ART IN OUR CENTURY Part 1 . Cezanne to Pollock -- the growth and diversity of modernism
New York — t would be fascinating to tag along after C'ezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, were they to return to earth for a visit, and to listen to what they had to say about the art they helped bring about. Would C'ezanne be shocked by Cubism and Constructivism? And how would he react to the Fauves, Matisse, Gorky, and Stella? Would Van Gogh agree with or even understand the premises of Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, or Neo-Expressionism? And would Gauguin recognize how important his work has been to the dozens of modernists who took their cue from his insistence that art must be free of all restraints?
We will never know, but one thing is certain: Without these three men, mainstream 20th-century art -- commonly referred to as modernism -- could not have existed in its present form.
Paul C'ezanne, in particular, altered the visual arts forever by rejecting Renaissance rules for modeling and perspective and substituting his own method of transcribing what he saw onto canvas. This consisted of the precise placement of thousands of small, irregularly shaped wedges of pure color to create a highly ordered but somewhat two-dimensional representation of the subject. By these means he hoped to redefine pictorial monumentality and bring dignity and order back to painting.
History proves he did both. But he also accomplished a great deal more, because his actions set off a chain of events that challenged several future generations of artists and revolutionized the West's perception of what a painting is or should be.
Those were not his intentions, however, but the result of his followers' appropriation of his methods at the expense of what they were intended to convey. By discarding his holistic vision of reality and focusing instead on his novel effects, they shifted the emphasis away from an art of consolidation to one of fragmentation and improvisation. The flat wedges of color -- designed to create ``something solid and durable, like the art of the museums'' -- became instead ends in themselves. And the grandly architectonic structuring of his images became the basis for modernism's widespread insistence on geometrically defined two-dimensionality.
But if C'ezanne's disciples were using his accomplishments to lay the foundations for Cubism, Constructivism, and the many other forms of abstract and non-objective art, those of Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin were equally busy establishing the premises for Expressionism and Fauvism. Even such independents as James Ensor and Odilon Redon were clearing the way for the future, the first by giving ever-greater emphasis to the imaginative, and the latter by expanding the symbolic effectiveness of color.
It was Edvard Munch, however, who set the psychological tone for what was to come with his haunting ``The Cry,'' which reverberated down our century and retained its impact even after two world wars and Buchenwald.
By 1905, modernism had taken off like a rocket.
Within five years, Futurism was going full blast; Constantin Brancusi had begun to reduce sculpture to its essentials; Fauvism had run its course; Expressionism had exploded in Austria and Germany; and Cubism and Constructivism were well on their way to putting geometry at the heart of modernist theory.
These last-named movements exerted an enormous influence: the former, for its insistence that physical reality could be fragmented perceptually and then reconstructed on canvas in a two-dimensional, multifaceted, abstract format; and the latter, for its assertion that significant art could be fashioned out of only a few geometric forms and a number of flat colors.
Crucial as they were to the development of modernism, Cubism and Constructivism were by no means the entire story. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque soon found more fertile pastures, and Juan Gris moved toward a more decorative form of abstraction.
By the mid-1920s, modernism had become an international force, with Picasso, Jean Matisse, Fernand L'eger, Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian, Pierre Bonnard, Max Beckmann, and several others achieving major celebrity status and with most museums beginning to collect the movement's outstanding examples. Modernism was also, thanks to the Surrealists, becoming more militantly subjective, although Max Ernst's and Salvador Dali's flashes of irrationality were more than offset by the high-spirited antics of Paul Kl ee, Joan Mir'o, and Alexander Calder.
The late '20s was primarily a period of consolidation, the time when the Bauhaus attempted to reconcile the ``fine'' and the ``practical'' arts; Wassily Kandinsky codified abstraction; Georges Rouault gave religious art a modern face; Georgio Morandi first realized that his creative vision could best be served by painting still lifes; and such Americans as Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis, Charles Sheeler, and Max Weber proved that modernism could indeed be transplanted across the Atlantic.
The late '30s were restless and fragmented. European modernism was on hold, and its American counterpart lost much of its momentum to Regionalism and social-action painting. Even the arrival in New York of a few of Europe's most important artists (refugees from Hitler) couldn't enliven things.
These Europeans did, however, inspire a number of younger American modernists. Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and others were challenged to greater efforts by the presence of L'eger, Chagall, Mondrian, and several of the major Surrealists.
As the '40s advanced, these Americans evolved individual styles that fused abstract and expressionistic modes and that were heavily influenced by Surrealism's use of automatism. The result was a series of dramatically original canvases that represented the first steps toward what would, in a few short years, be hailed around the world as Abstract Expressionism.