Art Deco by Alastair Duncan (1988)

Perhaps most significant to the development of a twentieth century aesthetic was the birth in the interwar period of the professional industrial designer… (p.118) In the 1920s commercial art became a bona fide profession which, in turn, gave birth to the graphic artist. (p.150)

This is one of the older volumes from Thames and Hudson’s famous ‘World of Art’ series, famous for its thorough texts but also, alas, for the way most of the illustrations are in black and white (this book has 194 illustrations, but only 44 of them in colour, most of them quite small).

Duncan also wrote the WoA volume on Art Nouveau, which I read recently, and has gone on to write many more books on both these topics, including a huge Definitive Guide to the Decorative Arts of the 1920s and 30s. He knows his onions.

Main points from the introduction

  • Art Deco was the last really luxurious style – people look back to Art Deco and Art Nouveau with nostalgia because they were florid, indulgent and luxurious – since the Second World War all styles have been variations on plain functionalism.
  • Art Deco is not a reaction against Art Nouveau but a continuation of it, in terms of ‘lavish ornamentation, superlative craftsmanship and fine materials’.
  • Received opinion has it that Art Deco started after the war, but Duncan asserts that it had begun earlier, with some indisputable Art Deco pieces made before 1914 or during the war. In fact he boldly suggests that, had there been no war, Art Deco might have flourished, peaked and been over by 1920.
  • Art Deco is hard to define because designers and craftsmen had so many disparate sources to draw on by 1920 – Cubism, Fauvism, Constructivism, Futurism, but also high fashion, motifs from the Orient, tribal Africa, the Ballets Russes, or Egypt, especially after the tomb of Tutankhamen was discovered in 1922.
  • Duncan distinguishes between the decorative styles of the 1920s which were luxurious and ornamented, and of the 1930s, when machine chic became more dominant, lines sleeker, more mechanical. The chapter on metalwork makes this clear with the 1920s work alive with gazelles, flowers and sunbursts, while the 1930s work copies the sleek straight lines of airplanes and steamships. In the architecture chapter he distinguishes between zigzag’ Moderne of the 1920s and the ‘streamline’ Moderne of the 1930s (p.195).
  • There’s also a distinction between the French style (the French continued to lead the field in almost all the decorative art) exuberant and playful, and the style of the rest of Europe and, a little later, America, which was cooler, more functional and intellectual. Throughout the book Duncan refers to the former as Art Deco and the latter as Modernism.
  • To my surprise Duncan asserts that Modernism was born at the moment of Art Deco’s greatest triumph i.e. the famous Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. The severe modernist Le Corubsier wrote an article criticising almost all the exhibits for their luxury and foppishness and arguing that true design should be functional, and mass produced so as to be affordable.
  • Duncan contrasts the attenuated flowers and fairy maidens of Art Nouveau with the more severe functionalism of the Munich Werkbund, set up as early as 1907, which sought to integrate design with the reality of machine production. This spartan approach, insistence on modern materials, and mass production to make its objects affordable, underpinned the Bauhaus, established in 1919, whose influence spread slowly, but affected particularly American design during the 1930s, as many Bauhaus teachers fled the Nazis.

So the entire period between the wars can be simplified down to a tension between a French tradition of luxury, embellished and ornamented objects made for rich clients, and a much more severe, modern, functionalist, Bauhaus style intended for mass consumption, with the Bauhaus concern for sleek lines and modern materials gaining ground in the streamlined 1930s.

In reality, the hundreds of designers Duncan mentions hovered between these two poles.

Structure

The book is laid out very logically, indeed with the rather dry logic of an encyclopedia. There are ten chapters:

  1. Furniture
  2. textiles
  3. Ironwork and lighting
  4. Silver, Lacquer and Metalware
  5. Glass
  6. Ceramics
  7. Sculpture
  8. Paintings, Graphics, Posters and Bookbinding
  9. Jewelry
  10. Architecture

Each of the chapters tends to be broken down into a handful of trends or topics. Each of these is then broken down into area or country, so that successive paragraphs begin ‘In America’ or ‘In Belgium’ or ‘In Britain’. And then each of these sections is broken down into a paragraph or so about leading designers or manufacturers. So, for example, the chapter on ceramics is divided into sections on: artist-potters, traditional manufactories, and industrial ceramics; each of these is then sub-divided into countries – France, Germany, America, England; each of these sub-sections then has a paragraph or so about the leading practitioners in each style.

On the up side the book is encyclopedic in its coverage. On the down side it sometimes feels like reading a glorified list and, particularly when entire paragraphs are made up of lists of the designers who worked for this or that ceramics firm or glass manufacturer, you frequently find your mind going blank and your eye skipping entire paragraphs (one paragraph, on page 51, lists 34 designers of Art Deco rugs).

It’s a shame because whenever Duncan does break out of this encyclopedia structure, whenever he stops to explain something – for example, the background to a particular technique or medium – he is invariably fascinating and authoritative. For example, take his explanation of pâte-de-verre, something I’d never heard of before:

Pâte-de-verre is made of finely crushed pieces of glass ground into a powder mixied with a fluxing agent that facilitates melting. Colouring is achieved by using coloured glass or by adding metallic oxides after the ground glass has been melted into a paste. In paste form, pâte-de-verre is as malleable as clay, and it is modelled by being packed into a mould where it is fused by firing. It can likewise be moulded in several layers or refined by carving after firing. (p.93)

Having myself spent quite a few years being paid to turn a wide variety of information (about medicine, or botany, or VAT) into clear English, I am full of admiration for Duncan’s simple, clear prose. There’s a similar paragraph about silver which, in a short space, brings an entire craft to life.

By virtue of its colour, silver is a ‘dry’ material. To give it life without the use of surface ornament, the 1920s Modernist silversmith had to rely on interplay of light,m shadow, and reflection created by contrasting planes and curves. Another way to enrich its monotone colour was by incorporating semiprecious stones, rare woods, ivory and glass. Towards the 1930s, vermeil or gold panels were applied to the surface as an additional means of embellishment. (p.71)

He tells us that the pinnacle of commercial Art Deco sculpture was work done in chryselephantine, combining bronze and ivory, and that the acknowledged master of this genre was Demêtre Chiparus, who made works depicting French ballet and theatre.

Duncan makes the simple but profound point that, in architecture, Art Deco tended to be applied to buildings which had no tradition behind them, to new types of building for the machine age – this explains the prevalence of the Art Deco look in so many power stations, airport buildings, cinemas and swimming pools. Think (in London) Battersea power station (1935), Croydon airport (1928), the Golden Mile of Art Deco factories along the Great West Road at Brentford, Brixton Lido (1937), Charles Holden’s Art Deco Tube stations, and scores of Odeon cinemas across the country.

I liked his wonderfully crisp explanation of costume jewelry.

Costume jewelry differs from fine jewelry in that it is made out of base metals or silver set with marcasite, paste or imitation stones. (p.167)

Now you know. When he’s explaining, he’s wonderful.

Likes and dislikes

To my great surprise I actively disliked most of the objects and art shown in this book. I thought I liked Art Deco, but I didn’t like a lot of this stuff.

Maybe I’m a Bauhaus baby at heart. I consistently preferred the more linear work from the 1930s.

Then it dawned on me that maybe it’s because Duncan doesn’t included much about Art Deco posters (despite having authored a whole book about them). The section on them here was remarkably short and with hardly any illustrations (7 pages, 6 pictures).

Similarly, the section on the scores of fashionable magazines and graphic illustrations from the era (Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar and countless others) is barely 3 pages long.

There’s nothing at all about about movies or photography, either. On the one hand, maybe this is fair enough since Duncan is an expert in the decorative and applied arts and that’s the focus of the book. Still, Gary Cooper is a masterpiece of Art Deco, with his strong lines ending in beautiful machine-tooled curves (nose and chin), his powerful symmetries – as beautiful as any skyscraper.

Gary Cooper, super duper

Gary Cooper, super duper

French terms

  • animalier – an artist who specializes in the realistic portrayal of animals
  • cabochon –  a gemstone which has been shaped and polished as opposed to faceted
  • éditeur d’art – publisher of art works
  • nécessaire – vanity case for ladies
  • objet d’art – used in English to describe works of art that are not paintings, large or medium-sized sculptures, prints or drawings. It therefore covers a wide range of works, usually small and three-dimensional, of high quality and finish in areas of the decorative arts, such as metalwork items, with or without enamel, small carvings, statuettes and plaquettes in any material, including engraved gems, hardstone carvings, ivory carvings and similar items, non-utilitarian porcelain and glass, and a vast range of objects that would also be classed as antiques (or indeed antiquities), such as small clocks, watches, gold boxes, and sometimes textiles, especially tapestries. Might include books with fine bookbindings.
  • pâte-de-verre – a kilncasting method that literally means ‘paste of glass’
  • pieces uniques – one-off works for rich buyers

Conclusion

In summary, this is an encyclopedic overview of the period with some very useful insights, not least the fundamental distinction between the French ‘high’ Art Deco of the 1920s and the Modernist Art Deco of the 1930s (which flourished more in America than Europe). But it is also a rather dry and colourless book, only occasionally coming to life when Duncan gives one of his beautifully lucid explanations.

Probably better to invest in a coffee-table volume which has plenty of large illustrations (particularly of the great posters and magazine illustrations) to get a more accessible and exciting feel for the period.


Related links

A Small Yes and a Big No by George Grosz (1946)

What I saw made me loathe most of my fellow men… (p.80)

A Small Yes and a Big No is the autobiography of the German artist George Grosz (1893-1959). It was first published in German in 1946. The version I’ve got is copyrighted 1955 and I think this was a later edition, with additional material, namely a long chapter describing a farcical visit to revolutionary Russia in 1922 during which the keen young Communist George met Zinoviev, Lunacharsky, the impressive Trotsky and the obviously sick Lenin.

There have been several translations of the work. I’ve got the excellent 1982 one, by Arnold J. Pomerans, which is in clear and colloquial English.

Grosz and Neue Sachlichkeit

Grosz emerged after the First World War as a merciless satirist of post-war Germany in the harsh new style which became known as Neue Sachlichkeit or ‘New Objectivity’. His brutal cartoons and paintings emphasised the corruption, greed and sexual depravity of post-war Berlin, highlighting the immorality of war profiteers, counting their cash and paying ugly courtesans while the streets outside were littered with grotesquely damaged war veterans.

The Pillars of Society (1926)

The Pillars of Society (1926)

Grosz had played a lead role in the Berlin wing of the Dada movement (1917-20), though this was known only to a relatively small number of art cognoscenti.

It was the popular albums of drawings he published in the 1920s which brought him fame and notoriety. In 1921 his withering collection Gott mit uns (‘God with us’), a scathing satire on German society, led to the artist being accused of insulting the army. He was taken to court, convicted and fined 300 Marks and all copies of the collection ordered to be destroyed.

In 1923 Ecce Homo, a volume of 100 lithographs depicting the seething corruption that had grown out of hyper-inflation and the political turmoil of the early 1920s, prompted the authorities to arrest Grosz again and charge him with offending ‘the moral sensibility of the German public’. Most of the original drawings were destroyed and Grosz and the publishers handed large fines. In 1928 he was again prosecuted for blasphemy after publishing anticlerical drawings.

He was, in other words, a notorious social irritant. Surprisingly, he doesn’t describe any of these trials in this autobiography.

Politics

In the last months of 1918 Grosz joined the so-called Spartacist League just as it renamed itself the Communist Party of Germany. He was arrested during the Berlin Communist uprising in January 1919, but escaped, using fake identification documents. None of this is in the autobiography either, which only mentions the deaths of the movement’s leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, famous events in their own right.

Instead his autobiography, looking back from middle age in American, glosses over the fierce political engagement of the young communist Grosz as naive.

Soon I, too, was making political speeches, not out of any conviction, but because everyone was expected to add his pennyworth, and because I had not yet learned better. All my political pronouncements were a jumble of cheap progressive phrases I had picked up from others, and which seemed to pour like honey from my lips. No wonder that I was quite often taken in by my own nonsense, by all the noises, spluttering, the twittering and braying I gave tongue to. (p.91)

In 1922 Grosz travelled to Russia with the writer Martin Andersen Nexø, the idea being the latter would write a book which Grosz would illustrate. They took an unconventional route, travelling by fishing boat across the Baltic with the result that, upon their arrival in Murmansk, were promptly arrested as spies. After some dicey moments with some thuggish local officials, their credentials were finally authenticated, and they were allowed to travel on to Petersburg. Here they met Soviet leaders like Grigory Zinoviev, Anatoly Lunacharsky, and Vladimir Lenin, who Grosz cheerfully dismisses as that ‘manipulator of the masses’.

This adventure takes up the 20 pages of chapter 11, and Grosz uses it to make abundantly clear how unimpressed he was with the abject poverty and ignorance of Russian peasants, and of the bullying brutality of the commissars they met.

In 1923 Grosz ended his membership in the KPD (also not mentioned in the book), though he continued to be bitterly critical of the bourgeoisie, the rich and, of course, of the growing right-wing in Germany.

In 1932 Grosz accepted an invitation to teach at the Art Students League of New York and spent the summer doing just that. He had always fantasised about America and it lived up to all his dreams. At the end of the term he sailed back to Germany long enough to persuade his wife that they should emigrate to the promised land and, in January 1933, he set sail with her back to New York. He departed just a week before Hitler came to power.

For years after wards friends and colleagues praised him for being so shrewd and timely, but he always insisted it was an incredibly lucky coincidence.

In America, Grosz determined to make a clean break with his past, and tried to completely change his style and subject matter. This explains why:

  1. The illustrations in this book (which are in black and white and on poor quality paper) are heavily skewed towards his post-German work. Of the 11 illustrations, only two are from the 1920s i.e. his best period. All the work which made him famous is absent from this book.
  2. There is no precise or detailed mention of the Communist Party nor his membership of it in the book. The Cold War was just kicking off when he wrote it. This explains why he either glosses over his political beliefs or dismisses them as idle student gibberish.

Throughout the book, from his earliest childhood, he reiterates his lifelong dreams about America, his love of Wild West cowboy stories, the fact he was nicknamed Leatherstocking for his love of the James Fenimore Cooper Mohican novels, and so on. This may well be true, but it has the net effect of making him seem like a good Republican all along, who only needed to sample the joys of capitalist New York before completely dropping all his schoolboy communism and becoming a fully paid up capitalist.

In this he reminds me of the famous composer Kurt Weill, who worked closely with Bertolt Brecht to create a series of fiercely left-wing musical pieces in Weimar Germany but, once he had fled to America, in 1935, also dropped all political involvement and sought to reinvent himself as a non-political composer of popular musicals.

Childhood

Given the notorious misanthropy of Grosz’s oeuvre the opening of the book comes as a surprise. The early chapters are a touching portrayal of life in the little Pomeranian town of Stolp where Grosz grew up, living close to nature and playing with the boys of his own age. I was very taken with his enthusiasms for comic books and adventure stories featuring Red Indians or soldiers, a taste which endured into adult life.

(Later there is a sad-comic account of his pilgrimage as an adult to the house of the legendary Karl May, author of the countless Westerns featuring the boys adventure hero, Old Shatterhand. Inevitably, the creator of this towering Western hero turns out to be a little old man shuffling round in carpet slippers.)

I was fascinated by the glimpses he gave of a provincial German childhood before the war, including the blood-curdling peep shows and ‘panoramas’ (i.e. models) of battlefields available at travelling fairs. A page is devoted to the once-in-a-lifetime arrival of Barnum and Bailey’s famous circus to the nearby town, complete with a wide range of ‘freaks’.

And there are evocative memories of watching the big trans-Europe express from Berlin to Petersburg stopping off at their provincial station to refuel, of glimpsing the rich people inside their luxury Pullman carriages, of being a small boy fantasising about their wonderful lives.

This background in pulp fiction, newspaper cartoons, collectible magazines, the provincialness of his life, all goes a long way to explaining the attitude of his work. His Dad looked after the local masonic Hall till he died when Grosz was 8, and his Mum became keeper of the local Hussars’ officers mess. It was not a comfortable middle-class family. There weren’t many books in the house (only as a student did he discover literature), little or no music of any kind, and his parents brought him up in a plain and devout Lutheran faith.

Plain, simple, no bullshit, no frills, no mystical hocus-pocus, young George grew up determined to depict life how he saw it – and he was unfortunate to live through some very ugly times.

The Academy

It’s all downhill from these childhood memories, as the very young (17) Grosz manages to get scholarships to attend stuffy art academy in Dresden (1909-11), then the School of Arts and Crafts in Berlin (1912-14).

The anecdotes from this period give a strong flavour for the lifeless academic teaching imposed by a load of bearded old men who forced their students to arrive precisely on time in order to spend eight hours a day meticulously drawing tatty old plaster casts of busts or classical statues.

He calls the teachers ‘caricatures, misfits and failures’ (p.29) and gives terrifying/comic descriptions of them, their imposing presences, their swearing and violence, their ultimate ineffectualness.

What really comes over is Grosz’s interest in characters, the more grotesque the better.

  • Such as his friend Heini Blume who dreamed of travelling to Brazil solely on the basis of his stamp collection, because Brazilian stamps were the most colourful.
  • The ex-soldier in the local pub who got drunk and talked about the war he fought in against the Herero people in South-West Africa, but whose real talent was flicking spent cigarette butts so that they stuck to the ceiling of the bar like stalactites.
  • Herr Kuhling who Grosz roomed with in Dresden, and whose strapping buxom daughters haunted his dreams for years.

At art school Grosz describes the martinet Professor Müller, famous for his foul mouth: ‘That van Gogh is a right shit’ (p.53). He tracks down Professor Wehle who is slated to give ‘composition’ lessons, though he mostly locks his classroom door and drinks the days away. Grosz persists in seeing him and is given the task of painting ‘The Flood’ in the manner of Delacroix i.e. as a vast Romantic masterpiece – which he turns out to be unable to do. He remembers this failure because it taught him something about his talents.

The result of this conflict [between his Romantic ideals and his limited abilities] was caricature and distortion. The ‘greatness’ Professor Wehle sought, his exalted classical and religious ideals, were not in me, simply because they were not in my age. That age was one of cheap and arrogant pseudo-intellectual ideas, of prisms and science, of naive socialist faith in man’s perfectibility, of vulgar bowing before everything ugly and proletarian and, on the other hand, of the ravings of demagogues out to kick those who are down, and to destroy socialism, Christianity and humanity in the process. (p.50)

Grosz’s bitter misanthropy could hardly be more unlike the lofty spiritual ambitions of the Expressionist painters I’ve been reading about – Macke, Marc and Kandinsky – and he’s as withering about them as he is about the Impressionists or the more recent Fauves and Orphists. Kandinsky’s paintings he dismisses as ‘coloured foam and nacreous vapours’ (p.54).

Grosz knows himself and knows that he prefers ‘Protestant plainness’ to all the arty-farty spirituality in the world.

The First World War

Grosz describes himself getting to grips with Berlin in the early 1910s, with its astonishing nightlife, its great art galleries, theatres, its cabaret and bars. He had even begun to get paid work submitting caricatures and cartoons to the Berlin newspapers, and there’s an interesting little section on the development of German illustration art since the middle of the 19th century, giving names I’d never heard of (for example, Hermann Vogel-Plauen).

Coming from his poor, hard-headed and practical background, Grosz had no illusions about the importance of money.

Modern art is a kind of merchandise to be sold with shrewd publicity just like soap, towels and brushes. (p.85)

He liked selling his work and spending the proceeds on fine food and drink, especially drink – Berlin blonde ale and schnapps. He describes the low bars of Berlin and their colourful clientele, including a hilarious account of the first ‘jazz’ band in Berlin, a palm court trio at the Café Oranienburger Tor which simply acted berserk with no understanding of the new music whatsoever.

His career and social life were just beginning to pick up when – along came the First World War, which for Germany began on 1 August 1914 – and that was that.

As the geo-politicians stepped into the shoes of the humanists, the enlightened age that had begun with the Renaissance ground to a halt, and the age of the blind, ironclad ant, completely indifferent to the fate of individuals, the age of numbers without names and of robots without brains, came into being. (p.73)

Grosz volunteered, hoping this way to get away with a relatively short spell of service. The blurb on the back says the book includes an account of army life during the Great War but this isn’t really true. He bitterly conveys the impact of the war on him – with an especially angry depiction of life in a hospital ward full of disfigured soldiers half of whom have gone mad – but there’s none of the usual stuff in war memoirs about basic training, the officers or other men, and no description whatsoever of battle. Instead the war confirmed Grosz’s already low opinion of humanity.

For me war had none of the liberating effects it had on so many others, releasing their deep inhibitions and freeing them from the slavery of humdrum jobs. As long as men will continue to feel that way, they will never turn their backs on organised mass slaughter. (p.79)

Grosz was invalided out with sinusitis in 1915 and made his way back to Berlin where he began to make violently anti-war works, drawings and paintings attacking the social corruption of Germany (capitalists, prostitutes, the Prussian military caste, the middle class). The war is really the starting point for his brutally cynical view of human nature. In a famous passage from the book, he writes:

I drew men drunk, men vomiting, men with cursed fists cursing the moon, men playing cards on the coffins of the women they had murdered. I drew wine drinkers, beer drinkers, schnapps drinkers and a frantic man washing blood from his hands.

I drew lonely little men rushing insanely through empty streets. I drew a cross-section of a tenement building: behind one window a man belaboured his wife with a broom, behind another two people were making love, in a third a man was hanging from the cross-bars of the window, surrounded by buzzing flies.

I drew soldiers without noses; war-cripples with crab-like limbs of steel; two medical orderlies tying a violent infantryman up in a horse blanket; a one-armed soldier using his good hand to salute a heavily-bemedalled lady who had just passed him a biscuit; a colonel, his fly wide open, embracing a nurse; a hospital orderly emptying a bucket full of pieces of human flesh down a pit. I drew a skeleton dressed up as a recruit taking his medical. (p.80)

He is a people person. No fancy ideas – instead an endless parade of teeming, violently caricatured and repulsive humanity. Similarly the book isn’t very interested in big ideas or issues, whether the spiritualism of the Expressionists or whatever guff the war was being fought for.

His account is a steady succession of anecdotes about odd, interesting, sometimes hilarious people – for example Theodor Däublin, known as Fat Theo, the poet and author of some vast epic, but who is mainly described as an eater of epic proportions, the anecdote in question concerning the evening when Grosz’s wife set down a huge dish of spaghetti and a dish of bolognaise for a dinner party of eight people – only to watch Fat Theo pull both dishes towards him, and eat it all, laughing and talking all the time while the other diners watched him open-mouthed.

Berlin Dada 1917-20

There had never been anything like Dada before. It was the art (or the philosophy) of the dustbin. (p.104)

It was during this period that he got involved with the Berlin wing of Dadaism, from 1917 to 1920. Again, his account of Dada (chapter 9) tends to focus on people and attitude, giving next to no detail about the timeline or works involved.

In those days we were all ‘Dadaists’. If that word meant anything at all it meant seething discontent, dissatisfaction and cynicism. Defeat and political ferment always give rise to that sort of movement. In a different age we might easily have become flagellants. (p.103)

In much the same style as he had described schoolboy adventures or student pranks, he now describes how he, Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst and John Heartfield put on a cabaret which largely consisted of shouting filth and abuse at the audience. After all, they deserved it.

We ridiculed everything, for nothing was sacred, and we spat on everything, because that was what Dada was about. Dada was neither mysticism nor communism nor anarchism, all of which had some kind of programme or other. We were complete, pure nihilists, and our symbol was the vacuum, the void. (p.102)

If you look up Berlin Dada you come across all kind of scholarly articles pointing out how Schwitters invented a new form of collage, while Grosz and John Heartfield collaborated in the invention of photo-montage. None of that is mentioned here. Instead we have more stories – about Baader, the Dada-in-chief and author of the Dadacon, the greatest book of all time, which consisted of thousands of pages of cut-up newspaper articles. Grosz was the ‘Propagandada’, who came up with such catchy slogans as ‘Dada Dada über Alles’ which they had printed on small cards and littered all over Berlin. While Communists and Right-wing militias fought in the streets and inflation hit 1 million per cent, the Dadaists held a race between six typewriters and six sewing machines.

One of their rich backers (Grosz seems to have been lucky in his life with rich patrons) had a huge wine cellar, the barrels and racks arranged in rows which were so wide apart that the eccentric owner could ride a motorbike between them. Each of these passages was given a name, for example George Grosz Alley ran between the sherry caskets.

There is almost nothing about how they came up with the new forms of art or the political engagement of himself or his fellow Dadaists. Just lots of funny stories:

  • about the occultist Dr Stadelman who invited them all to witness a midnight apparition which, despite all his best efforts, fails to come off
  • the artist Ben Hecht who emigrated and went on to become Hollywood’s most successful scriptwriter
  • about the leader of the Saxony Communist Revolution, Max Hoelz, a big brash natural leader of men who dwindled into insignificance
  • about Bertolt Brecht’s love of fast cars
  • about ‘Manners Fox’, the collector of erotica
  • Joseph von Sternberg the film director who made Marlene Dietrich an international star
  • about the wealthy Dr Felix Weil who founded the Frankfurt Institute for Social research which went on to have a vast influence on the development of Western Marxism and cultural studies

And so on.

Berlin Dada ended around 1920 but the crisis in Berlin never really ended and Grosz continued painting his bitter paintings and drawing his satirical drawings, selling them to newspapers, to wealthy patrons, or binding them into themed collections like Ecce Homo, which were promptly banned and cost him a small fortune in fines. There is nothing, nothing at all in this account about the various court cases he was involved in because of Ecce Homo or Gott mit uns.

Sample works

There’s quite a lot more gossip and stories about his Berlin circle, before he finally reaches the rise of the Nazis in chapter 13. To quote Indiana Jones, ‘Nazis? I hate those guys.’ And so does Grosz. Readers up to this point have been made quite aware of Grosz’s very low opinion of human beings, especially when seen as a mass or crowd. Hitler catered to precisely the kind of mass hysteria Grosz loathed.

The masses were once again clamouring for blood, no doubt to seal their own subjection, albeit they put it in different words. The vicarious pleasures of fear, subservience, humiliation and bondage affected almost an entire nation at the dawn of the so-called new age. (p.175)

But it’s typical of the book that he barely mentions the Nazis or Hitler by name (the index – characteristically – is solely of names, of people, and gives Hitler precisely 10 mentions).

In fact, in a surprise move, the chapter which ought to cover the ‘rise of the Nazis’ is nothing of the sort: Grosz makes the unexpected (and slightly Dada?) decision to cover the entire topic by using a fairy tale or fable. It describes a freethinking artist named Schultze who goes to live in the idyllic countryside near the Baltic but finds himself increasingly intimidated by the local peasants and workers, as they fall under the spell of rabble-rousing right wingers. It’s actually quite a hypnotic little tale, which gives an atmospheric sense of an artists colony or village on the remote coast of Germany,and a claustrophobic sense of the somehow unstoppable rise of violence and thuggery.

Then again, why should he give dates or scholarly analysis – he’s not a historian. In fact, considering that he was one of the inventors of Berlin Dada, it’s maybe to be wondered that there are any facts or coherent narrative at all.

America the beautiful

The last 60 or so pages (pp.180-240) describe Grosz’s emigration to New York and his struggles to make a go of it in the new world.

It was pure fluke that he was invited to teach at a New York summer school in 1932 but being there was a dream come true for Grosz who, ever since he was a boy, had fantasised about America. He returned to Germany in the winter of 1932 just long enough to persuade his wife to accompany him back, leaving the country just weeks before the Nazis came to power. He was on their wanted list. He reports that a week or so after Hitler gained power (30 January 1933) the Gestapo came to ransack his flat and studio. Grosz would without a doubt have been arrested, at best beaten up, maybe sent to an early concentration camp, in all probability ended up dead.

These last chapters give a frank account of how difficult he found it to make a new life in America. He abandoned all his political pretensions and wanted to become a good honest American illustrator, drawing shiny new appliances or light-hearted jokes for up-market magazines, whatever would make money, but found it very difficult, both to adopt an American style, and to get any work from the fiercely competitive New York magazines, Vogue, Esquire, the New Yorker.

There’s a long anecdote about an over-excited trip to Hollywood where, like so many émigrés before and since, he dreams of making a fortune – but gets no work.

Various friends and contacts help him out (there are even more anecdotes about colourful individuals and late night carousing) but it’s only when he opens his own private art school that he finally hits pay dirt. New York is full of rich ladies who would simply love to learn to paint and are happy to pay nice Mr Grosz to help them.

In the closing sections Grosz goes out of his way to distance himself from his left-wing past. He now loves money. He loves the rich. They are so much more interesting than the poor. He focuses on individuals, the quirkier the better, like the rich old lady who attends his class with her chauffeur, who she gets to open each paint tube and squeeze the paint onto the palette she daintily holds in her white-gloved hand.

One day Salvador Dalí turns up at Grosz’s life model class and spends a few hours drawing the model’s foot. Grosz goes for lunch with him and the redoubtable Gala, two visionary artists who have escaped mad Europe to the land of freedom and fridges.

The final chapter turns into a roll call of the famous people he’s met: John dos Passos, Thomas Mann (who he had a notable argument with, Mann and his wife insisting the guttersnipe Hitler would only last six months, Grosz angrily saying they underestimated the stupidity of the Germans and that Hitler would be there ten years or more [12, as it turned out]), the urbane Surrealist patron and collector Edward James, Giorgio de Chirico notable for his big nose, and so on.

When I read this as a student I was disappointed at the complete absence of a) fierce Marxist analysis or in fact any social analysis to match the incandescent anger of his paintings b) any real insight into the motivation behind either Dada or the 1920s works.

Now, thirty years later, I read it as the candid story of an actual human being man, a real character with flaws and shortcomings as obvious as his gifts. Looking back he thinks of his firebrand youth as naive spouting. Looking back he sees Berlin Dada as a series of escapades and jokes. Looking back he sees mass madness in the rush to war and then the pointlessness of revolutionary rhetoric, underneath all of which lies a horrifying Will to Bully and Humiliate, no matter what cause it’s done for.

So instead of all that, looking back he prefers to record the positives: his fondness for individuals, for people who rose above the rabble and pack, and he records moments of comedy, candour and warmth which counter-balance the hateful times.

And lastly he pays fitting tribute to America, the one country that stood really free of the madness that drowned Europe, Russia and China in tsunamis of human blood, where the rich had chauffeurs and pet poodles, where writers drank and chatted late into the night, where you had to fight hard to find work but if you did, were well rewarded, and found yourself on the verandah of a holiday home in Cape Cod, smoking a cigar alongside John dos Passos, looking out over the moonlight on the shimmering sea.

After such a long strange trip you feel he has made his contribution to society, staked a place in art history, and earned his contentment. The final mood reminds me of a poem by another wartime exile to America, the English poet W.H. Auden, describing life ‘on the circuit’ of American universities, flying from one campus to the next to lecture and sign autographs.

Another morning comes: I see,
Dwindling below me on the plane,
The roofs of one more audience
I shall not see again.

God bless the lot of them, although
I don’t remember which was which:
God bless the U.S.A., so large,
So friendly, and so rich.


Related links

Kandinsky by Hajo Düchting (1993)

The German publisher Taschen launched its inexpensive ‘Basic Art’ series back in 1985 with a volume on Picasso. 33 years later, it has nearly 200 titles in the series and recently relaunched them as tall, slim hardbacks at a standard price of £10. Decades ago I picked up a clutch of titles about the Expressionist painters when they were in their cheaper, paperback incarnation.

This one, about the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, is 96 pages long. It has about 80 illustrations, mostly in full colour, which give you an excellent overview of Kandinsky’s development from late-Victorian figurative work, through the Expressionist years – which saw his accelerated movement into abstraction around 1910 – his 7-year spell back in Moscow, before he moved back to Germany to teaching at the famous Bauhaus school of art and design, before his final years in exile in Paris.

Colourful Life by Wassily Kandinsky (1907)

Colourful Life by Wassily Kandinsky (1907)

Kandinsky’s life in six chapters

The chapter titles give a good overview:

  • Mother Moscow 1866-1896
  • Kandinsky in Munich 1896-1911
  • Breakthrough to the abstract: Der Blaue Reiter 1911-1914
  • Russian Intermezzo 1914-1921
  • Point and Line to Plane: Kandinsky at the Bauhaus 1922-1933
  • Biomorphic abstraction: Kandinsky in Paris 1933-1944

The pioneer of abstract painting

A picture paints a thousand words, so here’s an overview of his evolving style:

Moscow

Born and educated in Moscow, Kandinsky’s parents divorced when he was young and he was brought up by his aunt who gave him a lifelong love of Russian legend and fairy tales. He studied law, and had a sideline in anthropology – in fact he was made a member of the Society for Anthropology and Ethnography for a study he made of rural peasant culture. But by the mid-1890s Kandinsky’s thinking had moved on. He had decided he wanted to be an artist. Recently married, in 1896 he persuaded his new wife that he was going to abandon his law studies and that they should move to Munich.

Munich

Munich had already experienced a ‘secession’ of progressive young artists from the official art school in 1892 and, as Kandinsky arrived, was just becoming the German centre of Art Nouveau (in Germany dubbed the Jugendstil) which advocated the rejection of Victorian mass-produced clutter, and a return to clarity of line and design.

Kandinsky applied to various art schools, took life and painting classes but he also proved to be a good organiser. In 1901 he was instrumental in setting up the ‘Phalanx’ group of painters and organising a series of exhibitions. For the next 14 years he was a leading light in a whole succession of movements and organisations in southern Germany.

In 1908 Kandinsky settled in the small Bavarian town of Murnau, where he lived and worked with his second wife-to-be, the painter Gabriele Münter. He joined the Theosophical Society, a promoter of arcane spiritual knowledge. We know from his letters that he was studying the abstruse teachings of the 13th century writer, Joachim of Fiore. In other words, Kandinsky was soaked in arcane and hermetic spiritualist teachings, convinced that the world stood on the brink of a new era and that his painting would help to usher it in.

In 1909 he began to divide his works into three categories:

  • Impressions which still have elements of naturalistic representation
  • Improvisations designed to convey spontaneous emotional reactions
  • Compositions the most serious category, only created after substantial preliminary work

Note how all three names are taken from the language of music, indicative of the era’s interest in ‘synaesthesia’, in the combination of music and art which had been fashionable since Whistler’s ‘nocturnes’ and ‘compositions’ of the 1870s.

The Blue Rider

In 1911 Kandinsky formed the Blue Rider group, which he led with Franz Marc. Both men wrote extensively on the importance of the ‘spiritual’ in the new art, indeed that’s the title of Kandinsky’s major theoretical work, On the Spiritual in Art (1913).

Together he and Marc compiled the ‘Blue Rider almanac’, designed to include a wealth of illustrations, not only of contemporary art but primitive, folk, and children’s art, with pieces from the South Pacific and Africa, Japanese drawings, medieval German woodcuts and sculpture, Egyptian puppets, Russian folk art, and Bavarian religious art painted on glass. It included nine major essays, not only about art but on contemporary music and included the scores of pieces by the new group of ‘Second Vienna’ composers, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.

In both the selection of essays and its innovative interplay of word and image, The Blaue Reiter Almanac remains one of our most critically important works of literature on the art theory and culture of the twentieth century.

The almanac was a call for spiritual renewal across all the arts, which would unite, in particular, music and painting, an idea which remained an inspiration for Kandinsky all his life.

Very quickly he now moved through increasingly abstract depictions of the subject to his first utterly abstract work, painted in 1910 (when he was 50 years old). Kandinsky spent the next four years experimenting with the new idea of ‘subjectless’ painting and was still exploring this new approach when war broke out in 1914 and he was forced to flee Germany to Switzerland. In 1915 he moved back to Mother Russia.

Back in Moscow

Düchting explains how Kandinsky the organiser and networker had also developed quite a career as an art journalist and critic. He had been working for Russian art journals throughout the 1900s, reporting on developments in Germany’s avant-garde. Through his contacts with Russian art journals he had been associated with successive post-Symbolist art movements in Russia such as ‘the World of Art’, ‘the Blue Rose’ and the ‘Karo Bube’ groups – so Kandinsky had plenty of contacts to look up when he reappeared in Moscow in 1915.

But he was to be disappointed. Kandinsky found his extreme spiritual attitudes and wispy abstraction out of tune with the times. The 1912 Futurist manifesto, ‘A slap in the fact to public taste’, had been popular with the new generation of iconoclasts in Russia. Constructivism had been founded in 1913, Suprematism in 1915 – and both were fiercely anti-spiritual, interested in very hard edges and geometric abstraction.

The coming young artists were Rodchenko, Malevich and El Lissitzky, artists who were to flourish in the extreme avant-garde environment created by the Bolshevik revolution, a world away from the nature worship and spiritual ideals of his colleagues in Germany.

Nonetheless, Moscow was a big city, with many artistic strands, and so Kandinsky found employment. He helped to organise a series of exhibitions, found teaching and journalism work – but felt unwanted. He managed to navigate the chaos of the early years of the Russian Revolution. He even found work in the early versions of a State Cultural Institute. It wasn’t Soviet pressure that led him to feel increasingly alienated as the 1920s dawned – it was the opposition of the leading figures in new Russian art. The times were changing.

The Bauhaus 1922-33

In 1921 he returned to Germany – wise move as it turned out. His key compadres in the Blue Rider (Marc, Macke) had been killed in the war and Berlin was now dominated by the bitterly satirical mode soon to be named ‘the Neue Sachlichkeit (‘New Objectivity’).

So Kandinsky was relieved to be invited to join the new Bauhaus school of art and design in Weimar, where some of his former colleagues – Paul Klee and Lyonel Feininger – were already working. It looked to be a more congenial environment.

Kandinsky began teaching at the Bauhaus in 1922. He taught students in the new Introductory Course where he could involve them in his ongoing investigations of pictorial elements. A few years later he published a summary of his discoveries in ‘Point and Line to Plane’ (1926).

Kandinsky’s teaching was highly schematic, with courses on the meaning and nature of the different colours, their relative positions on colour wheels, their warmth or coldness etc – as well as technical teaching about the effectiveness of different binding media for painting canvas, glass, walls and murals. Paralleling these were lessons on lines, curves, circles and other shapes, exploring their effect on the eye and mind.

(It all sounds technical and impressive, but it’s important to emphasise that all these teachings, thorough and systematic though they were, were essentially subjective, based on his own knowledge of colour and line. If you’re looking for a truly scientific understanding of the impact of colour and line, you have to look elsewhere.)

In 1923 the Bauhaus underwent a reorganisation, with the departure of Johannes Itten, a precursor of the hippies, who valued intuition, held meditation and controlled breathing classes, and was a follower of the obscure fire-breathing cult of Mazdaznan – and his replacement with the Hungarian polymath, committed communist and devotee of industrial design and functionalism, László Moholy-Nagy.

Under the influence of the Bauhaus new emphasis on unifying the arts in the practical cause of building affordable houses for the masses, Kandinsky’s art entered a new, ‘cool’ phase, exploring the interplay of much more clearly defined, geometric shapes.

The Bauhaus went through a number of iterations, the original Weimar incarnation closing in 1925 and moving to purpose-built buildings at Dessau. By the end of the 1930s the leadership and some of the students were becoming politicised by the deteriorating situation in Germany. Hannes Meyer, director from 1928 to 1930, was a communist and encouraged students to criticise Klee and Kandinsky’s ‘ivory tower painting’.

It’s worth stopping and pondering the enormous social and cultural changes Kandinsky had seen since he arrived in Germany in 1901.

The Bauhaus was harassed by the Nazis before they even came to power and once Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933 the intimidation intensified. Its final director, the architect Mies van der Rohe declared it officially closed in August 1933. By that time many of the faculty had left the country. Once more Kandinsky had to flee, this time heading west to France.

Paris 1933-1944

Kandinsky’s output from this last decade in Paris is characterised by wonderfully light, even humorous, zoomorphic and biomorphic abstractions. They often look like a fantasy of bacteria seen under a microscope.

He was, as always, involved in the politics of the art world, finding himself rejected by the dominant school of Constructivist artists as well as remaining traditionalists. Believe it or not, he flirted with the Surrealists and met their leader, André Breton who in the 1920s bought some paintings off him. But by the mid-1930s Breton had hardened his approach, politically and aesthetically: for the Surrealists the unconscious was everything, but Kandinsky’s post-war output had been the opposite – extremely carefully planned and organised using his elaborate theories about colour and shape – the opposite of ‘automatic painting’.

Most interesting to me is that, although they all came from different roots, and from different countries, Kandinsky’s art ranks alongside that of Klee, Miro and Arp in a generation which fully established abstract art as a profound and varied visual universe. It’s an odd social phenomenon, the convergence of so many artists on such a similar approach.

And with regard to Kandinsky in particular, it is lovely to finish the book and discover that, even as the world situation deteriorated through the later 1930s, and even as a new World War broke out, he continued to produce work of unparalleled calm, clarity and beauty.

What a colourful journey! What a wonderful life!

Around the Circle by Wassily Kandinsky (1940)

Around the Circle by Wassily Kandinsky (1940)


Related links

Related exhibition reviews

Related book reviews

Surrealism by Cathrin Klingsöhr-Leroy (2004)

SURREALISM. Noun: Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, or otherwise, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral considerations. (First Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924)

One of German publisher Taschen’s ‘Basic Art’ movement series, this 95-page, mid-size art book starts with a handy ten-page introduction, complete with funky timeline of historical events (e.g. 1913 – world’s first domestic refrigerator sold in Chicago!).

The main body of the text consists of 34 double-page spreads, each one displaying a major Surrealist painting on the right, and a page of commentary about the artist – with their biography, photo and interpretation of the work – on the left-hand page.

The artists are presented alphabetically, not chronologically, so the commentary on them and their pictures jumps about a bit in time and space, in a pleasantly random, surreal kind of way. They are:

  • Hans Arp (1 painting)
  • Hans Bellmer (1)
  • Brassaï (1 photo)
  • Giorgio de Chirico (2)
  • Salvador Dalí (5)
  • Paul Delvaux (1)
  • Max Ernst (4)
  • Alberto Giacometti (1)
  • Paul Klee (1)
  • Wifredo Lam (1)
  • René Magritte (4)
  • André Masson (1)
  • Matta (1)
  • Joan Miró (3)
  • Meret Oppenheim (1)
  • Pablo Picasso (4)
  • Man Ray (1 photograph)
  • Yves Tanguy (2 paintings)

From which Dalí emerges as the single biggest contributor to the Surrealist ‘look’.

Like other books on the subject, the excellent introduction has problems defining precisely what Surrealism was, because its definitions, ideas and embodiments changed and evolved over the key years between the First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 and the outbreak of war in 1939.

From this account I took that Surrealism is ‘a philosophical and artistic approach which vehemently rejects the notion of the Rational Mind and all its works’. For Surrealists, the True Mind, true human nature – ‘the true function of thought’ – is profoundly irrational.

The Surrealists thought the Rational Mind formed the basis of ‘bourgeois’ society, with its moral and sexual repressiveness, its worship of work and money, its fetishisation of capitalist greed which had led both to the stifling conformity of Western society and to a series of petty wars over colonies which had led up to the unprecedented calamity of the First World War.

In their opinion, this entire mindset had proved to be a ghastly mistake. The Surrealists thought we had to reject it lock stock and barrel by returning to the pure roots of human nature in the fundamentally irrational nature of the human mind, liberating thought from all censorship and superficial, petty morality, seeking to capture ‘the true function of thought’ and creativity through the exploration of the fortuitous and the uncontrolled, the random and the unexpected, through dreams and coincidences.

The first Surrealist magazine was titled La Révolution surréaliste (1924 to 1929) not because it espoused a communist political line, but because it thought that Surrealist writing and art would, by its very nature, reveal to readers and viewers the true nature of unbounded thought and lead to a great social transformation.

Strategies of Surrealist writers

The writers who initiated the movement (André Breton, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, Paul Eluard, Robert Desnos) tried to get at and reveal ‘the true function of thought’ using a number of strategies.

Free association In 1919 Breton and Soupault spent days taking it in turns to free associate words and sentences, while the other scribbled down the results – producing monologues ‘without any intervention on the part of the critical faculties, a monologue unencumbered by the slightest inhibition’. The results were published in 1920 in a work of ‘fiction’, The Magnetic Fields, the first Surrealist text.

Automatic writing Later, in the mid-1920s, they experimented with the ability to go into a sort of trance or half-asleep state and then write the mind’s thoughts, similarly ‘unencumbered by inhibition’. The poet Robert Desnos turned out to be the best at this – he could put himself into a trance-like, sleep-like state but nonetheless write reams of text – to everyone’s amazement. There are photos of him doing it.

Transcribing the mad Breton was a trainee doctor and towards the end of the war worked with shell shocked soldiers, some of whom had gone completely mad. With this experience and training, it’s odd that he didn’t pursue the ravings of the mad in greater detail during the 1920s. Even Freud was forced to amend his theories in light of the universal incidence of shell shock, post traumatic stress disorder and so on among Great War soldiers. So it’s genuinely surprising that there isn’t more about war and madness in Surrealism (certainly as I’ve come across it). Compare and contrast with the war art of the Germans Otto Dix or George Grosz.

Paranoiac-critical method It was left to Salvador Dalí, who only joined the movement in the late 1920s, to undertake a (sort of) exploration of madness. Dalí exploited his own florid psychological issues – hysteria, panic attacks, delusions – into a system he grandly titled the ‘Paranoiac-critical method’. It was never exactly clear what he meant by this, but one definition he gave defined it as a ‘spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena.’

In practice this meant cultivating a state of mind in which he was open to the multiple meanings of objects, receptive to visual puns, where one object turns into another object which turns into another object, presenting a kind of vertigo of endless transmutations.

Maybe the most famous example is the image of melting clocks. This came to him at the end of a dinner as he sat watching the cheese board and some super-ripe camembert cheeses drooping and oozing over the edge of the plate. In a flash he saw clock faces, melting clock faces, in the round cheeses, and rushed home to paint them. (At least, that’s the story he tells in his often unreliable memoirs.)

(I hadn’t realised till I read this book that the slug-like thing on the floor of this famous painting is a self-portrait. If you rotate the image through 45 degrees you can see Dalí’s big nose pointing to the left and that the fringe of hairs are the eyelashes of his closed eye. This ‘self-portrait as a slug’ appears in a number of early paintings – look out for the eyelashes.)

Strategies of Surrealist painters

We know that the artists who joined the group at first struggled to compete with the ‘pure’ automatism of  their writer colleagues. After all the ability to free associate words and text is a pretty cheap and easy technique, difficult to replicate with oil paints and palettes and brushes.

Automatic drawing Early member André Masson simply free-associated his drawings, letting his pen wander over the surface of paper or canvas, drawing inconsequential lines, dots and squiggles. Many of these were saved and recorded but it’s hard to get too excited by them.

Interesting up to a point but you can see how after a certain number of these, you might get bored. Is this all the Unconscious had to say?

Collage Max Ernst was a member of the Cologne Dada group when he discovered the hallucinatory power of cutting up graphic elements from newspapers, magazines, adverts and so on and sticking them together in strange combinations.

A week of kindness by Max Ernst (1934)

Illustration from A week of kindness by Max Ernst (1934)

More than letting the pen or brush wander at random, it is this idea of the bizarre yoking together of elements from different spheres, realms or discourses, the notion of strange and unexpected combinations, which lies at the heart of Surrealist art. (The art of jarring juxtapositions is a technique Dalí would bring to a kind of cartoon, fluent perfection in Surrealist objects like the famous lobster telephone (1936)).

Max Ernst emerges as the most prolific innovator among Surrealist artists: he went on to develop a number of other techniques designed either to remove the artist from the process of creation, or to fully incorporate elements of chance and randomness – both with the aim of getting at ‘the true function of thought’:

  • frottage – The technique of taking a rubbing from an uneven surface to form the basis of a work of art. In frottage, the artist takes a pastel or pencil or other drawing tool and makes a rubbing over an uneven surface. The drawing can be left as it is or used as the basis for further refinement.
  • grattage – Laying a canvas prepared with a layer of oil paint over a textured object and then scraping the paint off to create an interesting and unexpected surface.
  • decalcomania – Applying paint to paper then folding it, applying pressure, and unfolding the paper to reveal a mirror pattern, then turning the resulting patterns into landscapes and mythical creatures. A kind of Rorshach diagram, with elaborations.

Biomorphic shapes Much Surrealist art uses existing objects and motifs from the real world, albeit placed in unexpected combinations, but there developed a whole sub-set of Surrealist art which explored shapes and patterns for their own sake, creating a whole new visual vocabulary of the strange and uncanny. Klingsöhr-Leroy says this type of exploration distinguishes the first wave of Surrealist painters – Masson, Miró, Arp and Tanguy.

Azure Day by Yves Tanguy (1937)

Azure Day by Yves Tanguy (1937)

Dreamlike serenity Although the writers often invoked ‘revolution’, ‘overthrow’ and ‘violence’, there is a whole strand of Surrealist art which is the exact opposite, creating a dreamlike sense of stasis. Think of the mysterious empty cityscapes of de Chirico, the somnambulistic people in Paul Delvaux or the apparently relaxed way the figures in Magritte paintings blankly accept the oddest apparitions.

Klingsöhr-Leroy Cathrin says dream paintings are more characteristic of the painters who joined the movement later on, like Magritte and Dalí. And contrary to all Surrealism’s revolutionary rhetoric, many of these works were, by the time I was growing up in the 1970s if not before, best-selling posters, calm and bright and pretty on the walls of the hated ‘bourgeoisie’.

The ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto’ of 1929 was a lot fiercer in tone. I’ve read various reasons for this, including Breton’s growing involvement with Communism or his own personal life being in disarray. It notoriously accompanied the expulsion of a number of writers from the movement, angrily denouncing them for abandoning the cause.

But, on the positive side, it also expanded the movement’s terms of reference by namechecking medieval alchemists, drawing a parallel between their arcane quests for knowledge and the Surrealist investigations. And it introduced a distinct new idea, that of exploring ‘the Surreal object’ – using art or writing to reveal ‘the remarkable symbolic life of quite ordinary, mundane objects’.

Hence Magritte’s apples. What could be more normal? Or, in the way he deploys them, more disturbing?

The Son of Man by Rene Magritte (1946)

The Son of Man by Rene Magritte (1946)

Naked women Coming from the generation born around 1900, all these men had been brought up in a traditional Roman Catholic society which was staggeringly repressive about sex.

When they looked for the aspect of ‘bourgeois’ society which would be easiest to provoke, or when they delved into themselves to try and identify their deepest unconscious urges, or when they read any of Freud’s numerous writings about the Unconscious – everywhere they looked, the Surrealists tended to find sex sex sex.

Hence, the most tiresome element of Surrealism, which is the endless images of naked women. I thought sex-mad Dalí would be the most guilty party, until I came across a trove of beautifully executed nudes by Magritte.

For all of them the female body, depicted realistically, or chopped up, or morphing into abstract shapes, was a constant source of inspiration. Should it be? If feminists had their way, would male artists be allowed to charge the female body with all kinds of ‘profound’ meanings, as the repository of ‘fertility’, ‘sensuality’, ‘sexuality’, ‘mystery’, ‘consolation’, ‘depravity’ – all the hackneyed attributes of the famous madonna-whore complex, plus many more?

It’s partly the tedium of looking at yet another pair of bare boobs which draws me to more abstract artists like Paul Klee. He had a vast amount of beautiful, strange ideas to express, and not a bosom in sight.

Primitivism In a way it’s surprising that there isn’t more evidence of ‘primitivism’ in Surrealist art i.e. the use of images and motifs from the supposedly more ‘primitive’ cultures of Africa or Oceania. According to Sue Roe’s book In Montmartre, there’s some debate about who introduced it, but the taste for African and Oceanic fetishes and statues appears to have appeared around 1905.

So by 1925 it was a very well established genre, with most artists having ‘primitive’ masks scattered about among the other bric-a-brac in their studios. But looking at some of the images in this book the main conclusion is that the cult of weird faces and masks had become so diverse that, by the 1930s and 40s, it is difficult to tell where ‘primitivism’ ended and a kind of science fiction weirdness began (the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, was published in 1926).

The Surrealist Revolution?

How tiresome modern artists and modern art experts are with their persistence in thinking that modern art ‘undermines’ or ‘subverts’ ‘bourgeois’ values.

It’s hard for us, nowadays, to recreate just what the ‘bourgeoisie’ ever meant. The word derives from mid-19th century France. Are we to think of the narrow-minded townsfolk in novels by Flaubert or Zola? Men who shave, dress ‘correctly’, have sensible jobs as doctors and lawyers and bankers?

Looking at all the photos of Surrealist artists in this book, one of the main visual impressions is how very smart and shaved and formal they themselves look, often in a nice suit, with white shirt and dark tie. Living in 2018 London packed with stubbly dudes with nose piercings carrying huge backpacks, it’s difficult to imagine these ancient respectable looking men ever subverting anything.

It’s very hard to recapture ‘the shock of the new’ so long afterwards. The 1930s when Surrealist artworks began to be widely exhibited, were 20 years after Cubism had ‘shocked the world’, getting on for 30 years since the Fauves scandalised Paris, 40 years since Symbolist and decadent art upset newspaper columnists. Way back in the 1860s Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe ‘scandalised’ Paris.

You have to wonder who these people are, who keep on being scandalised by modern art. Hadn’t they read about the previous scandal? And the one before that? And the one before that?

Klingsöhr-Leroy tells an anecdote about when the Surrealist gang broke up a literary banquet being held in honour of the rather conventional poet Saint-Pol-Roux at the Closerie des Lilas bar on 2 July 1925. Tables were overturned, crockery broken, the gang chanted ‘anti-bourgeois’ slogans, blows were exchanged. She goes on to comment:

The incident is characteristic of the Surrealists’ anarchic and anti-bourgeois attitudes. Their actions were an attack on the established bourgeois order, designed to undermine all that was generally accepted and revered by respectable society. (p.17)

Really? A punch-up in a café? Undermining the whole of bourgeois society? I don’t think so, and the fact that, 80 years later, Klingsöhr-Leroy thinks this, undermines your confidence in her sense of history or perspective. Choosing a punch-up in a bar as an outstanding example of their ‘anarchic and anti-bourgeois’ values somehow reduces the whole movement to a set of schoolboy pranks.

In fact the the Surrealists’ ‘anarchic’ and ‘anti-bourgeois’ behaviour and attitude sound like basic, standard undergraduate high jinks to me, precisely the kind of ‘wild’ behaviour that is expected of upper or upper-middle-class ‘rebels’ and bohemians, wild and crazee artists (all men, of course) who, in the final analysis, depend on money and connections (or in the Surrealists’ case) on rich patrons and rich buyers, to bail them out.

The connection between money and art was one of the messages of Sue Roe’s gossipy book about Picasso and Matisse, In Monmartre, set in the 1900s and explaining how the competition between the two Great Men of Modern Art was not only to find new artistic avenues of expression but, just as importantly, to curry favour with rich collectors and influential dealers. By 1910 both Picasso and Matisse had good working relationships with both and began to flourish.

In her book, Surreal Lives, Ruth Brandon writes a simple and devastating sentence which ought to be inscribed at the entrance to every modern art gallery in the world and tattooed on the forehead of every modern art scholar and curator.

Art is a luxury product, and artists rely for their living on rich patrons. (p.326)

I’ve known about Luis Buñuel’s ‘subversive’ early films Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or for forty years or more, but it was only when I read Brandon’s book that I learned about the key role played in funding them by the wealthy French aristocrat Arthur Anne Marie Charles, Vicomte de Noailles. According to Wikipedia:

Charles financed Man Ray’s film Les Mystères du Château de Dé (1929), which centers around Villa Noailles in Hyères. He also financed Jean Cocteau’s film Le Sang d’un Poète (1930) and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalì’s L’Âge d’Or (1930). In 1930 Charles made possible the career of Dalí by purchasing in advance a large work for 29,000 francs, thus enabling Dalí and Gala to return from Paris to Port Lligat and devote themselves to his art.

The take-home from these books is that art – no matter how ostensibly ‘revolutionary’ and ‘subversive’ – depends on rich patrons to make it possible. Radical art may upset conservative newspapers and, through them, the great philistine middle classes. But it doesn’t ‘subvert society’; the opposite: it is the plaything of the rich.

There is more ‘radical’ art about than ever before in the history of the world, and yet finance capitalism has never been more entrenched and powerful.

Because their art revelled in images of sex and death, because they behaved like spoilt schoolboys, because they were sponsored by aristocrats, and because they had absolutely no understanding of the fatal consequences of revolutionary politics, it is difficult to disagree with the Soviet Commissar who pointed out that Surrealism itself represented ‘the ultimate degeneration of the French bourgeoisie’ i.e. the complete opposite of the values Breton claimed for it.

 

In any case, the Surrealists soon recognised the essentially luxury nature of their output. Just six years later, in 1933, the group launched a new, glossy Surrealist magazine, Minotaur. It was limited to 3,000 copies, intended for connoisseurs and collectors only and, as the Hungarian photographer Brassaï put it, was priced far

beyond the reach of proletarian purses and could only serve a milieu of rich, titled snobs, the first patrons and collectors of Surrealist works. (quoted page 23)

‘Rich, titled snobs, the first patrons and collectors of Surrealist works.’ Precisely. Dalí grasped this from the start and went to America to become rich – which is why the others came to loathe him. Like Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst in later generations, he realised that the best art is business. In fact art is a form of business, it’s just another specialist provider of luxury objects to the rich.

The artistic legacy

Surrealist art didn’t overthrow anything, but its explorations and experiments opened the way for an entirely new visual language to be created, for loads of individual masterpieces, styles and looks to be developed, which filtered through into all aspects of design, fashion, advertising, film and TV.

It became an imaginative climate where we still, to a large extent, live, strangely appropriate for the increasingly disjointed and technology-driven lives of the 20th century Western world.

Having read so much about the earnestness and seriousness with which Breton set up his Institute of Surrealist Research, with which he and colleagues carried out their automatic writing and painting and so on – I wonder if the movement made any lasting scientific discoveries. Are psychologists, linguists or experts in perception and cognition aware of any lasting scientific facts which came out of this explosion of ideas and researches into the unconscious workings of the mind, about language and images and the unconscious?

Or was it all an enormous, delightful, argumentative and hugely influential but, in scientific terms, inconsequential game?


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Related reviews

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.


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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

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

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.


Related links

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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