The much-discussed, over-documented thing which we call “modern” painting has its life, its being, not in the tenets of the sturdy realism read into its bylaws by our less exacting critics, but in the exciting and valorous escape into romance that more closely marks the direction of its leading geniuses.
What is more romantic than the inquisitive, ever-inventive moods of a Picasso, ill-content with the world about him, now reorganizing it in Cubist abstractions, now rediscovering the classic serenity of Greek poses? For Picasso, Chirico, Leger, Rouault remain rudely discontent with the common-sense reality all about them and through plastic means introduce us to an imaginative world of their own, informed with lyrical madness but conscious, always conscious, of their own design and order.
Modern painting, so called, has been a valid attempt to rediscover the classical technical secrets of the old masters. The strange romanticism of the nineteenth century—introducing an Arab on horseback in a Paris salon—was slightly ill-kempt, both in imaginative qualities and in looseness of organization. The succeeding Realists, Courbet, Manet, Monet, and others, bent their talents more closely to an analysis of form, but were woefully and disturbingly inured to a wearisome documentation of the normal things that went on about them. And then along came Picasso, Gris, and Braque who proceeded to make mince-meat of reality, and concoct those searching questionings of the plastic, rather than the pictorial, elements within the subjects (if any) which they chose to portray. The search was on, intense and brilliant, for something less vacuous than exterior design, for qualities of the mind and heart that would prove more stimulating, more resilient than a given statement of facts. The purely modern attitude chose to inject any facts it saw fit, or any dissection of those facts into whatever form seemed fitting, so that form were plastically truthful and organically right.
The pied piper of modernism, Cezanne (whose dictum has led so many of our contemporaries astray), contributed the information that pictures could be constructed in the forms of so many cubes, cones, and cylinders. All the little painters jumped into the stream of architecture and were grounded upon the senseless and unreasoning use of a doctrine that could only be harmful to those who recognized in it solely an adjuration to use symbols and thus conquer humanity. The cube, cone, and cylinder are our academic rule today; ninety-eight per cent of the world’s painters are blindly turning out eyeless Cezannes, while the other two per cent are eagerly feeding their own imaginations with a Rouaultish concern with Death, with a Chiricoish hankering for the serenity of ancient Greece, or with a Picassoesque nimbleness of wit that constantly turns itself inside out in a mad and restless desire to escape present-day reality. Needless to say, our two per cent of poets represent probably our sole bequest to posterity.
The unfortunate, deadly regimentation that has settled like a cloud upon the canvases of our moderns has been the result of a too careful inquest into the origin of style and technique. Our painters have given up concern with anything but fruitless exercises in painting secrets, deliberate and ceaseless excursions into realms that offer interest only to historians. The technical dexterity of Picasso has deceived his too zealous followers into copying his surfaces rather than his lyrical content. Somehow, this dominant interest in technique has effectively killed any personal restlessness, any solitary questing that denotes the true poet. For there is only the poet and the plodder—in the past, as now. The plodder, with immature reasoning and humorless lack of emotion, sees in the poet a mad fellow and sets about to bring sanity into his painting, such sanity being composed of a simple use of the poet’s trade language but a large omission of any other of his statements. The private indelicacies, the spiritual wanderings that overcloud the poet’s canvas are fittingly ruled out by the plodder, who in the same forms and images substitutes a more stable and thoroughgoing “reality,” something esteemed “actual” by contemporary thought.
For it is a sad commentary upon present-day painting that it suffers so much from a lack of flowering of individual inspiration. The academic rut of apples and buildings sweated into the groove of Cezannesque formulae offers no spiritual fodder for men questing a personal faith. This establishment of painting phrases in terms of Reason is sadly unalluring if that Reason be confined so completely to an exposition of painting dexterity. The making of architectural epigrams in paint has become the province of anyone who can handle a brush—we are all so proficient we never pause to consider the direction we are taking. And, as a result, our painting completely lacks direction, for it has not the impress of a definite attitude, a confirmed personality. There is a large decay of imagination concealed with seeming adeptness in clever surface design.
For lack of this personal stimulation, of inward design, painters have plundered the arts of the world, ransacking Greece, Italy, Persia, China, Japan, Africa, every old culture, for revelations of different manners in which to paint, disregarding the essential that the first element of good painting is that the painter have something to say. Our little men, thinking to over-ride this emptiness of content by fulsomeness of technique, have jauntily, embarked upon a calm sea of craftmanship, their vessel being the impotent bark Eclecticism. Geometric forms dominate every canvas, but the geometry is palpably a self-sufficient idiom, never used to clothe something the painter wanted to express, but primarily in itself both the method and the expression. Such lordly fatuousness presents its amusing side, for both our painters and critics in going “modern” have singled out Design as the new religion, and all those possessed of the magic symbols are admitted to the inner court. I am reminded of Peter Arno’s cartoon in which one eunuch asks another, “Have I ever told you the story of my operation?”
The primary, the only interesting thing a painter can express is a statement of faith. It can assume any form, but its intensity, its personal vision, must always be dominant, whether poetic, religious, or realistic, whether abstract or representational. Verisimilitude is never the test; rather: Is the statement an original one, is the thinking first-rate? The fine poet in paint must organize as soundly, compose as stringently as the painter whose only concern is technical. If his thoughts are inorganic, his plastic arrangements disorderly, the whole emphasis of his emotions is lost, for it is by the deliberate clothing of felt emotions in suitable garb that such thoughts attain their inevitable sequence. It is, truly, a platitude that first there must be something to say, and then that it be said well. On the other hand, it is equally true that pretty speeches are valueless without content.
In the leaders of the present modern movement I find a satisfying and permanent investigation of personal attitudes in terms of an universal order. Picasso, Leger, Chirico, Rouault, Matisse, in their best work have invested their painting with a constant definition of states of mind and of feeling. They have not been content to compose empty arabesques, quiet decorations and patterns. Rather do I find an unending, straightforward direction of thought. And, strangely enough, these men are not only our leaders in express statements but as well are the master technicians of our time. It is the combination of these two elements that make them our finest artists. They have never played the hurdy-gurdy of technique as their sole song.
And, as I mentioned at the outset of this article, these men are to me the true Romantics of our day, (Here I may as well define my romanticism as one of the imagination, stretching beyond the confines of a casual world into the finely wrought realm of the spirit and the “ought to be.”) For I would not call the work of any of these men veracious, in the sense that it is completely true to life; rather is it a personal view of life as it should be, created anew by men who see little in the life about them.
Leger’s incessant attempt to reorganize and conquer a machine world; Chirico’s obsession with gladiators, Greek rotundas and thoughtful horses; Rouault’s stained glass, medieval grammar of Death; Picasso’s recapturing of the antique spirit, as well as his joyous abstractions; these men care little for the norm that surrounds them. They are rebuilding little worlds of their own, god-like creations that lift men out of the rut of a bankrupt spirituality into some new declaration of faith, guided by the sure romantic belief in man-as-he-should-be. This is, I believe, humanity in its broadest scope, for it is sheer deliverance, absolute freedom from the commonplace.
The fundamental bases of modern art lie in the liberation of the artist from set subject matter or literature of any sort, and a completer realization of the architecture that is the construction of a picture. It has become unnecessary for the artist to tell a story in order to secure a hearing; the spectator has advanced in his appreciation to such a degree that ready communication is established for the most profoundly far-flung of the painter’s images. Definite cognizance of organization is demanded, for with the stringent experiments in craftsmanship has come a heightened consciousness of the peculiar plastic demands of a picture. Emotion as such has been found disorderly if not built and composed in a formal fashion.
But, unfortunately, this heightened discovery of “significant form” and design proved a tartar in the large, for painters became so intent in their search for pattern that they paid little attention to the ensuing emptiness of their content. Substance became non-essential, and “subject” was booed all over the lot. The philosophy of painting became the juvenile one of symbols, more symbols and less subject.
Now, since painting came into being, the subject as such has been the painter’s approach to pictorial intensity. From the subject he has derived his color and form, as well as the inspiration that prompted the very painting of the picture. But all this was thrown overboard in the specious belief that mere patterns were in themselves sufficient to a picture’s entity. How bankrupt this theory has become is only too evident in the vast exuberance of flat pattern painting all about us. There is left no personal communication of the artist, but rather a humdrum sameness and level of mediocrity such as the world has never seen before. True, the craftsmanship is of a very high order, but the coldness of approach, the deadness of content, provide little stimulation.
Consider, for instance, the paintings of the Flemish primitives, to which the modern movement has returned in a search for classic technique. The vitality, of these paintings is always in the subject’s dominance and the subservience of technique to what the artist has to say. Every detail of craft which so delights the modern is completely dictated by the pictorial demands of the subject. The zest, the brilliance of the Flemish master, comes from his eager participation in the life about him, and in the graphic depiction of that participation. With all his skill, we have never seen an attempt to create merely ingenious parodies of the bare technical outlines. And, as a result, the Flemish master has left us a personal interpretation of the life of that time—for he was always essentially a Realist.
This active participation in life has eluded the modem painter who, intent upon art problems, has effectively avoided any stimulation of his intellect or emotions by contact with the large humanity around him. His only springboard to creation has been the rational combination of forms learned in the art schools. And that, sadly enough, is insufficient for major creative effort.
The statement that Picasso, Chirico, Leger, and others, are essentially Romantics does not condemn them to the decadence of the usual European esthetic. The formalism with which they, build their pictures is just as classic as the formalism of Egyptian or Chinese sculpture, an external, highly conscious reconstruction of their personal inspirations. There is no warring in this external version of internal thinking and feeling, for the plastic units have no Germanic romantic coloration, being always primarily expressive forms. The eye, in the last analysis, is still the dictator of the plastic composition.
It is in their individual thinking, in what their eyes see, that we may sense this new romantic outlook, this search for a better world. But, where the old Romantics were too obsessed with their little streams of consciousness or their surprised reactions to things merely weird or unusual, these moderns submit every reaction to the demands of the picture, and formalism is always observed. Where the good painter differs from his follower today is in his ability to observe this formalism as one of his aims, rather than to make it his sole object. The external approach is used to define the inner compulsion. And this, it seems to me, is the real significance of the new order of Romantics in their relation to the classical attitude.