Bernard Smith and the Formalesque

Bernard Smith, The Formalesque: A Guide to Modern Art and its History (Macmillan, 2007), $77

WHEN THE ART HISTORIAN Ernst Gombrich reviewed a book called On Quality in Art: Criteria of Excellence Past and Present in 1968, he began by saying: “A good race horse, one supposes, is one that wins races, a good chess player one who can beat his opponents … a good linguist by his testable mastery of foreign languages. But how can we tell what is a good work of art or who is a great artist?” Equally mysterious is that which propels an art historian—or any writer for that matter—to spend the larger part of their lives attempting to answer that question and an even more elusive one: the evolution of “styles” in art.

If you happen to be Australia’s most venerated art historian, Bernard Smith, then the answer is yes. The time is ripe for tampering. His latest publication and perhaps his last (he will be ninety-two this October) is called The Formalesque: A Guide to Modern Art and its History. It goes without saying that when formalesque is typed into Microsoft’s Office Word software, the wriggly red line appears. But this is not a misspelt word—it is a newly minted one, and one which Smith hopes will be taken up by the art world’s community to distinguish a period in Western painting, which he claims began around 1890 and came to an end around 1970.

In view of the array of isms: impressionism, expressionism, fauvism, surrealism, vorticism, futurism, constructivism and minimalism, to name a few—all of which are unlikely to relinquish their places in art history books around the world without a fight—Smith’s single-mindedness might put one in mind of Don Quixote and windmills.

The modern art of the West has been very much on Smith’s mind in his twilight years. His Modernism’s History: A Study in Twentieth Century Art and Ideas (published in 1998) was something of a gauntlet laid down for The Formalesque. Yet his position had some foreshadowing in the first piece of art criticism Donald Brook wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald in 1968:

Modern times began, so they say, in Renaissance Europe. Those times, we think, are almost over, and we are in the process of doing up the parcel and trying to steam off the label for re-use. “Modern” is almost as acute a semantic embarrassment as “contemporary”; we want to tie it to historical durables as the name of a style, and we want to take it with us too.

If Brook was the first theorist in this country to anticipate the end of modernism and postmodernism’s arrival, then Bernard Smith was the first writer to determine how this conundrum might be solved with a flourish. He didn’t steam off the label, he wrote a new one: Formalesque.

In Modernism’s History Smith sustained an argument that “modernism” was fundamentally a “period style” and required its own name to distinguish it from the continuously evolving art of “now” which becomes “then” and which is invariably referred to as “modern”. Smith proposed that “modernism” (the formalesque) began its life between 1890 and the First World War, was nourished between the wars, and consolidated itself between 1945 and 1960. Surprisingly, he nominated the 1960s as the seed-bed of postmodernism.

Smith was given much heart in his lonely endeavours by his hero, Ernst Gombrich, who died in England on November 3, 2001, aged ninety-two, and whose lucid and engaging book The Story of Art, first published in 1950, and now in its sixteenth edition, has sold millions of copies worldwide. This volume was the most accessible of Gombrich’s publications. Others such as Art and Illusion and The Preference for the Primitive required a degree of concentration not always possessed by today’s young turks: the fashionable curators championing incomprehensible theories and those hip young artists who use them as a template in the way a Jermyn Street tailor might keep all the measurements of his clients on file.

When a copy of Modernism’s History arrived on Ernst Gombrich’s desk, some correspondence ensued. Smith suggested that Gombrich had “done me the signal honour of saying that he read my Modernism’s History ‘with much profit and admiration’ and he has not hesitated to use my term ‘formalesque’ for the particular mode of modernism dominant between c.1890 and c.1960”.

AS SMITH HIMSELF NOTED, the book had been more or less overlooked in the northern hemisphere, and if the British press responded, the reviews were “patronising or trivial”. Within the humanities, he suggested, where any evaluation is by default, subjective (“as distinct from sport and the natural sciences”) “a colonial is still a colonial”. While the habitual dismissal of “colonials” irritated Smith, he well understood that someone in a separate hemisphere was well placed to take the long—and variable—view.

The Australian press were more forthcoming about Modernism’s History. The Australian’s Review of Books, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Weekend Australian all gave generous space to Patrick McCaughey, John McDonald and Giles Auty.

McCaughey’s disaffection with the book rested on issues of terminology and aesthetics. “What Smith defines as formalesque, most of the rest of us would have gone around rather slackly calling ‘modernism’.” He was uncomfortable with Smith’s characterisation of the “Formalesque” as the engine and the emblem of cultural imperialism, saying, “it is possible to see cultural imperialism in settler societies not as something enforced … but as a fulfilment of cultural desires”. He worried about the word itself. “The Formalesque is hardly an endearing term. I tremble to be in the atelier imaginaire when Smith informs a Picasso or a Pollock, a Matisse or a Rothko that their work is merely Formalesque.” He was puzzled by Smith’s assertion that its avant-garde days were over by the First World War, and wonders where that left Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning in New York from 1945 to 1950. “How does a mind as sophisticated and skilful as Smith’s find itself in such a knot of self-contradiction?” McCaughey believed Smith had some resentment of modernist movements as the embodiment of American imperialism, which waylaid his scholarly efforts, “turning him into something of an ideologue whereby the purity of doctrine is more important than a comprehensive account of experience”.

McCaughey, an art historian, but also undeniably a connoisseur and aesthete, was onto something. Bernard Smith is stirred but unshaken in his view that the variety of abstraction that effloresced in the America at the end of the Second World War and floated like pollen around the globe to lodge for a period in many Western societies, was the result of American cultural imperialism. The vigour, scale and sheer abandon with which a handful of American painters were experimenting with paint on canvas, and jettisoning all narrative imagery, was identified with some ultimate freedom denied those painters, poets, playwrights and musicians in Soviet Europe who were re-harnessed to the “utopian” yoke, thus the American State Department and the CIA were able to use abstract art as a sort of political Trojan horse.

This was drawing a long bow, but there are some, including the novelist Gunter Grass, who subscribe to it. In his memoir Peeling the Onion Grass says: “The CIA had promoted the non-representational school … because of its harmless, decorative quality and because the concept of the modern was, and promised to remain, the property of the West.”

Two months after McCaughey expressed his bewilderment at Smith’s “formalesque”, Smith responded in Art Monthly. He was uncharacteristically impatient, and used words like blunders, misunderstandings, hasty and botched polemic. He also pointed out (as had McCaughey) that many “isms” had begun their career as pejoratives, only to be neutralised by the passage of time. Gothic is a good example, as is Baroque, and on that basis he held high hopes for his “formalesque”.

John McDonald provided a broader context for Smith’s offering, suggesting that if Smith was less well known than Robert Hughes and Germaine Greer, it was possibly because he had “played out his long career in a country that sees substance as less important than showmanship”. He suggested that Smith, from the appearance of his first book Place, Taste and Tradition in 1945, had “charted the relations between art, society and politics with dogged determination”. Modernism’s History was Smith’s most taxing book, said McDonald, because of the “encyclopaedic scope of the argument” which swept into its ambit every element in history, sociology, language and psychology that had an impact on twentieth-century art.

He was uncertain whether the term “formalesque” would gain a lexicographical toehold, as however broad, “modernism” already had a firm footing. As was the case with the term “classical”, most people were happy to accept that a word may refer to a period as well as a set of characteristics. He wondered if Smith believed “his place in history hinged on his ability to add a new word to the language of art”.

Smith’s increasing years have given him an impish demeanour, and he has taken conspicuous delight in baffling his admirers, supporters and detractors with little postmodern pranks. The most outré was his appearance in the nude for the 2002 Archibald Prize. Melbourne painter Carmel O’Connor had painted Smith comfortably ensconced in an armchair with his legs apart, without so much as a fig leaf between him and the viewer. An academic gown trailed over his left elbow and his left foot was raised by a pile of books. “Oh yes, oh yes,” he chortled later that year, “it was me … but the penis belonged to the artist’s husband!” Thus, at the other end of an energetic and distinguished career, Smith had allowed himself a little free-play—a little postmodern antic—which confounded a generation or two of fine arts graduates and colleagues.

HOW DID AUSTRALIA produce an art historian of Bernard Smith’s stature? To illustrate the scale of his achievements it is instructive to see his circumstances in relation to those of his hero Ernst Gombrich. But first, a small disclaimer. In October 2002 Smith invited me to write his biography (possibly because he sensed an even hand at work in an earlier biography of Elwyn Lynn, published in 2001, and perhaps because, although a Canberran, I lived in Sydney). His letter to me said:

Now just a thought! When you have finished “Art and Money” [Art + Australia: Debates, Dollars and Delusions] would you be interested in doing some sort of biography of my life … I am not keen on writing any more about my life. I want to get back to the problems I opened out in Modernism’s History. It would let me off the hook! There’s plenty of material and you could write it in your own way, which is, to say the least, most readable.

I agreed immediately, and just as quickly experienced the sensation of being the little kid at the local swimming pool who gamely climbs to the top of the diving tower.

There was a setback. All the archived material in the world does not make up for the matrix of perceptions formed in direct conversation with a subject. I flew down to Melbourne with a voice recorder as I did not wish to rely on the impressions of others. Bernard was reluctant to be taped in conversation. His innately fairminded and gentle manner frosted over with impatience on the one occasion I tried it, and I felt like some green undergraduate importuning him, rather than a biographer with an invitation. There may have been a subliminal script, already in place, which I was meant to adhere to. Thus I retreated with all the diplomacy I could muster, secure in the knowledge that a Melbourne academic would be in a far stronger position to tackle this exacting project.

Bernard Smith has never been without a project himself, but as J.M. Coetzee once said: “Writers are used to being in control of the text and don’t resign it easily.” Perhaps this is why Smith, writer of the seminal works European Vision and the South Pacific and Australian Painting 1788–1960, chose to write a portion of his own story in two volumes. In the first memoir: The Boy Adeodatus: The Portrait of a Lucky Young Bastard, like a practised stage-hand, he brought the curtain down in 1940. In his second volume, A Pavane for Another Time, the story abruptly halts in 1951.

It was Poussin’s painting A Dance to the Music of Time which inspired Anthony Powell’s twelve novels in the sequence of the same name and which gave Smith the cover for A Pavane for Another Time. This may have been another of Bernard’s little jokes. Another time it was, a pavane it was not. A pavane is a slow and stately dance—Poussin’s painting suggested a discreet bacchanale. But no matter. Bernard Smith’s life has been stately, not bacchanalian—there have been foxtrots but no tangos.

In The Boy Adeodatus, Smith cast his childhood self—“little Bennie”—in the third person (a mode he abandons in his second memoir) and perhaps this distance made it easier to create a window on a precarious world that a postwar generation could barely conceive of: a world of cramped expectations, of unmarried elderly aunts, of sixpence a week for the insurance policy, of ritually-scrubbed boarding houses, of simple homemade pleasures and endless setbacks endured with dignity and stoicism. Some of his memories were heartpuncturing, and yet everywhere Smith’s elfin humour laces the pages.

We must put this down to his Irish story-telling genes which will not be denied. Curiously, Bernard Smith and his contemporary, Elwyn Lynn, both imbibed the underlying anxieties of those growing up in the Depression years, and these expressed themselves unconsciously in a certain alignment of phrases: Bernard would say “oh dear, oh dear”, and Jack Lynn would say “never mind, never mind”.

Smith was one of a number of state wards taken in and cared for by Mum Keen, a warm and sensible woman. His story begins with a Burwood garden— almost Eden—and its Australian credentials are established at once. Along with the jacaranda and the lantana, there are three loquat trees. One had been carefully planted with its face to the sun, the other two “shot up by the back door where someone had once spat out the pips”. This mingling of the planned and the utterly accidental is a metaphor for the entire memoir.

Smith wove together the sexual discoveries of his childhood, the casual sadism of the mathematics class, the shredding of lives during the 1930s Depression, and his arrival at Sydney Teachers’ College with a scholarship, where he thought he might like to take philosophy as a “special”. When the lecturer’s laughter subsided, Smith said lamely: “I just thought it would be good for a teacher to learn how to think.” He took art instead.

Smith’s world—of art and politics interleaved—was profoundly shaped by the late 1930s and provided a template for the rest of his life. He was shocked and confused by the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet pact in August 1939, and then months later was dazzled by the French and British Modern Art exhibition which arrived on these shores. His equivocal feelings for the Communist Party in Australia stayed with him and so did his imperative to lodge the history of art in a socio-political context.

His second memoir explores his first wide-eyed encounters with exiles from Hitler’s Europe, who delivered art history lectures to the newly established Sydney branch of the Contemporary Art Society and the Teachers’ Federation Art Society, and the meeting of the English school teacher, with a degree from London University, Kate Challis, who would become his wife. Kate too had been fostered out, as a baby. Their arrival in London in 1949, where he would make his way to the Courtauld Institute with a scholarship, and meet Anthony Blunt, is expressed succinctly: “In England, class differences, I soon came to realise, were more powerful than political affinities.”

It was through his attendance at the lectures at the Courtauld Institute that he first encountered Ernst Gombrich. These were clearly memorable. A casual aside Gombrich had made in a lecture on Michelangelo, that “all art is conceptual”, was a revelation to Smith. “I suppose that, until then, I had accepted the notion of the ‘innocent eye’, endorsed by John Ruskin … as a given.” Gombrich had unknowingly given Smith “a paradigm that [seemed] to have guided my work” for some years hence. After some weeks of indecision Blunt directed him to the Warburg Institute, where he might find a scholar and mentor more than lukewarm about his project (Europeans in the South Pacific). It was here that Smith was introduced to Gombrich.

Their circumstances could not have been more different. Gombrich’s family were comfortable, well-connected and highly cultivated. In Vienna, where he was born in 1909, Ernst’s lawyer father had been a classmate of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and his mother, who had studied piano with Anton Bruckner, knew Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler.

Their household was filled with music. Having convinced his father to let him study art history (Vienna had been the centre of such studies for decades) he produced a dissertation on the sixteenth-century Italian Mannerist Giulio Romano. Gombrich avoided the clutches of the Gestapo by moving to London in 1936, where he became a research assistant at the Warburg Institute (itself established by another fugitive from Hitler’s Reich, the German art historian Aby Warburg, when he relocated his library from Hamburg in 1933) and his parents followed him in 1938.

The success of The Story of Art led to Gombrich becoming the Slade Professor in Oxford from 1950 to 1953 and ultimately the Director of the Warburg Institute. He was a brilliant lecturer who never exceeded his time limit, and whose compelling observations included the notion that stylistic change was the result of individual technical accomplishment, not of historical or political determinants. And here is where Gombrich and his admirer Bernard Smith part ways. As Smith would concede, Marxist notions played a certain role in the temper of his own writings about art and culture.

WITH THE ARRIVAL in the bookshops of The Formalesque, a conspicuously handsome volume designed and edited by Jenny Zimmer at Macmillan Art Publishing, some comments about the physical appearance are not out of place. Increasingly, as publishers feel the pressure of the marketplace, the paperback holds sway, so does cheap yellowing paper, and thoughtless layout and design. This book is one of the most elegantly designed art books to appear in recent times, and its thoughtful chapter divisions are laced with full colour images and crisp black-and-white photos. Its front fly leaf has endorsements from Professor Sasha Grishin, the head of the Department of Art History at the Australian National University, Mark Cheetham, the Professor of Art History at the University of Toronto, and Dr Urszula Szulakowska, an art historian at the University of Leeds. All appear to agree that formalesque is a more appropriate term than modernism as a period style.

Smith has constructed a careful argument in order to see his new word enter the art world’s lexicology—and in doing so has given the “formalesque” another ten years of life—to 1970. The first chapter is given over to precise, but occasionally eccentric explanations of word meanings: “Form”, “Formal”, “Formalism” and “Formalist” and then his own Formalesque. Then follow descriptions of “Modern”, “Modernise”, “Modernism”, “Modernist” and “Modernity”. There is plenty to take exception to, including his almost throwaway line that “Twentieth-century Realism is less naturalistic than Realisms of earlier centuries.” The American painter Andrew Wyeth might have had something to say about that.

The book is full of curiosities. The astonishing but short life-span of the Russian avant-garde which effloresced in 1900, and was snuffed out in the 1920s (as Boris Pasternak remarked to Isaiah Berlin, “the clock stopped in Russia in 1928”) is given nine pages in Smith’s book, while France (home to more “isms” to be sure) is given one. There are brief mentions of Brazil, North Africa, Mexico, South Africa and India—who were all apparently tarred with the modernist (formalesque) brush. However, one of the most interesting sections of the book is Smith’s discussion of earlier art historians and theorists: Leon Alberti, Giorgio Vasari, Johann Winckelmann and the philosophers Kant and Hegel, whose views were to provide so fertile a soil for the seeds of future art historians to sprout.

Smith’s second chapter, “On Style”, begins with his visit to the Lascaux Caves in 1950. Did the denizens who created these images know they were making art? Did they have a word for art? These are not the questions Smith is asking. When he talks about the human imagination at work, he suggests the imperative that passes “from magic to religion, from religion to philosophy, from philosophy to science”. However, there is no natural link between philosophy and science, and this is where Smith betrays his lifelong involvement with the arts to the exclusion of other disciplines.

In 1998, Smith concluded that Patrick McCaughey had made

the fundamental mistake of assuming that I am trying to diminish the art still called modern by describing it as formalesque. I am seeking to do nothing of the kind. I am seeking to give it a place in history. What he [McCaughey] has to think seriously about is whether the artistic cycle that begins around 1890 and ends its dominance during the 1960s must now be called modern for all eternity.

No, it won’t. In popular parlance modernism will always mean that which is current, and embraced (or not, as the case may be). But in the art world the overwhelming consensus, even if the protean term eludes any proper grasp—and no matter how unpalatable it is—the term “postmodernism” handed modernism its coat and hat and showed it to the door. It may be of consolation to consider that just as post-impressionism was a term used to avoid precise definitions for the sparks that shot out of the impressionist catherine wheel, so the word postmodernism might be viewed as an in-and-out tray, in need of sorting through at a later date.

When Smith asserts that his book centres on “the art style that emerged around 1890 and whose dominance began to wane around 1960, the style that, though still called Modernism, is no longer modern”, he is doing more than wrapping and sealing a parcel of passing years. He is, in a perverse and perhaps unintentional way, diminishing the autonomy and the singular visions of those artists and practitioners throughout these decades, by seeking to place an unwieldy template over them. It could even be interpreted as the authoritarianism of an art historian who has never truly understood what it is to be, for one’s entire life, an artist. A painter—like a novelist who writes, or a composer who composes—is someone who wakes up in the morning and paints. Everything revolves around this imperative. Even when there are lapses, delinquencies, disruptions, fallow times—even a crisis of confidence—the imperative remains. The creator alone understands the lonely journey and its hoped-for outcome.

The central dilemma facing Smith’s prescription is made clear in his quote from Hegel: “Every work of art belongs to its own time, its own people, its own environment.” Quite so. Thus a work painted by Franz Marc in the years before he marched off to be shattered by a shell splinter at Verdun and a painting created by Georgia O’Keeffe in self-imposed exile in the wastelands of the Arizona desert, ask for far more precise stylistic protection than the umbrella of formalesque can give them. Smith sees the defining element of the formalesque— the drawstring which pulls them all together—as flatness, but in fact, the notion of flattening the picture plane entirely, that is, making flatness a central characteristic or virtue of the work, rather than manipulating it, tilting it, fragmenting it or upending it, arrived only with abstract expressionism and postpainterly abstraction, and even here the artists found themselves generating illusions of space through shape and colour in spite of their intentions.

Smith’s final assertion in his epilogue is that “By the end of the 1970s it was clear that a new era in art had begun. It came to be known as post-modernism.” As in the past, it was not a term coined by artists themselves. Had Smith spent more time outside his book-lined study in the last twenty years he would have seen that art is a bit player in the scheme of things. The people you don’t hear rattling on about postmodernism are the very people who are creating our postmodern world, in the sense that their offerings have uncoupled themselves from our capacity to understand them (and—this might be the best definition of postmodernism) have outdistanced our imaginative and intellectual faculties. These are the geneticists, the astronomers, the nuclear physicists, the brain surgeons, the computer software developers— and those clever people developing nanoparticles. They are the creators and the inheritors of our postmodern world.

Finally, this writer’s issue with the term formalesque is not merely its linguistic awkwardness, which one might get used to, but the intrusiveness of it. By common art-world consent, the period we recognise as “modernist” in art is made up of an almost kaleidoscopic range of intentions and imperatives—“isms” if you like. Any art student knows the difference between an impressionist work and a cubist work, and for that matter a fauvist work and a constructivist painting, although there were constant overlappings and changes of direction by the painters themselves. Is a new word necessary? It will be the art history books yet to be written which will determine if Bernard Smith’s formalesque passes into art-world parlance. He has certainly endeavoured mightily to ensure that it does.

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