the continent, with separate chapters focusing on France, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, the Slavic countries, the Mediterranean countries and so on. The main body of the text is followed by eight pages giving potted biographies of the key symbolist artists, and a handy table of illustrations – all of this textual paraphernalia as well as the end covers and the incidental pages are lavishly decorated with the evocative line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley.

It is a beautiful book to have and hold and flip through and relish.

Symbolism was a literary movement

So what is Symbolism? A big question which has stymied many art historians. Gibson approaches the problem from a number of angles. For a start Symbolism was a literary movement before it was an art one: the Symbolist manifesto published in 1886 was written by a poet, Jean Moreas, and referred to poets of the day such as Verlaine or the young Mallarmé. Moreas suggested that these writers were aiming ‘to clothe the idea in perceptible form.’ In looking for ways to illustrate this point he mentioned the similar aim in several contemporary artists, most notably Gustave Moreau.

What idea? Well, there were eventually hundreds of symbolist painters and, arguably, every single one of them had a different ‘idea’.

Symbolism against the modern world

Gibson takes a different tack and offers a sociological explanation. What they almost all had in common was a rejection of the scientific rationalism and the industrial pragmatism of the age (the late nineteenth century). These latter movements were represented by a writer like Émile Zola, who embraced the modern age in its dirt and squalor and poverty and drunkenness, developing an approach he called ‘Naturalism’. The influential philosopher Auguste Comte preached a social philosophy called ‘Postivism’, which thought we could use scientific and technological advances to create a new society – a technocratic and utopian ideal which finds its fullest flood in the English-speaking world in the scientific utopias of H.G. Wells.

Symbolists hated all this. They thought it was killing off all the mystery and imagination in life. They went in search of the strange, the obscure, the irrational, the mysterious, the barely articulatable.

Symbolism a legacy of lapsed Catholicism

Gibson makes the profound point that symbolism flourished in a) Catholic countries b) affected by industralisation. So not the less-industrialised Catholic countries of the Mediterranean (Spain or Italy) – the northern Catholic parts of France, Germany and Belgium.

He then goes on to explain how the Industrial Revolution, coming later to these countries than Britain, seriously disrupted the age-old beliefs, traditions and customs of Roman Catholicism. In particular, huge numbers of the peasant population left the land and flocked to the cities, to become a new industrial proletariat (or fled Europe altogether, emigrating to the United States). In the second half of the nineteenth century Europe saw social disruption and upheaval on an unprecedented scale.

Urban intellectuals in Catholic countries felt that the age-old sense of community and tradition embodied by continent-wide Catholicism had been ruptured and broken. Many lost their faith in the face of such huge social changes, or the intellectual impact of Darwinism, or the triumph of science. But they regretted what they’d lost.

  • The Great Upheaval by Henry de Groux (1893) Gibson reads this dramatic painting as representing the disruption of traditional values in a society undergoing rapid change – note the broken crucifix in the middle of the composition.

Symbolism, to some extent, represents the mood right across northern Europe, of artists and intellectuals for whom traditional Catholicism has died, but who still dreamed of transcendental values, of a realm of mysteries and hints from ‘the beyond’. As Gibson eloquently puts it, Symbolism is:

the negative imprint of a bygone age rich in symbols and the expression of yearning and grief at the loss of an increasingly idealised past. (p.24)

Some of them set up clubs, new religious ‘orders’, hermetic societies, cabbalistic cults, turned to spiritualism, clairvoyance, and a wide range of fin-de-siecle voodoo.

  • Portrait of Péladan (1891) by Alexandre Séon Péladan was one of the founders of the mystical Salon de la Rose+Cross which aimed to support Symbolist art, and changed his name to Sâr (or ‘Magus’) Mérodak. Stop sniggering at the back.

Mention of voodoo prompts the thought that, up till now I’ve made it sound like harmless replacement for lost religious certainties. I haven’t brought out the widespread sense of anxiety.

Symbolism and the femme fatale

There’s a lot of threat in Symbolist paintings. In Monet women walk through fields with parasols, in Renoir women are laughing partners in sunlit gardens. But in Symbolist painting women tend to be depicted as extremes, either as muses dreaming of another world or as sexually threatening and voracious demons.

  • Salome (1909) by Julius Klinger The Biblical story of Salome who persuades King Herod to have John the Baptist beheaded, haunts the fin-de-siecle era. Wilde wrote a play about it, Strauss an opera, and there are scores of paintings. In most of them Salome represents the femme fatale, the woman who uses her sexual attraction to lure men into dangerous or fatal situations. Dr Freud of Vienna would have said the real terror lying hidden in these paintings was the male castration complex. Surely the idea was never made more explicit than in this painting by Julius Klinger which shows Salome carrying – not the traditional head of John – but a severed set of testicles and penis drooling blood, along with the blood-red knife which just cut off a man’s penis.

Why this anxiety? Why, above all, did it present in sexual form?

Maybe because Symbolist artists were almost all men (there were several successful women Impressionists but no female Symbolists that I can see), they were dedicated to exploring the irrational aspects of human nature, and not much is more irrational than people’s sex lives, fantasies, desires and anxieties.

And so these men, psyched up to explore the strange, the fantastical, the edgy the socially taboo – projected onto the blank canvas of ‘woman’ a florid range of their own longings and fears. The irrational is not the friend of feminism.

  • Sin (1893) by Franz von Stuck The alluring half-naked woman with her pink nipples and her mild smile almost distracts you from the enormous snake draped round her and ready to bite off your… your what? (‘Paging Dr Freud’ as they used to say in Hollywood screwball comedies.) A very Catholic image since,after all, the basis of Catholicism is the snake tempting Eve who tempted Adam into the Fall. In this image Snake and Woman once again tempt the (male) viewer.

Symbolism and death

If Symbolist art often portrays Woman (with a capital W) as femme fatale, it just as often betrays anxieties about Death (with a capital D). But death not as we experience (hooked up to beeping machines in a soulless hospital ward), instead encountered like a seductive figure in a folk tale, himself often handsome and alluring, and the person doing the confronting often a handsome young hero.

Symbolism and decadence

Fin-de-siecle art is often identified with ‘Decadence’, the cult of etiolated aristocrats reclining on velvet divans, in an atmosphere heavy with incense and debauchery, as epitomised in the classic novel, Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans.

Gibson sheds light on this, too, by saying the Decadence wasn’t fuelled so much by a sense of decline, as by a resolute opposition to the doctrine of Progress, a subtly different idea. This artistically aristocratic sensibility refused to kow-tow to the vulgar jingoism and gimcrack technical advances of the age (telegraphs, telephones, electric lights, early cinema – how ghastly), remaining nostalgic for the imagined superiority of its ancestors in an imaginary, pre-scientific age.

The Salon de la Rose+Croix

In 1891 the Symbolist Salon de la Rose+Croix published a manifesto in which they declared that Symbolist artists were forbidden to practice history, patriotic and military painting, all representation of contemporary life, portrait painting, rural scenes, seascapes, orientalism, ‘all animals either domestic or connected with sport’, flowers or fruit. On the plus side, they welcomed mystic ecstasy and the Catholic ideal, any work based on legend, myth, allegory or dream (p.56).

It’s an accurate enough snapshot of the Symbolist mentality.

This sensibility locks itself away from the world, cloistered (a Catholic image) in an ivory tower, waking only at night (Symbolism is as fascinated by night, by shades of darkness, as Impressionism is by sunlight and daytime). Rejecting science, the exoteric (obvious), and everyday banality, it retreats into esoteric studies of the past, into alchemy, into the artificial recreation of medieval ‘orders’ (the more artificial, the more delicious), into mesmeric incantations about sin and death and damnation (overlooking the rather more mundane positive elements of Catholicism – charity, good works and so on).

The vast range of Symbolism

The great success of this book is in bringing together a really vast range of works from right across Europe to show how this mood, this urge, this wish for another, stranger, irrational world, took so many weird and wonderful forms, in the paintings of hundreds of European artists.

And it also investigates the shifting borders of Symbolism, where the impulse to ‘clothe the Idea’ shaded off into other schools or movements – of post-Impressionist abstraction, or Expressionist Angst, into Art Nouveau decorativeness, or just into something weird, unique and one-off.

The more I read on and the more examples I saw, the more I began to wonder in particular about the border between Symbolism and ‘the Fantastic’. Despite Gibson’s inclusivity, some of the paintings reproduced here look more like illustrations for fantasy novels than grand gestures towards a solemn mystery world. It’s a tricky business, trying to navigate through such a varied plethora of images.

Here, from the hundreds on offer, are the paintings which stood out for me:

Symbolists against nature

Numerous symbolist writers and artists argued that the world of art is radically separate from the so-called ‘real world’. They thought that the Impressionists (who they heartily disliked) were simply striving for a better type of naturalism. Symbolists, on the contrary, wanted next to nothing to do with the yukky real world. As Gibson puts it:

No longer was nature to be studied in the attempt to decipher its divine message. Instead, the artist sought subjects uncanny enough to emancipate imagination from the familiar world and give a voice to neurosis, a form to anxiety, a face, unsettling as it might be to the profoundest dreams. And not the dreams of an individual, but of the community as a whole, the dreams of a culture whose structure was riddled with subterranean fissures. (p.27)

Symbolists found the idea of the total autonomy of the work of art

No following of nature, then, but, in various manifestos, essays, poems and paintings, the Symbolists claimed the total autonomy of art, accountable to no-one but the artist and the imagination of their reader or viewer. Gibson argues that these claims for the complete autonomy of art lie at the root, provide the foundation of, all the later movements of Modernism.

Maybe. Discuss.

Symbolism ended by the Great War

What is certain is that the strange otherworlds of Symbolism tended to come to a grinding halt with the Great War, which tore apart the community of Europe more violently than the Industrial Revolution. The movements which emerged just before and during it – the absurdist Dadaists, the violent Futurists, the avant-garde cubists – all tended to despise wishy-washy spiritualism, all guff about another world.

The irrational mood, the imperative to reject the business-like bourgeois world, was revived by the Surrealists (founded in 1924) and it’s easy to identify a continuity of fantastical imagery from the later symbolists through to the Surrealists.

But the Surrealists’ great secret wasn’t other-worldly, it was other-mindly. Their worldview wasn’t underpinned by lapsed Catholic notions of the divine and the demonic. The Surrealists were students of Freud who thought that if they brought the creatures of the unconscious out into the open – via automatic writings and artfully bizarre imagery – they would somehow liberate the world, or at least themselves, from bourgeois constraints. But in practice some of the art from the 1920s, and even 1930s, is not that distinguishable from the weirder visions of the 1880s and 1890s.

The conservatism of Symbolism

Reading steadily through the book made me have a thought which Gibson doesn’t articulate, which is that almost all of this art was oddly conservative in technique. It is overwhelmingly realistic and figurative, in that it portrays human beings (or angels of death or satanic women or whatever), generally painted in a very traditional academic way. There are (as the Rose+Croix wanted) no landscapes, still lives or history scenes with lots of characters; generally, one or two or so people are caught in moments of sombre meaningfulness.

And hardly any of it is experimental in form. Not much of it invokes the scattered brush work of a Monet or the unfinished sketchiness of a Degas or the interest in geometric forms of a Cézanne. Nothing in the book is as outrageous as the colour-slashed paintings by the Fauves, by Derain or Vlaminck.

This art of the strange and the other-worldly was peculiarly conservative. I guess that chimes with the way the belief almost all these artists shared in some kind of otherworld, some meaning or presence deeper than our everyday existence, was profoundly conservative, a nostalgic hearkening back to an imagined era of intellectual and spiritual completeness.

The twentieth century was to blow away both these things – both the belief in some vaporous, misty otherworld, and the traditional 19th century, naturalist style which (on the whole) had been used to convey it. Cars and planes, tanks and bombs, were to obliterate séances and spiritualism.

Related links

Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia @ the British Museum

This is a brilliantly conceived and designed exhibition. Not only does it display over 200 fascinating and beautiful objects covering all aspects of Scythian life, but it is imaginatively laid out – many of the walls covered with enormous blown-up photographs of the ravishingly unspoilt landscape of Siberia, or draped with wall-height hangings showing beautiful silver birch trees.

There is an enormous animation covering a whole wall, showing computer-generated Scythian horsemen riding across a real Siberian landscape, and on another wall an enormous slideshow showing a series of watercolours made of Siberia by Russian artist Pavel Pyasetsky in the 1890s. Siberia, as the commentary reminds us, makes up nearly 10% of the entire land mass of the planet and, on the evidence of the photos here it contains some absolutely stunning scenery.

Throughout the exhibition there are subtle sound effects from hidden speakers broadcasting forest sounds, wind effects and the stamping and snuffling of horses, to convey the huge empty spaces of the steppe and the main noise these Scythian nomads would have heard all their lives, the sounds of their trusted, loyal, equine companions.

Southern Siberian landscape with burial mounds. © V. Terebenin

Southern Siberian landscape with Scythian burial mounds. © V. Terebenin

I’ve been to a lot of exhibitions which aspire to this level of immersion in the world they are depicting – but this is one of the few that really succeeds.

The Scythians

The Scythians is the name given to confederations of nomadic tribes people who inhabited the vast steppes of Siberia between 900 and 200 BC. They probably spoke various dialects of early Iranian but were illiterate and so left absolutely no written record; all we have is a few scattered references in ancient Greek texts and what has been discovered by archaeologists.

Gold artefacts started being dug up by random explorers from stone burial mounds in remote Siberian steppe in the 1720s. Tsar Peter the Great heard about it and issued a decree that all such finds must be sent to him, and ordered explorers and antiquarians to go and find out more. Thus he began the collection of Scythian remains which he stored at the huge Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

Gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider with a spear in his right hand (second half of the 4th century BC) Kul’ Oba. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

Gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider with a spear in his right hand (second half of the 4th century BC) Kul’ Oba. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

Over the centuries this core collection has been augmented as new expeditions discovered new burial sites, and as advances in aerial photography, digital analysis and archaeological surveys in the past thirty years have led to a wave of new discoveries. The great bulk of the objects on display are on loan from the Hermitage, topped up with contributions from other generous loans from the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Ashmolean Museum, the Royal Collection and Achaemenid Oxus Treasure from the British Museum’s own collection, here to show how its motifs were influenced by Scythian art.

Extent in time and space

At their furthest extent the Scythians ranged from the border of China in the east to the northern shore of the Black Sea in the west. A wonderful animated video shows their impact in the west, where Scythian arrow-men apparently were used as a kind of city police in ancient Athens in the 430s, and in Persepolis, capital of the Persian empire, where friezes dating from emperor’s palace in the 550s depict Scythian warriors.

Here and there Herodotus is quoted on the warlike nature of the Scythians, on their practice of making pacts sealed in blood, of their notorious drunkenness. As to their contacts with the East, a case of Scythian armour made from woven fabric explains that it was hardened using lacquering techniques which originate in China.

The Scythians touched and traded with the cultures at either end of their huge, cold, forbidding territory but were never conquered or controlled by them.

Eurasia showing the extent of the Achaemenid empire (in red) and the Eurasian steppe and mixed woodland largely occupied by the Scythians (in Green). Map produced by Paul Goodhead.

Eurasia showing the extent of the Achaemenid empire (in red) and the Eurasian steppe and mixed woodland largely occupied by the Scythians (in light green). Map produced by Paul Goodhead.

That’s a sketch of the historical record, but the exhibition is really concerned with what the archaeological finds tell us about the Scythians’ culture and society, and here the show is a real revelation – not just about the Scythians themselves, but about just how much modern archaeological science can tell us about a people who left no records or writings of any kind.

All areas of their lives and culture are covered. First and foremost they were warriors, feared adversaries and neighbours of the ancient Greeks, Assyrians and Persians between 900 and 200 BC. Numerous cases are devoted to their pointed battle-axes and short swords for close combat, nasty-looking barbed arrow-heads for long-distance archery. Their quivers were set on their saddles for quick access. Remains of several bows indicate their flexibility and power.

Painted wooden shields, armour and a helmet have survived from the ancient tombs. The Scythians were skilled horsemen and the exhibition shows a range of accessories, saddles and head-dresses made for their horses. When a chief died he was buried not only with retainers (presumably executed for the occasion) but with his favourite horses which would be specially adorned with elaborate costumes, with masks, saddle pendants and covers for the mane and tail. All these accessories helped to transform them into mythical beasts.

Horse headdress made of felt, leather and wood from Pazyryk 2 burial mound (late 4th-early 3rd century BC) © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.

Horse headdress made of felt, leather and wood from Pazyryk 2 burial mound (late 4th-early 3rd century BC) © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.

But actually, unlike quite a few other ancient cultures, what came over a lot more powerfully than their warlikeness was the tremendous artistry of their peacetime culture. The dead chiefs were buried in carefully constructed tombs which they then covered with stone burial mounds. They were constructed in such a way that the winter freeze locked the tomb solid, preserving the dead and their belongings. And we have been the beneficiaries because this meant that many of the content were perfectly preserved.

Many of the objects are from finds made in the high Altai mountains of southern Siberia, right at the southern extent of Russia and near the China border. Although most of them are in the order of 2,500 years old, the frozen ground prevented them from deteriorating.

Horse bridles - the central one features plaques representing eagles, rams' heads and a mythical predator (Late 4th-early 3rd century BC) Burial mound 1, Pazyryk, Altai Mountains, southern Siberia

Horse bridles – the central one features plaques representing eagles, rams’ heads and a mythical predator (Late 4th-early 3rd century BC) Burial mound 1, Pazyryk, Altai Mountains, southern Siberia

Thus the exhibition includes multi-coloured textiles, fur-lined garments and accessories, unique horse headgear and tattooed human remains. Quite a few mummified human remains have been found and every single one is extensively tattooed. Soot was, apparently, the medium of choice, because it is common and chemically stable. It was incredible, not to say, macabre, to be scrutinising human skin from 2,500 years ago, with readable, discernible animal shapes and zoomorphic patterns.

Part of human skin with a tattoo, from the left side of the breast and back of a man (from Pazyryk 2 burial site, late 4th-early 3rd century BC) © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

Part of human skin with a tattoo, from the left side of the breast and back of a man (from Pazyryk 2 burial site, late 4th-early 3rd century BC) © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

There was a wealth of other cultural artefacts, including multi-coloured textiles, fur-lined garments, bowls and ladles. The Scythians developed unique head gear, the women wearing tall, narrow conical hats, the warrior men wearing a distinctive type of decorated cap (which is how we identify them in the Persepolis friezes).

Reconstruction of Scythian horseman based on the excavated finds from Olon-Kurin-Gol 10, Altai mountains, Mongolia, by D. V. Pozdnjakov, Institute for Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Department of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Reconstruction of Scythian horseman based on the excavated finds from Olon-Kurin-Gol 10, Altai mountains, Mongolia, by D. V. Pozdnjakov, Institute for Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Department of the Russian Academy of Sciences

There’s a kind of brazier which was, apparently, used for burning hemp seeds, related to marijuana. We have no written records so we can only speculate that it was possibly burnt in order to purify and cleanse the tent or teepee, or maybe used to induce collective highs as part of religious rites, or maybe was breathed in to relieve pain – in a primitive world which must have been plagued by illness, infection and injury and which, quite obviously, afforded few if any forms of pain relief. The fifth century BC Greek historian Herodotus described how Scythians ‘howled with pleasure’ when they inhaled the smoke. Much like teenagers today.

But what I haven’t mentioned yet is the gold. Gold. Lots of beautiful golden ornaments. I missed the wall label which explained where they mined or found it, but they did so in large quantities and developed advanced techniques for both working the gold by hand and casting it in moulds large and small. Modern X-ray photography and microscopy has added to our understanding of how the numerous gold ornaments on display were worked and shaped. It’s extraordinary that a nomadic people, with no towns or settlements at all, managed to support a class of master craftsmen who developed goldsmithing to such a fine art.

A gold belt plaque of a Scythian funerary scene (4th–3rd century BC) © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Photo: V Terebenin.

A gold belt plaque of a Scythian funerary scene (4th–3rd century BC) © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Photo: V Terebenin.

This is one half of a gold belt buckle belonging to Scythian nobility. We deduce from their art works that gold was associated with the sun and power. The scene depicts a dead man lying prone, his head in the lap of a female deity on the left – identifiable by her tall narrow circular hat – behind them both the tree of life on which is hanging a quiver of arrows, and to the right a seated man holding the reins of two horses. It is presumably a scene redolent of symbolic power and myth but we have no idea what it means. Is it the climax of some Scythian legend about a hero who dies in battle and is cradled by his patron goddess? Or some deeper myth to do with death and rebirth? Nobody knows but this powerful object, pregnant with meaning, was my favourite thing in the whole exhibition.

There are quite a few other stunning pieces of gold jewellery. In particular I was struck by several artefacts which, in their day, had been covered with scores and scores of tiny gold applique items, created by using a small punch on soft gold to create scores of tiny gold ornaments, smaller than buttons, generally in the shape of a stylised animal and with one or two tiny holes. The holes were to allow these gold decorations to be sewn onto tunics and, in one case, onto the leather case for a Scythian bow.

The gold plaque below is tiny, about a centimetre across. The ear, eye, nostril, mouth and various other slots would have contained decorative stones, probably turquoise.

Gold plaque in the shape of a coiled panther (4th–3rd century BC) Siberian Collection of Peter the Great © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

Gold plaque in the shape of a coiled panther (4th–3rd century BC) Siberian Collection of Peter the Great © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

The animal motifs on these gold artefacts are a whole subject in themselves. Scythian animal art featured birds of prey, plant-eating animals, feline predators, ferocious beasts. Some depict leopard-like creatures, and we know that wild leopards lived in the Altai mountains. Others show fantastic beasts from the underworld preying on hoofed animals (presumably symbolising the horses the Scythians so relied on, and maybe pointing to the anxiety about the instability, the fragility of nomadic life, which must have stalked Scythian culture at every moment).

Lots of gold artworks, large and small, all exquisitely made, and with their depictions of mythical beasts locked in predatory combat, teasingly hinting at a whole mythology, a world of folk lore and legends, now completely lost to us.

Afterlife

In about the second century BC the Scythians disappeared and were replaced by other nomadic powers. The exhibition concludes with an exploration of what happened afterwards, mentioning the races who succeeded them, the Mongols and the Huns, peoples who were to have a much larger, more ominous and disastrous effect on their neighbours.

For a long time afterwards the Scythians were nothing but a name and a few references in the ancient authors. This wonderful, atmospheric and deeply evocative exhibition shows that we now have more than enough objects of all shapes and types to recreate a good deal of the lives and arts of this long dead people.

Southern Siberia landscapes with burial mounds © V. Terebenin

Southern Siberia landscapes with burial mounds © V. Terebenin

Videos

The British Museum has made not one but eight short videos about the exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

War Paint @ the National Army Museum

The National Army Museum is the British Army’s central museum, located in Chelsea just a few hundred yards from the Thames Embankment and next to the Royal Hospital Chelsea, home of the ‘Chelsea Pensioners’.

Its remit is to cover the overall history of British land forces since their inception back during the British Civil Wars (the 1640s). It differs from the Imperial War Museum in two ways: the IWM has a wider remit of theme (covering the war experiences of British military personnel from all three services and of civilians, too) but the IWM covers a shorter time period – only since 1914.

Exterior of the National Army Museum

Exterior of the National Army Museum on a December morning

The museum reopened in March this year after a three-year-long refurbishment costing £23.75 million. It’s now a big, clean, light and airy space, full of greeters and super helpful visitor attendants. Spread over its three floors are galleries arranged by themes – Soldier, Army, Battle, Society and Insight, along with a light and airy café, a shop – and a gallery for temporary exhibitions.

Inside the National Army Museum

Inside the National Army Museum

War Paint

I had come to see the exhibition titled ‘War Paint’, which has been open since March and closes in January. The idea is to display ‘over 130 paintings and objects exploring the complex relationship between war and the men and women who map, record, celebrate and document it’.

The exhibition is divided into five or so ‘spaces’ (they’re not quite defined enough to be rooms) which display works and objects related to the themes of:

1 Surveying the world

To control a territory you must understand it. After the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, the Board of Ordnance was instructed to create detailed maps of Scotland. This was the origin of the Ordnance Survey maps of Britain which we use today and are so breath-takingly thorough. The exhibition shows early maps of Scotland, and then a rather random selection of maps and diagrams, one used for charting the River Blackwater near Aldershot, one used to track Napoleon’s sea journey to Egypt (where he set about a massive map-making commission), and so on.

There was a small, beautifully drawn sketch of the view from the UN outpost in the village of Majlaj during the Yugoslav Civil Wars by a contemporary soldier, showing the position of Serb and Muslim snipers up in the surrounding hills. Display cases contain compasses and other kit required by professional map-makers.

Inside the War Paint exhibition

Inside the War Paint exhibition

2 Drawing on experience

War illustration became professional (newspapers started to pay for it) in the 1840s. Before then serving officers produced nearly all the surviving eye-witness portrayals of the army on campaign. Modern soldiers continue to use painting as a form of relaxation and, more recently, to aid rehabilitation.

3 Selling war

All perspectives on conflict are partial and artists as much as anyone else, choose a subject and select and manipulate it in order to create an image under the influence of concerns for saleability, professional advancement, concerns for ‘the truth’, the wish to record bravery, and so on.

4 Political statement

A number of works here show how British society recorded triumphs and victories, from King Billy at the Battle of the Boyne to Wellington in the Peninsular War. Although the themed approach tries to conceal it, the core of the collection seems to be innumerable paintings recording victories against the fuzzy-wuzzies in the countless small wars of the Victorian era. The stories behind each painting (and each artist – there appear to be lots of battle artists) are often interesting – but not many of the paintings are really notable, considered as art (as opposed to as interesting examples of imperial propaganda or of Victorian narrative painting).

But then, Victorian society was complex: there was also a strong counter-thread warning against jingoism, warning against complacency. Kipling’s great poem Recessional comes to mind, and the exhibition quotes from the battle artist, Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler, who said: ‘Thank God I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism’. In that vein her most famous painting is probably Remnants of an army, 1879 (though it isn’t on show here, being owned by Tate).

Thoughts and reactions

I’m afraid I didn’t find the thematic arrangement very convincing or maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention. I found myself rearranging the exhibits chronologically in terms of style. After a handful of items from the Civil Wars, and a few primitive works from the 18th century, there was a large amount of Victorian boilerplate – sentimental pictures of soldiers off to the wars or returning back by ship, done in a soft-edged Romantic style. Lots about Wellington and the Napoleonic campaigns.

Wellington at Sorauren, 27 July 1813 by Thomas Jones Barker (1853) © National Army Museum

Wellington at Sorauren, 27 July 1813 by Thomas Jones Barker (1853) © National Army Museum

Horses are a popular theme – the cavalry was not only glamorously dressed but gave every painter all kinds of compositional opportunities designed to inspire zeal and admiration in their Victorian spectators.

It seemed to me only in the last decades of the 19th century, and the first of the twentieth, that figure painting reached a kind of peak of excellence – a consistent brilliance of lifelike draughtsmanship, which helps give so many late-Victorian and Edwardian battle paintings such a tremendously vivid, realistic and stirring quality.

The Flag, Albuhera, May 16, 1811, by William Barnes Wollen (1912) © National Army Museum

The Flag, Albuhera, May 16, 1811 by William Barnes Wollen (1912) © National Army Museum

The paradoxical beauty of the Great War

This technical virtuosity carried on into the Great War when even painters who were aware of developments in modern art in France stuck to a more traditional academic style to depict the horrors they saw. It’s a very subjective view, but the works I liked best came from the Great War, for several reasons:

1. Almost all the previous wars, up to and including the Boer War, involved lots of horses in the actual fighting. There’s a big continuity of dramatic horse war paintings from the Battle of Bleinheim through to the campaign in South Africa.

Buller's Final Crossing of the Tugela, February 1900 by Georges Bertin Scott (1900)

Buller’s Final Crossing of the Tugela, February 1900 by Georges Bertin Scott (1900)

2. The Second World War is about machines – Panzer tanks, Spitfires and Messerschmitts, massive warships in the Pacific, U-boats in the Atlantic. The Battle of Britain or El Alamein or Stalingrad, are about machines. Humans dwindle beside them.

3. The iconography of the Great War sits between these eras – although horses were used in their millions to pull carts and artillery, they played little role in the actual fighting which, as we all know, was a grim attritional, trench-based affair. On the other hand none of the machines which dominated the Second World War had yet been invented (OK, early planes and tanks were in action, but not perfected yet, not dominating the scene).

Therefore, the Great War is the war of people, of ordinary people (mostly men, obviously), of millions of poor bloody infantry pushed into a nightmare life. The stories and iconography of the Great War are, paradoxically, very humane, human-scale. It is a face of war acceptable to our modern anti-war tastes and values, because it is predominantly about suffering – lacking all the vainglory and braggadocio of the previous two hundred years of imperial triumphs.

Which explains why it produced a work like this, by Second Lieutenant Richard Tennant Cooper who served in the Great War, sketching and painting as he went – a work focusing on an individual, not a cavalry charge or an attack on a redoubt or the defence of some pallisades, but a wet man trudging along with a heavy weight of barbed wire picket posts on his shoulder.

A Tommy wearing rain cape and carrying picket posts, 1917 by Second Lieutenant Richard Tennant Cooper, 1918 © National Army Museum

A Tommy wearing rain cape and carrying picket posts, 1917 by Second Lieutenant Richard Tennant Cooper, 1918 © National Army Museum

The visitor assistants at the Museum are extremely helpful and one of them pointed out something I’d missed, which is that this detailed sketch was just one of many Cooper made for his large oil painting, The Working Party (hanging next to it). The figure above is the fourth from the left in the finished composition, below. (She also pointed out that the fifth figure from the left is smoking a crafty fag – you can just make out if you lean right up to the canvas, a tiny pinprick of orange flame.)

The Working Party, 1917 (1918) by Richard Tennant Cooper © National Army Museum

The Working Party, 1917 (1918) by Richard Tennant Cooper © National Army Museum

In a way this may be one of the many reasons why the Great War continues to haunt our imagination – because it was a war of mostly powerless men, men reduced to pawns, a war of great and pointless suffering. It is to this day a morally acceptable war, in that most of the soldiers are felt to be victims – contrasted with pretty much every war before it, which tend to be seen as being fought to expand the British Empire, generally against much less well-equipped opponents, whether Sudanese or South Africans – endeavours which, in our time, are coming in for greater and greater criticism.

Cooper (1885-1957) is one of the most featured artists in the exhibition, with four or five atmospheric works on display.

Warrington Road, 1917 (1926) by Richard Tennant Cooper © National Army Museum

Warrington Road, 1917 (1926) by Richard Tennant Cooper © National Army Museum

An older contemporary whose work recurs is William Barnes Wollen (1857-1936). The Museum appears to have 15 of his works in total of which about five are on display. At the turn of the century and into the Edwardian era Wollen made a reputation for painting historical battles in the dashing, realistic style of a good book illustrator.

The Battle of Lexington, 19 April 1775 (1910) by William Barns Wollen © National Army Museum

The Battle of Lexington, 19 April 1775 (1910) by William Barnes Wollen © National Army Museum

And he lived on into the Great War, which he painted in the same thrilling style. There’s a display case showing the passport and paperwork he used to wangle permission to go to the Front to see and sketch for himself.

The Territorials at Pozières, 23 July 1916 by William Barns Wollen © National Army Museum

The Territorials at Pozières, 23 July 1916 by William Barnes Wollen © National Army Museum

The Second World War

My impression is that there is a lot less art from the Second World War, and what there is is much more mannered i.e. under the influence of modern art. For example, when I think of WW2 art I think immediately of Stanley Spencer’s eccentric style applied to the shipbuilders on the Clyde – or Paul Nash’s very stylised depictions of aerial battles over the South of England or of fighter plane graveyards, or of Ravilious’s wonderful submarine drawings. None of them are here and the examples here are just not so impactful as the Great War imagery.

One of the best pictures from the Second World War is Sepoy Nand Singh, 1st Battalion, 11th Sikh Regiment, winning the VC in Burma, 12 March 1944 by Second Lieutenant Edward E L Mortelmans. In it you can see the modern approach most obviously in the stylisation of the entire landscape, the loose handling of the paint, and especially the odd perspective of the tank which seems to be on a different plane from the other elements in the picture. This makes it an interestingly modernist painting but less clear about what is going on than any of the Great War paintings. You need to read the wall label top understand the action.

Sepoy Nand Singh, 1st Battalion, 11th Sikh Regiment, winning the VC in Burma, 12 March 1944 by Second Lieutenant Edward E L Mortelmans © National Army Museum

Sepoy Nand Singh, 1st Battalion, 11th Sikh Regiment, winning the VC in Burma, 12 March 1944 by Second Lieutenant Edward E L Mortelmans © National Army Museum

Post-colonial wars

After 1945 the British Army saw policing actions in – to mention the main ones – Israel, India, Cyprus, Malaya, Kenya, Rhodesia and then, from 1970, in Northern Ireland. Maybe because they weren’t full-blown ‘wars’ I didn’t see any evidence of art about them. I wonder if there are any works of art which take the British Army’s involvement in these events as their subject (as opposed to photos, news reports, TV news and documentaries etc).

Contemporary war art

But the biggest break in this 350-year-long narrative of war art is between everything which went before and the advent of the contemporary era. When does that start? Well, the most commonly agreed date suggests that the contemporary world started in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War – itself quickly followed by NATO’s first adventure in the Middle East, during the First Gulf War (1990-91). This set the tone of the world we still live in.

Some people argue that 9/11 and the advent of ‘the Age of Terror’ (as some people call it) should be seen as the start of a new era – but it can also be regarded as simply an intensification of the new post-Cold War atmosphere of anarchy, the era when the international community struggled to make sense of conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Somalia and across the Middle East.

And, after all, 9/11 was Osama bin Laden’s ‘revenge’ for the massive American military presence in Saudi Arabia during that first Gulf War, so it ultimately stems from the events of 1990 which, in my opinion, sowed the seeds of the era we now live in.

Anyway, the art by British soldiers and ex-soldiers dating from about 1990 has a completely different feel from everything which went before. The artist-soldiers who are featured here all have a modern sensibility i.e. they have never experienced a world war, they come from a basically peaceful country used to a calm, comfortable lifestyle – war and conflict somehow seem all the more alien and alienating, upsetting in a completely new way, somehow qualitatively different from the experience of either of the world wars.

Maybe because it’s carried out by the relatively small numbers of a professional army and not by mass recruits (there are currently around 82,000 soldiers in the British Army), and in places which seem remote and far away, that actual reports on and image of conflict seem both more remote and more… jarring.

Battle (2010) by Jules George © Jules George

Battle (2010) by Jules George © Jules George

One of the names which cropped up several times in the contemporary era was Captain Jonathan Wade of the Royal Highland Fusiliers. It was he who made the beautifully atmospheric sketch of the hills full of snipers in Bosnia which I mentioned earlier on – and who is also represented by a couple of cracking oil paintings from the Iraq War.

British infantry vehicles advancing, Iraq, 1991 by Captain Jonathan Wade (1992) © National Army Museum

British infantry vehicles advancing, Iraq, 1991 by Captain Jonathan Wade (1992) © National Army Museum

We live in confusing times. The moral certainties of earlier conflicts are no longer so available to us – and certainly servicemen and women are more informed than ever before about the political and strategic realities behind the conflicts they are called upon to fight. The presence of mobile phones and other digital technology, combined with a high level of modern education, means that any soldier knows more about the war they’re engaged in than ever before. It must be hard, it must be very hard, to fight a modern war.

Something of that difficulty – and the modern psychological costs of being a soldier and seeing conflict – are captured in by far the most striking piece in the exhibition, Brothers in Arms (2012) by Michael Crossan. This is made up of masks roughly stuck onto a big canvas and then painted over with the Union Jack. What you can’t see from this reproduction is how big it is, or that it is in three-dimensions – the masks, and the arms reaching across from bottom left to top right – are all thrust right out in your face.

Brothers in Arms (2012) by Michael Crossan © National Army Museum

Brothers in Arms (2012) by Michael Crossan © National Army Museum

To quote the catalogue:

Michael Crossan joined the Royal Highland Fusiliers as a teenager. He travelled extensively after leaving the army, but struggled with alcoholism and ended up homeless before getting help from veterans’ charities. Art therapy can help struggling veterans address the symptoms of psychological injury, reduce anxiety and manage stress. In his art Crossnan explores issues around army rehabilitation and life after service.

I found this almost unbearably moving, far more moving than even the Great War paintings. This is the face of modern war art, inconceivably different from the academic traditions which dominated from the 17th century to the mid-twentieth century. And conveys the cost of war, which somehow, in our times, seems to be more psychologically damaging to the participants than ever before.

Ironically, it is, according to the visitor assistants, the most popular piece in the show with young children who are otherwise – and pretty understandably – bored by a series of dusty old paintings about the Napoleonic or the Crimean or the Boer War. By contrast, this inventive, big and bright sculpture, which could be hanging in a school sixth form art department, which is so immediate and accessible – they can understand.

Bolan market

Artist Mark Neville spent a three-month residency with the British Army in the Afghan province of Helmand as the UK’s official war artist in 2011. ‘Bolan Market’ was one of the results. It is a slow-motion video filmed from a British Army ‘husky’ support vehicle as it rolled slowly through Bolan market, capturing the expressions of local inhabitants, perplexed, bored, resigned, sullen – the interpretation is up to you.

It also, maybe, helps to convey the feeling of the British soldiers tasked with patrolling this country and these people, unable to read their moods or intentions or feelings, permanently anxious and on edge. I saw it as a powerful study in alienation and disconnection.


Search the catalogue

You can search the National Army Museum catalogue online.

Here you can look up all of the art works I’ve featured above and read more about their subject matter and about the artists (or about the thousands of other works which the NAM owns).

Related links

Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys @ The Courtauld galley

Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943) was one of the leading painters in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a Russian Jew who fled to Paris in 1913, soon settling into bohemian Montparnasse where he befriended, among others, the young Amedeo Modigliani.

His paintings are garish, heavily distorted and reveal a strong sympathy for working people. Because of this some contemporary critics considered him the successor of van Gogh, but Soutine’s works are really painted in a quite different way.

Among his themes or subjects Soutine developed the notion of painting portraits of the service staff from the fashionable hotels and restaurants of 1920s Paris. After ten years of penury, in 1923 the American collector Albert C. Barnes saw one of the hotel staff paintings and bought it and everything else Soutine had to sell (50 paintings in all), giving Soutine financial security and art world credibility at a stroke.

Nowadays the hotel staff portraits are considered among Soutine’s greatest achievements and this exhibition – the first devoted to Soutine in the UK for 35 years – is the first ever to focus on the hotel portraits, bringing together an unprecedented number for us to compare and contrast.

Bellboy (c.1925) Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, Centre Georges Pompidou

Bellboy (c.1925) Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, Centre Georges Pompidou

As with all the Courtauld Gallery exhibitions, it is small (two rooms) but thoughtfully and beautifully presented. In total there are 21 paintings, brought in from a variety of collections, public and private, hung and spaced in just the right way, with wall labels which give you just the right amount of information.

The Roaring Twenties

It was the Roaring Twenties and Paris was a cheap tourist destination, especially for Americans. The grand hotels boomed and seethed with an elaborate hierarchy of staff – waiters and maitres d’, cooks and chefs, bellboys and chambermaids.

Although all was luxury up above, in the lobby and dining room and luxury suites, the staff making it all happen and jumping at rich people’s beck and call, worked very long hours, under constant pressure, for minimum wages. George Orwell describes the hellish world of the kitchens of such a hotel in Down and Out in Paris and London.

The Chambermaid (c.1930) by Chaim Soutine, Courtesy Kunstmuseum Lucerne

The Chambermaid (c.1930) by Chaim Soutine, Courtesy Kunstmuseum Lucerne

Twisted and distorted

Quite obviously these are figurative works in that they depict real objects, real people. Just as obviously, they are all hideously, perhaps nightmarishly, twisted and distorted. As with the current exhibition of Cézanne portraits at the National Portrait Gallery I found the commentary a touch sentimental in that it dwelt on the supposed characters, personality or feelings of the sitters. The one above, The Chambermaid, is one of the few which seem to have any facial expression and is ‘realistic’ enough to perhaps warrant a psychological interpretation. (Which is, unsurprisingly, that she looks pretty unhappy.)

But the great majority of the portraits are, in my view, too elaborately bent and deformed to really lend themselves to psychological interpretations, certainly of individuals – not least because they are unnervingly similar, the faces deliberately asymmetrical, the eyes on different levels, the skulls elongated or unnaturally thin.

Le Valet de Chambre (c.1927) by Chaim Soutine. Private Collection, Courtesy of Ordovas

Le Valet de Chambre (c.1927) by Chaim Soutine. Private Collection, Courtesy of Ordovas

The commentary invokes one of the great cultural themes of our times, identity, to suggest that the figures are straining against the constraints of their uniforms which categorise, pigeonhole and limit them. It’s a plausible idea. But its rather undermined by the fact that Soutine nowhere, anywhere, gives his sitters names. The reverse, they are titled solely by their job description – chambermaid, cook, maitre d’.

Maybe the no-name thing was part of the general aim, to create a kind of pathos. Maybe we are meant to think: ‘Poor people, stripped of their personality, stripped even of their names, and reduced to slavish flunkeys’.

Page Boy at Maxims (c. 1927) by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, Edmund Hayes Fund, Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Page Boy at Maxims (c. 1927) by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, Edmund Hayes Fund, Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Rather like in Cézanne, the sitters are placed in straightforward, point-blank frontal poses, a posture which tends to emphasise a kind of forlorn helplessness. Maybe all of this does contribute to a triste vibe.

So much for the psychology. But what I haven’t mentioned yet is the colour.

Colour

These paintings are intensely colourful. The visitor’s first impression as you enter the gallery, before you’ve even got to grips with the hotel staff idea, is of flaring reds, intense midnight blues and big whites.

There may be some kind of pathos of poverty in the pictures, but what is beyond doubt is their intense colourfulness. In particular I was bowled over in the first room on the first wall by Soutine’s use of an intense midnight blue as the abstract background to two portraits of a page-boy.

The Page Boy (c.1928) by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, Private Collection

The Page Boy (c.1928) by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, Private Collection

A blue deep enough to swim in, to merge into, to walk into and be lost forever.

In other portraits the dominant colour is white, the colour of the uniforms of the cooks and kitchen staff. But when you look closer you see it is a white made up of all kinds of shades of white, and laced with lines of blue and dabs of pink to create an intense and ravishing visual experience.

Up close you can see how the paint has been laid on thickly in confident strokes and sweeps to create a very dynamic experience. The pastry cook of Cagnes is one of the works where the commentary thinks we’re meant to feel moved by the pathos of his character etc, but I didn’t get any of that. What I saw was a brilliantly confident exercise in colour, an experiment in whites, and a dashing confidence in the sheer technique of painting with oils – the browns of the distorted chair, the shadowed whites of his buttons, the sudden flare of his red handkerchief.

Pastry Cook of Cagnes (1922) by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery / Museum of Avaunt-Guard Mastery of Europe (MAGMA)

Pastry Cook of Cagnes (1922) by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery / Museum of Avaunt-Guard Mastery of Europe (MAGMA)

The humanist interpretation focuses on the standardised uniforms of maitre d’, waiter, chef and so on as constraining straitjackets. But I think it’s quite obvious that – whatever effect their uniforms had on the staff – Soutine himself was, on the contrary, inspired and liberated by the extremes of colour which they offered.

Here was a God-given excuse to create really forceful effects of colour from the bold whites, reds and blues of the different liveries, all emphasised by the full-on frontal poses, to create an almost physically jarring effect.

In this respect, maybe my favourite was Le petit patissier – not for her expression (which, quite frankly, looks much the same as the expressions of all the other sitters i.e. unreadable) – but for the extreme contrast between the midnight blue of the background and the stark white of her uniform. And for the way the two interact, so that the theoretically white smock is invaded by squiggly lines and dabs of not only blue but green and red and flesh colour – to create a strikingly bold and declarative statement.

The Little Pastry Cook (Le Petit Pâtissier) 1927 by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, The Lewis Collection.

The Little Pastry Cook (Le Petit Pâtissier) 1927 by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, The Lewis Collection.

The bold brushstrokes and really fierce colour contrasts look forward to Abstract Expressionism, a thought which had occurred before I read in the commentary that the Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning singled Soutine out as his favourite artist.

And you can also see why British artists like Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, and especially Lucian Freud, cited Soutine as a key influence. The thick impasto paint. The distorted figures. Soutine got there first.

Reading around the subject, I discover that Soutine was also well known at the time for painting a series of still lives of sides of beef. Not much sentimental pathos in these portraits! although they share the same visual language, of a distorted subject depicted in extreme reds and blues.

In 2015 one of them was sold for $28 million.

The video

Every modern exhibition has a promotional video. The Courtauld had the bright idea of getting Fred Sirieix, a French maître d’hôtel best known for appearing on Channel 4’s First Dates programme, to give his professional view. Oddly for something so bang up to date, all the colours are very bleached out in this film, so that Soutine’s virulent reds look misleadingly cosy and orange.

This short montage gives you a better idea of the paintings’ vibrant colouring, but still doesn’t capture the intensity of the dark blues, bright red and wild whites which Soutine uses. To experience that fully, you have to visit this exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Courtauld Gallery

In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris 1900-1910 by Sue Roe (2014)

Roe’s previous book – The Private Lives of the Impressionists  (2006) – gives a chatty, anecdotal overview of the Impressionists’ lives and loves (and poverty, lots of poverty) blended with lashings of pop social history, ending with the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition of 1886.

This one skips 14 years (neatly avoiding the complex decade of the 1890s when Symbolism and Art Nouveau became the new thing). Instead Roe starts with the dawn of the new century in 1900, and launches her account with the enormous Exposition Universelle which was held in Paris from April to November, built and designed in the dominant Art Nouveau style to house a vast array of innovative machines, inventions and architecture.

The decadence and darkness of the fin-de-siecle didn’t disappear immediately, but there was a widespread sense of hope and optimism, that the new century was going to bring marvellous advances in science and medicine and society and, accompanying this optimism, there was in the arts a palpable thirst for something new, for the next big thing.

A group biography

The book is mostly about the artists, specifically Picasso and Matisse, their lovers and wives and children and mistresses, their struggles simply to survive, find somewhere to live, and their relationships with the growing number of collectors and dealers. The book details the slow-burning rivalry between Matisse and his young rival, explaining how and why it began and grew (for example when the two artists exchanged paintings, Picasso hung his up and encouraged his mates to use it as a dartboard).

Around them cluster other important artists – Derain, Vlaminck, van Dongen, Braque – given their own potted biographies who then weave in and out of the plot, for example the appearance of le douanier Rousseau, the naive painter of jungle scenes who Picasso organises an elaborate celebration dinner for.

Several characters I found it hard to care about. Roe has a particular fondness for the master couturier Paul Poiret. I have a blind spot for fashion so I didn’t really care that among his customers was Margot Asquith, the fashionable wife of the British Prime Minister, who apparently wore violet satin knickers, or that his design for skirts slashed open to the knee caused the sensitive to faint and the outraged to write letters to the press. After a while I skimmed through these chapters.

Similarly, Gertrude Stein was an important early collector and supporter of both Matisse and Picasso, and it’s certainly interesting to read about her own avant-garde experiments with a kind of radically decentred prose in the context of what the painters were doing. But the intricacies of her relationship with fellow lesbian Alice B. Toklas, let alone other lovers and friends called Nancy and Alice, and how they all corresponded with Fernande, Picasso’s lover and muse, descended – for me – into pointless tittle-tattle, and I skipped these parts too.

Social history

Her social history is patchy. The disastrous Dreyfus Affair which dragged on to 1906 and bitterly divided France into pro- and anti-Dreyfus camps, is not mentioned and isn’t in the index. On the other hand, she has a good couple of pages (162-163) about the political chaos of 1906, specifically the record number of strikes and the ubiquity of anarchist agitation. Characteristically, this is mentioned mainly in order to introduce us to a person, namely the thin, witty journalist and art critic Félix Fénéon, who had coined the term ‘neo-Impressionism’ to describe the Divisionist paintings of George Seurat and Paul Signac.

Similarly, the rise of cinema is an interesting thread running through the book, from the very first film made in 1896 to the fact that by 1902 ten minute movies with elaborate special effects, dialogue captions and so on were being shown. Indeed, some French newspaper dubbed 1907 ‘the year of the cinema’ (p.192). But again, Roe’s interest is in relating it to the location of her title, to the fleapits and even open waste ground, where films were projected in run-down slummy Montmartre.

By introducing the notion of ‘cuts’, movies invented the method of showing the same scene from multiple points of view, wide shot, mid-shot, close-up, different angles. It’s not difficult to make links between these new ways of seeing and Cubism which also presents multiple points of view of the same object.

More interesting to me was the detail that cinemas were so dirt cheap – entry often a few centimes – that they quickly became the preferred venue of entertainment for the really poor, and this change went hand in hand with the cabarets and vaudeville theatres going up-market, charging more for entry, cleaning themselves up, becoming more ‘respectable’. That was an interesting insight into social history.

Late in the book we are given a brief history of manned flight (the Wright brothers made the first manned flight in 1903) because Picasso and Braque visited the new aerodrome at Issy les Moulineaux to watch the earliest French airplanes. Alongside Futurists hymning the car (‘a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than The Victory of Samothrace‘), the rapid evolution of cinema and the introduction of the telephone, Cubism was part of the new technological excitement of the times.

And – it’s difficult to sum up in a paragraph – but the book is drenched in the mechanics and economics of selling pictures. As a professional artist, if you don’t sell, you don’t eat. Competition was fierce because it was competition to get money to pay rent, get studio space, to buy food.

The noughties saw the further rise and complexification of the networks of collectors and dealers who bought and sold modern art, and we learn almost as much of their biographies, backgrounds, motives for collecting, and economic ups and downs, as we do about the painters. Ambroise Vollard in particular emerges as a predatory buyer, repeatedly swooping on the studios of Picasso, Derain or Vlaminck and buying everything in sight – not once but several times we are told that passers-by gawped in wonder as Vollard loaded a horse-drawn cab to overflowing with colourful canvases and then trotted it off to his gallery (for example, buying 30 paintings off Picasso for 2,000 francs, p.270).

Private collectors – like the Stein family, Michael, Sarah and Gertrude who arrived in Paris in 1902, and whose adventures we follow in some detail – pale in comparison with the professional activities of Vollard, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and the growing band of professional art dealers.

As a result of the growing interest of the dealers – and of wealthy collectors and patrons like the Russian Shchukin – we watch Picasso and his fellow painters in particular go from starving in garrets (specifically, the ramshackle building in Montmartre known as the Bateau-Lavoir) trying to flog paintings for 15 francs a pop to – in the last few chapters of the book, by 1909, 1910 – being paid two or three thousand francs per consignment, huge sums which allow Matisse to give up the burden of teaching and move out of Paris altogether, and Picasso to rent a swanky apartment on the Boulevard de Clichy.

Lots of addresses…

Above all In Montmartre is – as its title suggests – the biography of a place, the ramshackle alleyways and slums, vacant lots, little squares, scattered windmills and allotments which made up the prominent hill of Montmartre, to the north of central Paris. Still, in 1910, the haunt of the real working class, not to mention a floating population of performers who worked in cheap, tatty circuses and cabarets, it was so ramshackle that you could not only rent apartments and studio space dirt cheap, but on the northern derelict face (the so-called Maquis), you could simply find abandoned shacks and move in, rent-free, as Modigliani did when he first arrived in 1906.

Maybe it’s because the publisher commissioned it as the biography of a place as much as of any specific artists, that Roe pays such fanatical attention to addresses. If you want to know which famous artist was living where, which road or boulevard was home to which dealer’s gallery where so-and-so’s studio was, the precise locations of the top cafés and cabarets – Roe is your woman.

Much more even than descriptions of the art, Roe’s text is absolutely stuffed with addresses, precise directions how to get there, and which floor to clamber up to, to discover Picasso or Matisse or Derain daubing away.

  • In 1900 Picasso is living in Nonell’s studio in the rue Gabriel while Braque was living two streets away in the rue des Trois Frères.
  • Matisse’s studio in February 1901 was at 19 quai Saint Michel.
  • Marie Laurencin, painter, printmaker and later muse to Apollinaire, lived at 51 boulevard de la Chapelle, an extension of the boulevard Rochechouart.
  • In 1904 Picasso was staying at the Hôtel Poirier at the corner of the rue des Trois Frères and the rue Ravignan. The Place Ravignan (since renamed the place Émile Goudeau) was just below the place du Tertre.
  • In 1904 Braque moved into a rented studio at rue d’Orsel, near the offices of the anarchist paper, Le Libertaire, a couple of hundred yards from the place Ravignan.
  • By the time she met Picasso in August 1904, Fernande Olivier (destined to become his first muse) was living at the ramshackle building known as the Bateau-Lavoir ‘on the ground floor, in room number three, on the rue d’Orchamps side’ (p.88)
  • The cabaret artistique, the Lapin Agile, was ‘a dark little two-roomed cottage nestling between the trees at the corner of the rue Corot and the rue des Saules’.
  • Maurice Utrillo lived at 12 rue Cortot from 1906 to 1914, Raoul Dufy shared an atelier there from 1901 to 1911. It is now the Musée de Montmartre.
  • The circus Medrano was in a large building at the foot of the Butte (the hill or ‘mound’) at the corner of the boulevard Rochevcouart and the rue des Martyrs, once site of the Circus Fernando where, in 1879, Degas painted Miss Lala hanging by her teeth from a rope, a painting now in the London National Gallery.

And so on. No one goes anywhere or does anything without Roe nailing down precisely where it was, with the street, the number, the floor and – if you’re lucky – the precise room number given. The digital version of the book ought to have a deal with Google Maps so that each address links through to a map with, ideally, archive photos of what the place looked like then, next to photos of what it looks like now.

… but not so many illustrations

I annotated the book with a line by each address that was mentioned, and an asterisk by each painting that was mentioned. Flicking back through the book makes me realise that a) that there are nearly as many addresses as paintings b) the book only contains eight full-colour illustrations of paintings.

Since the point of the book is (at least partly) about the evolution in style of Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Braque and so on, you want to see the works which are liberally mentioned throughout, and sometimes analysed in considerable detail (e.g. the three or four pages devoted to analysing Picasso’s breakthrough work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon). But since hardly any of them are illustrated in the text, I ended up spending quite a lot of time on the computer googling the images mentioned in the text, but not shown. In other words, it’s not a very visual guide to the period.

Instead it does what it says on the tin – provides an enjoyable romp through who lived where, bumped into who, organised such and such an exhibition, started painting this or that famous work, went holidaying and painting in Normandy or the South, arrived in Paris from abroad and stayed at the so and so hotel before moving into studios at such and such address, and was bought up by such and such a dealer who had just moved into new bigger premises on the Boulevard thingummy.

It’s in this respect that the book is as much the biography of a place as of the avant-garde artists or art of its time.

Timeline of the avant-garde 1900s

So, the book begins with a pen portrait of the 1900 Exposition Universelle and how the last few weeks see the arrival of a nineteen-year-old Spanish artist in town, come to seek his fortune and try his luck – Pablo Picasso.

1900

  • April to November the Exposition Universelle is held in buildings erected in the open ground around the Eiffel Tower
  • October – Pablo Picasso arrives in Paris aged 19.
  • Winter – Picasso heads back to Barcelona for Christmas with his family.

1901

  • Cézanne paints his portrait of art dealer Ambroise Vollard, which allegedly took 115 sittings and still wasn’t finished.
  • February – Picasso’s friend Casagemas commits suicide by shooting himself in front of the woman who was spurning him. This really affects Picasso who sinks into a prolonged depression and starts doing paintings of down and outs, sad people, outcasts, in a monochrome blue, the so-called ‘Blue period‘ which last into 1904.
  • March – 71 paintings by Vincent Van Gogh are shown at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, his first solo exhibition anywhere. Here Matisse (aged 31) runs into André Derain (21) and his tall, burly friend, Maurice Vlaminck (25), all three of whom would become the core of the ‘Fauves’.

1902

  • The first narrative movie – A trip to the moon – is shown (the first ever film had only been shown in 1896).
  • September – Émile Zola, boyhood friend of Cézanne, dies, possibly murdered by his opponents in the long-running Dreyfus Affair.
  • October – Back in Barcelona, Picasso’s uncle pays for him to avoid Spanish military service.
  • Leo Stein arrived in Paris in 1902 and took rooms at 27 rue de Fleurus, close to the Luxembourg Gardens where he was joined by his sister, Gertrude (b.1874) that autumn. In 1904 Michael Stein arrived with his wife and child and took an apartment at rue Madame, just round the corner from rue de Fleurus. They began collecting contemporary art.

1903

  • February – Matisse is living at his parent’s home in Bohain, northern France.
  • May – Paul Gauguin dies
  • October – The first Salon d’Automne shows 990 works

1904

  • April – Picasso is back in Paris. He paints Boy leading a horse epitome of his ‘Rose period’
  • Matisse spends the summer staying with neo-Impressionist or Divisionist artist, Paul Signac, at St Tropez in the south of France, discovering the bright white light of the Mediterranean and paints the pointillist Luxe, calme et volupte
  • July – Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi arrives in Paris. Born in 1876, he is 38 years old.
  • October – the second Salon d’Automne features 2,044 works and featured a Renoir room (35 works) and a Toulouse-Lautrec room (28 rooms)

1905

  • March – as part of the annual Salon des Indépendants, organised by Signac, Matisse helped put together a display of 45 works by van Gogh (who had committed suicide as long ago as 1890). Matisse later said this was a turning point in his career, van Gogh helping him turn away from Signac’s Divisionism towards a more expressive style.
  • Early summer Matisse’s wife discovers the picture-perfect fishing village of Collioure near Perpignan, and Matisse goes there to start painting fiery bright paintings of the landscape and people. He writes to all his friends in Paris to join him but only André Derain replies and arrives, tall, dressed in a white suit with a red beret, and they both spend the summer feverishly painting. By the start of September Derain had completed 30 canvases, 20 drawings and 15 sketches
  • 5 September – Fernande Olivier moves in with Picasso thus starting their tempestuous relationship, during which he painted more than 60 portraits of her. He paints performers from the nearby Montmartre circuses, including Boy with a pipe (which, in 2004 was sold for $104 million to the head of an Italian food processing conglomerate).
  • October – the third Salon d’Automne has a room devoted to the brightly coloured works of Henri Matisse, André Derain, Albert Marquet, Maurice de Vlaminck, Kees van Dongen, Charles Camoin, and Jean Puy. Their visual violence leads art critic Louis Vauxcelles to nickname them all wild beasts, or ‘fauves’. And so an art movement was born.
  • Michael Stein buys Matisse’s Madame Matisse in  a green hat for the full asking price of 500 francs, massively relieving Matisse’s financial straits.
  • November – dealer Ambroise Vollard buys Derain’s entire stock of paintings, 89 paintings and 80- watercolours,for an unprecedented 3,300 francs (p.134). Then buys a 100 francs-worth of work from Vlaminck.
  • November – Vollard commissions Derain to travel to London to paint city landscapes, such as Charing Cross bridge, following in the footsteps of Monet (as explained by the current Impressionists in London exhibition at Tate Britain).
  • December – Kees van Donger, his wife and little girl move into the Bateau-Lavoir and become close friends of Picasso and Fernande. Picasso is painting a portrait of Gertrude Stein – she claims she had to do 99 sittings for it. Gertrude is working out her revolutionary new prose style. She notices that what she calls Picasso’s ‘harlequin’ phase is played out.

1906

  • January – Amedeo Modigliani arrives in Paris, aged 21. He moves into a derelict shack on the Montmartre hill and establishes a reputation as a dissolute womaniser with phenomenal draughtsmanship.
  • 19 March – Matisse’s one-man show opens at the Galerie Druet, displaying 60 paintings hardly any of which sell.
  • Juan Gris arrives in Paris from Spain, at first supporting himself by doing satirical illustrations.
  • April – Vollard gives Picasso 2,000 francs in exchange for all his recent paintings, enough to fund Picasso to take Fernande on a holiday to Spain, specifically to the village of Gosol where he painted the locals and himself in a chunky new ‘primitive’ style. – Picasso self-portrait (1906)
  • October – Paul Cézanne dies.
  • October – the fourth Salon d’Automne opens with
    • a vast display of the entire history of Russian art collected and arranged by Russian impresario, Serge Diaghilev (b.1872 and so 34), marking the start of Diaghilev’s artistic and musical adventures in Paris
    • the Salon also shows a big retrospective of Gauguin including drawings, ceramics, 227 paintings and his totemic carvings.

1907

  • April – Matisse leaves Paris to paint at Collioure.
  • Spring – Picasso visits the Ethnography Museum and is bewitched by the power of African fetishes. All his work now shows angular human figures with harsh, stylised shapes and blank eyes, completely different from the naive figuratism of either the blue or rose period. – Dance of the Veils, 1907
  • August – Matisse starts writing Notes of a painter, published in 1908.
  • Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler opens his gallery at 28 rue Vignon. He will become one of the greatest supporters of Cubist art and will have his portrait painted by Picasso just three years later.
  • Autumn – Picasso cautiously unveils Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (originally just titled The brothel) to close friends and a fellow artists. Nobody likes it and he puts it away for 16 years.

1908

  • By the spring Picasso’s gang or bande had crystalised into Picasso, Derain, Vlaminck and Braque. Picasso (25) formed a particularly close working relationship with Braque (26), reading the same pulp paperbacks, going to the same clubs, to the cinema, thinking about the next step in their odyssey away from traditional painting.
  • August – Picasso spends a month painting in the country at La Rue des Bois, a tiny hamlet near Creil, north of Paris.
  • November – Braque holds a one-man show at Kahnweiler’s gallery. It was here that the same critic who coined the expression ‘fauve’ described the content of many of Braque’s landscapes with houses as containing ‘petits cubes’. Cubism was born – or at least, named.

1909

  • February – Matisse is in Cassis, studying seawaves as preparation for La Danse, a major commission for a mural from the Russian businessman and art collector Sergei Shchukin. This year Shchukin opens his collection of French avant-garde art (Monet, Gauguin, van Gogh, Derain, Matisse) to the public in St Petersburg.
  • February – the first Futurist manifesto was published in Italy.
  • May – the Ballets Russes give their first performance in Paris, at the Theatre du Chatelet and become wildly fashionable.
  • May to September Picasso is in Spain, visiting relatives in Barcelona, but mostly at the village of Horta where he had spent time when he was ill as a teenager, accompanied by his mistress Fernande, who was herself severely ill with a kidney infection.
  • September Vollard pays Picasso 2,000 francs for thirty paintings and Picasso can at last afford to leave the slums of Montmartre and move into a swanky apartment on the boulevard Clichy.
  • The Bernheim-Jeune brothers become Matisse’s sole dealers, guaranteeing to buy everything he paints, with a sliding scale depending on size. This is the first reliable income Matisse, now aged 40, has ever had.

1910

  • February-March Matisse holds a retrospective at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, including sixty-five paintings and twenty-five drawings.
  • May – the Ballets Russes return with a new repertory of ballets, featuring the great dancer of the era, Nijinsky.
  • Juan Gris moves into the Bateau-Lavoir and beings to paint cubist paintings.
  • October – First cubist works show at the Salon d’Automne. Matisse displays La Danse and La Musique which are both greeted with howls of criticism.
  • November – Roger Fry organises an exhibition bringing together works by French artists from the previous thirty years under the title ‘Post-Impressionism’ at the Grafton Gallery in London.

Holidays or whores

In The Secret Lives of the Impressionists I noticed Roe’s fondness for describing women’s boobs and busts and lingering on the opportunities for a titillating glimpse of female flesh given by, for example, holiday trips to the seaside in the 1870s to watch bathing beauties.

In this book I really noticed her fondness for the word ‘whore’. I won’t bore you with a string of quotes, but she uses it a lot to describe the prostitutes who thronged around Montmartre (and who the artists alternately used and painted).

I find ‘whore’ a tough, blunt, mannish word; in fact I tend to associate it with male writers who want to convey a show-off sense of their own man-of-the-world toughness. There is available to writers the much more neutral word ‘prostitute’ – and these days I thought we were all meant to use the non-judgmental phrase ‘sex workers’.

In Roe’s hands (pen, keyboard or discourse) the prolific use of the word ‘whore’ seems to me to epitomise the drastic change in atmosphere from the sunlit world of the Impressionists in the 1860s and 70s to the much more intense, night-time, bars-and-cabarets-and-circuses world of the noughties, the world of late Toulouse-Lautrec, to the beggars and street people of Picasso’s blue period, to van Dongen’s brutal depictions of naked women with splayed legs, to Matisse and Derain’s terrifyingly intense portraits.

It is a harsher world. Thus, for example, Roe writes – harshly, I think – that the five women depicted in Picasso’s epoch-making painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, are ‘not only whores but whores with attitude’ (p.220).

It came as a complete revelation to me that Les demoiselles are in fact ‘whores’. All the commentary (not only in this book but in several online articles, once I came to read about it) take it for granted that the painting depicts a brothel with a bunch of naked women standing around, and that their harsh sexuality is part of the point.

I’ve known this painting for forty years or more and never given it a thought that it is set in a brothel. God knows there are thousands of paintings in the western tradition of a number of half-dressed women standing around, not least thousands of scenes from the classical world.

Certainly their supposed ‘sexuality’ is the last thing I notice when I look at it. Coming from a world awash with images of naked women (and from Western art awash with nudes) my first response to this painting isn’t shock at their ‘blatant sexuality’. It is dismay and difficulty at the aggressively unsensual and sexual depiction of the figures,their angular bodies and especially, of course, the blacked-in primitive masks of the right hand pair. I register it as a calculated assault on our visual conventions and norms which still, 110 years later, retains its capacity to shock and awe. Like a lot of Picasso, I don’t think I like it but I respond to its horrible power.

Roe’s book is a thoroughly researched, colourful and absorbing portrait of the world from which this weird and challenging art emerged.


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Modigliani by Doris Krystof (1996)

Taschen Publishing specialise in medium-sized art books (23 cm tall x 18.5 cm wide). They’re all originally written in German, this one was translated into English by Christina Rathgeber. I picked it up for a fiver in some art shop years ago, and dusted it off and reread it to coincide with visiting the big Modigliani exhibition at Tate Modern.

The text is eminently readable and it has 88 good quality colour reproductions, not just of paintings and sculptures by the man himself but of works by contemporaries like Picasso, Kirchner and Brancusi, as well as classic nudes by Titian and Giorgione, quoted to compare and contrast with Modigliani’s famous nude paintings.

It is a real visual treat just slowly flipping through the pictures and soaking them up.

Biography

The outline of Modigliani’s life is clear enough. Born in 1884 to an arty Jewish family in northern Italy (his mother translated poetry, wrote essays and book reviews), his creative tendencies were encouraged so that by age 14 he was studying at the art academy in Livorno. He studied from books and attended a life drawing class; he visited Rome and Florence and Venice where he revelled in the Old Masters. He attended the Venice Biennale of 1903 and stayed there two years.

By which point it was time to move on and he headed for the Mecca of modern artists, Paris, arriving in 1906. Quite quickly he made important friends, not least the Spaniard Picasso and the Romanian sculptor Brancusi. For the next few years he experimented with a number of styles, from Cézanne (who had died in 1906 and quickly had several exhibitions devoted to his late work) to Edvard Munch, who impressed everyone with the work displayed at the Salon d’Automne of 1908 – although he avoided the main new movement of the day, Fauvism (given its name in 1905 and which flourished for the next few years).

Similarly, Modigliani was well aware of, but avoided, the arrival of Cubism in 1908, pioneered by Picasso and Braque, which swept up many lesser talents. Instead, he pursued his core interest of depicting the human form using outlines of graceful arabesques.

From about 1909 to 1912 Modigliani devoted himself entirely to sculpture, heavily influenced by the new taste for ‘primitive’ art from Africa and Oceania which became modish from around 1905, and by his friendship with the modernist sculptor, Brancusi.

Although some of his sculptures are obviously influenced by (copies) of African fetish masks which were becoming popular in artistic circles, Modigliani was just as obsessed by the idea of the caryatid, the statue of a woman bearing the weight of a building which had been developed in ancient Greece. He produced scores of sketches and variations on this crouching, hunched-up, female shape.

Eventually Modigliani gave up sculpting, maybe because the dust was bad for his chronic tuberculosis, but his painting style was now purified of the earlier variety and experimentalism – the faces in particular from now on were all variations on the elongated, oval shape with schematic, one-line features (eyes, eyelids and mouth all drawn with a crisp elegant line) which he had perfected in the sculptures and in the numerous preparatory sketches he made for them.

He continued to paint a wide variety of portraits of friends, lovers, fellow artists, collectors and patrons, and in the middle of the Great War began to paint a series of nudes. These differ from the portraits in being really simplified – the skin tone is generally a consistent warm orange colour, and the facial features are purified down to a handful of lines. They sold well – what’s not to like?

Towards the end of the War, Modigliani was advised to head south by his dealer and set up shop in Nice, along with his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne, mother of his daughter. Here he painted lots more portraits, but in a noticeably lighter style, and of ordinary people – instead of the rich and famous of Paris’s art world – of peasants, hotel cleaners, and even of children. These, along with the nudes, became his most popular images.

By 1919 he was back in Paris, and the final portraits of his mistress and patrons show a further tendency to elongate both the neck and the face even more, making each person even more of an abstract collection of lines and colours.

Modigliani died after a long decline in his health on 24 June 1920. Soon afterwards friends and acquaintances, lovers and patrons began writing their memoirs, and quite quickly the myth grew up of the handsome, charming Wunderkind artist, who endured great poverty in his undying devotion to his art. And his paintings began to sell.

The works

Early paintings

Having seen a lot of the ‘greatest hits’ at the Tate Modern exhibition, I was taken by the more out-of-the-way works included in this book, especially of the early works before he’d perfected the Modigliani ‘look’.

Sketches

From early on he developed a hyper-simplified line, which comes over in nude sketches and then very much in the sketches he made from African artefacts in the Louvre and the Museum of Ethnography.

Sculptures

He took up sculpture in 1909, nobody knows why. Perhaps because he had always revered the sculptural legacy of his native Italy, perhaps because his paintings weren’t selling, perhaps because he moved to a bigger workspace in Montparnasse, perhaps because he met Constantin Brancusi in 19090 and was hugely influenced by him. Or all of the above.

Brancusi (b.1876) had perfected a smooth highly stylised way of working in stone which anticipates Art Deco.

Modigliani’s sculptures are of two types, a squat square type, which could fit at the top of a column –

And the much-better known, highly elongated, ‘primitive’ mask like heads. Although the politically correct like to raise the issue of ‘cultural appropriation’ and the way so many of the avant-garde artists of the 1900s looked to sculptures from Africa or Oceania, the book points out that there are also strong European origins for this look, in the stunningly abstract heads carved in the Cycladic islands of Greece thousands of years BC.

Apparently he conceived of the sculptures, these stone heads, as all being together in one place, creating a kind of temple of beauty. This may partly explain their thematic unity, that they were designed to be displayed and seen as an ensemble.

Nudes

Krystof makes a simple but effective point that it’s not so much in the sculptures but in the sketches for the sculptures, and especially in the sketches of caryatids, that we see Modigliani really simplifying his technique, perfecting a way of depicting the human body entirely made up of simple, one-line, shallow curves – no sketching, and repeated lines or cross-hatching – just one pure line to create the body’s outline, another to distinguish to the two legs, meeting another curve which creates the loins, two simple curves, maybe a bit pointed, to indicate the breasts, a curve for the mouth, a long narrow triangle for the nose, two almonds for eyes – in many ways a child’s eye view of the human body.

She also makes the good point that these curves are consciously not like the focus on blocks and squares and diagonals and geometric shapes of the suddenly fashionable Cubists. It is in pursuit of shallow curves that Modigliani is at odds with the art of his own times, a one-off.

And so to the female nudes which make up about 10% of his output – about 30 nudes in total – and in their simple outlines, as well as their very simple orange flesh colouring, present a kind of cartoon simplicity and pleasingness.

He began painting them in 1916, helped by the important patronage of dealer and friend Léopold Zborowski, who lent the artist use of his apartment, supplied models and painting materials, and paid him between fifteen and twenty francs each day for his work.

The simple graceful outlines, the soft orange skin and pink nipples, the simplified facial features, and the tonal unity of the paintings (compare and contrast with the violent garish colouring of the Fauves) makes Modigliani’s nudes understandably popular even among opponents of modern art.

Krystof also takes some time to explain another reason for their sense of familiarity, the reason they seem so assimilable. It’s because the poses are often based on established classics of Western art.

Quite systematic copying or borrowing or pastiching, isn’t it?

Krystof makes another, subtler, point. In all the classic paintings above you can see the entire body – you, the viewer, are standing some way away. By contrast, all of the Modigliani nudes are cropped, at least part of the arms or legs are out of the frame – as if you were really close up to the model, not so much contemplating them as about to fall over them. Immediacy.

Portraits

But the 20 or so nudes mark a sort of apricot-coloured interlude in Modigiliani’s core activity during his final years, which was the obsessive painting of hundreds of portraits.

Krystof divides them into two categories – one of friends, lovers, patrons, fellow artists and named individuals – the other category of scores of anonymous models, peasants and children.

They are all rougher and harsher, in design and finish, than the nudes.

To get at the essence of the Modigliani approach, Krystof compares his portrait of Jean Cocteau with a portrait done at exactly the same time and place by Moise Kisling.

The immediate and obvious conclusion is the huge amount of clutter Modigliani has chucked out – the window, shutters, table, vase, stove, chair, dog and rug are all not there – and the way he has zoomed in to focus on the top half of the body to create an image which is much simpler, sparer and more intense.

Hence Krystof’s suggestion that Modigliani developed in his portraits ‘the art of omission’ (p.53)

The same technique – cropping sitters at the bust and showing no interest in the details of the backdrop – characterises many of the portraits, which are more varied and interesting than the nudes.

Flight south

In the spring of 1918 the Germans began a final offensive. Planes and Zeppelins bombed Paris and many feared the city would fall. Up to a million people fled the capital, including Modigliani and his mistress / common-law wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, who gave birth to their daughter in 1918. The young family spent over a year in Nice and Cagnes-sur-Mer, where Modigliani painted more feverishly and intensely than ever before.

The light of the South of France lightened his palette and the texture of the paint he used, the paint is thinner. Also the local people he got to model for him lack the specificity of the Paris portraits, becoming more generic – which may account for their later popularity.

Jeanne Hébuterne

Modigliani painted at least 25 portraits of the mother of his children. Photographs of her make her look absolutely stunning, in fact she has something of the long-tressed, full-lipped beauty beloved of the pre-Raphaelites.

In his last paintings of her, the neck and face are more elongated than ever, the background painted in with lighter sketchier colours than previously.

Conclusion

This is a really handy book, containing not only nearly 90 beautiful full-colour illustrations which give you an immediate and comprehensive feel for Modigliani’s unique style, but also a more thoughtful and insightful text by Doris Krystof, than is usual for Taschen books.

Possibly my favourite portrait comes right at the end of the book, one of the few Modigliani portraits which has even a hint of feeling and emotion, in this case a self-contained, winsome sadness.


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Modigliani @ Tate Modern

His name is pronounced Mod-ill-ee-arn-ee – the ‘g’ is silent.

This is the most comprehensive Modigliani exhibition ever held in the UK, bringing together a really comprehensive range of portraits, sculptures and the largest ever group of nudes (12) to be shown in this country.

Modigliani

Modigliani

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Amedeo Modigliani died very young, on January 1920, aged just 35. By that time he had developed a look, a brand, a style, which was instantly recognisable and has made him one of the most valued of ‘modern’ painters, with two entries in the top twenty-five most expensive paintings of all time:

No. 9 – Nu Couché $170 million
No. 21 – Reclining Nude With Blue Cushion $118 million

Art capital of the world

In the 1900s Paris was the acknowledged capital of the art world, full of artists who’d flocked there from all over Europe (e.g. the Spaniard Picasso, the Romanian Brancusi). Modigliani moved from his native Italy to Paris in 1906, when he was 21.

The second room in this big exhibition shows an excellent five minute video montage of black and white photos and very basic movie footage of the Paris of the day, starting with grand scenes of the Eiffel Tower and the buildings left over from the Great Exhibition of 1900, then moving to the ramshackle buildings up the side of the hill of Montmartre, the white Sacre Coeur church still being completed, cabarets and theatres, the back alleys and tenements where the artists rented apartments and studios, and then shots of key figures of the time, Picasso, Brancusi, Gertrude Stein from the family of art collectors, Modigliani himself and some moving footage of workers manhandling lumps of the limestone he carved into sculptures.

Experiments in styles

With a good feel for the life and times of 1900s Paris we move on into a room which shows Modigliani experimenting with the variety of looks and styles on offer. Loose brushwork and abstracted figures testify to the pervading influence of Cézanne on everyone at the time. This is apparent in the very visible diagonal brushstrokes which draw attention to themselves of this early nude, or of his study of Brancusi, who soon became a good friend.

Sculpting

Between 1909 and 1911, heavily influenced by Brancusi, Modigliani went through an intense phase of sculpting. Like many others he was caught up in the fashion for exotic, non-European art, supposedly ‘primitive’ sculptures from ancient Egypt or from France’s colonial possession like Cambodia or the Ivory Coast. It had only been in 1906/7 that Matisse and Picasso both began to incorporate non-European masks and body shapes in their work. Two rooms are devoted to this phase, one showing the lovely preparatory sketches he made, showing Modigliani’s wonderful way with elegant curved but geometric lines, the other showing a dozen or so sculptures which are, without exception, faces, some squat square ones, but most a highly characteristic elongated, narrow face with a long pendulous nose ending in a little round pouting mouth.

The commentary tells the story that sometimes visitors to his studio at night found that Modigliani had placed lighted candles atop each of the sculptures. He told friends he planned to create a kind of pagan temple decorated with them. On a few occasions, at hashish parties, he was seen to embrace them.

In all, Modigliani made about 25 of these highly characteristic heads. A handful were included in the 1912 Salon d’Automne, the only time they were displayed in his lifetime. There are several theories why he abandoned sculpture in 1913 – possibly the constant dust of a sculptor’s studio exacerbated the childhood tuberculosis which he was always holding at bay. Possibly it was just too expensive compared to painting.

The Modigliani look

But the extensive sketches, and the really physical engagement with sculpture, had set in stone (as it were) what was now established as the Modigliani ‘look’ – elongated faces with swan-like necks and blank almond-shaped eyes were to characterise all his paintings from now to the end of his life.

This is already apparent in the many portraits he painted of fellow artists, mistresses, and the collectors and art dealers who were important in launching his career. The commentary gives a good deal of background information about each of them, for example about the several portraits of his dealer, Paul Alexandre, a leading promoter of African art. I particularly liked the ‘naive’ way Modigliani writes on the paintings: he writes the name of the subject (Picasso, Paul), his own signature, and then often writes a comment, for example writing ‘Novo Pilota’ – meaning ‘guiding star’ – onto his portrait of Paul Guillaume.

Portrait of Paul Guillaume, Novo Pilota (1915) Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume

Portrait of Paul Guillaume, Novo Pilota (1915) Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume

The elongated, cylinder-like neck, the perfectly almond-shaped face especially the pointed chin, the simple one-line depiction of the nose and eyes and eyebrows and especially the slate grey or blacking out of the eyes to emphasise the impassive mask-like effect – all these are apparent in his several portraits of his mistress-lover Beatrice Hastings who, the commentary tells us, was a British-born writer and editor who covered the Paris art scene for British magazines.

Beatrice Hastings (1915) Private Collection

Beatrice Hastings (1915) Private Collection

There are three rooms devoted to his artistic peers, to colleagues, collectors and dealers, friends and lovers and patrons, featuring his portraits of such luminaries as Jean Cocteau, Juan Gris and the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. By the time war broke out in 1914 Modigliani was very well-connected, an ‘insider’ in the Paris art world, friends with the leaders of the avant-garde, beneficiary of regular commissions from the cognoscenti.

A people person

What these three rooms really crystallise is the fairly obvious point that he only painted portraits – heads or busts or full bodies, but only individual people. Landscapes such as had obsessed the godfather of modernism, Cézanne? None. Still lives such as absorbed the Cubists, Picasso and Braque? None. Cityscapes such as dominated the Futurists from his own native land, Italy (the first Futurist manifesto was published in 1909)? None. On the strength of this exhibition it seems that he never sketched, drew, painted or sculpted anything but the human form and face. And although highly stylised, they are always recognisable, with recognisable clothes (or not), in chairs or leaning on tables in a recognisable space.

Compared to the wild experiments going on around him (Fauves, Cubism, Futurism) Modigliani’s art seems – well ‘conservative’ is the wrong word, a genuinely die-hard conservative style continued to be produced by academic painters – but understandable, assimilable, acceptable.

Modigliani’s nudes

It was with this in mind that I walked into the big room displaying ‘the largest ever group of Modigliani nudes to be shown in this country’, 12 of them, to be precise.

The commentary would have us believe that these are ‘shocking’ and ‘provocative’ works and tells the story that the one and only exhibition of them – held at Berthe Weill’s gallery in 1917 – was closed down by the police on the grounds of indecency. Apparently, this was specifically because Modigliani showed his models having pubic hair and underarm hair.

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

To be honest, I found this a little hard to credit (not that the show was closed down, but that the works were particularly shocking or provocative). I’ve just read a book about the Fauves which included plenty of Fauvist nudes which a) are really wild pictures, sometimes difficult to make out amid the riot of colour; and b) where you can, quite routinely show depict pubic hair.

Compared with any of these works from at least ten years earlier, Modigliani’s nudes seem very tame – in terms of colour (which is very restrained and ‘realistic’ – the flesh is generally flesh-coloured), in terms of line (Modigliani’s nudes are all clearly defined by wonderfully crisp, curving outlines), in terms of facial features (which are stylised but not, actually, that much), even in terms of crudity, none of the Modiglianis are as in-your-face as that final nude by Camoin.

On the contrary – they all share a similar warm orange body, lovely curves, ample bosoms, pink nipples, all depicted with super-clear, well-defined black outlines. If they so show women’s pubes, they are as neat and geometric as their oval faces. Actual women’s pubic hair is a lot more unkempt and varied than Modigliani’s tasteful version.

No, what struck me about all of Modigliani’s nudes was their restraint, their tastefulness, and several of them really did strike me as deeply conservative, particularly the nudes where he is consciously referencing the European tradition, like this one which is based on Ingres’ famous Odalisque.

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

All four curators of this exhibition are women and so you have a strong feeling in the audio commentary that they feel duty bound to discuss how women’s bodies were a battlefield in the 1910s (prompting the thought, When have women’s bodies not been battlefields, according to feminist history?), but, at the same time, want to assert that the women Modigliani depicts are not helpless victims of ‘the male gaze’ – these women are strong independent women, as evidenced by their wearing lipstick, make-up and – in some of them – necklaces or ear rings.

The commentary compares the lot of the average model to the really grim lives of working class women slaving away in factories or as laundresses etc (Modigliani’s models earned about double the daily working wage for spending a day lying on a couch).

But none of this semi-political feminist interpretation really changes the fact that these are cartoons. The simple black outline, the stylised and fairly flat colouring – they could almost come from a Tintin cartoon, or from any number of subsequent comic strips. Compare and contrast with the genuinely experimental way nudes had been portrayed for at least a decade.

If the Berthe Weill show was raided and closed down it was, if anything, because the nudes were – in artistic terms – so conservative, so realistic, so figurative and so traditional in style – that they really did teeter on the brink of pornography.

No one could mistake the Matisse, Derain or Picasso nudes for soft porn, they are all very obviously far more interested in experimenting with new ways of seeing and new ways of painting than with titillation. You can’t really confidently say that about the Modigliani nudes. They are all pretty sexy and sexiness is their subject, although the curators prefer the more polite word ‘seductive’.

By this, room 8 of the 11-room exhibition, it seemed to me that Modigliani had progressed far beyond his earlier experiments, incorporated all the stylisation he’d learned from studying ‘primitive’ art and sculpting, and had emerged to produce a really consistent brand of very quaffable female nudes. Their naive simplicity makes them extremely enjoyable and explains, I think, the extraordinary prices they fetch at modern auction, tasteful, soft-porn works which any self-respecting billionaire would be proud to hang in his luxury apartment in New York, Paris, Moscow or Beijing. (Nu Couché was bought by the Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian for $170 million, Reclining Nude with Blue Cushion was bought by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev for $118 million.)

The curators can use feminist tropes all they like to try and defend these nudes but there seems no doubt that they are now, as they were then, designed for the visual pleasure of rich men.

The warm South

Towards the end of the war Modigliani was sent to the Mediterranean coast by his new art dealer, Léopold Zborowski, as a precaution against increasing Zeppelin raids on Paris and also because of his worsening health. Modigliani was worried about leaving behind his well-developed network of friends and artistic accomplices, but in fact soon settled in to a new life, not least because he was accompanied by his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne.

Again he painted nothing but portraits and, deprived of the network of professional models in Paris, took to painting local adults and then a series of children. He seems to have reacted to the far brighter light of the south by using warmed Mediterranean colours and also applying the paint much more thinly, both of which make these portraits seem light and airy.

The Little Peasant (c.1918) Tate

The Little Peasant (c.1918) Tate

Children and peasants. Is there not something a little, well, twee about some of these works? (Looking it up I see that ‘twee’ is defined as ‘excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental’.)

Again compare and contrast with his contemporaries or, in this case, with the Master, Cézanne. With the current exhibition of Cézanne portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in mind, we can see how Modigliani has learned the lessons of the old Frenchman – the patches of colour, the visible brush-strokes, the steep foreshortening of the subject and backdrop, the confrontational -full-on pose, but made it somehow, well babyish. Toy-like. Here’s a Cézanne.

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Comparing the two it seems to me the main difference is in the face. Not only does Modigliani use his simplified mask design, but, by this stage, he’s often painting his faces in a unified flesh tone (true of almost all the nudes) which gives them quite literally a baby-faced freshness. Again compare and contrast with the complex brushwork Cézanne has applied to the face of his old bloke with a pipe, let alone the wild blues and greens which the Fauves used in their portraits. Compared to all of them, surely Modigliania is tame.

In fact it’s only really the use of the mask motif which prevents his works toppling over into kitsch. In particular I felt it was only the blacking out of the eyes of the portraits (which gives them a weird voodoo science fiction vibe) which prevents them from turning into the kind of Modernism light paintings you see being hawked on the streets of any tourist trap European city.

Last works

The final room shows his last works, painted back in Paris after the war, depictions of more rich patrons and commissions, alongside a suite of portraits of his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne, who was pregnant with their second child.

Jeanne Hébuterne (1919) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Jeanne Hébuterne (1919) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

It’s notable that the flesh tones have moved away from the warm pinks of the nudes, back towards a more ‘experimental’ colouring. But the most striking thing about these last paintings is that the almond-shaped face and swan neck are taken to new extremes. Some of the people look like giraffes.

The colouring is richer and denser than in the South of France paintings. But each work, no matter how varied the subject, is now totally identifiable as a Modigliani. Who knows how his work would have continued to evolve and develop; he was half-way towards the kind of crisp neo-classical feel which so many French artists would adopt after the war.

But we’ll never know. Modigliani died from tubercular meningitis on 24 January in 1920. In a grim note we learn that just a few days later, his mistress Jeanne, nine-months pregnant, committed suicide by jumping from the fifth floor of an apartment building.

This is a really enjoyable, carefully and thoughtfully curated overview of a wonderful artist, whose draughtsmanship is a joy to look at, from his earliest works, and whose mature geometric style produced painting after painting which fills the eye with pleasure.

Modigliani Virtual Reality

Towards the end of the exhibition is an ambitious innovation – a room where about ten visitors at a time can sit and have a visitor assistant clamp onto their head a kind of helmet with built-in 3-D goggles. These give you a virtual reality tour of a computer-generated recreation of Modigliani’s studio. It’s a bld new idea and a first for Tate.

Inevitably, there was a fairly long queue for this brave new digital experience, with an estimated waiting time of 25 minutes so I’m afraid I decided not to. Some of the content can be seen on the video screen outside the exhibition which is running a film about the making of the VR experience (which I’ve embedded, below).

So my advice would be to go the exhibition soon after opening (at 10am) and go straight to the queue for the VR, do it, and then go back to do the exhibition in order.

Seated Nude (1917) Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Lukasart in Flanders. Photo credit: Hugo Maertens

Seated Nude (1917) Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Lukasart in Flanders. Photo credit: Hugo Maertens

Videos

Introduction to the exhibition by curator Simonetta Fraquelli.

Video showing how the virtual reality experience was made.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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