The 20th century
By 1903 the impetus of Symbolism was expended and a new and enigmatic mood was forming. The new attitude drew on a vein that was comic, poetic, and fantastic, exploring an irrational quality akin to humour inherent in the creative process itself, as well as on a reserve of ironic detachment. The new painters drew strength from unexpected sources. The work of Henri Rousseau, a former clerk in the Paris municipal customs service who was known as “Le Douanier” accordingly, and who had exhibited at the Indépendants since 1886, attracted attention. The apparent innocence of his pictures gave them a kind of imaginative grandeur that seemed beyond the reach of any art founded on sophistication.
The art of supposedly primitive peoples had a special appealin the early years of the 20th century. Gauguin, who had made direct contact with it in his last years, proved propheticnot only in the forms he adopted but in the spirit of his approach. Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain, who met in1900, evolved a style together based on crude statements of strong colours. Matisse had been moving more circumspectly in the same direction. The apparent ferocity o fthe works that the three exhibited in 1905 earned them the nickname of the Fauves (“Wild Beasts”). It appears that Matisse was responsible for introducing Pablo Picasso to African sculpture. Picasso had already shown signs of dissatisfaction with existing canons; his use of fin de siècle styles in his earliest works has a quality close to irony. Primitive art, both African and Iberian, provided him with an austerity and detachment that led after 1906 to a radical metamorphosis of the image and style hitherto habitual in European art. In 1904 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, at Dresden, discovered the art of the Pacific Islands as well as African art. His first reflection of the primitive spirit was parallel to that of the Fauves and may have depended on them, if only partially.
The idea of art, first and last, as a matter of expression (in contrast to Impressionism) was common to Germany and France in the first decade of the 20th century; it appears in Matisse's Notes of a Painter, published in 1908. Matisse, in fact, hardly differentiated expression from decoration; his ideal of art as “something like a good armchair in which to rest” explicitly excluded the distortion and disquiet that earned the style of Kirchner and Die Brücke (“The Bridge”) group, which was founded in 1905, the label of Expressionism. The worldly subjects of Kirchner represented only one aspect of the group; the earthy Primitivism of Emil Nolde and the emphatic pictorial rhetoric of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff are more typical. Both Nolde and Max Pechstein (another member of the group) traveled to the Pacific. The development of the Austrian Oskar Kokoschka, who was influenced by members of Die Brücke, spanned the first two-thirds of the 20th century; the tempestuous emotion of his finest pictures places them among the masterpieces of painting of the German-speaking world in his time.
The transformation of painting after 1907 was particularly apparent in works executed in Germany. Wassily Kandinsky had come to Munich from Moscow at the age of 30 in 1896. His earliest mature works were painted in a jewellike, fairy-tale Cloisonniste style. He later told how one evening in his studio he came upon “an indescribably beautiful picture, drenched with an inner glowing . . . of which I saw nothing but forms and colours . . .” (from R.L. Herbert [ed.], Modern Artists on Art, 1965). It was one of his own works, standing on its side, so that its content was incomprehensible. Kandinsky's first nonfigurative watercolour was painted in 1910, and in the same year he wrote much of Concerning the Spiritual in Art , which converted the aesthetic doctrines of Goethe to the purposes of the new art. The series of “Improvisations” that followed preserved reminiscences of figuration, made illegible by the looseness of the pictorial structure; their diffuse and amorphous consistency had little connection with the main objectives of painting at the time. In the first decade of the 20th century, the idea of painting implied by Postimpressionism and that of a reasoned structure analogous to the structure of nature, if not to appearances, were far from exhausted. The influence of Kandinsky's “Improvisations” from 1911 onward, though delayed, was nonetheless great and pointed in a direction that abstract painting was to take 40 years later.
The Munich group Der Blaue Reiter (“The Blue Rider”), named after one of Kandinsky's earlier pictures, was formed in 1911 to represent the new tendencies when Kandinsky and Franz Marc withdrew from the heterogeneous Neue Künstlervereinigung (“New Artists' Association”). The group soon became, in its turn, a broadly based assembly of the international avant-garde artists of the day, although the stylizations of Marc himself now appear commonplace. Among the early members of the group, the Russian Alexey von Jawlensky evolved a structured form of Expressionism that culminated in the 1930s in a series of abstractions of a head, but the chief importance of the group was as a stage in the development of the Swiss painter Paul Klee.
Cubism and its consequences
Picasso's Primitivism, joined to the influence of Cézanne's “Great Bathers,” culminated in 1907 in the enigmatic and famous picture “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon” (Museum of Modern Art, New York City). Those who saw it were astonished and perplexed, not only by the arbitrary disruption in the right-hand part of the picture of the continuity that had always united an image but also by the defiant unloveliness, which made it plain that the traditional beauties of art, the appeal of the subject, and the credibility of its imitation were now, at any rate to Picasso, finally irrelevant. “What a loss to French art!” a Russian collector said, and Picasso himself was not sure what to think of the picture; it was not reproduced for 15 years or publicly exhibited for 30. Nevertheless, the effect on his associates was profound. Matisse and Georges Braque, who, unlike Picasso, had been experimenting with Fauvism, immediately started painting female nudes of similar stridency. Subsequently, however, Matisse turned back toward relatively traditional forms and the flooding colour that chiefly concerned him. Braque, on the other hand, became more and more closely associated with Picasso, and Cubism, as the new style was labeled by one of Braque's hostile critics in the following year, was the result of their collaboration. In the first phase, lasting into 1909, the focus of their work was the accentuation and disruption of planes. In the next two years Braque went to paint at Cézanne's old sites, and the inspiration of Cézanne's style at this stage is indubitable. In the second phase, from 1910 to 1912, the irrelevance of the subject, in any integral form, became evident. It was no longer necessary to travel in search of a motif; any still life would do as well. The essence of the picture was in the treatment. If Analytical Cubism, as this phase is generally labeled, analyzed anything, it was the nature of the treatment. The great Cubist pictures were meditations on the intrinsic character of the detached Cézannesque facets and contours, out of which the almost-illegible images were built. Indeed, the objects were not so much depicted as denoted by linear signs, a spiral for the scrolled head of a violin or the trademark from a label fora bottle, which were superimposed on the shifting, half-contradictory flux of shapes. The element of paradox is essential; even when it approaches monumental grandeur, Cubism has a quality that eludes solemn exposition. Subtle and elegant geometric puns build up into massive demonstrations of pictorial structure, demonstrations that its complex parallels and conjunctions build nothing so firmly and so memorably as the picture itself. This proof that figurative art creates an independent reality is the central proposition of modern art, and it has had a profound effect not only on painting and sculpture, as well as on the arts of design that depend on them, but also on the intellectual climate of the age.
The experimental investigation of what reality meant in artistic terms then took a daring turn that was unparalleled since pictorial illusion had been isolated five centuries earlier. The Cubists proceeded to embody real material from the actual world within the picture. They included first stenciled lettering, then pasted paper,and later solid objects; the reality of art asthey saw it absorbed them all. This assemblage of material, called collage, led in 1912 to the third phase of the movement, Synthetic Cubism (see photograph), which continued until 1914. The textured and patterned planes were composed into forms more like pictorial objects in themselves than recognizable figurations. In the later work of Picasso and Braque, it is again possible to construe their pictorial code as referring plainly to the objective world—in the case of Braque, to still life chosen with an appreciation of household things and, with Picasso, to emotive yet enigmatichuman subjects as well. The message of Cubism remained the same: meaning had been shown to reside in the structure of the style, the basic geometry implied in the Postimpressionist handling of life. The message spread rapidly.
The first theoretical work on the movement, On Cubism, by the French painters Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, was published in 1912. It was argued that geometric and mathematical principles of general validity could be deduced from the style. An exhibition in the same year represented all Cubism's adherents except the two creators. The exhibition was called the Section d'Or (“Golden Section”), after a mathematical division of a line into two sections with a certain proportion to each other. Among the exhibitors were the Spaniard Juan Gris and the Frenchman Fernand Léger, who in their subsequent work were both concerned with combining the basic scheme of Synthetic Cubism with the renewed sense of a coherent subject. Cubism stimulated parallel tendencies in The Netherlands, Italy, and Russia. In The Netherlands, Piet Mondrian, on the basis of Cézanne and the Dutch painters of the fin de siècle, had reached a very simple, symbolic style analogous to the Dutch landscape. He first saw Cubist paintings in 1910 and moved to Paris two years later. The subsequent resolution of his sense of natural conflict into increasingly bare rectangular designs balancing vertical against horizontal and white against areas of primary colour is one of the achievements of modern art. In 1917 the de Stijl movement formed in The Netherlands around him, with lasting consequences for the architecture, design, and typography of the century.
In Italy in 1909 a program for all the arts was issued by the poet Filippo Marinetti, who called his exercise the Futurist manifesto. He rejected the art of the past and exalted energy, strength, movement, and the power of the modern machine. In painting, his ideas were taken up by Carlo Carrà. Umberto Boccioni, the most talented of the group, pursued its ideas not only in painting but also in sculpture. The most memorable serial images of movement were those of Giacomo Balla; they reveal that, under its vivid fragmentation, the vision of Futurism was not far from the photographic. Its imperative mood and disruptive tactics nonetheless had their effect, finding an echo in Britain in the Vorticist circle around Wyndham Lewis. Lewis' analytical intelligence and the toughness of his artistic temper marked equally his near-abstract early works and the incisive classical portraits he painted later. Among his early associates, David Bomberg developed from the Cubist idiomin 1912–13 images of a striking clarity and force; and WilliamRoberts combined a Cubist formulation with social commentary analogous to that of the 18th-century painter William Hogarth.
In Russia, where Western developments were well known, the avant-garde, with its own roots in primitive art, had already evolved a simplified Expressionistic style. Kazimir Malevich produced formalized images of peasants at work that anticipated the later style of Léger. The striplike and often abstract formulations of Mikhail Larionov and Natalya Gontcharova, to which they gave the name of Rayonism, date from 1911. In 1912 Malevich exhibited his first “Cubo-Futurist” works, in which the figures were reduced to dynamic coloured blocks, and in 1913 he followed these witha black square on a white background. This increasing tendency to abstraction reached its culmination in 1915 withthe arrival of what he called Suprematism, in which simple geometric elements provided the whole dynamic force. The Russian movement, complicated by its own politics, was both accelerated and eventually broken by the Revolution, which gave it, for a time, a social function that the avant-garde has hardly achieved elsewhere. The Russian artists dispersed after 1922, however, and their legacy, the tradition of Constructivism, was transmitted to western Europe by El Lissitzky, Antoine Pevsner, and the latter's brother, Naum Gabo.
Prismatic colour, the element in Cézanne that the Cubists had neglected in dismantling his style, was taken up by Robert Delaunay. Delaunay's variety of Cubism was named Orphism, after Orpheus, the poet and musician of ancient Greek myth. The essential discovery of Orphism was proclaimed as a realization that “colour is both form and subject.” After an exquisite series of “Windows,” Delaunay freed himself from representation and based his designs on the effects of simultaneous colour contrast. These dictated the concentric patterns of his “Discs” and “Cosmic Circular Forms,” which occupied him and his wife, Sonia, thenceforward. The Czech František Kupka painted his first totally abstract work at about the same time. Even the simplest of his subsequent works never quite lost the rhythms of the fin de siècle style. Delaunay realized that a new order of painting was beginning, but his immediate influence was strongest abroad. Two American followers, Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, exhibited as “Synchromists” in 1913. The Munich group Der Blaue Reiter was in touch with Delaunay, who exhibited with them, and the subsequent development of Klee was founded on his conversion to Delaunay's ideal of colour.
Fantasy and the irrational
The identity of a work of art as a thing in itself, independent of representation, was on the way to general recognition when the outbreak of war in 1914 interrupted artistic life throughout most of Europe. The activities of a group of painters, writers, and musicians who sought refuge in Zürich reflected the disorientation and disillusion of the time. Dada, as the movement was called, owed much to the iconoclasm of the Cubists and to the polemical tactics of the Futurists. Nonetheless its attack on art was fundamentally artistic; one wing of the avant-garde has owed allegiance to the Dadaist tradition ever since. As well as the need continually to attack the limits of the fine arts, it was felt important to “épater [“shock”] les bourgeois.” The Dadaists enlarged the field open to artists in three ways. They questioned the idea that some subjects were simply not relevant to painting, a question that had been hovering over art for some time, by the simple expedient of arguing that anything and everything was fair game. The repetitive and amorphous trends of Impressionism had in fact already given grounds for such a supposition. The next step was to make a reluctant public accept that any object was a work of art if an artist chose to proclaim it one. In 1914 Marcel Duchamp, the exhibitor of serial images of movement in the Section d'Or, produced a bottle rack bought in a Paris store. Better and more épatant still, he submitted a urinal to a New York exhibition under a pseudonym in 1917. Duchamp did not paint again, and this is perhaps the single Dadaist gesture that time has failed to reconcile with art. It was also the Dadaists who posed the question, if art (as Redon had realized) is not within the reach of will, how is it different from chance? Jean Arp made collages and then reliefs from random shapes obtained “according to the laws of chance.” Of all modern artists, he examined most closely the side of art akin to humour. Similarly, the Dadaists explored such elements as incongruity and dissociation, a process that led the way to Surrealism. Finally and almost incidentally, they asked, if the presentation of movement is proper to art, why not movement itself? Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter, with animated drawings and film, made the first works in a kinetic tradition that even by the late 1980s showed no sign of abating.
The painter who, more than any other, focused on incongruity—a feature that in painting involves the reinstatement of the subject, rather than its treatment, at the centre of art—was Giorgio De Chirico, an Italian born in Greece. De Chirico, rooted in the Mediterranean world, created from 1910 onward unforgettable images of its dereliction. In the immediate postwar years, he pioneered a style of emblematic, half-abstract still life called pittura metafisica (“metaphysical painting”), but by 1924, when the Surrealists began to work a similar vein of fantasy, De Chirico had changed; and in later life he disavowed his early achievement. Metaphysical painting had one unexpected sequel, the serene realism of Giorgio Morandi. Meanwhile, Kurt Schwitters in Germany developed the mediums of collage and assemblage in the new spirit. Francis Picabia, who was associated with Duchamp in the United States during the war, joined forces with the Swiss Dadaists in 1918; his contribution was an epigrammatic elegance of style. The German Max Ernst was the most resourceful pictorial technician of the movement and a continually fertile inventor.
It was in 1917 that the term Surrealism was coined, when the poet Guillaume Apollinaire described the style of the ballet Parade , for which Picasso had painted the sets, as:
a sort of sur-realism in which I see a point of departure for a series of manifestations of that New Spirit which . .. promises to transform arts and manners from top to bottom with universal joy.
The manifesto of the Surrealist movement, which was composed by the poet André Breton, did not appear until 1924, however. Surrealism meant different things in different people's hands, but a common feature was absorption in the fantastic and irrational. The questions posed by Dada also preoccupied Surrealists, but for them the problem of the involuntary, fortuitous element in art, for example, was clearly open to psychological solution. The Surrealists demanded “pure psychic automatism”; the automatic drawings that the French artist André Masson made from 1925 onward and, on a more mechanical level, the frottage (“rubbing”) devices of Ernst, which added to painting the evocative effect of fortuitously dappled textures, introduced an element that flourished even more fully 20 years later. Another discovery made in the wake of Dada was similarly delayed in its full impact: Parade had been the culmination of a series of musical compositions by Erik Satie that were based on ironic quotations of popular material. In the early 1920s the Americans Stuart Davis and Man Ray made paintings out of the designs on commercial packaging, foreshadowing the Pop Art of the 1950s.
The greatest achievement of Surrealist painting, however, was the invention of a new genre: fantastic realism—the prosaic, indeed quasi-photographic, rendering of the forms of fantasy and dream. The invention was the work, after De Chirico, of the Frenchman Yves Tanguy and the Spaniard Salvador Dalí. In the pictorial world of Dalí, everyday things undergo a transformation that can be almost disturbing; in that of Tanguy, forms are more suggestive than related to actual objects. A different aspect of this dream realism, one that is particularly disturbing, was shown by the Belgian René Magritte.
In the years after 1918, a mood of classical consolidation affected some painters. In Germany a “New Objectivity” (Die Neue Sachlichkeit) was imposed on Expressionism; the eventual synthesis appeared in the brutal paintings of Max Beckmann. In France the Italian-born Amedeo Modigliani, affected by the simplicity of the Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brancusi, arrived at a delicate linear realism, the last of the great Postimpressionist styles.
The Expressionist tradition was developed to an extreme of agonized distortion by Chaim Soutine. Another Russian-born member of the school of Paris, Marc Chagall, who had been influenced both by Cubism and the Russian avant-garde, discovered in the 1920s an individual and inconsequent veinof pictorial fancy. The sombre and devotional art of the Frenchman Georges Rouault bore the marks of his training with Gustave Moreau and as a stained-glass maker. Its crude force had been developed in the context of Fauvism, but the vision was one of refined introspection. The vigour and freedom of Fauvism was developed in the opposite direction in the decorative, extrovert style of another French painter, Raoul Dufy. The classicizing trend of the 1920s had a remarkable sequel in the work of the mural painters of Mexico. One such, Diego Rivera, had learned the formal lessons of Cubism in Paris; José Clemente Orozco was more dependent on the folk art of his country. Their frescoes combined grandeur with a legibility and social awareness rare in modern art.
The greatest imaginative achievements between World Wars I and II were, however, again those of Picasso. In the years immediately following World War I he had painted a series of solidly modeled yet oddly ironic figure pictures. Then his mood changed, and in 1925 “The Three Dancers” (Tate Gallery, London) reintroduced an anarchic and convulsive quality. The ambiguities and transformations of his art, both in painting and sculpture, have an emotional character that is entirely his own, but the enlargement of the artistic language greatly influenced others. The metamorphosis of natural shape into abstracted forms that nevertheless curve and bulge with their own life, a metamorphosis initiated by Picasso, became the international style of the early 1930s. The Spaniard Joan Miró gave it his own clarity and gaiety. Biomorphic abstraction, in essence the method of Tanguy, extended the resources of Surrealism, and the Chilean Roberto Matta Echaurren, who began painting in 1938, used it with dramatic effect. A poetic version of the style, rooted in an emotional response to landscape, was evolved in Englandby Graham Sutherland. In the later 1930s, with “Guernica” (1937; Prado, Madrid) and other pictures, Picasso responded to specific events. Around 1940, two painters in the United States, Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, gave the biomorphic style a new character: relaxed, diffuse, and clear.
The development of abstract painting between the wars was comparatively slow. Klee (in 1921) and Kandinsky (in 1922) gravitated to the Bauhaus, the school in Germany whose work at Weimar and later at Dessau deeply influenced architecture and design as well as basic teaching. Oskar Schlemmer, whose simplified manner paralleled the Italian metaphysical painters, and Lyonel Feininger, an American-born painter working in a style developed from Cubism, were already teaching there. Kandinsky was concerned with refining the geometric ingredient of his work.Klee developed the poetic and fantastic elements of his art with an inconsequent fertility. The systematic purity of the Bauhaus approach survived longest in the work of Josef Albers, who moved to the United States in 1933. In 1940 Mondrian moved to New York City, and his last dynamic pictures reflect the new environment. Mondrian's work was appreciated by only a small circle, although a similar strength of purpose with a delicate responsiveness to a broader range of forms appeared in the work of the British painter Ben Nicholson. In the 1930s some paintings were executed by artists who formed themselves into groups, such as Abstraction-Création in Paris, Unit One in London, and the Association of American Abstract Artists in New York City. The work of these groups attained wider recognition only after World War II.
The postwar work of Braque developed a few basic themes. The space and content of “The Studio” series of five paintings were formulated in vertical phases of varying sombreness; a mysterious bird that featured in this series was a symbol expressive of aspiration. Nicolas de Stael, a friend of Braque who was born in St. Petersburg, reached in 1950 a style in which lozenges of solid paint were built into structures of echo and correspondence. Colour in itself provided the substance, and de Stael's influence was considerable. The painterly and basically traditional vein of abstraction pursued in Paris by such painters as Alfred Manessier remained at root decorative. In Italy, traditional trends in sculpture are reflected in the brilliant accomplished modeling of Giacomo Manzù; Marino Marini, devoting himself almost entirely to the single theme of horse and rider, gave a bald realistic style an oddly apocalyptic force.
The Expressionist tradition was revived in the new spirit by the “Cobra” group of painters from Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam who came together in Paris in 1948. In the work of Asger Jorn and Karel Appel, the image springs as if bychance from the free extempore play of brushstrokes. Surrealism proved remarkably durable. Among its adherents, the American Joseph Cornell had been evolving from the techniques of collage and assemblage a personal and evocative form of image; the Pole Hans Bellmer and the German Richard Lindner, working in Paris and New York, respectively, explored private and obsessive themes; they were recognized as among the most individual talents of their generation. In general, the most idiosyncratic and anarchic qualities of art were being developed as a new tradition, while geometric abstraction was seen to be the natural basis for the arts that are public and communal in purpose. Victor Pasmore in Britain, for instance, abandoned his earlier Postimpressionist standpoint to start afresh with constructional and graphic symbols deriving from Klee and Mondrian.
The presence of a number of the pioneer Surrealists in the United States during World War II affected later developments there. Surrealism's element of psychic automatism, particularly the spontaneous calligraphy of Masson, was particularly influential. The possibilities had, in fact, been implicit in modern painting for at least two decades; in Paris in the 1920s Jean Fautrier was already basing pictures on spontaneous and informal gestures with paint. In the United States in the 1940s, however, fresh impetus came from the impulsive play of colour in the work of the influential teacher Hans Hofmann. The movement that became known as Abstract Expressionism represented a decisive departure from its European sources, not only because the homogeneous consistency of a painted surface in itself took on a new meaning in the expansive U.S. conditions but at least equally because of the exceptional personality of Jackson Pollock. The style Pollock adopted in 1947 reflected an original involvement in the act of painting that transcended deliberation or control. The influential critic Harold Rosenberg wrote in 1952:
At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyze or “express” an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.
(The Tradition of the New)
In contrast to Pollock's work, that executed at the time by Willem de Kooning, though equally sweeping and ungovernable, showed a recurrent figurative reference; his series of alarming variations on the theme “Woman” began in 1950. Another Abstract Expressionist, Franz Kline, claimed, in executing his shapes like huge black and white ideograms, to be in some sense depicting figurative images. Rosenberg dubbed the group “action painters.” In the course of the 1950s their influence was felt in almost every country.The climate of artistic opinion that spread outward from New York made possible flamboyant gesture paintings such as those of the French-born Georges Mathieu.
The idea of painting as a homogeneous allover fabric led at the same time to other quite separate developments. Prompted by the primitive and psychotic imagery that he called l'art brut (“raw art”), Jean Dubuffet embarked on an extraordinarily resourceful series of experiments in translating the raw material of the world into pictures. The energy that fills the works of the American painter Mark Tobey is by comparison gentle and lyrical and much influenced by East Asian art. Dubuffet's example inspired the abstract “matter” painting that developed in several countries around 1950. At its best, as in the work of the Catalan Antonio Tapies, this style conveys a strong sense of natural substance.