I spent a week in New York recently and drank a lot of art there. Modern Art makes me high. Or, if you don’t know what that means, paintings by certain people make me dizzy and excited. This article starts in 1880 and the background to our story is that people had been painting in a clear, quasi-photographic manner for a long time – figuratively. But then, gradually at first, the new generations broke rank. Why so many painters of that epoch painted the way they did instead of keeping to the academic / classic tradition has always intrigued me.
Best be frank about this: in this piece, my answer to this question is that a lot of pictures from the turn of the century create the frisson of foreplay. To keep my piece off-balance and short enough to keep you aroused, I’m going to restrict my discussion to a few paintings I saw in the Met. All these artists are male because (a) as in other Museums around the world, there are (almost) no women artists in the Met (b) this may be relevant to my argument. Skip the next paragraphs if you would rather read about sex than art.
Yes, it has to do with a stable society becoming much more volatile – there was a large, gradual change in Western Europe during the years in which this art was being made, even before the inevitable and bizarre war of 1914. Yes, there was something dynamic about the academic tradition (it wasn’t simply a sitting duck that suddenly drowned, as is generally assumed). Of course there was already a long non-figurative tradition in the West – architecture – and a lot of post-1914 artists are figurative, including contemporaries as brilliant and successful as Peter Doig. And Classical painting tended to be very imaginative as well as realist. All these genealogies of “the Shift” are interesting, but there’s no denying what is meant by “visual art” changed utterly during those years.
Visually, Gustave Courbet was still very much in the figurative tradition, but the subjects of his paintings would reflect his radical politics, something which jars with the conservative neutrality of the tradition. The shift in technique becomes apparent with Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir or Claude Monet; I always find it moving that people who had mastered figurative technique started a general blurring of the scenes in their pictures, or at least let it happen. Next step, Paul Cézanne’s landscapes (which I find inferior to his teacher Camille Pissarro’s) move beyond flawed representation – as with Paul Gaugain, you can see the geometries in the painting highjack what older masters would have rendered fluidly.
For me, it is the next phase (the art of Vincent van Gogh and his equally magical artistic siblings) which is the tipping point, but I must tell you of what was going to come after this generation before talking about that and the kinky stuff. Pablo Picasso, emblematic of the post-Van Gogh generation, was exceptionally skilled at drawing, but would stop painting after life. Things were different for good: already present in Cézanne’s ordering of the landscape, Cubist art takes the shape of things and runs wild with it. In fact, it took shapes so far that it ran into abstraction, where shapes survived for a little while yet. For example, a few months after painting a highly stylised lumberjack made up of cylinders, the only shape left in Kazimir Malevich’s work was a square. The final “liberation” from figurative art was only a step away.
Van Gogh and (early) Oskar Kokoschka, for example, were still moving within the figurative tradition – there is no doubt as to what their canvases represent. As I suggested above, I feel they were pushing that style to its limits by reaching out to the abstraction that it contained. However, what makes them different from Cézanne or Picasso is that they are the last generation not to allow patterns to take over. A piece by Van Gogh will be heavily stylised, but the shapes it contains are not subject to a geometrical order. What I find so compelling about this period is that they are still trying to represent things – these paintings try and depict scenes and landscapes, but it is clear that their mode of representation is bankrupt. And yet, they have not found some new style to adopt: they have left, but have nowhere to go. This is what I find so poignant about Van Gogh’s last pieces – he barely knows what to do anymore.
There is something intensely sensual about the whole process outlined above. At the turn of the century, artists transgressed the figurative ability they were about and thereby generated a tension as to what they should do. I think of this tension as sexual: both sex and this kind of art involve “letting go”. Sexual experience involves something instinctive – not all the time, but there are moments of acting irrepressibly. My point is that in sex there is a tension between retaining control (of oneself and/or of a partner) and giving up that control. And that is exactly what I see Kokoschka doing; he partly surrenders his control of his medium – his brushstrokes are too broad to give a clear picture – but he also passionately clings to it.
The claim that art is sex is bizarre and, as far as I know, untrue. Nevertheless, there is a metaphorical connection between what Egon Schiele does (as a painter) and the pleasure partners can give one another. Art and sex draw on things without exhausting them: neither sex nor art as such can be resolved. A lover’s ability to derive pleasure from sexual acts is not extinguished even when fulfilled. Similarly, a painting by Schiele spectacularly plays out the tensions it contains, but cannot be said to resolve them. What is so stunning in the work of Van Gogh is how he struggles with the certainty that painting figuratively is no longer possible. While he clings on to representation, even in his last paintings (which are coyer, simpler), Van Gogh is just unable to keep to it. Like a lover pleasing another, they reach out to some sort of fulfilment they cannot reach.
Hence my dizziness in the Met. But this idealism needs to be toned down. Sex isn’t necessarily good, and painting didn’t save Van Gogh from himself, and the wild eyes of Schiele’s self-portraits cannot be appeased. I’d feel more truthful saying that most men are bad lovers and that therefore the sex life of most women isn’t as good as it should be. To be fair, most women are bad lovers too, and the sex life of most men isn’t as good as it should be either. All of this is a sad thing, and the fact that most people are terrible painters makes it worse. But there is some great and important pleasure to be had.