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The Spirit of Secular Art

Chapter 8

The new and the true

Robert Nelson

Modernism arose out of impatience and grew into orthodoxy with bewildering speed. It is most easily understood as an outgrowth of Romanticism, the ongoing and forever-incomplete critique of the Englightenment. For according to all poetic views of economic and technological progress at the end of the nineteenth century, civilization was more than ever in need of a great intellectual cleansing and artistic insurgency to overthrow the dominance of the prevailing mechanistic paradigms of reason. Part of the basis for our affection for modernism is its inspired virulence, its often self-declared revolutionary spirit, seeking unabashedly to destroy and replace, to abolish and efface, to create a new world free of the rules of the old world. If you think of the authoritarian norms of the epoch, the modernist zeal is beguiling and infectious. It freshly valorizes, for example, the art of children, the idea that an energetic and pleasurable expressive process is more important than a polished result with learned literary connotations; it championed the motif of spontaneity and the creative spirit in a given person which reflects his or her unique subjectivity. The denunciation of canonical aesthetics worked decisively in favour of the individual and what grows organically within his or her consciousness as opposed to an institutional aesthetics.

Consequently, everyone was a modernist for his or her own reasons. Some modernists sought new rules for themselves; others wanted to find freedom from all systems, all systematic thought and prescribed ways of looking or methods of constructing the world. It is impossible to sum up the diversity of approaches and it will have to suffice to offer a number of instances. But from our point of view, the grounds for modernism among its revolutionary and inspired instigators are less important than the way modernism was subsequently understood, or even understood from its first apologists. For in that larger framework of interpretation, the project of modernism is to make stylistic innovation a symbol of spiritual improvement. The basis for this is not naïve, even though style is not a primary motive, say, in the art of Cézanne, to whom special attention should be directed. But the primacy of style as the historical hallmark of modernism is central to most texts and is most eloquently and authoritatively summed up by the eminent Australian art historian, Bernard Smith, who characterizes modernism as a late nineteenth-century period style—which he calls the formalesque—that flourished throughout the first half of the twentieth century.1

The peculiar kind of reaction that was modernism has a stylistic expression, even though it sometimes proceeded from enlightened spiritual motives and occasionally social motives, as with the Bauhaus or Constructivism. Modernism is not a reaction against the triumph of the industrial. Modernists were keen to address themselves to the terms of modern life in its newness: they sought the refreshment of novelty in exaggerated colour and proportions in their representations; they often enjoyed the intrusiveness of the rapid pace of industrial life, the disrupted views and disjointed rhythms; they often relished the bizarre and unseasonal growth of capital cities, the fabulousness of huge design projects in steel (such as bridges and the Eiffel Tower) and they sought, above all, to internalize such novelties into the stylistic manipulation of the media of art.

It was not possible to be a modernist simply by representing accurately the new and exciting physical structures around you. It was necessary to reflect something of their impact, especially through artistic process. A realistic rendering of a bridge would not have conveyed sufficiently the power of the structure as a symbol of progress. Such a representation may show off the engineering better than a modernist representation, with all its distortion and exaggeration; but, as a symbol of progress, the power of the structure would have to be celebrated as transcending its material construction. The modernist treatment of the bridge (or whatever) would have to rehearse, in the technique and drama of the painting process, the disruptiveness and unseasonal energy of the motif.

This is already true of work by Seurat and Signac toward the end of the nineteenth century. The scientific appreciation of a given tertiary colour is ‘analysed’ on the canvas in small dots of pure primary and secondary colour, mingling on the retina to produce a bristling synthetic version of the colour found on the motif. Any sense of newness conveyed in their subject matter—such as factories, entertainment venues or gasometers—is dramatized by the ‘systematic strangeness’ of the painting technique. For that reason, modernist pictures are often indeed systematically strange: they indirectly reflect in the internal celebration of their technique the oxymoronic organized chaos of the modern world relative to the stable and eternal perspectives of the premodern world. The spectacle of modern life is both regular and bizarre, with its airs of ritual and stiff performative routine, interrupted by the crazy assembly of outrageous gestures, high jumps from the trapeze and high kicks, dramatized in the pointillist application, which is controlled yet manic, illusionistic yet artificial, scientific yet synthetic. These paradoxes poetically match the balance of authority and impulse in the free bourgeois economy or regattas, leg-shows, circuses and parks. The little modern tradition running from the neo-impressionists to the cubists and on to various kinds of geometric abstraction reflects the will of artists to embrace the newness of their world in a superpictorial dimension.2

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the poet Baudelaire exhorted artists to paint from modern life, a famous cliché which prophetically signalled the forthcoming fascination of artists by modernity. But the enthusiasm for modern life is not the whole reason for modernism. In fact, when it comes to iconography, the bulk of modernist painting and sculpture is not about modern life at all, nor is the work of most of their immediate radical predecessors. Impressionism is certainly about modern life and the post-impressionists Seurat and Signac share the enthusiasm; but other post-impressionists have only a co-incidental involvement with the iconic novelties of public and private ritual. When Van Gogh paints a mental asylum, he does not mean to comment on contemporary medical institutions or the pathology of certain social disorders of the industrial age. Insofar as he means the motif to convey a message beyond the demonstrative muscular process of painting, it is rather to express his internal anxieties, appropriately sited in the place where he is being treated.

When Gauguin represents the peasants in Brittany or the Indigenous inhabitants of Tahiti he inadvertently confesses a peculiarly colonial malaise, much heightened by the capitalist prowess of the industrial period, namely the exoticizing of the inferior Other, the ethnicity or group which is the marginal opposite to the dominant order of cosmopolitan western society. As with Romanticism, the consciousness of modern life is registered only by reaction. Factories and newspapers and hoardings which increasingly define the visuality of the modern world do not feature. Fantasies of a more primitive spirituality fill Gauguin’s pictures. He travels to places supposedly uninformed by western sophistication—a cultural asylum which is in itself a sophisticated western myth—and produces pictures which deflect the pictorial expectations of the western tradition of illusionism. Like Van Gogh and Munch, Gauguin is a symbolist. He is not interested in the physical appearances of things but the realm of ideas and spirit, not properly capable of being comprehended by objects but for which objects, extrapolated by chromatic lyricism, could provide cues.

The more avant-garde the symbolist, the less the expression takes place in the subject matter and the more the subject matter is subsumed by the style. Rodin, for example, commits very few radical innovations in subject matter but he alters the formal character of sculpture and consequently the way the three-dimensional art functions as a monument. Rodin does not create statues but sculptures: a new purity and spatial autonomy enters as he gives his works an organic pulsing give-and-take in their texture which celebrates the process of execution but resists the statuesque authority of an architectonic plinth of many horizontal bevels and chamfers. For two thousand years, sculpture had enjoyed a haughty partnership with architecture but, with Rodin, sculpture and design part company. Sculpture moves from its status of landmark to self-sufficient artwork: it is no longer intended to act as a focus of a designed environment but rather occupies an art-space, projecting the work as an autonomous artistic conception.

Tellingly, the contribution which Rodin does make to the history of iconography can also be interpreted as a stylistic innovation. He casts bronzes in a fragmentary representation of the body, creating works such as his Walking Man which deliberately has neither head nor arms.3 The figure lacks corporal completeness not in order to symbolize humanity without brain or manual skills—nor even to show the ‘essence’ of the figure without incidental encumbrances such as the upper limbs—but in order to express more urgently the presence of the medium and the heroism of the artist’s command of it. By subtracting from the anatomical wholeness of the standing figure (that is a person with a face and gestural faculties) the bronze itself emerges as the subject matter. This promotion of the medium is not a simple case of formalism displacing iconographic meaning. The figure is still a necessary force to confer iconic might upon the artist’s conception. The sculpture stages the submission of the heroic figure to the mark-making gestures of the artist. The iconography of the figure is essential in this ritual and is by no means marginal. The formidable elements of the figure, the virile looking legs and torso, lend themselves to the heroization of the interventionist plasticity, the conspicuous manipulation of the medium and the artist’s stylistic boldness.4

The radical does not need new iconography but less iconography. It wants the old subject matter but with less iconographic independence; for the objects depicted must submit their simple and inalienable presence to a celebratory stylistic conquest. The basic symbolic virtues of subject matter are thus arrogated by style; you have the forceful presence of a motif but stripped of its independent function. The radical wants to reduce the information in subject matter to certain archetypical signs, a demotion in favour of the stylistic presence, a gestural or compulsive intervention which (a) overcomes the subject matter with formal rhetoric and (b) draws from the archaic potency of the subject matter to express the heroism of the stylistic innovation. The new stylistic mysteries have no need of new subject matter. The idea that Rodin might draw inspiration from the radically new metal shapes appearing throughout the factories of the western world would have been naïve: art is concerned with its own mysteries, not the marvels of a material reality to which it would have to defer and submissively offer illustrative celebrations.

Nor does the industrial iconography of the modern world infiltrate the radical pictures of Cézanne from the last decades of the nineteenth century. His subject matter—and to some extent even his technique—would set the parameters of the full-blown modernist movement, cubism: still life, portraiture and landscape, all of a somewhat neutral and inexpressive character. When Cézanne paints landscape, he avoids atmospheric effects, disliking either bright sunshine or storms and rain. The view he selects will normally have no sudden precipice or magically picturesque character but seems a relatively dull vista to be viewed from a withdrawn, inconspicuous platform. For Cézanne, the emotive associations with which landscapes are generally loaded are non-pictorial elements particularly to be shunned. When Cézanne paints people, they are seated impassively and have no impressive gaze or posture and no discernible nature. When he paints still life, the results have no suggestion of wealth, ritual or family life.

To the uncommunicative isolation of his subject matter Cézanne adds the systematic plasticity of his pictorial process. Cézanne avoids all the bright colours which had been fashionable in impressionist painters and were elevated to lyrical heights among fellow post-impressionists. He resists the gesture of a florid brushstroke for inflecting a characteristic feature of a motif and instead evenly chips away at his surface so that a tree, a cloud, a mountain or a patch of water all have a congruent gestural accent: leaf, trunk, land-mass, vapour, sky, liquid are all accorded an analogous emphasis. If Cézanne paints a peach, its texture will be negligibly different from that of a jug. It is only by association that you infer the furriness of the peach relative to the ceramic glaze of the jug.

These symbolically sombre traits are neither due to laziness nor inadvertence. In the best sense of the word, Cézanne’s pictures are laboured and, in spite of the sometimes undifferentiated angular brushstrokes, the pictures are by no means dashed off. If anything, they seem almost overworked with a kind of oxymoronic ‘violent deliberation’, as you imagine the canvas submitting to days of warfare, with countless revisions in every quarter. The communicative limitations have to be construed as intentional. They can all be referred to one further characteristic of the pictures which might also seem a fault but which appears similarly purposeful and doggedly prosecuted. In spite of all the volume given to each object, Cézanne denies perspectival space. The purposefulness of this contradiction can be seen when he inclines the lip of a jug or bowl so that it no longer aligns with the horizontal plane of the table-top.

The most common explanation is that Cézanne aims to register the forms in front of him without sacrificing the integrity of the picture plane. At the close of the nineteenth century, academic drawing had prescriptively codified the artist’s way of looking. The draughtsperson looked at a central motif through an implicit perspectival grid that defined the diminution of all things according to their distance from the eye. Since Alberti, this idea had proved expedient and was never challenged, for its self-evident systematic logic and consistency. But for Cézanne, this geometric paradigm apparently denied the key elements of both perception and painting. Using perspective to bore a hole in the picture plane adversely affects the compositional rigour of the work. The preoccupation to describe or mimic spatial recession neglects the fundamental organization of the picture plane.

But for Cézanne, the sin against perception is undoubtedly the greater. Perception intrinsically does not arrive at once, with all rays striking the retina—and hence arriving in consciousness—simultaneously, as of the sixtieth of a second in photography. Rather, perception is an experience, an organic process by which the eye directs itself to fathom the space according to its intelligence. The eye looks, adjusts its lens and shutter but above all its field in countless movements for every glance. Perception is thus essentially motile, a logical scrambling for the links in light and space; and to the spatial organization of the world, you must therefore add time, for it takes the duration of cerebral activity, ocular scanning, focus and triangulation. For a painter, this is greatly heightened, for it is necessary not just to glimpse nature (or whatever motif) but to understand its spaces, its incidental accommodation of light and shadow and its fundamental forms.

Cézanne builds his images without any implicit perspectival grid, much less photography or any other mechanistic system. His works express the experience—the subjective activity which yields consciousness—of seeing a motif. Cézanne follows multiple pathways over, across, in and around the spaces, allowing equal weight to object and background (or space itself). And because he does this with unswerving concentration and energy, the works express the subjective immediacy of perception. In its vigour and spatial logic, Cézanne’s work celebrates visual perception as something dynamic, binocular, somatic, elastic and intelligent, not automatic or mechanical as you might assume from photographic processes or even perspectival systems. A whole arsenal of perspectival contrivances had been available for generations; but, as clever as they may be, they falsify the analogue experience of seeing and they offend the subjectivity which lies at the basis of consciousness, visual and otherwise. When it comes to registering the somatic impulses of seeing and responding, the perceptual painter rejects such systems.

Cézanne’s vision favours a fragmented space in which objects cohere with the picture plane rather than with pictorial illusion. The objects have a relationship with one another; but it is a compositional relationship, not a perspectival relationship. There is not much space in a Cézanne painting. Meanwhile, there is a sense of colossal volume in the objects occupying the picture. The angular brushstrokes demonstratively celebrate the roundness of things. An apple has a volumetric rigour, a carved solidity, which dramatizes the perception of its shape and gives it an almost geological presence. The presence of objects in Cézanne is unprecedented in the way the brush dynamically articulates volumetric change and, with appropriate tones and colour, forcefully acts out the arrangement of planes. But with all that ‘staggering’ volume, there is no space, no vista with fixed viewpoint, no predictable platform, no perspectival clarity. Cézanne’s relationship with objects is a form of groping rather than a form of optics.

Cézanne effectively confounds space. Apart from the obvious unity of treatment of all parts, Cézanne also engages compositional liaisons to flatten out the pictorial space. In landscapes, he sometimes negates perspectival space by running a tree across foreground, middle distance and background, so that they are all in some sense equated. In still life, he unites all the planes by lifting the point of view to such a gradient that most of the painting fills up with the folds of a tablecloth or the clutter of the surface, so that the architecture of the motif is not traceable. Part of the difficulty which he undoubtedly experienced in painting his pictures—what with their chiselled brushstrokes leaving demonstrative tracks of all internal negotiations—would have been the decision to show volume but no illusionistic space. His mission is to paint a contradiction.

This ambition is consistent with the desire to follow perception in its inscrutable organic closeness with time and experience; but the resolution must nevertheless have struck any traditional artist as perverse. A portrait or a still-life would be much easier to produce with all the volumes sitting in a coherent perspectival space, optically correct and well-drawn; because, given practice and talent in the exercise (which artists at the time possessed in abundance), the artist knows exactly where to put things according to perspective. In abandoning the secure and orderly link between volume and perspectival space, Cézanne determines to make his pictures subjectively agonized, a process of sorting out chaotic impulses in beholding—and subsequently forming—the objects before him. His style (to return to Bernard Smith’s critical term) allegorizes the process of seeing and painting when one has no communicative reason to paint beyond one’s subjective perceptual experience, which is part of the act of painting itself.5 The will to paint is to constitute a discipline unto itself, a discipline of solving pictorial contradictions that reflect consciousness, spatial incongruities that arise through seeing in time, which can only be handled when no other expressive issue arises in the picture, such as narrative, symbolism or even atmosphere. Even the time of day in Cézanne is suppressed, so that light can come from the east as much as the west. And that is why Cézanne’s style is paradoxically resolute. It is a discipline of being wilfully disturbed, a routine of grappling with irreconcilable formal demands and reaching the purity of the means of painting by focusing on nothing but a kind of pictorial impossibility.

No one else at the time painted as Cézanne did; but his unusual and perversely compulsive ambition is not merely a historical and anal eccentricity. It matches the extension of other movements and anticipates a number of directions which extend from Cézanne, such as cubism. Painting as paradox, as aesthetic tension between a motif and a style which refuses to dignify the motif with perspectival continuity but instead fragments motifs in order to chase the motile character of perception or, as in cubism (which largely abandons Cézanne’s perceptual concerns), to enjoy a bizarre formal franchise with the picture plane: this is the introverted strategy of early modernism (fauvism, cubism and German expressionism) prior to the abstraction of figures like Mondrian and Malevich. Here, there is nothing to paint for a communicative purpose. The radical innovations in the styles of representation involve no iconographic developments but a kind of communicative mortification of the old subject matter which had been passed down by tradition. You take a bay with yachts, a hill with houses, a window, a static person, a jug or violin—things of almost arbitrary familiarity—and challenge their visual presence with chromatic or spatial hyperbole, outlandish effects with which you then have to wrestle in order to retain a suitably inexplicable relationship with the motif. The new aesthetic depends on the inscrutability of purposes in attaching either exaggerated colour or dislocating planes to the motif. After Cézanne, there is no longer a consciously perceptual basis for the stylistic extravagance of the avant garde; for then the whole project would default to a communicative phenomenological celebration of the nature and feel of things, and there would be no self-referential agony, no tension in the picture between fierce pictorial means and detached subject matter. The painting must be consumed by its own intransigence.

It is not just classical space which is abandoned in the course of early modernism but the classical link between style and iconography. In the past, artists frequently sought a stylistic emphasis which added a meaningful formal inflexion on the subject matter and added an evocative dimension. It is the case throughout Romanticism and can be seen at its most stressful in Van Gogh. The hefty commitment and occasional brutality of Van Gogh’s brushstroke are a consistent cipher of the psychological and communicative interest which the artist found in the motifs. The tree or Church or star-lit sky with writhing cypresses become more expressive on account of the obsessive exaggerations in the application of the medium. The paintings seem to cry out with a stylistic menace which matches the awesome imbalance of the subject matter. And even when the subject matter is neutral in associations—which is infrequent in the work of the Dutch symbolist—the style induces a mood upon it which charges the work with communicative zeal.

Since it was identified as a phenomenon by art historians, modernism has had a linear genealogy assigned to it. It is a common understanding that various kinds of modernism simply extended the exaggerations of post-impressionist artists like Munch and Van Gogh. Instead of the little vermiculated bricks of colour put down by Van Gogh, the expressionists relished a still broader application of large slabs and slashes. It is as if Van Gogh’s brushstrokes ‘grew into’ or matured into the unrestrained patches and scruffy dashes of the expressionists. This paradigm of an organic development between post-impressionism and modernism insinuates a historical necessity on the modernist project; for it is seen as a fulfilment of the campaign against the traditional academy: colour is liberated and the brushstroke is freed of all conventional restraints. This interpretation is misleading; for it accords the expressive purposes of certain post-impressionists upon the modernists who succeeded them. Of course there is some dependence of each generation upon the previous generation but modernists do not inherit the expressive agendas of Van Gogh or Munch. Modernism frequently avoids direct communication and expresses a process rather than a feeling: the cold aesthetic shadow-boxing of formalism in innovatively skew relationships with a motif. Emotional expression has little place in it.

The signal case of this is German expressionism. Paintings by the artists of Die Brücke, Kirchner, Heckel, Nolde and Schmidt-Rottluff, have a rawness and intensity of formal clashes which distinguish them from the already daring boldness of French expressionism or fauvism. But whereas it could be argued that the fauves from 1905–07 (Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck) sought to express the lyrical pleasure of the Midi, it is impossible to identify an expressive counterpart among the Germans. The technique of these artists seems very expressive and earned them the title of expressionists; but the reason they are modernists is that they have nothing in particular to express. A face showing an open mouth by a German expressionist cannot be judged an expression of anguish any more than an expression of joy. The fierceness of the colour and the summariness of the execution seem expressive per se; but you can never declare simply by looking at the picture which emotion they express. The same is true of street and outdoor scenes (such as Schmidt-Rottluff’s Red Tower in the Park.6 The houses and land, roadway and sky are assembled in the roughest possible manner, with no care taken to have patches of colour meet at an edge without the naked canvas showing through. The colours are dissonant and the composition equally raucous. It all seems very turbulent and ferocious; but there is no single emotion to which the turbulence and ferocity commit themselves: it could be a wild emotional condition associated with claustrophobia or schizophrenia or the positive celebration of freedom. And finally, the nude: almost any example by Kirchner will reveal distortions of anatomy which, when combined with the same reckless technique, suggest an emotional torment.7 But again, it is impossible to identify the emotion as crippling anxiety or sexual bliss. And if these opposites cannot be distinguished, the emotional impact is somehow not the point. There is an exaggerated emotive emphasis in the treatment of the scene but a wholly ambiguous communicative result. You have the emotional means but not the emotional outcome. The expression is there as rhetoric but not as impact. By forcing the emotional expectations and yet supplying so little satisfaction, the project amounts to a paradoxical negation of expression.

The only way to save the emotional expression of German expressionism is to posit the existence of a new modern emotion, an emotion proper to art and to no other realm of existence. Emotions are never general; but the art emotion is different from other emotions in that it is not specific. All other emotions are specific, even if they are not exclusive: the reason you know the feeling of joy is that it distinguishes itself from fear or pain or dread or hate or what have you. That is not to say that joy cannot be mixed with other emotions—such as the analogous emotions of love and hope and so on—and even to be somewhat confused with contrary emotions; but ultimately the emotion experienced is a single condition of feeling which has an integrity proper to the moment of feeling it, even if the words are diverse in its definition. Hence the great privilege of painting and the other visual arts is especially precious because they do not need words to clinch that peculiar constellation of feelings. But that is the point: each emotional state, regardless of its composition or causes, is peculiar. German expressionism gives you an emotion that is not peculiar but is an indiscriminate amalgam of indecipherable opposites. The essence of the new art emotion is its lack of uniqueness and consequently a defiance on the natural integrity of an emotional state. It is an abstracted symbol of the power of emotion, but quite without any emotional power of its own.

With the German expressionists, art is not primarily about an emotional exigency but a priestly sacramental ambition to effect emotional abstraction in the picture and confer emotional transcendence on artist and viewer. The project is not formalist, as it is in the tradition of Cézanne, but it ends at a similar point: the abstraction from time and place, from the contingencies of circumstance and narrative continuity. The contribution of the German expressionists is to have pursued the abstraction of emotion rather than the abstraction of form. In a sense, it is the emotional extortion of art; for the viewer is pressed into responding to an emotion and giving sympathy carte blanche, not knowing anything of the emotion but accepting the mystery of emotion. The art achieves this by (a) wringing the picture of all objectivity so that it congeals and reifies a turmoil of subjectivity and (b) eliciting an emotional response in the absence of an emotional argument. The picture provides no emotional justification for the welter of subjective mark-making and distortion. Art, for the German expressionists, is the process of transforming the arbitrary and gratuitous emotional response into a pretension of universal emotion; and for the viewer it is a challenge to proffer uncritical sympathy, to suspend the faculties of analysis and indulge the work with the emotional generosity which one would never extend to a beggar.

The German expressionists fulfil the paradigm of the artistic movement from a relatively spiritual condition to a relatively secular and universalizing abstraction while nevertheless arrogating the spiritual claims of the anterior art. The expressionists step into an emotive and mystical tradition, engaging the exaggeration and subjective composition and colour of artists like Munch and Van Gogh; but they remove the hallucinogenic effects from a narrative or symbolic source and so divorce them from an emotional engagement. The liturgical element of Munch and Van Gogh—let us say the cathartic artistic enactment of an emotional crisis—is dropped; but the claim to spiritual status is implied all the more strongly on account of abandoning the temporal and spatial associations of the earlier art; for the new abstractions upon emotive techniques ascend to the status of universal archetype of the emotional.

The fauves are not so different, even though their works are more cheerful and reveal a bias toward the friendliness of sunshine and leisure, which among Europeans is almost considered indigenous to the south. For the most part their paintings do not provide any emotional justification for the strongly reductive technique, the arbitrary colours and the degradation of space and volume. In Matisse’s famous The Green Stripe, for instance, the stately and prepossessed carriage of Mme Matisse’s head does not indicate any of the heightened colours which conspire around the form with planar dynamism and effect an unusual chromatic counterpoint.8 The colours in the face, neck and tunic do faintly echo the stronger colours in the background: the unity of the work is formidable and, in a sense, helps convey a certain imperiousness in Mme Matisse’s aspect. But the colours and composition are not arranged as a psychological analog to the sitter.9 They transfuse the sitter with an aesthetic tension, for they are neither proper to the colours of the skin, the tunic nor a normal light source; but one is interested to see how the pale tertiary colours of Caucasian skin can have powerful colour induced upon them—almost against their nature—while still remaining the sign of a sensual carnal person.

Many fauve works seem gladdening and outgoing (as do some brilliant works of Kirchner), for the brightness of the colour and buoyancy of application match the hedonism of the subject matter. But the work is not allowed to be merely decoratively charming: there is always stressful argument between impulsive force and equivocal flimsiness; parts of the canvas are left bare and the paint, even in local zones (that is, when the hue does not change) waxes and wanes and often seems thin in an ugly way. Indeed, were it not for preserving a classical aloofness—as in The Green Stripe—the work of the fauves seems wilfully incompetent. The classical aloofness, though, means the same reluctance to embrace an emotion as in the German expressionists. The stylistic claim of their pictures insists on a certain emotional calibre: they have the extremity of means which would be suitable as rhetoric for conveying powerful emotion; but they retentively hold back on any message but the most general. The pictures have little to say but deck themselves out with chromatic and compositional formidability; they project the clout of emotional engagement but withdraw both from the communication of emotion and the psychological or moral consequences of invoking an emotional message.

The work of the fauves can be compared to that of the cubists. In the so-called analytical phase of cubism of Braque and Picasso circa 1910, the motif accepts any number of interventions, not of bright colour but planar fragmentation. The integrity of the form fights against the disruption; the disruption is not there for the expressive sake of the motif but rather vice versa: the motif is a pretext, a passive and inexpressive vessel for slotting planes into with a geometric inflexion which equates all objects and spaces and further reduces any latent expressiveness which the objects may have had in their familiar symbolic life on the tabletop. The term analytical cubism is understandable insofar as it conveys the somewhat systematic and unemotional nature of the project, but it is misleading in suggesting a process of analysis; for analysis is an intellectual strategy for appreciating the composition of an object. You engage analysis in order to separate the ingredients of a single entity; and breaking down the single entity into its distinctive components enables you to understand the operation of the entity, to appreciate the cause of its behaviour or its likeness to or difference from other entities. This scientific process has little to do with cubist pictures which, if anything, conceal the nature of objects rather than reveal any aspect of their constitution or bearing in space.10 On the level that so flattered abstract expressionism, analytical cubism is a method of making all objects (preferably neutral objects, somewhat pleasant and with lyrical associations) entertain the same spatial disruption and so share a similar conformity with the picture plane; though some credence has to be given to the fragmentary figuration as an extension of Cézanne’s project to express the motile, time-based character of perception. Against the idea of rationally analysing the discrete parts of an object—or even the possible viewpoints of an object—analytical cubism is a way of synthetically agonizing the presence of an object, confounding its spatial logic with disparate viewpoints so that, by a stylistic litany of jerks and jolts, it is extracted from its integrity, pulled out of its contours, overcoming its circumscription; and with these elastic and percussive strokes, it is drubbed into an artificial agreement with the picture plane.

Like the fauves, the cubists have a general expressiveness, the expression of modernity. Their work conveys the enthusiasm for a renovation of vision, proposing the redundancy of spatial figuration and privileging the reality of the picture plane over an illusion. But the purpose of this renovation is structurally fugitive. It is neither to be beautiful nor expressive. One does not have that kind of unequivocal purpose; in art, one seeks the abstraction of purposes, a general spirit of progress which is not revealed by a single intention. Through the abstraction of purposes, analytical cubism absconds from prestigious traditions with the symbolic clout of progress firmly in hand but none of the expressive incumbencies. In shedding the communicative responsibilities of earlier art, it also acquires a new prophetic status in the modern desert—the unwatered iconographic terrain of formerly prolific narrative and symbol—in which progress is necessarily expressionless because necessarily abstract. Art is about progress; it hypostasizes progress with self-referential circularity and wants to be the symbol of nothing but the sacraments of progress.

Modernism as an artistic term describes the project of making modernity sacramental. It is not an extension of the Romantic movement, avoiding industrial circumstances with anti-institutional disdain and cultivating the spiritual Other. It is a cult of the new whose zeal for progress and scorn for tradition paradoxically parallel the aggressive energies of capitalism. Modernists may have sympathized with the political avant garde—with notable exceptions, as in Italian futurism—but, in spite of socialist ideology, their reformist passion harmonizes with the alienating upheavals of industrial progress. It is no accident: there is a structural link between the visual renovations of modern art and the dislocating aggression of capitalism. Both have idealistic motives but both are structurally phallic: they look upon the cultural ambience in a predatory spirit, happily dismissing the franchise of tradition and redefining the terms of production beyond common grasp.

To some extent, modernism does carry forward the conceits of Romanticism, especially the celebration of the artist as individual genius, full of instinctual innovative passion and contempt for traditional authority. But the Romantic spiritual affinity for nature does not belong to the modernist enthusiasm for innovation. Modernists are by and large too egocentric to submit their understanding of spirit to a superintending order such as nature, inducing a feeling of admiration or even worship for a sublimity infinitely beyond the artist’s powers of comprehension (albeit for the sake of egotistical identification). Spirituality had already defaulted to the personal in the avant garde of the previous century. The gifts of innovative creation give modernists a personal proprietorship of the spiritual, for the spiritual now resides in the realm of the personal and available through individualized abstractions. Modernism involves a faith that spiritual states can be contacted through the very act of innovation, thus making redundant a referent, such as nature, God or tradition.

When modernists approach more spiritually pregnant cultures and appropriate their artistic forms, tinctures of Romanticism also appear; but the interest in the narratives and liturgies of another culture’s mythological cosmos—however naïve—is absent from the modernist motivation. The persistent undercurrent of primitivism in many modernist groups is unlike Gauguin’s sojourns in Tahiti to bring back the imaginary paradise of innocence and untroubled cohabitation with haunting spirits in decorative symbols. The influence of African carving and masks on Picasso from 1906-08 and the noble-savage imagery of the German expressionists circa 1910 does not extend more than a cold handshake to the beliefs and customs of other ethnicities. They want the masks in order to project a new brutality, to licence their new visual rudeness and, above all, to induce an archaic urgency on their stylistic excursions. If for example, the expressionists of Die Brücke wish to represent naked figures in the forest, as did Kirchner and Schmidt-Rottluff, this must not appear a rehearsal of the pastoral genre or the Rococo frolic in park but must communicate the intrepid cultural freedom of woodland warriors against western convention. One paints with the air of the savage and this appropriation has a chauvinistic glamour. The primitivist associations confer cultural profundity upon the formal recklessness of the work. In Kirchner’s Four Bathers, the women are depicted with gashes of paint, with little care taken to represent the body.11 The people depicted are not primitive; they are sophisticated German artists and models who want to shed the inhibitions of western culture. The expressionists in this sense do express freedom; but it is a freedom all bound up with the making of art, introverted in its abstraction from any circumstance in which freedom counts in concrete terms. Freedom only enters if you consider the subject matter of the picture to be the style of the picture. This collapse of the pictorial dichotomy between subject matter and technique—a dichotomy which underlies the whole western dialectic of looking at pictures—is abstraction.

Abstraction is the underlying paradigm of modernism. There are many historical routes to abstraction but nearly all of them have a mystical character. Even when the motive toward abstraction could just as easily be empirical and rationalist, it tends to be the opposite. An example is Kandinsky. There are times when his apologia for abstraction could almost proceed from the emancipatory rationalism of the Enlightenment. Why should visual art always mimic a pre-existing optical reality and so confine itself to picture-making, with whatever degrees of distortion? Why can it not free itself of the yoke of the imitative image, thus transcending the limitation in the visuality of the chaotic world around us? Why not synthesize the visual? Music, after all, has achieved this more or less for millennia. Programmatic music may have a representational element; but the genius of music is melody, an abstract rhythmic concatenation of notes which does not in essence represent anything but its own relationships. Why is this privilege confined to music? Why can the visual arts not shed their dependence on representation? For if they could, a whole realm of the aesthetic would become available to the artist, unthinkable beauties of pure form, unencumbered by the submission to, or negotiation with, the known visual environment. The artist would have to compose in a non-spatial framework, as if colours might equate with musical pitch and distance upon the two-dimensional plane might equate with time in music. From there it would only be necessary to think of the visual melodies.

But Kandinsky’s voice is different and the new offices which his abstraction promises are spiritual. He wants to touch the soul with the new non-representational art; the ensembles of abstract form would offer direct access to the soul because, in their purity from contingencies and the limitations of circumstance, the uncompromised visual music would be superior to all before it, demonstrating a purity with harmonies infallibly sympathetic to the pure chords of the soul.12

The spirituality with which Kandinsky’s art is larded was also necessary. Major claims would have to be made, not so much to distinguish the new abstract art from new figurative art (cubism and expressionism) but to distinguish it from abstract motifs in the tradition of ornament. In the key period of Kandinsky’s development, the first two decades of the century, the tradition of ornament in western design was still unbroken and enjoyed the authority of two and a half millennia of cumulative richness and an aura of immortality. Its lively apologists in England (Pugin, Ruskin, Jones and Morris) were relatively recent; and concerted scholarly work through continental figures like Gottfried Semper and Alois Riegl related the field to systematic method.13 As prestigious as this tradition may have been in architectural circles, it was definitely not the paradigm to invoke; for the ‘merely’ decorative had already been seen as intellectually and poetically inferior, and a work of fine art which seemed to ape the applied arts would be stigmatized with connotations of routine, pattern, fill-in, the mechanical and so on. A strong expression of this contempt was the anti-decorative polemic of the early modernist architect Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime.14

The abstract enterprise also encouraged spiritual overstatement in order to outweigh the inadequacies of the visual outcome, and indeed the inherent inclemencies of a practical execution. The theory suggesting that the visual arts can be like music has obvious appeal; but the beauty and usefulness of it are apparently confined to theory. When the artist gets to the canvas, he or she discovers that colours in no way equate with pitch; likewise, distance on the two-dimensional plane presents no analogies to the idea of interval in music. Colour has elements (hue, saturation and tone) which are unlike those of sounds. And even if you could pretend that your palette were so many octaves, where do you put the chromatic notes in order to make visual melody? Up, down and across are extraordinarily complicated indices in painting, suggesting relationships of depth, very different to the unidirectional linear progression of time in music. And this is before you start thinking about chords or modes. The whole project is an embarrassment. Paintings do undoubtedly have a musical dimension; but it is no more certainly achieved by abstraction than by figuration. A Giorgione or a Poussin, for example, is much more sonorous and melodious than a Kandinsky. This is the basis for Bernard Smith coining the term formalesque, because ‘formalist’ does not belong to modernism alone but equally to Tiepolo or Watteau.

The evidence of Kandinsky’s abstract paintings just before the first world war is not encouraging. To equate with music means seeing them as somehow sonorously sumptuous; but it makes no more sense to call them beautiful than ugly: the forms are amorphous and ill-defined; they seem to have little lyricism to make their puffiness convincingly connected. The liaison between the forms seems somewhat messy and almost every brushstroke announces a fresh search for a rationale. In painting which is declared to be an ‘art of inner necessity’ all aspects seem conspicuously unnecessary. The paint has little to do except collide with itself, merge, smudge, stand apart, form balls or clouds or constellations of equivocal relationships. Especially if you consider the tradition of western music as being argumentative, a pattern that makes a case for a certain mood, the analogy with Kandinsky’s paintings seems strained. As the visual seeks, in his hands, to realize an imputedly true nature, unhampered by representation, it forsakes its previous evocative strength, which is arguably its point of closest contact with music. The attempt is forlorn because it co-opts the paint to act as something that it is not. The paint as music is less true to the essence of the medium—if such an essence can be imagined—than the paint as illusion.

Abstraction is easily dismissed by conservative critics: there is nothing to paint; therefore there is nothing to say. And as the mystical component is not evident in the painted result, it can be happily ignored. But Kandinsky’s approach to abstraction is less mystical than Mondrian’s. As a Theosophist, Mondrian is almost automatically inclined to the abstraction of spirituality; for the theosophical spiritual movement called for a kind of syncretism among the several major religions, an abstraction, in effect, by which each religion would tend to forego its peculiarities while the shared religious motifs would be emphasized. The areas of commonality among the belief systems would have extraordinary prestige in their power of suggesting convergence toward universal spirit.15

The movement can be compared to the philosophy underlying the immediate predecessors of De Stijl. The spirituality of the symbolists as articulated by theorists like Albert Aurier has a classical inflexion, not so far removed from Plato’s view that mere objects carry very little virtue on account of being embodied in material; but the idea (or form) which informed these objects already has a claim to a kind of universality, not limited to the single incarnation in a given material but capable of being rediscovered any number of times or exchanging energies with other ideas. Behind each object lies the idea of the object; and these ideas (or forms) can be perceived in a certain order by the clairvoyant, running from the specific idea of a functional object to the general idea of a category or abstraction which comprehends a great number of meaningful signs. One proposes a rather hieratic regime of ideas, in which the more general are higher than the more particular. At the apex of the triangle lies pure spirit or God. The spiritual mission of philosopher and artist is therefore to identify the most universal ideas—those capable of suggesting a great depth of meaning—and celebrate them with the expression of spirit which is proper to them.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this philosophy means abjuring the celebration of individual objects and the particular circumstances in which they are encountered. In a celebrated series of paintings from 1908–1912, Mondrian paints a tree, progressively losing the tactility of the bark, the pendulousness of the outer twigs, the elasticity of the branches, the diagonal thrust of boughs connecting them to the trunk, even the distinction between the tree and its background. It is as if he asks the question: sure, that is a given tree but what is the essence of the tree which would also be the essence of all trees? It is to grow up and then out. It proceeds from a shaft in a vertical direction and then spreads horizontally. And so Mondrian moves from a red, somewhat expressionistic tree on a blue symbolist background to a gridded abstraction (which would involve the essence of things other than trees): as the sequence is completed, he achieves a pictorial composition which has very little of the botanical specimen but an arrangement of horizontal and vertical lines and planes in warm grey.16 The tendency is also true of his Pier and Ocean series of slightly later date, effectively concluding in the pure abstract Composition of 1916, a patch-work of muted reds, blues and yellows, ‘hosted’ by a discontinuous grid of thin and short black lines.17

Parallel to the geometric abstractions of the Russian suprematists, Mondrian’s works after the first world war eliminate further traces of incident and accident in the application of paint. The gestural patches in the early abstractions of Mondrian are replaced by the artist with hard edges; and the sense of pitter-patter in their multiplicity is exchanged for larger areas of local colour. The thin and scattered discontinuous lines which interspersed the earlier work are geometricized and strengthened to act as pictorial girders. The colours are now the pure primaries, blue, red and yellow, as well as black and white. In this austere reduction of the multifarious appearances of painting, Mondrian confines his work to the elements, that is, the essential components out of which all possible pictorial manifestations are constituted, in the same way that all shapes can be described in mathematics by a relationship between the x, y and z axes, the essential dimensions of space. In Mondrian, the elements are vertical and horizontal, red, blue and yellow, line and plane, black and white.

The artistic excellence of Mondrian’s work from the twenties, usually bearing the general title Composition, depends on three generous givens: the first is that an intellectual or spiritual ascension to the universal (not a humble mission) is a credible aesthetic experience. The second is that the collapsing of pictorial variety to the chosen ingredients is a credible symbol of the same ascension to the universal, the higher state of being or consciousness by virtue of shedding the incumbencies of matter and the chaotic circumstantial messages which attend it. The third is that the formal result of echoing the intellectual or spiritual ascension to universality is sublimely beautiful, resolved and self-contained, suggesting not only some ultimate tranquillity but ultimate aesthetic intelligence. All three propositions are dubious, not the least because the very effort to shed particular information in order to achieve the universal ultimately strips the artwork of a communicative faculty. The planes and lines as such do not have great meaning, even as they gesture toward the absolute. The very universality which they institutionalize visually denies them a specific meaning; for meaning, like emotion, is always specific, even when its address is general.

The spiritual autonomy of the abstraction is inherently self-disappointing. It is impossible to know the high spiritual intention of the artwork without being told about it. The work on its own is fairly blank, perhaps subtly balanced, perhaps peaceful, perhaps daring in its contrasts, perhaps interesting in the way that the lines do not meet the border of the canvas and perhaps remotely engaging in the novel fact that it uniquely uses primaries, black and white. But the spiritual claims made on behalf of the whole aesthetic exercise are not inherent in the work. The great purity of the spiritualized abstraction is a paradox: one wishes to have nothing in the painting which has a non-pictorial rhetoric—like representation or narrative—but the effectiveness of the work in achieving any pertinence to the spiritual is dependent on an external exegesis. Abstraction as the great self-sufficiency of the visual is a failure. Of course, anyone who claims to be spiritually moved solely by beholding Mondrian’s Compositions has an incontrovertible privilege to assert it, as with the enthusiasm of those who believe that they have seen God.18

But the art which abstracts has no obligations to deliver. The purity is aesthetic, not therapeutic; it is aloof and, in the manner of a statue of Apollo, it basks in its own self-sufficiency, serenely free of any demands made upon it for the graces which it possesses but never promises to dispense. Like Mondrian, the Russian suprematists set the high tone of abstraction as the genre of pure spirit. Like Mondrian, Malevich increases the austerity of his paintings, even exceeding the Dutch artist’s economical planes and lines. In 1915, Malevich was creating hard-edge abstractions featuring geometric shapes jostling with one another, with an implied magnetism acting between them upon a light ground.19 In the same year, he would abandon the dynamism of parallel elements, and produce his famous Black Square, in which there is no trace of even that abstracted narrative of his other suprematist compositions.20 The blank canvas purposefully represents the degree zero of visual information and expression of experience. But it is not intended to be nihilistic; on the contrary, it is conceived as taking the next step, indeed the final step, in the necessary progress of art from totemism through illusionism to abstraction. The Black Square is thus the ‘ultimate painting’, a genre which has been cultivated by numerous artists such as Frank Stella ever since. Each artist attempts to do the ultimate painting, a painting beyond which nothing can be more radically basic.21

Once art is tied up in such claustrophobically absolutist agendas it is difficult for it to disentangle itself from an apocalyptic heroism which is also folly. Since Romanticism, the genius of art had been defined as progressive, anti-conservative, anti-traditional. There was no possibility of going back. The avant garde progressively paints itself into a corner, with an ever-more radical position being demanded of each artist as if by destiny, as if by the deterministic trajectory of art history. It is not long before artists feel that the arts of painting and sculpture are exhausted. Those who do not feel pessimistic either owe their complacency to a sweet compromise between the radical and the traditional or they owe it to the incorrigible conceit which the image of rebellious cultural hero had vested in artists since Romanticism. Both options encourage mannerism, the uncritical cultivation of stylistic tropes to garnish obsessive imagery or obsessive absence of imagery. In popular parlance, all artists have to have ‘a thing’, that is, a gimmick, such as an exorbitant elongation or scrawliness. Many gimmicks relate to medium-consciousness, that is, a self-reflexive address to the medium itself.

Modern art aspires to universal forms; it wants to make all visual contact submit to geometricized schemata or an emphatic expression of the medium, even when figurative. The incidental quality of the visual world (as seen in realism and photography) has no place and must be either totally expunged (as in abstraction) or suitably abstracted (as in modern figurative art) in order to enjoy the higher pertinence of universal forms. But the zeal for making all forms ‘universal’ causes in figurative artists peculiarly systematic distortions—as in the biomorphic sculptures of Henry Moore—which induce upon a work-a-day form a transcendental pertinence to a higher idea. All mannerisms have to be spiritually portentous, even though they have no symbolic referent beyond the internal argument of the medium and the style. Modern art must not communicate directly, as in the former representational traditions, for that would mean relinquishing the newly acquired essentialism which seems to grace any mannerism with a spiritual resonance, the sacramental element of making a form belong to a universal abstraction, borne infallibly to spiritual pertinence. The inadequacy to communicate is not seen as a failure but a success: the internalization of the process-oriented relationship between style and medium, the new limitations of the new art, become the symbol of spiritual pregnancy.22

The history of the diverse modernist movements cannot be related here but those signal examples which involve abstraction structurally conform to the paradigms already noted. Just as in previous centuries, the progress of art during modernism commenced upon a spiritual footing linked to archaic symbolic regimes; but its charter was to abstract the spirituality inherited from the immediate past, dispense with the haunted narratives, the overt symbolism, the imagery of a cathartic or liturgical function (as in the emotional stresses of Symbolism or the aesthetic askesis of Cézanne) and arrive at an order whose sacraments are more abstract and less material, less symbolically vested in objects and more cerebrally induced through aesthetic processes related to the artistic medium itself. Modernism seized the spiritual privileges of post-impressionism but did away with their referential specificity. Furthermore, in aesthetically abstracting from the spirituality of its antecedents, modernism (a) retained all the cryptic prestige of the spiritual without owing any responsibility to previous spiritual expectations and (b) achieved new glamour on account of aesthetically embodying spiritual phenomena in a less material incarnation.

Modernism is a mystical form of credit for failure. One sets up an unrealizable aspiration to a ‘universal language of form’ which, when reached, turns out to be supremely uninformative and semantically self-defeating, for no one can apprehend the meaning in the abstraction and recognize the intention. The artist strives either (a) to produce an abstraction whose meaningless is challenged by a gestural ‘auratic’ presence of mark-making or (b) to produce a potentially meaningful representation which is challenged by a stressful mannerist conformity to an abstract and universalizing language of form. You either agonize your abstraction or you agonize your representation. But in this agony, there is a bizarre and entirely sacramental virtue, widely understood by all proponents of modernism and its audience. For decades, now, many generations of artists have practiced a kind of sacrifice. They have sacrificed their talent. And for that sacrifice, they are given credit as true artists, dedicated to the cult of artistic progress.

The artist who seeks to cultivate a traditional idiom (a lonely and unsustainable aspiration) has failed to sacrifice his or her talent. He or she clings to the demonstration of perceptual evocation and cannot therefore claim the virtues of artistic sacrifice. Meanwhile, the artists who have seen the need for the sacrifice gladly take the plunge and gather their strengths in all kinds of other talents—many of which are not artistic—to produce incomprehensible work with an unfamiliar address and a staunch resistance to communicative ends or celebration of unnamed ambiguities or portentous obscurities. Anyone who works in an art-school anywhere in the western world can witness the sacrifices on a daily basis. The young art student is introduced to the perceptual disciplines of drawing, by way of backdrop—like the altarpiece before the altar—in the hope of gaining or reinforcing talents; but even when this enthusiasm is served by life-drawing classes constructed in good faith by competent lecturers to yield such skills, the neophyte will soon be induced to renounce them. It is not the pressures of the lecturers but the paradigm of history. At a certain point, after having glimpsed the possibilities of engaging his or her talents, the uninitiated artist becomes convinced that it is necessary to sacrifice the emerging talent in order to serve the sacramental nature of art, that economy of symbolic actions which makes art have spiritual claims. Students face the degrading prospect that their chances in a manual representational idiom are not supported by the definition of contemporary art and the trajectory of history; their first and most innocent aspiration must be sacrificed to show faith in the progress of art. It is not necessary for teachers to purvey this message; and there is no conspiracy. The sacrifice is structurally embedded in the way that art is understood during and after modernism. The student bows the head and submits.


1     Smith’s commitment to his own coinage is especially motivated by the broader aim of periodizing the twentieth-century in art-historical terms. See Smith (1998, 4–5) for the opening discussion of the formalesque, described as a “style-cycle” as distinct from a style.

2     See Crary (1999): in his analysis of works by Manet, Seurat, and Cézanne, Crary discusses each artist’s inventive approach as a contribution to late nineteenth-century changes in the understanding human vision and perceptual experience.

3     Auguste Rodin, The Walking Man, 1900–1907, bronze, Musée Rodin, Paris.

4     See Le Normande-Romain (2004, 145–159): while Rodin’s fragmentation of the figure refers to the heritage of classical antiquity, his conception of The Walking Man also encompasses the element of time as it relates to human movement, and as this, too, can be manipulated through the figurative form.

5     See Tompkins Lewis (2000): in her words, Cézanne was always “a painter’s painter,” as demonstrated by his lifelong commitment to working intensively across the spectrum of traditional genres in painting. “It was from his fellow artists that he received his first, most consistent and, with few exceptions, until the very end, his only expressions of support” (8).

6     Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Red Tower in the Park, 1910, oil on canvas, Städel Museum, Frankfurt.

7     Thus, for instance, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Nude Behind a Curtain (Fränzi), 1910, oil on canvas, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

8     Henri Matisse, The Green Line (Portrait of Madame Matisse), 1905, oil and tempera on canvas, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.

9     For Elderfield (1996), Matisse’s representations of women can be viewed as a part of a strategy for self-analysis and self-representation; see this extended essay, or lecture, on the role of female models in Matisse’s reflections on the creative processes of painting.

10    Staller (2001, 163–267) examines Picasso’s cultural and aesthetic formation in Màlaga, arguing that the artist transformed those specific, coded languages and signs that pervaded his early life in Catholic Spain into a basis for the hermeticism of cubism.

11    Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Four Bathers, 1910, oil on canvas, Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal.

12    Kandinsky’s essay in Russian, “On the Spiritual in Art,” was first presented on the artist’s behalf as a lecture in St Petersburg, in 1911. See the English edition of this philosophical, optimistic tract in Bowlt and Washton-Long (1980).

13    Schafter’s (2002) monograph has the advantage of considering the theories of Ruskin, Jones, Semper and Riegl simultaneously in the one volume, in relation to the modernism of late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century central Europe. See also the monumental study Modernism’s History by Smith (1998).

14    The probable date of this treatise is ca. 1909–1910; urging the abolition of ornament from functional or utilitarian objects and design, Loos intended the text as a public lecture: see Long (1997, 440–445).

15    On Mondrian as “the purest and most single-minded of the great pioneering abstractionists,” see Golding (2000, 9–46). Abundantly illustrated, this monograph examines the breadth of meanings and pictorial truths with which abstraction was self-consciously invested by the European originators of abstract painting, and by their major American successors.

16    Piet Mondrian, Evening; Red Tree, 1908, oil on canvas, Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague; The Gray Tree, 1911, oil on canvas, Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague; Flowering Appletree, 1912, oil on canvas, Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague. A comparison of these works well demonstrates Mondrian’s transformation of the natural motif into a structural motif.

17    Piet Mondrian, Pier and Ocean 5 (Sea and Starry Sky), 1914, charcoal and gouache on buff paper, Museum of Modern Art, New York, is a well known example from the Pier and Ocean series; Composition, 1916, oil on canvas with wood strip, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

18    And even one so close to God as St John declares that ‘no one has ever seen God’. John 1.18; see also the same text in 1 John 4.12.

19    For example, Kazmir Malevich, Suprematism (18th Construction), 1915, oil on canvas, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

20    Kazmir Malevich, Black Square, 1915, oil on canvas, Hermitage, St Petersburg. See the major exhibition catalogue by Drutt (2003), which takes this iconic work as a starting point for detailed documentation and reflection on the origins and development of suprematism.

21    In the history of abstract art and design, the high formality of such reductionism can be shown to develop into ornamentation: see the exhibition catalogue by Brüderlin (2001), which brings Stella’s work into a different kind of conjuction with that of the earlier, European abstract painters.

22    At the same time, in her provocative book aimed at a broad readership (unconfined to those with a specialist interest in the art world), Suzi Gablik argues: “To the public at large, modern art has always implied a loss of craft, a fall from grace, a fraud, or a hoax. We may accept with good grace not understanding a foreign language or algebra, but in the case of modern art it is more likely, as Roger Fry once pointed out, that people will think, when confronted with a work they do not like and cannot understand, that it was done to insult them” (Gablik 1984, 23).


Brüderlin, M., ed. 2001. Ornament and Abstraction: The Dialogue Between Non-Western, Modern and Contemporary Art. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Crary, J. 1999. Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture. London and Cambridge: MIT Press.

Drutt, M. 2003. Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism. New York: Guggenheim Museum. [Exhibition catalogue.]

Elderfield, J. 1996. Pleasuring Painting: Matisse’s Feminine Representations. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Gablik, S. 1984. Has Modernism Failed? 2nd ed. London: Thames & Hudson.

Golding, J. 2000. Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still. London: Thames & Hudson.

Kandinsky. 1911. “On the Spiritual in Art”. In The Life of Vasilii Kandinsky in Russian Art: A Study of on the Spiritual in Art (1980), edited by Bowlt, J. E.; Washton-Long, R., and translated by Bowlt, J. Russian Biography Series 4. Newtonville, Massachusetts: Oriental Research Partners.

Le Normande-Romain, A. 2004. “The Lesson of Antiquity”. In Rodin: The Zola of Sculpture, edited by Mitchell, C. Subject/Object: New Studies in Sculpture Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing. 145–159.

Long, C. 1997. “Ornament, Crime, Myth, and Meaning”. In Architecture: Material and Imagined. Proceedings of the 85th American Collegiate Schools of Architecture Annual Meeting. Washington. 440–445.

Schafter, D. 2002. The Order of Ornament, the Structure of Style: Theoretical Foundations of Modern Art and Architecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, B. 1998. Modernism’s History: A Study in Twentieth-Century Art and Ideas. Sydney: UNSW Press.

Staller, N. 2001. A Sum of Destructions: Picasso’s Cultures and the Creation of Cubism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Tompkins Lewis, M. 2000. Cézanne. London: Phaidon Press.

Cite this chapter as: Nelson, Robert. 2007. ‘The new and the true’. The Spirit of Secular Art: A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Values. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 8.18.18.

The Spirit of Secular Art

   by Robert Nelson