Monday, 1 September 2008

What was Modernism about?

What was it about modernity -- the modern condition, post-Darwin and post-photography -- that led painters in the late 19th century and early 20th to reject traditional depiction as false and to see a fragmented surface and shamelessly displayed brushwork as truer?

Although I'm very drawn to modernist art, fiction, poetry and architecture, I struggle to understand modernism even in a single art form, let alone what the forms have in common. Why suddenly, at that point in the history of painting, did Cézanne feel he had to show objects as if their structure was really flat plates make his brush strokes visible with little pretence at representational illusion?

Why in 1907 did Picasso, apparently against his conscious intentions and to his own bafflement and unease, feel impelled to paint the fragmented bodies of the Demoiselles d’Avignon?

(And why did Schönberg feel he had to reject the scales and harmonies that had served for so long?)

Here is Henri Matisse’s 1905 painting, ‘Woman with a Hat’:

Writing about it, T.J. Clarke suggests that representation (e.g. of passion in faces and bodies) had become cheap and facile with the commercial multiplication of images. Modernism (this is me now, not Clarke) emphasises the surface and the unbridgeable gap and difference between paint and reality; the traditional illusion -- verisimilitude -- was an illusion that didn’t work: once you looked at it closely, as paint, it became uninteresting in that the paint marks and painted shapes weren’t worth looking at in themselves. Just as direct expression was an illusion, the new sense of the semiotics of representation -- that it was always (just) signs you were dealing with (a brush mark isn’t a flower or a shadow) -- meant that honesty required you should acknowledge that you were dealing in signs. More than that: you should recognise that there was no access to reality, or certainly no way of representing access, except by signs that in themselves were meaningless, or, if they had meaning, whose meaning belonged to a different order than representation, that of their formal relations, their geometry, for instance.

Something had to be made of the signs themselves, the signifiers: they needed to become meaningful in themselves by being put into a relationship, in the way that musical notes, themselves meaningless, are placed into relationships so as to bring about -- well, to say meaning is to evade the issue: let’s say relationships or patterns that work on us in such a way that they seem right and suggest significance. (I realise that isn’t good enough. There’s a book by Edward Rothstein, Emblems of mind: the inner life of music and mathematics, that I may return to for help.)

Painting was still, up to the First World War, say, a search to capture reality, no doubt about it -- see Van Gogh’s letters: he’s obsessed not with brush marks but with what he could see, with catching the colour and feel of corn in a particular light. But what this involved for him was the search for a new system of signs which could ‘capture’ life -- somehow, despite being just signs. Working on the signs, the formal medium, was the way to rediscover reality -- hence Matisse’s wish, as Clarke puts it, for a form of art that would come to exist on the far side of formalism’. ‘The human [would] only be found again… by pressing on towards the human’s opposite.’ He describes how you can see that formalism at work in the hat and face: they’re made out of a language of separate signs -- shapes, curves, strokes, colours.

In their compositions framed by their new formalisms, artists showed us reality as we hadn’t seen it before and that we immediately had to agree it really was like. With the impressionists, sunny and breezy days came to be realities in a new way.

In the same way Pound rejected the easy sludge of Georgian and Victorian mellifluous verse and forged a new language in which the parts were bright, sharp and hard-edged, as in Provençal poetry-- single syllables; clear, consonantal boundaries; non-iambic stress patterns (see earlier entry on Pound and Kenner). The verse appeared constructed from discrete combinable bits, and yet produced beauty by their formal relationships as well as eliciting, and appearing to reflect or even to be directly mapped off, a vividly sensed reality.

That leads to another set of questions about modernist literature -- and about why it was so strikingly neglected by exponents of the ‘New English' in the comprehensive schools of the 1960s and 70s; a topic for another posting, this one having gone on long enough.

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