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The Role of Modern Art

ISSUE:  Summer 1945

The city of Paris bears on its shield a device that might well be taken as a symbol for art. A ship rides the waves, proclaiming its triumph over danger with the Latin phrase, fluctuat nec mergitur. “It rocks but does not founder” has often seemed to describe best the survival of French art amid the storms of war and revolution; but today the words apply to art in general, for the whole world is struggling through one of its great crises. A friend writes me from Mexico: “We are in a time of pause in the progressive movement of Mexican art, a pause which I fear will be prolonged, and may cause its former impetus to degenerate. This may be a matter of temporary conditions, but it makes me fear a general weariness.” This idea would unquestionably be confirmed by observers of conditions in many other parts of the world. In the United States, no serious critic could maintain that we have today an artist of the power we evinced in the work of Winslow Homer or of Thomas Eakins, or one showing the prophetic imagination of Albert P. Ryder, or one possessing the color mastery of Maurice Prendergast. In France, the most eager scanning of the horizon, even in the two decades before 1940, failed to give reason for hope that younger men were ready to step into the places of Matisse, Rouault, and Bonnard, Derain and Picasso, Braque and Villon. These men are still alive and at their easels; indeed, reproductions of work they have done during the war years offer convincing evidence that they have gone on to new heights of achievement. In Mexico, Rivera and Orozco have made advances over their earlier work, as have John Sloan and Kenneth Hayes Miller, in this country.

Rut the continuing and even increasing strength of the veterans (one of the merited compensations for the great difficulties which artists have to face) cannot afford us much reassurance when we ask ourselves how things stand with the younger men. Their work, in various countries, has caused many people to feel discouragement about the future; indeed, certain voices have been raised to declare that painting, as a live and creative thing, was finished. As far as France is concerned, a partial explanation of conditions today may be found in the loss of life during the first World War. The greatest sculptor of the new generation, Duchamp-Villon, was one of the victims of that holocaust, and with him was lost the rallying point for the artists of all types who gathered around him in a new effort at collective production. A few years later, his comrade, the noble painter Andre de la Fresnaye, succumbed to the disease which had fastened upon him during his service in the war, and the death of La Patelliere in 1932, also as a direct result of his years of fighting, killed the greatest hope for a new genius that we then had, as various able judges agreed.

Scores of talented men who had not yet emerged into recognition must surely have been lost to the world in addition to the well-known men I have mentioned. Rut if we knew them all, it is practically certain that the work they would have done could change our present-day situation in only a minor way. The artists born in the seventies, eighties, and nineties were direct continuers of the giants before them, whether through agreement or disagreement with their elders. Only in one case, that of Marcel Duchamp, was there such a break with the preceding school as to herald the inaugurating of wholly new directions. The public was quite right in giving the attention it did to the “Nude Descending a Staircase”; even if the arresting title accounted for a part of the interest and influence attaching to the picture, there is evidence that much of its success arose from its intrinsic power and originality. I witnessed this reaction to the work when it was first exhibited in Paris; and then, beginning on the opening night of the Armory Show, it set the same pace for American students of art, continuing its stimulus for years. The originality I have noted, the power to step out of bondage to any predecessors, was a quality that Duchamp shared with his ideal of the generation before him. This was Odilon Redon, who, born at exactly the same time as Monet, Renoir, and Cezanne, separates from them sharply and consciously, and points to conclusions almost the reverse of their own. A personal memory is that Duchamp, over thirty years ago, was the first person to mention Mondrian to me. He said at the time that he had not the slightest idea as to what the Dutchman was driving at, but added that he adored whatever he did not understand.

Some would condemn this as an abnegation of reason: I think it a wonderful way to make the unknown enter the realm of reason. Consider your experience, or that of people you have observed, when struggling with unknown masters of the older arts: Rubens and his apparently hopeless subjection to the flesh, the Byzantines and their apparently complete rejection of the flesh, the Aztecs and their negation of human values, as we traditionally know such ideals. Transcending our conception of the corporeal, the incorporeal, or the human is no easy matter, as is evidenced by epithets like materialist, Gothic (in the sense of vandal), decadent, and savage, for various schools which have incurred the wrath of the world—through the masters referred to, or through others who will come readily to mind. Sometimes we chastise them with centuries of neglect, as in the case of Greco; sometimes we obliterate their work under coats of whitewash on the walls they have painted; sometimes we unpack our hearts with oaths, as in the case of the moderns. Not one of those hostile acts can bring about understanding; for that you must yield to a work of art, rejecting it afterwards if you find it empty.

I do not measure the greatness of our period by the virulence of the attack on its masters; no one, as he walks in a narrow canyon like Pine Street, say, in lower Manhattan, elbowed and deafened by the surging crowd there, can estimate the comparative heights of the skyscrapers surrounding him. But even the man who finds them hateful must admit that they are big things; and the most pessimistic viewing of modern art can scarcely fail to admit that it has gone to great lengths, even if someone calls them perverse lengths, and sees them as departing from a true course.


To compare conditions in the arts with those in the world of outer affairs is frequently misleading; yet at other times such analogies offer help in our effort to understand things. And so we may take the risk here, and say that the movement of our time, with its expression in two world wars of more than Napoleonic magnitude, tells the scope of the forces at work in the modern mind. And, with so general a statement of the case, we may well accept the activity of modern art as an index to the mentality of the world: it is, then, a phenomenon of primary importance. At once, however, we make certain reserves: painting will express the character of a people who have a tradition of that art, as the French have, and pass by the Russians, who have no such tradition. Yet their magnificent achievement in the field of action clearly testifies to a great movement of the spirit, something that must demand expression in art. Considering the previous expressions of Russian genius, it will be through music, drama; or the novel that the country will probably speak again. On the other hand, England comes forth from its recent inferiority in the plastic arts with so important a man as Henry Moore; and he is doubtless only the first of a group of first-rate artists whom we are to see emerging, as the country takes the bit in its teeth, after its triumph over the worst of academies.

We see further evidence that the activity of our time is not without its counterpart in art when we come to the painting of Miro. A few years ago there might have been a certain doubt as to his importance. Though clearly a man who started out with an immense gift for painting, there was a disconcerting quality in his large canvases: if they were unmistakably original, they also seemed to take extreme risks of thinning out his native strength. A comparison between his case and that of Zuloaga would be intolerable today; but forty years ago, hope was still entertained for that other Spaniard, whose rendering of things peculiar to his country might have saved him, if a national note had really been enough to compensate for bad painting. With Miro, what threatened, or seemed to threaten, was falling into a merely decorative quality, represented by the poster, a generation ago, and by the rug in more recent times. We had a certain warning from the imaginative titles of the artist’s works: they told us that Miro had more in his mind than agreeable space-filling, or the discovery of novel forms and textures, what the French call “de l’inedit.” Now, with the exhibition of small works by the Spaniard, which New York has recently seen, doubt as to his quality is no longer possible.

Here were things that held a perfect balance between splendid color and design, on the one hand, and deep significance on the other. In truest painter-fashion, the artist demonstrated anew the inevitable relationship between form and content. The design and color, producing sensations of space—like limitless skies when the summer night fills them with stars—told of a mind attuned to the movements of the whole world. Drama like that of the heavens unfolded for our delight, and we were at the farthest remove from question as to decadence in the art of painting. A million infidels could have been staggered by this miracle, to give it Emerson’s term once more, and to refer it to something far greater than the mouse which our philosopher said was enough to carry such conviction.


The present hour is certainly one when we stand in need of convictions and the courage to defend them when they are challenged. Consider again the question raised in the beginning. What if it be true that in Mexico, after its outburst of energy during the last twenty-five years, there is now what my friend calls a “pause,” or even “weariness”? Let us agree, for purposes of argument at least, that the United States has no artist of such caliber as we see in certain great individuals of a generation or so ago. And what would be most serious, considering the focal position of France, let us suppose that the genius which gave us an incomparable line of masters for a century and a half is now under a cloud and—independently of the two great wars-is not to continue their work. The last of these hypotheses seems to me a most unlikely one, but I consider it as I do | the others in order to see what would be left to the world j if they are correct.

There would still be a general condition characterized in a thousand places by sensitive and eager understanding of the masters of the modern period, and by an articulate demand for more work such as theirs; there is unusually widespread technical ability, ready to apply itself to the rendering of ideas, once they are sufficiently clear in the mind; there are such numbers of people desirous of participating in art production as were never before seen; and among them, again and again, appear talents offering substantial results. Each new exhibition, if assembled by competent men, reveals something of great promise: I have just seen such a picture by a new Californian, and am filled with hope that he has come to stay. Since this condition covers the whole of Europe and the Americas, the chance that a spark here, there, anywhere, may burst into flame is a fascinating one,—and new: for few indeed would have thought of making such an assertion fifty or a hundred years ago. Then there was Paris, the world-capital of art, strengthened occasionally by a man of genius coming from some other place, while the other centers of art were pretty well aware of their minor importance, and were content with local success.

Perhaps the present state of affairs may be compared with what comes about when democracy distributes among multitudes the knowledge once reserved for a tiny minority, and when mass production makes general the possession of commodities which were once the luxuries of the rich. Most commonly, such a process carries with it a loss of quality; but let the masses become conscious of what they have, and their appreciation of it will set high standards again, higher ones, possibly, than we have known before, because the competition of great numbers of people for better things, and the support of artists by a vast public instead of by the small aristocracy of wealth and culture may furnish incentives that the past knew only at rare moments of general understanding, as in the Greek and the Gothic periods.

More and more, as we are so often told today, the world is one place; and if there is pause or weariness in a part of the world, there is probably a new accession of energy in some other part. For, as I have noted, there is preparation for such effort in numberless communities, and even the one that seemed to hesitate may well be summoning up strength for a new achievement.

Also, returning to the role of modern art as the expression of modern life, what are we to say of such periods as the nineteen-twenties and thirties? Do they not show the world as out of touch with its essential movement, and allowing the perversion of that movement by creatures like Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco? If we do not despair of modern life when it suffers such tragic confusion as to its course, why feel even discouraged if modern art does not present a record of unbroken success? The answer on both points is the same answer: that modern life, despite all, is inspiring; that modern art, despite all, is magnificent.

We did not need the help of Hitler in deciding which among the arts of our time are to be considered modern, i. e.,. those that express the distinctive ideas of the contemporary world. His branding of them as degenerate came as a mere confirmation of what we already knew to be falsehood— the rancor of men impotent themselves to advance and create, and therefore bent on the destruction of those who had such faculties. The Spanish republic gave every promise of new life to the people of its land; the forces of reaction combined to destroy that life; Picasso denounced their infamy in his “Guernica.” Even for those who profess incomprehension of this greatest painting of the twentieth century, indeed, for those who really fail to see its art, there can be no question as to the line it draws between men who would turn us back to outworn systems, to brute force, to materialism, and men who see the world as outstripping old limitations and old cruelties in the light that the painter showed as triumphing in Spain, even at a moment when his country was undergoing temporary defeat.

Rut Picasso is of that older generation whose achievement we have called certain, even if there are still people to say that he was a great artist only down to a certain date and that he went to the bad after that. Incidentally, such a case would be without precedent in the history of painters. For when they have once found their art, they go on with it, turning to the, right or the left only in matters of technical development, but never doubling in their tracks to deny their previous record. To this rule, I have never been able to find an exception. Indeed, in all the really great men, the best of their work is invariably that of their later years, even when, as in the case of Titian, they live to extreme old age.

Elie Faure told me that he had unconsciously confirmed this observation of mine, for he discovered that every work by Titian which he had selected to illustrate his “History of Art” was of the period when the painter had passed his ninetieth year.

If we can grant that the line of the masters continues down to the older men still among us, if we declare that Hitler was wrong even as an art critic and that the men he called degenerate are the very ones who carry on the great tradition, we can still understand the healthy impatience over present-day disorientation expressed in the words of that Mexican friend whom I quoted at the outset of this article. What needs perhaps to be clearer in our mind is that the problems of the younger men today are very different from those of the veterans. The latter rounded out a long period, beginning with the French Revolution, when a dead past was continually threatening to stifle expression—and did so with all but the strongest men. Each of them had to break, and usually had to break violently, with what seemed like error inherent in the work before him. (It was not error in the case of the masters; but even they cannot cover the whole of art: they always leave material for new genius to work with, after its revolt.) Thus Ingres’ is in a state of bitterness when he leaves the studio of David; Delacroix takes a direction opposed to that of Ingres; Courbet’s gigantic self-conceit makes him turn against the idealism of those two glorious predecessors—and with results of a magnificence that few realize, even today; Manet, at eighteen, points out shortcomings in Courbet’s “Burial at Ornans,” one of the ultimate masterpieces of the modern period; Cezanne and Renoir, after their liberation by Manet, have to take a course radically different from his own. And so the development continues until today, when we have to break with the whole character of the last century, although -like every one of the men just mentioned—we know that those earlier artists were the essential figures of their time, the moderns, as we term them, generically. Instead of accenting the break with a preceding school, I believe the emphasis of the new moderns will be on a constructive use of tradition.


The movement of the world and the movement of art have been so vertiginous in our time that it is no wonder if statesmen on the one hand and painters and sculptors on the other have failed at moments to follow the logic of events. Since I make free to speak thus of my fellow-professionals, perhaps it may seem incumbent on me to tell what this logic is. I make no claim to possess it; but I do offer two ideas which I believe may be fruitful for those who can apply them. They are not the whole truth, and will therefore not cover the problems of men to whom they do not appeal. But I can tell what certain artists are pursuing with a success which convinces me that their underlying philosophy accords with the new positivism of our period.

The first idea, then, is of a reliance on appearances. It has nothing in common with the photographic materialism of the nineteenth century. That travesty of the acceptance of nature by Courbet and the Impressionists has been wiped out of the consciousness of serious painters by the tremendous force of the men faultily referred to as abstract (remember how, in the most cubistic work of Picasso and Braque, letters, words, the forms of a violin or of a glass stand out among the planes of color, how Juan Gris renders them with a severity like that of his spiritual ancestor, Zurbaran, and how Leger has worked toward a painting which says in baldest terms, “a key,” “a leaf,” “a woman,” “a parrot”). The effort of such artists has given us a new sense of the reality in appearances, and when we trust them today it is with a certitude unconnected with the study of “effects,” the passing and accidental things which made up the whole painting of the modern decadents. It was against such men that we revolted, and the more vehemently because they claimed to be the representatives of the masters. From Giotto to Chardin (to take only the great line of European painting), not “effects” but objects were the means by which men told of life and the world in terms of great form and great color.

A neo-realism peculiar to our day seems, therefore, to be one of the elements which (mean returning fertility for art. The other one points also to a course I designated above as traditional—a word that Renoir once and for all delivered from the false interpretation which would make it the equivalent of “lacking in life.” Tradition, as Renoir put it, has never been the enemy of art; it has been, on the contrary, the great support of art; he exemplified this by saying that Raphael, the diligent student of Perugino, still became the divine Raphael. And how often must we repeat another sentence of the great modern—that the place where the young man becomes an artist is the museum? Evidently, we must still return to those words many times, for too few people see their application here: it is that the complement for our neo-realism will be a study of the museum at once closer and more inclusive than we have been giving to that “mariner’s compass of the artist.” as I have called it elsewhere.

Some people will say that latter-day painting reeks of museum study, from the poorest old pseudo-classics still surviving in the academic schools to the “modernists” who have swooped down on everything in sight, pillaging the cavemen, the Greeks, the Gothic artists, Greco, Goya, and the South Sea Islanders with equal cheerfulness and impartiality. I object that the influences thus cited, whether among the Salon artists or their down-to-the-minute brethren, are not even remotely akin to the thing which will develop from the close study that is already beginning to characterize our time.

That it is typically traditional and therefore, according to my definition of the temper of today, typically modern is proved by the example of Ingres. His renewed authority is due, precisely, to his prodigious study of the museum. In his following of Raphael, in his deriving a great and thoroughly original art from a devotion to that master and, even more, to the Greeks, he has nothing in common with men like Baudry and Cabanel. In the same way, Cezanne, when he copied a figure by Signorelli in the Louvre and introduced it into his compositions of bathers, had nothing in common with the superficial museum study of a Lenbach, a Burne-Jones, or their latter-day successors who offer us more or less disguised variations of themes from Tintoretto, George Inness, or the African sculptors. (You will, please, be so obliging as to write in the names of a few of our “poor relatives of art,” here: I have been “personal” on enough occasions, previously.)

Having referred to fundamental study of the museum, as with Ingres and Cezanne (and I will add a man whose work is still open to controversy—Derain), having glanced also at superficial uses of the past, let me stress an aspect of that more inclusive use of ancient material which I see as part of our new equipment. It is one which has a peculiar significance for this continent.

Asked about study of the classics by Americans, Diego Rivera replied, “Certainly, we should study the classics, our classics.” When I was in Mexico, a very earnest painter and teacher, Gabriel Fernandez Ledesma, discussed the advisability of having students conduct their “drawing from the antique” with the great figures of the Toltecs, the Aztecs, and the other ancient races of the land as models, instead of the casts of Greek and Renaissance sculpture which had come down from the earlier days of the Mexican art academy (the oldest in the Americas).

Something might be said for the idea of accustoming the student, from his beginnings, to the laws of proportion and the idea of life in what is indeed the classic art of this continent. On the other hand, the whole trend of recent times, in its developing conception of art-study, is to send the young man to nature before allowing him to deal with the works of the masters; a considerable maturity is needed before they can be approached with such intelligence as makes the distinction between slavish copying and contructive use.

Leaving aside this question of method, there remains the certain fact that America, in its older time, offered to the world one of its great expressions, a thing whose value gives it a proud place beside the arts previously accepted from the peoples of the Eastern Hemisphere. And in speaking of the older America, it is important to remember that wre do not mean only Mexico, Peru, and the other countries which have given us the larger monuments of our past. In the United States, places as far separated as Ohio, Georgia, and Oklahoma have yielded sculpture of the same intensity of expression as the grand things of Middle and South America. They demonstrate conclusively that if we do not produce art here, it is through no fault of our soil.

But we have produced art. And while we need not be too insistent on its relation to our environment, it is worth while to remember that from Copley and before him to John Flannagan and after him, the best of our art has had an American character. How much of a bond there is to be with the soil, and with the ancient things we are recovering from our soil, is a question that only time can settle. But the grandeur in a stone figure of a man of ancient Illinois, now in the Field Museum at Chicago, the perfection—almost rivalling that of the Egyptians—in the animal sculpture preserved in numerous examples at the Ohio State Museum, will not be lost on the artists of today. The real ones among them will use it in the way that the Greeks used the Egyptian works referred to. And the Greeks were as unrelated by blood to the men of Egypt as we are to the ancient people of America. But Greece would not have attained the glory always associated with her name had she not built on her heritage from the lands which preceded her. In the earlier Greece, we see clearly how her sculptors followed the lesson learned from Egypt; yet they developed their riper art so far as to lose all evidence of its source in the schools which, for young Hellas, were the classics, “Nothing comes from nothing in the arts,” as Odilon Redon used to say very simply. For America, the starting point in European tradition is a right one, for we are of European descent. But the heritage of Europe has been pretty thoroughly picked over, and the devastation of the present war renders unlikely an immediate renewal of the genius of that continent. Our own is being pushed to the fore with ever greater momentum. We face our task with a realization of its difficulties; they fully explain the previous references to our concern as to insufficient results today. But if we realize also the privilege of our position, we may well equal in the arts the record our soldiers and sailors are making in the field of action.


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