How this century's artists have opened our eyes
On Monday, Dec. 21, 1908, the month-old Christian Science Monitor initiated an unsigned literary column with the boxed headline: ''What We Think of Books Sent Us for Review.'' An equally pointed introduction to the new feature announced: ''This department is unbiased, and commendatory and adverse criticisms will be published according to the editor's judgment of the book.''Skip to next paragraph
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Tucked into the first column, among ''The Cathedrals and Churches of Northern Italy'' and ''Arts and Crafts of the Middle Ages'' - the Christmas-gift books, presumably, of 1908 - there is a consideration of ''First and Last Things,'' a rather uncharacteristic piece of introspection by H. G. Wells.
The review begins with an observation that would not sound out of place today: ''Hundreds of books on psychology, impaired by the immature views of the authors, have been written as a result of the restiveness of the age.''
Wells, it appears, was an exception.
What the unnamed reviewer particularly responded to in Wells - what Wells was responding to in his daily life - was the uncertainty of ''facts.'' Wells wrote: ''At first I took the world of fact as being exactly as I perceived it. I believed my eyes. Seeing was believing, I thought. Still more did I believe my reasoning.'' But the obviously shaken Wells of ''First and Last Things'' had been forced to conclude: ''The senses seem surer than they are. The thinking mind seems clearer than it is and is more positive than it ought to be. The world of fact is not what it appears to be.''
In his bluff, impatient way Wells identified - as that first Monitor book reviewer also did - what was to become the destiny of the next 75 years: a revolution in perception.
Wells wrote novels without quite being an artist. He wrote science-fiction and popular science without really qualifying as a scientist. He wrote philosophy - and certainly he was no philosopher. But Wells was a little of all three, and he sensed, as few specialists did then (or since), that this deauthorization of the ''fact'' was linked in these three areas, and any other areas you could manage to think of in life.
Wells, a man far more comfortable with solid, conventional ideas of substance , declared almost with chagrin: ''I found I had to begin by being metaphysical.''
Whatever he meant by his italicized term, Wells was speaking for his era and for the era to come.
The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset would call the end result of the revolution of perception the ''dis-realization of the world.'' That this was a joint venture of natural science and art was explicitly acknowledged by the Russian emigre artist Wassily Kandinsky, the father of Abstract Expressionism. About the time this newspaper was founded - three years after Einstein began ''dis-realizing'' the old certainties of time and space on the way to formulating his theory of relativity - Kandinsky wrote: ''The crumbling of the atom was to my soul like the crumbling of the whole world. . . . Everything became uncertain, tottering, and weak. I would not have been surprised if a stone had dissolved in the air in front of me.''
In 1908, after traveling in North Africa looking for he-didn't-know-what, Kandinsky settled down outside of Munich and described his revised perception of reality in his essay, ''Concerning the Spiritual in Art.'' In words that could have come from the pen of Wells, Kandinsky concluded: ''The world of fact is not . . . an external, rigid deed but an inner flexible one.''
The only question, he decided, was this: ''What should replace the object?'' - the solid apples and palaces and shepherds with sheep that had always provided the substance for the artists to represent.
The young Picasso, a chap never lacking in confidence, thought he had the answer. He boldly took the mandate of the modern artist to be ''our conception of what nature is not.''
In 1908, the year we are celebrating, Matisse half-humorously dubbed this new metaphysics of the palette ''Cubism.'' A Cubist takes it as his calling to ''fashion the real in the image of his mind,'' according to the definition by a Cubist of that time.
Nor, of course, was the disenfranchisement of the order of brute things restricted to the visual arts. In Vienna Arnold Schonberg, a painter of some distinction as well as a composer, did a self-portrait around 1908 - the year he composed his Second String Quartet, consummating his breakthrough into a whole other world of music. For the composers after Schonberg, atonality was the sound from beyond the looking glass.