The Meaning of Modern Revisited

modernismIn 1994 I was invited to give the annual Jack Manton Memorial Lecture at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney on a subject of my choice. Neil MacGregor, then head of Britain’s National Gallery, had given the talk there the previous year. The title of my talk was “The Meaning of Modern”, and I have often wondered since then how many of my audience really grasped the significance of the main point I was trying to make. While it could be argued that it was largely my fault if they failed to do so, there also has to be a degree of receptivity on the part of an audience towards novel or controversial ideas—perhaps especially towards those which defy long-established orthodoxies.

Nonetheless my talk was well attended and was possibly even one of the factors that persuaded the then editor-in-chief of the Australian to offer me a job. That was to be the national art correspondent covering the whole of Australia. Regrettably for me, the extraordinary majesty and variety of Australia’s physical landscape is not always matched by the quality or variety of this country’s cultural and intellectual life.

A number of changes of residence later I have lost the notes I made all those years ago for my talk—which has not subsequently been put before any other audience. I therefore welcomed the chance suggested to me a while ago to run the main theme of the talk, at least, past the discerning readers of the extremely lively British art magazine the Jackdaw which, along with Quadrant, the Spectator and Annals, has provided me with a welcome lifeline to stimulating intellectual notions during my years of residence in Australia.

The meaning of modern

At times the answers to all sorts of matters which perplex us can stare us in the face for a long time before we finally recognise them. For me the precise meaning we assign to the word modern falls very much into that category.

Indeed I suggest that the whole notion of modernism in the arts was seriously flawed from the outset for the good reason that its keenest supporters and promoters became so carried away with what they fondly imagined to be the “inevitable progress” of art that they failed to foresee the dangers of creating a monster whose greed simply for novelty might become impossible to sustain.

Because of the privileges I formerly enjoyed as a recognised art critic I have had regular access to the storerooms of a number of national and regional galleries which, over the years, became repositories for a great deal of exceedingly poor and evanescent art which was nevertheless collected in the public’s name at some time as examples of the “vitally important” or “cutting-edge” art of its era. Yet, seeing it, one wondered who on earth could ever have believed that much of this formerly fashionable stuff had any merit at all.

The distinction between fashion-conscious art gallery directors and curators “buying what was being done”, and ambitious artists “doing what was being bought”, was possibly always a fine one, yet the evidence continues to remain in such important repositories to remind us of some of the cautionary consequences of buying what was once held to be highly significant and fashionable art.

At least part of the problem of so-called progressive ideas of all kinds is that they seem to attract to themselves a highly favourable yet purely rhetorical language. Thus the trendy but purblind curator could comfort himself with the notion that he at least was squarely on the side of “brave experiment”, “cutting-edge development” and even of the supposedly inevitable “evolution” of art itself, while any who opposed him were not just likely to be head-in-the-sand reactionaries but may even have been “seeking to put the clock back”.

Even today too many members of the public are unable to see beyond such elementary misuse and warping of language, although happily that does not stop them from suspecting that “something or other” has been and continues to be wrong with a great deal of the visual art they have been involuntarily obliged to support for decades past through their taxes. Unusually for a professional art critic, I would suggest that “something or other” really has been wrong with a large part of the whole concept of “modern” art almost from its beginnings, so that the public’s suspicions are, in this instance at least, essentially on the right track.

I should have realised earlier than I did the paramount importance of which of its two legitimate meanings we assign to the word modern. This may strike you as merely a semantic quibble. Yet, as I hope to demonstrate, its consequences could hardly be more far-reaching in the case not just of the visual arts but across the entire spectrum of recent and present artistic activities.

In the latter years of his career my late father helped revise major dictionaries for a living, including the old thirteen-volume Complete Oxford English Dictionary. But we do not need such a weighty dictionary to tell us that the simple adjective modern has two distinctly different meanings. The Concise Oxford Dictionary—which was once found in most educated English-speaking households—is sufficient here for our needs. That handy dictionary tells us that the adjective modern has two discrete meanings: of the present and recent times and new-fashioned, not antiquated. Obviously the first of these meanings relates simply to time and period while the second relates to style and attitude.

When we speak of “modern” art, which of those two definitions springs more rapidly—or indeed automatically—to mind? In short, does the description “modern art” simply cover any art at all which was created in the “modern” period—say during the past 100 years or so? I do not think that is what most of us understand by the word modern at all in this context. In fact “modern” art has always defined itself—right from the outset—through its style and attitude. Such art may admittedly also be “of the present and recent times” but that is entirely incidental here because it is its stylistic appearance or attitude alone which defines it as “modern”. In other words, formal novelty has always been the most obviously recognisable characteristic of “modern” art.

Indeed, it is primarily work which is “formally novel” which one would expect to find in the many “museums of modern art” and “modern art collections” which are scattered in increasingly large numbers across the planet. Clearly a museum of modern art is thus not simply a showplace or repository for the very best art of the past 100 or so years— irrespective of its style, but is basically a showcase instead for often extreme forms of formal novelty. To the best of my belief no museums or collections of relatively recent art exist anywhere where the art is not primarily formally modern. Have we not therefore made formal novelty our effective index of artistic quality?

Perhaps the next question a reasonable person might therefore ask is this: Who, if anyone, ever decreed that this gross form of apparent bias against any form of more traditional-looking living art must be so? And if they did, how on earth could they even begin to justify such a patently unjust and bizarre decision?

What some of us may have failed to recognise is that not just in all of the arts but in almost all other aspects of our lives two vital behavioural traditions exist: what we might call a continuous tradition and a radical one. To provide merely one example of such duality, traditional Christian belief clearly belongs—as a long-established faith—to a continuous tradition.

In the case of a continuous artistic tradition, an artist would build upon and refine established practices—which generally first established themselves through their accepted merits—and may continue to employ such means until a time may arrive when they seem inadequate for some particular and highly individual expressive need.

It is as well to understand the scope and merit of any long-established tradition before deciding peremptorily to abandon it. In Western painting, means of depiction which embraced the physical world known to man and sometimes the metaphysical world of human imagination provided entirely sufficient scope for the full expression of the unquestionable genius of artists as various as Giotto, Giorgione, Goya and Gauguin, say, over a period of six centuries. In other words, from about 1300 to 1900, years which saw the full flowering of the great genius of painters such as van Eyck, Mantegna, Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Giovanni Bellini, Titian, El Greco, Holbein, Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Vermeer, Tiepolo, Constable, Courbet, Manet and van Gogh, a central, unbroken backbone existed within the body of Western painting which vitalised and inspired all those connected to it. Many of these artists were radical within their respective eras, while yet remaining within the great, overall tradition which thus simply contained rather than necessarily restricted them.

The early years of the twentieth century, however, saw the fierce and flagrant challenging of all such tradition. It is significant that while identifiable “art movements” were relatively rare in previous centuries, the twentieth century alone produced at least one major, readily identifiable art movement for every two to three years of its entire span. How or why did we allow ourselves to become in thrall simply to novelty?

Each novel modern movement would, of course, generally claim to “extend existing boundaries” and it is hard not to see art here as simply clinging to the coat-tails of technology, where “experimental breakthroughs” often really did and still continue to lead to genuine advances in technological fields such as medicine which, unlike art, are thus genuinely cumulative as well as evolutionary in their basic nature. In art, however, the radical tradition has often been more schismatic than cumulative in its effect, with art movements frequently claiming to make whatever preceded them completely “irrelevant” or “outmoded”. For example, Futurism made just such inflated claims in its overblown manifesto of 1910.

“Radical” art often dates much faster than any of the art from the continuous tradition which it sought to replace. Here is another ironic subject for reflection.

Often, also, those heavily involved in formally radical early modern movements such as Fauvism and Futurism grew bored with the restrictive nature of their self-imposed modernistic straitjackets. Although, for some reason, this is little remarked on, many modern movements were no less prescriptive and proscriptive than the crustiest of academic disciplines of bygone times.

rothko Black on Maroon: Mark Rothko 1958-59

Thus when Braque accused Picasso of “betraying modernism” in the era following the First World War, Braque was revealing precisely such an ideological intolerance. That was because he looked on the condition of being avant-garde or modern as a form of unquestionable artistic virtue in itself. Similar accusations were made about other artists as relevant to the history of twentieth-century art as Andre Derain and Giorgio de Chirico. At one time even to be seen to flirt with tradition—let alone to embrace its continuing importance—was once considered by all who regarded themselves as “true” modernists to be a heresy deserving of instant expulsion from their ranks.

Here, perhaps, we can begin to see the great liberating advantage of defining all “modern” art solely through its period rather than largely by its style. At a stroke, for example, such a step avoids stylistic proscriptiveness—which has proved one of the most destructive aspects of modernism—and also acknowledges the evident truth that all those working in the modern period are more or less unavoidably “modern” in their sensibilities if not necessarily in their chosen modes of working.

Thus you may care to ask yourselves whether such noted twentieth-century painters as Edward Hopper, Balthus and Stanley Spencer, say, really were any less “modern” in their sensibilities than their approximate contemporaries and fellow countrymen—drawn similarly from America, Switzerland and Britain respectively—Mark Rothko, Paul Klee and Ben Nicholson.

balthus livingroomThe livingroom: Balthasar Klossowski, better known as Balthus

A quick glance at the respective lifetimes of each of these threesomes shows they are at least broadly contemporary. How then can one trio truly be said to be less “modern” than the other in any other aspect than choice of artistic expression?

All six of these painters were artists of very high calibre, yet significantly one of these trios was included in Sir Herbert Read’s influential work A Concise History of Modern Painting (first published in 1959) while the other, no less significantly, was peremptorily excluded. Astonishingly, Read’s exclusions were deliberate, and he attempted—rather feebly—to explain them thus:

I do not deny the great accomplishment and permanent value of the work of such painters as Edward Hopper, Balthus, Christian Berard or Stanley Spencer (to make a random list); they certainly belong to the history of art in our time. But not to the history of the style of painting that is specifically “modern” …

I was a young painter at the outset of my career when Read’s book was first published and can confirm its huge and lasting influence, not least through my own earliest professional experiences. At one time it was a standard textbook on most art history courses in British schools and universities.


The Resurrection, Cookham 1924–7: Sir Stanley Spencer

However, by a strange irony, the reputations of both Klee and Nicholson have subsided markedly since 1959, at which stage Klee’s reputation still possibly rivalled that even of Picasso, while Nicholson was at that time quite widely held to be the most important British painter thus far of the twentieth century. Undoubtedly that was because of the formally “advanced” nature of his semi-abstract art.

So let us consider here, for a moment, the huge extent to which style rather than any other factor formerly influenced artistic reputation.

Failure to conform to fashionable styles can clearly be extremely damaging professionally. Thus to the best of my belief there are no paintings of significance by either Edward Hopper or Balthus in any British or Australian public collections to this day. Yet both were unquestionably major twentieth-century painters, and widely respected not just by the public but also by their professional peers.

nighthawks hopperNighthawks: Edward Hopper

Indeed, in terms of providing a descriptive and psychological insight into early twentieth-century American life some might rank Edward Hopper with the acclaimed novelist Scott Fitzgerald. Famous paintings such as Nighthawks were essential to the expression of Hopper’s understanding of modern life. Yet Hopper was still deemed by Read to deserve exclusion from his book solely on the grounds of personal artistic style.

What I suggest here is that to a large extent an officially-endorsed cult of often pointless formal novelty effectively poisoned the free development of art in America, Britain and in much of the Western world, including Australia, from at least the 1950s. The consequences were not just entirely unnecessary but also deeply damaging to decades of artistic practice. The cult of novelty also poisoned art education, art criticism and the proper understanding of art history to an extent which will be very hard ever to rectify, even were we to begin right now to acknowledge the full folly and horror of what we have done.

By our failure to insist on a neutral, simply temporal meaning for the word modern we have grossly impoverished—and to a large extent undermined the continuing human relevance of—a very significant proportion of the art of the twentieth century.

Visual art is too important to human civilisation to be regarded as some kind of faddish intellectual fashion item—but that, very sadly, is what far too much of our recent visual art has essentially become.


The example of Lotte Laserstein

In a letter in the April edition of Quadrant I proposed that the German twentieth-century artist Lotte Laserstein was possibly the most accomplished female painter of the century.

However, if you have never heard of her, do not feel in the least bit diminished, because her name did not appear, for example, in what was claimed to be a definitive survey of female artists: Whitney Chadwick’s Women, Art and Society (1990), a work which lists roughly 500 female artists from the past 500 years. I have a strong suspicion that Chadwick, who is a highly respected American academic, may never even have heard of Laserstein at the time of her book’s publication. Probably the circumstances of Laserstein’s life are to blame.

Lotte Laserstein was born in 1898 in Prussia and due to her rare and precocious talent was one of the first women ever to be admitted to the Berlin Academy of Arts. She soon rose to the position of Atelier Meisterschueler or “star pupil”, earning herself her own studio and also winning the prestigious gold medal in 1925. However, because she had one Jewish grandparent she was effectively exiled to Sweden in 1937 where she lived for the remainder of a long and productive professional life.

lotteThe Roof Garden, Potsdam: Lotte Laserstein, 1928

I first saw Laserstein’s work in 1987 at a joint exhibition spread over two private galleries in London and instantly recognised its remarkable qualities. I immediately made a strong recommendation that the largest painting in the two shows, The Roof Garden, Potsdam (111 by 205 cm), which was painted in 1928, should be purchased by the Tate Gallery in London. The painting shows five figures and a dog enjoying a casual meal and drink on a balcony with a vast panorama of Potsdam—subsequently largely destroyed in the Second World War—forming an detailed backdrop. I can think of hardly any other twentieth-century painter who would have been capable of creating such an arresting and impressive historic work.

The Tate Gallery’s acquisitions committee, under the chairmanship of the world-famous modernist architect Richard Rogers—designer of the Pompidou Centre in Paris—declined the purchase on the highly significant grounds that the work was simply not “modern” enough for inclusion in the Tate’s collection. It was a perfect example of the deleterious effects of making the adjective modern a stylistic criterion of worth rather than a word which relates purely and simply to period.

Being effectively exiled for life from her homeland—basically through the activities of Hitler—may have provided Laserstein with an awareness of what it was like to live through extremely hazardous “modern” times.

The Tate Gallery has probably never turned down the chance to acquire a more accomplished or historically interesting painting for public display. That gallery’s enormous storerooms remain full to bursting with national and international “modernist” artistic ephemera which all too often is of the most banal and worthless kind.

In conclusion I suggest that the precise meaning we assign to the adjective modern—in artistic terms at least—could hardly be more significant for the health of our entire culture.

Giles Auty wrote on the art critic Brian Sewell in the May issue.


6 thoughts on “The Meaning of Modern Revisited

  • Ian Flanagan says:

    Just out of interest Giles a work by Lotte Laserstein titled “Evening Over Potsdam” sold at auction in June 2010 for 421,250 pounds including buyers premium. Based on your description it is probably the same work as the subject is 5 people (with a dog under the table) having an evening meal. Potsdam is the backdrop. The size 110 x 205 cm though the date of creation is given as 1930.
    The pre-auction estimate was 120,000 to 180,000 pounds. More than one must have thought that the painting at that estimate was an incredible bargain as the final price shows.

    In the context of your article the above information seems pointless – but maybe it isn’t. In 1987 works by Lotte Laserstein were not selling in the secondary market for prices anywhere near 421,000 pounds.

  • en passant says:

    As someone who does not have enough artistic talent to draw a straight line I am risking much by commenting.
    Then again, I am the ‘man-in-the-street’ who pays for purchases by publically funded bodies, so I should have a right be represented in this expenditure. Years ago a privately funded club I belonged to wanted us all to chip in (actually a compulsory levy) to buy a centrepiece for the main bar. I thought the ‘modernist’ painting was ugly, grotesque, and only slightly better than ‘Blue Poles’, though the artistic advisor from the gallery selling it waffled on about its worth and significance. Despite my objections it was purchased and hung – after which many who had not seen it before commented that it was ugly and grotesque. It turned out that when the room was dark, lit only by the night lights and Exit signs it transformed itself from ugly and grotesque into hideous and monstrous. In this light it would frighten adults. Several years later it was sold for a considerable profit to blight someone else’s bar.
    I thoroughly enjoy the immense skill that it takes to produce classical art, and I am happy to look for the hidden details in landscapes and portraits. I can even appreciate the cartoonish attempts of Lautrec and Van Gogh, but never Picasso or the slap dash of ‘Blue Poles’. I could do that.
    I suspect that Da Vinci could produce ‘Blue Poles’, but that Jackson Pollock could never produce Mona Lisa. I therefore (and correct me if I am wrong) decided a long time ago that ‘… those heavily involved in formally radical early modern movements such as Fauvism and Futurism (did not) grow bored with the restrictive nature of their self-imposed modernistic straitjackets (they just never had the talent to emulate or exceed the true masters of art).

    • says:

      What would it matter if the Fauvists could or could not paint in the style of past painting masters? The only question is, does their work succeed as art?

      • en passant says:

        Yes it does matter because classical painting requires skill, technique, perception and vision. Black on Maroon (above) is a modernist painting that requires two bottles of wine (or more) either for yourself or a drunken chimpanzee, plus a great deal of chutzpah to look people straight in the eye and convince them it means something other than you or the chimpanzee drank two bottles of wine before creating it.

  • Jody says:

    I remember seeing a Rothko painting in 1988 at the Adelaide Arts Festival Philips Collection. The screed in the catalogue was hilarious and I used it for years to teach high-school students of English the clever ways of manipulating language. The painting was gray and ocre – a plain panel bearing just two colours, one atop the other. The person who wrote the annotations wrote “Rothko denies the existence of a horizon line”. I’ve always thought that comment hugely funny and we use it in our family to express our denial when accused of anything. The conversation would go like this, “Have you seen the car polish? It was there last weekend when I washed the car?” The answer would be “Rothko denies…”

    His paintings are entirely risible from my point of view, as is Tracy Emin’s “Unmade Bed” – but we live in an age of spectacular naivete and collective suggestibility. Artists know this very well. Often the modern writing about art is far more compelling and artistic than the work itself. I’m thinking of someone like Robert Hughes.

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    I’m not an artist, I’m a writer and as such I wish artists and others would look up the meaning of the word ‘radical’. It is another of those traditional words, whose meaning has been hideously altered by lefties and the ‘fashionable’ meaning has widely become adopted.

    Radicals look back at the traditions and tend to offer alternatives, within a tradition framework… As the author of this article suggested of the radical artists from van Eyck through to van Gogh.

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