The many masks of modern art
Quality is a difficult thing to define in art. There are those who claim it is primarily determined by extraordinary skill. Others see it in terms of grand or ennobling subjects, fulfillment or furtherance of tradition, or the degree to which a work probes into new and uncharted territory.Skip to next paragraph
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Some see it as consistency and integrity of form, harmony of mood, or subtlety or exquisiteness of touch. And a few insist that it can only come into being through a particular idea, dogma, or philosophy.
Actually, all the above (and a few others) apply at one time or another. Durer, for instance, was so breathtakingly skilled - especially as an engraver - that his identity and the quality of his art are irrevocably tied in with that skill. And there is no doubt that much of the quality in Giotto's, Leonardo's, and Poussin's art derives from their grand and noble themes, whereas Michelangelo's and Cezanne's greatness results to a large extent from the manner in which they both fulfilled and furthered the traditions into which they were born.
Picasso, Malevich, Mondrian, Pollock, and Bacon probed into new and uncharted territory, and much of the quality of their art is defined by their creative courage and pioneering spirit.
Braque, Leger, and Brancusi represent integrity and consistency of form; Friedrich, Munch, and Rothko, harmony of mood; and Redon, Whistler, and Klee, exquisiteness of touch.
And for dogma we have, among others, the Italian futurists, and the American second-generation Abstract Expressionists, both of whom felt that there was no other path toward art but their own.
There have been those, on the other hand, who sought art and quality by following no set path, and who chose to pick carefully their own very private way between complex clusters of alternatives. They produced, as a result, art of profound individuality, integrity, and quality.
A prime example of this type of artist is Giorgio Morandi, a painter and etcher of still lifes and landscapes who will most assuredly go down in history books as one of the few true masters of the 20th century.
What Morandi was able to do with a few bowls, bottles, boxes, and, here and there, a vase of flowers is almost beyond belief. The Morandi exhibition organized by the Des Moines Art Center and currently on view at New York's Guggenheim Museum consists largely of such simple objects lined up on canvas after canvas, and yet the overall effect is profoundly moving and complex.
Leaving the exhibition, I felt the deep sense of satisfaction that comes from encountering evidence of great integrity and dedication, as well as that marvelous sense of harmony and focus that comes from experiencing art that is all of a piece, for it represents a lifetime of giving form to intuitions of what is significant and timeless about life.
Above all, a Morandi painting is classically serene; it suggests that both eternity and perfection actually exist. His simple objects, when arrayed upon a canvas, assume a monumentality totally out of proportion to their actual size. Some compositions, when viewed through half-shut eyes, resemble Stonehenge. Others give the impression of classical temples seen at twilight, or, more particularly, Greek or Roman marble fragments lined up against a still-standing portion of a Corinthian or Doric column.
These qualities are subtle and subterranean. We sense them rather than see them. What we do see are small, spare, almost monochromatic paintings whose overall tonality and atmosphere may conjure up memories of the art of Vermeer and Chardin, but whose stark frontality has very little precedent in Western representational art.