The many masks of modern art

The enigmatic and the strange have played a considerable role in twentieth-century art -- thanks partially to Henri Rousseau's magnificent ''The Sleeping Gypsy.'' This painting, together with a few of his richly exotic jungle pictures, Odilon Redon's mysterious prints and canvases, and Edvard Munch's haunting images of yearning and alienation, helped establish pictorial precedents for much of the imaginative and fanciful art that was to follow in our century.

These tendencies were also helped along by the intensely romantic and moody allegorical paintings of Arnold Bocklin -- at least one of whose pictures, ''The Island of the Dead,'' was specifically intended to be dreamed about -- and the strange and highly provocative canvases of James Ensor. Even Gauguin probably exerted some influence here through his richly romantic paintings of Tahitian life.

But it was Giorgio de Chirico in the first two decades of this century who really set the stage and established the guidelines for what was to follow. His haunting canvases of Italian city squares, empty except for a few statues, buildings, towers, mannequins, clocks, and an occasional boxcar or two, heavily influenced the young Surrealists about to emerge at the end of World War I.

(These paintings are also among the very best our century has so far produced , a fact de Chirico himself vehemently denies, claiming that they are tricky and shallow, and not nearly as good as the works he has produced since 1920.)

At any rate, de Chirico's paintings had a profound impact upon the young Surrealists. As a movement, Surrealism had a serious and wide-ranging effect upon a considerable portion of the century's art. This even included Abstract Expressionism, which drew a great deal of its early inspiration and substance from Miro and Masson. In particular, Gorky, Rothko, and Pollock were influenced by Surrealist theory and attitude.

These had been very clearly expressed shortly after 1928 by Andre Breton, the ''high priest'' theorist of Surrealism. He had written, ''I find it impossible to think of a picture save as a window, and my first concern about a window is to find out what it looks out on . . . and there is nothing I love so much as something which stretches away from me out of sight.''

Painting's true function, in other words, was to draw our attention away from the material and the tangible, and out toward the infinite and the intangible. In order to do this, however, painting had to seek ''a purely interior model or cease to exist.''

In their attempts to obey Breton's rule that only the ''interior'' and the unseen were worthy subjects for painting, the Surrealists set about tapping their intuitions and imaginations, and plumbing individual and collective areas of consciousness to a degree never before seen in art. The result was a riot of wildly imaginative and fantastic imagery that ranged from the highly specific (Max Ernst) to the impulsively nonrepresentational (Masson), with, in the middle , that perennial favorite of the Surrealists (even though he paid little serious attention to their theories), Joan Miro.

Surrealism, however, had a life of its own. Despite Breton's dedicated efforts to keep it ''pure,'' it began to wriggle out from under his authority, and to strike off on its own. In the process, it touched the creative consciousness of an incredibly large number of artists who came to maturity a few years before or during World War II. Artists as diverse as Alberto Giacometti, Paul Delvaux, Joseph Cornell, David Smith, and, of course, the early Abstract Expressionists all drew inspiration to some extent from Surrealist theory or example.

Although none of these artists fully accepted Breton's dictum that ''the approval of the public must be avoided above all . . . the public must be held exasperated at the door by a system of taunts and provocations,'' they did all passionately believe that the artist must absolutely follow his own creative instincts and intuitions.

Some, like Magritte and Cornell, felt that art should have an enigmatic quality, that it should be, if not actually inexplicable, then certainly open to several or even many different interpretations. This point of view, thinned down to a vague level of ambiguity, has even been carried forward into our own time through the art of George Segal and Philip Guston. It may not have been a conscious part of these artists' creative intentions, but their work, quietly haunting and mildly alienated in mood and atmosphere as it is, partakes peripherally of this tradition nevertheless.

A considerably watered-down, somewhat sentimentalized, and socially activated form of Surrealism was quite popular in the United States during the 1930s and ' 40s. Although its roots lay in European Surrealism, these roots had sprung from a widely eclectic assortment of painterly sources, and often produced an art that was as much a pastiche of borrowed effects and forms as it was the genuine article. When this neo-Surrealistic approach was utilized to give dramatic emphasis to certain American Scene or Social Realist themes, the results were strange indeed -- as can be seen in the art of Louis Guglielmi and Philip Evergood. Excellent in many ways as these artists were, their art never found its clear identity, and generally hovered somewhere between social melodrama and formal ambiguity.

One of the most interesting and successful -- as well as one of the best -- of this group of ''social Surrealists'' was Peter Blume. Brought to this country from Russia in 1911 at the age of five, and enrolled as a teen-ager at the Art Students League, Blume developed rapidly as a precisionist painter in the manner of Charles Sheeler. He scored his first big success, however, as a Surrealist, when his painting ''South of Scranton'' took top prize in the prestigious Carnegie International Exhibition.

That was in 1934. Between that year and 1937 he painted, and in 1939 he exhibited his best-known work, a bitter indictment of Mussolini (who is depicted as a green-headed jack-in-the-box dominating a Surrealist-inspired Italian countryside entitled ''The Eternal City.'') Although this painting caused a mild scandal, Blume's reputation was made. His stock in the art world could hardly have been higher.

Unfortunately, he could not sustain that level of public acclaim. With the end of World War II, and the advent of Abstract Expressionism, Blume's reputation went into a gradual decline. Although the years since then have been punctuated with the exhibition of one highly complex and enigmatic Blume painting after another -- generally shown together with precise preparatory sketches and studies -- the response of the art community as a whole has been mild if not actually indifferent.

And yet, Blume must be credited with a handful of extraordinary paintings and with many dozens of exquisite drawings.

My personal favorite is his very small (18 inches by 201/4 inches) painting ''Light of the World.'' It shows four individuals on an outdoor patio (which vaguely resembles a Mondrian painting, especially if seen in color), looking up rather anxiously at an enormous electric light supported by cross-sections of classical entablatures.

The object of their rather nervous awe -- and possibly even devotion -- dominates the composition, and calls attention to the irony of the title with its specific Christian reference. This is underscored by the presence of a Gothic church on the left, the severely frontal nature of the composition, and the work's mildly ominous mood. It all adds up to an extremely enigmatic image. We may not know precisely what is going on, but we are aware it is out of the ordinary, and that it has something to do with modern man's substitution of technology for religious faith.

It is not, however, precisely spelled out, as it would have been had it been a nineteenth-century (or earlier) didactic painting. But since it is a twentieth-century work of art, it partakes of our modern ambiguities, contradictions, doubts, hesitations, and evasions. And ends up, as does so much of all our art, with the presentation of the dilemma, the enigma, the paradox of our contemporary situation, rather than with a clear articulation of its meaning or its resolution.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.