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Master Classes

Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries, Selected Papers, Volume II

by Meyer Schapiro
Braziller, 277 pp., $20.00


In April 1957 the two principal speakers before the American Federation of Arts meeting in Houston were Marcel Duchamp, proto-Dada and practicing non-artist, then seventy years old, and Meyer Schapiro, a Columbia University art historian best known for his articles on Early Christian, Romanesque, and nineteenth-century French art. In an almost symmetrical reversal of roles, Duchamp read a sober (and probably ironic) assessment of the spectator’s considerable role in “the creative act” and cited Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Schapiro delivered an eloquent hortatory defense of contemporary abstract-impressionist painting emphasizing its spontaneity, randomness, automatism, and the self-sufficiency of its pure forms and colors.

Both talks appeared that summer in Art News. Duchamp’s was republished the following year in a collection of his writings; Schapiro’s, entitled “The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art,” was not republished in spite of the fact that it immediately became and has remained one of the most widely read and influential articles on abstract painting. Instead it began a vigorous underground existence, photocopied for critics’ and artists’ files and reproduced year after year for seminars on modern art. Because of Schapiro’s scruples about book publication and his resistance to writing in the conventional form of the book-length monograph, for forty years we have had to read his works largely in some samizdat form. Therefore it has been difficult to take his measure as a scholar-critic.

Now Braziller is bringing out Schapiro’s “Selected Papers” in four substantial volumes. Romanesque Art has already appeared and been received with respect at the highest critical and scholarly level. Early Christian and Byzantine Art and Theory and Philosophy of Art will follow. The present selection of fourteen articles and lectures on nineteenth- and twentieth-century painting (sculpture is barely mentioned) employs several different approaches to its varied subjects. It includes six articles—among them the Houston talk—in which scholarly considerations are in great part preempted by highly controversial questions about the nature and direction of contemporary art.1 This book really falls into two counterbalanced halves: a hundred pages at the start on major figures of nineteenth-century painting (Courbet, Van Gogh, Cézanne), and a slightly longer section at the end on the development and nature of abstract art. In between the editor has sandwiched three short pieces on Seurat, Picasso, and Chagall. Rather than recapitulating the arguments of so many articles, I shall address myself principally to the general cast of Schapiro’s treatment of modern paintings and touch on certain historical, philosophical, and aesthetic principles that guide his thinking as it moves between the two sections.

Schapiro writes an evenly paced prose that leans toward the florid yet never abandons a carefully conducted argument. He avoids dramatic effects and startling leaps; he finishes many of the essays by just coming to a stop, as if time or material ran out. But nothing seems missing. The intellectual excitement of attending his lectures is partially muted in this printed version; what one hears is the steady stride of a powerful mind surveying the scene. That mind is endowed eminently with three faculties: an eye alert to detail, form, color, and image; a capacious and available memory for paintings in every era of Western art; and a powerful capacity to discover relations between art, society, history, science, and ordinary experience. In the early essay on abstract art, one can practically hear the polemical rhythms of Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire. Increasingly through the years Schapiro makes it clear that he believes that painting, more than any other art, has become a special record of human sensibility and the principal source of invention in the domains of the perceptual, the aesthetic, and the formal. In comparison to the painter, “…the writer is still absorbed by the representation of a world in which extra-artistic meanings have a considerable part.” This sophisticated intelligence yearns for the purest and most elemental forms of art.


Schapiro belongs to a small company of critics writing on modern art who were first distinguished as scholars of Medieval and Renaissance art. Their command of earlier work appears to augment their authority on contemporary art. Of this company, Kenneth Clark, E.H. Gombrich, and Edgar Wind withhold full endorsement from modern artists who sever themselves from the representation of nature and often from any social or institutional role for art (except economic). Civilisation, Art and Illusion, and Art and Anarchy end as gently admonitory books telling us, among other things, that contemporary painting expresses the chaos and sickness of our time far better than it opens any promising path into the future.

It is more difficult to locate the group with whom Schapiro keeps company. The great Medieval scholar Henri Focillon, who died thirty years ago, wrote sympathetically about twentieth-century painting. The Life of Forms in Art (1934) contains passages (e.g., “The chief characteristic of the mind is to be constantly describing itself“) that imply a deep insight into the processes of abstract art. However Focillon’s lyric statements about an autonomous world of pure forms lie at a great distance from much of Schapiro’s writing, which traces painting to the artist’s life and to social conditions. Adrian Stokes, the English critic who died in 1972 and wrote about practically all phases of art, never articulated a sustained response to abstract painting. Only Pierre Francastel seems close to Schapiro, in spite of the slenderness of his work on art after Cubism. Peinture et société (1965: not translated into English) undertakes the task that Schapiro’s Modern Art accomplishes in a series of powerful lunges.

What Francastel and Schapiro have in common is a deep sense of the continuity of abstract art with earlier art, in spite of the almost universal invocation of terms like “turning point,” “revolution,” and “revision of values” to describe what has happened to art in the twentieth century. When Roger Fry and others sponsored the First Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London in 1910, if not the most typical at least the most symptomatic reaction came from Virginia Woolf: “…on or about December 1910 human character changed.” Schapiro’s mission in writing about modern art is to combat that kind of euphoria (or, conversely, catastrophism) in our thinking. He argues for an art-historical continuity between earlier and contemporary art, and for two other continuities as well—psychological and sociological.

I can best document Schapiro’s refusal to accept that there was a quantum jump in the history of modern art by quoting a fairly long passage from his 1937 essay “The Nature of Abstract Art.”2

All renderings of objects, no matter how exact they seem, even photographs, proceed from values, methods, and viewpoints which somehow shape the image and often determine its contents. On the other hand, there is no “pure art,” unconditioned by experience; all fantasy and formal construction, even the random scribbling of the hand, are shaped by experience and by nonaesthetic concerns.

This is clear enough from the example of the Impressionists mentioned above. They could be seen as both photographic and fantastic, according to the viewpoint of the observer. Even their motifs of nature were denounced as meaningless beside the evident content of romantic and classicist art.

In regarding representation as a facsimile of nature, the abstract artist has taken over the error of vulgar nineteenth-century criticism, which judged painting by an extremely narrow criterion of reality, inapplicable even to the realistic painting which it accepted. If an older taste said, how exactly like the object, how beautiful!—the modern abstractionist says, how exactly like the object, how ugly! The two are not completely opposed, however, in their premises, and will appear to be related if compared with the taste of religious arts with a supernatural content. Both realism and abstraction affirm the sovereignty of the artist’s mind, the first, in the capacity to recreate the world minutely in a narrow, intimate field by series of abstract calculations of perspective and gradation of color, the other in the capacity to impose new forms on nature, to manipulate the abstracted elements of line and color freely, or to create shapes corresponding to subtle states of mind. But as little as a work is guaranteed aesthetically by its resemblance to nature, so little is it guaranteed by its abstractness or “purity.” Nature and abstract forms are both materials for art, and the choice of one or the other flows from historically changing interests.

Schapiro’s argument is not arcane. After passing over the great watershed of Impressionism, modern art changed its loyalty among the available materials and espoused a different kind of abstraction devoted to forms and colors rather than to images represented in geometrical space. The artist’s mind remains sovereign (at least in this passage); the chain of aesthetic response has not been broken, only shifted. Fifteen years later in a superb article on the Armory Show, Schapiro supplies the historical documentation to support his reaffirmed thesis that abstract art is not merely decorative or arbitrary; though private, it has genuinely human content.3

The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art” (1957) poses something of a problem for my argument.4 Here Schapiro seems to revert to a theory of discontinuity and he refers on the second page to “a unique revolutionary change” in the character of twentieth-century art. He even goes so far as to attribute to contemporary art a “special task” of mastering free forms, while leaving the representation of reality to “other means”—e.g., photography and its offspring. This position approaches heresy if compared with the full trajectory of Schapiro’s thought. I attribute the polemical, tendentious tone of the speech given in Houston to the circumstances in which it was given, to Schapiro’s awareness of the exciting position in which American abstract expressionist painters found themselves in 1957, and probably to certain ideological shifts in his thinking. It is as if suddenly Schapiro has forgotten his overall strategy of continuity in art for the shock tactics of touting abstraction as a new breakthrough.

The article on Mondrian, published for the first time in Modern Art and presented as the product of reflections and lectures covering forty years, reaffirms the briefly dropped strategy. Schapiro writes as if he were setting his house in order again. “I wish in this essay to explore closely several of [Mondrian’s] abstract works in order to bring into clearer sight the character of those ‘pure relations’ and to show their continuity with structures of representation in preceding art.” He produces the word “continuity” again a few pages later in reference to elements of design and field in Degas and Mondrian. Except in the Houston lecture, then, Schapiro generally tries to demonstrate that representational and abstract art are sailing on the same lake. If one or the other disappears around a point or a bend, the connection nevertheless remains demonstrable, navigable, and significant. A passage in his important essay on “Style” reinforces this approach to the point of paradox.

  1. 1

    The loose chronological order of the essays is somewhat puzzling. Surely the Courbet essay should have preceded the three later Cézanne texts. Several interesting items have been omitted: “Fromentin as Critic” published in Partisan Review in 1949 (it may appear in the theoretical volume), the two high-pitched reviews attacking Surrealism in The Nation (1937), and “A Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh,” in M. Simmel, The Reach of the Mind (Springer, New York, 1968). For some reason the source of “The Nature of Abstract Art” (Marxist Quarterly, 1937) is not mentioned. Over half the black-and-white and color reproductions are identified with no figures given for their dimensions.

  2. 2

    In his Prefatory Note Schapiro states that he now regards certain arguments in this early text as inadequate or mistaken. I shall risk the assumption that he stands by this passage.

  3. 3

    In this essay, and in one or two other places, Schapiro refers to Cubism as “abstract” and “imageless.” I cannot concur. Though Braque and Picasso took a giant step in this direction, one of the most significant art-historical facts about Cubism is that it refused to eliminate the real world, the image. Compared to Malevich’s Suprematism or to Delaunay’s Orphism, cubist paintings overflow with identifiable—though contorted—representations of tables, pipes, musical instruments, and people, and sometimes authentic paper objects glued in. Confident of its radical recasting of the perceptible world, Cubism precisely did not leap into abstraction, where others dared to tread.

  4. 4

    In the published book Schapiro’s original title is restored: “Recent Abstract Painting.” The perfectly appropriate title given to the lecture for publication in Art News has its advantages, for many readers will identify it by this label.

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