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The many masks of modern art

By Theodore F. Wolff / October 14, 1982

Very few things define the modern position so clearly as its notion that anger and rage are legitimate subjects for art. It would never have occurred to any painter before Goya, for instance, to have focused his wrathful attention upon what was wrong with this world. He would, rather, have striven to give form to an ideal, or to portray what was essentially good, beautiful, or interesting about human existence.

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Michelangelo, it is true, thundered and railed against evil and corruption. But it was an Olympian sort of rage directed against human and demonic violations of the divine ideal, and toward the saving of human souls, and not the personal, vindictive kind that is often grounded in bitterness and despair.

But then, Michelangelo and the vast body of earlier artists had faith in a spiritual and cultural ideal that both supported them emotionally and gave theme , structure, and meaning to their art. Although there is some indication that Michelangelo's religious faith faltered at times toward the end, his cultural ideals still exercised control. Art, after all, was one thing, one's personal feelings and problems were quite another. An artist was a public figure with responsibilities to speak for all, not merely a private one speaking only for himself.

Goya himself, if truth be told, hesitated about violating the more classical traditions of art by letting his true feelings show - until, that is, the horrors of the Napoleonic War forced his hand. Even then, however, he didn't really commit himself until his late etchings and Black Paintings, the latter of which he painted strictly for himself upon the walls of his own home.

Prophetic as these works were, it took almost a full century before other artists could echo the depth of Goya's personal feelings (most particularly his rage) in their own art. And once again it was a war that helped bring that about.

It's not so much that World War I represented a turning point in world art - most change had already taken place during the preceding decade - as that it represented the end of many Western ideals and illusions. War, in particular, lost a great deal of its glamour, as did patriotism and nationalism. Political and other leaders were no longer automatically assumed to be wiser and better intentioned than those they led. And even such near-sacred things as family, home, parental respect, and education became subject to ruthless and often cynical reappraisal.

Art, of course, followed suit. Novels, poems, and plays increasingly predicated their identities upon exposing what was wrong, rather than upon detailing what was right. Anger, frustration, and a sense of betrayal were in the air, and with the erosion of cultural, religious, and political ideals, they could no longer be held in check. The visual arts were among the very first to reflect this change. In place of Romantic war paintings of cavalry charges with flying banners and brilliantly colorful uniforms, there began to appear starkly realistic and rage-filled paintings of the destruction, filth, horror, and pain of war. And in place of wonderfully elegant and wise-looking generals, kings, and political leaders, artists were painting derisive and brutal pictures of those who seized or held power for no other purpose than to serve themselves.

The Germans in particular turned their frustration and sense of betrayal into art of such ferocity that it remains unmatched by anything else of its kind in this century, with the exception of Picasso's Guernica, some of Rouault's early watercolors and prints, and a few of the more socially bitter murals painted by Orozco and Sequeiros in Mexico during the 1930s.

Of all the Germans, Otto Dix zeroed in most specifically on the horrors of war, and did so with such an uncompromising attitude, and such a sharp eye for detail, that his art leaves very little to the imagination. Although justly famous for his anti-war paintings, it is in his etchings that he most successfully and convincingly vented his rage. Although not as great by any means as Goya's series of etchings, The Disasters of War,m Dix's prints occasionally go even deeper than Goya's in portraying the sheer chaos and confusion of war.