Primitivism and Modern Art by Colin Rhodes (1994)

This is another in Thames and Hudson’s extensive ‘World of Art’ series, which means it has a serious and thorough text but that, of the 207 illustrations, only 28 are in colour, and all of them are small.

In Primitivism and Modern Art Rhodes aims ‘to give an overview of, and to highlight and clarify the often confused major issues and values at stake in the Primitivist world view through a discussion that focuses on the modern artists most closely associated with it’ – which straightaway explains the central theme and also gives you an example of the book’s rather clotted prose style.

Primitivism and political correctness

I was expecting there to be a fair amount of political correctness and I wasn’t disappointed, both in terms of sweeping generalisations and characteristic sociological jargon:

In [the late 19th century] the female body was deemed to be less specialised and women were generally typed as being essentially instinctive as opposed to rational thinkers. This conveniently situated them in a position closer to nature and so in this way the generic woman was defined, silenced and contained in male discourses of culture in precisely the same way as the savage.

‘Precisely’?

It is no coincidence that Pechstein’s image of female fecundity should be titled Early Morning (1911). The curving form of the apparently pregnant, exoticised woman is echoed in the arching sweep of the primordial landscape, suggesting that here creation can be understood simultaneously as a literal dawn, the dawn of time and as the promise of new life. (p.62)

For Rhodes, paintings are Evidence for the Prosecution, indictments of painters who are charged with being complicit in the racist, sexist, homophobic, imperialist value systems of their day (the book lingers longest on the imperial heyday at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries).

The artists’ work needs to be paraded before us so we can ridicule their absurdly antediluvian attitudes. After all, are not we in our own time, completely and perfectly enlightened? Are our times not the acme of human moral achievement? Do these old white guys from over a hundred years ago not merit our scorn and criticism?

For me it smacks too much of Hitler’s exhibitions of ‘Degenerate Art’ or Stalin’s persecution of any artist, musician, performer who failed to carry out the wishes of the Party. After all, was not the Soviet Union the Workers’ Paradise and the most morally advanced society in human history?

The art illustrated here and much of the detailed commentary is interesting, but there is too much of the intolerant commissar, permanently straining at the leash to find some aspect of every single painting and sculpture to criticise and judge to make it a very enjoyable experience.

Some of the criminals and their crimes

Here are some of the indictments on the charge sheet against white Western male art.

  • Paintings of women can only exploit their sexuality and offer the male viewer (apparently, no woman ever looked at a painting) ‘an eroticised vision of women’ resulting in ‘a sort of culturally endorsed voyeurism’ (p.82)
  • The artist (any artist) is guilty of using ‘the artist’s controlling gaze’ (p.81).
  • Gauguin, in finding Tahitian men and women rather androgynous, is guilty of ‘crude evolutionary reasoning’ (p.72).
  • Matisse’s odalisques are guilty of connotations of ‘white slavery and socially unacceptable indulgences’ (p.83).
  • Oskar Kokoschka is guilty of an ‘uncritical acceptance of a need to distinguish between different types of humanity and to classify them accordingly’ (p.83) and of ‘voyeurism’ (p.84).
  • Klee and Kokoschka are guilty of ‘conventional ideas about the Orient’ (p.84).
  • Orientalist paintings of the 19th century are, it goes without saying, guilty of voyeurism and racism (p.90).
  • The West was guilty of using ‘notions of the primitive’ as ‘mechanisms of domination and control over “outsiders”‘ (p.133)

Guilty guilty guilty. Rhodes fearlessly names and shames the guilty men, and indicts whole eras of history for their pitiful ignorance.

Cultural appropriation

The politically correct view of ‘primitivism in modern art’ is that white, Western male artists had run out of steam and inspiration by the turn of the twentieth century, and so invented modern art by ‘appropriating’ (i.e. stealing) images, motifs, ideas, designs and so on from the supposedly ‘primitive’ societies of Africa and Oceania (the Pacific).

They were able to do so because in the last years of the 19th century the European empires reached their zeniths i.e. ruthlessly exploitative imperialism was imposed over a huge part of the globe and countless artifacts were looted from the powerless inhabitants and sent back to European museums, art boutiques or junk shops.

Thus white male artists can be accused of a kind of double whammy, stealing ideas from already-stolen goods. And, being men, they are of course guilty of all kinds of sexism, conscious and unconscious.

Guilty three times over.

This idea of the criminal ‘cultural appropriation’ of non-European art was well-established in Rhodes’s day (1994), and has only grown more clamorous and strident as ‘identity politics’ have replaced effective class-based politics, especially in university humanities courses. (Thus the recent exhibition about Matisse in the studio was awash with the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ and earnest discussions of its wickedness.)

I don’t really understand the idea of cultural appropriation, in the sense that it seems to me to have been the basis of human culture since records began. Cro-Magnon man appears to have adopted aspects of Neanderthal culture. Japanese language and court ritual is based on the much older Chinese characters and etiquette. Christianity is a wholesale appropriation of the books, teachings and beliefs of Judaism. Islam incorporates elements of Jewish and Christian traditions. Notions of hellfire and damnation apparently derive from Persian Zoroastrianism. The Greeks took much of their astrological and numerical knowledge from the Egyptians. The Romans ripped off the Greeks wholesale. The Germanic tribes which overran the Roman Empire copied the laws, language, architecture and ceremonies of the Romans. And so on. Every culture we know of can be shown to have incorporated aspects of other cultures they came into contact with or defeated.

The suspicion is that white western-educated intellectuals only really apply the notion of cultural appropriation to themselves in a spasm of liberal guilt at the wickedness of western empires. In a tiresome example of reverse snobbery, is cultural appropriation something all cultures in all of recorded history have done, but is only bad when done by white people?

Problems with ‘primitivism’

What surprised me is how difficult it proves for Rhodes to sustain this idea, for a number of reasons. In fact the fundamental problem the book struggles with is that Rhodes’s definition of ‘the primitive’ is set far too wide to be effective:

1. Western history is full of the quest for the ‘primitive’

For a start Western civilisation is itself drenched in a huge number of intellectual movements which have sought to rejuvenate the present (generally seen as decadent and over-refined) by invoking some long-lost, more simple, utopia of ‘primitive’ belief or culture.

Jesus thought he was trying to restore Judaism away from the complex rules and regulations devised by the Sadducees and Pharisees back to its pure belief in the one God. 1,500 years later Martin Luther tried to throw out the vast intellectual edifice of the Roman Catholic church in order to restore Christianity to its pure founding beliefs.

On the pagan side, the ancient Greek and the Romans developed the idea that there had once been an early Golden Age, simpler, more peaceful and rural, before men fell into the corruption of the cosmopolitan cities. This fundamental dichotomy – rural innocence, urban corruption – has been a central thread of literature ever since. Part of the huge cultural movement known as the Renaissance wasn’t trying to be ‘modern’, but saw itself (as the word explicitly says) as a rebirth, a return to the ancient knowledge of the ancients, restoring their lost skills in sculpture, painting and perspective.

Politics and religion aside, just in the narrow field of art, there was a constant series of movement which all claimed to be returning to and restoring earlier, purer values and practices.

  • Rococo artists thought they were returning to a simpler, rural idyll after the extremely heavy, over-wrought emotion of the Baroque Counter-Reformation.
  • Jacques-Louis David and his neo-classical followers at the time of the French Revolution thought they were overthrowing the courtly decadence of the Rococo in order to revive the sterner, purer idealism of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
  • The pre-Raphaelites did what their name suggests and tried to return to an idealised idea of medieval and early Renaissance art, before it was ‘corrupted’ by the perfectionism of Michelangelo and Raphael.

And so on.

In other words, western politics, religion and culture have repeatedly sought to restore, refresh and renovate themselves by seeking out more basic, simpler, more ‘primitive’ antecedents. The discovery and taste for African and Pacific art should surely be seen as the latest in a long line of quests for rejuvenation from idealised ‘simple’ and ‘pure’ sources.

2. Discussion of ‘primitive’ societies and artifacts belongs to anthropology not art criticism

Who exactly is Rhodes accusing and blaming? The opening pages make it clear that the main accusation is against late-Victorian biologists, anthropologists and ethnographers, figures like Ernst Haeckel the biologist, Herbert Spencer the social theorist or the French ethnologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl. Rhodes quotes them writing dismissively about ‘primitive’ cultures, ‘savage’ races, ‘inferior societies and so on, and it is not very difficult to indict them of racism, sexism, orientalism and so on.

These are the figures who took Darwin’s theory of evolution and remodelled it into Social Darwinism, the theory which applied the notion of ‘the survival of the fittest’ to human societies (justifying the poverty of the poor by saying they just weren’t up to the struggle for life), and then applying it to the colonies of the huge European empires, whose populations, it was claimed, were savages, primitives, children who needed to be guided and nurtured until they evolved up to the level of our wonderful Western societies.

1. It’s easy to get whip up outrage against these kind of writers but:

  • It was quite a long time ago
  • Pointing out that the writings of some German sociologist of the 1880s was ‘racist’ is not exactly news. It’s the opposite, really. It is quite tediously well known.

2. Same with Imperialism. Rhodes thinks it was bad. Really? Golly. May I suggest that this is no longer news.

3. Overall, this is an argument to take up with modern anthropologists and social theorists. An art critic wading into the writings of pioneer anthropologists and ethnographers is bound to be able to find all kinds of quotes which offend modern sensibilities. His conclusion is ‘they were all sexist and racist’. This is so boring and predictable as to turn me off the whole book: is it all going to be written at this kindergarten level?

There’s something about art and literature critics who make a foray into completely different disciplines in order to froth and rage against the appalling racism and sexism of people writing 150 years ago. It’s so easy. It’s like Edward Said getting cross about the ‘orientalist’ writings of supposed ‘experts’ on the Middle East or Africa, who were writing in the 1850s.

And of course Rhodes and Said’s readers, their audiences (art students, literature students), are not experts in these fields – they are completely unqualified to comment on how the attitudes of 1880s ethnographers or orientalists have been superseded and transformed over the past 140 years – and so are liable to hoover up this sense of undifferentiated anger untroubled by detailed knowledge of how the disciplines of anthropology and ethnography have changed in the 140 years since then.

3. The assumption of influence

A second objection is that Rhodes makes the dubious assumption about these racist writings, namely that they are representative of everyone’s views at the time.

Were they? Has he carried out extensive historical researches into the attitudes of the entire colonial-administrative-government-ruling class attitudes? Or of ‘ordinary’ non-university-educated people? Because in Britain there was a broad range of Liberal and Socialist opinion which was passionately opposed to Empire and imperial discourse. The Indian National Congress party was established in 1885 on the initiative of a British official and had many British Liberal supporters.

Instead Rhodes cherry picks only the most outrageous bits of text he can find. It’s as if some art critic in 100 years’ time gives his students selected quotes from Donald Trump and then says, all Americans at this time agreed with everything Donald Trump said and wrote. We can all see that that’s a ludicrous simplification, right? Well, why apply the same kind of gross simplification to people 100 years ago?

The second dubious assumption is that the artists of the day (1880s, 1890s, 1900s) were in some way unquestioningly influenced by these imperialist, racist writings. Was Picasso a keen reader of the biology professor Haeckel? Was Matisse a devotee of Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer? I doubt it. And to claim that they somehow picked up these attitudes because they were ‘widespread’ or ‘in the air’ or ‘the spirit of the times’ is lazy and insulting.

Do you, the person reading this, share the widespread anti-democratic, right-wing populism which is without doubt ‘the mood of our times’, in the States, in Britain, and across Europe? Rhodes’s assumption is that everyone in a bygone era shares one unified set of values, the values he personally wants to assign them in order to then criticise and flay them.

This is an insultingly simplistic view of history or of society.

4. ‘Primitivism’ is just too vague a term for such an enormous cultural movement

Rhodes shows how the idea of the ‘primitive’ was much much bigger than just African masks and fetishes. The leading post-Impressionists in the 1880s (Gauguin and van Gogh, in his own way Cézanne) were already moving away from the Impressionist aim of giving a more accurate account of what the artist saw, towards emphasising what the artist saw made him feel.

And then the decade of 1900 to 1910 saw the decisive breaks with figuration of Matisse and the Fauves, of Picasso and Braque’s Cubism. Meanwhile, in Germany, in Scandinavia, in Russia, other artists were experimenting with rejecting traditional academic painting in favour of styles which emphasised feeling, seeking out more basic, simpler, starker effects.

In other words a whole generation of artists was rejecting the 450-year-old tradition which began with the Renaissance, the tradition of striving for a super-realistic depiction of reality, complete with realistic perspective, naturalistic colours and so on – the window on the world idea – and which had been brought to a peak of perfection in the academic Salon painters of the mid- and late-19th century.

In their different ways the post-Impressionists, the Fauves, the Cubists, the Expressionists, Munch, Kandinsky, all across Europe leading artists sought ways to escape from this tradition, to free painting up so it could express a more modern variety of feeling and sensibility.

Rhodes shows that this is what spurred the Turn to the Primitive, in the broadest sense and that most of  this art had nothing whatever to do with African or Oceanic artefacts.

4. ‘Primitive’ is a crude umbrella term for all kinds of art

Because, in this broadest sense, ‘the primitive’ could refer to almost any type of art – any source of styles and images and metaphors and traditions and ways of seeing – which was simply not the sophisticated Western academic one. Thus Rhodes admits that the term can include:

  • medieval and very early – or ‘primitive’ – Renaissance art
  • children’s art – the artists of the German Blue Rider group were particularly interested in children’s art and published it untouched in their magazines around 1911-13
  • peasant art – simple motifs in textiles, cloth, curtains, ceramics and glass
  • folk art – just as the classical composers of the period went out into the field to collect folk songs and melodies
  • the art of the insane – a key work is Artistry of the Mentally Ill by psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn, published in 1922 which influenced Paul Klee’s exercises in mad drawing
  • the art of the self-taught, like Henri Rousseau
  • outsider art, such as the backdrops, masks, costumes, sets and designs for circuses, cabaret, vaudeville, puppet theatres and so on

The interest in African and Pacific art which came in around 1905 has to take its place in a far, far wider cultural movement, and among a whole range of ‘primitive’ sources, which the book goes on to describe.

To give just one example, Neo-primitivism was a specific Russian art movement which took its name from the 31-page pamphlet Neo-primitivizm by Aleksandr Shevchenko (1913). Shevchenko proposed a new style of modern painting which fused elements of Cézanne, Cubism and Futurism with traditional Russian ‘folk art’ conventions and motifs, notably the Russian icon and the lubok. ‘Primitive’ is in the very name but it has nothing to do with the art of Africa or the Pacific.

The best definition of this very broad ‘cultural primitivism’ Rhodes can find comes from a book written as long ago as 1935, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, whose authors Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas define it as:

The discontent of the civilised with civilisation, or with some conspicuous and characteristic feature of it. It is the belief of men living in a highly evolved and complex cultural condition that a life far simpler and less sophisticated in some or all respects is a more desirable life. (quoted on page 20)

Reading this I think, ‘but when was this impulse not present in Western culture (or indeed others, such as Chinese and Japanese culture)?’ I think of Spenser’s Fairie Queene which ends with the desire to escape the corruption of courtly life. Or back to the Roman poets of the early Empire, all fondly imagining a life among pie-tooting peasants.

Maybe the period at the end of the 19th century was distinguished by the fact that a lot of artists and writers really did leave the big cities to seek out a simpler life, among peasants or abroad? But not really – Picasso, Matisse, the German Expressionists and, later, the Surrealists stayed resolutely in the city.

Primitivism and modern art

So, I had all kinds of questions about the relatively short introduction to the book. I think Rhodes is trying to cover a subject which is too vast and stretches over a bewildering range of modern disciplines. The book is much more confident and interesting once it starts looking at specific artists in detail.

Gauguin is routinely criticised for ‘appropriating’ the style, motifs, myths and stories of the South Sea Islanders he went to live among in the 1890s. In fact Gauguin emerges as possibly the number one criminal cultural appropriator for ‘stealing’ South Sea motifs, styles, people (depicted ‘patronisingly’ in his paintings) and their language (which he used liberally written across his works).

But as Rhodes points out, Gauguin had already spent some time living among Breton peasants in the village of Pont-Aven, which is where he really developed his ‘primitive’ style, with its strong black outlines defining garish expressive areas of colour, the figures drawn in a deliberately naive, angular way.

In other words, Gauguin had established a powerfully ‘primitive’ art way before he went looking for ‘tribal’ art.

And he wasn’t the only one: Wassily Kandinsky went to stay in the Bavarian town of Murnau where he decorated the house he stayed in with folk crafts done in naive styles, as well as actually dressing like the local peasantry. Die Brücke painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner went to live among the peasants of Frauenkirch in Switzerland. Nothing African involved anywhere.

Rhodes mentions the Omega Workshop set up by English critic Roger Fry in 1915, including Duncan Grant and continued an Arts and Crafts vision of working with ‘primitive or peasant’ motifs and patterns in the making to textiles and furniture. They withdrew to a country house Sussex in 1916 and formed a kind of posh commune. Maybe they used tribal art as inspiration for some of their angular designs, but any account of their lives demonstrates their wish to rediscover simpler, rural patterns.

A similar ‘back to nature’ impulse lay behind the founding of the schools of art in Newlyn as early as 1882 (and would lead to the St Ives school of painting being set up in the 1940s). In fact Rhodes says it was a sign of the times, with ‘artistic colonies’ being set up all across the Western world, from America to Russia. Some 30 artists’ colonies existed in Germany alone.

All this coincided with the advent of nudism or naturism as a popular movement. The first serious book advocating naturism’s social and psychological advantages was published in 1902 (Nacktkultur by Dr. Heinrich Pudor).

Though Rhodes doesn’t mention him, the grand-daddy of this ‘back to the country’ spiritual cleansing was Count Leo Tolstoy who rejected his urban youth and successful middle age, to go live among the peasants on his country estate, progressively renouncing his earthly goods (such as the copyrights in all his books), and writing scores of essays promoting the simple good life.

Tolstoy’s powerfully-phrased arguments affected – among millions of others – young Mohandas Gandhi, who entered into correspondence with Tolstoy in 1909 and went on to preach a) non-violent revolt and b) a return to the ‘primitive’ culture and trade of rural India (in opposition to its sophisticated cities).

Graffiti Another way of rejecting the academic was to incorporate writing into pictures. Artists as varied as Mikhail Larionov, Picasso, George Grosz did just that. Jean Dubuffet’s work from after the Second World War is particularly brutal and primitive. I can see how it anticipates the interest of someone like Basquiat in graffiti.

To put it another way, it’s interesting to learn that graffiti as a ‘strategy’ for primitive art existed long before Basquiat reignited it in the 1980s.

Conclusions

The book goes on, pushing familiar buttons, repeating Edward Said’s criticisms of ‘orientalist’ artists of the 19th century and sniffing out ‘orientalist’ tendencies in early modern artists (stay behind for detention, Matisse), using key post-modern terms like ‘the other’, ‘difference’, ‘discourse’, ‘situate’, negotiate’, ‘subvert’ and so on, in the approved style, and making frequent mention of the ‘bourgeoisie’ (the people all these radical artists were endlessly trying to shock).

This limited vocabulary and stereotyped litany of ‘isshoos’ is mind-numbingly boring.

Some conclusions:

The primitive is too big As mentioned above, the idea of ‘the primitive’ is much, much more complex than it first appears, and its impingement on modern art is so complex, manifests itself so differently in every one of the major and minor artists from the 1880s until, say, the 1940s, that an overview like this may, in the end, be impossible to write. Just telling the story of the impact of ‘primitive’ art on Gauguin or Picasso or Matisse would take an entire book.

Tribal art Thus, the way Rhodes defines ‘the primitive’ and ‘Primitivism’ makes the African and Pacific art which I thought the book would be all about, only a part, only a sub-set of this much larger and in the end, very unwieldy idea of back to nature, outsider art, the art of children, the art of the mad and so on.

No definition of tribal art When we do get to the part of the book devoted to African and Pacific art, Rhodes appears to distinguish it from the very broad category of ‘the primitive’ by calling it ‘tribal art’. I was very disappointed that he nowhere gives a working definition of ‘tribal art’ which I thought itself sounded a bit simple-minded. Do all African and pacific peoples live in ‘tribes’? I doubt it. Is there no more nuanced and refined term for this kind of art?

Along with no working definition of ‘tribal art’, Rhodes nowhere gives any sense of its history and development in Africa, or the Pacific (or in north-western America, which also gets referenced).

He nowhere attempts an overview of its main features or aspects. It’s a shame and also surprising.

Among my most favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes in the British Museum, which I find riveting, dazzling, awesome, and I was hoping to read something which put into words their impact and power. But there is no mention of them.

Benin Bronze from 13th or 15th century Benin, west Africa

Benin Bronze from 13th or 15th century Benin, west Africa

Contemporary writers on tribal art In fact by far the best writing about ‘tribal art’ comes from the artists and critics of the time. The people Rhodes accuses of patronisingly racist views, ironically, have much more sophisticated and interesting responses to this art than he does.

Take the German writer on modern and primitive art, Carl Einstein, who wrote an essay African Sculpture (1915) written after a stay in Paris where he’d met Picasso’s circle. His key insight is that African sculptures are self-contained. They are:

‘oriented not toward the viewer, but in terms of themselves’. They function, he continues, not so much as representations, but as things in themselves: ‘the art object is real because it is a closed form. Since it is self-contained and extremely powerful, the sense of distance between it and the viewer will necessarily produce an art of enormous intensity.’ (Quoted page 117)

When I myself have tried to put into words the impact of the African art I like, I’ve always ended up saying that these works feel somehow complete, utterly finished. They totally achieve what they set out to do. They have complete mastery of form and technique, so I was delighted to come across Einstein’s similar formulation of their self-containment.

Picasso on tribal art Probably the single most famous statement about the impact of ‘tribal art’ on a Western painter is Picasso’s own, a description he gave of his first visit to the Museum of Ethnography in Paris in 1905.

Picasso was no intellectual; he was one of the most instinctual artists who ever lived. He doesn’t even react to them as ‘works of art’, but far more profoundly reacts to their imaginative, spiritual force.

Men had made these masks and other objects for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose, as a kind of mediation between themselves and the unknown hostile forces that surrounded them, in order to overcome their fear and horror by giving it a form and an image. At that moment I realised that this was what painting was all about. Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as mediation between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desire. When I came to that realisation, I knew I had found my way. (p.116)

A passage of prose as vivid and expressive as his art. Many artists did directly copy motifs and patterns from ‘tribal art’ into their own works. But in this passage you can see that, for many others, it wasn’t a one-for-one transcription of individual pieces, it was the realisation that there was a whole other way of conceiving of the visual and of crafted objects, completely outside the Western academic tradition.

The general thrust of the book is that artists of this generation were looking for ways to escape the dead hand of the academic tradition and that they tried all kinds of routes – going off to the country, living among peasants, stripping naked, copying the art of children, peasants, the insane, anything.

And that ‘tribal art’ was just one among many means of escape, but one which opened a particularly powerful and massive door.

Three figures under a tree by Pablo Picasso (1907-08)

Three figures under a tree by Pablo Picasso (1907-08)

A narrowly politically correct reading claims that Western artists ‘stole’ the worldview, designs and motifs of tribal peoples. A more relaxed view suggests that the art of tribal peoples helped to crystallise alternative visions and ideas which artists and sculptures right across Europe were already looking for.

The artists who are blamed for exploiting tribal art are the ones who popularised it The avant-garde artists who Rhodes so casually criticises for ‘appropriating’ tribal and ‘primitive’ art, are in fact the means by which tribal and ‘primitive’ art itself became visually acceptable, stylish, fashionable and, in time, valued and judged in its own right.

The politically correct can (and do) slate off all those dead white men for stealing non-European ideas, motifs and designs, but there is a mirror image way of thinking about this: that all those dead white men placed tribal and ‘primitive’ art smack bang in the centre of modern art and so forced their viewers, buyers, collectors and curators, to take tribal and ‘primitive’ art seriously.

Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse, the German Expressionists, the Surrealists – they made us see tribal and ‘primitive’ art as more than the relics of ‘savage’ or ‘degenerate’ or ‘backward’ cultures, but as the sophisticated products of cultures every bit as worthy of respect and serious study as any aspect of Western culture.

They created the attitude of taking tribal and ‘primitive’ art seriously from which the very critics like Rhodes, who criticise them so fiercely, have personally and morally benefited – and then use this late-coming sense of moral superiority to lambast the very people who helped to develop it.

Gauguin Writing about art – writing about what you actually see, how it is made and how you respond to it – is difficult. It is far easier to give in to the easy temptation of criticising everything you see for not living up to your own impeccable moral standards. Being politically correct. The easy choice.

The forty or so illustrations of tribal artifacts which the book includes are infinitely more powerful than anything Rhodes can write about them. In fact nowhere does he attempt any kind of description of individual pieces of tribal or ‘primitive’ art; by and large they are used as evidence for the prosecution against the wicked, white, male artists who appropriated them.

One of the few really insightful bits of writing about art is a quote from (that wicked cultural appropriator) Gauguin, who wrote in 1888:

I love Brittany; here I find the savage, primitive quality. When my clogs echo on this granite ground, I hear the dull muted, powerful sound I am looking for in painting. (quoted on page 26)

‘The dull muted, powerful sound…’ Wow. That’s a really brilliant description of the hard outlines and slabs of colour you get in Gauguin’s works.

So by the end of this ambitious but unsatisfactory book I came to the conclusion that the African and Pacific art itself, the art of the Western painters who copied or were inspired by it, and the writings of those artists and their contemporary critics – are all more illuminating, exciting and inspiring than the clunky prose and lame politics of modern art critics and scholars.


Related links

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Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse @ the Royal Academy

‘Using the work of Monet as a starting point, this landmark exhibition examines the role gardens played in the evolution of art from the early 1860s through to the 1920s’ and features ‘masterpieces by Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro, Manet, Sargent, Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Matisse, Klimt and Klee.’

Gardens! Monet! As might be expected there was a massive queue to get into this huge Royal Academy blockbuster exhibition, and it was very busy inside, making it quite hard to see the paintings in some rooms.

The exhibition is in ten or so rooms, and its skeleton or backbone is a chronological survey of the flower and garden paintings of Claude Monet.

In the first room are early ‘realist’ works like Lady in the garden (below) from the 1870s, set among similar works by numerous contemporaries. Half-way through the show is a room explaining how in 1883 Monet started renting a large house at Giverny, 50 miles north-west of Paris, and began laying out his famous garden, going on to buy some adjoining land to create the famous water lily pond, complete with Japanese bridge, which he was to paint for the rest of his life.

Then the exhibition climaxes in two rooms devoted solely to Monet – the first showing 15 or so late works, before the final space which is devoted to bringing together three huge paintings of the waterlilies. These enormous works were always intended to form one massive super-painting but were separated and sold off at his death, and are brought together here for the first time in nearly a century.

Lady in the Garden (1867) by Claude Monet. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo (c) The State Hermitage Museum. Photography: Vladimir Terebenin

Lady in the Garden (1867) by Claude Monet. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo (c) The State Hermitage Museum. Photography: Vladimir Terebenin

The rise of gardening

At the Guildhall Art Gallery recently, I was interested to read how the nineteenth century saw the rise of the ‘home’. For many people in the 1800s the house they lived in was also the site of their work, where they performed all sorts of labouring, spinning, the manufacture of small artefacts etc. By 1900 the separation of home and workplace was complete for most people, who went to offices or factories to work, with ‘the home’ now a place which increasing numbers of people prided themselves on decorating and adorning according to the latest fashions, a place to express their personality or flaunt their status, a book market catered to by an ever-growing range of books and magazines dedicated to suggesting the best fabrics and wallpapers and furniture and ‘look’. (The Ideal Home Show was founded in 1908.)

Something similar happened with gardening. In 1800 ‘gardens’ were what aristocrats in grand houses had or where peasants in cottages grew vegetables. By 1900 ‘gardening’ had become a popular middle-class activity, complete with handbooks, guides and magazines to advise on which plants and flowers to grow where, how to lay out a garden, what to sow to achieve ‘year-round colour’, and an ever-growing range of exotic plants and hybrids imported from abroad to provide intense and novel colours. (The Chelsea Flower Show was established in 1912).

Auguste Renoir - Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil (1873) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Bequest of Anne Parrish Titzell. Photo (c) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT

Auguste Renoir – Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil (1873) Bequest of Anne Parrish Titzell. Photo (c) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT

Impressionism, insofar as it was ever a coherent movement, was about using the convenience of a broader range of oil paints newly available in easily portable tubes, and the newly-built railways lines around Paris, to take a day trip out to the suburbs and paint scenes of ‘real life’ in their actual setting. Naturally, part of this interest in the real life of the 1860s and 70s was the growing fashion for gardens, and this exhibition shows that many painters not only painted gardens – many, many paintings of gardens – but were often themselves enthusiastic gardeners.

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1911) by Joaquin Sorolla. On loan from the Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY. Photo (c) Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1911) by Joaquin Sorolla. On loan from the Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY. Photo (c) Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York

Average garden paintings

Thus, alongside the early Monets, the first rooms we walk through feature works by numerous other artists in the same plein air style –  Pierre Bonnard, Jean-Édouard Vuillard, Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. There are three big rooms showing scores of paintings of gardens, garden paths, flowery borders, ladies with bonnets in chairs, and profusions of flowers, all in a hazy summery impressionist style. To be honest, not many really stood out. Lots were as bland or sketchy as, for example:

I liked:

Bad garden paintings

Among the many very average paintings here – it’s a massive show – some stood out as being actively bad, amateurish and shapeless, lacking life, definition, colour. Some of the real stinkers included:

  • Garden of le Relais and Seated Woman Reading by Jean-Édouard Vuillard
  • Weeping Willow by Monet Even the sainted Claude painted some horrible paintings, their palettes garish and pukey. There’s a lot of Monets here and not all of them are good.

This Bonnard is one of the images the RA has selected for reviewers to use, but I find it bland and lifeless. Does it convey the fierce heat of the south of France or the play of sunlight on leaves in a breeze? No.

Resting in the Garden (Sieste au jardin) (1914) by Pierre Bonnard. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo. Photo (c) Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design/The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design / (c) ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Resting in the Garden (Sieste au jardin) (1914) by Pierre Bonnard. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo. Photo (c) Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design/The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design / (c) ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

Monet at Giverny

After wading through lots of so-so pictures, it’s a change of mood to enter the room devoted to Monet’s famous garden at Giverny. Several hundred books, thousands of articles, posters, mugs and posters and badges and tea towels have made these images of water lilies among the most famous in art. But to see them in the flesh is to be converted all over again to their strange magic.

By not depicting the edges of the pond, the surrounding trees, let alone the sky – by concentrating purely on the surface of the water, with its mysterious reflections punctuated by the clumps of free-floating lilies – Monet creates a hauntingly free space into which you feel yourself being ineluctably drawn. I was struck by how much purple and mauve and violet he used in his depictions of water which, in my experience, is rarely purple or mauve. By 1900 his pond paintings are more about composition and palette ie about the interaction between colours on the canvas, than the so-called ‘real world’. Images which are obviously about the ‘real world’, but just as clearly about pattern, shape, composition and colour. They are genuinely bewitching, and in a different league from everything else in the show.

Nympheas (Waterlilies) (1914-15) by Claude Monet. Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Museum Purchase: Helen Thurston Ayer Fund, 59.16. Photo (c) Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

Nympheas (Waterlilies) (1914-15) by Claude Monet. Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Museum Purchase: Helen Thurston Ayer Fund, 59.16. Photo (c) Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

Monet garden dates

  • 1883 Monet rents the house at Giverny
  • 1890 Monet buys the house and starts designing the gardens
  • 1889 Monet admires the water-lily garden at the Paris Universal Exhibition
  • 1893 Monet buys a property next to the garden and diverts a stream to create a lily pond
  • He builds a bridge modelled on the Japanese prints he likes
  • 1899 Monet paints 12 paintings of the the bridge and water lilies beneath
  • 1909 Monet exhibits 48 water lily paintings

The greenhouse room

I was surprised to walk into a room dominated by glasshouse-, greenhouse- and hothouse-shaped display cases showing a selection of books, articles and magazines about gardening from across Europe in the late 19th century. This is a room for the true horticulturalists among the visitors. There were also photos of Monet in his garden, accounts of the instructions he gave the six (6!) gardeners he employed, notes on seeds to buy, species and varieties to select, planting dates and so on.

Interesting if you’re a real Monet-maniac, but for me the standout items in this room were the five or so Japanese prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige.

It was a shock to be transported for a moment to a completely different tradition. The clear, fine, black outlines and delicacy of colour and detail of these Japanese prints are as opposite as can be from the smudgy western impressionism and post-impressionism which this exhibition is foregrounding. They crystallised for me what I didn’t enjoy about many of the paintings earlier in the show – their vague mistiness, the depiction of flowers as great woolly expanses of undifferentiated colour – and helped explain the paintings I was drawn to – ones which showed some kind of clarity of line, like Caillebotte’s Nasturtiums, or:

I worked at Kew Gardens and occasionally write my own, very amateur flower blog (just a diary of wild flowers I try to identify when out and about). Years of looking at flowers and trying to distinguish, say, lesser burdock from greater burdock, or broad-leaved willowherb from short-fruited willowherb, have made me look very closely at the structure of plants, at the stems and leaf shapes and edges, at stamens and anthers; and have also given me a taste for the small, the shy and retiring native wild flowers of England (eg the tiny scarlet pimpernel).

Thus, as I wandered past scores and scores of soft-focus portrayals of great swathes of blossoms set vaguely amid stippled, sunny gardens, I found myself preferring the paintings where you could actually identify the species of flower being depicted, or alternatively where the blossoms were subtle and understated – and tending not to like the ones where the flora consisted of undifferentiated washes of colour or great sprawls of acid yellow and vivid red commercial hybrids, impossible to identify and difficult for a wildflower lover like me, to like.

Mention of Tissot made me think of other contemporary British artists and the show includes at least two works by John Singer Sergeant who, in between painting his lucrative society portraits, spent summers at the village of Broadway in the Cotswolds, painting flowers and gardens. The two samples here are not his best – eg Garden Study of the Vicker’s Children (1884) – and they don’t, for some reason, include his super-famous garden masterpiece, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1886).

Modernist garden paintings

The exhibition puts the efforts of Monet and the other impressionists into the widest possible context, featuring generous selections of European contemporaries – those we know, like Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Edvard Munch – and those we’d never heard of, like Santiago Rusiñol, Joaquin Mir y Trinxet, Henri Le Sidanier, Henri Martin and the German impressionist, Max Liebermann.

  • Green Wall by Santiago Rusiñol – The four or five paintings by Rusiñol really stood out in this room, unusually ‘realist’ in detail but also for the orange dusk light which dominates them, very unlike the summery green of many of the other chocolate box images.
  • Glorieta de cipreses, Jardines de Aranjuez (1919) by Santiago Rusiñol
  • Steps, Gerberoy by Henri Le Sidanier

There were quite a few Libermanns and, although the wall labels point out how prolific he was, how famous in his day, and how devoted to the garden he created on the shore of Lake Wannsee in Berlin, I found them unfinished, undetailed, unsatisfying.

One room was devoted to the Fauves and other experimental, turn-of-the century art movements. I didn’t like the two Matisses on display: Rose-table (below) seemed to me just ugly, in composition and colour, and Palm Leaf, Tangier (1912) just looked unfinished but not in a good way.

The Rose Marble Table, Issy-les-Moulineaux, spring-summer (1917) by Henri Matisse. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1956 Photo (c) 2015. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence / (c) Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015

The Rose Marble Table, Issy-les-Moulineaux, spring-summer (1917) by Henri Matisse.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1956
Photo (c) 2015. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence / (c) Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015

But like the other rooms, it’s a fascinating selection of the good, the bad and the indifferent. Also in the category of ‘little known garden paintings by super-famous twentieth century artists’ were:

I liked the three little Klee paintings (he may be my favourite 20th century artist), and the way he turns everything into his own quirky type of linear composition. But, contrary to everything I had just told myself about liking understated and clearly defined flowers, I also really liked Kandinsky’s Murnau The Garden II (below). It was completely unlike almost everything else in the show, not trying to be gentle and sensitive, or an attempt at plein air painting, or particularly figurative, but a violent, vibrant exercise in primary colours and tones. I liked its virile confidence.

Murnau The Garden II (1910) by Wassily Kandinsky. Merzbacher Kunststiftung Photo (c) Merzbacher Kunststiftung

Murnau The Garden II (1910) by Wassily Kandinsky. Merzbacher Kunststiftung
Photo (c) Merzbacher Kunststiftung

The photo room

The biggest surprise of the show was entering a room which is full of garden tables and benches. It’s a rare opportunity in an exhibition of this size to be able to sit down and have a rest. There were four big wooden garden tables, each with a set of chairs, and bearing two or three copies of the exhibition catalogue to flip through.

The walls of this room were lined by extra-large (really large) black-and-white photos of many of the artists featured (Klee, Kandinsky, Bonnard etc), snapped in their respective gardens, the whole thing dominated by a big screen on the far wall showing three short clips from films of a) Monet at work, French fag hanging from his mouth, dressed in a white jacket, palette in hand and standing next to the famous lily pond b) Max Lieberman painting in his garden c) le Sidanier ditto.

Monet’s later years at Giverny

Immediately following the photo and film room you move into Monet’s final years.

He had been devastated by his wife’s death in 1911 and was also suffering from eye trouble, and so stopped painting for three years. Then, on the eve of the Great War, he took up his palette again and, when war came, bravely refused to leave even as the Germans advanced towards his house and garden and studio.

This penultimate room contains about a dozen paintings of the pond, lilies and trees from around the time of the War. What came over for me is how, by this stage, Monet had stopped really being an impressionist. Many of the paintings were painted from memory, inside the large studio he had built. Purple and violet tones predominate in the lily paintings, making the clumps of lilies float in a neutral non-space, an increasingly abstract arrangement of colours which have a genuinely hypnotic effect.

That’s not to say there aren’t some very poor works on offer, some crude heavy depictions of the Japanese bridge in a completely different palette from the gentle violets of the other paintings, hard to believe they’re by the same man.

But among half a dozen breath-taking works on show here, my favourite was the large weeping willow – probably because it is unfinished and I always love the idea of a work of art emerging from the raw canvas, of beauty struggling to free itself from chaos or banality – and because I like strong black marks and outlines, even if only sketchy, of the kind that can be seen here. The commentary points out that he did a series of weeping willow paintings date around 1918 which might express his feelings about the terrible catastrophe which had destroyed European civilisation. All the more poignant.

The agapanthus tryptich

The final room (in fact the Academy’s Wohl Central Hall) is devoted to the Agapanthus triptych, three enormous (7 feet by 14 feet) canvases Monet worked on from around 1915 to his death in 1926. The three separate pieces were sold off to different galleries and are rarely brought together, so this is a rare opportunity to see them reunited and to immerse yourself in Monet’s unique floating world.

Monet spoke and wrote a lot about his work, words which have been recombined into a thousand books, articles and t-shirt mottos: of all the words written about them, I liked the idea that these last works, enormous in scale and floating free of tradition, restraint, of all his previous work and from previous art, are Monet’s attempt to create harmony, balance, poise and beauty after the devastation of the Great War.

No matter how stupid and destructive humanity is, in the waterponds of the world the lilies will always blossom again.

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Paul Klee – Making Visible @ Tate Modern

This is a marvellous, inspiring, life-affirming exhibition covering the full career of the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee (1879-940) in 17 rooms containing some 130 of his wonderfully vivid and innovative paintings.

The five paintings I include here are the ones authorised by Tate for inclusion in reviews. They show a little of Klee’s variety and development over the main years of his career from 1920 to 1940.

Redgreen and Violet-yellow Rhythms, 1920. An example of Klee’s ‘magic squares’ though still with recognisable, figurative elements ie the trees. Maybe this is a mountain scene with fir trees, but with Nature abstracted and reinvented into pure colours and forms.

Redgreen and Violet-yellow Rhythms, 1920

Redgreen and Violet-yellow Rhythms, 1920
Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984 (1984.315.19)
Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Source: Art Resource/Scala Photo Archives

Comedy, 1921. An example of Klee’s technique of ‘oil transfer’, as well as his experiments with grading colours ie bars of deepening colour. It also shows  his cartoon-ish approach to figures which are stick-like, moving to strange abstract shapes. The nominal subject is the imaginative fancy dress parties held at the Bauhaus where Klee started to teach in 1921: as one witness commented Kandinsky went dressed as an antenna, Klee as The Song of the Blue Tree.

Comedy 1921 Watercolour and oil on paper support: 305 x 454 mm on paper, unique Tate. Purchased 1946

Comedy 1921
Watercolour and oil on paper
support: 305 x 454 mm
on paper, unique
Tate. Purchased 1946

Look at the border of Comedy. As the exhibition continued I found myself noticing the contrast between the unfinished rough edges of the paintings and the highly finished edges of the frames: a contast between intuition and rationality; or between inspiration and the Swiss clockmaker precision of the detailed catalogue Klee kept; or between art and the calculating world of commodity capitalism it has to be packaged and marketed in.

Almost none of the paintings have straight boundaries. They are straight-ish. And almost none of them are on traditional canvas, but on a wide variety of surfaces including, later in the show, oil and watercolour on burlap sacking prepared with plaster!

Static-Dynamic Intensification, 1923. Another ‘magic squares’ painting. Note a) the colours aren’t random; the more you look the more there appears to be a pattern which, at the same time, stays elusive, is not mathematically rigid b) it’s another novel surface: this is a watercolour and transferred printing ink on laid paper with gray and green gouache and black ink mounted on light cardboard; in an unobtrusive way most of the works are collages ie made of more than one surface laid on another c) the title: I didn’t read any commentary on this, but it seems to me that Klee experimented with words as much as with colour and line: what happens if we combine these words in a title? what impact does it have on the viewer’s response (if any)?

Static-Dynamic Intensification, 1923 Watercolour and transferred printing ink on laid paper with gray and green gouache and black ink mounted on light cardboard 381 x 261 mm Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Static-Dynamic Intensification, 1923
Watercolour and transferred printing ink on laid paper with gray and green gouache and black ink mounted on light cardboard
381 x 261 mm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Steps, 1929. After a trip to Egypt Klee experimented with abstracts where the magic boxes had been expanded to become bars of colour stretching across the picture. The crucial element remains the non-mathematical nature of the lines; he is not Mondrian. In their imprecision, quirkiness, non-rationality, they give a strong feeling of instinct and intuition, maybe a childlike sense of freedom.

Steps, 1929 Oil and ink on canvas 520 x 430 mm Moderna Museet (Stockholm, Sweden)

Steps, 1929
Oil and ink on canvas
520 x 430 mm
Moderna Museet (Stockholm, Sweden)

Fire at Full Moon, 1933. Use of bolder, brighter colours, though with characteristic ‘quirky’ lines and squares.

Fire at Full Moon, 1933 Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany

Fire at Full Moon, 1933
Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany

Park near Lu, 1938. In his final years, stricken with a wasting disease, Klee’s paintings became significantly larger and lost the flat, magic square aspect, to become more a case of bold black lines surrounded with a penumbra of vibrant colours. Gone are the scratchy little detailed cartoon people or fish of the 20s although you can, at a pinch, read some human or biological aspect into the shapes. Or not. Reminiscent of late Matisse, maybe.

Park near Lu, 1938 Zentrum Paul Klee

Park near Lu, 1938
Zentrum Paul Klee

This is an absolutely brilliant exhibition by a quiet genius of the 20th century. Everyone should see it in order to learn just how free and light and joyous, how unguilty, expressive, funny and awe-inspiring Art can be.

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