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Art & the Apocalypse

Talk of the Apocalypse was heard throughout Europe in the decades around 1900,1 but it did not always betoken vengeful doom. “Today,” wrote Franz Marc in January 1912 in his subscription prospectus for the almanac of the Blaue Reiter,

art is moving in a direction of which our fathers would never even have dreamed. We stand before the new pictures as in a dream, and we hear the apocalyptic horsemen in the air. There is an artistic tension all over Europe. Everywhere new artists are greeting each other, a look, a handshake is enough for them to understand each other!

We know that the basic ideas of what we feel and create today have existed before us, and we are emphasizing that in essence they are not new. But we must proclaim the fact that everywhere in Europe new forces are sprouting like a beautiful unexpected seed, and we must point out all the places where new things are originating.2

For some years before the outbreak of the First World War a number of painters in different European countries thought of themselves as creating forms of art that could be described as prophetic: art that aimed to influence human attitudes to the present and thus to foresee a world that could be very different in the future. The futures that they envisaged varied widely. So, too, did the artistic styles that they brought into being in order to express their visions. But both to themselves and to the public that first saw them, and even to art historians writing about them generations later, all these styles seemed to mark a very important break with representational traditions that stretched back to the Renaissance. Pictures by these painters still tend to hang in galleries specially designed for modern and contemporary art rather than in the great national museums built in the nineteenth century to house masterpieces of all periods; and their reputations are still often gauged more by their perceived contribution to the birth of modernism than by any reasoned attempt to analyze their intrinsic painterly achievements (just as, in a much despised past, an artist’s standing might be measured by the importance of the subjects that he painted rather than by a consideration of his artistic gifts).

So fundamental is this aspect of their work that it is not surprising to discover that from an early date they were credited by their admirers and detractors (but rarely by themselves) with having in some way “anticipated” not only subsequent developments in the arts, but also the new world that came into being between the end of 1914 and the end of 1917. To some extent, however, the formation and later interpretation of all these artists can be associated with concepts that had first been formulated in Paris many years earlier.

It was there that artists ever since the time of David, followed by Courbet and Daumier and then Manet and the Impressionists, had been most forceful (though not always very precise) in claiming that new developments in the progress of humanity could only be recorded through new forms of creative expression. Toward the end of the nineteenth century Gauguin, Van Gogh, and their contemporaries had, however, modified this line of thought by taking it a stage further, while at the same time narrowing its scope. These men, whose own talents were ignored rather than derided by the wider public, argued not so much that they would win recognition after their deaths as that it was their mission to determine the direction in which art was going to move so that they could themselves be on the side of the future.

Never had speculation about the art of the future been so intense as it was in these years. For Van Gogh it became something of an obsession, and his conclusions gave him the courage to continue working under appalling strain: “the painter of the future,” he wrote in May 1888, “will be a colourist such as has never yet existed3—words that well describe his own achievements at the time. Thus the notion of art as prophecy was already deeply enshrined in French thought well before Guillaume Apollinaire systematically set out to use this criterion as his gauge of quality and then summed up this phase of his life in the beautiful lines published less than nine months before his death:

Pitié pour nous qui combattons toujours aux frontières
De l’illimité et de l’avenir
Pitié pour nos erreurs pour nos péchés.4

It must surely have been Picasso and his other friends among the Cubists whom he had chiefly in mind, for during the previous decade they appeared to have introduced into art, especially in Cubism, novelties more daring than any that had been made for centuries.

Restrained, somber colors—predominantly grays and ochres—evenly lit across the surface of the canvas and divided by strong verticals, horizontals, and a few diagonals and curves; geometric shapes hinting at squares and rectangles, but quite uneven in size and juxtaposed to no discernible end; a confused but static jigsaw puzzle in which none of the pieces fitted naturally so that they had to be arbitrarily broken up in order to keep them in place: that is what was at first to be seen in Cubist pictures, and it resembled nothing that could be seen outside them. But a closer look—and recourse to a catalog or the label attached to the frame—gradually revealed that these shapes were not, in fact, arbitrary and did not, as some critics claimed, amount to no more than abstract forms. Hard, solid objects emerged from the faceted background—and then seemed to merge back into it and disappear: a table, a guitar, a clarinet, a violin, a pipe, a newspaper, sometimes a portrait, occasionally a fragmented word. By clinging to such clues the spectator could begin to make out more; and what had at first seemed quite meaningless turned out to consist of fragmented objects visualized from different angles in a comprehensible framework.

Picasso and Braque, the joint creators of Cubism, did not at the time make any public statements about the motives that inspired the transformation of natural appearances to be seen in their works; but the clear impression we get from their contemporaries, and even from later statements made by the artists themselves, is that (whether or not they were, as is sometimes claimed, influenced by new developments in philosophy and the sciences) they were primarily concerned with problems of representation and form and with efforts to create a far more “real reality” than the one that was accessible only to the eye. The criticism and regeneration of society were of no interest to them as artists. Nor, despite the fact that they were (according to their supporters) responding with enthusiasm to the new world that was coming into being around them, did they appear to revel in the fundamental break that their own art made with that of the past. On the contrary, the continuity between their paintings and those of Cézanne, Courbet, and even David was frequently stressed by their advocates.5

In Holland and Italy, Germany and Russia, there was no surviving tradition of this kind to support the more imaginative artists of the day. When, to very varying extents and in very different ways, they tried to adapt the new language being worked out in Paris they gloried in the novelty of their aims and achievements. The intense and still-living controversies that quickly developed about the extent—or even existence—of a debt owed by all these artists to French forerunners indicate how essential it had by now become to belong to the “vanguard.” And, outside France, artistic change was often accompanied by much declamatory literature to explain and publicize the importance for art, and even mankind as a whole, of what was being designed.

Thus in the pictures that in 1913 Giacomo Balla dedicated to the theme of “Speed,” intersecting curves of clashing colors, which seem to deepen and recede in intensity as we look at them, sweep across the surface in both horizontal and vertical directions. Landscape is hinted at, but certainly not represented, and these paintings seem to carry to their most extreme a number of the ambitions of the Futurists as they had been set out by Balla and his friends three years earlier: “ALL FORMS OF IMITATION MUST BE DESPISED, ALL FORMS OF ORIGINALITY GLORIFIED.… ALL SUBJECTS PREVIOUSLY USED MUST BE SWEPT AWAY IN ORDER TO EXPRESS OUR WHIRLING LIFE OF STEEL, OF PRIDE, OF FEVER AND OF SPEED.… UNIVERSAL DYNAMISM MUST BE RENDERED IN PAINTING AS A DYNAMIC SENSATION…”6

In the canvases that Piet Mondrian began to compose shortly afterward all the movement and stridency so characteristic of Balla and the Futurists is utterly rejected. “Futurism,” he explained,

although a great step beyond naturalism, is excessively concerned with human sensations. Cubism, which still relies for its subject-matter on earlier forms of beauty (and is therefore less of our time than Futurism), took the great step towards abstraction; it thus belongs both to our time and to the future: modern not in its content but in its effect. I think of myself as belonging to neither tendency, while recognizing in myself the contemporary spirit of both.7

In his Composition, No. 7 of 1914 no recognizable allusion to the outside world survives, whatever may have been the inspiration of the actual patterns we see. Straight black lines run vertically and horizontally up and along the canvas, becoming thinner and lighter as they approach the edges which they never quite reach. They are constantly being slightly dislocated from their course, and we are thus presented with a kaleidoscope of rectangles and squares of different sizes which, in a few cases, terminate in semicircles so as to resemble the plan of an apsed basilica. These lozenges are colored in the most delicate dovegray and ochre and pale blue with touches of pink and mauve, sometimes thickened to produce an effect of creamy impasto, at others quite smooth. It was through pictures such as this that Mondrian strove for “the spiritual, therefore, the divine, the universal.” This, he felt certain, was “an art for the future.”

The aims that Kandinsky had set out a little earlier were not dissimilar and were just as mystical. They were also very ambitious, for he believed that painting was “one of the most powerful agents of the spiritual life” and that its purpose was to “serve the development and refinement of the human soul.” In his canvases dating from the last years of peace, figures and landscapes can barely be detected (or even imagined) in the patches and scrawls, the thrusts and explosions of vivid color that burst upon us. For him the gradual eradication of recognizable subject matter was a necessary step in his battle against the tainted materialism of the times, and it would eventually lead to the realm of pure spirituality.8

  1. 1

    In 1899 Vollard published Odilon Redon’s album of lithographs of L’Apocalypse; and for Rudolf Steiner’s lectures on the subject given in Nuremberg in 1908, Andrey Bely’s essay on “The Apocalypse in Russian Poetry” published in 1905, and Kandinsky’s many depictions of the theme, see Rose-Carol Washton-Long, Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style (Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 28–35, 82–85.

  2. 2

    Klaus Lankheit, editor, The Blaue Reiter Almanac: Edited by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974), p. 252.

  3. 3

    Vincent Van Gogh, The Complete Letters (London: Thames and Hudson, 1958), Vol. II, p. 559 (letter to Theo of May 5, 1888).

  4. 4

    Guillaume Apollinaire, Oeuvres Poètiques (Paris: Editions de la Pléiade, 1956), pp. 313–314, “La jolie rousse.”

  5. 5

    Mark Roskill, The Interpretation of Cubism (Philadelphia: Art Alliance, 1985).

  6. 6

    Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art (University of California Press, 1968), pp. 292–293.

  7. 7

    Piet Mondrian, The New Art—The New Life: Collected Writings, edited and translated by Henry Holtzman and Martin S. James (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), pp. 14–15.

  8. 8

    Washton-Long, Kandinsky, p. 13.

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