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Catching Up with the Avant-Garde

Art News Annual, XXXIII “The Academy: Five Centuries of Grandeur and Misery from the Carracci to Mao Tse-Tung”

edited by Thomas B. Hess, edited by John Ashbery
distributed by McGraw-Hill, 176 pp., $6.95

Art News Annual, XXXIV “The Avant-Garde”

edited by Thomas B. Hess, edited by John Ashbery
distributed by McGraw-Hill, 176 pp., $6.95

Art Forum, March 1969 “Manet’s Sources—Aspects of His Art, 1859-1865”

by Michael Fried
Art Forum, 51 pp., $2.00

Word and Image: Posters from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Museum of Modern Art
distributed by New York Graphic Society, 160 pp., $15.00

Art and Revolution: Ernst Neizvestny and the Role of the Artist in the USSR

by John Berger
Pantheon, 192 pp., $1.95 (paper)

There is some fascination to be derived from watching a change in artistic taste, or at any rate an artistic revival, taking place—so to speak—under one’s very eyes. Hidden qualities are discovered in pictures hitherto despised or ignored; commercial pressures are applied by the dealers, and speculative buying begins “as an investment”; a cult that was once “camp” soon seems to be merely eccentric and then rather dashing; scholarly articles are written because there is nothing new to be said about established favorites; color supplements spread the good news to a wider public. From some combination of these and other factors a new taste develops, and when the great “machines” from the nineteenth-century Salons are once again displayed in the Louvre and the historians come to write the history of their “rediscovery,” as we now investigate the revival, of interest in Botticelli or El Greco, they will look back to the last fifteen years or so as being of crucial importance. In one way or another all the books here under review help to throw light on the phenomenon.

For a little time now there has been an awareness that the Manichean interpretation of nineteenth-century art is a false, or at least an inadequate, one. Even if all the so-called academic artists were as bad as used to be thought, there remains the fact that to study the heroes of the period—Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, the Impressionists, the post-Impressionists, and so on—without any understanding of the nature of those painters who did not share their beliefs and techniques makes as much sense as to study the French Revolution without any notion of the ancien régime. To explain why today’s favorites once faced opposition historians have had to postulate a sort of composite monster, rich, bemedaled, and infinitely long-lived, who, in the intervals of painting popular rubbish, spent his time compelling his more worthy colleagues to starve in garrets.

A moment’s thought will suggest that this will hardly do, but the actual initiative in trying to remedy this state of affairs seems to have been taken up only recently by a number of American museums which either brought up some of the “academic” pictures which had lain for years in their store rooms and displayed them as a foil to their Impressionists—this was certainly done in Chicago when I visited the Art Institute some years ago and may well have been the practice in other galleries—or else mounted special exhibitions, necessarily rather unbalanced however enterprising, in order to give the public a chance of appraising “the two sides of the medal,” as was done in Detroit in 1954 and in the Pomona College Gallery in 1963.

Although both these exhibitions were intended to be primarily of historical interest, a change of emphasis is apparent in their respective catalogues. The visitor to Detroit in 1954 was told that “the aim has not been to offer an apology for the esprit de Salon, but to show the two poles of the period…. It may be interesting to look at the two rival schools of thought again as the two poles of a great period—interesting and, we hope, instructive.” By 1963 it was hoped “that allowing the work of the Salon and independent artists to be seen together will also encourage the reformulation and refinement of critical opinion.” There is every reason to believe that the similarly planned and more ambitious exhibition which will soon be opening in Minneapolis will carry this process much further. Meanwhile what seems to have been the first major exhibition devoted exclusively to the giants of “official art” was held last year in Berlin under the title Le Salon Imaginaire.

All these exhibitions have made clear once and for all what should always have been realized: those artists whom we loosely (and often inaccurately) call “academic” or “official” differed very widely in vision, in technique, and in accomplishment. The Academy, in fact, continued to be influential for so long precisely because “academic” art did not exist in any identifiable sense. One day a really serious attempt will have to be made to understand why certain artists were so consistently excluded from the Salons, and when this is done it is likely that Namier will prove to be a more useful guide than those historians who interpret historical events in terms of ideology.

Meanwhile, and at an increasing momentum, publications of all kinds are beginning to explore this unknown territory. When one of the earliest picture books devoted to L’Art Officiel appeared in 1949 (Le Point—introduction by Francis Jourdain), the horrific choice of illustrations was clearly designed to raise a good laugh. But if we can judge by the spectacular increases in the prices of academic pictures over the last few years, this initial reaction is now over. Indeed those art lovers who have discovered that a good Couture or Meissonier can give more pleasure than a late Sisley or even than many highly expensive Renoirs must necessarily feel a certain reluctance in discussing the whole phenomenon, for soon these artists too will have gone the way of the Impressionists and be beyond the reach of all but the rich. A racket organized by the dealers, unable any longer to lay their hands on acknowledged masterpieces and compelled therefore to trumpet the claims of the unknown? Perhaps—but it should be noted that it was a dealer (Lebrun) who first championed the cause of Vermeer with real enthusiasm, and that such commercial considerations have played an essential part in promoting all the revivals which now seem to us of fundamental importance.

Indeed, the trouble with any reorientation of taste is that to those who are really interested in pictures it always seems to go too far and to be pursued for the wrong reasons. How many trashy “primitives” were bought by private collectors and museums toward the end of the last century when magnificent seventeenth-century pictures were despised! How many scrapings from the bottom of the Baroque barrel now command grotesque prices while fine, but unfashionable, nineteenth-century pictures are ignored! And how soon will it be before the demand for the “academic” becomes undiscriminating? “His [Gérome’s] works are not only beautiful, they are serious, full of integrity, variety and poetry,” writes Gerald Ackerman in the issue of Art News Annual devoted to “The Academy,” and elsewhere in the same pages Madame Burollet assures us that “we may find, even in the Panthéon or the Capitol at Toulouse extremely handsome works painted with a firm brush by Jean-Paul Laurens or Benjamin Constant.”

Both essays plead with us intelligently to look again and both adopt what we may paradoxically call an extreme left-wing stance in their support of the extreme right. For an appreciation of any new kind of art can come about in one of two different ways: either as a violent reaction against current taste or as a sort of compromise with it. It is easy enough for picture lovers brought up on the loose, free brush strokes of the Impressionists to admire (if ever given the chance to see) the early Italian sketches of Bouguereau, the fresh figure studies of Couture or Carolus Duran, the more intimate portraits of Bonnat, and the works of many other painters who are still scandalously neglected. But the hard glossy surfaces of Gérome demand a quite different approach and may well prove more resistant to genuine admiration despite Mr. Ackerman’s claim that “Gérome and Meissonier are the true heirs of Vermeer.”

On other occasions Mr. Ackerman himself has investigated the personal and artistic relationships between Gérome and artists whose reputations might even now appear to be retrospectively tarnished by any suspicion of such associations. For one of the most potent myths of the first half of the twentieth century has been that the “Academy” must necessarily be countered by an irreconcilably hostile “Avant-Garde.” There is no historical validity to this assumption. Both Milton J. Lewine and Jacques Thuillier make the point in these pages that the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century academies in Bologna and Paris were themselves in some sense “avant-garde,” though neither the expression nor what we would consider to be the phenomenon itself came into being until the nineteenth century was well advanced.

In the Avant-Garde issue of Art News Annual, which forms a sort of pendant to the Academy number, Miss Linda Nochlin continues the investigation of the term which was begun by the late Rena to Poggioli and which has attracted some attention in recent years. But though it can be shown that Saint-Simon was writing of a cultural avant-garde as early as 1825, I am not wholly convinced that the examples of Courbet and other mid-century artists referred to by Miss Nochlin are very relevant to an understanding of what we now think of as the avant-garde. Courbet worked in a blaze of publicity. Accepted or rejected by the Salon, glorified or ridiculed, his works attracted patrons and even the State.

It is not until we come to the 1880s that we find considerable painters working in almost total isolation from the public at large, and it is the effect of this on their various personalities that gave birth to the phenomenon of the avant-garde. Courbet thought that realism was the art of his own day; but Van Gogh, Seurat, and the painters of their generation were constantly looking to the future. Courbet, Manet, and the Impressionists all aimed to please the public; later artists went out of their way to seek isolation. Painters until the 1880s were keen to have followers and to spread their styles; but Seurat (and Cézanne) jealously guarded their “secrets,” and Picasso and Braque were notoriously reluctant to exhibit their Cubist pictures. And many other instances could be given of the wholly new frame of mind within which artists worked after the generation of the Impressionists.

But even during the heyday of the true avant-garde as it developed between the mid-Eighties and 1914 not all contact was lost with the Academy. Both Gauguin and Van Gogh were enthralled by the work of Puvis de Chavannes, and one of the most fruitful fields to be opened up by the growing interest in Salon pictures has been the continued exploration of just such contacts between the “avant-garde” and the “academic.” By now most historians of nineteenth-century painting can produce a useful anthology of mutual borrowings, and we know that Degas’s famous comment that “they shoot us but rifle our pockets” refers to a situation that was not wholly one-sided. Both the issues of Art News Annual here under review contain stimulating juxtapositions of this kind, the most interesting of which is perhaps Miss Linda Nochlin’s tentative theory that Courbet’s L’Atelier can be linked to the Fourierist paintings of the once celebrated Dominique Papety.

Any discussion of the Academy and the Avant-Grade is bound to bring up the question of Manet, an artist who often seems to be uneasily poised between the two, and his name occurs frequently in these pages. Many odd things are said about him, beginning with the Introduction in which Mr. Hess asserts that he refused the Legion of Honor. Poor Manet! Despised by his friends for being so keen on the social recognition that he was reluctantly granted by President Grévy (Manet! Ah! non, par exemple! Jamais de la vie), he now has his decoration stripped from him in a volume devoted to the Academy. But his posthumous fame has been even stranger than the reception he met with in his lifetime, and nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the issue of Art Forum which is entirely given up to Michael Fried’s analysis of his early pictures.

It would be hard to exaggerate the infectious verve with which this is written, and no one interested in nineteenth-century France should be put off by its apparently technical nature, for Mr. Fried ranges widely and conveys the most fascinating information about such subjects as left-wing chauvinism and the revival of interest in puppet theaters. But his interpretation of Manet is another matter, and it must be said at once that it will be seen either as a startling and fundamental contribution to our understanding of the artist or as a work of such extreme exaggeration as to verge at times on theories like the one that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. For all its insights of real value it is as the latter that it struck this reviewer.

Mr. Fried begins with the repeated borrowings from earlier art which are such a well-known feature of Manet’s figure compositions and which for some reason have worried his admirers. Dismissing earlier theories to account for these he claims that during the first half of the 1860s Manet was obsessively concerned to establish his place in the French tradition of painting, and that in order to do so he repeatedly “quoted” details from Le Nain and, above all, from Watteau. Mr. Fried produces a mass of interesting evidence to show that during these years these two artists were indeed looked upon as quintessentially French and with a brilliant, but to me quite unconvincing, sleight-of-hand, he plays down the more obvious debts to Raphael, Giorgione, Velazquez, and other familiar sources, and tries to establish instead a more “fundamental” or “ultimate” relationship with French art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

It must have seemed to Manet…” he writes at one stage of his argument, “that at last everything was falling into place.” Everything certainly falls into place for Mr. Fried, but other historians may find it more difficult to accept that Manet’s Portrait of the Artist’s Parents is based on Le Nain’s Forge and Repos de Paysans, or that the pose of the Absinthe drinker is “inconceivable” except on the basis of Watteau’s L’Indifférent. This is not the place for a detailed refutation which a thousand academics must in any case be planning at this very moment; when their counter-attacks are launched it is to be hoped that they will at least acknowledge the daring quality of Mr. Fried’s imagination (or should it be fancy?) which does again and again throw light on the problems with which he is grappling.

Mr. Hess keeps only a loose editorial rein on the contributors to his two volumes of Art News Annual, and not all the essays in them are very relevant to the declared themes of the Academy and the Avant-Garde. None the less he has managed to attract some articles (and illustrations) of so much interest that it would be grudging to complain about his selection of material. A few of these have already been referred to here, and there are many others (notably Meyer Schapiro’s “The Apples of Cézanne”) which are of major interest in their own right. Among the more fascinating discussions is one by Harold Rosenberg on the “Academy in Totalitaria,” which makes cruel, but telling, juxtapositions between some of the paintings produced in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China. It is against this background and that of Kenneth Frampton’s Notes on a Lost Avant-Garde: Architecture, U.S.S.R. 1920-30 as well as that of the few Russian posters reproduced in the fascinating anthology published by the Museum of Modern Art that one must consider John Berger’s account of the Soviet sculptor Ernst Neizvestny.

It is the account rather than the sculpture that is of interest, for—as Mr. Berger points out—few if any of his readers will have seen the works themselves, and though the photographs by no means suggest that Neizvestny is a major artist, it would be grotesque to try to estimate his stature from them alone. As in his earlier book on Picasso Mr. Berger deftly sets the artist against the background of his native country, and then proceeds to give a very rapid and highly selective survey of Russian art, which by omitting any reference to the Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) and the fabulous contribution made by Russian painters to theatrical design early in this century not only makes his account much more somber than is actually warranted by the facts, but also exaggerates the degree of social commitment inherent in the Russian tradition.

But he is certainly able to substantiate the all-powerful role played in the artistic life of Russia by the Academy and similar bodies which were brought into existence by Stalin and which manage to combine all the disadvantages traditionally associated with organizations of this kind without any of the compensations. Their attitude to new developments echoes that of the nineteenth-century Academies in their heyday—“for the State to accept such muck there must be real moral degeneration,” Gérome had exploded when the future of the Caillebotte bequest to the Louvre of great Impressionist masterpieces was still under discussion—but they wield far greater power and influence and are at times able to behave like the church in medieval society and make use of the secular arm of the State in order to wage their own wars against heresy. Not that the State needs all that much persuading, for even more than was the case in nineteenth-century France, artistic non-conformity has come to be associated with political opposition. “The methods used by Stalin were wrong, but the art itself was not,” Khrushchev shouted at Neizvestny during their famous encounter in 1962, and crude though Khrushchev’s language became when he was faced with a kind of sculpture he could not understand, there can surely be little doubt that his reactions were genuinely representative of those not only of most of his fellow-countrymen but of the public at large in most countries of the world.

Nonetheless, it is the burden of Mr. Berger’s case that the equation made by the authorities between political and artistic orthodoxy is a crudely mistaken one. If only, he implies, the Academy could be left, without support, to flounder on its own…. What then? Mr. Berger apparently knows Neizvestny well, so that when he tells us that he does not want to form part of any “avant-garde” (in the limiting, but I believe historically accurate, sense in which I have been using the term), we must assume that he is conveying the artist’s own ideas. In fact, he suggests, Neizvestny is the very sort of “public” artist that both an Academy and a truly Socialist government ought to be supporting: it is in this light, presumably, that we can make sense of his claim that “Neizvestny’s sculpture…represents a phase in the struggle against Imperialism,” though it must be admitted that the comment looks pretty ironical in the context of the account given by Mr. Berger of the artist’s struggles nearer home.

To judge from the photographs Neizvestny’s work is certainly not “modern” as we understand the term, and Mr. Berger points out that it would have looked “old-fashioned” even forty years ago. It is derived, in fact, from an expressionist idiom current between 1915 and 1925. Why? The obvious answer would be that this is the last time that contemporary developments, inside and outside Russia, could be absorbed into the native tradition before the ban imposed by Stalinism, and that now, with the comparative thaw, it is to that tradition that aspiring new Soviet artists naturally return. In fact, Mr. Berger produces one of his most telling arguments to refute this. He suggests that any artist (and I take it that this could include Westerners as much as Russians) who wishes to embark on monumental figurative sculpture of a public kind may feel compelled to look back to that period, because sculptors since then have, with very few exceptions such as Henry Moore, tended to lose interest in this kind of work. Certainly, the idea that art must be constantly on the move and, like Lot’s wife, can never afford to look back, is one of the most destructive ones that our society has inherited from the avant-garde. The history of painting and sculpture contains constant examples of successful revivals in which a “modern” style has been established on the basis of experiences dating from many generations earlier. No one need reproach Neizvestny with not looking like some current hero of Madison Avenue or Bond Street.

With his books on Guttuso and Picasso this work constitutes a sort of trilogy devoted to the problems faced by the left-wing artist in modern society. In all three the ideas are often stimulating, but those readers for whom the words of Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon, and similar writers mean considerably less than they do for the author will find the most memorable sections to be the sensitive descriptions of the works of art themselves—and it is a measure of Mr. Berger’s talent that this should be the case even when the originals remain invisible.

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