Part Two- Crisis and renewal
VI. Crisis and renewal
1. On the Essence of the Classical
In the course of the evolution described above, European art experienced a
fundamental transformation. In two great developmental stages the crumbling and
increasingly implausible ideals and ambitions of the outgoing 19th century were
supplanted by a new paradigm and a new artistic canon.
The first stage of Modernism, consisting of Impressionism and post-Impressionism, reflects the progressive integration of the scientific view of the world and of modern philosophy from the Enlightenment to Nietzsche. European painting is unchained from traditions originating in the Renaissance. It advances beyond the spiritual framework of ancient and Christian mythology, of churchly and secular power, and creates a new, 'enlightened' and ego-oriented canon. Rapturous pathos and theatrical posturing give way to a new artistic honesty. Illusionary and wishful thinking is supplanted by real conviction. Modernism strives for the insight, the form, expression and meaningfulness of an indisputable reality, and finds these in the internal and external experiences of the individual. 'Purity' and transparency in the use of artistic means and methods, intellectual integrity and universal validity become the defining values of artistic creation.
This evolution manifests the same four basic attitudes that already dominated the 19th century-the realistic, the structural, the romantic, and the symbolist-but their artistic expression reflects new values and ambitions, and a new concept of self and the world: a new paradigm.
Manet, Degas and Monet guide the Realism of the 19th century towards Impressionism. They discover their defining reality in everyday city life, shift the attention from the observed object to the observer, and elevate the process of perception into the actual theme of the art work.
Seurat and Cézanne discover the inherent laws of color and form, liberating pictorial means and methods from their serving function, and thus realize the ambitions and ideals of the Classicists in their original, i.e. classical sense-specifically in the structural order of the autonomous picture.
Gauguin and van Gogh dispense with the melodrama of Romanticism. They declare their faith in reality, specifically in the sensory dimension of their emotions, and express their love and their yearning in a manner that is artistically direct and does justice to the ego.
Inwardly torn, Munch and Ensor pose the question of the meaning of life. Instead of dodging into the lie lived by the bourgeoisie, or into the idealizing irreality of their Symbolist contemporaries, they respond by exposing their own wounds and anxieties, their sexual conflicts, and their madness.
The second developmental stage of Modernism is defined even
more intensely than the first by an awareness of the pervasive (and rationally
comprehensible) unity of all being. Body and mind, matter and energy simply
represent different manifestations of the one, unique, invisible reality;
in their essence they come together as one. Human beings and the world
are understood as the actional structure of anonymous natural forces,
which are only conceiv-able in abstract rather than in concrete terms.
Artistically this awareness is at first reflected in a heightened sensitivity for and a new receptivity to hitherto disregarded art forms. Modernism discovers the magical realism of the "customs officer" Henri Rousseau and the archaic symbolism of primitive tribal art. In these unaccustomed designs the artists of the new era recognize the original meaning and the universal significance of realistic and symbolist art: the appropriation of the world through the magic act of representation, and the banishing of threatening and incomprehensible forces through magic and ritual. The magic dimension of the artistic process
is no longer interpreted in religious terms, or attributed to the genius of individual artists, but understood as an essential, "natural" and necessary aspect of the human psyche. This shifting of perspective marks the beginning of the integration of the incomprehensible-the unconscious-into the enlightened Modernist concept of self and the world.
At the same time, Mondrian evolves the geometric line from the structural painting of Seurat, Cézanne, and Cubism, and Kandinsky the gestural line of
a completely abstract art from the romantic painting of Gauguin, van Gogh, and the Fauves-an abstract art in which form and message, intellect and emotion, energy and matter converge into an irreducible unity. They no longer depict reality but create, as an equivalent of the invisible order underlying all of existence, a new reality: that of the autonomous picture. The new paradigm has thus found its classical formulation:
The assertion that, with Mondrian and Kandinsky, the artistic development of
Modernism reached its classical phase, demands clarification. The concept of the
'classical', originally used generally as a term for what was considered the
perfection of Graeco-Roman antiquity, was limited, after Winckelmann, to the
Greek art of the fifth and fourth centuries bce. Today the word 'classical' is
used as a synonym for 'exemplary', and is applied broadly to the periods in art
and to those works that stress proportion and order, that strive for a balance
between the physical and the intellectual-spiritual. We accordingly understand
the Renaissance as a classical epoch, and also speak of classical Modernism.
From a psychological perspective we can describe as classical, i.e. all art in which exhibitionist ambitions and idealized structures are given equal weight, relating together as mutually determining elements and combined together into a formal unity. Seen this way, every artistic period and every current of art has its 'classical' exponent: the Trecento has its Giotto, Romanticism the great Goya, Impressionism the late Monet.
This concept of the classical is perfectly valid, but refers exclusively to the psychological and normative aspects of the term, and thus lacks the historic and intellectual significance of what I understand as the classical phase or the classical art of an entire historical era. To do greater justice to that, I need to define the term more narrowly. To me, the classical describes that phase of development in which the overarching paradigm that presses its stamp upon an entire historical era finds its exemplary-meaning its most general and yet most binding-artistic formulation.
A classical epoch divides each developmental cycle into two halves, which it determines in different yet crucial ways. The artists of the first, preclassical half of a developmental cycle strive to work out ever more clearly and purely the essence of the new paradigm, to give it the most generally valid artistic form possible. For them the classical-the exemplary formulation of the paradigm-is the goal towards which all of their efforts are oriented. The ultimate achievement of this goal eliminates that orientation, and thus necessarily sets off a crisis.
Because the decisive achievement of the 'classical generation' can neither be repeated nor outdone, the following generation can express its superiority and particularity only through dissidence, through deviation from the path followed until then. As long as no fundamentally new paradigm has yet emerged to introduce the next historical era, these artists are restricted to moving within an already defined terrain, and have a choice only between intensifying, clarifying and/or reducing classical concepts to isolated aspects of their own parts-or else attempting to invalidate these through the presentation of critical alternatives or through rejection. Characteristically the classical phase of an artistic developmental cycle is followed by the turbulence of mannerism, which positions itself against all classical values with its 'anti-art'.
Post-classical art is thus either commentary, repetition, and variation, or else a negation of what was achieved until then. In this way, the classical epoch of a culture also acquires an orienting function in the second half of the developmental cycle: it embodies the obligatory standards to which all other epochs must relate their affirmative or rejectionist stance.
This contingency becomes especially obvious in the case of mannerism. Anti-art is inconceivable without Art. But anti-art is not merely destructive; the art of mannerism carries within it the seed of a broader development, with which a culture in the second half of its cycle can continue to draw on the creative potential of its underlying paradigm, until that paradigm is replaced through the formation of a new consciousness and the beginning of a new historical era.
In Modernism this development is dominated by the enigmatic figure of Marcel Duchamp. In the second half of our cycle, he acquires the same significance that Cézanne possessed as the pathbreaker for abstract art in the first half.
2. Art as Riddle: Marcel Duchamp and the Onset of Absurdity
The development from archaic to classical represents the most glorious phase in any cultural cycle, for something like progress can be discerned in its course. In its archaic stage, a newly awakened consciousness of self and the world manifests itself embryonically at first; in the course of further artistic development it goes on to achieve a clearer, stronger, and increasingly exclusive expression, until it finds its purest and most perfected formulation in the classical stage.
In the developmental cycle of Modernism from Courbet and Manet to the Impressionists, then through Seurat, Cézanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh to the Fauves, the Cubists, and finally Mondrian and Kandinsky, we can observe a very clear progression in the same basic direction-away from the pictured subject and towards ever greater pictorial autonomy. In the final step of this development, painting altogether loses its representational, illustrative function, and serves exclusively to create a new reality: one entirely its own. This last stage owes much to the anonymous qualities of elementary forces, and the spirit of the natural sciences.
Mondrian and Kandinsky represent the transitory culmination of this progressive development. What they achieve can at best only be varied, not intensified or outdone. At this point at the latest, all the prerequisites for the emergence of mannerism are in place.1 Like the Mannerists of the 16th century, the witnesses and immediate successors to this artistic culmination turn against the criteria of an artistic canon which, having already been fulfilled, no longer promises any glory. The first exponent of this attitude, and thus the true pioneer of post-classical Modernism, is the French-American artist Marcel Duchamp.
The Confrontation with the Avant-Garde
The artistic development of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), whom André Breton
called the most intelligent artist of the twentieth century, can only be
understood in the context of the cultural climate that reigned in Paris during
the last decade before the First World War.
After the scandals generated by Courbet, Manet and the Impressionists, the gap between official art, still beholden to the tradition of the academies, and the work of the progressive young artists who turn away from that tradition and seek new themes and means of representation grows ever greater. However, once the former revolutionaries start to be recognized for their achievements, the view catches on within art circles that all meaningful art-which ultimately set the standards of "good taste"-is initially innovative and in violation of the reigning criteria. In other words, the path to glory, to the Olympus of the Museum, went through the avant-garde.
Duchamp, who arrives in Paris in 1904 with the intention of becoming a
painter, sets out to work quickly through the different styles in the evolution
of Modernism. He starts by painting in the style of the Impressionists, then in
the manner of Cézanne and the Fauves, and finally turns to Symbolist themes.
Thanks to the influence of his brothers-a painter and a sculptor using the
professional names Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, both of whom are
more than ten years his senior and already belong to the established
avant-garde-Marcel exhibits not only at the Salon des Indépendants, but also,
regularly, at the Salon d'Automne.
His growing self-assurance suffers a painful setback in the spring of 1911 at the opening of the Salon d'Automne. In the famous Hall 41, where the Fauves experienced their spectacular debut in 1905, this time the Cubists (Gleizes, Le Fauconnier, Metzinger, Léger, Delaunay) provide the by-now obligatory scandal of the exhibition. This group does not include the actual creators of the new style, for Braque and Picasso refused to exhibit in public after earlier rejection. But that is of no matter. To the unknowing audience, the exhibited pictures seem "crazy" enough. They set off an unprecedented scandal. While the public rushes in droves into the Cubist hall, laughing, cursing and debating, Duchamp's pictures, drowned in a sea of six thousand traditionalist submissions, are definitively ignored.
In a flash Duchamp becomes aware of his belated arrival in the history of art. Right away he begins to paint like a Cubist, but he avoids simply adopting the pictorial principles developed by Braque and Picasso. He is no longer content to swim in the wake of admired models, but wants to make history himself. He wants his own scandal. Influenced by the photographic experiments conducted by Marey (fig. 160), he abandons the static structure of Cubist picture-space and instead uses a Cubist facetting of bodies to record the course of a movement. After a series of studies in this direction, in 1912 he paints the painting that will bring him his first major success, Nu descendant un escalier (fig. 161).
Duchamp's declared intention, to cause a scandal with his nude at the subsequent Salon des Indépendants, is abruptly confounded when the Cubists in charge of mounting the exhibition refuse to take his picture into their hall, considering it out of tune with their party line. This rejection convinces Duchamp of the futility of his attempt to join the existing avant-garde, and reinforces his resolve to turn away from Cubism and to strike out on his own path. All he lacks is a goal and conception of his own.
At the end of May 1912, a few weeks after suffering this insult, Duchamp accompanies Apollinaire and Picabia to the Theater Antoine and a performance of Impressions d'Afrique by Raymond Roussel, which makes a deep impression on him. The absurdity of the plot, the odd machines demonstrated on stage, and the minute descriptions of their ingenious and completely useless mechanisms open a whole new horizon to the painter, and show him the way out of what seems like a dead end.
This was also Duchamp's opinion: It was fundamentally Roussel who was responsible for my glass, La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même. From his Impressions d'Afrique I got the general approach. This play of his which I saw with Apollinaire helped me greatly on one side of my expression. I saw at once I could use Roussel as an influence. I felt that as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter. And Roussel showed me the way.2
As a poet, Roussel represents a harmless role-model. He is not a rival. By offering a figure of identification that can be idealized but is not dangerous or emasculating, he becomes an ideal father-surrogate. As such he releases Duchamp from a task to which he is not equal-from the confrontation with Cézanne, the great father of Modernism, and from competition with the guardians of his legacy, the brother-figures, i.e. the representatives of the established avant-garde. That evening at the Theater Antoine thus becomes a decisive date in European art history. On that evening Duchamp found his vision and discovered his own path.
He travels immediately to Munich, the stronghold of the Blaue Reiter, arriving on 19 June. There, in complete solitude, he conceives what is to become his principle work, La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even). In his hotel room, converted into a studio, he sketches the first plans: unusual images in which mechanical elements and organic shapes are combined to form what seem like transparent, psycho-biological human machines that openly display their internal constructions (fig. 162).
Duchamp travels by way of Vienna, Prague, Dresden and Berlin back to Paris. Here the painted preparations for his main work are abruptly broken off, for at twenty-five years of age he surprisingly decides to abandon painting forever. Plus de peinture, Marcel. Cherche du travail (No more painting, Marcel. Find a job),3 went the legendary monologue which, according to his later statements, initiated this great turnaround.
He finds work as a librarian, but this does not mean that he gives up altogether on artistic work. His renunciation applies only to the particular craft skills that were hitherto the mainstay of his creative activity. Visiting the Paris Aviation Salon with Brancusi in October 1912, he comments tellingly: Painting is finished. Who can make anything better than this propeller? Can you?4
The following year, 1913, brings Duchamp his first significant public
success and his decisive creative breakthrough. In February the Association
of American Painters and Sculptors opens an international exhibition of
modern art in New York, the famous Armory Show, at which European Modernism,
from Cézanne to Picasso, from Matisse to Kandinsky, is represented almost
in its entirety. The exhibition, in which Duchamp participates with four
paintings, provokes an uproar. But no picture causes more of a stir than
Duchamp's Nu descendant un escalier. It becomes the favorite
target for sneering attacks by the press and the public, and overnight
becomes the most discussed picture in the country. Duchamp's works are
all sold in the first days.
However, the news of this unexpected success has no effect on Duchamp's decision to give up painting. It simply reinforces his determination to remain true his idea of giving visual expression to the stimuli received from Roussel. In the years 1913-1914, Duchamp draws what he believes are the logical creative conclusions, and produces the four crucial works with which he was to point the way for the artistic development of Modernism during the next half century. Three of these serve as studies for his most important work, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. The fourth is the first ever readymade.
First of all he shows how his refusal to paint any more pictures should be understood. On a stroll through the streets of his hometown, he passes the storefront of the Gamelin chocolate factory and catches sight of its intricate steam-driven machinery, the workings of which had fascinated him already as a boy. He decides to depict a component of this apparatus, the so-called chocolate grinder (or mill), as the sole subject of a picture executed in the objective, matter-of-fact style of a technical sketch. I wanted to revert to an absolutely dry drawing, to the composition of a dry art, and what better example could there be for this new art than the mechanical drawing?5 He later integrated a second, even "drier" version of this drawing into his main work as a component of the Bachelor Apparatus (fig. 163).
Secondly, Duchamp embarks on a work that looks more like a didactic model for demonstrating a scientific experiment than a work of art. He drops three lengths of thread onto canvas, affixes them exactly as they land, and glues the three strips of canvas onto three long sheets of glass. Each is signed by hand and bears the inscription: One meter of straight, horizontal sewing thread, dropped from a height of one meter. (3 standard stoppages: Property of Marcel Duchamp, 1913-1914). The three panels are supplemented by three wooden rulers, cut by Duchamp to reproduce the curve made by each of the three threads. Like the international meter, the platinum original of which is stored in Paris, the whole work is to be housed in a long wooden box (fig. 165).
Thirdly, the planned major work, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, assumes an increasingly clear shape in his mind's eye. He decides, instead of the usual canvas, to use glass as his picture carrier (hence the working title: the Large Glass) and draws in 1:10 scale the first plan for the overall composition, as well as exact detail sketches for the lower half of the work, the so-called Bachelor Apparatus. At the same time he begins making a first detail study on glass, Glider Containing a Water Mill in Neighboring Metals. He emphasizes the impersonal, technical character of his work by outlining this strange construction in lead wire (fig. 166).
Finally, this time without reference to the Large Glass, Duchamp constructs a peculiar object, the famous Bicycle Wheel, by bolting a bicycle fork, complete with wheel, upside down on a stool (fig. 164).
In these works, Duchamp employs a series of creative principles that run
diametrically counter to all previous beliefs about art:
- Personal expression yields to anonymous functionality, objectivity, and technical precision.
- Coincidence becomes a determining factor in artistic creation.
- Individual caprice replaces the artistic canon.
- The choice of a real, existing object replaces the shaping of an artistic material.
- The center of gravity in the creative process shifts from the work's making to its conception.
- The artistic statement is concealed. The work becomes a riddle.
With these innovations, Duchamp explodes the previous framework for modernist
art. With them he also defines his own position relative to the avant-garde and
to his era's general faith in progress. He knows that in its essentials the
great artistic revolution of Modernism has already been completed, that its high
point, abstract art, has already been reached; and he is acutely aware of his
own belatedness. While he does admire the pathbreaking discoveries and
achievements of modern art and science, he does not wish to sacrifice to them
either his freedom or the consciousness of his own uniqueness and
In relativizing the ambitions and ideals of Modernism, he reaches for doubt and irony. Irony is a playful way of accepting something. My irony is the irony of indifference. It is a 'meta-irony,' he tells the American gallerist Sidney Janis.6 So he turns irony, his favorite weapon, against the three forces most likely to raise doubts about his autonomy, his fantasy of absolute freedom: he turns it against Cubism and abstract painting; against reason, science and technology; and finally (above all in the Large Glass) against eros and sexuality.
The Standard Stoppages present an ironic commentary on the achievements
of modern art and science. I could not see the reason why we should
have such a deep reverence for science, and so I had to supply a different
form of pseudo-explanation. I am a pseudo through and through, that is
my characteristic. I could never stand the seriousness of life, but when
seriousness is tinted with humor, it produces a prettier color.7
This object can be observed in terms of its individual, psychological aspects as well as its general, stylistic ones. Like these readymades, the experimental ordering of threads serves as a defense against the demands posed by the achievements of Modernism. Because his demonstration completely ignores the ambitions and ideals of all previous art, Duchamp succeeds in clearing his competitors out of the way, without needing to face them directly. He is the only one in the field in which he places himself, and thus invincible; his achievement can neither be repeated nor outdone.
Behind Duchamp's meta-irony and his postulate that the idea of judgment should be eradicated,8 an injured and deeply bewildered self hides his yearning for the confirmation denied to him by fathers and brothers. Instead of attachment, Duchamp strives for distance; instead of a lover, he is a voyeur. He replaces the now questionable individual self with what he views as the one indubitable certainty, the ultimate reality: namely, co-incidence and incidence. Coincidence assumes the orienting function of idealized structures; while the incidence of an idea stands in for the exhibition of individual uniqueness.
The dialectic relation of the two poles is thus preserved. In his Standard Stoppages Duchamp demonstrates the similarity of the 'different' and thus succeeds in combining the general and the unique into a synthesis. But the dialectic tension between the two poles is no longer acted out within the self, in the conflict between exhibitionist ambitions and idealized structures, but at a distance, in the anonymous reality of a physical experiment.
Still, this work realizes the artist's exhibitionist ambitions; since these are no longer oriented to external manifestations, to the making of the work, but have shifted focus to the work's conception-to the concept. Thus Duchamp introduces the 'concept' to the artistic consciousness of Modernism as a completely new means of expression and creation.
Until that time the conceptual fundamentals of any work always corresponded to those of an entire epoch; they were largely handed down, and formed a constant framework within which an epoch's individual artists could realize their exhibitionist ambitions and put their uniqueness on display. With Modernism, this relationship slowly begins to shift. Seurat and Cézanne, Gauguin and van Gogh, Braque and Picasso, Matisse and Kandinsky create their own framework, their own canon; with them, conception and execution are both shaped individually and given equal weight.
Duchamp abandons this equilibrium, but he does not reinstate the former relationship of conception and execution: instead he turns it completely around. The conception becomes a variable and comes exhibitionistically to the fore, while its realization, its execution, sinks as mere manual labor to a peripheral status. This reversal is a general property of mannerism and becomes a determining tendency in post-classical modernism. Exhibition usurps the place held by the idealized structures of an artistic canon, for it is now expressed in a form that by definition was reserved for those idealized structures: that is to say, in the form of the concept. In this guise, individual exhibition now takes over the orphaned function of an idealized structure. It no longer conveys an 'inner feeling', an expression of emotion, but rather an intellectual insight and/or an ideological stance. Individual exhibition finds its artistic form in the concept itself, through it the 'grandiose self' comes into being. The concept becomes the 'maniera' of the modern.
Since he can no longer adopt the myth of Modernism without sacrificing to it
his own exhibitionist ambitions, Duchamp creates an artistic myth of his own. In
this myth the conflicts arising from his position in history and from his
individual psychic constellation are portrayed in an encoded fashion.
Duchamp's individual mythology finds its most comprehensive formulation in his renowned work, La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (otherwise known as the Large Glass). In 1915, after three years of minute preparation in countless sketches, studies, and models, copies of which together comprise The Green Box (fig. 167), he begins to construct the work in New York; in 1923 he declares it "finally unfinished." (fig. 168).
The picture comprises two double-plate glass panels arranged one over the other, and was constructed with extreme precision using a variety of materials: oil paints and varnish, lead wire, mirror foils, grating, dust. The upper part is taken by the Bride, a configuration of organic and mechanical forms, vaguely reminiscent of a large insect. Arranged on the lower glass plate are the five components of the Bachelor Apparatus: the aforementioned metal Glider Containing a Water Mill, nine piston-shaped forms of lead foil as representatives of the bachelors, seven cones in a semi-circle (whereby a combination of standard stoppages connects the first cone to the bachelors), the Chocolate Grinder, and, finally, three geometric figures formed through mirroring, similar to those used by optometrists to test vision. The two panels are separated by three insulating plates, representing the Bride's dress.
This extraordinary work is constructed to stand upright in a room and can thus be viewed from either side. Because the glass is transparent and reflective, the surroundings mix into the actual work, intensifying the confusing effect.
The Large Glass is a hermetic work, and as such it eludes every
interpretation. In 1934, ten years after Duchamp had stopped working on
it, he published 300 copies of a kind of interpretative guide to his Glass.
It is a green velour box with reproductions of all of the pictures and
drawings made in Munich, and of another 50-odd sketches, plans, and handwritten
texts. These minutely facsimilied documents comprise a selection of the
preparatory studies realized in 1912-15 for the Large Glass,
reproducing the color, form, and material of each of the original notes,
paper scraps, pieces of cardboard or tracing sheets, all of which Duchamp
had carefully stored (fig. 167).
These texts, fragments of diffuse ideas and concepts (some reading like technical guides), betray the inner conflict and impatience of an ambitious mind enamored of its own uniqueness but unprepared to define its ideas, preferring to leave them in an indeterminate state. According to Duchamp, The Green Box in its presented form only remotely fulfills his original intent.
It only presents preliminary notes for the Large Glass and not in the final form which I had conceived as somewhat like a Sears, Roebuck catalogue to accompany the glass and to be quite as important as the visual material.9
In 1958, with Duchamp's help, the chaotic confusion of these notes was ordered chronologically by Michel Sanouillet and published in book form together with other texts by Duchamp under the title, Marchand du Sel. Ecrits de Marcel Duchamp. Even then, most of these notes, jotted down at speed and originally intended solely for the artist's own use, remain incomprehensible to the outsider. Despite this, since its appearance The Green Box has been used as a kind of handbook to decode the signs and symbols of the Large Glass.
The few passages that are comprehensible provide an insight into an exceedingly complex and encoded fantasy world in which Roussel's influence is clearly evident. With pseudoscientific sobriety Duchamp describes a fantastic psychosexual process: the attempted undressing of the Bride (or virgin) by her Bachelors (see the schematic diagram of the Glass with key, fig. 169).
According to these notes, the piston-like bodies set in lead foil in the lower half of the Large Glass represent nine manly (in French original: malic!) molds, which serve to produce the gaseous castings ("illuminating gas") of the bachelors: the Gendarme, Cuirassier (cavalryman), Flunky (liveried servant), Delivery Boy, Busboy, Priest, Undertaker, Stationmaster, and Policeman. The bachelors remain hopelessly imprisoned in their masks, which throw the reflection of their own complexity back at them, setting off onanistic hallucinations. Accordingly the union between Bride and Bachelors also occurs only in a projection: The mirrored drops of the spray stain, not the drops themselves but their reflection, run throughout both states of the same figure.
The frequent references to onanism underline the narcissistic character of this fantastic sexual relationship. The chocolate grinder, the central element of the bachelor apparatus, symbolizes self-gratification: The bachelor grinds his own chocolate. Mounted on underground runners, the metal glider is subject to the phenomenon of reversal of friction. The squeaking noise of its monotonous swinging sounds the litany of the Bachelor's existence: Lazy life. Circulus vitiosus. Onanism. Horizontal. Back and forth. For the scapegoat, damned life. […]
The bride appears as apotheosis of virginity, as unknowing desire, as chaste wish (with a shot of nastiness). She also gratifies herself. She provides the love gasoline, a secretion of her sexual glands, lights it with the spark of her own desire, and finally combusts it in a motor with the extremely weak cylinders formed by one of her external organs.
The machines of the male and female parts of the Large Glass thus function separately and have no connection to each other. The virgin is not stripped bare; her love-play with the Bachelors is blighted by frigidity and impotence.
This cryptic summary of the few comprehensible (and therefore most often quoted) passages from Duchamp's copious texts will have to suffice as an indication of the complex psychological meaning of the contents of The Green Box.10
Many authors made reference to Duchamp's psychopathology. (In-depth explorations and attempts at psychoanalytic interpretation can be found in Reboul, 1954; Carrouges, 1954; Schwarz, 1966; Lebel, 1959; Molderings, 1983; and de Duve, 1987). As compelling as the psychoanalytic guessing game around the notes to the Large Glass can be, it is nonetheless tangential to the work's significance in the history of art. That is not founded in the personal psychopathology of the artist, nor in the specific form of his neurotic or narcissistic disorders and fixations; rather it is in the particular stylistic tropes with which this work gives form and expression to the main theme-narcissism and impotence-that later occupied post-modernism.
Duchamp expresses his ideas in the form of a riddle. If his work is to endure, the riddle must remain insolvable-and yet always provoke new attempts to solve it. While the riddle itself remains impenetrable, the fundamentally enigmatic character of the work becomes transparent. It does not want to say anything: it wants to be interpreted.
Duchamp draws the observer into the creative process. In this way he not only radically transforms the traditional relationship between the work and the observer-he also transforms all previous ideas about art. In 1957 he formulated his views at a symposium on the "Creative Act": All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.11 In other words, the phenomenon of art is based on the experience of art, in the creative relationship that a person (the artist or the observer) enters into with a particular work or material. The receptive experience of art also represents a behavior that is always and exclusively completed within an individual consciousness. In the absence of the creative participation of the spectator, no created work is anything other than dead material.
Duchamp's work throws the observer back on his or her own resources, and thus repeats, on a new level, the revolution of the Impressionists and Duchamp's own great model, Georges Seurat; Duchamp's concern is the process of perception, not the thing perceived. Regarder voir, he says. Observing can be seen, but hearing cannot be heard.12
Although the majority of Duchamp interpreters focus primarily on deciphering
the "secret teachings" of the Large Glass, Duchamp himself says: I'm
not at all sure that the concept of the Readymade isn't the most important
single idea to come out of my work.13
With the Chocolate Grinder Duchamp discovers for the first time the suggestive potential inherent in the isolated, detached and sober presentation of an everyday object.
The image provides no access, either on an intellectual or emotional level, to the artist's motivation; it eludes explanation. Accordingly, as soon as it is recognized as an artistic statement, it therefore appears as the effect of an unknown cause or power, and gains a magic aura as something incomprehensible and yet meaningful. The Chocolate Grinder recalls the mysterious machines which Roussel describes in Impressions d'Afrique or Locus Solus with the same emotional indifference that characterizes Duchamp's dry and unromantic style of representation.
The same is true of the first readymades: practical objects divested of their function, which Duchamp elevates into works of art by selecting them and by adding his signature.
When Duchamp in 1913 first sets up his Bicycle Wheel in his studio, his interest in the unusual object is purely playful, expressing his new-found freedom and his readiness to embrace everything new and untried, to accept fate and coincidence. Watching the wheel turn was very relaxing, very comforting, a kind of opening up to things other than the materials of everyday life.14 But in the following year when he buys a galvanized cast-iron bottle dryer in a Parisian department store and hangs it from the ceiling of his studio (fig. 170), he signs it. Through regular repetition of this gesture (the bottle dryer is followed by a snow shovel in 1915, an iron comb and a typewriter cover in 1916, and a hat rack and a urinal in 1917) Duchamp creates a new kind of art work, for which he coins the term readymade in 1915 in New York.15
Duchamp offers only meager information about the significance or meaning of his objects. I made them without any intention, with no purpose other than unloading ideas. Each Readymade is different, there is no common denominator between the ten or twelve16 Readymades, other than that they are all manufactured goods. As for a motivating idea: no. Indifference. Indifference to taste, taste in the sense of photographic representation, or taste in the sense of well made materials. The common factor is indifference. I could have chosen twenty things an hour, but they would have ended up looking the same.
I wanted to avoid that at all costs.17
Our own familiarity with psychoanalysis tells us that Duchamp's statement may well reflect his conscious understanding of the gesture, but that this asserted indifference is simply impossible within the psychic reality of the unconscious. Total nihilism, in Duchamp's own words, is impossible: Nothing is also something.18
A number of art-historians investigate the erotic implications of the objects chosen by Duchamp. In particular Molderings points out Duchamp's unresolved fear of castration and the fetishist character of numerous readymades. The compulsion to make an obsession visible and simultaneously guard it as a secret often leads to a complex, contradictory nature among sexual fetishists. Objects are often presented in the negative, as it were, that is, by virtue of their absence. They are often outer coverings, cases that serve to conceal what the obsession is centered on, or they are objects whose meaning consists primarily of drawing attention to what they lack.19 Accordingly many of the readymades are objects over which something else is fitted (bottle dryer, coat hooks, hat or glove rack) or coverings, as with the typewriter cover Pliant de Voyages (Traveler's Folding Item). Interpreted as a fetish, they represent an imagined but unconsummated sexual union, thereby banishing the threat of castration.
Given these sexual implications, the Readymades may be understood as a means
of covertly discharging pathogenic affects and fixations. But the skeptical
detachment, the "aesthetic indifference" expressed through them, serves to avoid
rivalry (i.e. the threatening of artistic competition).
Having early on recognized both the natural limits of his talents as a painter and his historical belatedness, Duchamp knows it is impossible for him to match the magnificent achievements of the models of his day, above all of Cézanne.20 Faced with the threat of "emasculation", he reacts with a "rush forward," turning the signs of Modernism on their head: he replaces its imperturbable convictions with doubt, its passion with indifference, he replaces the universal with the specific, the visual with the intellectual, the creative act with the found object, intention with chance, the laws of elemental natural forces with the arbitrariness of the human subject, overarching meaning with absurdity.
By creating impersonal and expressionless works-which look like the exact opposite of art-Duchamp sidesteps direct, competitive confrontation with other artists, evading the possibility of defeat, but also of victory. His indifference protects him from both failure and guilt.
Far more decisive than these personal psychological implications are,
however, the structural, that is, the philosophical and stylistic results of his
effort to reconcile contradictions, to at once reveal and to deny, in short: to
make possible the impossible.
Contrary to the impression he conveys to an impartial observer, Duchamp clearly states his desire for a place within the Western heritage of art, which has always conveyed religious, philosophical or literary messages, and which is essentially an art of faith. I believe, he said to Sweeney in 1955, that art is the only form of activity in which man as man shows himself to be a true individual. Only in art is he capable of going beyond the animal state, because art is an outlet towards regions which are not ruled by time and space. To live is to believe; that's my belief, at any rate.21
Duchamp wants to believe but he does not know what to believe in. The absolute doubt he has adopted as his weapon prevents him from recognizing any stable value. I refused to accept anything; I questioned everything. This refusal takes the form of the readymades because by doubting everything, I had to find in my work something that had not existed before.22 Since art for him embodies faith, the meaning of human life, he seeks and finds in the readymade a form that subverts the possibility of defining art.23 This invention releases him from any positive commitment.
Duchamp does not know what he believes or who he is. But he knows what he does not believe and who he is not. Lacking positive knowledge or a positive meaning, he adheres to his negative knowledge so as to keep his integrity. To endow this faith with form and expression, he uses-like Goya before him-the stylistic device of 'negative presence.' Duchamp does not seek salvation in convention; he does not believe, but instead leaves the space of belief empty.
Given the traditional expectation that art should give form and expression to a faith, whatever that may be, Duchamp's gesture signifies a denial of meaning and its replacement with non-sense, with absurdity. From Duchamp's perspective, however, his gesture does not deny meaning but only the expectation that meaning (faith) is somehow comprehensible, articulable, capable of representation. It signifies the readiness to accept doubt and therefore uncertainty-to accept the lack of a dependable, idealized structure.
According to Duchamp meaning is never given, does not exist in itself, and cannot be "represented." Ultimate reality is not a force or a law that can be discovered somewhere behind or beneath appearances; it resides within human beings themselves. The ultimate reality is human license. It alone lends meaning to appearances, and therein resides the creative act. Duchamp haughtily refuses all obligations of any kind and sets his own standards, in whatever form he chooses. Provocatively disregarding every convention and expectation of the viewer, his gesture reveals an archaic, grandiose fantasy that ultimately becomes a guiding vision for many later artists: the irrational fantasy of unconditional freedom. But Duchamp's freedom does not take a concrete form; it is expressed solely in the negation of existing demands and expectations, and therefore remains empty. Accordingly he comes to the conclusion that his all-encompassing skepticism must ultimately cast doubt on 'being' or 'existence' as such.
The idea of creating a many-layered and holistic artistic universe-in itself expressing a universal scale of values and imbuing a work with meaning-had served as the model for all of Modernism's various stylistic currents, whatever their differences. Duchamp ceases the practice of 'positively' endowing a work with a meaning that is striving for ultimate fulfillment. He negates the traditional question of meaning; instead of an answer he presents a thing, a functional object. As meaningless as this gesture may seem, it does make a statement. Duchamp's object does not exist in a vacuum, but within the context of the history of Western art. This history is so inseparably entangled with the history of intellectual values, faith, and meaning that even an intentional exclusion of this dimension must be understood as a commentary and as a stand on the question of meaning. 'Nothing' is undeniably something.
Thus meaning is 'experienced' in Duchamp's objects, even if only in a negative form. The absence of a 'positive', interpretative or interpretable statement constellates the issue of meaning in the observer's mind, i.e. as a question. While Duchamp's provocative object seems to refer to nothing but itself, it does point to a quality that is new and completely unexpected in a work of art: the absence of meaning, an experience fundamental to our era. This sociohistorical relevance endows the readymade with its fascination. It is also the source of the overwhelming significance that the stylistic concept of 'negative presence' acquires in the subsequent development of modernist art. Art is not what we see; it is in the gaps.24 And the viewer must fill them in. Without his or her creative participation the work remains fragmentary; only the viewer can complete it.
On 3 August 1914 Germany declares war on France. Exempted from military
service on account of a heart defect, Duchamp decides to leave the Old
World behind, and not just figuratively; he becomes one of the first modern
artists to cross the Atlantic. On 6 August 1915 he embarks for the United
States. Arriving in New York he discovers that as the painter of Nu descendant
un escalier he is a famous man. With his first appearances (i.e. the publication
of his first interviews) the puzzled admiration of the Americans begins
to shift from the artist's work to his person. Under the title "A Complete
Reversal of Art Opinions by Marcel Duchamp, Iconoclast" in the magazine
Arts and Decoration (1915) we can read that He is young and
strangely unmoved by the intense controversies triggered by his work.
[…] He does not look like an artist, nor does he speak or behave like
one. Possibly he isn't one, at least not in the true sense of the word.
In any case he finds the artistic vocabulary with its established terms
He is introduced to the local artists and intellectuals by the wealthy art collectors Walter Arensberg and his wife Louise, who host him during his first weeks in New York; during this time he also meets Man Ray. It would have been easy for Duchamp to exploit his fame for his own financial benefit. He could have sold as many paintings as he cared to make. Instead he remains true to the resolution reached in Paris: plus de peinture, Marcel […]. He teaches French for two dollars an hour and takes a part-time job as a librarian at the Institut Français.
In New York in 1915 Duchamp begins to construct the Large Glass, and works on it for eight years until losing interest in 1923, declaring that it was definitively unfinished. His artistic production is otherwise sparse. Under no circumstance does he wish to repeat himself; instead of endlessly modifying once-invented concepts (which would destroy their 'aura'), with his Large Glass and by his very way of life he creates the myth that imbues his unique role in the world of art with the 'dignity of permanence': His most beautiful work is the way he spends his time.25
He creates a number of readymades, paints one more picture, betraying
his resolution, and founds, together with Man Ray in 1917, the short-lived periodical The Blind Man, in which, among other things, he attempts to justify the concept of the readymade. After the war, Duchamp returns briefly to Paris where he mingles with the Dadaists and later with the Surrealists, exercising a lasting influence upon them. The famous readymade he creates during this period, by drawing a mustache and goatee on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, becomes on the strength of its blasphemy, the programmatic symbol of Dadaism (fig. 191). In 1921 Duchamp and Picabia publish a single issue of New York Dada. On the cover Duchamp appears (in a photograph by Man Ray) dressed as a woman, under the pseudonym Rrose Sélavy (read phonetically: Eros c'est la vie, which approximately translates as "Eros is life."). By later signing a few of his works and the majority of his word games with this female synonym, he even blurs his gender identity, and surrounds
his persona with the aura of yet another mystery. As a whole his behavior is ambiguous. Despite his many years' association with the Dada movement, he also keeps his distance there. Looking back he claims, I was never a real Dadaist.26
When Duchamp stops work on the Large Glass in 1923, his artistic production ceases almost entirely. Chess takes its place as his dominant passion. He regularly takes part in chess tournaments and from 1928 to 1933 plays on the French national team.
After ten years of more or less professional activity as a chess player, he returns to art, although now his primary concern is the preservation and interpretation of his past work. In 1934 he publishes The Green Box, in 1941 the signed, limited edition of the Boîte en valise (Box in a suitcase)-a kind of specimen box containing miniature replicas and reproductions of his most important works. He helps to organize two Surrealist exhibitions in Paris and New York, designs a few exhibition posters and catalogue covers, and also engages in a modicum of art dealing.
In 1956 Duchamp marries Alexina Sattler, the former wife of Pierre Matisse (Duchamp's first marriage in 1927 ended in divorce after barely six months).
In the 1950s, the growing influence of his work on a new generation
of artists in Europe and America gradually becomes clear: in 1959 Michel Sanouillet edits and publishes Duchamp's collected writings. In the same year the first monograph on the artist, by Robert Lebel, is also published. In 1963 the Pasadena Museum of Art opens the first major solo retrospective of his art, with 114 works. In 1966 the Tate Gallery in London finally confirms his dominant position in contemporary art with the exhibition, The Almost Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp. On 2 October 1968, after an evening meal with friends, Marcel Duchamp dies of an embolism.
A full year after his death, Duchamp springs his last surprise on the
international art public. In 1969 the Philadelphia Museum of Art-to which
Katherine Dreier and Walter Arensberg had given their extensive
tions, representing nearly all of the artist's works-presents an astonished public with Duchamp's "unknown masterpiece": the illusionist environment Etant donnés: 1. La chute d'eau, 2. Le gaz d'éclairage, known in English as Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas (fig. 172).
This final major work, which Duchamp had created in complete secrecy, once again takes up the themes of the Large Glass. Through two small holes in a wooden door, the observer looks into a three-dimensional, illusionist diorama landscape. In the background a small waterfall is seen driving a water mill, whereby an ingenious mechanism actually turns the wheel and creates the illusion of water crashing down (a reference to the water mill that drives the Bachelors' metal glider in the Large Glass?).
In the foreground lies the life-sized, realistically modelled body of a naked woman, stretched out on her back over a bundle of twigs. While an intervening cliff blocks out her head, her spread legs allow a view of her sex. The Bride is stripped bare. The scene is illuminated by the gas flame of the small lamp she holds in her upraised hand.27
With his oeuvre Marcel Duchamp established the intellectual and creative foundations for post-classical modernism in two ways. In its essence his art is certainly destructive. All of its expressions are aimed at dissolving structures and casting doubt on the given. Everything is pretense, optical deception, a reflection in glass (Molderings). His art therefore marks a zero point in the development of Modernism; however, this not only represents an end, but also a beginning. Doing away with all previously binding values Duchamp creates a great emptiness; at the same time, he also creates the possibility of filling it anew.
But his achievement is by no means exhausted in the apparently destructive act of clearing space. With his impressive series of revolutionary innovations-the invention of readymades, the introduction of coincidence and of concept as autonomous creative means, optical experiments and the first kinetic art works, the artistic use of diagrams, language, and text, and the use of negative presence as a stylistic device-Duchamp produced in the years from 1914 to 1920 the alphabet of a new language, thereby marking out the subsequent creative context of artistic developments for decades to come.
Duchamp's special place in the development of post-classical modernism
derives not only from his pathbreaking "inventions" but also from the
intellectual attitude he assumed with regard to the times and the society he
lived in. A comparison of his appearances before and during the First World War
with those of his contemporaries makes this especially obvious.
While the great loner accomplished his far-reaching structural revolution in complete solitude and silence, most of the 'progressive' artists of that time came together in groups and movements to stage loud and gaudy spectacles with their manifestoes, declarations and programs-succeeding, at least briefly, in deluding themselves and the public about the inconsequentiality and lack of ideas behind the greater part of their artistic production. While Duchamp seldom spoke about his work, and then only later on, holding back the explanatory notes on his most important work for years and spurning the active pursuit of success and fame, his colleagues seemed to shy away from nothing in order to grab the public's attention. While Duchamp, with his meta-irony, avoided a direct confrontation with the idea of progress and the political situation of his time, while he eschewed any and all value judgements and placed his art on a completely different level of existence, the movements forming around the time of the First World War-Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism and Dadaism-elevated technological and scientific progress into the dominant theme of their art. Each of these movements was marked out by its own ideology of progress.
It was not by chance that Futurism first emerged in Italy, a country
which had not produced a painter of note since Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
(1696-1770) and which, since then, had gone untouched by artistic developments
in the rest of Europe. Italy only began to perceive these around the turn
of the century, when, with the first Venice Biennale in the year 1895,
a series of exhibitions presented paintings by European Symbolists and
Jugendstil artists: Moreau, Redon, Puvis de Chavannes, von Stuck,
Klimt, Böcklin, and Hodler. Young Italian intellectuals soon became aware
of their cultural backwardness and put the blame on the state, the church,
and the bourgeoisie, or more concretely: the academy and the museums,
and their subservience to long-outdated traditions. Artists acquired a
previously unknown militancy. Remedying Italy's cultural isolation became
a national mission. Revolutionary tendencies gathered everywhere under
the banner of 'Modernism'. People were reading Nietzsche and d'Annunzio,
and there was a sudden plethora of new publications, in which Pre-Raphaelite
fantasies, Nordic mysticism, aristocratic nihilism, and all possible variants
on Symbolist themes, dreams and madness, death, sin and sexuality were
warmed over and served up for the home audience.
After the Symbolist wave, pictorial Modernism also made its way over the border. The Italian painter Ardengo Soffici, who had lived in Paris from 1900 to 1907, turned vehemently against Symbolism and its Italian representatives. In articles, reproductions and exhibitions he began introducing to Italy the new French styles in painting, from the Impressionists to the Fauves and Cubists. As a consequence of his enlightening activities, the results of decades of development flooded, in chaotic confusion, into the unprepared consciousness of the Italians. Thus, all at once, they discovered Courbet and Renoir, Ingres and Cézanne, Matisse, van Gogh and Rousseau, and, still hot from the oven, the latest sensation, Cubism. Overnight Paris became the Mecca of the young Italian intellectual elite.
Among the first to arrive in the French capital, eager to become involved in the scene there, was the son of a Milanese industrialist family, the young poet Filippo Tomaso Marinetti (1876-1944). During his studies at the Sorbonne he developed an enthusiasm for the "poètes maudits," "vers libre" and the paintings of the "black Romantics." At the time he still thought of himself as a Symbolist. In 1905 he founded the journal Poesia in Milan: in it (besides his own poems) he published works by his admired role-models, some of which he also translated.
Under the influence of the artistic revolution that was emerging in Paris with the Fauves, Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, and the first Cubist paintings, Marinetti decided to launch his own revolution. On 20 February 1909 the Paris Figaro published his first Futurist Manifesto. As Pontus Hulten writes in Futurismo e Futurismi (the catalogue to the exhibition of the same name, held in the Palazzo Grassi in Venice in 1986), Marinetti, with his extraordinary sensibility and ambition, discovered that something of great importance was going on in Paris in those years after 1905. Marinetti was probably to a certain extent jealous of what was happening around Picasso and Apollinaire, jealous not only for his own sake, but also for his country. As he had the gift, the willpower and the financial means to come up with an Italian version, he set to work. The Futurist Manifesto (20 February 1909) was the result of his decision.28
It is characteristic of Marinetti's unreal frame of mind that not a single Futurist work existed at the time he wrote his manifesto. Balla and Boccioni, Carrà, Russolo and Severini, the later big names of the movement, were still struggling with clumsy attempts at combining Impressionist and Symbolist approaches. Boccioni wrote in 1907, two years before the "invention" of Futurism: I feel I want to paint what is new, born of our industrial age. […] How should I do this? with colour? or with drawing? with painting? […] with realist tendencies that no longer satisfy me or with Symbolist tendencies which I rarely like and have never tried?29
Marinetti lacked any kind of artistic, scientific, political or philosophical concept. His only interest was in a rapturous glorification of technological progress and of the 'new' for its own sake. Although he identified with this idea, he of course understood nothing about what he was so enthusiastically propagating, because the scientific and technical reality underlying progress made little impact on his "brilliant" mind. Like every reality, he perceived this one, too, as something peripheral. We are well advised to quote a few passages from the manifesto:
- A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath-a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot-is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace. […]
- We stand on the last promontory at the end of centuries! […] Why should we look back, when our desire is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.
- We will glorify war-the world's only hygiene-militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and contempt for woman.
- We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, and every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice. […] Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.
- The oldest of us is thirty: yet we have already scattered treasures, a thousand treasures of strength, love, courage, astuteness, and raw willpower; have thrown them away impatiently, in haste, without counting, without hesitating, without ever stopping, at breakneck speed. […] Look at us! We are still not tired! Our hearts are not exhausted because they are fed with fire, hatred, and speed. […] Does that amaze you? It should, because you can never remember having lived! Erect on the summit of the world, again we hurl our challenge to the stars! 30
These pretentious proclamations contrast sharply with the meager results of the artistic efforts produced by the devotees of Futurism.
The considerable wealth Marinetti inherited from his father allowed him to
travel as he liked, print books and magazines, publish manifestoes, rent
galleries or theaters, organize exhibitions and every manner of event, and
disseminate the propaganda material of the movement in every conceivable fashion
throughout the world. The Futurists were very well organized. From 1909 until
the end of the war, the movement maintained its own office in Milan to handle
correspondence, promotion and exhibitions and distribute books, pamphlets and
manifestoes worldwide. In this way the Futurist ideology and its slogans became
internationally known within a very short time; futurism became a catchword for
all modern art.
The first manifesto was followed by over fifty others. Although these had many, very different authors-painters, sculptors, poets, architects, photographers-all were written in the same melodramatic and bombastic style, and all exhibited the same mental confusion. Futurism as an ideology laid claim to defining, not just painting and sculpture, but also literature and theater, film and photography, politics, dance, architecture, cooking, even love-making. The Futurists wanted to change the very roots of society.
Among the various disciplines which they addressed, painting played the leading role. Their most important exponents were Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), Giacomo Balla (1871-1958) and Luigi Russolo (1885-1947), while Carlo Carrà (1881-1966) and Gino Severini (1883-1966) only briefly belonged to the movement.
Although Futurist painting owes its principle stimulus to Cubism, in many ways it represents the antithesis of Cubism. As revolutionary as Braque and Picasso may have wished to seem, their art was nevertheless grounded in the logical evolution of the French painting of the last decades of the 19th century. This occurred simultaneously and in unison with the dramatic transformations in the urban environment that marked a new era in history. In keeping with Cézanne's dictum, the paintings of the Impressionists and the post-Impressionists, the Fauves and the Cubists did not depict these changes, but created their artistic equivalent.
Futurist painting by comparison did not grow organically, but resulted from the somewhat dilettante adaptation of an 'imported' style to the provincial ideas and needs of Italy at that time. The Futurists had an extremely limited view of the great transformation; they were transfixed by the 'new', which had startled them out of their provincial drowsiness. They wanted to appropriate it simply by depicting it. Instead of realizing in painting the same structural transformation that had occurred in science and technology, in commerce and politics, they clung to a helpless and inadequate attempt to depict this transformation using merely illustrative means. In doing so they adopted the external stylistic features of Cubist painting, but remained, in their artistic understanding, Symbolists-or, as Duchamp called them, "big-city impressionists." They were deaf to the true and original significance of the new pictorial tropes, which derived from the way these carried their meaning in themselves. Instead of following the Cubist path and creating a new reality, and in spite of their revolutionary pomposity, the Futurists remained entrapped in the tradition of portraying an idealized reality (fig. 174-178).
In their view, the meaning and essence of the new era consisted in the simultaneity and mutual interpenetration of all aspects of ordinary reality. This literary approach forms the core of Futurist painting. All things move, all things run, all things are rapidly changing. An outline is never motionless before our eyes, but it constantly appears and disappears,31 Marinetti declares in his manifesto, and Boccioni reiterates: Our bodies penetrate the sofas upon which we sit, and the sofas penetrate our bodies. The passing tram rushes into the houses and in their turn the houses throw themselves upon the tram and are blended with it.32 Despite their outward modernity, these statements remain as flatly descriptive as Futurist painting. Their reactionary attitude is concealed only by their appropriation of a Cubist style that had never been intended for use in this way. This gap between intellectual claims and artistic tools stamps most Futurist art, according to Georg Schmidt's definition, as modernist kitsch.
The Futurists had arrived too late. They wanted to create a movement, but they were themselves the moved. Their awareness of the new did not look inwards: only to external reality. In their adulation of the modern city they idealized the results of a structural transformation that they had not applied
to their own realm, that of art. The essence of the sociohistorical upheaval with which they identified remained completely unknown to them. Instead
of creating its artistic equivalent in their pictures, they exhausted their
energies in a futile effort to grasp hold of the 'new 'through seemingly confessional proclamations. In countless articles and manifestoes they described what was to be done and not done, and how the new art was supposed to look, without themselves being able to realize their principles in a convincing and valid form.
Although the flood of ecstatic proclamations did not bear any immediate results, it awakened unprecedented hopes of a completely new, unguessed-at art, and of a new feeling of self that would surpass everything that had come before. Futurist enthusiasm undermined the validity of all previous artistic conventions, and therefore created an intellectual freedom greater than any European art had ever known. Futurist groups sprang up everywhere. To maintain their national independence and their claims to a unique vision, each took a name of its own, each championed its own -ism. In Spain it was called Vibrationism or Ultrism, in France Unanism, in England Vorticism, in Italy Futurism or Tactilism, in Germany Synchronism, in Mexico Stridentism and
in Russia Ego-Futurism, Cubo-Futurism and Rayonism. These various futurisms did not as a whole form an art movement in the conventional sense; the principle uniting their exponents was not stylistic, but lay in their thinking, in their forward-looking attitudes and immense expectations, making each of them into the prophet of a great future. In the end it was the Russian artists who produced the most fertile attempts to fulfill the expectations thus roused, and to create a truly new, futuristic art.
The Mystification of Progress: Suprematism
The preconditions for the drastic upheaval that the Futurists had in mind could not have been better met than they were in the Russian cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Thanks to the famous collection owned by the Moscow businessman Sergei Shchukin, which comprised well over 200 pictures (including about fifty each from Picasso and Matisse) and was open to the public once a week, the painters there were more familiar with the new European art currents than most of their Parisian colleagues, who did not have access to any similarly superb collection of the leading exponents of Modernism. In addition to this, modern painting was also disseminated in Russia through a variety of exhibitions and art journals.
Marinetti's first Futurist Manifesto was already published in Moscow by late 1909 (just a few months after it appeared in Paris), and in 1910 the brothers David and Vladimir Burlyuk founded the first circle of Russian Futurists, who would be followed within a few years by a variety of related groups. But the Futurist concept was interpreted in a very broad manner. In terms of form and style the Russian artists continued to look to the Fauves, the German Expressionists, the Munich group around Kandinsky and, above all, Cubism. As far as other influences were concerned, Italian Futurism had a primarily ideological significance. The unconditionally forward-looking attitude of the Italians and their attacks on traditional artistic forms, their demands for pictorial dynamism and their sense of exaltation released in Russia a wave of enthusiasm that outstripped the purely artistic momentum of the movement. The term Futurism became a synonym for all culturally progressive forces, and with the outbreak of the Revolution in 1917 it assumed an additional, political dimension.
The dramatic step with which the Russians set themselves off from both Italian Futurism and from Cubism was taken in 1915 in Petersburg with the famous Last Futurist Exhibition: 0.10, which included works by Kazimir
Malevich (1878-1935) and Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953), among others.
Malevich showed 39 abstract works, including the astonishing and by then famous 80 x 80 centimeter picture on which nothing can be seen other than
a black square on a white ground (figs. 179, 180). Besides other, similarly
terse compositions, featuring, instead of a square, a cross, a single bar, or a trapezoid dominating a white canvas, Malevich also exhibited pictures in which a variety of colorful rectangles and quadrilaterals (squares, trapezoids, long and short strips, wide and narrow strips) come together to form dynamic, rhythmic compositions. With their uncompromising adherence to
a purely geometric formal language, these works corresponded to those
of Mondrian and the De Stijl movement; whereas their free, seemingly
spontaneous composition and their playful use of color bring to mind the compositions Kandinsky was producing at the same time (fig. 181).
Malevich's achievement was not limited to the consistency and determination
with which he expounded Suprematism-i.e. the superiority of a geometric and
purely non-figurative art-rejecting all other attempts to create a "meaningful"
art. For he also broadened abstract art's creative possibilities in that he
combined the elemental severity of Mondrian's geometric formal language with the
multi-layered dynamics of his countryman, Kandinsky, thereby creating a
completely new expressivity. He himself provided a different interpretation of
his achievements; as he saw it, his ideas went beyond a purely pictorial
understanding of painting to embrace the mystical, the intuitive and the
irrational. Through the immediate, visionary capturing of a "higher truth," he
sought to become one with the Absolute; he strove for a particular kind of
knowledge and experience that neither belonged to the realms of
religion, nor had to withstand intellectual scrutiny.
In the brochure accompanying 0.10, called "From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism," he wrote: Art is the ability to construct, not on the interrelation of form and colour, and not an aesthetic basis of beauty in composition, but on the basis of weight, speed and the direction of movement. According to these notes, freed from the pressure of objects, the planar, pure painting surface represents its own world; the black square is the majestic newborn, the living, royal infant that represents this world.33 The black square, which Andrei Nakov calls the zero form of the new painting, does not (as Nakov claims) demarcate the border between the old painting and the abstract picture, for this is done to the same degree by Malevich's more complex compositions, and by Mondrian's work; but it does mark a far more fundamental break with tradition, one that can only be compared to Duchamp's almost simultaneous invention of the readymade.
In contrast to the abstract compositions in which Mondrian erects a structure of relations using horizontals and verticals, the Black Square does not enter into any dialectic relation with other visual elements, but stands, as with Duchamp's readymades, entirely on its own. It is, in Stella's words, "non-relational."34 Much like Duchamp and to a far greater degree than Mondrian, Malevich gives form and expression to an irrational, mystifying attitude. He wants to illustrate the supremacy of pure feeling, abstraction in itself, the essence of a dimension-and not the essence of the forms that are located in it. The form of the black square ultimately serves only to reject, through its neutral anonymity, any substantive projection by the observer, so that the surface, freed from the pressure of objects, the great emptiness, space and nothingness, is made visible.
The exclusiveness with which emptiness dominates the picture stands for the absolute. In this sense the ideal in Malevich's work is also given a negative formulation. Like Duchamp, Malevich also eschews any emotional expression. He, too, negates the previous significance of the act of creation, in that he does no more than make a choice: the square is a pre-existing form, and in Malevich's picture it is turned into an abstract readymade. But it is not chosen randomly. While Duchamp's Bottle Dryer points out the negative presence of the unexpressed statement, the Black Square (as a "positive presence") represents an unmistakable statement: If there is a truth, Malevich writes in 1927, then only in abstraction, in nothingness.35 His work does not express the ironic skepticism of the great Frenchman, but makes the absolute claims of a dogmatic mystic.
As in the case of Duchamp, it was not until after the Second World War that the significance of this gesture would be understood in its full implications and prove fruitful for subsequent artistic developments. In the 1950s American artists (with Ellsworth Kelly in the forefront) took up Malevich's approach, and, with their monochrome canvasses and sparse arrangements, countered Abstract Expressionism with the supremacy of emptiness.
Progress as Mission: Constructivism
An entirely different attitude defines the work of Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953), the founder of Russian Constructivism. Inspired by Picasso's Cubist reliefs, which he saw in Picasso's studio during a visit to Paris in 1914, Tatlin participated in the legendary 0.10 with a group of free-hanging, completely abstract material constructions, made of metal, wood and glass, which in their radicalism exceeded even the great Spaniard's reliefs. These works, which attracted great attention at the time, are only known to us today through a few highly defective photographs. Later he occupied himself primarily with projects in sculpted architecture. Best known of these works is a 1919 model, never realized, of a Monument to the Third International, which foresaw a spiral iron structure four hundred meters high in the form of a leaning tower with three stereometric bodies rotating about its central axis (fig. 182).
Tatlin and Malevich represented the two ideational poles of a group of young abstract artists who attempted, with their diverse productions, to create a new aesthetic compatible with the technicized world, free of lyricism, sentimentality, or bourgeois convention (Exter, Kliun, Puni, Popova, Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Gabo, Pevsner and Rozanova) (figs. 183-188).
With the victory of the October Revolution, their avant-garde art suddenly met with unconditional official recognition. The artists left their studios to devote themselves, as civil servants, to the creation of a new, revolutionary infrastructure for art. Art schools and museums were founded, associations and commissions formed, pictures purchased, guidelines defined, programs for schools, exhibitions and museums formulated.
In the course of this transformation, a split began to develop among the progressive artists. The later Constructivists-Tatlin, Popova and Rodchenko, joined by Naum Gabo (né Pevsner) and Antoine Pevsner (two brothers known for their relief constructions, who had just returned to the country)-disassociated themselves from Suprematism. In his White Manifesto Malevich announced a new cosmic dimension of thought and propagated the infinite, the ideal predominance of white, the absolute creation, and the idea of the superman, and attempted in his pictures (such as White Square on White Ground) to exclude, if at all possible, the mutual relationship between abstract forms. The Constructivists instead stressed the energetic organization of space and surface, and understood their works as charged fields of contradictory forces, i.e. contrasting forms, colors and materials (figs. 183-186). Ideological tensions and the increasing orientation of abstract geometric art towards product design, architecture, typography, informatics and propaganda finally led to a break with Malevich, who in 1919 moved to the provinces, to Vitebsk.
He was not the only one who ran into trouble with the overbearing political attitude of the "productivists." Kandinsky, who was forced to return home by the outbreak of war and participated, starting in 1917, in the creation of new museums and in organizing arts education, also encountered problems with the productivist attitude of his colleagues and fell out altogether with Rodchenko and Tatlin. Despite the decisive creative impulses he acquired from his time in Russia (1915-1922), in retrospect he would always describe this as an unpleasant and disappointing experience.
The modernist euphoria of the revolutionary government was of brief duration. In 1921 Lenin's New Economic Policy put an end to the concord between Art and the State that had developed after the Revolution. Up until that time, Constructivism had been considered the style of the proletarian revolution, but now the authorities felt it was no longer the best way to exert the desired influence on the people; it was supplanted in the 1930s by Socialist Realism.
Kandinsky, Pevsner, Gabo and Lissitzky emigrated. Through their contributions to the work of the Dutch De Stijl group and the Bauhaus, they continued to influence the subsequent development of European and later American art in various ways. In the Soviet Union, however, modernism was condemned to silence. Artistic developments came to a standstill. The great experiment was over.
At the same time as the Futurists, Suprematists and Constructivists-with their ecstatically affirmative and visually oriented art-were confirming the younger generation's faith in progress, in Zurich a diametrically opposite movement had come into being, one that regarded modern progress skeptically, indeed rejected it, and whose art tended to displace the visual in favor of the intellectual.
Dada was the uprising of the unbelievers against the heretics (Jean Arp). Out of a loathing for rationalism, nationalism, and the bourgeois way of life, which were considered responsible for the ongoing World War, Dada pledged itself to the irrational and coincidental, to the spontaneous and absurd. This international movement originated in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, founded in 1916 by Ball, Tzara, Arp, Janco, and Huelsenbeck. As the cultural center of neutral Switzerland, untouched by the war, Zurich became a gathering place for radical writers, artists, émigrés, conscientious objectors, and anarchists, whose aim was to destroy bourgeois attitudes and values in art and society by putting on exhibitions, performances, readings and other events , all of which were highly ironical, provocative and revealing, scornful and mocking.
The cabaret style and the publications with which Dada made its mark, may be traced back to the Futurists, with whom the Dadaists initially maintained close contact. Marinetti's Parole in Libertà (fig. 174), Russolo's musical Bruitism (meaning noise, din), and the Futurist manifestos were the defining models for the corresponding actions of the Dadaists. But in Dada these means were used in entirely different ways. Dada replaced the forward-looking pathos of the Futurists with scorn and mockery; it replaced the Futurists' militant nationalism with extreme nihilism; instead of fanning the flames of war, Dada used irony to demoralize the combatants.
Like Futurism, Dadaism was also characterized less by its stylistic qualities than by an attitude of mind. The mocking and contemptuous attack on bourgeois society, its ideals and its wars, was basically directed against every kind of value system, against all existing forms of order. Dada means nothing was the constantly varied message (or anti-message) of the movement. This was an advantageous point of view because it was always defined negatively, and thus held a peculiar attraction for "progressive," i.e. anti-bourgeois circles. In keeping with the motto of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," many visual artists squared shoulders with the at first purely literary, cabaretistic manifestations by the Dadaists, but without necessarily letting Dada's militant nihilism flow into their own artistic work. Certainly some took over the sub- versive, anarchic attitudes of Dada in texts or poems; but as visual artists they still remained obligated to objective aesthetic value structures.
This is especially true of Jean Arp, who in terms of the stylistic purity of his work as a painter and a sculptor may even be compared with Malevich or Mondrian. It is equally true of Kurt Schwitters, whose collages and material assemblages recall the reliefs of the Russian Constructivists (Tatlin, Puni, Kliun) (figs. 189, 190).
The spirit of the Cabaret Voltaire found a visual, artistic formulation only once Francis Picabia arrived from Barcelona and started to propagate the ideas of Marcel Duchamp (above all of his readymades) in Zurich. Only then did a Dadaist art begin to develop, working with a kind of "assisted readymades," i.e. using the tools of graphic and photographic montage, as well as object and material assemblages. The point above all was to question traditional values and structures through an absurd combination of opposite meanings. Visually, i.e. in terms of their exterior appearance, these works have little in common with each other. Stylistically, the only device that connected them was purely intellectual: they all used paradox.
The best examples of this art-Duchamp's blasphemous readymade L.H.O.O.Q. (the Mona Lisa with a mustache and goatee), the Dadaist works of Picabia and Man Ray, the collages by Johannes Baargeld and Hannah Höch, and the early visual experiments by Max Ernst-all came into being after the war, at a time when Dadaism as a movement had already lost its momentum.
The visual art of Dadaism was deeply influenced by Duchamp; but the Dadaists alienated his actual message. By taking his ideas and using them for their anti-bourgeois polemics, they lost hold of his aesthetic dimension, i.e. the "beauty of indifference," his openness, and his ideological abstinence. Accordingly Duchamp never thought of himself as a true Dadaist.
Dependent on an enduring hate-figure of some sort, Dada's anti-art could never survive the end of the war and the associated sense of disillusion. André Breton, a member of the Paris Dada movement, later found a different, affirmative formulation for the determined rejection of bourgeois values, and thus became the herald of a new ideology. Under its banner he gathered various revolutionary forces into a tightly organized movement, and appointed himself as their leader. With the appearance of the first Surrealist manifesto in 1924, Dada was finally buried.
The Problem of Progress and the Nature of Mannerism
A conspicuous feature of all of these post-classical art currents is the continuous debate surrounding artistic goals. The countless manifestoes issued by the Futurists, Suprematists, Russian Constructivists, Dadaists, and diverse sub-groupings, reveal the degree to which their own aims as artists (even what these should be) had become a problem for them.
This problem links the post-classical artists' generation in Modernism with the Mannerists of the 16th century. In both cases the problem stems from the impossibility of continuing with a development that had hitherto progressed without interruption in the same direction. The vision of Modernism had found its purest, most singular and perfected expression with the Cubists and the Fauves, Mondrian and Kandinsky. Like all 'classical artists' they had successfully managed not to ignore anything essential, at the same time as excluding everything coincidental and inconsequential from their picture of reality. Modernism thus reached its classical stage.
The development to this high point in effect constituted a progressive liberation from the demands of the traditional Western ideal. Modernism
irrevocably dethroned the idea (originating in the Renaissance) of the god-man. Its place was taken by an image of the human being, whose universal
validity based on natural forces, which themselves came into their own in
and through the human being.
With the loss of the god-man, Modernism also lost the father figure it was meant to overcome. Its own idea, of the human as the representative of universal driving forces, was now mature, and itself took over the office of fatherly authority. The subsequent generation was henceforth barred from the possibility of simultaneously outdoing and confirming their predecessors and allies on the way to a common goal. The summit had been reached. Every further "progress" seemed to equal a betrayal, as it inevitably meant turning away from the previous goal and moving towards a new one. Measured against classical standards, this necessarily represented a descent.
This situation of being torn between the ideals epitomizing truth and rightness and the ambition to set a new, even more progressive goal beyond previous achievements, forms the central conflict underlying every form of mannerist art. The mannerist phase of any development combines a markedly anti-classical attitude with the contradictory attempt to draw the defining criteria of a new value structure from this very rebellion against the principle of a generally valid law. As Arnold Hauser writes in his famous study on 16th-century Mannerism:
The anti-classicism of mannerist art basically implied the repudiation of the universal human validity of the art of the High Renaissance, its validity as representing the ideal and supreme pattern to be followed. It implied abandonment of its principles of objectivity and reason, regularity and order, and the loss of the harmony and clarity characteristic of its slightest creations. The most striking feature of mannerist anti-classicism, however, was its abandonment of the fiction that a work of art is an organic, indivisible, and unalterable whole, made all of a piece. […] In contrast to this synthesis, the objective of an anti-classical mannerist work of art is the analysis of reality. Its aim is not the seizure of any essence, or the condensation of the separate aspects of reality into a compact whole; instead it aspires to riches, multiplicity, variety, and exquisiteness in the things to be rendered. It moves for preference on the periphery of the area of life with which it is concerned, and not only in order to include as many original elements as possible, but also to indicate that the life that it renders has no centre anywhere.36
In mannerism, the unique is elevated to a defining value, regardless of whether it is a supposedly unique ideal or a unique exhibitionist ambition. Exhibition and ideal do not enter into a dialectical relation with each other but overlap, insofar as the one pole is made absolute and therefore ends up absorbing the other, i.e. by devaluing it into mere function. Exhibition is
idealized, or else the ideal is exhibited. Through this elimination of any polar tension, both ideal and exhibition lose their individual distinction, and lose any possibility of a truly unique formulation, one that sets itself off from different yet comparable solutions. The mutual contingency of idealized structures and exhibitionist ambitions is denied; together with the bipolar structure of the classical canon, the idea for a standard that relativizes creative achievement is also rejected. For the mannerists of all epochs, it is always either all or nothing. They always see only true artists or simulators, true or false Futurists or Dadaists or Suprematists, not better or worse.
Another short passage from Hauser's significant work should serve to further clarify the correlation between the Mannerism of the 16th century
and the corresponding development in the 20th. In his chapter on the "Disintegration of the Renaissance," he writes: Their [the mannerists'] purpose was, not so much to concentrate on internal rather than external reality and to subject the world to their inner needs, as to cast doubt on the validity of any objectivity. The age had lost confidence in the unambiguity of facts, had lost the sense of actuality altogether. […]
The unnaturalistic peculiarity of mannerism also appears in the fact that the origin of artistic creation is not nature, but something already fashioned out of it. In other words, the mannerists were inspired less by nature than by works of art, and as artists they were not so much under the influence of natural phenomena as of artistic creations.37
These sentences are equally true of Futurism and Dadaism; and they also apply to Duchamp, the most important exponent of modernist mannerism.
In the mannerist phase of Modernism we see manifestations, even if in partly
distorted and perverted forms, of the same four basic attitudes and the same
(fundamentally already achieved) goals that had defined developments until then.
Once again we see artists
- reaching for a new reality (Futurism)
- creating a new order (Constructivism)
- desiring a new unity with the universe (Suprematism)
- and searching for a new (only negatively definable) meaning (Dadaism).
Subsequently these four basic tendencies or developmental lines-the
realistic, the structural, the romantic, and the symbolist-arise again in the
developmental phase of Modernism that I categorize as Baroque.
4. Attempted Cures: Modern Baroque
Just as 'serious' music of the West is indiscriminately called 'classical
music' in the vernacular, European painting between the two world wars is
designated 'classical modernism' regardless of the respective style. As we have
seen in our investigation, however, the greater part of this artistic production
must be considered post-classical [cf. table on p. 368]. By 'classical' I mean a
mental attitude that is characterized by the balance and mutual contingency of
exhibitionist ambitions and idealized structures and is thus rooted in a
comprehensive and integrated self. In reference to an entire age, I
correspondingly designate that phase of a cultural developmental cycle as
classical in which the guiding idea, the defining paradigm of the age, has
acquired an exemplary form, i.e. one that incorporates both poles of the
collective self. In this respect, Cézanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh, in whose work
the new paradigm does not yet appear with 'ultimate purity,' represent the early
phase of classical modernism; Matisse and the synthetic Cubism of Braque and
Picasso form the zenith of modern classicism, while Mondrian and Kandinsky
already belong to the late phase of classical modernism due to the nascent
polarization of their work. The second, post-classical part of our cycle begins
with Duchamp, the anti-classicist par excellence.
The year 1914 not only marks the invention of the readymade, it also marks the outbreak of the First World War. The war undermined the value structure of contemporary society to the same extent that Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism, and Dadaism subverted the aesthetic value structure of modernism. In all areas of life but especially in art, the postwar generation is thus confronted not only with a rubble heap but also with an immeasurable wealth of new means of expression and design. Every taboo is broken; everything is allowed. However, this newly won freedom also left artists without any binding orientation. The members of the new generation are faced with the urgent question of the pictorial-artistic and moral-spiritual justification of their endeavors.
One answer is found in the structural and emotional values that lay claim to universal validity in the nonrepresentational painting of Mondrian and Kandinsky; another in the new and hence more attractive values to be culled from the worldviews of le douanier Rousseau and non-European tribal arts.
Fifteen years have passed since Matisse, Braque, Vlaminck, and Lhote bought their first African masks and Picasso awakened an artistic sensibility to art nègre with his Demoiselles d'Avignon. During that time, the art of the primitives attracted the steadily growing attention of painters and sculptors; the forcefulness of its artistic expression and its rootedness in an intact and vigorous culture legitimize modernism's return to elementary painterly means and the contents of the unconscious.
Modern artists recur to the art of the primitives the way the humanists in the 14th and 15th centuries recurred to antiquity. African, Melanesian, and Indian masks and sculptures, implements and weapons, textiles, jewelry, and body painting offer countless painters and sculptors a source of inspiration and direct pictorial models. The authenticity of these works and their instinctual, irrational, and magical leanings become the defining ideal and model for many European artists. Some years ago, the superb exhibition, Primitivism in 20th Century Art (1984), mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, showed the extent of this influence by compellingly juxtaposing works of Picasso, Brancusi, Lipchitz, Léger, Modigliani, Kirchner, Nolde, Jawlensky, Klee, Miró, Calder, Moore, Ernst, and Giacometti with their primitive models (figs. 194-97).36
Out of the art of non-European peoples, artists in Europe after the First World War derive a new and comprehensive idealized structure that unites their diverse endeavors and which they see as part of the "pictorial heritage of humankind." The discovery that the same forces at work in this heritage also prevail in the art of peintres naïfs, in children's drawings, and in the art of the mentally ill establishes a link to the present day; the new "authority" is legitimized not only ethnologically but psychologically as well.
Primitive art bears witness to the beginnings of human culture. The primal, expressive impact of its language is united with the concurrently discovered autonomy of pictorial means to establish a new aesthetic canon. Thanks to its elementary structure, its primal character, and its lack of dogmatism, it can be embraced by a great number of very different artists. The means of expression used by the primitives have already been tried and accepted; they offer the security of tradition (like those of antiquity did to the artists of the Renaissance). But stemming from an alien and ultimately incomprehensible civilization, this tradition does not necessarily call for a binding commitment; European artists are able to take a playful approach to its dictums and standards and their freedom remains untouched. The artists of post-classical modernism can thus respond to the new canon in the most varied and prolific fashion. It allows them to assure themselves of its values and its validity (and to lend their work the dignity of permanence) without having to surrender the exhibition of their individual singularity and grandiosity. The revolutionary gesture and the ideological polemics of mannerism yield to a relaxed self-confidence and a self-evident delight in unconstrained experimentation.
With the same insouciance with which Baroque artists of the 17th century appropriated the imagery and ideals of Christianity and antiquity for their own purposes, their modern spiritual kin exploit the imagery of the primitives, of children, and of the mentally ill in order to lend form and expression to their own so radically different self-image and worldview.
Painters like Nolde and Matisse, Klee and Kandinsky, Chagall, Picasso, Braque, Léger, Modigliani, Brancusi, Moore, and the early Giacometti create a rich, wide-ranging body of art, in which they unite ambitions and ideals, romantic and structural, rational and irrational tendencies into an artistic whole (figs. 198-205).
The most famous and spectacular representative of this attitude, which forms a constant in the modern baroque, is Picasso; but its most important and richest exponent is Paul Klee (1879-1940). Without entirely abandoning the representation of the object, this friend and kindred soul of Kandinsky's turns away from external reality and toward the inner world of fantasy and dreams. But he does not lose his way in the depths of the unconscious. Still a young man, he remarks in his diary: Now, my immediate and at the same time highest goal will be to bring architectonic and poetic painting into a fusion, or at least to establish a harmony between them.37 To achieve this goal, he exploits not only the entire wealth of means offered by the Cubists, the Orphists, and the Fauves, and by his friends Jawlensky, Marc, and Kandinsky, but also draws on the rich heritage of Ensor, on primitive imagery, the repetitive patterns of Oriental art, and the aesthetic and expressive force of children's drawings.
Klee subjects the object to extreme alienation: on one hand, it is detached from its natural context and related in a new, irrational way to other objects and also to signs, patterns, and nonrepresentational elements of form; on the other hand, the object itself acquires emblematic traits and is linked to the other pictorial elements in an entirely unorthodox and complex manner that yields an enigmatic, magical effect (figs. 203-05). Klee's signs and symbols are ambiguous, they arouse inner whisperings and ideas but can rarely be pinned down to logical meaning. His paintings attest to an attitude that listens with a powerful inner ear, in which the hand of the artist, as Klee puts it, becomes all instrument of a foreign will.
Klee, too, needs an objective foundation for his visions, an idealized structure that will lend his work the "sublimity of permanence". He finds it in connection with the cosmos, in the cycle of nature, in man's psychic heritage, and in the meaning and order of the collective unconscious. The equilibrium, required to fulfill this idealized structure, cannot be attained through the pictorial alone: We document, justify, organize: these are good things, but we do not succeed in coming to the whole.38 Acting consciously and bringing up the pictures that lie ready in the unconscious are an immutable unity for Klee, which is joined by a third aspect, the spiritual, because the formal has to fuse with the weltanschauung.39 For Klee the creative process is integral, indivisible, and comprehensive.
His painting expresses the basic condition of all truly great art with extreme transparency. It represents one of the richest and most comprehensive embodiments of the pictorial, psychic-expressive and spiritual reality of modernism.
My attempt to reveal affinities between the artistic developments of
modernism and those of an earlier cycle of development may seem especially
daring in the case of the Baroque. This term, which is derived from the Italian
barocco, meaning strange, crops up for the first time in the 16th century and in
the 18th century it is used to refer to artistic output held to be immoderate,
confused and bizarre according to the then prevailing Classicist theory of art.
Only later were such diverse artists as Zurbaran and Cortona, Rubens and Hals,
Rembrandt and van Dyck, in other words practically the entire 17th century,
subsumed under this designation, thereby giving it a broader socio-historical
and psychological significance.
The affinities between this art and related trends in the 20th century do not refer primarily to external stylistic features-these were not even uniform among the artists of the 17th century-but above all to the attitude taken by certain artists in both ages that led them to elaborate on the achievements of their predecessors. In terms of historical developments, these artists, although separated by centuries, occupy the same position within their respective cycles, both being confronted with the matchlessly self-contained and centered work of their classical predecessors; they have been through the uncommitted arbitrariness of the mannerist revolt and intuitively understand that they are capable of doing 'better.' They sense that their chance and their strength lies in their freedom, in the breadth of their artistic spectrum, in their knowledge of the parameters and potential of available artistic means, and, in both centuries, the 17th as well as the 20th, they create an expansive art, grandiose in its own way, whose unconstrained self-confidence and whose wealth and richness make up the psychic core of what we describe as baroque.
Artistic developments between the two world wars are characterized on one
hand by the important, single artists listed above, some of whom can be
considered exponents of classical modernism, others of the modern baroque; on
the other hand, they are determined by four directions or movements in art which
may be assigned to the four basic artistic attitudes of our model; these
subdivide the baroque phase of modernism as shown in the following diagram:
- structural baroque = Constructivism, Bauhaus
- realistic baroque = Magic Realism and Neue Sachlichkeit
- symbolist baroque = figurative Surrealism
- romantic baroque = emblematic Surrealism
The Structural Tendency: Constructivism between Intuitive and Mathematical Order
Nonfigurative art is undoubtedly the most important artistic achievement of modernism. The radicalism of this breakthrough is certainly no less significant than that of the technical and industrial revolution. Nonfigurative art demonstrates with incomparable clarity that a new age has also dawned in the realm of aesthetics. In the wake of Mondrian, Malevich, and Tatlin, geometrical nonobjectivity in particular becomes the only possible means for a growing number of young artists to give form and expression to their self-image and worldview.
These artists seek inspiration and intellectual justification of their endeavors neither in the "pictorial heritage of mankind" nor in the unconscious but rather in the world of science and technology and in alert consciousness, i.e. in the structures of the ego.40
Their art is characterized by a slight tendency toward compensation; they do not understand their work primarily as the expression of personal feelings but rather as the function of a universal order, and they place their art at the service of this idealized structure (figs. 206-09).
The most important center of these efforts is the Bauhaus. Founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius in Weimar, this school of architecture, fine arts, and handicrafts is guided by the objective of restoring the unity of the visual arts and craftsmanship and bridging the gulf between the world of the intellect and everyday life. Architecture is to play the leading role and all the other artistic disciplines are to be subordinated to it. In addition to renowned architects like Hannes Meyer and Marcel Breuer, Gropius also succeeds in attracting such renowned artists as Albers, Kandinsky, Klee, Moholy-Nagy, Feininger, Itten, and Schlemmer. Courses systematically investigate visual and physical problems of light, color, and space; the psychic, expressive potential of artistic means and materials; and fundamental aesthetic issues. Instructors detail their ideas and methods in the famous series of 'Bauhaus books' (e.g. Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook or Kandinsky's Point and Line to Plane).
Seeking a comprehensive approach to life, the Bauhaus aspires to fuse art and industry through its orientation toward clarity, matter-of-factness, and functionality. In addition to art classes, there are workshops for carpentry, pottery, weaving, interior design, stage sets, typography, photography, metal work, advertising, and industrial design. Gropius resigns in 1928. Under the new director, Hannes Meyer (replaced in 1930 by Mies van der Rohe), scientific, Constructivist tendencies play an increasingly important role at the Bauhaus, now domiciled in Dessau, and they dominate instruction until the school is shut down by the Nazis in 1933.
The rational curriculum of the Bauhaus, geared toward clarity, matter-of-factness, and functionality, espouses the same basic approach as the Dutch group De Stijl and the Constructivists who emigrated from Russia. The fusion of art, architecture, and industry, targeted by all of these movements, leads to the uncontested domination of a geometrical pictorial idiom and to the articulation of aesthetic criteria that not only define developments in constructive nonfigurative art but also the architecture, industrial design, photography, typography, and graphics of modernism for decades to come. In all the countries of Europe and the Americas, Constructivist artists form national movements, which are supra-nationally united by shared ideals.
In 1923, an international congress of Constructivist artists is held in Weimar. After the De Stijl group disbands, Herbin and Vantongerloo found the "Abstraction-Création" group in Paris in 1931, with a peak membership of some 400 painters and sculptors from all over the world. The eponymous, annual publication, edited by Arp, Gleizes, Herbin, Vantongerloo, and Pevsner with contributions from virtually all the major nonfigurative artists of the day, forms one of the important links among the diverse national movements.
The art of the Constructivists between the World Wars shows a growing tendency toward discipline and systematization. The variety of spontaneous innovations, the use of unorthodox materials and pictorial means, the eccentric compositions, and the rampantly baroque wealth of inventions are gradually eclipsed by a purist and rationally oriented, dogmatic attitude, which van Doesburg already explicitly outlined in 1917 in his introduction to the first issue of "De Stijl": This little periodical seeks […] to counteract the archaistic confusion-'modern Baroque'-with the logical principles of a maturing style that is based on the pure relationship of the spirit of our age and its media of expression. It seeks to unite the present-day lines of thought in the field of the New Plasticity, which, although similar in essence, have developed independently. […] As soon as artists in their various domains of activity realize that their aims are basically alike, that they must speak a single common language, they will no longer cling anxiously to their individuality. They will serve a general principle beyond the confined personality. […] It is not a social but a spiritual community that is necessary for the dissemination of beauty. A spiritual community, however, cannot come into being without ambitious individuality being sacrificed.41
After the Second World War, the single-minded realization of this artistic ideology was to develop into modern classicism in the form of Concrete and Minimal Art.
The Realistic Tendency: from Pittura Metafisica to Neue Sachlichkeit
While the geometrical aesthetic is still in the process of conquering the art world, an opposing movement already begins to emerge in Europe, namely that of a romantically tinged return to the naïve concept of reality and the worldview of an imaginary past. This attitude is expressed in a new kind of realism, whose wide-ranging consequences were presented in a major survey exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris at the end of 1980: Realism-Between Revolution and Reaction 1919-1939.
Stylistically this development looks to the Italian Trecento and le douanier Rousseau; its key exponent is the Greek-Italian artist de Chirico (1888-1978). When de Chirico settles in Paris in 1911 after several years of study at the Munich Academy, he is still very much under the influence of Böcklin, Klinger, Kubin, and his teacher Franz von Stuck. In Paris, he meets Apollinaire and through him, Picasso, Derain, and other important artists of modernism. However, the decisive impulse for his oeuvre comes not from these artists but rather from Rousseau's paintings which he sees in the homes of his Parisian colleagues and in the residence of Baroness von Oettingen, the mistress of Rousseau's admirer, Ardengo Soffici (see fig. 210).
In his famous Piazze d'Italia, de Chirico combines the douanier's magic experience of things with the visionary Symbolism of Böcklin and Kubin and thereby invests these early pictures painted in Paris with that disquietingly ambivalent, contradictory, and sinister quality in which we seem to recognize premonitions of impending disaster. A sense of danger and wonder fills the enchanted silence of these large, deserted squares, across which tall monuments, towers, larger-than-life objects, or isolated people cast their long shadows; inanimate things acquire an unprecedented autonomy and confront human beings in a new and magical form, as something never experienced before. Here, for the first time, we encounter a pictorial vision in which the familiar things of everyday life are shrouded in a mysterious reality that was later to be called 'surreal.'
We also find this magical experience of things in the work of Henri Rousseau, but his vision is timelessly paradisiacal: it knows no doubt, no anxiety, no guilt, and it remains embedded in the great cycle of Nature.
De Chirico's world is different. It consists exclusively of artifacts imbued with a menacing inner life, and finds its most intense representation in the image of the manechino. These articulated wooden figures appear in his work in every conceivable form and later also figure prominently in the paintings of his colleagues, Carlo Carrà and Giorgio Morandi. The ambiguity between the animate and the inanimate, which appears at the same time in Marcel Duchamp's anthropomorphic machines, is one of the most conspicuous features of Pittura Metafisica, the school of metaphysical painting founded by de Chirico and, after Futurism, the most important Italian contribution to modernism.
In 1915, de Chirico returns to Italy. In 1917 in the field hospital where he is doing his military duty, he meets Carlo Carrà, who has devoted himself to primitive, archaic painting since his break with the Futurists in 1915. A close cooperation between the two artists ensues; Giorgio Morandi from Bologna joins them in 1918.
The three Italians develop an art in which ordinary objects communicate a mood of abandonment, expectation, and mystery that casts a spell over the viewer (fig. 214). By founding the art journal Valori Plastici, the painter Mario Broglio supplies his friends with a platform for the dissemination of their ideas and thus contributes in no small way to propagating the new movement well beyond national boundaries.
The collaboration of the trio under a common banner proves to be of brief
duration. While de Chirico applies himself to a florid pseudo-classicism,
Carrà and Morandi develop a form of painting out of Pittura Metafisica,
in which the unsettling mannequins give way to the earthy power of statuesque
figures, cubic buildings, silent vessels, and deserted beaches (figs.
Morandi has found his ultimate style. From now on, he calmly persists in painting variations on two unspectacular motifs-reticent, unassuming landscapes and the still-life compositions of a few jars, bottles, and glasses for which he has become famous. Using the simple structure of vessels placed next to each other, he creates tranquil, self-contained spaces of color in warm and cold, light and dark, earthy tones, which invite meditative contemplation. These pictures, in which Morandi anticipates, by some thirty years, essential aspects of American Color Field Painting, form a highlight of Italian painting in the 20th century (fig. 215).
Carrà, though far less innovative, is all the more polemical. With the same enthusiasm, with which he championed the primacy of technology in his Futurist Manifesto, he now calls for a return to Giotto's "magic silence."42 Through frequent articles in the periodical, Valori Plastici, he becomes the uncontested spokesman of Magic Realism, also espoused by such artists as Mario Sironi, Ottone Rosai, Felice Casorati, and, of course, Morandi.
Their influence also begins to make inroads in Germany. In 1924, a major survey exhibition of recent Italian art, including both the 'metaphysical' and the 'realistic' schools, tours Berlin, Hanover, and Hamburg. In 1925 in an exhibition entitled Neue Sachlichkeit, the Mannheim Kunsthalle presents a number of German artists (including many former Dadaists like Grosz, Dix, Schlichter, Scholz, and Schad), who coerce the valori plastici-the plastic values-with typically German missionary zeal, into the service of cultural criticism, world betterment, and sexual liberation. The extreme perspective, the multiple vanishing points, the unreal sense of volume, and the empty, almost glassy space of these pictures no longer conjures up metaphysical magic but rather stands as an indictment against the alienation and reification of the world (figs. 216-18).
I shall not go into related developments in other European countries and in the United States. Let it suffice to list their most important representatives: in the USA Edward Hopper, in the Netherlands Dick Ket and Pyke Koch, in Switzerland Felix Vallotton and Niklaus Stöcklin, in Spain the early work of Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí, in France Jean Hélion, Balthus, André Derain and-last but not least-Picasso, who, following his late Cubist phase, alternately paints in both styles before finally joining the realistic camp for a few years (figs. 220-22).
The most idiosyncratic approach to the new realism is taken by another
former Cubist, Fernand Léger (1881-1955). Léger is a great admirer of
Henri Rousseau, whose naïve strength he attempts to incorporate early
on in his own painting. However, he does not fully succeed in appropriating
the bursting presence and pictorial density of his model until the twenties.
Having been discharged from the army, Léger abandons Cubism and translates
his impressions of the war into the aggressive and graphic pictorial idiom
that has ensured him a place among the great masters of modernism. Three
years spent without touching a brush, but in contact with the rawest,
most violent reality, he writes in retrospect (1922) about the war. As
soon as I was demobilized, I benefited from those harsh years: I reached
a decision and began to paint using pure tones, clearly defined colors
and huge masses, making no concessions. I progressed beyond tidy, tasteful
arrangements, muted grayish tones, and dead surfaces in the background.
I stopped floundering; I saw things clearly. I am not afraid to say candidly
that the war brought about my fulfillment.43
In coming to terms with this reality, Léger develops a hard, geometrically defined but object-related painting, in which the mechanical thing as the most conspicuous embodiment of modern civilization becomes his central concern. His unflagging optimism and radical faith in the future are manifested in the large figurative paintings of the twenties, in which he creates figures that display both the dazzling perfection and the rigid immobility of gigantic machines. Even so, they are not as disturbing as the figure of the manechino, for man and machine become the defining element in a hieratic order and acquire, as Haftmann calls it, the anonymous dignity of the 'thing'.44 (fig. 223)
The glorification of 'thingness' culminates in a series of objets dans l'espace, begun in 1928 and not completed until the mid-thirties. These works, in which Léger elevates the ordinary objects of technical civilization to the realm of sacred emblems through their isolated, gigantically enlarged representation, can be seen in retrospect as the link between le douanier's magical Realism and the new realism of Pop Art (fig. 224): Léger brought the development initiated by de Chirico to an intermediate conclusion; through him modernism finally and definitively assimilated the oeuvre of Henri Rousseau.
The Symbolist and Romantic Tendency: Emblematic and Figurative Surrealism
As in the case of the mannerist movements Futurism and Dadaism, it is also necessary in Surrealism to distinguish between the manifestations of the organized movement and the art produced in its name. The movement, the artistic theory, and the ideology of Surrealism are the work of the French writer André Breton (1896-1966) and hence of literary origins. While Breton develops his ideas in the twenties and presents them in his "First Surrealist Manifesto" c. 1924, the painting and mood that was later to be called Surrealist is of much older vintage. The psychological and stylistic features, typical of the two main trends in this painting, had already been charted between 1911 and 1915-that is, some ten years before the founding of the Surrealist movement-in the art of the Russian Vassily Kandinsky and the Italian Giorgio de Chirico. Before going into the effect of these stimuli, I shall outline the rise and development of the Surrealist movement.
In 1919 Tzara and Picabia arrive in Paris to pursue their Dadaist activities
with the artists Max Ernst and Man Ray and the writers André Breton, Louis
Aragon, and Philippe Soupault. Following the Zurich Dada tradition, they stop at
nothing to achieve the desired brouhaha. In addition to countless events, all
calculated to shock and provoke the audience, several periodicals ensure the
circulation of their nihilistic message.
The group, who meet regularly at the Café Centre near the opera, attract writers, artists, and intellectuals of all ages and levels of society. As a result, increasing rivalry agitates their swelling ranks, breeding an atmosphere of suspicion, slander, and conflict that gradually evolves into a struggle for power between Tzara, Picabia, and Breton. Moreover, the changed climate of the post-war era has deprived the movement of its social and psychological
motivation and justification. Breton, in particular, becomes sensitive to the sterility of the purely negative attitude of the Dadaists and their anti-art and begins to explore the possibility of a positive, affirmative formulation of their rejection of all bourgeois conventions. When in 1921 he invites all interested parties to attend a congress in order to work out a binding program for their common effort, the rupture between him and Tzara comes to a head, with Tzara continuing to insist on the anarchistic aims of their activities. Most of the Dadaists endorse Breton and form, under his leadership the new movement of Surrealism .
Like Dada and Futurism, Surrealism is not really an art style but an ideology. Breton establishes himself as the theorist and spokesman of the new movement by setting down its idealizational goals in his "First Surrealist Manifesto" and elaborating on their artistic realization.
In frequently bombastic prose and with complacent redundancy, he outlines his vision of the new individual and the new artistic task. His verbose and at times rather confusing thirty-page commentary draws on the literary tradition of such writers as Lautréamont, Rimbaud, Jarry, and Apollinaire, on the dialectical philosophy of Hegel, and on Freud's psychoanalysis. Breton's line of thought is based on the conviction, which is not new and, in fact, earlier formed the foundation of Romanticism, that the rationalism of Western culture can hardly do justice to the breadth and depth of individual experience and is capable neither of classifying and interpreting reality nor of mastering it. Against this rational worldview Breton pits an entirely different inner world of the imagination and fantasy, of instinct and the unconscious, and summons artists to lend expression to this higher-i.e. surreal-reality. To him, revealing the irrational, the miraculous, and the fantastic is the one and only aim of art, and can solely be achieved by suspending all formal, compositional intent and all ego control. With this, Breton applies the principle of free association, developed by Freud. According to his definition, Surrealism is: Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express-verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner-the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern. […] Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, [sic] in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principle problems of life.45
The main concern is to subvert all laws, restrictions, and censorship. Like so many of his contemporaries, Breton interprets Freud's pioneering insights into the sexuality of the child, into the pathological consequences of the repression of certain sexual desires, and into the etiology of neuroses as a call for sexual freedom and the overthrow of the superego. Behind this interpretation, this utopian vision of radical liberation, and behind the demand for an utterly irrational art determined exclusively by the psychic dynamics of the dream, one recognizes the Romantic longing for the lost paradise, the longing to merge with an all-embracing whole that offers support and security. Breton has lost all faith in the meaning and justification of social structures. For him and the Surrealists there is no doubt; the bourgeois order has failed-modernism has not fulfilled its promise. His manifesto voices the desperation and narcissist rage of a man disappointed in his idealized expectations. He compensates by shifting his self-love toward the exhibitionist pole of the self.
The principle of psychic automatism and Breton's demand for an art exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern is tantamount to the expurgation of any idealized structure. The dialectical tension between the two poles has been eliminated and the narcissistic libido has shifted its cathexis from the idealized to the exhibitionist pole. In other words: the ideal disappears; exhibition is idealized. This shift forms the psychic core of Breton's theory and is established as an absolute dogma.
Surrealist writers enthusiastically embrace Breton's ideas and obsessively embroil themselves in related experiments. In 1922, René Crével introduces his colleagues to hypnotism and spiritualism, initiating a veritable craze for so-called sleeping states. There were some seven or eight, Aragon recalls, who now lived only for those moments of oblivion when, with the lights out, they speak in a trance, without consciousness, floating like drowned men in the open air.46 A few of them, like Robert Desnos, even acquire the skill of falling into a hypnotic state as if on command.
In painting, automatism is not taken to such extremes; it determines only the psychic tendency of Surrealist art. The art theory of Surrealism, like that of Futurism and Dadaism, is the work of literati. In his joint authorship with Soupault of the first Surrealist work ever, Les Champs magnétiques, 1919 (The Magnetic Fields), Breton works out the method of exorcising all rational control and unconditionally accepting and "automatically" recording the impulses, ideas, and thoughts that rise from the unconscious. When he subsequently suggests applying the method of psychic automatism to painting, he conceives painting, in accordance with the Symbolist tradition, in a literary and mimetic sense, as an illustration of irrational thoughts and ideas. This explains why the former Dadaists Picabia, Man Ray, and Max Ernst, the Symbolists Gustave Moreau as well as the pioneering innovators Duchamp, de Chirico, and Klee are declared in his manifesto to be Surrealists; surprisingly, he also includes the early Renaissance painter Paolo Uccello, the post-Impressionists Seurat, Derain, and Matisse, and the former Cubist Braque. This roster of artists mirrors the shortcomings of Breton's understanding of visual arts and the diffuse character of his ideas on the essence of Surrealist painting.
Indeed, the future Surrealist painters do not draw guidance from Breton's literary directives but rather from the work of their colleagues, de Chirico and Kandinsky. Under the impression of de Chirico's early work, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Yves Tanguy, and Salvador Dalí develop figurative Surrealism. They render the fantastic, unreal world of their pictures with almost photographic realism, using the illusionist painting technique of the 19th century. Dalí tellingly describes his representations as photographs of dreams (figs. 226-228).
These painters seem to follow Breton's recipe of unconditionally accepting and visually recording the ideas that rise to consciousness. However, the technical expertise involved in their naturalistic approach precludes a thorough realization of Breton's concept which would include the painterly act. The special character of these pictures, the typically Surrealist quality that distinguishes them from other representations of the irrational (e.g. Goya or Fuseli), does not consist in the creative principle to which they supposedly owe their emergence but rather in a basic trait shared by all of them to which I will later return. Psychic automatism is a myth, not a reality. In a lengthy article of 1925, Pierre Naville, editor of the journal La Révolution Surréaliste, already presents a convincing case against the feasibility of entirely eliminating censorship and control in the act of painting. This leads to a heated controversy with Breton and provokes the first of a long series of crises.
Psychic automatism becomes plausible only when it is applied as a painterly means of design, i.e. purely pictorially. At the end of 1926, Masson and Miró take the decisive step by following Kandinsky and developing-under the immediate influence of Klee47-an almost nonfigurative, abstract style of painting, for which Georg Schmidt has coined the term 'emblematic
Surrealism'. This is characterized, among other things, by a gestural automatism through which spontaneous motor impulses are transferred to the picture with-at least theoretically-uncensored immediacy and form organically suggestive, largely nonobjective configurations (figs. 229-232). In this painting, the basic attitude of Romanticism, the mystic desire to overcome all contradictions and melt into the universe, finds a purely pictorial voice and thus its first modern representation.
The Surrealist movement encompasses two clearly distinct stylistic directions which correspond to the Romantic and Symbolist developments lines. While figurative Surrealism pursues the Symbolist line from Munch/Ensor
to de Chirico, emblematic Surrealism follows the Romantic line from Gauguin/van Gogh to the Fauves and Kandinsky. The only common denominator of the two directions is their emphasis on the unconscious, i.e. their avowal of 'psychic automatism', the credo of André Breton. However, psychic automatism plays only a partial role in emblematic Surrealism as well; it is certainly an artistic aid, but as a superior creative principle it does not move beyond wishful, utopian thinking. As Miró puts it, rather than setting out to paint something, I begin painting and as I paint the picture begins to assert itself, or suggest itself under my brush. The form becomes a sign for a woman or a bird as I work. […] The first stage is free, unconscious. But the great Catalonian is well aware of the limitations of automatism because in virtually the same breath he remarks that the second stage, however, is carefully calculated.48 This applies quite generally to all of the so-called automatic procedures of the Surrealists: to Max Ernst's frottages, to Dominguez's décalcomanies, or to the visions that supposedly come to Salvador Dalí in a trance. In the final analysis, psychic automatism, by means of which Breton attempted to transfer the principle of free association, developed by psychoanalysis, to the creative process, can at best be practiced verbally. Even in the act of writing something down, it is very difficult to rule out the control function of the ego.
Breton's idea as such is not new to artistic practice, for it ultimately exhausts itself in the call to relinquish preconceived images and to give free rein to the creative potential of fantasy and intuition, spontaneity, and chance. As early as 1788, Friedrich Schiller proposes a similar procedure in a letter to the writer Christian Körner, responding to the latter's concern about his lack of productivity. The ground for your complaint seems to me to lie in the constraint imposed by your reason upon your imagination. I will make my idea more concrete by a simile. It seems a bad thing and detrimental to the creative work of the mind if Reason makes too close an examination of the ideas as they come pouring in-at the very gateway, as it were. Looked at in isolation, a thought may seem very trivial or very fantastic; but it may be made important by another thought that comes after it, and, in conjunction with other thoughts that may seem equally absurd, it may turn out to form a most effective link. Reason cannot form any opinion upon all this unless it retains the thought long enough to look at it in connection with the others. On the other hand, where there is a creative mind, Reason-so it seems to me- relaxes its watch upon the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it look them through and examine them in a mass.-You critics, or whatever else you may call yourselves, are ashamed or frightened of the momentary and transient extravagances which are to be found in all truly creative minds and whose longer or shorter duration distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. You complain of your unfruitfulness because you reject too soon and discriminate too severely.49
This quotation figures prominently in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams; it was undoubtedly familiar to Breton, who makes repeated reference to this seminal study. Nonetheless, in his "Surrealist Manifesto," he writes as if he were the originator of this method.50
The issue of priority is, however, irrelevant in this case. In theory and in art historical terms, the great significance of 'psychic automatism' lies in its role as a binding and cogent pivotal idea which, from then on, lends the work of the Surrealists the sought-after orientation. Moreover, this concept adopted from Freud, or rather Schiller, is one of the few clear and objectively formulated thoughts in Breton's prolific writings. With the conceptualization and idealization of the unconscious, the longings and the spiritual attitude underlying Romanticism and Symbolism are given their first scientifically formulated representation. The Surrealists are therefore the precursors of the corresponding tendencies in modernism, which are to lead to Informel and Abstract Expressionism, on one hand, and to the creations of Beuys and Arte Povera, on the other. Breton contributed substantially to the understanding that Surrealists artists have of themselves. Thanks to him, they know that they carry within themselves the distant horizons of Caspar David Friedrich or the forbidden pleasures and dangerous adventures that Delacroix situated in the Orient. In order to let these inner marvels rise to the surface, they need only open the sluices of their stream of consciousness. The artist becomes a permeable medium, a mouthpiece of archaic forces. He thereby finds himself in close proximity to the mentally ill.
The Surrealists were among the first to see more than mere clinical documents in the strange drawings and pictures that came to the attention of the public from psychiatric institutions. Some artists, Dalí in particular, were fascinated with insanity and even attempted to enhance this aspect of their work by simulating states of madness.
Significantly, the magic experience of things, which generates the disturbing appeal and fascinating effect of Pittura Metafisica and figurative Surrealism, also emerges under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs and in certain pre-psychotic states. A young schizophrenic's account of the first time she notices the symptoms of her illness, taken from psychoanalyst Marguerite Sechehaye's case study, reads in part like the description of a Surrealist painting. In the first entry the patient speaks about an experience at the age of five: I remember very well the day it happened. We were staying in the country and I had gone for a walk alone as I did now and then. Suddenly, as I was passing the school, I heard a German song; the children were having a singing lesson. I stopped to listen, and at that instant a strange feeling came over me, a feeling hard to analyze but akin to something I was to know too well later-a disturbing sense of unreality. It seemed to me that I no longer recognized the school, it had become as large as a barracks; the singing children were prisoners, compelled to sing. It was as though the school and the children's song were set apart from the rest of the world. At the same time my eye encountered a field of wheat whose limits I could not see. The song of the children imprisoned in the smooth stone school-barracks filled me with such anxiety that I broke into sobs. I ran home to our garden and began to play 'to make things seems as they usually were,' that is, to return to reality. It was the first appearance of those elements which were always present in my later sensations and unreality: illimitable vastness, brilliant light, and the gloss and smoothness of material things.
The next attack takes place a few years later at school: During class, in the quiet of the work period, I heard the street noises-a trolley passing, people talking, a horse neighing, a horn sounding, each detached, immovable, separated from its source, without meaning. Around me, the other children, heads bent over their work, were robots or puppets, moved by an invisible mechanism. On the platform, the teacher, too, talking, gesticulating, rising to write on the blackboard, was a grotesque jack-in-the-box. And always this ghastly quiet, broken by outside sounds coming from far away, the implacable sun heating the room, the lifeless immobility. An awful terror bound me; I wanted to scream.
The metamorphosis of people into a kind of robot now occurs with increasing frequency. When the patient says goodbye to a friend with whom she has spent the afternoon, she feels that the friend is like an automaton:
I look at her, study her, praying to feel the life in her through the enveloping
unreality. But she seems more a statue than ever, a mannikin moved by a mechanism, talking like an automaton. It is horrible, inhuman, grotesque.
Defeated, offering conventional goodbyes, I leave, exhausted, deathly sad.51
These brief descriptions have a striking number of features in common with Metaphysical or Surrealist pictures, especially those of de Chirico, Dalí, or Tanguy: the searing light (the long shadows), the infinite expanses, the smooth surfaces, the disjunction of people and things, the changes in scale, and the metamorphosis of people into robot-like, mechanical dummies.
This congruence provides access to a deeper understanding of the psychological foundations of Surrealist art. As we know, the roots of every psychosis go back to the earliest years of one's life. The changes in the perception of reality as described in our case study correspond to a regression to the magical level of experience at a very early stage in the development of consciousness. It is the time when the child realizes that its excrement is something separate and learns to distinguish between animate and inanimate, between edible and inedible. As long as this distinguishing faculty is in development and not yet consolidated, some of the objects around the child still remain doubtful: are they alive or not? They thereby acquire the mysterious and enigmatic, fascinating and threatening appearance that we attempt to circumscribe with the concept of the magic experience of things. While the 'healthy' person (as we know from our own experience and as demonstrated by the pictures of the Surrealists) is capable of keeping this regression to an earlier stage of development under control and returning to an experience of ego-compatible reality, the psychotic is cut off from this return to the normal. This is due among other things to the fact that in the course of his or her early childhood development, s/he failed to take the decisive step to reality. The child did not succeed in reliably forming and stabilizing the consciousness of his or her self and of delimitizing it from the non-self, that is, from the environment.
According to Kohut, most psychoses derive from the painful experience of a lack of empathy and the emotional detachment of the infant's closest parent person, in particular the mother or her surrogate. If these persons are experienced as cold and unfeeling during that vital stage in development, they acquire the same threatening ambiguity as the other objects. If the line between animate and inanimate is also blurred in relationship to the mother, she becomes a lifeless automaton (a manechino) and deprives her child of the mirroring required to ensure the formation and consolidation of a coherent self.52
Every child naturally experiences the inevitable inadequacies of parental love in the course of its development; these inadequacies only become critical when their extent or frequency exceeds the child's ability and potential to cope with them-in other words: when they block the emotional exchange between mother and child. The loss of reality in psychosis primarily entails the loss of a human other and thus of one's own self.
To a certain extent, we are all familiar with this painful experience, as we are with the attendant changes in our perception of reality. However, the latter need not necessarily be a source of anxiety, for it may well exert an appeal for those who are able at any time to return to reality (think only of the effects of intoxication).
What for our young schizophrenic signified the dissolution of the self, the traumatic breakdown of the delimitation between self and world, signifies for the Surrealists, who are not helplessly subject to this condition, an additional, different approach to the world and, hence, an enrichment and expansion of their consciousness. While the young schizophrenic passively suffers the loss of reality-the dramatic modification of his or her perception-as something alien and menacing that afflicts her against her will, the Surrealists actively seek out this alienation-the sensation of irreality. They escape from the meaninglessness and coldness of an unfeeling world into the realm of the miraculous. They see themselves as the new discoverers of a new dimension of being; within the unconscious they have discovered a 'positive' (even scientifically authorized) alternative to the hateful bourgeois order. They identify with this level of experience and its attendant perceptions and oppose it-as an indictment, challenge, and antithesis-to the sterile conventions of a sober unimaginative, utilitarian society.
The willingness and ability to engage this regression in the service of the ego (as Ernst Kris has put it) forms the psychic and spiritual foundation of Surrealism. It presupposes a permeability of the borders between the ego and the unconscious, which is defined in the early childhood development of the respective individual. It can be enhanced but not established by psychic automatism. This magical experience, the ambiguity of animate/inanimate, is also palpable in nonfigurative Surrealism and distinguishes it from the painterly nonfiguration encountered in Abstract Expressionism. In Miró's early works, pure lines and nonfigurative, abstract signs become actual beings and thus acquire a mysterious, 'surreal' vitality. But this, too, is granted only to those who have preserved access to the corresponding level of consciousness.
This inner openness can be dangerous if taken to extremes. Reaching into real (and not merely feigned) depths is playing with fire; not everyone is granted free access to the unconscious. Without such access, no amount of automatism can bring the hidden treasure to light. The flood of utterly insignificant 'Surrealist' rubbish that has inundated the world since the movement was founded is proof enough of this observation.
Back to the history of the Surrealist movement. Hardly had it been launched
and its principles defined when, as in the case of Dadaism, it began to suffer
from the syndrome that affects all revolutionary systems and all ideologically
(rather than aesthetically) oriented artists' groups. Differences of opinion
soon led to embittered controversy over the "pure teachings" and to the
usual vicious circle of heresy, excommunication, rehabilitation, renewed heresy, etc.
Breton saw himself as the enlightened one. In his own eyes he was a Messianic figure, the prophet of a new revelation, and, as such, he laid claim to absolute leadership. He himself controlled the Surrealist "headquarters" at 15 Rue de Grenelle, officially known as the Bureau de Recherches Surréalistes, and concurrently managed the Surrealist gallery founded in 1926. A wide-ranging exhibition program, which also included artists who were not directly affiliated but showed a kinship with the movement, contributed to making Surrealism a catchall for all non-Constructive modern art.
Naville and Péret were the editors of the journal La Révolution Surréaliste. The first controversy erupted when, as mentioned above, Naville contested the claim that psychic automatism could produce Surrealist painting; it ended with Breton summarily taking over the editorship of the Révolution Surréaliste. With this, the so-called "Naville crisis" spilled over into political issues.
Although the official members espoused the political left, there was no consensus as to whether and how the Surrealists should cooperate with the Communists or to what extent they should serve the revolution. In his essay "La révolution et les intellectuels," Naville declared that there were only two alternatives, either to persist in a negative, anarchistic attitude or to do as he advocated and resolutely follow the revolutionary path, the path of Marxism.53 In contrast, Artaud and Soupault insisted on the self-contained value of literature, painting, and all the other arts and categorically refused to subordinate their work to political goals.
Breton diplomatically tried to follow a middle road. On one hand, he wanted to maintain his position of power within the movement, which he feared would be jeopardized by subsuming Surrealism in the frontlines of Marxism; on the other hand, he did not want to terminate the alliance with this revolutionary ideology, seeing himself as the ambassador of all the progressive forces in his day. In consequence, he opposed any formal association with Communism in order to prevent Surrealism being absorbed into politics, while repeatedly professing that he endorsed the Communist program and eschewed art for art's sake. To sustain this balancing act, he had to silence the opposition in his own ranks. Naville voluntarily resigned from the movement; Artaud and Soupault were expelled in November 1926.54
In 1929 Breton called a meeting of all the Surrealists and associated artists and intellectuals to deal with the fate of Leon Trotsky.55 Although only a few of those invited attended the meeting, the discussion moderated by Breton soon became so heated that it degenerated into a polemics fueled by personal animosities that led to a number of resignations and expulsions and resulted in the movement's most serious crisis so far. Since Breton's role as pontiff was seriously threatened, he felt compelled to redefine his position. In December 1929 he published his "Second Surrealist Manifesto". There Surrealism acquires a new mystical dimension: Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions. Now, search as one may one will never find any other motivating force in the activities of the Surrealists than the hope of finding and fixing this point. From this it becomes obvious how absurd it would be to define Surrealism solely as constructive or destructive: the point to which we are referring is a fortiori that point where construction and destruction can no longer be brandished one against the other. It is also clear that Surrealism is not interested in giving very serious consideration to anything that happens outside of itself, under the guise of art, or even anti-art, of philosophy or anti-philosophy-in short, of anything not aimed at the annihilation of the being into a diamond, all blind and interior, which is no more the soul of ice than that of fire.56
A few lines later: It is in fact from the disgusting cauldron of these meaningless mental images that the desire to proceed beyond the insufficient, the absurd, distinction between the beautiful and the ugly, true and false, good and evil, is born and sustained. And, as it is the degree of resistance that this choice idea meets with, which determines the more or less certain flight of the mind toward a world at last inhabitable, one can understand why Surrealism was not afraid to make for itself a tenet of total revolt, complete insubordination, of sabotage according to rule, and why it still expects nothing save from violence. The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end of the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd, with his belly at barrel level.57
The juxtaposition of these two quotes clearly reveals the fundamental dilemma of Breton's concept: he does not call for eliminating contradictions for their own sake but rather out of hatred and hostility toward existing and established mores. Breton's tirades are based on the narcissistic rage of someone who has taken umbrage. For this reason and in keeping with Judaic-Christian tradition, they serve dualism, i.e. the perpetuation of the very contradictions that are meant to be overcome, at least theoretically.
This new positioning fills a brief two pages of the manifesto; the remaining fifty are devoted to settling accounts with real and imagined enemies. The living and the dead, who hitherto inhabited the Surrealist Olympus, among them Baudelaire, Poe, Rimbaud, de Sade, Duchamp, Picabia, Masson, Leiris, Bataille, Artaud, Soupault, Prévert, and many others, are now crudely reproached, insulted, and disqualified as Surrealists. Some of the victims of Breton's vitriolic attack issued a pamphlet, Un Cadavre (A Corpse), in which they respond in kind, thoroughly insulting Breton and calling him a policeman, a false priest, and a pseudo-revolutionary.
Breton does not give up. He launches a new publication whose title, Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution, is tantamount to a political agenda, and he finds new members, including Salvador Dalí, who rapidly becomes the new premier peintre of the movement only to be excommunicated again a few years later. Breton makes peace with former enemies, antagonizes new friends, and again manages to consolidate his leadership within the movement. However, this turmoil contributes little to the artistic development of Surrealism. Breton's bombastic rhetoric now only serves his own self-enhancement, which, given the lack of any noteworthy artistic output, is confined to the effusive idealization of his half-baked concepts and the glorification or denunciation of living and deceased artists, writers, philosophers, scholars, and politicians.
For its final impulses, the movement is indebted to Marcel Duchamp, who came
back to Europe in 1927, and to its newest member, the sculptor Alberto
Giacometti, who joined in 1930.
Among the Surrealists Duchamp has already become a legendary figure by this time. Although he has devoted himself since his return almost exclusively to chess, interest in the collage and the object revives under his influence. With the collage-novels, La femme 100 têtes / The Woman of a Hundred Heads or The Woman without a Head (a pun on sans/cent), Rêve d'une petite fille / Young Girl's Dream, and La semaine de la bonté / A Week of Goodness (figs. 233, 234), Max Ernst creates the most original and provocative works of his career. Employing a principle related to collage, Bellmer, Miró, Dalí, Henry,
Dominguez, and others combine the most varied and contradictory objects and materials, including conspicuously frequent use of body parts or limbs from dolls and mannequins, to make a kind of 'assisted' readymade for which they coin the term 'Surrealist object'. The most concise formulation of this aesthetic is Lautréamont's famous statement, adopted by the Surrealists as their motto: beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table58 (fig. 235-37).
While all these Surrealistic objects are created from items found at hand,
Giacometti is the only one to create his own objects, i.e. sculptures that are
neither figurative nor nonfigurative but instead represent a new item of his own
making and invention. He succeeds in communicating a Surrealist
attitude, such as that of Miró's paintings, in three-dimensional, plastic form.
In addition to Dalí's compilation of Surrealist objects and Breton's text, "L'objet fantôme," the third issue of Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution prints numerous reproductions, among which Giacometti's work is of particular note. His Designs for Mute and Moving Objects (fig. 238) and his sculpture The Suspended Ball rank him among the great artists of Surrealism (fig. 239).
In 1936, these developments culminate in the memorable Exhibition of Surrealist Objects, mounted by Charles Ratton. The exhibition is divided into several categories: mathematical objects, natural objects, found and interpreted objects, moving objects, irrational objects, and objects from Oceania and America. In addition to Duchamp's readymades, Giacometti's suspended ball, and Meret Oppenheim's famous Fur Cup or Déjeuner en fourrure, on view here for the first time in its history (fig. 235), the greatest appeal is exerted by the mathematical objects discovered by Max Ernst at the Institut Poincaré. The forms and unaccustomed designations of these configurations (Enneper's infinitely curved plane derived from the false sphere or Kummer's plane with sixteen double dots, eight of which are real) reveal that there is magic in the exact sciences as well and thus presage the end of the Surrealist monopoly on this realm of experience.
Surrealism reaches its final climax before the war, in an international exhibition held in 1938 at Georges Wildenstein's Galerie des Beaux Arts. Mounted under Duchamp's supervision as a cooperative undertaking of all the contributors, the exhibition presents the many different techniques of Surrealism in a final, spectacular fireworks of the irrational. In the words of Robert Lebel (who refers to Breton's description): The visitor passed through a long corridor where the dolls of the Surrealist painters were installed. The ceiling of the main hall was hung with 1,200 sacks of coal out of which the dust was still trickling. A fire was burning in the middle of the room. In a corner there was a pond (a real one, not an imitation) with real plants around it, and in this pond was mirrored an unmade bed. […] Neither reports nor photographs can render the fairy-tale atmosphere with which Surrealism staged its finale.59
The outbreak of the war in September 1939 precipitated the end of the Surrealist movement. About half of the members had already emigrated to the United States before the war broke out; those who had remained in France escaped to the unoccupied zone in Marseille after the cease fire had been signed. Breton and Ernst finally managed to flee from there to New York, where they and other exiled Europeans planted the seeds of American postwar art.
The above delineated phase in the development of post-classical modernism may
be said to correspond to that of Baroque art in the 17th and 18th centuries
inasmuch as it, too, can be interpreted as the expression of diverse and
manifold attempted cures. European art between the two world wars is indicative
of profound doubts about the new self-image and worldview and its faith in the
future. After Hitler comes to power, this crisis, to which I will later return,
comes to a head with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World
War. With a growing awareness of this spiritual crisis, the question of the
meaning and integrity of human existence becomes a central concern. Its most
striking artistic formulation is found in the work of three great
individualists, who have in the course of their careers also been aligned with
Surrealism: Picasso, Bacon, and Giacometti.
Picasso is the first artist to make the jeopardized unity and wholeness of the individual the central issue of his art. In the paintings he produced between 1935-50, people and animals are cruelly and sadistically dismembered and deformed (fig. 240). The pain, the fear, and the horror expressed by these agonized figures apply not only, as in Guernica, to the horrors of the war that has just begun but also mirror Picasso's own psychic disposition, the aggression and sadism that are a trait of his personality and fuel the passion and intensity of his exhibitionist ambitions. Picasso seems to celebrate violence and horror, agony and despair, destruction and downfall, as if to protect-by means of this grandiose cathartic outbreak-his own self from their impact.
Not as vital and aggressive but all the more morbid and masochistic is a similar pleasure in pain that issues from the work of the English artist Francis Bacon. In his paintings the human figure is not dismembered and reassembled but rather blurred and deformed to the point of dissolution. Out of these dissolving figures painted with baroque sovereignty and a fluid, elegant brushstroke, one single, gruesome detail (such as a gaping, screaming mouth) erupts and, with merciless insistence, exposes the horror of a disintegrating self (fig. 242).
Among the artists in whose oeuvre the existential crisis of the people
in Europe is expressed with exceptional immediacy, Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) plays a special role. The early work of the Swiss artist, who arrives in Paris in 1922, reflects the influence of primitivism. It takes its orientation from the archaic art of the Neolithic period and from African sculpture. When Giacometti joins the Surrealist group in 1930 he attracts international attention with a series of sculptures, in which for the first time the magical experience of things is lent autonomous plastic shape. At the end of the thirties, his artistic development undergoes a fundamental change, in consequence of which he leaves the Surrealist movement. While his early work showed a variety of ideas and inventions and a delight in experimentation (figs. 238-39), Giacometti now devotes himself with monomaniacal exclusivity to one single theme: the human figure (figs. 243-46).
This development reaches its zenith after the Second World War. The expressive, elongated figures, whose emaciated forms become increasingly dematerialized and spiritualized, appear, depending on their gender, in two basic types, the women immobile, the men striding. It is as if these stylized, emblematic figures were surrounded by boundless expanses; they give suggestive, artistic expression to the contemporary sense of threat and loss. In contrast to Picasso and many others, Giacometti does not accuse. In response to the questions and doubts permeating his self-image and worldview, he does not resort to defensive or compensatory measures. Giacometti neither disavows the doubt, the experience of a comprehensive, unremitting uncertainty, nor does he advance a polarized, one-sided position as certainty, like the Surrealists or the Constructivists; instead his art visualizes how he comes to terms with doubt. He accepts it not as a mere transient passing state that could potentially be overcome, but rather as a constant, and even as the meaning and precondition of his work. It is as if reality were behind the curtains, he writes. You tear them open and there's another reality […] and another. But I have the impression or the illusion that I make progress every day. That motivates me, as if it were indeed possible to grasp the essence of life. You keep going despite the knowledge that the closer you get to the 'matter', the more it recedes. The distance between me and the model keeps increasing. […] It is a never-ending quest.60
Giacometti takes a stand, he has his sights set on a goal. The place that his figure occupies or the direction in which it moves, the standpoint and the advance, the being-underway, are his concern, his tools, his stylistic means, the only thing he has to lend meaning to his existence and his work. There is nothing to justify this standpoint and this advance but his-Giacometti's-decision. He is aware of the uncertainty, the doubtfulness of both with all their inevitability, and yet he never fails to take a stand, to pursue his path. Not in spite of the doubtfulness, but because of it. In Giacometti's oeuvre, the experience of uncertainty becomes more than a threat; it becomes the precondition of his own freedom and his own responsibility, i.e. of his own exhibitionist ambitions and his own integrated, idealized structures. These are mutually determined and fused into a synthesis in Giacometti's oeuvre.
Despite their striking, emblematic form, Giacometti's sculptures remain open, unfinished, doubtful. The attitude expressed in them-the firmness of their standpoint and the tenacity of their advance-is simultaneously relativized, i.e. exposed in all of its conditionality: not as the only one that is right, but as the only one that is possible. The surface of Giacometti's figures is craggy, its limits tenuous, but the place where the figures stand or the direction in which they stride is unmistakably defined. They not only express the experience of uncertainty; they also stand for certainty. Slender, exposed, erect; unassuming and yet challenging, their attitude entirely unequivocal.
In his late plastic work and in his painting, Giacometti also devotes himself to the portrait (figs. 248a, 249). The unique fusion of void and presence, of doubt and determinacy, of unconditionality and relativization, which makes his oeuvre one of the most important artistic contributions to our age, also characterizes his portraits. In them, the baroque art of post-classical modernism has found its Rembrandt.
The four directions of modern baroque art form both matching and opposing
pairs. Neue Sachlichkleit and figurative Surrealism are divided by their
realistic and symbolic attitudes but are at the same time linked through their
common figurative pictorial idiom. Constructivism and emblematic Surrealism are
divided by the opposition of a structural and a romantic attitude, but are at
the same time linked through their nonfiguration.
The two figurative directions are indebted to Rousseau, the art of the primitives, and the artistic creations of children and the mentally ill, while the two nonfigurative directions elaborate on the developments that led, through Mondrian and Kandinsky, to the classical art of modernism (see table on following page). We will also encounter the pattern of these paired opposites in the last phase of modernism, that is, in the art produced after the Second World War.