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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Seeing Modern Art

From Courbet to Pollock--a century of Modern Art
It's a long trek from the Realism of the 1850s to the Minimalism of the 1960s. It's a jaunt past two world wars, numerous other local conflicts, the ups and downs of several economic eras and 110 years of technological progress having as great an impact on the arts as any other aspect of modern life. And yet, that period of time, this era of Modern Art, ended some fifty years ago, before Post-modernism, jet travel, modern television, computers, the Internet, the advent of social media, and all the other inventions that impact our world today. If Modern Art sounds complex, it is. Yet it's straight forwardly simple compared to present day art manifestations. Our Postmodern era is not a good vehicle for learning to see art. There's too much of it. Also, there's little or no rhyme nor reason to it, no logical progression, and no long-term perspective upon which to rely. Modern Art, on the other hand, is almost what could be called "ancient history" in a relative sense, if not chronologically. Moreover, it has a great degree of logical progression.
Third Class Coach, 1962-64, Honore Daumier. Realism wasn't always pretty.
Starting with Realism, which is about as rudimentary a stylistic launching pad as imaginable, and building upon that basic visual understanding, Impressionism is not that great a leap forward. Through Impressionism one can study color, composition, painting techniques, and their visual impact unfettered by content complexities as with no other style before or since. You can't get much simpler than landscapes, flowers, pretty ladies dressed in their fineries, with an occasional still-life or portrait thrown in to season the brew. Impressionism is Realism with a breath of fresh air. Realism was often not pretty (above). Impressionism almost always is. The astronomical prices paid for impressionist works today are no accident. Impressionism is beautiful. Beauty is one of the chief components of art and the stock and trade of Impressionism. Thus, it's where the money is.
Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Claude Monet
Understanding Impressionism in some depth, learning to look at an impressionist work with a solid feel for the many aspects that contribute to its beauty, is a vital prerequisite for understanding the diverging complexities of Post-impressionism. That is where modern art ceases to be "easy." Think of modern art as a tree. Realism is its roots. Impressionism is the trunk. Post-impressionism is where the limbs begin to splay out. Expressionism has its branches like those of a tree. Abstract Expressionism is the foliage. Like a tree, as one moves upward, the complexities multiply geometrically.
The Big Six
Seeing and understanding Post-impressionism means studying no more than a half-dozen or so major artists—van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Seurat, Matisse, and Derain, or Vlaminck. There's a lot there in just those six to see and study, but if you know intimately the work of just those six, you can grip with some firmness the handle on what was to come next.

Die Brucke, 1905,
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Der Blaue Reiter, 1911, Franz Marc

Neue Sachlichkeit, Eclipse of the Sun,
1926, George Grosz

There is no list of any reasonable length involving expressionist artists. With Expressionism, seeing art entails a study of art movements. Expressionism as a style (not to be confused with Abstract Expressionism which was largely an American phenomenon) was itself split into at least three different movements; and that was just in Germany. For example, in addition to Dada, German Expressionism had Die Brucke (The Bridge, above, left), der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider above, right), and finally Neue Sachlichkeit (The New Objectivity right). In France, they were called the Fauves (wild beasts). In Italy, there was Futurism and Surrealism (also elsewhere in Europe). And this list is in no way complete. Moreover each expressionist art movement was both nationalistic and individualistic, what one might term Post-impressionism on steroids. Further complicating Expressionism is its backdrop of WW I and the European turmoil that entailed. At the very least, the various branches of expressionist art spoke four different languages, French, German, English, and Italian, none of which could be termed unimportant.
Three Musicians, 1921, Pablo Picasso
--Cubism, the bridge between Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism
The First Abstract Watercolor,
1910, Wassily Kandinsky
Seeing art is at its most difficult when the viewer is deprived of virtually all references to daily reality. Abstract Expressionism invites, in fact demands, the viewer enter the mind of the artist to gain anything approaching an understanding of its visual images. Titles mean little or nothing. The images are there to "rattle" the viewer, opening up not just the mind of the artist to intimate inspection but requiring the viewer to likewise open up his or her own mind in such a way as to mesh with that of the artist. Anything short of that is superficial at best and more often meaningless or pretentious. Yet, in striving for this "mind meld," seeing Abstract Expressionism demands the viewer also remains conscious of a work's existential visual and emotional impact—in observing the forest, one must not miss the trees.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Postmodern Fruit Salad, Jim Lane
Seeing art at any level is difficult only if one has not grasped thoroughly what came before. Modern art grew from seeds planted by one generation and nourished by the next, then harvested by the one after that. The Postmodernism of today, on the other hand, is a "fruit salad" gleaned from all the apples, oranges, cherries, plums, peaches, and pears grown in the past on the trees of modern art. Without these simple fruits, chopped, diced, and stirred together, the salad would be all dressing.


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