Unreal Nature

July 18, 2017

With Irony or Longing

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… the muse of art history is as weighty a presence as the facts of nature.

This is from ‘A Postscript: Some Recent Neo-Romantic Mutations’ found in On Modern American Art: Selected Essays by Robert Rosenblum (1999):

No one, I am certain, will ever define Romanticism clearly, but then, no one will ever be able to drive a stake through the heart of the word that, for want of a better one, we cannot refrain from using when we try to describe the protean range of new forms and feelings that emerge in the late eighteenth century. Considering that it may be called into service for both West and David, Goya and Blake, Friedrich and Delacroix, Canova and Rude, logicians could surely tell us that Romanticism means either much too much or nothing at all.

[line break added] Nevertheless, most of us in the business of history know that something shattering happened in the late eighteenth century — T.E. Hulme called it “split religion” — and that ever since, the shock waves have been registering with varying intensities on the Richter scales of art. The word, of course, is so slippery that it can accommodate even the most ostensibly anti-Romantic aspects of the modern movement, embracing every contradiction.

[line break added] What could be more Romantic than Mondrian’s or Malevich’s dream of purging painting of everything but a distilled abstract purity, as untainted by the seen, material world as, say, Flaxman’s Homeric outlines? What could be more Romantic than the realization in 1927 of a harmonious community of low-budget houses in Stuttgart, a vision of social and aesthetic utopia in which geniuses as individual as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe joined forces in a brotherhood of reformatory purpose and style whose pedigree could be tracked back to the likes of the Nazarenes or the Pre-Raphaelites?

[line break added] What could be more Romantic than Picasso’s or Matisse’s espousal of African art in an effort to reach under and beyond those moribund Western traditions that Romantic artists as different as Ingres and Blake had already hoped to undermine in a search for more vital and therefore more archaic sources of art? If we choose, the semantic fire of the infinitely molten concepts evoked by Romanticism can ignite speculation about any art of the last two centuries.

[line break added] Nevertheless, the nostalgic revivalist mode of the last few decades, best characterized by a word — postmodernism — as ungraspable as Romanticism itself, but at least restricted in time to the later twentieth century (until perhaps we start using it retroactively to characterize, say, the “proto-postmodernism” of Reynolds’s appropriations or Nash’s witty architectural eclecticism), has turned up a diverse spectrum of art that, instead of looking forward to the Brave New Worlds promised by modernism and worshiped at the shrine of progress, appears to resurrect with irony or longing (or a mixture of the two) a wide range of Romantic imagery and attitudes.

… Earthworks are surely the most spectacular and Romantically heroic efforts to establish some mystical contact between artists and the great universe of earth and heaven out there. As pilgrims to the sublime, breaking free from the confines of museums and galleries, these new voyagers have gone, often literally, to the ends of this earth in order to make a human mark so that we, and perhaps future extraterrestrials, will know that the impulses that produced Stonehenge and the great pyramids are still, against all odds, alive.

… The high seriousness of these artists, their total willingness to sacrifice earthly and urban pleasures in order to worship nature connects them to older Romantic traditions still filled with faith in the healing powers of art as virtually a substitute religion. But more familiar, especially in the restricted conventions of painting and drawing, is a sense of quiet retrospection about a lost world not only of real landscape but of its poetic equivalent in Romantic landscape painting.

… In most of these paintings the muse of art history is as weighty a presence as the facts of nature. Indeed, this kind of historicism permeates as broad a range of contemporary art as it did in the early nineteenth century and represents an about-face from the modern movements frequently willful rejection of the historical past as irrelevant to a new art for a new epoch of civilization.

[line break added] But now, for artists as well as for the rest of us, the past even includes the achievements of the heroic days of early-twentieth-century art, which may seem as remote from the younger generation as Greek or Gothic art was for the original Romantics. In the 1980s and 1990s, anything, from a Doric temple to a canvas by Clyfford Still or Bridgit Riley, exudes the seductive aura of past history.

It is fitting that the Neoclassic mode of the late eighteenth century, itself impregnated with longing, both melancholic and rebellious, for an irretrievable golden age, should once more be revived …

My most recent previous post from Rosenblum’s book is here.

-Julie

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