Of toy trains and haystacks: modernism in art

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Originally published in Talents (CARA Centre Ltd, Sydney, Australia) Issue 35, August 1990

Two recent exhibitions at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Abstraction and Robert Jacks on Paper 1958-1990 (until 19 August [1990]) have raised the issue of modernism and its relevance to contemporary art. John MacDonald (art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald) for example, rejects the claim that abstraction is still a force to be reckoned with. MacDonald and others like him see it as a minor aberration, a 'throw-back' to the heroic age of art represented by the work of Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko ( ... or Ralph Balson, Peter Upward or John Firth-Smith). Sure, non-representational art is no new thing, but then again neither is the recycling of art and non-art images and objects (look at the most recent Biennale of Sydney, The Readymade Boomerang).

It is interesting to note that, although we are supposed to be living in a postmodern era, most people have not really grasped what modernism is (or was).

So, rather than entering into the old 'mainstream' debate, this article examines the fundamental changes in thinking that produced the art of the twentieth century.

Let us start with the popular idea of modern art: The average person probably thinks of modern art something along the lines of Tootle, the Little Golden Book' train that kept jumping the rails to play in fields of buttercups!

These rails are the so-called 'traditional values' of art, such as: recognisable subject matter, obvious skill and effort and perceived monetary value.

In contrast, modern art is usually perceived as being totally abstract, easy and slap-dash and worthless. Yet, while it is true that modern art was revolutionary, the seeds of modernism were sown many years before this century. One of the first was sown as long ago as the 14th and 15th centuries, in the period known as the Renaissance. Byzantine paintings and mosaics reflected a pre-Renaissance way of thinking, when artists depicted the order of things as they 'knew' it to be. In contrast, Renaissance artists, with their discovery and use of linear and aerial perspective, introduced the concept of the artist's viewpoint (both in space and time). Thus, for all its theatrical artifice, Leonardo's Last Supper depicts Christ's last meal as if viewed from a particular vantage point (directly in front of Christ's face at a distance of approximately 5 metres) at a particular time (just after Christ's assertion that one of the disciples would betray him). A typical Byzantine mosaic depicts figures (usually Biblical characters) in a timeless, heavenly (golden) setting. The Virgin Mary is always depicted with skin like translucent porcelain and wearing an ultramarine cloak, because that was how she was supposed be depicted (according to tradition).

In the 16th and 17th centuries, artists such as El Greco and Rembrandt took the liberty of depicting events from the Bible not just according to a particular physical and temporal viewpoint, but from a particular emotional 'viewpoint' as well. In El Greco's The despoiling of Christ the flame-like figure of Christ in his glowing red garment is hemmed in by a cacophony of harsh diagonals (spears and swords) of the soldiers and other mockers who stand on a ground so strangely tilted that it almost appears to be parallel to the picture plane. This is El Greco's personal vision (in an emotional sense) of the event that he is depicting.

In the late 19th Century, a number of French artists began to notice that the world looked different not only from different vantage points but also under different light and atmospheric effects. They were so fascinated by this discovery that many of them made light and atmosphere the main subjects of their paintings. This approach became known as Impressionism and Claude Monet is probably its most famous exponent. Rather than painting what he knows, say, a harbour to look like, the artist simply paints the patches of colour and tone he sees on a particular foggy and smoky morning, looking east into the red disc of the rising sun from about 10 metres above sea level (Impression, Sunrise 1872).

From Impressionism on, many artists developed the idea of a personal vision to the extent that they actually re-invented the language of vision. Cubism arose from a desire to experiment with the 'laws' of perspective: If one vantage point is good, why not ten or twenty vantage points? The Surrealists experimented with a different type of personal vision, by painting the irrational images of the unconscious mind. Impressionism is also where the second important seed of modernism was sown: The power of the painted surface.

As a young man, the great Russian artist Vassily Kandinsky saw a painting of a haystack by Claude Monet. This experience affected him deeply. He writes:

"The catalogue explained to me that it was a haystack. I could not recognise it. I felt embarrassed at this lack of recognition. I also felt that the painter had no right to paint so indistinctly. I had a dull feeling that the subject was missing ... the thing, however, that was completely clear, was the unexpected power of the palette, until now unknown to me, which surpassed all my dreams." 1 

This 'power of the palette' was the realisation that every painting is essentially an arrangement of colours and tones on a flat surface before being a representation of anything 2 . Although this may seem to rob art of its ability to speak to us and move us, it was actually a liberation. Art was free to speak on its own terms, most importantly perhaps through colour. Edouard Manet led the way even before the Impressionists: by choosing harsh front lighting and often plain backgrounds, he attempted to deny the illusion of depth which our minds naturally seek. Monet, by breaking up surfaces into flecks of colour (almost to the point of the subject becoming unrecognisable) and applying the paint thickly and directly, advanced this further. Kandinsky, thus inspired by the power of the painted surface, created western art's first 'totally' non-representational paintings. Not only was the artist's perception more important than the subject, but now so was the painting itself, the physical object.

Modern art is criticised by many Christians because it rejects the notion of absolute truth, in favour of a subjective, phenomenological view of the universe. But what many people (not just Christians) regard as 'absolute truth' is actually convention--the model of reality with which they are familiar. That a camera 'sees' the world using linear perspective does not mean that linear perspective is not a convention. That white light bouncing off grass has a certain wavelength normally associated with the colour green does not mean that grass is somehow intrinsically 'green'. Greater truths can often be stated in the language of the imagination than in bald, literal language.

Perhaps only art that has been cast free of its burden of representing the (conventional) view of the world is really capable of reflecting the profuse and generous creativity of God.



Kandinsky, Vassily 'Reminiscences' 1913, in Kandinsky-Complete Writings on Art Lindsay & Vergo (Eds), Faber & Faber 1982, Vol. 1, p. 363


Denis, Maurice 'Definition of Neo-traditionism' 1890, in Chipp, Herschell B. Theories of Modern Art University of California Press 1971, p. 94