History of the “Western World” in 721 words

 

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). 1909 View from the Dunes with Beach and Piers Domburg, oil and pencil on cardboard, 28.5 x 38.5 cm, MOMA

 

Let’s try spell it out.

 

Christian complications.

The idea that “God’ should appear to Man around 1AD, in Judea, seems ridiculous.

Why precisely there and then? Why 14,165,897,285 years after Big Bang? And why not in Patagonia or East Chezzetcook? And why Man? Why not birds or dolphins?

Some Greeks worked it out around 500 years earlier, how humankind has a habit of dreaming up gods, unsurprisingly more  or less in their own image. Because it makes them feel better. But also because some saw a career in it, because it suited kings and priests.

Anyway the Christian story was written down some time after 1 AD by men. Because it made them feel better, and gave them a job.

But in a strange twist Christianity was born and nurtured within the body of the Roman Empire, a then exceptional political construct in its geographic extent.

So Christianity was fortuitously propagated, first by inhabiting this structure, and second, after centuries of persecution, by eventually converting its leadership, which saw advantages in the association.

Once in power, the Church quickly consolidated and grew, the institution based in Rome selling the Christian story to build its business, and enlisting monarchs like Charlemagne to the cause.

Thus the inherently sinful, flawed Man can only be saved by Jesus, and only then through the good services of the Church. And on the other hand if you don’t get saved the alternative is nasty. Like everlasting diabolical toasting.

It also suppressed perceived enemies, violently if necessary, albeit inconsistently, depending on practical politics of the time.

Thus it inveigled its way onto the bridge, in self-serving-  albeit unsteady – league with European kings, till people – shaken by the Black Death and becoming better educated – and some Churchmen eventually got sick of it and protested, triggering the Reformation. But, unphased, the Church met this not by “reform’ but a protracted and violent 16th and 17th C fightback.

 

Modernity .

But the 16th and 17th C science and thought revolutions took hold, European powers took to the seas to explore and engage the world, and Modernity slowly, painfully emerged.

Yes its gestation came at a terrible price, as Old Order predjudices and loyalties persisted, expressed in illiberal, quasi-religious We Know the Answer mentalities.

These regressive sympathies brought forth industrial scale slave exports to the New World, the Raj, the French Revolution, 19th C Western Imperial depredations, the US Civil War, and then two world wars and the Russian revolution and militant fascism, all in the 20th C.

Finally the once prominent Church was sidelined.

That’s now academic. What’s not academic is the Church now speciously trying to rewrite history, to appropriate the origins of democratic liberalism, for its own purposes, to try make it more relevant today.

It’s wrong. The Church fought freedom of thought, sometimes violently.

 

Democracy’s origins .

Rather democracy’s origins go back to old Greece (though the franchise was limited), partly thanks to the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations (fortuitous climate change?) which disrupted the traditional tyranny of kings and priests, allowed room for a trading based free thinking economy to grow rapidly.

Then the dispersed Germanic and Norse tribal bands in north Europe, peripheral like the Greeks, seem important. Thus democracy finally emerged in Britain (also later in the Netherlands), where some Germanic tribes (and later Vikings)  migrated, again at the periphery, there surviving in part thanks to the protection of the English Channel.

There’s a topic, the role of geography in facilitating democracy.

Thus the bane of most lives throughout recorded history has been (authoritarian) kings / emperors, undemocratic, and usually co-operating with priests, propagating some self-serving religious ideology, which just happened also to allow for divine blessing of the rulers. The Christian Church played this game for some time.

 

Universal relevance?

Democratic liberalism – incorporating rule of law, representative democracy, freedom of expression, tolerance, and prosperity-inducing Government regulated private commercial markets – was by happenstance, trial and error, born in the “West”, as a propitious practical rational evidence-based way for humankind to collectively conduct its affairs.

But it is not inherently or uniquely “Western”. So arguably it has universal relevance.

But practical experience also shows, firstly, its success requires meaningful collective commitment, and secondly, it is vulnerable to being abused or denied by groups enlisting and promoting Old Order loyalties.

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Belief in 132 words

FEATURED: Henri Matisse (1869-1954). 1914 (Sep.-Oct.) Porte-Fenetre a Collioure. French Window at Collioure, huile sur toile, 116.5 x 89.0 cm, Centre Pompidou, Paris

 

The problem with human fashioned, articulated god/gods is that they just don’t survive even a few moments honest rational reflection.

Opening one’s eyes. Leaving pre-conceptions on the boat.

Thus invented they are, because some see a good career in it, and because many are tempted by the tasty product in the window, like everlasting life and meeting your great grandparents, and/or are repelled, warned off by the alternative, like everlasting tribulation.

Some thoughtful old Greeks worked this out long ago.

Partly thanks to the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations (fortuitous climate change?) they had escaped for a period the traditional tyranny of kings and priests.  Till Philip of Macedon galloped in and his son returned to the imperial project.

We just have to grow to love the mystery, ineffable impenetrable, relentless.

Take your pic.

Seascape with Storm Coming On circa 1840 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Seascape with Storm Coming On circa 1840 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N04445

JMW Turner (1776-1851).1840. Seascape with Storm Coming On, oil on canvas, 91.4 x 121.6 cm. Tate Britain.

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Jackson Pollock (1912-56). 1953 The deep, 150.7 × 220.4 cm, Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Impressionism: colourful, coarse-brushed aesthetic distraction from modern life

 

 

FEATURED: JMW Turner (1770-1854) The Scarlet Sunset (c1830–40). Watercolour and gouache on paper, Support 13.4 x 18.9 cm, Tate Britain

Surely an Impressionist painting, but from about 34 years before the first Impressionist exhibition.

 

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Claude Monet (1850-1920). 1869, La Grenouillère, oil on canvas 99.7 x 74.6 cm Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). 1869, La Grenouillère, Oil on canvas. 66.5 x 81 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

Two pioneering “iconic” Impressionist paintings.

 

1/ The essence

  • Impressionism, as an art movement, has two aspects.
    • The historic French experience
    • A generic defintion.
  • It was a subset of Realism, aiming to capture transitory scenes, but with a strong aesthetic purpose.
  • Thus Impressionism was radical in its painting style but not modern in its content.
  • Rather it appealed as a nostalgic Neo-Romantic antidote to then emerging rude Modernity.
  • But avoiding the reality of Modernity in favour of Pretty Pictures was nonetheless a valid response? Remind us not to forget the aesthetic.
  • The main official Impressionist painters were „Impressionist“ in varying degrees.
  • And there were unofficial Impressionists, major painters who painted some Impressionist works.
  • From the Impressionist period arguably some of the best paintings were non-Impressionist? Because they said more.
  • Some earlier painters – proto-Impressionists – pointed to Impressionism? Like JMW Turner.
  • Impressionism spread beyond France. But less than is commonly canvassed. The term is now over-used for marketing purposes.

 

2/ Preamble – Impressionism the first major modern movement

Following Manet’s one man kick start of Modernism Impressionism led the modern art revolution from the mid 19th C, from late 1860s through c1880, for the protagonists as a conscious radical break from then mainstream art, especially as represented by the official Salons.

Thence Modernism marched on, fanned out in the late 19th C in a variety of reactions to Impressionism, first under the broad banner of Post Impressionism (cf Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh, the term coined 1910 by Roger Fry) in the 1880s, thence Neo-Impressionism (the Pointilism of Seurat et al), the Nabis, Symbolism and Expressionism (cf Munch).

 

3/ Dissecting the movement

 

A. Impressionism the historic experience and a defintion.

Impressionism as an art movement, has two aspects.

a/ The historic experience

First it applies to the historic experience, the paintings of a small group of loosely affiliated French artists over a period from the late 1860s to around 1880, but a group diverse in style and subject matter, some of whose art was Impressionist, and who werer united principally by their opposition to the then dominant Salons.

The group of about 9 painters, together with some other artists, exhibited at 7 official exhibitions over 12 years, 1874-1886.

Conventionally the movement concludes around the early 1880s, and was succeeded by Neo-Impressionism, a term coined  by critic Felix Feneon after at the 8th Impressionist show in 1886, where Seurat’s famous „Sunday Afternoon etc“ was hung.

Success came slowly, and especially helped by the single-minded commitment of dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) who held his first Impressionist show in London 1870, 4 years before the official launch. Later he successfully took the brand to New York.

b/ A generic defintion.

Secondly, from the original French experience we can extract a two point generic definition of the movement;

1/ content or subject. Impressionism can be seen as a subset of Realism.

Its essential aim was to depict the ephemeral here and now, the fleeting or transitory moment, especially natural effects outdoora, and especially appealing, stimulating light effects. Hence they mostly favoured outdoors plein air painting.

Their aim in depicting ephemeral scenes was to convey a version of reality, not apply some preconceived interpretation.

The main objective was overarchingly aesthetic, not instructive, not didactic or polemical or narratory. It was art for its own sake.

In a sense the Impressonists can be seen as heirs of the Barbizon Realists, except their main purpose was narrower, being aesthetic, whereas Barbizon painters had a wider mission, instructive, sometimes polemical.

2/ there was clearly an Impressionist painting style.

Pigment application, usually in oils, was 1/ loose, coarse textured, divisionist“.and 2/ generally more colourful.

 

B. Impressionism was radical in its style but not modern in its purpose….

The curious implication of points 1/and 2/ is that while the Impressionist movement was radical in its art style, in breaking from convention – was a modern avant-garde movement through its pioneering relaxed colorful painting style which jarred with the then favoured subdued traditional Salon styles – it was not  modern in its purpose and content.

Thus it did not deliberately seek to depict Modern Life, let alone engage instructively with it, seek to comment on modern life. They did paint some recogniseable scenes from modern life (eg like Monet (1840-1926) and Gare St Lazare in Paris, like Pissarro (1830-1903) in his later street scenes from Paris, also Rouen), but more for the aesthetic possibilities. Also Pissarro painted his many city images later when coping with reduced mobility.

 

C. … rather it appealed as a nostalgic antidote to then emerging, burgeoning rude Modernity.

So in broad terms the purpose of its painting was not modern or progressive, but rather the reverse. Its focus on the aesthetic was fundamentally Neo-Romantic.

And one could go further and argue that for some of its leaders (Monet, Pissarro, Sisley) their aesthetic mission was a reactionary, anti-modern gesture, seeking therapeutic escape from, an antidote to, the blunt noisy disruption caused by emering Modernity, the sudden 19th C eruption and spread of industrial and urban life.

After famously struggling for recognition in the early days, championed by lone figures like the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, eventually Monet and his friends were proved right.

Thus Impressionism‘s eventual success was fanned precisely by avoiding the modern world, the travails of modern life, and rather by dishing up mostly fetching atmospheric rural nostalgia.

The Pretty Pictures were entertaining nostalgic pleasurable visual distractions from the unpleasant side effects of burgeoning modern industrial life, easy to swallow, to „understand“,

And the movement remains widely popular today for the same reason, for aesthetic distraction from the pace and intensity of modern life.

 

 

For some Impressionists the aesthetic mission persisted, grew more important with time, particularly for Monet, the most famous exemplar. Thus his outdoors landscapes generally became less descriptive and more stylised, pursuing the aesthetic criterion, climaxing at Giverny early in the following century. Pissarro also stayed close to the aesthetic mission.

It’s ironic that one reason for the lush colorful floral vegetation at Asnières-sur-Seine,  just north of Paris, evident in Monet’s 1880 painting of his garden at Vétheuil, is the then growing discharge of sewage effluent into the Seine!

 

D. Avoiding reality, Modernity‘s wider impact, was nonetheless a valid response?

Impressionism’s aesthetic preoccupation basically avoided engaging with Modernity, its obvious disruption to traditional life, the costs as well as benefits.

Was this in a sense irresponsible? Because it avoided ‚reporting the facts“?

But it can be argued this response was valid because firstly it indeed gave the viewers some visual satifaction, relief from the ugliness, and second, it reminded viewers of the importance of having an aesthetic component in a balanced life?

This latter view, the virtue of the aesthetic, was the hallmark of Henri Matisse’s art two generations later.

 

E. The main Impressionists were „Impressionist“ in varying degrees…..

Looking at the cadre of the original French Impressionist painters the generic definition of Impressionism applied to varying degrees to the main protagonists, more to painters like Monet, Pissarro and Sisley, sometimes to Renoir, but less to Degas.

Thus for each painter not all their works were ‚Impressionist‘.

Among the main Impressionists Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was the most different. By far his favourite subject for the „ephemeral moment“ was not a spring hillside or a weather affected sky but a classical dance studio, or performance theatre. He dismissed plein air painting. He painted many people, in portraits or group interiors.

And he never embraced the colorful divisionist Impressionist style of paint application.

Pierre- Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) painted a number of Impressionist masterworks, some Impressionist works till near his end, but also painted lots more people, even Wagner in 1882.

 

F. … and there were two major contemporary painters not labelled Impressionists who painted some Impressionist works.

The important contemporary painter, the transposed American JM Whistler (1834-1903), painted some clearly Impressionistic images in his so-called nocturnes, mainly in London, works which above all were trying to capture an atmospheric moment, if not wholly in the Impressionistic „divisionist“ style. But he was in no way an„officially“ part of the Impressionist movement.

The pionering Modernist Edouard Manet (1834-1903), painted some clearly Impressionist works, but rejected approaches to join the official group. He remained his own man and arguably painted better for it, many of his works having a far wider purpose than boats on the sunny Seine.

 

G. From the Age of Impressionism some of the non-Impressionist works said much more?

Notwithstanding the subsequent popularity of a High Impressionists like Monet, the works of many other contemporary painters – Impressionist and non- Impressionist – were arguably more important and interesting precisely for their non-Impressionist content? Because they said much more.

This includes particularly many paintings by Manet (eg The Railway of 1873), and also by the masterly Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), and Edgar Degas, and also the someime Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte (1848-94).

 

H. Proto-Impressionists? Some earlier painters pointed to Impressionism?

Some work by some precursors might be called proto-Impressionist, particularly by JMW Turner (1775-1851), but also occasionally by John Constable (1776-1837).

Clearly many of Turner’s later atmospheric „ethereal“ works are Impressionist in their aesthetic intent, their capturing evanescent atmospheric effects, and even in their fragmented painting style.

 

Impressionism spread beyond France. But less than is commonly promoted.

Impressionism as a movement was very influential. Many painters beyond France picked up the style to a greater or lesser extent.

Thus there is mention of „Impressionism“ in the US, Britain, even Germany, Australia and Scandinavia.

However the term is often applied too loosley, applied to art which does not really fit the generic definition.

Many so called „Impressionist“ works are more naturalistic, in painting style.

This is basically done for marketing reasons, to take advantage of the now pervasive popularity of the French movement, ironic considering its slow beginnings.

 

I. The original cast…

From the „official“ Impressionist painters, ie who were hung at any of the 7 official exhibitions, the popularly accepted 5 main historic protagonists were Edgar Degas / Claude Monet / Camille Pissarro / Pierre-Auguste Renoir / Alfred Sisley.

And on the periphery were 4 others: Frederic Bazille / Gustave Caillebotte / Alphonse Guillaumin / Berthe Morisot.

However the definitional boundary is grey and beyond the „official“ list other important contemporary artists who also painted Impressionist works were Edouard Manet and Paul Cezanne, and also Dutch landscapist JB Jongkind (1819-91, ie 21 years older than Monet) and JM Whistler (1834-93, 6 years older)

 

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JMW Turner (1775-1851) 1842, Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, oil on canvas, 91 cm × 122 cm, Tate Britain.

A precursor to Impressionism, and abstraction.

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Claude Monet (1840-1926), 1872, Impression, Sunrise, oil on canvas, 48 X 63cm, Muséem Marmottan Monet, Paris.

The painting which gave the cause its name.

 

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Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). c1871, All Saints’ Church, Upper Norwood (London), gouache on paper 18.2 x 22.8 cm, Private Collection

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JM Whistler (1834-1903). c1872-73, Nocturne; Battersea Bridge, pastel on brown paper, 18.1 x 27.94 cm, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Two from London, one by an unofficial Impressionist artist.

 

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Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). 1873-74, A Modern Olympia, 46 x 55.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay.

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Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), 1874, Regatta at Molesey, 66 × 91.5cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris..

Cezanne’s image hung in the inaugural 1874 exhibition and is certainly impressionistic. Sisley was a front rank but narrow official Impressionist painter.

 

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Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Dance in the Moulin de la Galette (Bal du moulin de la Galette), 1876, Oil on canvas, 131 x 175 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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Giuseppe De Nittis (1846–1884). 1878. Westminster Bridge. Pinacoteca De Nittis, Barletta, Italy

 Renoir liked painting people, and well, far more than some of the others. The Italian painter worked in Paris.

 

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) 1879, Seascape Near Berneval, oil on canvas, 54 x 65.4 cm. Private.

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c 1916, Anenomes, oil on canvas, 14 × 31 cm, Museum of John Paul II Collection (Porczyński Gallery).

 The prolific Renoir painted some landscapes, and later, when old, a number of Impressionist floral scenes.

 

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Claude Monet 1891 Poplars on the Banks of the Epte, oil on canvas 100 x 65 cm Private

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Claude Monet, 1899-1901. Charing Cross Bridge, London, Saint Louis Art Museum.

Later Impressionist works by Monet.

 

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Max Liebermann (1847-1935). 1918. The birch avenue in Wannsee Garden, looking west, 85.5x 106cm, Hannover

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Claude Monet, 1920–22, The Japanese Footbridge, 89.5 x 116.3 cm, MOMA

A much later German Impressionist painting, by then nostalgic, by when the avant-garde had raged far ahead, into abstraction and Cubism.

And a very late work by the unrelenting narrowly focussed Giverny-based Monet, now bordering on abstraction.

Wither the “Western” liberal model?

Wither the “Western” liberal model?

Affray and ruin? No. Just the start.

Cheer up. Do not underestimate unleashed humankind’s Reason and curiosity.

 

All men desire to know (Aristotle)

 

Quel temps pour être en vie! (What a time to be alive!) (French, anonymous)

 

We’re all riding on this freight train,

Made of rocks and sticks and mortar…….

Well the driver’s sleepin’ at the wheel,

Maybe there just aint no driver…….

We’re all ridin through this emptiness,

You just got trust your neighbour..   (T Bones Band)

 

FEATURED, The first Modern Man? Odysseus refuses immortality.

Sir William Russell Flint  (1880-1969), 1907, CALYPSO AND ODYSSEUS, oil on canvas, 101.5 by 127 cm.

 

The fork in the road?!

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John Martin 1852, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah , oil on canvas, 136 x 212cm.

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Henri Matisse 1953 Memory of Oceania 284.4 x 286.4 cm, Moma, Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on
paper mounted on canvas

 

  • There is currently much pessimism on the future of the “Western” liberal model, particularly from within the camp, some extreme, like talk of Europe “committing suicide”.
  • It’s easy to get downhearted, if you lose perspective.
  • This gloom appears misplaced, misses perspective, the wider context of Modernity.
  • Modernity’s breakout – driven by the “Western” liberal model – is epochal, the biggest transitional shift in humankind’s history, a 5 million year event.
  • It has brought unimaginable Progress, material and otherwise, including an explosion in knowledge, and also cultural expression.
  • But it’s a Faustian bargain. The genie is out, no going back. Relentless competitive curiosity is now unleashed.
  • It will likely bring further Progress, but the outcome will be messy, sub-optimal, because:
    • a/ of inherent reactionary resistance from Old Order interests, attitudes, thus facilitated by:
      • Man’s appetite for the Otherworldly / supernatural,
      • Man’s nostalgic attraction to tradition, including racism and social class.
    • b/ adjusting to, coping with the relentless economic and associated change is painful. A Sisyphean burden?
    • c/ self-serving sociopathic autocrats will always try exploit unrest engendered by change.
  • Also there is risk of dangerous “mishaps” which can have drastic near term consequences, like WW1, and, recently, the 2003 Iraq intervention.
  • However one transformational positive outcome of the breakout is that humankind now has meaningful collective technical prowess to react to natural challenges, especially like climate change, which factor has had such dramatic consequences in the past, like killing the Bronze Age.
  • Though, oddly, the end of the Bronze Age then midwived the radical proto-modern experience that was Classical Greece.

 

Prognosis for the “West”? Tears all round?

Many informed current observers are negative if not desperate in their outlook for the West, the “Western” liberal model.

Thus Mr Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books (21 September 2017) reviews a clutch of recent books wrestling with a topic that doesn’t get much bigger, the future of the Liberal West, including its relationship with the rest of the world, books like: The Retreat of Western Liberalism (Edward Luce), The Fate of the West: Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea (Bill Emmott), The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (Mark Lilla), The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (David Goodhart) and especially The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (Douglas Murray). Greg Sheridan (in The Australian, 21 Sep.2017) reviews the last book approvingly in an aticle headlined Angela Merkel signals ruin for Europe.

All these books, by commentators well disposed to the West, take a dim even “Apocalyptic” view of prospects and in conclusion Mr Mishra – a fierce adversary of the liberal construct, known for castigating the depredatory excesses of “Liberal capitalism”, both inside and imperialistically outside – tags the authors as reactionaries, then (unfairly, illogically) lumps them with the Charlottesville white suprematists as all missing “the ancien regime”.

These writers join many past political philosophers pessimistic on the West’s future.

The pessimists  fall into two broad camps:

1/ nostalgic reactionaries who cannot see the West succeeding if it abandons certain Old Order precepts, especially the Christian story. Per the recent book by Mark Lilla these might be called Shipwrecked Minds;

2/ wary supporters who don’t see the Western model having the wherewithal and resilience to survive its foes.

 

Perspective: long prologue for Modernity

It’s a long and intriguing story and it’s worth outlining as perspective before attempting a prognosis.

Arguably it started with the old Greeks, as an outstanding if not unique early case of proto-democracy, and of thinkers prepared to slough off traditional religious frameworks (usually incorporated into some secular autocratic power structure) in asking frank questions about their world, their natural world, and Man’s conduct of his collective social affairs.

Interestingly this occurred within the context of an apparently prosperous strongly growing, competitive, trade-oriented, quasi-democratic economy, until they were eclipsed by infighting then by the Macedonians.

After a long hiatus – most notable for the remarkable 600 year experience of old republican cum imperial Rome, then, as it succumbed to voluminous waves of eastern incursions, the fortuitous leg up Rome’s large footprint  gave to Christianity’s spread – the immediate pathway to Modernity finally arose in Europe with the 18th C Enlightenment, crucially building on the 17th C scientific revolution and the associated philosophical upheaval, again in the context of a growing economy, of rising literacy, the printing press, and especially of ongoing and growing questioning of the Christian Church’s authority, which dated back especially to the 14th C upheaval of Black Death.

Arguably too, and somewhat analogous to the ancient Greek experience, the roots of the liberal breakout in Europe lay far back in Anglo-Saxon England, where the quasi-democratic practices of immigrant Germanic tribes evolved to restrain monarchs (cf Magna Carta 1215), and the moot evolved into parliament as a representative institution.

Then arguably the modern liberal economy was born in 17th C Netherlands – its secular competitive ingenuity honed and stimulated by fighting off the regressive Old Order Spanish empire – which helped to nourish the takeoff soon after in England.

A familiar precis.

 

Modernity’s troubled gestation

However, stepping back, we see the emergence of Modernity has been protracted and intensely painful, compromised by two major sets of factors.

 

The first is “unenlightened” reactionary  Old Order behaviour, expressed through concerted fightback, reflecting still potent traditional self-interests, appetites, loyalties and attitudes, religious (particularly theistic / theocratic) and nationalistic and racial.

First after the late 16th C religious wars in France, following the early 16th C Reformation,  the 17th C saw central Europe engulfed by the Thirty Years War (1618-48), as the violent and fruitless culmination of the Counter-Reformation, ie the Rome-based Catholic Church, led by the Papacy, in league with sympathetic secular leaders fiercely resisting the Protestant Reformation.

 

Oddly, alongside this reactionary fightback, there emerged in the Netherlands a small but dynamic pocket of progressive proto-modernity, a republican government atop a buoyant growing innovative competitive economy and a vibrant secular culture patronised not by the Church or monarchs but mainly by increasingly prosperous private people.

 

But the Old Order viewpoints persisted.

Thus the late 18th C bright New World adventure of the United States – its revolutionary secession from the British Empire, consciously launched as it was with laudable Enlightenment aspirations – was tragically compromised from the start by the bad Old Order ways.

Thus the founders instead established de facto a “selective democracy”, inconsistent with Enlightenment ideals, as they clung to slavery, big time, in the South, where about 5 million whites “oversaw” about 4 million enslaved blacks, basically for the money, fortuitously feeding cotton to a Europe then booming, ironically thanks to its “modern”industrial take off.

Alongside this the US governments violently evicted the native Americans, again for commercial gain.

 

Meanwhile similar Old Order priorities also saw ambitious large scale European imperialist colonial adventures in the 19th century, also, like the USA, with a racist flavour, ie particularly in India, plus a raft of interventions in Africa and elsewhere.

 

But then secondly, in tragic hugely destructive blowback, these residual reactionary attitudes also gave us WW1, as traditional Old Order European rivalries which had plagued the continent for centuries resurfaced, only, ironically, now among nations that much better armed and resourced militarily owing to the economically productive industrial take off. So an old fashioned war was fought with modern weaponry, multiplying the tragedy.

Some paint WW1 as the inevitable resolution of growing tensions in Europe, but ultimately it only happened after a match was thrown, and the relevant supervising politicians misread the total circumstances.

 

The second major complication has been enterprising sociopathic autocrats or dictators, history’s Bad Boys, exploiting the social unrest / chaos engendered by the modernizing process, again with calamitous results, thinking here of the three great “modern” revolutions (France, Russia and China), the latter two both midwived by world wars.

So the French Revolution gave us the Terror then Napoleon.

The Russian (Bolshevik) Revolution, sprouting from WW1 induced chaos there , brought forth Lenin and Stalin.

Then WW1, crucially compounded by the Depression, also gave us Hitler.

Finally the Chinese Revolution gave us Mao.

Bad Boys, like Genghis Khan, have always worried history but the Modernity’s wider better resourced context gave them much richer pastures.

 

Some desperate Christian critics of the Enlightenment like to blame it and atheism for these totalitarian nightmares but quite the reverse is the case. Thus the astute Great Dictators, taking advantage of the unrest, each resorted to Old Order ways to legitimise their fiercely illiberal anti-democratic regimes, each propagating quasi-religious regime supporting ideologies.

Thus it’s often rightly remarked that the post-Tsarist Russian experience – both Soviet and now Putin – is really just neo-Tsarist, rule by the traditional strong man.

 

Outcome:  Humankind’s technological break-out! An epic watershed. A 5 million year event!

The gestation was unimaginably painful but it’s now clear Modernity has delivered humankind a species-shaking watershed, an historic breakout from eons of impoverished struggle.

Technologically impelled per capita economic growth has delivered:

a/ mass prosperity, for first time in the species 5m year history, notwithstanding unfinished business,

b/ a leap in life span, longevity,

c/ a leap in quantums of leisure time,

d/ a reduction in the intensity (per capita) of intra-species violence, notwithstanding (as various researchers have observed) the 20th C setback.

e/ in most “Western” countries, much improved governance in conduct of private economic affairs, especially corporations, eg see “When Corruption and Venality Were the Lifeblood of America”, (review by Sean Wilentz NY Times,  19 Sep. 2017 of The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, Richard White, Oxford). “White’s book ought to worsen its [The Gilded Age] already dismal reputation for sordidness and rapacity.” White’s earlier work includes “a scathing exposé of the giant post-Civil War transcontinental railroads”.

Altogether it is by far the most dramatic single change in collective circumstances in the species 5 million years history.

 

Outcome: now humankind capacity to respond to climate change

The other incredible outcome is that for the first time in its 5 million year history humankind can use its new collective technical prowess to react to natural challenges, especially like climate change, which phenomenon has had such dramatic consequences for homo sapiens in the past, starting of course with the inter-glacial global warming c14,000 years ago which allowed Man to blossom. Then in recorded time there have been other portentous climate interventions, like the droughts that ended the Old Kingdom in Egypt, the Maya, but particularly whatever happened c1200BC to kill off a bunch of Bronze Age civilisations in the Eastern Mediterranean.

One fascinating speculation is that the end of the Bronze Age appears to have then helped father, make space for, the eventual extraordinary proto-modern Classical Greek effloresecence (Josiah Ober’s term), a clear progenitor of the modernizing breakout in Europe near two milleniaia later.

 

Outlook: the Faustian bargain. No getting off the train: Man’s curiosity unleashed

However the uncovering by ingenius humankind – finally- of Modernity, can be cast as a Faustian bargain.

Modernity brings a bounty. The cup runneth over.

But it comes with a catch.

 

Firstly, now the process is unleashed there is no turning back, no leaving the train. Technological innovation is out of the box and humankind’s unleashed self-serving competitive curiosity will keep driving change.  We’re riding the Tyger.

 

Second, Modernity, driven by technical change, brings relentless economic and related changes, bringing winners but always some direct losers. So adjustment to change is constant and painful, a Sisyphean challenge.

 

Third, the Old Order does not go quietly, many cling to it. Modernity’s assault on, undermining and swallowing of the Old Order, tradition, is painful and disruptive.

There is a range of reactions, from active fightback to resignation.

A measure of reactionary resistance from Old Order interests, attitudes, seems inherent, reflected in Man’s appetite for the Otherworldly / supernatural,

Organised religion, well meaning or otherwise has exploited this predilection.

For many people there is tantalising appeal in belief in the “irrational”, as an antidote to the travails of life in this world, particularly among poorer and less educated people.

TS Eliot wrote in Burnt Norton, “.. human kind / Cannot bear very much reality

 

For some there is also nostalgic attraction to tradition, including racism and social class.

 

Aged only 20 Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Mary Shelley, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) published Frankenstein in 1818, as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace but was still young. It is rightly billed as a Romantic novel, reacting to the 18th C Age of Reason, an allegorical comment on the dangers of Modernity, what can go wrong.

 

Outlook: four propositions favouring the “Western” liberal model

It’s working

First, despite its long and painful gestation, the Unintended Consequences of Old Order resistance from within, and despite stern opposition from antagonistic threatened external forces (like the Soviet Union, the USSR, for about 45 years during the Cold War, now like the Islamist rebellion and Putin’s neo-Soviet Russia), self-evidently the Western model has delivered, is delivering

 

An optimum modus operandi?

Second, perhaps controversially, heroically, there’s an argument that the secular Liberal democrat model (LDM), ragged and imperfect though it may be, is basically the optimum way, the go to way, for humankind to conduct its collective affairs, and is “Western” only in sense it happened to emerge there.

So it has universal appeal or relevance akin to natural laws of physics and other sciences, and as illustrated by its take-up beyond the home countries.

A curious observation in world affairs is how many patently non or anti-democratic countries pay lip service to the “Western” model, in many of their public announcements, and also in their theatrical efforts to maintain a pretence of democracy at home, through courts, conducting some version of parliament, holding elections etc.

 

Inherent appeal to most educated people?

Third, supporting the second point, there’s a case that this model will have inherent appeal to a majority of educated people almost everywhere, people generally attracted to a rule of law / governance based competitive but compassionate, tolerant, democratic, rights ruled way of life.

Why? Because ultimately the the number of Good People exceeds Bad People.

 

This proposition is supported by history’s outcome, particularly post WW2

Obviously the core West, as in Europe and the US (and direct outliers like Canada and Australia), basically subscribes to this model and will continue to.

But particularly post WW2 the model has spread – to a greater or lesser extent – beyond the home counties, especially to parts of Asia (notably Japan, India then Korea, Indonesia, Thailand etc), and also to parts of the Americas beyond the US and Canada. The outcomes in different cases vary, are not all mirror images of Westminster, but significant nonetheless.

In particular, after the egregious practical failure of the Red Road, we have seen populous China abruptly embrace the market economic part of the “Western” liberal model, with dramatic economic and now wider consequences. Their economic modus operandi might come from an Economist essay, though of course they still keep tight reins politically, wherever that might lead.

 

Outlook: Europe and Islam? Western model will prevail.

Regarding alarm over Islamic migration into Europe, the talk of an existential threat, the fundamental issue is how the imported “culture” will interact.

The  influx of refugees to Europe will obviously shift the complexion of society, render it more cosmopolitan and diverse, but ultimately, and crucially, the first loyalty of the majority of the newcomers in time will likely be to some version of the progressive liberal “Western” model, not to some imported antithetical ideological regime, religious or otherwise.

Thus end of the day the “Western” model, based on reason, freedom and tolerance, seems a far greater threat to the “ten pound weakling” that is regressive Old Order illiberal theocratic Islam than vice versa.

This prospect for Europe recalls the dramatic “cultural” transformations occasioned by non-European inward migration experienced  by the US starting some while ago and by Australia in recent decades.

Islam may prove harder to digest but digested it will be, another illustration of a striking and irresistible outcome of ongoing Modernity, the swallowing of traditional cultures, or mind-sets, one way or the othert.

 

Outlook: much better than many think?

Where from now?

Is the outlook really so dark for the Liberal West?

Far from it. Rather, based on the demonstrated success to date of the “Western” liberal model, there is a strong case for dogged Whiggish optimism.

Barring unexpected exogenous mishaps the likely overall long term prognosis for the West is far from gloomy.

Progress remains likely, in terms of economic and social outcomes, if not always smoothly.

 

Outlook: but messy. Challenges of adjustment will remain, are endemic?

However the outcome will always remain turbulent to a degree, messy and sub-optimal.

 

Technological changeis now relentless, driven by humankind’s competitive self-interested curiosity, commercial and otherwise. This change has underwritten rising prosperity globally, and, crucially, for the first time in millions of years of history, will help humankind respond to natural challenges like climate shift.

But it also necessitates constant economic adjustment which is painful for those directly affected.

 

First the two major factors that impaired Modernity’s gestation remain alive, evident today, are more or less  inherent, ie

a/ an irrational if understandable appetite for the therapeutic Otherworldly (religion (eg violent theocratic Islamism) and otherwise),

and b/ residual (if spurious) belief in race and class carrying inherited differentiating characteristics ,

The Radical Enlightenment, arguing the case to its logical conclusion,  attacked both.

 

Second, posterity will always have to cope with Bad Boys.

 

Outlook: risks of “mishaps”, an their Unintended Consequences.

There’s a case that WW1 need not have happened. However once triggered, by a sequence of events starting in Sarajevo, the Unintended Consequences were devastating, especially for all those directly affected, the victims and their families.

The ill-fated 2003 US intervention in Iraq (compounded by Libya 2011) is shaping as another major unnecessary “mishap”, with costly Unintended Consequences. For some protgonists the intervention was well-intentioned, seeking to evict violent dictators but reality is it has unleashed a sustained violent backlash from Old Order interests. Thus it has stoked intra-Islamic Shia-Sunni violence, and has triggered resentful Islamist violence against the West. The strong Old Order religious reality is that Iraq was no candidate for early adoption of anything like the “Western” liberal model.

However Modernity survived WW1 (and its corollaries like the Russian Revolution), and will survive the 2003 intervention, if at a cost.

However the rise of China, in particular, has for some resurrected the so called Thucydides Trap, the notion that its rise will somehow bring inevitable conflict with the US as the pre-eminent global power (much as ancient Athens and Sparta squared off, disastrously). WW1 is another popular example, with then Europebeing unable to accommodate peacefully the rise of Germany.

Yes there are dangers accommodating China but China has a pressing interest in avoiding serious conflict.

Cracking Jasper: Pop Corn art

 

FEATURED IMAGE: Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009). 1951. Trodden Weed, Philadelpia Museum of Art

 

Reflections upon reading, Jasper Johns: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”. The long read, By Barbara Rose. Published 7 September 2017. Royal Academy Magazine.

 

  • Means whatever you want? Pop Corn Art.

  • All this name-dropping. Starts to grate?

  • Critics can’t help themselves.

  • But art is also a business.

 

The art means what?

It came to me jogging.

What is the man actually saying? What does this heterodox flurry of images mean?

Answer, whatever you want. Like a candy store, there’s something for everyone.

It’s Feet Up art for the leisured generation.

So it mirrors the age.

 

Rummaging the treasure chest. Starts to grate?

One can have a problem with young Jasper.

Some way into Ms Rose’s panegyric, as a Mr Johns work “quotes” yet another art history icon, I was reminded of Democrat Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s now famous rejoinder to Republican Senator Dan Quayle in the US 1988 VP debate. `Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.’

As we see how the hatching in Munch’s Self portrait by chance matches Mr Johns use of it, after, the story goes, he spotted it on a passing bus.

In the same vein we are reminded of the work of another postwar American “giant”, Mr Cy Twombly, who also indulged a lazy sustained penchant for shamelessly tapping, “quoting” history, in an apparently banal, glib or obscure way,

So one thinks, in both cases, how about a blind tasting?

Assemble a panel of well informed “experts” unfamiliar with the work of CT or JJJ, show them a bunch of relevant images, then ask them to jot down what references each image might suggest: literary, historic, artistic etc.

So I wonder how many might find in JJJ… the Isenheim Altarpiece? Munch’s Self portrait? Not to mention Proust! And Hart Crane, William Faulkner, etc etc.

The Isenheim Altarpiece?? Isn’t it kind of sacrilegious to blithely cite this iconic work?

 

Lazy, feet up, follow your nose art, for the TV generation.

You live long enough, stay busy, keep pouring out visual encounters of a diverse and wondrous kind, permutations of which allow vastly more possibilities, and soon there’s enough material to keep legions of agile energetic minds occupied searching connections and meaning.

One likes the quip about André Gide! Like a wise quarry, play hard to get.

And you laugh near the end too, coming across the artist one Barnett Newman, a remarkable but dare I say successful diligent self-promoter (with help from a dutiful wife), labouring tirelessly to coax profound meaning from his trademark trouser aid motif. And labouring “heroically” too one gathers.

Well this heavy adverb might fit far better, for example, the work of an elderly lady Australian indigenous artist called Sally Gabori who died a year or so back, whose best work, also abstract, could easily hold its own against the AbEx leaders and also be effortlessly authentic.

So, unfashionably, Mr Andrew Wyeth’s 1951 Trodden Weed might beat any image here by JJJ?

There’s nothing in principle against contemporary art, so long as it says something, shows constructive purpose.

 

The critics let rip: into overdrive, no brakes!

Rather, he is great because, somehow, he accesses and articulates, in a gorgeous, sensual manner, mysteries that, for the rest of us, are unfathomable. …..

Indeed, many of his paintings have an arcane, rabbinical quality.

Like a priest, he seems to be in possession of great wisdom and spiritual insight into fundamental aspects of our existence.

We may employ a different phrase, and say that he taps, rapturously, into something divine…” Per A. Mr Sooke in the Daily Telegraph.

Lucky I was sitting down when I read this.

Yes well.

As I say, try a blind tasting and see how many tick, Divine hues, or Rabbinical overtones, or Hints of unfathomable mysteries.

Something here of that story about the Emperor who forgot his clothes?

 

Yes we need to remember art is also a business. The artists, the museums, the critics, the private commercial galleries, the auction houses. And for a small coterie of artists their output is big business. Lots of noughts.

So we have what the governance manual calls, conflict of interest.

 

Cheer up. Modernity is a wonderful thing

Finally as a Whig optimist, now unfashionable in many quarters, one smiles at the gloomy reactionary pessimism near the end of the RA essay, “the technology-dominated…. world threatened with extinction because of human greed, brutality and ignorance”. This is misleading, elitist and probably dead wrong.

Ask the billions of people today who can now access sewage facilities thanks to “technology”.

 

A tasting….

a2

Between the Clock and the Bed, 1981.  Oil on canvas. 182.9 x 320.7 cm. Collection of the artist

a3

Edvard Munch (1863-1944) Self-portrait. Between the clock and the bed, 1940-43, 120.5 x 149.5 cm, Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway

a4

Sally Gabori (c1924- March 2015). 2008, Dibirdibi Country, synthetic polymer paint on linen, 200 x 600 cm, Queensland Art Gallery.

SAY anything? Whatever you want.

Jasper Johns, Jr.

(born May 15, 1930)

 

Pop Corn art, Feet Up art.

 

FEATURED: ‘Untitled’ 1984.

 

  • Busy, but does he say something? Anything?

  • Whatever you want.

  • So it’s Pop Corn art, Feet Up art, for the leisured generation.

  • Art for the mind otiose, not alert, let alone fearful.

  • So yes his art mirrors the age.

  • A now prodigious wandering purveyor of Entertaining Distraction.

  • But the art is passive, lacks purpose.

  • Not ONE portrait?

  • After a flying start he might have tried… painting!

 

j2

Painting with Two Balls, 1960. Encaustic and collage on canvas with objects. 165.1 x 137.5 cm. Collection of the artist.

j3

Regrets, 2013, 127 x 182.9 cm. Collection of Marguerite Steed Hoffman

 

Saying something? Anything?

  • Jasper Johns Jr is now famous for being famous, illustrating the Snowball Theory of fame. Get a start, traction, then roll far enough.
  • He seeded market interest early (in his mid 20s, now way back in the mid 1950s), with the distinctive Flag and Target motifs – cleverly, astutely or just luckily – and, having got the teacher’s attention, like the long river has just kept a rolling and a tumbling busily ever after, gathering an abundant heterodox Personal Iconography along the way, so his presence has multiplied, accreted, seeped ever deeper into the American cultural edifice, and beyond, wherever wait moneyed idle minds.
  • As happened his opening play responded astutely to market opportunity, when the market was looking for the next thing, after the emphatic post WW2 Abstract Expressionist experience. So he quickly became part of the diverse POP burst, with his then friend the industrious Robert Rauschenberg, with the arguably more incisive Andy Warhol, and later the expansive (literally), steely focussed Koons They all depicted (in painting and beyond) Everyday Objects.
  • Johns is distractingly entertaining, now relentlessly and prodigiously, now a barnacled Methuslah, the catchy famous Flag and Target paintings doorstepping a plethora of diverse images, a pot pourri of constructions across the decades; employing a range of scavenged themes and motifs, and a rattlebag of intriguing titles; the cumulative detail of which can feed a bevy of speculative theses.
  • But is he actually saying much? Something? Anything?? Does he remind us perhaps too much of Mr Twombly?

 

Yes! Feet Up Art. Whatever You Want Art, His art is saying “Entertaining Distraction”

  • Most art textbooks suggest art often or usually mirrors the age that bears and mothers it. Which makes obvious sense. And yes this seems to fit the young Jasper.
  • Firstly, his work is Feet Up art, follow your nose art, follow the thread, the rice grains in the dark forest art.
  • It’s passive and lazy art, Pop Corn art, more suited to the mind otiose, rather than alert let alone fearful.
  • So it mirrors a more leisured age, and in particular one awash with visual imagery, through the TV generation to start, in the 1950s, but now multiplied hugely to the point of digital overload.
  • When, therefore, men could pass long days in leisure… , they.. applied their thoughts to the multiplication of their enjoyments.” wrote Constantin Francois, Comte de Volney (1757-1820) in 1791  (Chap VII of Ruins etc).
  • Secondly, it’s Something for Everyone art. Everyone finds something in the prolific variety.
  • And almost everyone’s looking for a Sign. Minds are susceptible, prone to Signs, reflecting a general predisposition, appetite for myth, for encounters of an uncommon kind, for a tantalising gesture from the alluring numinous, for self-serving “suspend disbelief” supernatural engagement.

 

The alternative? He could have tried… painting something? Anything!

  • As some commentators have noted Johns began with a flurry, found early recognition with his Flag and Target images, but then struggled to sustain the excitement.
  • He might have tried… painting!
  • But achieving creative purpose, sustaining the creative journey, is hard.
  • Look at He found it hard, trod water for years, needed a “crisis” to provoke a statement. Maybe the passionate younger Derain helped trigger the Fauve statement? The war then triggered statements, like the 1914 Window at Collioure, and his son at the piano in 1916. And his fading health provoked, gave us the inimitable late decoupage experience.
  • So Matisse found purpose in the aesthetic arena, reminded us of its importance, even against the terrible backdrop of the Second Thirty Years War (1914-45).
  • Andre Derain found early fame too, as an energetic partner of Matisse in fashioning the Fauve color eruption in 1905. But he did not stand still, found other purpose across a long subsequent career, and out of step too with the avant-garde, thus setting up an interesting comparison with Johns.
  • Meanwhile Andrew Wyeth’s 1951 self portrait Trodden Weed says more than any of John’s works?

 

His journey

  • A cynic might see the Flag product as simply appropriating and exploiting an iconic national symbol for one’s own (commercial) interest (perhaps owing the People a measure of royalties?), and without adding much to the sum of knowledge, without challenging the cognitive sensibility of the open minded and informed?
  • JJ has been clever in fostering appeal by the art market:
    • 1/ Amassing a plenitude of motifs and themes, like crows collecting detritus on golf courses.
    • Early he got his hands on a signature motif, the US flag no less! Also the Target! But is that ART? Or nimble marketing savvy? If you’re going to paint Everyday Objects then the Stars and Stripes certainly resonates.
    • And circa 1960 he latched onto the theme of Gray.
    • And he has a sack of other favourite motifs, references, like abstract diagonal hatching, triggered by seeing a car go by, c1972.
    • Like, late 50s, the quasi-Twombly calligraphic scribble.
    • Like WE Hill’s 1915 ambiguous cartoon My Wife and My Mother-in-Law. And Rubin’s vase.
    • And famous names like Marcel Duchamp, Grunewald and Munch (citing his famous self portrait, Between clock and bed?!). And Hart Crane.
    • 2/ so he keeps his style / content / motifs moving, generating plenty variety, though generally more abstract than less;
    • 3/ He uses some figurative content, an collage, to help compound variety.
    • 4/ He favors lots of catchy, curious, obscure titles, which can become self-interestedly pretentious, like the Hart Crane reference.
  • Over a long period collective mutually reinforcing “bums on seats” self-interest in the art market (early featuring Leo Castelli’s gallery) has keenly propelled his cause, now like the coming Royal Academy show in London. Most interested mainstream professionals ululate praise, to sell paintings or tickets.
  • But what does he SAY?
  • On the polemical / aesthetic spectrum he appears at the aesthetic end? So his work never feels polemical, opinionated? Even the Flag
  • But aesthetically it’s more entertaining than beauteous, more accidental than purposive?
  • And not a portrait in sight! Not even a self portrait?
  • He reminds one of another post WW2 American “giant” inflated by the professional Art Market, Cy Twombly. Both busy, both long winded, both feted, and both recalling Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Though Johns has the edge in delivering more variety.
  • Both have made a good living dining on Art’s prestigious inheritance. Thus the long winded Twombly gave us his scribbled fancy titles from the past, whether or not there was any obvious objective relationship with the visual image.

Norman Wilfred Lewis: Driven to abstraction!

Norman Wilfred Lewis (1909 – 1979, 70)

Driven to abstraction! The discomfiting overlooked outsider who found a freedom in abstraction.

Slavery’s long shadow: authentic front rank NY School Abstract Expressionist painter bypassed one way and another because of his colour.

American art took path of least resistance, tip toed round a leading black painter, discomfited by race and his art.

Ironically his colour stimulated his work, likely encouraged his embrace of abstraction?

 

FEATURED IMAGE….

1936, Fantasy, Oil and ink on canvas, 80 x 102 cm, Courtesy of Leslie Lewis and Christina Lewis Halpern.

COMMENT: How unlikely. Yes there seem allusions here to Kandinsky and perhaps also Paul Klee. But nonetheless here is a striking image from the young (27 year old) painter, just after studying with Augusta Savage and at Columbia University in New York.

 

Overlooked.

  • Norman Lewis’ contribution to American art from just before WW2 though to the 1970s has been profoundly underappreciated, underrated.
  • Lewis has been largely ignored by the mainstream art establishment (critics, museums and the market), in the US and elsewhere, then and until recently (1).
  • But from c1946 he was a front rank New York School Abstract Expressionist (AE) painter. Detached appraisal suggests the substance of his sustained abstraction oeuvre – its distinctive originality and constructive variety – bears comparison with the popularly feted AE big guns.
  • The only obvious material differences were firstly, scale (Lewis did not paint large look-at-me wall fillers, partly because he couldn’t afford the studio space), and, secondly, he did not settle on a catchy marketable artistic device – a signature stylistic template – and pursue it mercilessly, like Pollock’s intense “drip”, Rothko’s Color Field ethereal floating rectangles, Newman’s “zip”, Still’s geological shards, and de Kooning’s coarse Expressionist quasi-figuration.
  • Lewis’ total abstraction oeuvre was striking in variety and its originality, distinctive in a number of aspects: 1/ his calligraphic”, “neural” or “string-bag” abstraction; 2/ his fine linear abstraction, using angular fragments or “shards; 3/ his quasi-figurative, miniature, pictographic “little figures” abstraction; and 4/ his powerful pared black and white / red and white quasi-abstraction.
  • This equivocal mainstream reaction is ironic given the influence of “primitive” African art on modern Western art, and also the recent rapturous art market response to Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was also NY based.

 

Why overlooked? Race.

  • Why was he overlooked, despite the objective quality of his work? The variety of his work is an issue. His very range was a mouthful, though to discerning critics this should be constructive.
  • It’s hard to avoid simply that color, being black, was the issue. His race and his art discomfited the art market, inhibited engagement and detached appreciation.
  • This not necessarily reflected overt racism as much as the path of least resistance (for both the mainstream and “black” art worlds), ie to avoid having to confront the matter of race (inherently controversial in the US because of the sustained injustice, across two centuries), and then Lewis’s particular case, ie first as the only black Abstract Expressionist and second as a painter who personally uttered on the matter, in a number of powerful works.
  • But though Lewis saw himself as a painter first (below) he could hardly avoid not commenting through his work, coinciding as he did with the historic Civil Rights movement which finally in the early 1960s brought remedial historic reform.
  • Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

 

Painter of distinction, ironically in part because of race.

  • Lewis is a painter of distinction, interesting especially because of questions posed by his colour, a predicament not of his choosing.
  • It was a dilemma he could never escape or resolve.
  • Thus as a black painter in the USA he could hardly overlook his people’s mistreatment. But to the extent he responded politically through his art he risked devaluing or compromising his status as a painter, and, more concretely, hurting his income.
  • The real irony was that this dilemma was exacerbated precisely because he was not just a painter but a mainstream painter, the only African-American in the post WW2 New York School. So on the one hand he was under that much more pressure to publically support his people, but on the other had that much more to lose.
  • But near a century after the Civil War African-Americans in the USA still suffered systematic discrimination: comparative electoral disenfranchisement and widespread segregation laws. So as an informed and educated black painter in the USA, and a leading one, he did respond, across his whole adult life, in his personal life and especially through some of his art, through many polemical works, some searing, in both his early Social Realist career and later abstraction.
  • But as a painter, especially as a prominent full-time career painter, he was also concerned to be judged as a generic painter, not to be trapped or devalued by his identity as a “black painter”. Thus he was conscious of art’s aesthetic as well as polemical purpose.
  • But he couldn’t win. If he didn’t protest he let his people down. If he did it cost him. So he did protest and it did cost him, his polemical activity discouraging the commercial interest in, appetite for his work.

 

 

Lewis’ abstraction: encouraged by his colour?

  • As a thoughtful career artist Lewis was obviously aware of abstraction and indeed executed such a work early as 1936. But ironically it seems likely the difficult matter for him of colour was a reason for him finally embracing abstraction, suddenly and for good c1945, as Abstract Expressionism was arriving. It allowed him greater creative freedom, to further a career as a painter, not just a black painter.
  • But again ironically, while abstraction gave him more room to move it also arguably powerfully augmented his political statements, particularly the quasi-representational works in the early 1960s, an historic period of Civil Rights protest and reform.
  • Unlike many or most of the main 20th C abstract painters, Lewis’s abstraction was not ‘spiritual’, rather was motivated by his life experience, particularly music and Harlem city life, but also nature, and politics.

 

Notes.  1/ Lewis’ first large scale full retrospective show did not arrive till 2016, 38 years after he died. Then one of his works (and an important one) did hang in the late 2016 comprehensive Abstract Expressionist exhibition at London’s Royal Academy, the first such comprehensive show in London in over 50 years, since 1959. In the catalogue editor David Anfam rightly flags Lewis, mentions Elaine de Kooning’s support in the wake of his 1949 solo hanging at the Willard Gallery.

 

 

2

Twilight Sounds, 1947. Oil on canvas, 60 x 71 cm, Saint Louis Art Museum. COMMENT: Inspired by music. Recalls Joan Miro?

 

  3

  1. American Totem, Oil on canvas, 191 x 114cm. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

 

4

1964, Processional, 94 x 48.3cm, oil on canvas,

COMMENT: Two gripping political images from the tense early 1960s period in the US when Civil Rights protest and (finally) reform was coming to a head. The first refers to an art device used by some native peoples. The second shows what might be a march, white and black people walking together. Through the night of the struggle, daylight ahead?

5

C1960, Alabama, oil on canvas, 122 x 184cm.  COMMENT: This striking work recalls Jackson Pollock’s important late work, The Deep (1953). It was a response to a sit-in at Alabama State University in 1960.

 

6

1962 Evening Rendezvous, oil on linen, 127.7 x 163.3 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum

COMMENT: A dark political work employing Lewis’s trademark miniaturised stick-figure quasi-abstraction, apparently depicting a nocturnal Klan gathering around a fire. The red white and blue scheme obviously parodies the colours on America’s national flag.

 

7

1962 Bonfire, Oil on canvas, 163 x 127cm, The Studio Museum in Harlem.

COMMENT: Another enigmatic political painting from the same tense early 1960s period

 

8

LEFT: Artists’ sessions at Studio 35, April 1950 (organized by de Kooning and Kline)

Left to right: Seymour Lipton, Norman Lewis, Jimmy Ernst, Peter Grippe, Adolf Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Alfred Barr (glasses far end, left), Robert Motherwell, Richard Lippold, Willem de Kooning, Ibram Lassaw, James Brooks, Ad Reinhardt, Richard Poussette-Dart.

9

RIGHT: Artists’ sessions at Studio 35, April 1950

Left to right: David Smith, Seymour Lipton, ??? (behind), Norman Lewis, Jimmy Ernst.

Photos by Aaron Siskind. Courtesy the Ad Reinhardt Foundation.

 

  10

An undated portrait of Norman Lewis. Credit Willard Gallery Archives.

COMMENT: Circa late 1940s? His important Metropolitan Crowd (1946), hangs to left of the artist.

 

11

Portrait c1975.

COMMENT: great photo