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    The Roots of Modern Art, Part 1: Introduction

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    • 06/01/2006

    By /index.php?/user/8-davidm/">David Misialowski (2006)

    In 1880 Vincent Van Gogh, 27 years old, decided to become an artist. It was a strange decision, because by that age most people either already are artists, or never will be.

    But Van Gogh needed something to do. He had failed at everything else he had tried, most recently the occupation of preacher. His superiors had discharged him, not because they found him insufficiently pious but too zealous in spreading the Good News. Among other things, he had given away all his possessions. No one could figure out where he had got this crazy idea.

    Because Van Gogh started drawing and painting so late in life, and because he had no money, he didn't have the luxury of attending a hoity-toity art school to learn the correct way to draw. He was almost entirely self-taught, though he did have a few unfortunate brushes with formal instruction. One such was under his cousin by marriage, Anton Mauve, for whom the color is named. Mauve, recognizing the clumsiness of Vincent's early attempts at rendering the human figure, encouraged him to draw and paint from plaster casts. But Vincent didn't want to paint from plaster. He wanted to paint from flesh. When Mauve insisted on the point, it is said, Vincent snatched up the casts and dashed them against a wall, breaking them to pieces. Shortly thereafter, his tutelage under Mauve ended.

    A few years later, though, after a long stretch painting what he would later call "brown gravy pictures" in Holland, a period that culminated with his ungainly masterwork The Potato Eaters, a painting that everyone hated, Van Gogh decided he needed to work harder to master the human form. Before moving to Paris to live with his brother Theo, who financially supported him, he enrolled at an academy in Antwerp at which students were taught the correct way to draw. Here, Van Gogh worked from live models and from the plaster casts that he had formerly disdained. The students were required as if they were human Xerox machines to slavishly reproduce what was put in front of them, presumably because such machines had not yet been invented. A tyrant presided over the drawing sessions, slashing to ribbons with a pencil those drawings that deviated in the slightest from the canons of academic classicism. The tyrant terrified the students, and in his presence, as he slashed up their drawings to "correct" them, the artists were reduced to quivering blobs of insensate protoplasm.

    Inevitably, one night the tyrant met Vincent Van Gogh.

    The story goes that Van Gogh was drawing from a plaster cast, but he was not paying the slightest attention to getting the drawing "right." Instead, he was vigorously, even grotesquely, exaggerating the midsection of the cast, which was of a female nude. The tyrant hovered over him for a few moments, and then leaned forward and began slashing up Vincent's drawing to make it "right." People held their breath, waiting for Vincent to be reduced to a blob of insensate protoplasm in the lordly presence of the estimable master.

    Instead, Van Gogh leapt to his feet and bellowed, "You idiot! Don't you know anything about women? A woman must have hips, and a pelvis, in order to carry a child!"

    It is said that the tyrant who had terrified generations of art students ran, terrified, from the room. And with him, it might be said, he took the baggage of three or four hundred years of Western art, the canons that had made art increasingly a dead thing in the hands of terrified human Xerox machines.

    It's hard to verify historical anecdotes and the above story could be partly apocryphal, but it's probably true at least in its broad outlines. Evidently it made quite an impression those who witnessed the scene, as did Vincent himself, with his fiery red hair and beard to go with his tempestuous temperament. So Van Gogh was making the hips too big. He wasn't being "correct." But what is correct in the visual arts? Is there even such a thing, or is it a made-up concept? And did Van Gogh's hip rebellion represent anything new? No, indeed. Long before either the tyrant or Vincent came along, prehistoric people made these statues:





    What's more, long before the canons of academic classicism had ossified into inflexible dogma, ossifying the art world with it, the old masters were paying no attention to "correct" drawing in the academic sense. Van Gogh knew this even before he became a painter. He had been an art dealer (a profession at which he had flopped, partly because he tried to persuade people not to buy the pictures he was charged with selling, finding them inferior) and he knew, for example, that Michelangelo took vast liberties with the human form, sacrificing correctness of drawing for the drama of visual expressiveness. When critics, including his own brother, chastised Vincent for the liberties that he had taken with the human form in the Potato Eaters, he wrote:

    "Tell him that I should be in despair if my figures were 'correct,' in academic terms. I don't want them to be 'correct.' Real artists paint things not as they are, in a dry analytical way, but as they feel them. I adore Michelangelo's figures, though the legs are too long and the hips and backsides too large. What I most want to do is to make of these incorrectnesses, deviations, remodelings, or adjustments of reality something that may be 'untrue' but is at the same time more true than literal truth."

    Consider the following Michelangelo work:


    I think that fellow on the right wouldn't even be allowed to play in the NFL, on the grounds that he would pose a threat to the health of the competition. In fact, I think that fellow on the right is supposed to be a woman (Michelangelo had problems drawing the female form.)

    Consider El Greco:


    Those elongated figures are reminiscent of the old comic book Plastic Man.

    Of course, what was happening in the art world at this time was much bigger than the simple issue of Van Gogh drawing the human torso the way that primitives had carved it, or his desire (and the desire of other artists) to reintroduce expressiveness and drama to the visual arts. The world was in ferment. The Industrial Revolution was fragmenting cultures and ways of life that had been stable for hundreds of years. Europe had been shattered by wars and revolution. Many artists felt that the old art was losing its relevance in such a world, and that it was long overdue for a shakeup. Consider the following painting from 1811 by Ingres, Jupiter and Thetis:


    Now Ingres was a very great artist but to modern eyes, this painting probably seems slightly ridiculous, if not ludicrous. There is currently a retrospective of Ingres at the Louvre, and in his review of it, The New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman wrote of the above, "at least it had kinky sex going for it." But Kimmelman then made a deeper point, which is that time was passing Ingres by, and in so doing it was fatally undermining the dogmas of academic painting. Many painters in the 19th century were asking themselves what their art was for. One can almost imagine one of them saying, "My painter friend, X, just got his eyes shot out of his head in (Insert War or Revolution of your choice here). And I'm supposed to devote my life to studying art so that I can paint mammoth pictures of a mythological character with his arm draped around a cloud while some harlot is playing with his beard?" In short, the new generation of artists wanted to know whether their art was relevant to the new world in which they lived. As Kimmelman noted in his Times review of the Ingres show, "The future then was the art of real life."

    Of course, artists of the time painted "real life," and not just fantasy canvases like the Ingres work, but it was a curious kind of "reality." It was done in studio settings, and it generally involved idealizing or romanticizing subjects. Portraiture was expected to flatter. Artists didn't seem themselves as telling or uncovering truths, but in some other way. The idea of art as a vehicle to truth, or to some approximation of truth, was one that lay in the future. But it was coming.

    Undoubtedly accelerating this change was the invention of photography, which meant that for the first time in history two-dimensional images from real life could be captured in some way other than by the brush, the pencil, the hunk of charcoal. As the century progressed artists began to test limits and ask questions: Why must we try to slavishly reproduce what is put before us, especially since, strictly, this is impossible to do anyway? Who says we must paint in a studio setting? What is the point of painting, over and over, religious themes or works that avoid the nasty side of life, like the plight of peasants or that of the urban poor? Why must we restrict our color palette to those used by the Old Masters? And so on.

    Rebellion was in the air. Van Gogh adored Millet, who painted peasants, and one of his favorite works by Millet was this one, of a man sowing the fields:


    But in the eyes of today, eyes schooled by modernity, even this picture that Van Gogh so admired, iconic as it is, can seem to come off as a bit overly idealized, a bit stagy. Van Gogh, though he never would have believed this, was simply a better artist - a better originator - than his hero Millet. Or, perhaps to put it another way, he was more authentic. Here are some Van Gogh peasants, from his early period of "brown-gravy" pictures:





    What is so striking about these images is that, with the possible exception of the second one, Van Gogh is making no effort to beautify or idealize or fantasize or gussy up his subjects. We now have a new conception (or so it would have seemed to Europe at the time): that art doesn't have to be beautiful. Perhaps, Van Gogh seems to be telling us, it is more important that it be authentic. Thus we can perhaps draw a distinction between the so-called "realism" of the academic painters, and the authenticity that Van Gogh and some others at this time were striving for. It was as if these painters were saying to the academics: "Your precious realism is as unreal as it gets."

    At the same time there is an irony here, for art (and the world) was changing even faster than the rebels like Van Gogh knew. It seems that Van Gogh, who as I've mentioned failed as a preacher, had a kind of "social documentary" idea about art when he started out, motivated by religious impulses: Had he lived a century later, he might have made films documenting the plight of society's outsiders and the poor. It appears that Van Gogh had to be exposed to the Impressionists - who were revolutionizing the use of color by the simple expedient of painting out of doors, on the spot - and to the art of the Japanese, for him to realize that painting "social documentary" works of peasants and laborers had its own severe limitations. For if it was true that at the time of Ingres the future of art lay in painting from real life, by the time of Van Gogh the future was already elsewhere. The future would be abstract and nonrepresentational, with the pictorial imagination unbridled. It would repudiate the basis of the Western canon.

    Thus, Van Gogh's great contribution to art was not in his "brown gravy" paintings of peasants, curious and powerful as many of them are. Had he died immediately after completing the Potato Eaters, he would have ended up a relatively minor figure in art history. No, his gift to the world of art would be the liberation of color. And while Van Gogh was moving in that direction, another gifted painter, almost precisely the opposite of Van Gogh in temperament and ambition, Paul Cezanne, was in the process of liberating form. It is hard to imagine what modern art would have looked like had Van Gogh and Cezanne never lived. Picasso, great as he was, probably could not have invented cubism without the influence of Cezanne, and cubism proved to be the expressway to the nonrepresentational art that dominated so much of the 20th century. And the colorist upheavals of the 20th century, starting with the Fauves ("wild beasts") and culminating in Abstract Expressionism, were gestated by the color symphonies of Van Gogh, particularly those works that he produced in his glory year of 1888 in Arles, France, when he put the very disc of the sun on canvass and proclaimed that he had finally "hit the high yellow note."

    I'll look at what Van Gogh and Cezanne really did in future installments, and also talk about Impressionism and other art trends of the late 19th century. But before closing this essay, I should mention one more modern art pioneer of the period, Paul Gauguin. His work was remarkable, but not as influential as either Van Gogh's or Cezanne's. And while I should (and will, later) give him his due, I can't resist mentioning him now in connection with another anecdote, which involves yet another of Van Gogh's unfortunate "brushes with instruction."

    In 1888, when Van Gogh was in the full flower of his powerful and revolutionary color-art inventions, Gauguin moved in with Vincent in his yellow house in Arles and immediately took it up on himself to "instruct" Van Gogh, whom he regarded as immature but amendable to reason. Van Gogh might have learned a little from Gauguin, but price of the lesson was dear. The disputatious Vincent got so wrought up by Gauguin's "instruction" that one night he cut off the lower portion of his left ear, carefully gift-wrapped it and then presented it to his favorite hooker at the Arles brothel. In retrospect, it was probably not a good idea to try and tutor Vincent.

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