Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction


The Truth in Painting (1987)

In 1905 Paul Cézanne wrote to the younger artist, Emile Bernard, “I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you.” One can immediately imagine how Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) would have seized upon such a statement with its promise of “truth” “in painting,” two dubious precepts. Derrida would be compelled to deconstruct such a proposition. Despite its name, the Deconstruction that is associated with Derrida is not an act of destruction or a breaking up, instead Deconstruction, like Structuralism is an activity or performance. Deconstruction is reading, a textual labor, traversing the body of a text, leaving “a track in the text.” Unlike other forms of critical analysis, deconstruction cannot happen from the outside but, as Derrida stated, “Deconstruction is something that happens and happens from the inside.” As he stated to an audience of academics at Villanova in 1994 (in English),

The very meaning and mission of deconstruction is to show that things–texts, institutions, traditions, societies, beliefs, and practices of whatever size and sort you need–do not have definable meanings and determinable missions, that they are always more than any mission would impose, that they are always more than any mission could impose, that they exceed the boundaries they currently occupy..A “meaning” or a “mission” is a way to contain and compact things, like a nutshell, gathering them into a unity, whereas deconstruction bends all its efforts to stretch beyond these boundaries, to transgress these confines, to interrupt and disjoint all such gatherings.Whatever it runs up against a limit, deconstruction presses against. Whenever deconstruction finds a nutshell–a secure axiom or a pithy maxim–the very idea is to crack it open and disturb this tranquility. Indeed, that is a good rule of thumb in deconstruction. That is what deconstruction is all about, its very meaning and mission, if it has any. One might say that cracking nutshells is what decontsructrucion is. In a nutshell.

Deconstruction does not appeal to a higher logical principle or superior reason, something which Derrida considered to be metaphysical. His goal was to upsets the system of hidden hierarchies that composed philosophy by producing an exchange of properties. His major target was the hierarchy between speech and writing, in which speech was presumed to have preceded writing, this giving to speech a (false) priority and the (false) presumption of origin. In inverting the hierarchies embedded in paired opposites, Derrida insisted neither element can occupy the position of origin (such as speech over writing) and the origin looses its metaphysical privilege, which is why he insisted on deconstructing the Structuralist system of polarities and oppositions. He pointed out that the pairs, far from being equal or balanced, were, in fact, hierarchized, with one term being preferred (culturally) over the other. If this is the case, if “good” is preferred over “bad”, then the meanings of each/both term/s are interdependent. If the terms are interdependent, then they cannot be separated or polarized. If the terms cannot be separated or opposed in any final way, then their meanings are also interdependent and inseparable. This logical march which deconstructs

Structuralism began with Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) who was concerned with the problem of transcendence, the objectivity of objects, and their existence outside of temporal consciousness. In other words, the object had to be a form of knowledge of the object itself, not the mental acts which cognitively construct it. Phenomenological reflection suspends or “brackets” the question of existence and privileges the experience-of-object, which is the “object to be described” and this privileging means that the identity of the object must be ideal. But Derrida did not believe that Husserl’s transcendental acts of pure perception existed or that such states of purity could exist. Husserl posited an absolute ideal of objectivity, geometry, in order to differentiate between subjective and objective structures. Derrida asserted that Husserl “lodged” objectivity within subjectivity or self-presence, and that if this is the case, then the self must differentiate itself from the object and thus, Husserl introduces the idea of difference.

Derrida charged that Husserl created a structure of alterity or the otherness of the meaning or self. Living presence, according to Derrida, is always inhabited by difference. To express this differently, so to speak, difference creates an endlessly deferred meaning as the self and the object oscillate, unable to fix a position. By deconstructing Husserl’s philosophy, Derrida relocated his philosophy as writing. Without this “fixing” of a position, then a transcendental position is impossible, for if Derrida is correct and Husserl is merely writing, then yet another metaphysical account of the mystical thing in itself is revealed to be a figurative fiction. To the dismay of traditionalists, Postmodernism robs us of the fantasy of certainty. If we can never be certain, we can never know the truth. In contrast, the “close reading” of the Structuralists, that sought to find “unity,” gives way to a new close reading–Deconstruction–that seeks the “uncanny”–a Freudian term–that works against the bounds of the text. “The uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar…” said Freud, referring to something that is repressed but recurs, responding to deeper laws, which for Deconstruction is that which is hidden in the text.

Deconstruction intervenes in philosophical texts, seeking what is not acknowledged, and intercedes in the field of oppositions and their hierarchies and works within the terms of the system in order to break open the structure and to breach its boundaries to determine what might have been concealed or excluded, or repressed. To deconstruct a discourse is to show it undermines the authority of philosophy and reveals its literary/rhetorical aspects. In identifying the rhetorical oppositions that structure the ground of the argument Deconstruction deconstructs philosophy as language, as writing. In The Truth in Painting (1987), Derrida interrogated Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) by introducing the concept of the passé-partout or what Americans refer to as the mat that encircles the painting or print or photograph, i. e. the work of art. He wrote,

Between the outside and the inside, between the external and the internal edge-line, the framer and the framed, the figure and the ground, form and content, signifier and signified, and so on for any two-faced opposition. The trait thus divides in this place where it takes place. The emblem for this topos seems undiscoverable; I shall borrow it from the nomenclature of framing: the passe-partout. The passe-partout which here creates an event must not pass for a master key.

Using the concepts of inside/outside and the idea of betweenness, Derrida was led to the next obvious question: “What is art? Then: Where does it come from ? What is the origin of art? This assumes that we reach agreement about what we understand by the word art. Hence: What is the origin of the meaning of “art?” The modern meaning of art must begin with Kant’s third Critique which was then commented upon by Georg Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1818-1829), who, in turn was over-writen by Martin Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art (written 1935-7, published 1950/60) and Derrida also used Kantian the concept of the “parergon” to question the supposed autonomy of art and its relation to various discourses, such as history and philosophy, which seek to preserve its autonomy. The parergon is the frame, the boundary between the art work (ergon) and its background and context, and in surrounding the painting, the frame guarantee its musical/metaphysical autonomy as “art.” Kant rejected the boundary-conditions and prevented the invasion of art’s privileged domain by assuming a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic, or that which is proper to the domain of art and that which is outside the properties of art itself.

Kant introduced the metaphor of framing in an attempt to delimit a proper space of aesthetic representation, but in so doing, Kant perceived a problem, an undecidability in some seemingly marginal details that could not be detached without altering or upsetting the composition. For example, what is intrinsic to a sculpture with drapery? Should the body be considered as autonomous, that is self-sufficient without the drapery, or is the drapery intrinsic to the work of art itself? Decorative outwork was perceived of as part of art’s intrinsic quality, such as clothing on statues, which is not part of the essential form, and architectural details that are purely functional but that cannot be excluded from the overall artistic impression. Therefore for Kant, the parergon is a hybrid of inside and outside, frame, clothing, column, and there is no deciding what is intrinsic to artwork and what belongs to the outside frame. From the standpoint of Deconstruction, this “Framing” discourse is the chief concern of aesthetics which legitimizes its own existence by fixing a boundary between art and other modes of knowledge, including history and theory. “Art” becomes “art” through boundaries that exclude its other. Clearly, this notion of “frame” and the idea of “boundary” are both figural constructs hidden in plain sight within the discourse of aesthetics.

The frame is another variation of the Structure. Rhetorical figures, such as the “frame” in art, exist within discourse for a reason. Therefore, Derrida asked, “What is at stake?” why is the frame/the structure necessary? In asking why it is necessary to place art within s structure, to produce boundaries to validate “art,” he then demystified the notion of aesthetics as disinterested value. Aesthetics in “interested” in the sense that it defines and therefore produces “art” via these framing devices. The frame must be present in order to structure and the purpose of structurality is to both contain art within and exclude all that is deemed non-art. In the case of art, that which is “not art” is excluded in order to shape and form “art” as an entity that is transcendent. Therefore, Derrida asked, “What particular interests are served by aesthetics”? Contrary to the notion of a discourse that assumes art gives access to the realm of timeless and disinterestedness values, any discourse on art is always and inevitably bound up with interests that belong to the outside (of art).

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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“Modernist Painting” by Clement Greenberg


Clement Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting,” originally given as a radio broadcast in 1961 for the Voice of America’s “Forum Lectures,” was printed in 1961 in the Arts Yearbook 4 of the same year, reprinted in 1965, ’66, ‘74, ’78, and 1982. The article achieved a canonical status and served as one of the definitive statements of formalism as a mode of visual analysis and of formalism as a critical stance, and possibly, of formalism as a mode of making art. In his 1961 essay on “Modernist Painting,” Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) defined “Modernism” as the period (in art) roughly from the mid-1850s to his present that displayed a self-critical tendency in the arts.

Greenberg considered Immanuel Kant the first Modernist. The essence of Kant’s thesis was the employment of the characteristic “methods” of the discipline to “criticize the discipline itself.” According to Greenberg, Kant used logic to establish “the limits of logic.” The Modernist goal of self-criticism grows out of the critical spirit of the Enlightenment philosophical system which was based upon the belief in the power of rational thought and human reason. “Critique,” as a method, analyzes from the inside, from within the object being examined and does not judge from the outside, according to external criteria.

Painting must analyze itself to discover its inherent properties. Painting, according to Enlightenment methodology, must be interrogated according to its inherent purposes. The key term here would be “inherent,” for analyzing an object according to its essential definition must preclude bringing forward any non-essential or external criteria. In other words, a painting telling a “good story” is not necessarily a good painting. In this article, Greenberg carries on his attempt to “save” and to define “high art,” and “Modernist Painting” of 1960 can be compared to “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” of 1939. Two decades had passed and Greenberg had progressed from being an up-and-coming art writer to being the arbiter of fine arts in New York, enjoying a truly hegemonic position. His crusade was all the more urgent in 1961, as territory of the avant-garde was being invaded by popular culture and the forces of disrule, exemplified by Neo-Dada and Pop Art and Fluxus. Greenberg had also shifted his political position, from being an intellectual Marxist, to being a Kantian formalist, a far safer situation which removes the critic and art from current cultural considerations.

Greenberg stated that art can “save” itself from being entertainment by demonstrating that the experience it provides is “unobtainable from any other source.” It is the task of art to demonstrate that which is “unique” and “irreducible”, particular or peculiar to art and that which determines the operation peculiar and exclusive to itself. All effects borrowed from any other medium must be eliminated, rendering the art form pure. “Purity” becomes a guarantee of “quality” and “independence” of avant-garde art. All extrinsic effects should be eliminated from painting.

One could say that it is not the essential to the definition of a painting that it re-create the world realistically. Today, that role can be fulfilled by photography or film. Film and theater are defined by storytelling and narrative, enhanced by illusions of everyday reality. Following Greenberg’s line of reasoning, realism and story telling and illusionism should be eliminated from painting. For Greenberg, art was used to call attention to art. Clement Greenberg logically worked out the limitations and peculiarities of painting, which are a flat surface, the shape of the support and the properties of the pigment. These physical and material limiting conditions became positive factors.

Once suppressed by artists through under-painting and glazing, these material aspects of painting were now acknowledged by Modernist painters. Because he appeared to have considered and taken into account the limitations of painting as the application of paint upon a flat surface, or a stretched canvas, Édouard Manet is designated by Greenberg as the first Modernist artist. Manet “declared the surface;” his follower, Paul Cézanne, fit the drawing and design into the rectangle of the painting. In Modernist painting, the spectator is made aware of the flatness and sees the picture first, before noting the content.

Modernist painting abandoned the principle of representation of Renaissance illusionistic space inhabited by three-dimensional objects, giving the effect of looking through the canvas into a world beyond. Modernist painting resists the sculptural, which is suppressed or expelled. The question is that of a purely optical experience. With Greenberg, flatness alone is unique to painting. For this critic, “art” carries within itself its own teleology. As art seeks self-definition and determines its own uniqueness, it becomes more pure, more reductive in its means. More is eliminated—subject matter, content, figuration, illusionism, narrative—and art becomes independent, detached, and non-objective, that is, abstract. Content becomes completely dissolved into form. Greenberg, in looking back selectively at the history of art, presented a map of progress and evolution of painting, away from representation and toward purity, abstraction, reductiveness; to flatness, to pure color, to simple forms that reflected the shape of the surface.

The essay noted that Modernism “resists sculpture” or three-dimensionality and reminded the reader that this “resistance” was by no mean recent. The critic pointed to Jacques-Louis David as an example of an artist whose work was flat and surface based. Greenberg insisted that the scientific method justified the demand that painting (and art) limit itself to “what is given in visual experience.” Greenberg equated the artist to the scientists, both of whom “test” and experiment. The equation of art with science, replaces his earlier equation of the avant-garde with politics: “…a superior culture is inherently a more critical culture.” One can “only look” at a work of visual art, which is discernible only to the “eye.” Poetry is “literary,” art is not and should not attempt to be, for as Greenberg reminded us, any translation of the literary into the visual “loses” the literary qualities.

Like Avant-garde and Kitsch, Modernist Painting, had a subtext, Enlightenment philosophy, especially that of Kant’s Critique of Judgment. The 1939 article concerned itself with aesthetics but more with the “experience” of the aesthetic. In Avant-garde and Kitsch, it is possible to believe that Greenberg was writing of the experience of the aesthetic in terms of the placement of art in the culture, in other words, it is not so much the “how” of the experience but of the “where” of the aesthetic. In Modernist Painting, the experience of the aesthetic is located in the realm of the how one looks at a work of art.

The proper attitude of the spectator was important to Kant who recommended a posture of detachment from personal desire and indifference to artistic content in search of a universal means of judging the efficacy of art. The Enlightenment philosophy cherished the idea of the universal or the absolute, for some kind of standard had to be erected to replace the all-knowing presence of the now-banished God. Kant was not interested in defining what “art” was but in establishing the ground for the judgment of art. Working in the new philosophical field, aesthetics, Kant attempted to establish the epistemology of art, based, not in individual works but in a method of knowledge.

Greenberg’s understanding of Kant led him to use the methodology of critique but the critic took “critique” in a rather different direction. Writing two centuries after the German philosopher, Greenberg looked backwards in time and implied another favorite Enlightenment idea, that of progress. Modernist art, if one understands the essay correctly, seems to “progress” and move forward in time, away from manifestations of extrinsic properties and towards a purity of means. “Modernist art develops out of the past without gap or break, and wherever it ends up, it will never stop being intelligible in terms of the continuity of art.”

The ground has shifted away from a means of judgment (Kant) to a theory of the evolution of art along telelogical lines with a goal in mind: purity. Even though as Greenberg pointed out, “The first mark made on the canvas destroys its virtual flatness,” purity seems to imply a historical rejection of representation and a validation of abstraction. The point of noting Greenberg’s development of Kantian theory and its application toward Modernist Painting is that, without the notion of progress, the critic’s theory of artistic development would have to include some of the masters of flatness, such as William Bourguereau and some of the masters of the surface such as Thomas Kincaide, both of whom Greenberg would have excluded from the family tree of modernism.

While Kant would at least judge these two artists (and perhaps find them wanting), Greenberg seems to imply a connection between Modernism and the avant-garde and establish ground for exclusion of the unworthy. The oppositions of the dialectic are implied: those who did not follow the path of Modernist reductionism were, like dinosaurs, left behind. If one reads in a connection between Modernism and the avant-garde, even if only through the names of the canonical artists Greenberg mentioned and thought his previous articles, then the conflation between the continuity of art and the avant-garde, which supposedly breaks with the past, becomes rather awkward. Indeed, Greenberg does not mention the avant-garde, he uses the term “authentic art,” instead.

“Nothing could be further from the authentic art of our time than the idea of a rupture of continuity. Art is, among many other things, continuity. Without the past of art, and without the need and compulsion to maintain past standards of excellence, such a thing as modernist art would be impossible,” Greenberg stated.

However, as pointed out in his earlier work, Greenberg refused to connect the avant-garde with a rejection of the past: “…the true and most important function of the avant-garde was not to ‘experiment’ but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving…” (Greenberg’s italics). The underlying continuity of the two articles can be seen in the precursor remark in the 1939 writing on the role of the avant-garde artist: “’Art for art’s sake’ and ‘pure poetry’ appear, and subject matter or content becomes something to be avoided like the plague.” Given the openness of the construction of this essay and the plurality of texts mobilized by Greenberg, it is no wonder that “Modernist Painting” lent itself to so many causes, whether as a rallying point or as a bête noir.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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The Making of the New York School


In 1983, art historian, Serge Guilbaut, wrote a provocatively titled book, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. How, indeed? While the first chapter of this book discusses the politics of the New York intelligentsia and the various stances and shades of Marxism, I wish to look to the cultural matrix between the wars that drove avant-garde innovation to the shores of America. Socially and politically, this was a period of isolation and appeasement in Europe. Artistically, the period between the wars was a Return to Order. The result was a marketable and conservative version of avant-garde in Paris and a radical return to an unflinching realism in Germany.

After the Great War, European powers would have given away anything and anyone to avoid losing another generation of young men. The result of the very natural desire to save lives was to allow a rising tide of Communism in Russia and Fascism in Italy and Germany and a continental drift towards totalitarianism. The Great Depression of the 1930s made desperate people susceptible to the lure of a leader. Whether Communist or Fascist, both types of regimes were repressive to avant-garde art, which was banned by Hitler (collected by his henchmen) as “degenerate” and replaced by socialist realist art in Russia. As Clement Greenberg pointed out art in the Soviet Union devolved into kitsch of which Nazi art, based upon debased classicism, was a perfect example. Less well known is the position of Fascist art in Italy, which was based upon debased Modernism, appropriated by Mussolini in order to ally the new Roman Empire with modernity.

Artistically, the state of avant-garde art after the Great War was conservative. In France this return to traditionalism was termed rétour à l’ordre and this New Classicism was the foundation of the School of Paris. Although Paris as center of international art scene, it was not as dynamic as it had been before the War. The young artists were decidedly minor, compared to the maturing leaders, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The only overtly avant-garde movement was Surrealism. Surrealism did not originate in the visual arts but in the psychology of Sigmund Freud, used by the poets of the movement to search for different sources for inspiration beyond or “sur” reality. The visual artists, who came to the movement later, adapted and played with Surrealist ideas and techniques, some of which, such as écriture automatique, would have a life beyond the movement.

In Germany, the subject matter of New Objectivity was highly active and provocative and confrontational but the styles employed by the artists were deliberately old world. The famous art school, the Bauhaus, was not innovative in the fine arts but was very avant-garde in the world of design and architecture. In comparison to the acceptance of the French version of the avant-garde and its highly lucrative art market, the artists in German who were trying to challenge the establishment met with hostile reactions from the Weimar government. The Bauhaus designers had ideas that were ahead of the technological and industrial capabilities, which would be achieved only after the Second World War. At any rate this flowering of the avant-garde art scene in Berlin was brief, not well received in its own time and ended abruptly under Hitler in 1933.

Meanwhile, the situation in America was not one of a need for order no matter what the costs. America was not faced with a Hobson’s choice between totalitarianism versus the need for peace no matter what the costs or accommodation to the forces of “order.” Although the nation participated reluctantly in the Great War, America had traditionally been isolationist in its mindset towards European art, preferring its own utilitarian culture of necessity. The idea of art-for-art’s-sake, so dear to Europeans, was alien to Americans. Art was a useless luxury. What art there was existed in New York. Despite the brush with the avant-garde of Europe at the 1913 Armory Show, conservative and backward versions of outdated art styles from the Old Country, such as the regressive realism of the Ashcan School.

But the early twentieth-century artists of the Ashcan School suited American audiences who had always preferred realism and art about themselves. Nevertheless, there were two small groups of avant-garde artists in New York, the group of artists around Alfred Stieglitz, the American Modernists: Paul Strand, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, and Charles Demuth. Coexisting and crossing paths with the Stieglitz group were a more radical set circulating around the collectors, Walter and Louise Arensberg. The New York Dada, consisting largely of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, was only tangentially related to the Dada groups in Europe and was arguably more significant for artists in the fifties than the artists of the forties.

At any rate, these early twentieth century movements were no longer coherent groups by the thirties and the members were scattered and had gone on to follow their personal interests. The exhaustion of American Modernism and Dada left a space that was filled by nationalist art movements, the regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood and the political activism of Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn. The decade of the thirties was a decade of “American” art, not the “American” art of Sheeler and Demuth and Stuart Davis and Ralston Crawford, all of which celebrated the industry of the nation, but the folksy, rural agrarian tradition of “Americana.” In contrast, Social Realism and versions of politically active art practiced by the Mexican muralists introduced content that attempted to reveal the grim truth of the Depression.

The Depression, however, was good to artists. The United States government attempted to find work for all Americans who needed work and provided specialized jobs for specialized communities. Artists and writers were allowed to remain artists and writers in an economic climate that would have ordinarily wiped out the careers of most of them. For the first time, artists were recognized as “artists” and were mobilized by the government as professionals and given honest work. Art history has tended to ignore the work done by artists under the New Deal on the basis of aesthetic judgment and because the artists were hired hands with little freedom to invent. However, the New Deal projects were important to the future because New Deal spread art throughout a nation where art had never existed, where artists were unknown. The New Deal kept artists actively making art, whether mural art or easel art and paid them a living wage. Perhaps the Depression artists were given commissions and parameters to follow but their situation was far superior to that of artists under Hitler or Stalin.

Although not articulated at the time, it was clear to the avant-garde American artists involved with the tradition of European modernism, that the avant-garde overseas was exhausted. The previous leaders, from Picasso to Breton, were aging and were intent upon consolidating their careers and reputations. The steam had gone out of the European avant-garde and nothing had happened to take the place of Surrealism as the leader in innovation. Because of the many interdictions on avant-garde art in nations under totalitarian rule, much of the work being done by European artists who could still make art was not widely circulated. The international art scene that had existed up to the thirties no longer existed and the free flow of artistic ideas was dammed up.

But there was an island, and an unlikely island at that, where avant-garde art could be seen in its variety and entirety—New York City. As early as 1921, there was an exhibition at Brooklyn Museum of Cézanne and Matisse and in 1926 very new and cutting edge artists, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and El Lissitzky. And then in 1929 the Museum of Modern Art opened under Alfred Barr. The Museum of Modern Art became a major site for introducing Modernist ideas and modern art to the American public. A number of exhibitions at the museum set up the history of Modernism with shows of the work of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Vincent van Gogh in 1929, Toulouse-Lautrec and Redon in 1931. And to get the New York art audiences up to date Barr mounted a Survey of the School of Paris, Painting in Paris, a show featuring Léger in 1935, and the iconic exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936. Recent movements were also made available with the 1936 – 37 exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada & Surrealism and the show of the Bauhaus 1919 – 1928 in 1930 to 1939.

Ironically when Barr mounted exhibitions of the art of Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, American artists became better educated in modernist art than their European counterparts. The Museum of Modern Art used the decade of the thirties to give Americans a crash course and a history lesson (exemplified by his famous chart in the beginning of his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art) on Modernism. However, these exhibitions also served to convince the local artists that they had to break out of what was clearly an avant-garde that was now part of history. American artists began seeing other sources for inspiration and other approaches to art, from the exhibition, African Negro Art in 1935, the exhibition Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and America of 1937, and a very influential exhibition of Native American art, Indian Art of the United States in 1941.

While of great importance, the Museum of Modern Art was symptomatic of the early evidence of the establishment of a genuine art world in New York. Albert Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art in the library of New York University showed Neo-Plasticism and Constructivist art. The Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim) opened in 1939. Under the leadership of Hilla Rebay, the museum began to collect the best examples of European modernist art, such as Kandinsky, Arp, Malevich, Léger, Delaunay, Giacometti. A few American artists were included, such as David Smith but for the most part the Museum looked mainly to Europe. Local artists were certainly receptive to modernist art. Art collector, Katherine Dreier and Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp, founded the Société Anonyme in 1920 for avant-garde thinkers, and abstract painters came together when the American Abstract Artists was established in 1936.

Although artists in New York often complained that MoMA was biased towards European artists, half the museum’s exhibitions were of American artists and the range of art shown was astonishing, from photography to design to architecture. As further evidence of the growing importance of New York as a cultural center was the large numbers of political refugees that arrived during the 1930s. German artist, Hans Hoffmann, had a school of fine arts in Munich but he was among the many perceptive artists who saw the handwriting on the wall and closed the school in 1932 and came to America. Hofmann opened his own school in New York City in 1934 and a summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1935. The Bauhaus artists and architects, fleeing Hitler after the closure of the school in 1933, would join him in exile. Josef and Annie Albers became teachers at the famous Black Mountain College and while their impact upon the New York artists of the forties was certainly less than that of Hofmann, the presence of experienced teachers of modernist art would shape a generation of artists.

For the first time, American artists could hear European art theories, taught by an artist who combined German Expressionism with French Cubism. Clement Greenberg, largely a literary critic, began attending Hofmann’s lectures, learning studio talk and crafting himself as an art critic. Hofmann joined other émigré artists already in place. Arshile Gorky (Vosdanig Adoian) had arrived in New York ten years earlier and had assimilated the same traditions as Hofmann, but from visits to museums. In what would be a typically American strategy of synthesizing European movements, Gorky added Surrealism to the mix. John Graham (Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky) came to the United States from Russian and never looked back, becoming an America citizen in 1927. A decade later he wrote “Picasso and Primitive Art” and Systems and Dialectics in Art. Writing in 1937, Graham, who was in touch with European art, suggested that American artists look to the “primitive” art forms and championed abstract art. Graham was concerned with the development of an art that could be expressive

Graham was one of several figures that mentored the new generation of artists in New York, including the Mexican mural artist, David Siqueiros who experimented with airbrush and spray techniques in his painting. Jackson Pollock, whom Graham knew well, visited this workshop twice, intrigued with the large scale of the murals and with the non-fine art tools. The first mural done by a Mexican artist was produced in 1930 by José Clemente Orozco at Pomona College in the small town of Claremont, California, east of Los Angeles. Jackson Pollock, who had grown up in Los Angeles, went out of his way to see the Prometheus mural on his way to New York. Diego Rivera was also in New York but sadly his mural for the Rockefeller Center was destroyed in 1934 but the concept of a wall scaled work of art would have a lasting impact on the New York School.

The last group of artists to arrive in America was the Surrealists from France. Like Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall, they came to America in 1940 as a last resort. As the irresistible wave of Hitler’s Wehrmacht rolled over Europe and as London huddled under a rain of bombs, New York was the only safe place for an artist who was avant-garde or Jewish or both. By the time the Surrealists arrived, the New York artistic scene was ready for the last dose of heady European art theory. Although the Surrealists, led by André Breton, were not interested in communicating with the locals, Roberto Matta, a Chilean artist, acted as go-between and the ideas and techniques of the French artists were transmitted to the New York artists. Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, André Masson, and Yves Tanguy circulated more than Breton and Tanguy and Ernst married American artists, Kay Sage and Dorothea Tanning, respectively.

The famous Peggy Guggenheim returned home, but with European booty, a treasure trove of avant-garde European from artists who were desperate to sell their works. She tried to purchase “a work a day,” her motto. This large and significant collection became the foundation of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, established when she returned to Venice in 1946. In addition to collecting art, Guggenheim also collected the German artist, Max Ernst who had been interned as an enemy alien in Aix-en-Provence in 1940. But when the Germans conquered France, Ernst, as a “degenerate artists” was still in danger and was arrested by the Nazis. He escaped from the Gestapo and, with the help of Peggy Guggenhiem, was able to get to America through Portugal. Ernst and the art collector married in 1941 and in 1942 she opened her gallery, Art of This Century.

Always competitive with her uncle, Guggenheim was now a full-fledged rival and became a major player on the New York art scene, presiding over her gallery, designed by Frederick Keisler. At the urging of Lee Krasner, Peggy Guggenheim began to sponsor Krasner’s boyfriend, Jackson Pollock. Major questions faced the artists of the New York School to extend the European tradition of Modernism, now ossified, or stake out new territory and create their own art, a new American tradition. Also up for discussion, what of this European tradition to retain and what to discard, what to take from the “American” scene and what to learn from the Mexican artists. Now, with the arrival of so many European artists, the Americans were able to acquire not just new tools for painting but also the words, the language, which allowed them to talks about art. The stage was now ready and the scene was set. All the players were in motion and the art world had shifted the New York, which had “stolen” the idea of Modern Art.

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Phases of Cubism: Analytic Cubism


One could ask the question, when did “Cubism” begin? Some art historians consider a single painting of 1907, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, as the beginning. But that would be assuming that Picasso was the most important Cubist artist. The problem with that assumption is that the artist never considered Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to be finished and kept the work rolled up under his bed until he sold it in the 1920s to the collector, fashion designer, Jacques Doucet. The painting was exhibited publicly only once in 1916 (during the Great War) until the 1920s and was purchased in 1929 for the new Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

The idea that “Cubism” began with a painting that was unfinished and private was an anachronistic concept. Historically, “Cubism” as a word referring to an artistic movement did not appear in print until around 1910 and was used in reference of the Salon Cubists. But if one agrees with the position of art historians that Picasso and Barque were the instigators and innovators of Cubism, then the year 1907 is a good year to begin. If nothing else, 1907 is a good year because it is by this year that Fauvism is definitively over and a brief period of movement towards the next avant-garde idea begins.

Proto-Cubism: 1907-1910

This early formative period, from 1907 to 1910 includes Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Braque’s reaction to the painting, Grand Nu. During this period, Braque broke with Fauvism and veered towards Paul Cézanne. Picasso assimilated the twin influences of African tribal art (sculpture) and the legacy of Cézanne. In 1907 Picasso produced the culmination of his interest in tribal art, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a key work during this period. The painting was shown to a few close friends, including his new friend, Georges Braque, who responded with a work of his own, the Grand Nu, which was heavily indebted to Matisse, indicating his Fauvist roots. Nevertheless Braque abruptly dropped out of the waning Fauve movement and cast his lot with Picasso. Picasso and Braque were in painterly sync by 1908.

Having completed their experiments with other styles and influences, they settled into their final project: extending the logic of Cézanne. Both Braque and Picasso produced very Cézannesque landscapes, Picasso at Horta del Ebro in Spain and Braque at Cézanne’s only painting grounds of L’Estaque. Picasso’s paintings still reflect the colors he favored in 1906, the ochres and siennas seen in Two Women and the Portrait of Gertrude Stein. Braque, however, had assimilated not just Cézanne’s advice to the younger painter, Emile Bernard, to reduce forms to basic geometric shapes but also his dark colors, subdued blues and greens. It was these latter paintings, shown at Berthe Weil’s gallery in 1908, that prompted the quick-witted critic, Louis Vauxcelles, to remark on Braque’s “little cubes.” Like Impression and Fauvism, the beginning of “Cubism” was a derogatory one.

Analytic Cubism: 1910-1912

The paintings of 1908 and 1909 were transitional works, many of which were landscapes crowded with buildings that seem to climb up tall hills. These works were reminiscent of the paintings Paul Cézanne did with Camille Pissarro in the 1860s and allowed the young artists to use the geometric forms of the built environment to experiment with fragmenting forms. By 1910, the artists had moved indoors to work in a more controlled studio environment. A few figures and a few portraits come out of the next phase but the painters seemed to find the still life best suited for their experiments. By this time, the artists had discarded color in order to explore the logic of form in space. If human vision is mobile and if the viewer’s position in space changes over time, then the problem is how the artist can convey multiple perspectives on a flat two dimensional surface. The task Picasso and Braque assigned to themselves was nothing less than creating a new visual language in the visual arts.

In a period is called “heroic” and “hermetic,” by art historians, the new language was fully formed. Analytic Cubism can be unreadable, hence “hermetic,” because this language is so unfamiliar. Accustomed to the language of the Renaissance, one has to learn how to “read” Cubism. The characteristics of Analytic Cubism include a monochromatic reduced palette, restricted to Cézannian colors: ochres for the planes, black for the contours and white for the stippling on the surface. From time to time, green will be used, but more and more sparingly. Close examination of canvases reveals underpainting of a variety of colors, suggesting a decision to eliminate a variety of colors in favor of developing a complex variation of shades within a very narrow range of choice.

Why reduce the palette? On one level, we see many artists at this period moving towards “Cézannian” ochres and greens, such as, Raoul Dufy, another former Fauve. On the other hand, the Salon Cubists, on the whole were far more willing to use bright colors than Picasso and Braque. The Salon Cubists always used color and during the transition period between Analytic and Synthetic Cubism, Picasso and Braque were able to return to the use of color, but only after then had reintroduced it through the auspices of the advertising appropriated for collage.

Analytic Cubism was more than an homage to Cézanne, compared to the more direct relationship enjoyed by the Salon Cubists with the old master. By reducing the palette, Picasso and Braque were able to paint in colors or tones, which were neutral in their associations. Red and blue, for example, are colors with “moods,” yellow might be associated with an object, such as a lemon or the sun. The suggestion of mood or object through colors could lead to ideas of theme or narrative or of symbolism—something Picasso and Braque avoided in order to concentrate to the formal experimentation of their paintings.

Picasso did portraits, of art dealers, such as Ambroise Vollard, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, and Wilhelm Uhde; and paintings of unspecified people, such as the reappearing moustached Poet. Braque painted a range of “types” both male and female but, for the most part, stayed away from portraiture. Males are identified in terms of nationality or occupation; women are simply women. However, Picasso and Braque did include a kind of “iconography” in their works—studio paraphernalia, which included anything from palettes to traditional still life studies—café mementos, which included cards, glasses, bottles, and the newspapers customers read while eating and drinking.

This studio based and personal range of subject matter was in contrast to the Salon Cubists who were looking at the objects of the modern world—airplanes and cars and even the Eiffel Tower. The interior subjects show a narrow range of objects depicted—from hollow containers to odd bits and pieces of Victorian ornamentation, such as woodworking and tassels. The exterior subjects, the landscapes, selected were characterized by the natural site’s propensity to “pile up”—that is views which were inherently high, blocking off distant vistas: factory buildings and the smokestacks, mountains and trees. In their own way, the works of Picasso and Braque contain a mini record of the life of a French artist: small journeys from studio to café and a vacation exodus to southern landscapes that were quite restricted and very traditional, still very Cézanne.

During the “hermetic” period of Analytic Cubism, Picasso and Braque restricted the space of their works as rigorously as they restricted the subject matter and color. More and more, they marked the limits of the shallow shell of space they have constructed for their objects, In Violin and Palette (1910), Braque painted a trompe l’oeil nail and hung a palette on the wall. The nail that cast a shadow indicated: “here, this is the limit of the space, the end of depth.” In Ma Jolie (1911), Picasso painted letters “Ma Jolie,” on the surface of the canvas. When he detached the subject from object, the lettering marked the limit of the projection of the picture plane. Working as a team, the artists borrowed Cézanne’s approach of uniting the surface. The passage, wherein the colors “slip” from point to point across the canvas, escaping from their traditional confinement in any one object, now became overall, drifting into an unmeasured space. Picasso and Braque also broke the contours of their objects, forcing space to weave in and out among objects and between planes.

The Renaissance restriction of one point perspective, interrogated discretely by Cézanne, was ruptured completely by Picasso and Braque. Objects were displayed not in one place, in one time, in one space, within one light source, but from many vantage points. If an object was seen from many points of view, then it was also seen in many different spaces; and as one moved from space to space, from place to place, one also moved in time; as one moved in space and time, the light source also varies. None of this movement was painted or illustrated literally, but suggested conceptually by the broken contours of the objects and the highlights of white paint, which do not respond to any one source.

The type of object depicted is “signed” to the viewer through a system of “clues,” such as the poet’s “moustache” and the violin’s strings, all floating in the monochromatic void flickering with shifting light sources. But there were problems in Analytic Cubism. Color was avoided, and could not be solved until the next phase. Edges also became a concern as the objects clustered around in an ovoid shape. How should the space surrounding the objects be treated if the objects were in multiple spaces and places and times? How does one denote multiple spaces, without objects? Should this space be filled with fragments of the objects it contained, or should space remain empty and ambiguous and un-measurable?

As Picasso and Braque’s analytic painting approached the edges the questions became acute and the density of the work remains traditionally centered and thins out at the edges. Oval shapes were somehow easier to deal with than rectangles and Cubism was noteworthy for the number of works in this unusual shape. It is obvious that the questions, which Cézanne asked: what kind of “space” does one construct when Renaissance space becomes too limited? would lead to the answer of pure abstraction.

Picasso and Braque did not want to travel this road, in contrast to, for example, the Orphists, the Delaunays and Kupka, who plunged into “pure painting” and into abstraction. The objects depicted in Analytic Cubism came to be more and more fragmented, splintering over the surface of the painting, more and more difficult to read. Their grip on reality had become too tenuous and Picasso and Braque stumbled, apparently somewhat independently of one another, upon a solution to the inevitable move into abstraction—a solution called Synthetic Cubism.

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Cubism and Modernity


Perhaps more than any other major art movement of the first half of the Twentieth Century, Cubism is both transitional and Janus-faced in its response to the decades of changes of the Nineteenth Century. On one hand, the Cubist artists shared the unease about the increasing industrialization of their way of life as evidenced by their pre-Cubist fascination with all that was “primitive,” from tribal art, to children’s art, to folk art, to low art in an attempt to relocate a kind of artistic expression that was natural and simple and unsophisticated. On the other hand, these same Cubists were equally fascinated with the brave new world of machine driven objects, cars, airplanes and the modern ocean liner. The Cubists were the generation that will absorb and adjust to the Machine Age and the end of the old ways, accepting the new ways of living. The Eiffel Tower, once hated by Parisians who were used to and preferred Charles Garnier’s Opéra, was greatly admired by a new generation that saw the towering structure as the symbol of everything new and modern. Striding over the city of Paris, the Eiffel Tower nakedly revealed the nature and the “truth” of its materials and its method of construction—a deliberately modern statement of all that was new.

The Eiffel Tower is the nineteenth century to the twentieth century with the rational materialism of its skeletal construction, with no skin or covering, no ornamentation or disguise. Now iconic, the Tower rises over Paris aloof in its engineered self-sufficiency. Like the machine, Gustave Eiffel’s design is eminently logical, the product of scientific and abstract thought. The scientific approach to the questions of knowledge is marked by an absence of spirituality and this totally material perspective brought about a new age. The visual culture needed a new art to reflect the new modern era, characterized by an acknowledgment of change and a desire of change. The previous static view of the universe and the assumption of a continuance of tradition and of a social and political stability were perhaps suitable for the period of the Renaissance and the consequent development of monocular perspective for the arts. But the modern world needed to devise a modern form of vision.

Perhaps because of the desire to create an appropriately modern “look,” the new artists of the twentieth century would be more concerned with the more formal aspects of art–its appearance and its mode of production–than with subject matter. Inspired by machines, process begins to take center stage, for it was the process of manufacturing that changed the culture from one of handicraft to that of prefabrication of component parts that could be integrated into a larger design system or constructed pattern. Industrial culture is a gear and girder world, a world that is visually accessible, where all is open to view and the design of each element is obvious.

The assembly and internal workings are laid bare, stressing the process of assembly and demanding that the viewer notice the design and to acknowledge the realities of the fact of making and construction. The early decades of the Twentieth Century produced numerous art movements that recast nature itself in the role of engineer and provided the artist with the new role of industrial designer. Art became technological in that it reflected the perceptual values of industrialization. In this radically new conception of art, art is the machine that obeys the laws of design and making, a machine with a sound structure and efficiency where there are no unnecessary parts.

As an art movement, Cubism was part of larger cultural forces that included industrialization; however, the major artistic influence for the new artists of the new century was an older artist, who had recently died: Paul Cézanne. Cézanne questioned the five hundred year old assumption established in the Renaissance that the role of art was to replicate reality and that the role of the artist was to render this reality as accurately and as believably as possible. The painters during and after the Renaissance had established and developed a new visual vocabulary, a new language, which supposedly mimicked the real world. The space and depth of reality was rendered as perspective, and volumes were rendered as chiaroscuro.

Like Cubism, the language of the Renaissance was linked to a wider change in society—the shift from the spiritual to the worldly. The artistic tricks and painterly illusions of the Renaissance formed a language that was secular in that it measured the literal world and scientific in that it sought to explain and describe the world in an empirical fashion. This system assumed a monocular and fixed vision from a viewer standing in one space with one point in time. The flat picture plane disappeared in favor of the illusion of a window on the world, hovering just beyond the glass surface.

Cézanne questioned the assumption that the language of the Renaissance replicated the real world. Vision was far more complex, taking place over continuous periods of time and within in a space which allowed free and mobile movement. Cézanne’s Post-Impressionist works attempted to knit together the foreground and background, creating a spatial oscillation in contrast to the Renaissance steady and uninterrupted drift into horizontal depth. Cézanne created a near reverse effect by canceling the horizontal movement of perspective in favor of a planar verticality. Cézanne’s picture, as a painting, as a composition, as subject matter, rises from the bottom to top, covering the surface with a compositional grid. Cézanne’s grid was composed of lines and reiterated colors and an overlay of identical repeated brushstrokes, diagonal hatch marks.

Depth, Cézanne’s works seemed to be saying, is a learned pictorial language. But vision, natural vision, only sees but does not know and is not the product of learning. Natural vision is the product of experience. As though reacting to the actual experience of mobile vision, Cézanne’s lines became separated from the objects depicted, hovering tentatively about their colored edges. Color, now freed from description, could travel across the surface, regardless of object. Both line and color are increasingly freed to establish a linear rhythm keyed to the underlying grid and to unite all areas of the painting into a holistic statement of consistent color and paint marks, equally distributed, equally constructed, equally intense.

The result is an all-over evenness working against scene, object, and subject and towards a surface pattern. Subject matter becomes neutral landscapes and still lives that were mere pretext for formal investigations and the exploration of artistic questions about vision. The Cubists investigated the implications of Cézanne’s questioning of the nature of vision in relation to the nature of knowledge. It is interesting to note that, for the most part, after 1910, many Cubists avoided landscape, a painting problem demanding an answer to Renaissance perspective, an answer the young painters found it difficult to come up with.

Cézanne had solved the problem of depth by eliminating it—by developing large areas of strong colors with a visual weight that corresponded to near and far objects. He also “knitted” the canvas together with slanted brush strokes and with a passage of colors moving up and down the canvas. The result was a fusion or union of paint and color that stood in for what the artist saw, not what he knew—that depth existed between objects. The complicated conclusion that Cézanne arrive at was to paint shapes and forms and colors and light that also took the flicker of light over time and the movement of the body through space. The result was arranged on an underlying grid that stabilized the composition in a traditional “classical” manner.

The Salon Cubists, such as Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, responded to Cézanne’s grid and to his suggestion that vision was mobile and, thus, destabilized forms. But these Salon Cubists were reluctant to shatter to shapes, perhaps because they concentrated on the human form. In contrast, Picasso and Braque concentrated on the logical development of Cézanne’s repositioning of vision as a mobile and constant activity roaming across the plane of the canvas, using the studio still life as their starting point. Less wedded to the figure, especially after 1911, this duo felt free to follow the rational process of taking form apart and reducing its component parts to uniform shapes, or “little cubes.” The result was two kinds of Cubism: one conservative and one radical, one traditional and one modern.

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Defining Fauvism

Characteristics of Fauvism

Although all of the future Fauves were in Paris by 1900, Fauvism, as style, emerged—or was created—at Collioure in the spring of 1905. In a series of paintings by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and André Derain (1880-1954), completed in the small town outside of Paris, there is a new conception of light that separated colors, allowing the white canvas to glow through. Clearly borrowed from Paul Cézanne, the unexpected source of light was combined with a renewal of subjectivity after the “objectivity” of Impressionism and from what Matisse understood to be the “agitation” of Impressionist surfaces. From Impressionism, the Fauve artists borrowed the negation of shadows by substituting intense color for darkness. The resulting luminous shadows, that were non-shadows, eliminated the academic division of tones. Although Edouard Manet had long since done away with demi-teints, the Fauve artists presented a new and purified form of color painting, based on a light created through contrasts of hue, not of tone. Formally speaking, the result was a highly colored assertive surface, organized as a graphic design with strongly contrasting areas of color. The artists established areas and zones of sometime dissonant color which was, suddenly, newly important.

As Derain, who was at Collioure with Matisse stated in a letter to Vlaminck,

We are about to embark on a new phase. Without partaking of the abstraction apparent in van gogh’s canvases, abstraction which I don’t dispute, I believe that lines and colors are intimately related and enjoy a parallel existence from the very start, allowing us to embark on a great independent and unbounded existence…Thus we may find a field, not novel, but more real, and, above all, simpler in its synthesis…

Impressionist harmonies and the uniformity of facture, or the artist’s touch and the texture of the surface, were eliminated in favor of deliberate disharmonies of style and color. Local color was rejected in favor of arbitrary color: tree trunks were red, outlined in dark purple, the sky is yellow and green, and the background heaves upward with undulating shapes. Descriptive line was freed from mimesis and, like the colors, became expressionistic. The emphasis on color and graphic line was a simplification or a preoccupation with fundamentals. Line, which outlined forms were filled in with intense colors. The Fauves introduced a new kind of “free” purity, a reduction of painting to its most basic and most powerful elements, drawing and color. As Matisse said, “This is the starting point of Fauvism, the courage to return to the purity of means.” He also explained,

…that is only the surface: what characterized Fauvism was that we rejected imitative colors, and that with pure colors we obtained stronger reactions—more striking reactions; and there was also the luminosity of our colors.

The emphasis on color, long rejected as untrustworthy and capricious, was almost entirely new in Western art. Although the colors were arbitrary, Fauvism was not an isolated movement but was part of an artistic development that included both Impressionism and Post-impressionism. Especially in the early works of Matisse, such as Luxe, calme, voulpté (1904-05), the Neo-Impressionist broken brushwork, separated into colors, was apparent. Later on, by 1906, the color juxtapositions were replaced with areas of flat color, similar to Gauguin. Authoritarian regimes were perhaps correct to link color to political and social rebellion, for Fauvism could be said to be fully informed by the new spirit of individuality and artistic freedom, developing since the Romantic Movement.

The artist and writer, Maurice Denis, responded to Fauvism,

…It is painting outside every contingency, painting in itself, the act of pure painting…Here is, in fact, a search for the absolute. Yet, strange contradiction, this absolute is limited by one of the things that is most relative! individual emotion..

Aside from Henri Matisse’s Notes of a Painter in 1908, the Fauve artists did not issue individual statements, nor did Fauvism coalesce into a movement that issued manifestos. Although Matisse was the center of Fauvism, the members of the group were concerned with a directness of expression that was a belief in individual and pictorial autonomy. Fauvism was, above all, a balance between the purely visual sensation and a personal and internal emotion, conveyed through mixed technique and formal dislocations. The artists sought to express personal feelings and move away from traditional academic techniques and conventions in painting. That said, Matisse, in particular, rediscovered tradition of high decorative art in Italy and Morocco and fused the classical and the exotic and the avant-garde into a highly personal style. Unlike Vlaminck, who wanted to burn down museums and wore a wooden necktie, Matisse, an older artist, was fundamentally a conservative.

What I dream of, he famously said in Notes of a Painter, is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from Physical fatigue.

The new avant-garde in the Twentieth Century was based not in socially charged subject matter but in the radicalization of formal elements. But Fauvism is interesting despite the apparently traditional content of landscape painting. Certainly there is evidence of the lessons of Impressionism—landscapes appeal to collectors and art audiences alike—but there is a retreat in Fauvism, a nostalgic longing for something more pastoral and nostalgic. Industrialization and urbanization was fully developed and technology and mechanization was beginning to dominate modern life and dictate the future. For André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), escapist landscape had a distinctly vacation, suburban look, as though the environs outside of Paris had become a new Arcadia. But Matisse’s landscapes shifted from the modern pastoral of Luxe, calme, voulpté (1904-05) and its contemporary sailboat to the timelessness of Bonheur de vivre (1906). While the vacation is local and vernacular, the primal drawing of Bonheur de vivre and the later Dance and Music series suggested a return to a kind of “ur” mark making.

Matisse rendered his painting with the direct clarity of a child, re-learning how to draw. He drew his marks, finding the form as if by a physical feel, equating vision with touch, tentatively, hesitantly, re-discovering art for the first time. The “primitivism” of Fauvism is not just the artists’ interest in African tribal art, but with Matisse, the primal urge for an ideal, a golden age, long lost and re-found in the imagination. It is with these ideal landscapes that the impact of the Arcadian murals Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898) entered into the unlikely world of radical avant-garde painting. Matisse took Puvis and propelled the classical fantasy, borrowed from the older artist, of a harmony between humans and nature, dreamed of since Titian’s Fête Campetre, back to mythic origins. The fantasy of Arcadia and a timeless world of beauty and peace would inform Matisse’s luxurious and decorative art long after its beginnings in Fauvism. In ten years, Europe would be plunged into a Great War, and Fauvism ceased to be thought of as a radical style and became one of the last moments in the nostalgic Belle Époque.

See also, Primitivism in Fauvism

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Fauvism in Paris


One could argue about which movement was the “first” movement of the Twentieth Century—Art Nouveau (1895–1905), which led ultimately to the Bauhaus design revolution and even, arguably, to Constructivism of the Russian Avant-Garde or Fauvism (1905–07), a French form of expressionism, which led to Abstract Expressionism? For beginnings, there is no safe answer, only another question: when did the Twentieth Century begin? Virginia Woolf once wrote that the century began in 1910, about the time of Roger Fry’s famous 1911 exhibition on Post-Impressionism in London. If one accepts 1910 instead of 1900, the century began with Cubism; but in the years before the Great War, the art world was exploding with innovation. In addition to the avant-garde art movements of the fine arts, there were important developments in the realm of the decorative arts and, in addition, there were continuing exhibitions by the mainstream and avant-garde Salons in Paris. The result of fin-de-siècle artistic experimentation was a veritable logjam of aesthetic expression, ranging from conservative to radical. That said, art history traditionally has concentrated only upon the extreme edge of the avant-garde.

By the early Twentieth Century, there were four Salons: two that were conservative, Salon des Artistes Français and Salon de la Nationale, and two that were avant-garde, the Salon des Indépendants, which was without a jury and the new Salon d’automne. The art world was fractured, but so too was the art audience. Most of the art public was still suspicious of Impressionism which was accepted only by a select group of collectors, mostly American. With hindsight, it can be seen that Fauvism and Cubism, the “isms” that racked the pre-War art scene, were extensions of Post-Impressionism. But, at the time, for an audience who could still not “see” Impressionism, these movements were incomprehensible. Like Impressionism, Post-Impressionism was being sold to collectors who took the major works out of France, were they were less appreciated, and into remote places, such as Moscow and New York. The artists and critics, however, did not wait for audiences or for collectors to catch up. By the Twentieth Century, the split between the avant-garde artist and the mainstream art audience was complete.

With Fauvism, a new generation, accustomed to shocking the bourgeoisie came of age. Led by HenriMatisse (1869-1954), the Fauves were termed “wild beasts” for their intense and pure use of color and their untamed sinuous line. They had taken the controlled expressionism of Art nouveau and the passion of van Gogh and combined the powers of color and line with the color science of Seurat and the visionary symbolism of Gauguin. Like the Symbolists, they believed that art would speak for itself in its own language and that this visual and poetic language could invoke a response from the viewer. Subject matter and content, in contrast, was very conservative for Fauvism, which favored suburban and bucolic landscapes. Subject matter played a supporting role to formal elements—line, color, and forms.

The social and political content of Courbet and Manet, which had once aroused such passions, was tamed into familiar scenery, without social commentary, and the classical nude, stripped of any associations with prostitution. Public passions were now aroused by the supposedly wild colors used by the “wild beasts”—artists whose later careers were very conventional. Fauvism was a short-lived movement and would soon be displaced by its un-emotional monochromatic structured counter-point, Cubism, which would substitute tone for color and rationality for unbridled feeling.



The artistic foundation for Fauvism was the aesthetic activity in Paris at the fin-de-siècle. Impressionism, the dominant mode, was considered by some to be an on-going productive style. The importance of the lingering of Impressionism for Fauvism was that the art public was being prepared to accept a heightening of color and a lightening of the palette. Artists who had adapted Impressionism for conservative patrons, such as John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), were instrumental in widening the acceptance of loose brushwork and strong hues. The Nabis, Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, toned down and softened Impressionist colors and dealt with brushwork as pattern, and these Neo-Impressionist versions of Impressionism dominated the art world.

The domestic and intimate art of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and post-Symbolist art of Maurice Denis (1870-1943) hovered somewhere in between Impressionism, which had no structure, and strongly linear graphic design. This balance and stasis with Post-Impressionism, however, was disturbed by a series of exhibitions. In 1899 an exhibition of pastels in high color by Odilon Redon at Durand-Ruel gallery reawakened interest in the expressive power of formal elements. The Cézanne exhibitions at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) in 1895 and 1899 and at Salon des Indépendants in 1901 reintroduced an old master to the young generation. Vollard’s gallery also showed Post-Impressionist painters, Vuillard, Bonnard, Signac, Cross, the Nabis, and other Neo-Impressionists. An exhibition of Vincent van Gogh’s work at Bernheim-Jeune gallery in 1901, along with the other exhibitions signaled both acceptance of Impressionism and introduction of “Post-Impressionism,” a term coined by Roger Fry in 1911. Perhaps the final capitulation of the detractors of Impressionism came with 1907 the exhibition of the (Gustave) Caillebotte Bequest at Luxembourg Museum. Although the artist’s collection had been somewhat diminished by the directors of the Museum, the successful and dignified deal had been negotiated by Pierre Renoir, now a respected elder in the arts community.

Two years after the Vincent van Gogh exhibition, there was the retrospective for Paul Gauguin on the occasion of the founding of the Salon d’automne in 1903 and Henri Matisse entered two paintings. The year 1904 was a particularly important one for the establishment of Fauvism with a show for Henri Matisse at Vollard’s, accompanied by a catalog essay by a prominent art critic, Roger Marx. Matisse brought together the intense color of van Gogh and the curvilinear shapes of Gauguin and came out of his “dark period,” his apprenticeship to Post-Impressionism, with an explosion of color. In 1905, Matisse visited his friends, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck at Chatou in the fall and that summer, Derain joined him in Collioure. It was here that Fauvism was born, notably with The Open Window. That fall, the group that had formed around Matisse debuted the new style in the Salon d’automne of 1905. Maurice de Vlaminck made his debt to the Post-impressionists and his rebellion against the establishment clear,

I wanted to burn down the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with my cobalts and vermilions. I wanted to express my feelings without troubling what painting was like before me…Life and me, me and life—that’s all that matters.” (on seeing the Van Gogh exhibition): “I was so moved I wanted to cry with joy and despair. That day I loved van Gogh more than I loved my father.

Louis Vauxcelles (Louis Mayer, 1870-1943), a conservative art critic, who was appalled by the brilliant colors, named Matisse and his followers the “Fauves,” or “wild beasts.” Seeing the bright paintings of Henri Matisse, André Derain (1880-1954) and Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), grouped in one room at the Salon d’automne, the critic exclaimed, “Donatello au milieu des Fauves.” (“Among the orgy of pure colors; Donatello among the wild beasts.”) Vauxcelles was relieved to see a conservative sculpture, “a Donatello,” among the paintings of the wild beasts, and it is possible he would have been even more relieved to know that the Fauve movement lasted only two years, from 1905 – 1907. The Salon des Indépendants was host to the first Fauve exhibition in the spring of 1905 and last Fauve exhibition in 1907.

The Fauve group began to come together before 1900, and, in the beginning, consisted of Henri Matisse and his fellow students from the atelier of Gustave Moreau and the Academie Carrière or the atelier of Eugene Carrière. These students, Albert Marquet, Henri Manguin, Charles Camoin, Jean Puy, and Georges Rouault, the most famous of these artists. The “School of Chatou,” named after a summer painting site, consisted of André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, who painted with Matisse. Rounding out the rather large group of artists devoted to color were those from Le Havre, Emile Otheon-Freize, Raoul Dufy, who would also become famous, and Georges Braque, the future Cubist artist, and, joining later, Kees van Dongen. But this short-lived movement came to an end due to the increasing impact of the paintings of the recently deceased Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and his darker colors and limited palette and the influence of tribal art from the French African colonies.

By 1907 the Salon d’automne signaled the end with the reappearance of figure in Fauvism. In addition to Matisse’s Blue Nude, Fauve paintings and composition were turning away from suburban landscapes in Paris by Vlaminck and scenes of the city of London by Derain and Matisse’s joyful celebrations of light and color in Bonheur de vivre (1906) to something more calculated and conceptual and classically restrained. Matisse explained,

One does not depict matter, but human emotion, a certain evaluation of spirit which might come from no matter what spectacle.

The return to the calculated and classical owed a great deal to Cézanne and led the younger artists, Derain and Vlaminck, down a conservative path. But Matisse used his period as a Fauve to establish himself as a major avant-garde artist. He acquired important American collectors, Leo and Gertrude Stein and Etta Cone, and the Russian collector, Sergei Shchukin began to buy his works. In 1908 there was a Matisse Retrospective at the Salon d’automne, which was also year in which he wrote his Notes of a Painter. This was the year of Matisse’s final farewell to Fauvism, Harmony in Red, was considered the first major painting in which direct color saturated the canvas and submerged all objects to its substance, rendering any other elements submissive to the will of red.

According to Matisse,

…The artist must feel that he is copying nature—even when he consciously departs from nature…

…I cannot copy nature in a servile way. I must interpret nature and submit it to the spirit of the picture. From the relationship I have found in all the tones, there must result a living harmony of colors, a harmony analogous to that of a musical composition…

After this radical statement on the power of color, Matisse then revived the classical, the timeless monumental art that had always hovered just below the surface of paintings such as Luxe, calme et volupté (1904). After his brief flirtation with tribal art, Matisse returned to his roots, by visiting Italy in the summer of 1907. Here he perused classical and Renaissance art and the new influences were clearly visible in Le Luxe (I) and (II) of 1907-08. Matisse now faced a young and upcoming rival for artistic shock, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), who was experimenting with post-Cézanne, proto-Cubism, which by 1910 was now emerging. The two friends dueled through art: Matisse painted his Blue Nude, purchased by Leo Stein and Picasso answered with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It could be said that together these two paintings ended Fauvism. Originally blue or blue green, Harmony in Red was purchased by Shchukin and carted off to Moscow. That same year, 1908, Georges Braque showed his first Cézanne-esque paintings, first offered to and rejected by the Salon d’automne. Braque’s dark landscapes were characterized by “little cubes,” but despite the critical derision, by 1909, Derain and Braque had already become Picassoistes,” or followers of Picasso. The age of Fauvism was over.

See also, Characteristics of Fauvism

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Podcast 38 Painting 4: Cubism to Dada

When Art Became Code

If Expressionism was a temperamental predilection, then Cubism became the basis for a new artistic language that would dominate the rest of the century. But during the Great War, a younger generation of artists rebelled against the artistic tradition of the avant-garde. Dada artists positioned themselves as “anti-art,” but, like the Cubist artists, Picasso and Braque, they attempted to re-define art and its mode of communication and production.

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This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

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Paul Cézanne

Post-Impressionist Artists: Paul Cézanne (1839 – 1906)

Famous for wanting to reform Impressionism, Paul Cézanne approached nature in quite a fashion that distinguished him from the Impressionists and the other Post-impressionists. Like Paul Gauguin, he understood the need to order nature, like Vincent van Gogh, he responded emotionally to the world around him, and like the avant-garde artists of his generation, he was faced with the problem of representation. For Cézanne, the solution was found by walking a tightrope between his mind and his feelings, between his “optique” and his “logique,” between the past and the future. He returned the classical French tradition, the Grand Manner of Nicholas Poussin, to the avant-garde by restoring the importance of the object, just as surely as the Symbolists restored the significance of the subject. Unlike the Impressionists, Cézanne did not accept the world of chaos and flux but attempted to render its permanent and solid qualities, to find structure and order. Unlike Gauguin, he did not impose abstract patterns upon nature but by swept away incidentals and details in search of an organizing rhythm and unity. Unlike Vincent van Gogh, Cézanne did not seek to animate the object but to contemplate it, to seek its inherent and essential structure, to connect it to its surroundings, to reveal the inner harmony of nature. Art had to reflect this natural harmony. Thus, art, too, must be as seamless and as unified in its materiality.

But Cézanne is not important to art history because he distinguish himself from his predecessors and his colleagues. The painter is considered significant because his art acted as a gateway to the Twentieth-century. Gauguin and van Gogh were both concerned with how to render their feelings, their emotions and reactions in relation to nature. Seurat attempted to see nature through the lens of science, reordering his colors according to the laws optical mixing. Georges Seurat was closer to Cézanne in the sense that both artists were concerned with the process of seeing and with how the artist’s (and the viewer’s) perception coincides with the traditional language of painting. Compared to Gauguin and van Gogh, these other Post-Impressionists were more objective. Reading Cézanne’s letters lead to the conclusion that he literalized what he saw, calling the transference of light to his eyes to his brain, his “sensations.” The problem that Cézanne gave to himself was how to translate what is a physical process into an art that expressed, not a worn-out set of artistic conventions, but a new visual language that explained, not expressed, what was actually seen, not what was known.

The accomplishment of Cézanne was his creation of a new language, a new set of marks, which recorded only what he saw: his “sensations.” We “know” that when we look out over a landscape that there is space between the objects that are close and the objects that are far away, but we don’t “see” these spaces. Renaissance perspective was an abstract diagram, which “mapped out” the space that existed but could not be seen. Over the centuries, as the art historian, Erwin Panofsky, pointed out, those of us in the West have become so accustomed to the invention of Renaissance architects, Alberti and Brunelleschi, that we believe that we actually see in terms of perspective. Cézanne figured out that perspective was a code with a signifying function, based upon knowledge. The diagram or abstract design got in the way of real seeing or the actual process of looking. He also realized that perspective depended upon an ideal and impossible condition: the viewer had one eye, stood in one place, at one point in time. But we have two eyes, we move, and time passes. How can the painter account for this “natural vision?” This question would absorb the artist for thirty years, but the younger generation would be able to build upon his research. The lessons of Cézanne can be summed up in a few sentences. Nature is represented and interpreted artistically and art became parallel to nature. Art can represent nature only through artistic means; art cannot reproduce nature. These are the ideas which led to the new art of the new century. The “Modern” is said to begin in 1880 when Cézanne exiled himself in Aix to solve the great riddle of how to strip knowing from seeing—how to paint perception.

Paris – 1860s


Cézanne’s awareness of the role of color in determining the structure and depth of natural objects and his awareness of the role of brush work on a flat surface, set him apart from his century and catapulted his art into the next century. In many ways, the artist took an artistic journey into self-denial and redemption. His early works were marked by subject matter full of violence and sex, displaying a deep confusion about women and a consequent anger toward their sexuality. The philosopher Merleau-Ponty remarked, “His first pictures up till about 1870 are dreams in paint: a rape, a murder…” In 1991, art historian, Robert Simon, noted the connection between these paintings of violence against women and the popular imagery of the day, “The cheap, quickly made, sensational news bulletins known as canards…a sort of low journalism.” In other words, Cézanne was inspired by a combination of his own psychological dis-ease and was given “permission” to express his anxieties by the equivalent of “The National Enquirer.”

Upon viewing The Murder of 1867 and A Modern Olympia (1872 – 3), boyhood friend, Émile Zola (1840 – 1902) described this disturbing phase of his art:

It was a chaste man’s passion for the flesh of women, a mad love of nudity desired and never possessed, an impossibility of satisfying himself, or creating as much of this flesh as he dreamed to hold in his frantic arms. Those girls whom he chased out of his studio, he adored in his paintings; he caressed or attacked them, in tears of despair at not being able to make them sufficiently beautiful, sufficiently alive.

The writer had grown up with Cézanne in the southern town of Aix and had suggested that the artist come to Paris. Zola defended Manet by ignoring the issue of subject matter and concentrating on the artist’s formal innovations. Beauty, Zola, insisted was not a verifiable or universal phenomenon, but was entirely personal and internal. Cézanne landed in a very sophisticated art world, where artists gathered together and debated theories. Cézanne’s parents had wanted him to become a lawyer, but, like the typical avant-garde artist, he rebelled against family expectations. His family, connected to banking, was solidly middle-class and his father reluctantly supported his son’s ambitions to be an artist. The decade that Cézanne spent in and out of Paris is one of deliberately provocative art hurled at the establishment, guaranteed a rejection in the Salon.

The artist was as deliberately confrontational himself. “All my compatriots are ass holes compare to me.” Elegant and chic, Manet despised the uncouth provincial with the awkward accent. Cézanne in turn was hardly respectful to the revered master by saying that he would not shake hands with Manet because he (Cézanne) had not bathed for a week. Clearly, Cézanne needed someone to temper his misdirected and unguided temperament. That person was the “father” to the younger generation, Camille Pissarro ((1830 – 1903). Cézanne met Pissarro at the Académie Suisse, where he claimed to be “painting with one’s balls.” By the 1870s, his riotous and unruly style was disciplined with heavy black contour lines, suggesting that he needed for Impressionism to become more structured.

Estaque and Pontoise and Melun – 1870 – 1880

This decade was the last era in which the traditional Salon system really mattered. Thanks to the critics, such as Zola, who said, “the Salon of our days is not the work of artists; it is the work of a jury…” and to the Impressionist exhibitions, the old order was a dying one. But Cézanne’s early years in Paris as a follower of Manet and as an “Impressionist” were years of rejection by the Establishment followed by a self-imposed exile in southern France. In between Paris and Aix, he learned a great deal from Pissarro. The older artist removed Cézanne from the futile exercise of trying to force the Salon to change and taught him to not define himself negatively. Pissarro’s contribution to the volatile younger artist was to teach him that each individual had a unique vision or way of seeing, called “sensation.” The artist had only to execute to create: paint what he saw and an individual vision would emerge naturally. Maurice Denis, also a painter, stated, “…each one takes the law unto himself…we love order passionately, but the order that we create, not the order we receive…”

Writing in the 2009 catalogue for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Beyond Cézanne,” art historian, Richard Shiff, quoted a comment made by the artist to Maurice Denis, “Sensation above all else.” Shiff also quoted Charles Morice, an art critic, who in 1907 said, “We hardly dare say that Cézanne lived. He painted.” Shiff then went on to define “sensation,” as “Every sensation that Cézanne felt, no matter what the cause, would be the equivalent f a painting sensation: every physical gesture, a potential paint mark…”

In contrast to today’s assumption that only the “young” artist is capable of making exciting art, artists of this generation took decades to mature. Cézanne was forty before he became “serious.” Working with Pissarro in the small towns along the river Oise, Cézanne began to paint, not what he felt, but what he saw, and he saw, he stated, “ only patches.” Cézanne had learned from the Impressionists to apply paint in patches of color, but they thought in terms of color-as-light. Cézanne began to think of color-as-form or color-as-object.

Whatever Cézanne may have thought of the avant-garde artists in Paris, the Franco-Prussian War ended his time in the city. He had met a docile and submissive women, Hortense Figuet, gotten her pregnant, had a child by her, before he eventually married her. He sent her to Estaque for safety during the Franco-Prussian war. Finished with Paris, he painted in Estaque and put himself under the tutelage of Pissarro in Pontoise and Auvers. It is in Estaque that we see Cézanne absorbing the lessons learned from Manet—using color to eliminate depth. (“View of L’Estaque and the Château d’If,” 1883 – 5) Working against distance, Cézanne pushed the sea away by using deep blue but pulled the distant shore forward with lighter colors (“The Gulf of Marseille Seen from L’Estaque,” 1876 – 79). The compositions of Estaque were broad and simple and clearly showed the basis of his structure: Cézanne’s paintings can almost always be divided down the horizontal middle, as if the two parts, top and bottom, were hinged. (“Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley,” 1882 – 85) The Post-modern painter, Mark Tansey took advantage of Cézanne’s manner of composition as division in his re-visions of “Mount Saint-Victoire” in the 1980s.

Working in situ with the older artist, Cézanne eliminated contours for the moment. The countryside of the Oise valley lay stretched out before the artists, crowded with small red-roofed houses. Edges were defined by placing contour-to-contour, patch-to-patch, form-to-form, leaving blank spaces to complete the definition. Drawing was eliminated and forms were constructed or built by laying on blocks of color, which were built up, the way a bricklayer creates a wall, into a series of “sensations.” (“The Pont de Maincy, 1879) By leaving breathing spaces or blank areas between the patches, the artist was painting in reverse or taking the negative into account. The entire composition was built, constructed, literally through rhythmic strokes of paint that knitted the landscape into an all over unity (“Large Pines and Red Earth,” 1890 – 95).

Although Cézanne exhibited with the Impressionists in 1874, he left Paris and returned to Aix and seemed to find psychic peace in his rigorous study of nature. He took with him the lessons learned from Pissarro–a clarified palette, the knowledge that form could be achieved by color. He began to paint with heavy layers of color in an effort to capture every nuance, like the building of a mosaic. He observed that there were no lines in nature—“Pure drawing is an abstraction.”—and that there were no shadows without color. However, Cézanne was convinced that observation alone was never enough and that thought was essential.

Aix-en-Provence – 1880 – 1906

There are ample indications that Cézanne was a borderline personality. Eccentric to the point where normal relations were difficult, Cézanne spent the rest of his life in a self-imposed exile. He was tormented by the extended infantilism of his financial dependence upon his father. He hid his mistress, keeping her in the shadows for fifteen years. But his reluctance to interact with the Parisian art world resulted in a barrage of letter writing, especially to the young and impressionable Émile Bernard. Cézanne apparently needed only a kind father, Pissarro, and unthreatening admirers, Bernard, and his solitude to thrive. Like the letters of Vincent van Gogh, Cézanne’s letters are his legacy to the art world. His musings constitute a theory of painting. “There are two things in the painter: the eye and the brain. The two must cooperate,” he wrote. Cézanne wished to reform a now waning Impressionism, “to become classic again through nature, that is to say, through sensation…” “…to revive Poussin through contact with nature…” “…one must interpret it…by means of plastic equivalents and color…” he declared.

Isolated in Aix by 1890, Cézanne assumed the task of “making out of Impressionism something solid and durable like the art of museums…” A small measure of success in Paris came to him as the result to an exhibition given of this art in 1895 by Ambroise Vollard but he remained in the south to paint at his home, “Jas de Bouffan,” until it was sold in 1899, after his mother’s death. His last years were spent painting the Bidémus quarry and the Chateau noir. The artist painted selected motifs and the quarry and the mountain, Mont Saint-Victoire became part of his obsessive quest. Later he was to say, “It took me forty years to find out that painting is not sculpture.” Renoir echoed this discovery by saying of the paintings of Cézanne that “Later, his study brought him to see that the work of the painter is so to use color that, even when it is laid on very thinly, it gives the full result.”

Cézanne used the quarry as part of his pattern of construction. Because the quarry had been mined for centuries, human activity had regularized the steep sides, which showed the linear marks of carving out large blocks. The patters left on the walls of the quarry were reflections of his method of painting in patches. By the 1880s, the artist had gained enough confidence to turn Manet’s play with color into his own personal method, called “passage,” by art historians. Cézanne also felt fee to distort the landscape and to force it to submit to the demands of composition and structure. Mont Saint-Victoire was a huge looming triangular shape, dominating the countryside, but Cézanne shrank the mountain to a small triangle hovering above the edge of the quarry. The walls fall straight down, below the center hinge of the canvas. (“Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry,” 1887) The tops of green pine trees project upwards, growing form a ground unseen in the bottom of the quarry. The blue of the sky above the triangle pours onto the sides of the mountain, down the walls of the quarry, spills into the green of the pines. The green and oranges of the trees and stone climb upwards, advancing along the slope of the mountains and into the blue and white sky above.

This method of composing and creating forms and working out the inherited problem of Renaissance perspective placed Cézanne in the position of “fathering” the 20th century. His studies of Mount Sainte-Victorie became increasingly abstract: planes were faceted into geometric shapes, surface was turned into patterns of lines and colors and his techniques drew awareness to the flatness of the two-dimensional picture plane. The flattening of the picture plane was based upon his study of the motif in nature, which was received flat to his eye. His essential aim was to represent what “pure” vision could discover about the visible world. This is a world of everyday things, this is a vision cleansed of allegory, symbolism, emotion and intellect. The viewer, like the artist, must see nature in a state of complete dissociation and disinterestedness–a pure act of perception. In this personal conception of space, Cézanne attempted to show objects linked to each other in such a fashion that perspective developed as the result of the halting of movement. In his 2009 essay, “Lucky Cézanne (Cézanne ‘Tychique’),” Richard Shiff also described the “motif” in terms of movement,

“Appropriately, the term motif connotes movement. Cézanne’s motif could not be Mont Sainte-Victoire regarded solely as a concept or an ideal; it was instead a movement associated with a particular experience of he mountain as his experience played out in an active process of painting…it merely feels like an instant or a moment, that, is, it feel momentary, transient, changing….”

In the decade of the 1880s, contours returned to Cézanne’s art, but the outlines were new. We see the new use of outline clearly in his still lives. Confined to his studio, the artist could study the act of seeing in isolation. If the landscapes were flattened into stillness by the way in which he recorded his “sensations,” then Cézanne’s still lives were put in motion. The artist seemed to understand that the movement of the viewer or the painter had to be incorporated. The time spent in working produced shifts in perspective what also had to be accounted for. He eliminated, as far as he could, any indication of a horizon line or a level place for the eye to rest. Patterned wallpaper stops the backward movement into the room. Cloth backdrops were used to obscure the flat surfaces for the still life objects (“Still Life with Apples,” 1893 -94). The objects are shown from many different perspectives, as though the artist sat down, stood up, leaned to the side, as he examined his set up. Bright patches of color, dappled here and there, indicated where the light source had touched to object. The sheer motion of looking was signaled to the spectator by the uneasy and unsettled contours, which were slightly separated from the edges of the forms. The result is that the forms quiver slightly as though they are unsteadied by innate movement.

Only when we view Cézanne’s paintings of human figures do we realize the other accomplishment of the artist: that of removing the hierarchy from painting. Human beings are treated the same way as inanimate objects. In her stolid stillness, the expressionless artist’s wife, Hortense, resembles the coffee pot next to her (“Woman with Coffeepot,” 1895), the nudes of the “Bathers” series are forced to bend and reshape themselves to conform to Cézanne’s composition. In “The Large Bathers” (1906), the artist grouped the nude women, shaped like the trees that surround them, into a triangular group, located inside a rectangular landscape. As early as the 1870s, the artist began to tone down his palette, eliminating a wide range of colors and damping down the intensity of his hues in favor of a limited selection of tones of blues, greens, and ochre buffs (“Chateau Noir,” 1900 – 1904). On one hand, the artist was painting the bleached out stone ridden landscape of Provence, on the other hand, he had created a new palette that would end Fauvism’s bright colors and the monochrome suggestion would be taken up by the Cubists.

Cézanne in History

The artist remained in exile and, over the years, became a legend as in the late 1890s exhibitions increasingly influenced younger painters. The shop of Père Tanguy was the one place in Paris where his art could be purchased and studied. As Émile Bernard, Cézanne’s faithful correspondent, stated, “One went there as to a museum, to see the few sketches by the unknown artist who lived in Aix…” The critic, Gustave Geffroy, noted, “For a long time, Cézanne has had a curious fate. He might be described as a person at once unknown and famous, having only rare contact with the public yet considered influential by the restless and the seekers in the field of painting…” Yet it was through his correspondence with Bernard that the older artist formulated his theory of art and he advised the former follower of Gauguin “to see in nature the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, putting everything in proper perspective, so that each side of an object or a plane is directed toward a central point.”

The legend of Paul Cézanne grew as his exile lengthened. Had he been truly isolated and out of touch, the artist would have been forgotten. But, in contrary to the legend of the neglected artist who was discovered due to his shining “genius,” Cézanne was very aware of his place in the art world and in history itself. His voluminous correspondence with well-placed individuals and the tantalizing inaccessibility of his paintings added to the myth of the reclusive artist who was changing art. Coupled with the aura surrounding Cézanne and the important exhibitions of his work, late in his life, the only solidified his reputation. For the young generation of artists, he vanquished the lingering influences of Impressionism, swept aside the curves of Art Nouveau, and vanquished Fauvism’s intense, expressive colors. Immediately the color palette of the artists narrowed and dulled, the forms sharpened, and composition returned.

Cézanne’s study of planes and volumes attempted to express a consciousness of structure. Beneath the colored surface presented by nature laid the forms of nature. “The main thing is the modeling; one shouldn’t even say modeling, but modulating.” Cézanne built forms with color and the lines that could have described these forms hovered tentatively around the objects, activating them. Even though his compositions were grid-like in their rigidity, his paint handling kept the surface lively, the trademark hatch marks knitting the surface together, pulling distance to the foreground. To the new artists, his lively surfaces, always active and always in motion, Cézanne’s work suggested shifts in space and time, as shifting forms were distorted and light skimmed surfaces, skipping from place to place. Regardless of Cézanne’s intentions, the young artists saw the end of the Western tradition of perspective. Building on the three decades of Cézanne’s work, their responses were sometimes awkward and tentative, but Picasso and Braque and the other artists persisted and something called “Cubism” began to emerge around 1910.

Cézanne was considered the “great divide” in art. His work was determined by many art historians to be the beginnings of modern 20th century painting because he dismantled the Renaissance conception of intellectualized space. Composition, with Cézanne did not exist prior to its contents and construction depended upon its objects. His last and greatest portrait was of his gardener, Vallier, worked on until his death in October of 1906. “If I succeed with this fellow, it will mean that the theory was correct,” Cézanne said. And Matisse said, “If Cézanne is right, I am right. A year after “the master” died, Picasso would paint “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in1907. The Nineteenth Century was over and the Twentieth Century could begin.

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Podcast 36 Painting 2: Manet to Post-Impressionism

The Painters of Modern Life

Although the Pre-Raphaelite artists initiated the artistic interest in contemporary urban life and the problems of modern people, the Parisian artists are given credit for learning how to express modernité in formal terms. The French painters found the seventeenth century Dutch painters important precursors. Inspired by the depiction of ordinary moments of daily life among the middle class in Holland, the emerging avant-garde artists began to rethink, not just how to handle modern content, but also how to use paint itself so that their art could be “of its own time.” The result of this experimentation was an evolution of painting into the twentieth century.

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Important Announcement

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by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

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Also the complete

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by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]