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Monday, April 25, 2011

The Modernists and Cezanne

In the attempt to rationalize the passing of the Modernist era into what we've decided to call the Post-Modern era around 1960, the one thing that stands out is a rather "messy" transition. With Abstract Expressionism being such a sensational success with artists in letting them indulge their wildest personal and emotional fantasies, its passing into the realm of just another exploited "ism" to be hung next to all the other work of past art movements in museums and expensive galleries was, and apparently still is, pretty hard to take--almost like the death of a loved one. The fact that so many artists still insist upon visiting its grave underscores the fact that at least the era went out with a BANG!
What does it mean to be "modern"? We might call it up-to-date, or contemporary or perhaps recent. In art, we add an "ism" and talk about Modernism. Roughly speaking, we mean the time from about 1880 to the start of WW II. But in fact, art historians have as much trouble agreeing on the time frame as the meaning of this term. It's a little like Romanticism in that sense. Okay, if we can't precisely place the time frame, how about its meaning? Well, Modernism demands two characteristics. One, being a general tendency for each generation to improve upon the best of the previous generation. The second characteristic is a belief that art could have an impact on modern life and problems. Of course there was little agreement on what those problems were, but that didn't change the emphasis on the fact that art could be part of their solution.   
To our eyes today, both these elements seem a bit naive. Most artist have now long since given up on the idea that there is any kind mainstream art, much less any linear development of it. It seems the our definitions of art have become too broad for it to have a mainstream. And, if ever there was a time when art had much of an impact on society's major problems, I think we're safe in saying it has now passed. When did it pass? That's a little harder to say. Possibly around the end of the 1960s when art historians started talking about the Post-Modern age. But the transition wasn't like passing through a door; it was more accurately like entering a fog.   
Mount Sainte Victoire (One of many versions),
1882-85, Paul Cezanne
Although there are those who might cite others, Paul Cezanne is often credited with having been the first modern artist. The Impressionists fulfilled the first criteria of Modernism to some degree, but they were not so much interested in linear development among the themselves, but in rebellion against what the previous generation had wrought. Cezanne, on the other hand, tried to take Impressionism and, as he put it, "...make something solid of it," which is linear development. On top of that, Cezanne was very much taken with the idea that art could have a profound civilizing effect upon mankind. Perhaps in his day, it could, and did. Whatever the case, whatever Modernism means, Cezanne certainly fills the bill as the first of them.         

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