“Readable and accessible” – Art of the Extreme 1905-1914 by Philip Hook

IMG_22Sep2021at085602Before the beginning of the twentieth century making art was an incredibly conservative occupation and even during the first decade of the 1900s it was only a small minority of painters who began to experiment and started the development of artistic movements which proliferated in the early years of the century. Movements which, to the uninitiated, still hold a great mystery, even a hundred years on. Names such as Expressionism and Impressionism and, arguably, ever more abstract, Cubism, Fauvism, Orphism, Rayonism, and Vorticism.

It was 1905, writes Philip Hook, that marked the significant change of direction history of modern art was taking. Traditionally art was supposed to convey beauty and be somehow uplifting for the viewer. Younger artists of the avant-garde, however, rebelled at this notion of pleasant cosiness. In the words of Wassily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944): “it can’t go on like this”. Whereas pre-1900 an artist’s purpose was deemed to please the public; to be accountable to it, from 1905 onwards artists began to look inwards and to consider their own artistic intuition and needs. As Hook writes:

“The artist became more important than his subject. This, in turn, opened the way to distortions of natural form and colour in order that the artist might express himself more truthfully.”

Artistic integrity, it was now believed, meant that creativity should be “uncontrived, uncalculated and unselfconscious”.

Interest in the work of new or unfamiliar painters mirrored the ever-shifting focus towards Modernism. Van Gogh, Gauguin, Braque, Picasso, Cézanne all had their brief moments in the sun until other artists and painting styles took their place. With each new painter who came to the attention of the masses, both established and younger artists would try to emulate their style and endeavour to somehow make it their own, either by incorporating aspects of the style into their own work or completely changing the way they painted or used colour. Picasso, for example, was impressed by the way Cézanne used watercolours. Cézanne, he said, created a kind of ‘palpability’ in the way he employed veils of colour to give the impression of light and space in his paintings.

Artistic tastes not only related to the development of new movements, but oscillated from portraiture to landscape and back again. For those artists who were better at one than the other the transition was often fraught with anxiety and frustration. But, if they wanted dealers and collectors to buy their paintings they needed to conform to whichever trend was in vogue at any given time as best they could. Dealers had immense power in dictating which style or subject of painting the market wanted.

Of the Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944), Hook writes:

“He was a tortured painter all his life. You could argue that by 1905 his greatest days were actually behind him. The Scream still sounded out plangently, but having been painted ten years earlier its echo was receding. What is not always recognised about Munch’s most famous painting is that it is the outside world that is doing the screaming. The tortured face is hearing the noise, not making it.”

Hook goes on to explain that the central figure is Munch himself. It represents the eternal struggle of his internal forces with all external ones. “Nature is screaming at the inner man, rather than the inner man screaming at the outside world,” Hook writes. Young artists revered Munch as the previous generation had Van Gogh.

Munch’s work established yet another new trend. Paintings expressing tortured agonies of the soul proliferated in strange and bold colours all over Czechoslovakia, France, Germany and Austria.

The next trend, begun by Picasso and later also explored by Matisse and others, was an awakening to non-western or prehistoric art. As Hook writes:

“It was driven by a reaction against industrialisation and the advances of science by a desire to reject the artificialities of ‘civilisation’ and recapture a natural state which gave free play to instinct. Out went the certainties and sophistications of traditional Renaissance art, its flagrant calculation and rationality. In came subjectivism and a desire to reconnect with the innocence of primitive societies and the spontaneity of their artistic expression.”

Those artists who could afford to, like Gauguin or the German-Danish artist, Emil Nolde, travelled far and wide to exotic and remote locations where people still lived simple and primitive lives in order to reinvent the art they created. Others had to study it in ethnographic museums, looking at examples of tribal art which anthropologists brought back from the colonies. A specific manifestation of Primitivism in art was a preoccupation with masks. Avant-garde artists used masks in a variety of ways: as emblems of primitive, more instinctive cultures; as symbols of human emotion; or as a metaphorical protective covering hiding mankind’s deepest feelings.

In the early years of the twentieth century artists often considered themselves to be living outside ordinary society. Subversive social and political tendencies were widespread amongst the avant-garde. Both Picasso and Matisse were influenced, to varying degrees, by anarchists who wanted to corrupt traditional society. Picasso invented Cubism and Matisse created Luxe, Calme et Volupté (1904) which is seen as a pivotal work in the history of art and is generally considered the starting point of Fauvism. Neo-Impressionist in style, the painting depicting a group of women by the seaside, still employs pointillism, but also endows it with a new conceptual meaning based on fantasy and leisure. Some of the women appear to be naked, but are wearing hats, so their nakedness mythologises acceptability, while the women who seem to be fully clothed display a sense of prudishness. One even sits with her back towards the others.

Hook describes Paris as the Mecca of modern art in the years leading up to the First World War. He writes:

“Its position as the centre of experiment and innovation had been established in the nineteenth century and confirmed by the Impressionist revolution.”

Other European cities which became hubs for the avant-garde were Berlin, Dresden, Munich, Vienna, Prague, Moscow and Milan, but all looked to Paris to see what was happening on its artistic stage. The city was seen as the centre for experimentation and freedom of artistic expression. Many well-known artists spent time in Paris, learning, perfecting and refining their craft. Picasso, Klee, Chagall, Kandinsky, Modigliani and Mondrian amongst them.

Unlike Paris and the cities mentioned above, London was reluctant to find appeal in the art movements that swept Europe in the dying years of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth. Roger Fry, the English painter and art critic, organised several exhibitions, at the Grafton Gallery and the Royal Albert Hall in London, showing Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist paintings, but none of them were a great success. Even though famous painters, such as Monet and André Derain, visited London to paint the Thames, in the period under review Britain still stood on the periphery of the European art scene.

Philip Hook is an art dealer and director at Sotheby’s. His writing style is readable and accessible to both non-academic and scholar. Well-researched and informative, Art of the Extreme 1905-1914 guides the reader along the journey as Europe’s art scene emerges from the conservative artistic outlook of the years prior to the Enlightenment, through the uncertain period of the first decade of the twentieth century when artists began to rebel against traditional styles of painting whose primary purpose was to please the public of the time, to the establishment of modernist movements which advocated experimentation and connecting with one’s emotions on canvas.

Any Cop?: Excellent! Highly recommended to anyone interested in the European art scene between 1905 and 1914 as it swayed between Romantic Realism and Modernism.

Carola Huttmann

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