Unreal Nature

August 10, 2015


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

… an invention made for one purpose can be adapted to do something sharply different.

Continuing through A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern by Kirk Varnedoe (1989):

… Modern painting seems to say no to a lot of things, and the first of these is space — the kind of pictorial space, with the illusion of recession into depth, that had been a prime aspect of pictures for centuries before. [ … ] By this account, what pioneers like Matisse initiated was a series of narrowing refinements that eventually led artists to distill the essence of being pictorial, in the absolute particulars of color and shape on a plane. This vision of modern art’s destiny is what art history students used to call “the Road to Flatness.”

There is a great deal of complex, sophisticated historical thinking behind this idea, but finally it does not yield a very expansive or satisfying vision. If the One Great Scorer eventually comes to write against this civilization, and sees that classical antiquity gave us the Parthenon, and the Middle Ages Chartres, and that the Renaissance left behind the Sistine ceiling, will it be said that the century that split the atom and put a man on the moon left us a series of odes to the inviolate integrity of the picture plane? If we accept that the thing which has most distinguished the visual arts of this century is a series of systematic exclusions and reductions, of ever firmer refusals to participate in a broader communication with the life of the world, then we have accepted something damning.

There must be a better way to think about this, from the beginning.

[ … ]

Edgar Degas, Place de la Concorde (Vicomte Lepic and his Daughters), 1875

… It is not remarkable that Lepic is cropped at the knees. A zillion portraits before this had been cropped at the knees: we always see people up close in portraits. What’s odd about Lepic is that he is striding past without looking at us, so that we have a portrait’s intimacy with a narrative, genre aspect added to it. And what’s even odder is that it is set in the middle of a cityscape. The cityscape is not so odd. The portrait is not so odd. The genre scene is not so odd.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] What is new and crucial is a portrait-cityscape-genre scene, which is the form of something unknown: a new sense of the engagement of a private personality with a public space, a new idea of how one might define a singular personal identity in modern Paris, a new sense of the interaction between intimate things, like inner life and family, and a wider sphere of contingencies. That conceptual montage, that violation of the margins of conventionally defined genres, was the crucial breakthrough. Once he [Degas] decided to undertake those splices, all the devices, all the elements, all the parts lay to hand.

… I do not mean to say that the formally innovative art we find in the generation of Gauguin or Munch or Seurat is essentially just Realism in a new costume, and that it can be read as a description of the world in the same fashion. Just the opposite. I read these relationships — Degas/Gauguin and Caillebotte/Munch — as showing how an invention made for one purpose can be adapted to do something sharply different. It is the powerful differences in the outlook, approach, and intentions of such disparate artists that help release the complex potentials, the multiple artistic lives, resident in previously ignored or suppressed uses of perspective.

[line break added] Taken all together, these diverse instances suggest that the late nineteenth century, far from witnessing the death of perspective, saw a richness of perspectival experiment unprecedented since the early Renaissance — a ferment in which virtually every option, from archaic to mannerist, with many previously untapped variants in between, had a new chance at life.

… This is not a history that starts with the exhaustion of tradition and ends up with the impoverishment of art. It has more to do with the revivification of traditions and the expansion of art. Nor is it a story just about closing a window on to nature, but one about opening up a set of human potentials. It does not rest on the idea of refinement toward an absolute perfection, narrowing down until we arrive at a hermetic nut that no one can crack, in the stoic disillusionment of the self-declaring picture plane. It is a history that has more to do with alchemy — making new elements out of base matter, and giving new life to things that seemed inert.

… The self-conscious manipulation of our inherited conventions brings us to live in an irreversibly expanded world, with an altered understanding of it, and us in it.

My previous post from Varnedoe’s book is here.




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