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 …

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