A pattern established itself early in the modern period, joining an appeal to the moment with the pursuit of increasingly abstract form. This apparent paradox was evident even in Pater’s idealism about art’s power to redeem the moment as well as his ambiguity in evoking the simultaneously “hard” form yet constant mutability of the moment “burn[ing] with a hard, gem-like flame.” Particularly modern painters have been fascinated by experiments with abstraction. [All of thepainters or paintings referred to in this post can be viewed on Mark Harmon's site www.artchive.com.]
Among the Post-Impressionists, Cezanne is the most influential example of this melding of immediacy with abstraction, of purely painterly pleasure with an abstract geometry of ovals, squares, and rectangles. There are the beautiful still-lifes of fruit, lush and ripe in the moment, which are simultaneously a collection of clearly delineated circles, or the powerful portraits of Madame Cezanne, presented with intense immediacy and yet emphasizing the geometry of the face as an oval; and there are the wonderful portraits of Mt. St. Victoire or the Bay at Marseilles where Cezanne takes great pleasure in the actual painting of the looming images, as if he has discovered the secret of his imagination: not the rendering of a particular light or place (though Provence was a necessary inspiration for his work), but the delight in form, the play with geometric patterning and the gradations of the paint itself.
There is an evocative aesthetic manifesto written as the introduction to the catalogue for the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London organized by Roger Fry in late 1910 (in response to which Virginia Woolf wrote that “on or about December 1910, human nature changed”). The introduction was written by the literary journalist Desmond MacCarthy, and it rehearses many of the key motifs of modernism and its paradoxical combination of immediacy and abstraction. MacCarthy writes about Cezanne, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso, and he speaks of their ability to express the “emotional significance which lies in things;” this capacity has a long Romantic pedigree (Wordsworth thought he drew on it when he wrote that “we see into the life of things”), as does MacCarthy’s understanding of how art struggles to confront conventional habitual thinking (his complement to the Impressionists is that “they have conquered [attention] for future originality,” though his criticism is that they focused on “recording hitherto unrecognized aspects of objects” rather than on rendering the essences and emotional resonances. It was Post-Impressionism which upheld the primacy of the psychic stream of “emotions and associations,” and the impact of this new art was to “shock and disconcert,” to achieve the shock of revealing inner truth and of destabilizing “naturalist” conventions – finally, its negations of expectation provoke a lapsing of the habitual expectations, a sort of death of the blinkered conventional self. [See the essay in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents.]
About Post-Impressionist abstraction, MacCarthy emphasizes the tendency in it toward “simplification of planes” and “the extreme simplification” of surfaces, of line and design, all as an effort to promote “the fundamental laws of abstract form.” Our question is, of course, what is the effect of this radical stripping down to essential structure? It is to create the art of Matisse’s “Fauve:” a “barbaric” and “primitive” art. This is not a matter of nakedness, of a success via scandal, of shocking the bourgeoisie.
Consider, for example, Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Here he uses simplified lines and angular shapes and creates faces as African masks. The “primitive” emotional immediacy and power of the painting arises from combining stark nakedness with those abstract forms and artifices. Picasso’s many later Cubist works develop and expand the logic and “expressivity” of combining raw intensity and abstract geometric form. MacCarthy alerts us to the purpose of this connection between abstraction and primitive immediacy: “Primitive art, like the art of children,” connect us to “the original expressiveness” of life; it aims “to recover the lost expressiveness and life” in art. We can hear the echo of Freud and Jung in the assumption that reconnecting creativity to the primal and mythic truths can restore meaning and feeling to modern life.
Consider, too, Matisse’s “The Dance.” The flowing figures of the dancers are radically outlined and simplified, they are isolated on a flat ground, and there is the simple and bold use of color. As Matisse traces the dancers’ gestures, the beauty and immediacy of his rhythmic and seemingly improvisatory line achieve a stripping down to essential form, which captures the core emotion and human beauty of the dance, fluid and ‘in process,’ a living humanity emphasized all the more by the imperfect grace of the single break in the circle of dancers’ hands.
I want to end this post by suggesting one element of the relationship between modernist “Post-Impressionist” art and postmodernism. Matisse’s “The Music Lesson” fills the flattened surfaces of wall and floor and piano with beautifully fluid lines evoking foliage, decorative designs at intervals on the music stand and latice work, simplified human faces and expressions, all harmoniously composed and conveying the gracious energy and feeling of the musical moment.
The second image is a postmodern painting, which appropriates the Matisse not out of mockery but in order to comment both on it and on its other subject, my ‘postmodern’ novel “Hungry Generations,” for which my wife Jeanette Arax Melnick painted this (below) as the book cover. At least one significant pleasure of postmodern art results from a process of pastiche which adds extra layers of effect to classic and modern texts and images; these added levels can have the impact sometimes of homage, sometimes of travesty, and sometimes of satire, but in each case the usual effect is to add meaning as commentary. Such is the difference between postmodern borrowings and those of Shakespeare (the most inspired thief among artists) or even of Picasso’s appropriations of Valesquez images. [The difference is illustrated by my “Hungry Generations.” Its hero is a young postmodern composer who integrates travestying echoes of music by his favorite composers into his works in an effort to make some inner sense of the fracturing chaos he experiences in contemporary Los Angeles, where he meets the troubled family of a famed expatriate piano virtuoso. The novel’s own borrowings do something rather similar; here's an Amazon link to the novel: Hungry Generations: a novel].
My next post weekly posts will explore some features of modern fiction (and perhaps soon, modern music).
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]