The Modern Aesthetic
Or, on reading ‘To Create Oneself’ by Richard Shiff on Barnett Newman (in Barnett Newman : A Catalogue Raisonné)
"Life is physical but it is also metaphysical – only those who understand the meta can understand the physical." Barnett Newman
"We should probably agree, and maybe do, that we have reached a dead-end." Mike Kelley
For Marcelin Pleynet
Barnett Newman stands today as a great modern artist and one who, with ever increasing force, addresses and questions the world of contemporary art. As a ‘mid-twentieth century’ painter in New York, born in 1905, breaking through to his mature work in 1948, alongside Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, and dying in 1970, his achievement takes its place in the long tradition of modern artists stretching from Géricault and Courbet to Bonnard, Matisse and Picasso. Indeed, we can assert that modern art came to America and took root there largely on the authority of these three great mid- century modern artists, Newman, Pollock and Rothko, along with a few others. There was also a moment in the early formation of American contemporary art after the Second World War when, for those following, such as Frank Stella and Donald Judd, who would establish, alongside Pop, the hegemonic Minimalist movement of the post-war era, Newman was the most influential artist of his generation.
Shiff places the quotation from Newman on the ‘metaphysical’, as I have done, following him, in introduction to his text. In doing so, he identifies this issue as central to Newman’s art. Shiff provides a sketch of the artist’s broad philosophical outlook in his first paragraph. “If” he states “physics is the study of nature, then metaphysics involves whatever remains when nature is known.” ‘Meta’, therefore, again I cite Shiff “signifies ‘beyond’”. He continues that “the problem is how to situate human beings (…) and where to place what would never exist without them, that is, their inventions, culture, and ethics.” Newman’s view was that ‘everything human was the subject of art” and that the “metaphysical component or ‘meta’” is central to the creation and experience of art. This position, however, it must be remarked, is diametrically opposed to that of Stella and Judd, his admirers in the post-war period, and, indeed, to the whole tendency of contemporary art from that time right up to the present. Stella achieved celebrity with bald statements such as: "My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there (…) What you see is what you see …" and “I tried to keep the paint as good as it was in the can”. Judd, for his part, set out to sever contact with what he felt were the conventions of the established media of painting and sculpture, in the interest of what he called (with some reluctance) 'specific objects'. He went further to place the debate on an historical plane by asserting that he wanted to discard the European tradition of art and culture out of which modern art had grown. As he stated "the western tradition …it's just something I don't want to do, that's all. I want to do something else …" (1) Stella and Judd replaced Newman's metaphysics with positivist vision.
Attention must surely be drawn to, and emphasis placed on, this diametrical opposition between Newman, on the one hand, and Stella and Judd, representing a broad consensus of opinion among their peers, on the other. Newman was maintaining that art was the human realm beyond nature. Stella and Judd wanted to place art back inside the physical world. The paint in the can and the object in space were defined by their physical properties. When they looked at Newman, in contrast to Pollock and Rothko, whose paintings felt laden with an inchoate, interior experience, they saw a stretched canvas of specific dimensions, vertically divided into sections and painted in a flat, unified manner. If Newman objected that his paintings had not been conceived, or intended, in this manner, that in fact they were the outcome of an intuitive process where the human, that would be the ‘meta’, experience of color and space are created, this was easy to deny or overlook as nothing more than the artist’s eccentric intention, which no one was obliged to share. Stella and Judd emphatically did not want to share or create any such experience in their work and I think we have to agree that they succeeded. From their philosophical point of view, the world of objects was all that really existed and it was time to make an art which declared that fact. They, like Warhol and the Pop artists, looked around at the new society of industrial production and commerce, which had been kicked into gear by the military demands of waging the Second World War, and they saw an opportunity to shift the model of modern art into a new alignment with America’s emerging business and social aspirations. What were to be done with Newman’s ‘intentions’? The artist himself was a prolific writer and formidable polemicist, who fiercely defended his ideas. His writings remain an essential companion to his paintings. However, again, it was easy, in the name of triumphant democratic values, to appeal to a new post-war contemporary art world, unfamiliar with the history of modern art, and predisposed by upbringing and training to believe in simple physical reality. Also, it was understood that very few would read what Newman had written and even fewer would have the contextual background to understand him. After the aesthetic challenges of the mid-century generation, American viewers wanted an art that they could more easily identify with their common outlook. Indeed, it was an article of faith of the new art that all you needed to do was look. As Stella stated: "it's supposed to be entirely visual".
Newman’s thrust was in the opposite direction. To the emergent New York art world of the 1960’s, he constantly asserted: “Those who emphasize the world of objects make man himself an object … My whole life has been a struggle against becoming an object!” Newman’s larger position was that art should be associated with thinking, that it was in fact a kind of thinking. This is a profoundly worrisome notion for those engaged in everyday perception because it suggests that our understanding of the world cannot be taken for granted and that appearance is deceptive. The thought that thinking might be different from how we think every day about everyday things is hard to conceive. It is unsettling. Yet this may be what, not only Newman, but the whole tradition of modern art, has been telling us for two hundred years now. Although Newman’s position may have been eccentric when viewed against the background of commonly shared views of art and reality emerging in the 1960’s, he is in profound accord with a long list of great writers, artists and philosophers from the previous one hundred and fifty years, who today can be seen to constitute a new tradition of modern thought and art. Could it be true, then, that the contemporary art world, which took shape in New York and internationally from the 1960’s onwards and chose to interpret Newman’s art in a manner profoundly at odds with his world view, had elected, by the same token, to separate itself from this great modern tradition and had taken on a different, antagonistic, let us be explicit, provincial, identity?
The Birth of the Modern Aesthetic
The emergence of the modern aesthetic can be traced back to the cataclysmic upheaval of the French revolution and the establishment of the Napoleonic Empire. The old order had been shattered and its institutions over-turned. A new sense of freedom had been born. The moment did not last long. Very soon societal chaos gave way to a new order, with a military and economic machine which would set out to conquer the world. Artists, like everyone else, were cast adrift and had to redefine their identity and their role. At this juncture one brief, meteoric career embodies the new outlook. Who knows what a great artist thinks of the political, social, economic and cultural order of his time? Everything divides them. In the case of Géricault, there is a conscious appraisal of the situation and an explicit choice in favor of dissidence. With Géricault, the modern artist is born and establishes his identity in independence from the norms of his time.
Le Chasseur de la Garde, of 1812, hanging today in the Louvre’s grand gallery, is the painting which announces this new outlook. The Louvre itself, as the first great museum of art, where the public could come and see the masters of the past, was called on to play a central role in this birth of modern art and thought. The works of these artists of the past were being repatriated to Paris from Italy as the spoils of Napoleon’s conquests. It is said that Géricault as a young art student took up semi-permanent residence in the Louvre and lent a hand in unpacking the deliveries of art as they arrived. He became one of the earliest advocates of studying the old masters in order to form an artist’s vision. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Cezanne was still insisting, like Géricault at its outset, that young artists should go to the Louvre and study from the masters. This study of the old masters was to become one of the foundations of modern art. Yet what Géricault envisioned, with Cezanne following him, did not involve passive copying from the model. To the contrary, it entailed an effort of active interrogation of form and subject in order to connect with authentic artistic example. Little is known of Géricault’s short life but one document, dated 23rd May, 1812, just one month before Napoleon’s fateful invasion of Russia, which is the subject of the above mentioned painting, Le Chasseur de la Garde, is a letter from Vivant Denon, director of the Louvre, to Géricault’s teacher Guerin. In this letter we learn that Denon has expelled Géricault from the new museum for his rough behavior in striking a fellow student in that same grand gallery where today Géricault’s paintings, Le Chasseur de la Garde, but also Le Cuirassier blesse, quittant le feu and Le radeau de la Méduse, now hang. In the letter, M. Denon declares his indignation and outrage that one of Guerin’s art students should “allow himself to be carried away to such a degree of excess”. This term of excess will take root in modern philosophical thought, in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Freud, and eventually become a central concept for another of its major protagonists, Georges Bataille. Could this incident in the grand gallery of the Louvre be considered the first of those societal scandals which have regularly punctuated the history of modern art?
The case must be made for Géricault as the founder of the tradition of modern art. Certainly the later Goya can be considered a fellow travelling companion. David, on the other hand, can in no way qualify. Beyond the brief moment of his celebrated sketch, of the unfortunate Marie-Antoinette on her way to the guillotine, he soon returned to the established path of Neo-Classicism. No more can the celebrated quarrel between Neo-Classicism and Romanticism, in the persons of Ingres and Delacroix, be deemed crucial for the birth of the new aesthetic. Compared with the original vision of Géricault, both Ingres and Delacroix seem locked in a rhetorical debate. However, to make such statements requires that one come to a point of view on what birth had taken place and what child was emerging to comprise this modern aesthetic tradition.
What appears is that Géricault had abruptly and unexpectedly discovered a ‘new subject’ of art. This was borne out of the drastically changed circumstances of the artist at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Where artists had previously worked for Court and Church, the artist of the new society found that he was without patronage. After a long and distinguished career at the Spanish court, Goya, following the disruptions of the Napoleonic wars, left his native Spain and finished his life in relatively miserable political exile in Bordeaux. David, for his part, had thought that he could shift allegiance to the revolutionary government, and then to the new empire of Napoleon, only to find these entities less stable and enduring than he could have wished. It is striking to discover that, in spite of David’s role as regicide, the newly restored King Louis XVIII was still willing to grant him amnesty and offer him the post of court painter, and yet David declined, preferring self-exile in Brussels. Something for these formerly successful artists, born in the late 1740’s, had ruptured in their relationship with the social compact. For his part, born in 1791, forty years their junior and a true child of the Revolution, Géricault never had any connection with the old system of patronage. He was free to find his own thought in paintings with themes of his own choosing.
Le Chasseur de la Garde is the first great statement of a theme central to Géricault’s preoccupations: the brutal encounter of the old military tradition of conquest, illustrating glory and individual heroism, with an emerging modern technology of destruction. The painting commemorates Napoleon's catastrophic defeat in the Russian campaign of 1812. The battlefield is viewed up close and in fragment, as a vast expanse of confusion and frenzy. An artillery gun, symbol of modern warfare and the instrument of Napoleon’s rapid military promotion, lies broken on the right as the cavalry charge sweeps its position. The mounted figure, dominating the canvas, is ostensibly part of the action. His horse rears up in the moment of impetus, surrounded by noise and commotion. Another broken cannon lies beneath its hooves. Glimpsed to the left, another mounted cavalryman, his horse’s eyes starting and muzzle drawn back over the harness bit, dashes into view in headlong precipitation. However, something extraordinary and unreal is taking place. The mounted figure in the foreground is looking over his shoulder, away from the action, and his face seems lost in a timeless reverie of inner reflection. No longer connected to the action, he appears to pose a great question to himself and, by extension, to us. Has not modern technology changed the nature of war to the point that its archaic purpose of conquest is now an anachronism? Is not the destruction of modern warfare too terrible and the gains of the victor too slight for us to countenance it in the future? It is a question that modern society has had to pose again and again ever since. On numerous occasions, up to and including the recent folly in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has opted for conflict and on each of those occasions ruin and desolation have been its wages. Yet we do it again and again.
In the painting Le Chasseur de la garde, Géricault exercises his newly found right of dissent from established authority. It is the position of a private individual who asserts his difference of opinion with the ruler. Géricault is here the anti-Napoleon who sets himself up as an equal of Napoleon and judges his error. The painting represents an unprecedented effort of political and social consciousness in the history of visual art. No doubt it would not have been possible without the preceding Enlightenment tradition of dissident philosophy from Locke to Rousseau and Voltaire, which was also a central factor in the phenomenon of Napoleon. Yet Géricault also represents the thinker engaged in the drama of action and time. Géricault is acknowledging that, in 1812, he thinks and paints in the age of Hegel. Again, Géricault sets himself up as the anti-Hegel, to question the philosopher’s belief that Napoleon represented the modern man. Hegel had written, upon seeing Napoleon at Iena, in 1806: " I saw the Emperor - this soul of the world - go out from the city to survey his reign; it is a truly wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrating on one point while seated on a horse, stretches over the world and dominates it. " (2) The painter here confronts the philosopher in asking whether this modern “soul of the world” has not already been overthrown by the excessive force of his encounter with himself in time, according to the principle of Hegel’s dialectic. Will this not be the theme of the great anti-system modern philosophers after Hegel: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Bataille? It is also hard to avoid an association with the hilarious and celebrated episode in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, titled The Willingdone Museyroom. Obviously Willingdone is not Napoleon, but his English nemesis at Waterloo, who conquers the conqueror. Joyce’s text reads: “This the way to the museyroom. Mind your hats goan in! Now yiz are in the Willingdone Museyroom (…) This is the Willingdone on his same white harse”. (3) It was Joyce who wrote that history is a nightmare from which we are trying to wake up.
A key aspect of the painting is the relationship of horse to rider. Géricault explores the intimate exchange between animal and man, animality and being, as it loses its central role to mechanization. The guardsman’s mount is exposed to technological violence and driven into a frenzy of terror.
Géricault contrasts this animal terror with the rider’s apparently calm reflection. For the modern viewer, it is surely hard not to interpret the painting as an anticipation of Freud’s future model of the conscious and unconscious mind, with the former seated precariously on the latter, apparently unaware that the actions of reason are driving an internal rebellion of instincts. The theme of the horse as an extension of the human psyche spans the whole of Géricault’s oeuvre, from the mounted cavalry, to the role of horses in civilian labor and recreation, to the heart-breaking equine portrait, Tete de cheval blanc, which seems to sum up all the misery and sadness of the human predicament.
It is evident that consciousness is a central theme of Géricault’s art. This sense of consciousness descends to him from Descartes’ model of inquiry. However, in the age of Hegel, and confronting the emergence of modern society, Géricault shows an extraordinary sensitivity to the vulnerability of consciousness. This theme of consciousness is intensely explored in two groups of paintings, on subjects which will, in turn, be central to Freud: the studies of children and of the insane. Can these be said to be portraits? Certainly they can, but Géricault’s interest would seem to lie somewhere else. The experience of consciousness, the coherence of cognitive identity, seems to be under assault from forces both without and within
One immense canvas, set apart, Le Radeau de la Méduse, measuring 16' 1" × 23' 6", serves to anchor the enormous scope, and brief span, of Géricault’s life and ambition. The painting represents a moment in the drama of a current event, being featured in the Paris press of the day, which pitted liberal against conservative opinion. The painting is of an overtly political theme. It is hard not to consider this painting as anticipating Baudelaire’s celebrated exhortation, a generation later, for artists to adopt the themes of modern life in their work. The painting triggers a peculiar and very disturbing impression in the viewer, stemming from a conflict of means employed by the artist. Its figures, bathed in an unreal, cadaverous light, seem modeled after certain of Géricault’s masters, perhaps Michelangelo in first instance. Yet, we also know that Géricault obtained and studied body parts from the morgue of a local hospital in order to render a heightened sense of the real in his painting. This unexpected juxtaposition of classical means, with a glimpse of ‘unmediated reality’, anticipates Cezanne’s synthesis of the Louvre and Nature, offering a point of entry into that elusive ‘new subject’ of the modern artist
Le Radeau de la Méduse initiates a long tradition of great modern paintings drawn from events in current affairs, which includes Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximilian and Picasso’s Guernica. A more recent example, that ought to be cited, is Simon Hantai’s Meun (Bordeaux Red), painted at the time of the revelations of massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam War, about which I have written elsewhere (4). When Newman toured the Louvre with Pierre Schneider, contemporaneously with the painting of this Hantai, he particularly singled out Géricault’s Le Radeau de la Méduse for its embodiment of what he termed ‘scale’. Newman’s notion of ‘scale’, distinguished from ‘size’, is of key importance for the development of the modern aesthetic. During the museum visit, in front of a painting by Ucello, Newman exclaims “What a fantastic sense of scale!” Schneider asks: “By ‘scale’, you don’t mean size?” Newman responds: “It is beyond the problem of size. It looks big. The content and the form are inseparable: that’s scale.” A few moments later, he is in front of Le Radeau de la Méduse: “Fantastic! The scale is marvelous. You feel the immensity of the event rather than the size of the canvas. Great! Wild painting! The space does engulf one.” (5)
Painting and Poetry
Géricault’s oeuvre, in aesthetic terms, marks a definitive rupture with the neo-classicism of the academic system of art. In ideological terms, it marks a definitive rupture with philosophical idealism and the value system of the societies which have produced it. Le chasseur de la garde is not just a painting on an anti-war theme. It does not merely manifest horror and disillusion with the brutality and stupidity of war. What it does is to demolish the notion of military nobility. It declares that war is no longer a legitimate human activity for channeling individual and social ambition. After consideration of Géricault’s painting, war is a humiliation for those who perpetrate it. Géricault dies prematurely in 1824. If the Napoleonic enterprise, and the Hegelian system of philosophical idealism which endorses it, belongs as a post-script to an archaic order of the past, new protagonists will have to appear for the modern aesthetic tradition to survive. Baudelaire and Flaubert are both born in 1821, followed by Lautreamont in 1846 and Rimbaud in 1854. Courbet is born in 1819 and Manet in 1832.
The early decades of the nineteenth century see a struggle for the imagination play out between the camps of Neo-classicism and Romanticism. Neither would represent the modern aesthetic. In the context of the time, it was a genial insight for Baudelaire to call on artists to paint from modern life. The anti-academic stance of modern art, central to the modern aesthetic, is confirmed by this exhortation. Nevertheless, the situation when Baudelaire sets out to develop a critical position, in the mid-1840’s, is fluid. Baudelaire essentially misses Géricault. He is aware of Courbet, even living for a while in his studio and sitting for a portrait. However, he is perhaps in too close proximity to the man for him to see the artist’s true worth. Manet is just arriving on the scene, and while Baudelaire sees his potential, as his some-time mentor and the recipient of a certain financial largesse from the comfortably established young artist of good family, he falls short of full appreciation. Baudelaire’s true passion and unqualified endorsement is reserved for Delacroix, who did not very warmly reciprocate. Today, Baudelaire’s belief in Delacroix has not worn well.
Baudelaire’s art criticism is justly celebrated. He had a clear idea that criticism should have its own identity. In the 1846 Salon report he states that “criticism should be partial, passionate and political”. In the same report, he evokes “the modern” and attacks the notion of “the absolute ideal”, stating that it is “a stupidity”. It is evident that Baudelaire was acutely aware of the emerging modern age and recognized that a new understanding of art needed to be developed in order to engage it. He further recognized that the Academy, with its Beaux Arts school system, which instilled a rigid neo-classicism in its students and managed the rewards of career advancement and sales in the Salon, would resist “the modern”. The Academy had vested interests elsewhere. It existed to promote official taste and educate the public in its aesthetic. It would be an aggressive enemy of modern art. Already in his 1846 report, there is negative mention of the Academy. Baudelaire also recognized that as art played a more significant role in the public mind and as it sought a new identity, free from established value, it would attract the attention of philosophical speculation. He was suspicious of the emergent school of academic philosophy in Germany which would seek to impose its understanding on art. In an essay titled ‘Philosophical Art’, Baudelaire addresses the issue of academic education. He states of education that, “the more, to the contrary, art separates itself from education, the more it will climb towards pure and disinterested beauty”. On the relationship with academic philosophy, he argues for the specificity of each art and criticizes the notion that art can be made to serve philosophy or that philosophy can explain art. He states “The more art wants to be philosophically clear, the more it will degrade”, adding “Germany, as everyone knows (…) is the country which has the most contributed to the error of a philosophical art”. Nevertheless, if philosophy was encroaching onto the terrain of art, art was also encroaching on philosophy. In this essay on ‘philosophical art’, Baudelaire asks the question: “what is pure art following the modern conception? It is to create a suggestive magic containing both the object and the subject, the world exterior to the artist and the artist himself”. Granting the enormous ambition of this statement, it is easy to understand that, under such circumstances, Hegel would have felt drawn to incorporate art into his system and that Nietzsche would place art at the center of his anti-system response to Hegel.
Baudelaire’s position is, therefore, more complex, even complicated, than it might appear. While he is clearly the advocate of a ‘modern’ art, he is also opposed to many tendencies in emerging modern society. At the core of Baudelaire’s aesthetic are the notions of independent ‘Beauty’ and ‘Imagination’. This leads him into a strangely, even aggressively, conflictual relationship with the utilitarian outlook of the developing industrial culture of the nineteenth century. Already in the 1846 report, Baudelaire dogmatically declares that modern art opposes nature: “the first order of business for an artist is to substitute man for nature and to protest against her”. In his 1855 piece on the Universal Exhibition, he goes on to attack the notion of ‘progress’ in art. Then, in the salon of 1859 he comes out against ‘realism’: “he who calls himself a realist (…) we will call, in order to more clearly characterize his error, a positivist”. The quarrel has a philosophical background. In the 1859 report he denounces: “the famous modern error which is born from a blind love of nature”, in terms that clearly reject the Enlightenment views of Rousseau. On the topic of landscape he states, in a theme that he returns to again and again, anticipating Nietzsche: “If an assemblage of trees, mountains, rivers and houses, that we call a landscape, is beautiful, it is not on its own terms, but by me, by my particular grace, by the idea or the feeling that I bring to it.” However, in the same report, contradictorily or not, he regrets the absence of what he calls “a genre that I would willingly call the landscape of great cities”.
Here he endorses Manet. Is Baudelaire’s position, at one moment defending the extreme subjectivity of art and at another calling for its engagement in modern life, fundamentally paradoxical or does it not anticipate Cezanne’s synthesis of the close study of art history in the Louvre with nature, at the end of the century? If we agree with the latter proposition, the outline of the modern aesthetic may begin to be perceptible.
In a late essay of 1863, Baudelaire undertakes to resume, in positive terms, his general position. He announces that the piece will be “a good opportunity, in fact, to establish a rational and historical theory of beauty, in opposition to the theory of beauty as unique and absolute”. He then goes on to declare that “beauty consists of an eternal, invariable element (…) and a relative, circumstantial element”, concluding that the artist he admires “has searched everywhere for passing, fugitive beauty in the life of the present, that character that the reader permits us to call modernity.” Modernity, therefore, for Baudelaire ultimately, will not be the utilitarian modernity of nineteenth century society, but a threatened perception of personal experience at its origin. At one point in the essay, he makes a revealing remark: “genius is nothing else than the ability to recapture a child’s outlook at will”. Over the twenty some years of writing criticism, Baudelaire’s expectations for the compatibility of modern art with social norms had considerably darkened. It was perhaps not so entirely the case at the outset.
Baudelaire had dedicated his review of the 1846 Salon to “The bourgeois (…) legislator or businessman”, declaring that “you are in need of art” and lauding the notion of “enjoyment” or “jouissance”. Along the way he had become considerably disillusioned. By the Salon of 1859, he is speaking of “the force of resistance that genius runs up against …” and grumbling of “the mediocre outlook of the bourgeoisie …” In this attitude, Baudelaire will be accompanied by his contemporaries Courbet and Flaubert.
The view point that is first to be found in Géricault, namely that modern art stands apart from, and is critical of, social value, is confirmed in Baudelaire. The gap between aesthetic and social value is large. If criticism can recognize this gap, it cannot fully account for it. In consequence, if one wants to weigh the extent of Baudealaire’s exploration of the modern aesthetic, one will have to plunge into his poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal certainly, but also a text such as Le Spleen de Paris, where he explores a new, drug- induced imaginative faculty and Mon Coeur mis a nu, where he tries to capture the fragmented aspect of modern experience in all its diversity. Here we encounter the enormous debate of form and content which has dominated the criticism of modern art and literature.
Baudelaire engages his subjective identity as an artist in a personal encounter with modern life. The social context would be the large cities taking shape in the nineteenth century, with the new commercial and professional pursuits of a new class of ‘town-people’ or ‘bourgeois’. Along with it came a new sense of political life, debated by a new press media intent on developing a new collective consciousness of shared opinion on all topics of the day. This new theatre of human endeavor would create great wealth and along with it a new leisure life of fashion and entertainment. Baudelaire thrills to its prospects for individual freedom and enjoyment. He is also acutely aware of the stark divide of fortune in the new city environment, with great poverty living beside the new affluence, and he could not avoid the uncomfortable recognition of how precarious was his artist identity in this new economic system. How contemporary to our present day experience does not all this feel?
Baudelaire understood that his project of engagement with modern life could not be conveyed in the literary or artistic forms of an age that had passed. New forms would have to be discovered. He addresses the issue in the preface to Le Spleen de Paris, written in 1862, in the famous passage where he asks: “Who amongst us, in our moments of ambition, has not dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, sufficiently supple and robust to adapt to the lyrical movements of the soul, to its undulations of reverie and leaps of consciousness?”, adding “it is from life in the vast cities, with the intersection of their innumerable relations, that this obsessive ideal is born.” In the same preface he puts forward the idea that his “little book has neither head nor tail, because everything in it is, to the contrary, head and tail at the same time, alternatively and reciprocally”. The book is comprised of fifty short entries and Baudelaire has the notion that the reader can select and read them in any order that he chooses. Presumably the book would remake itself on each reading. In Mon Coeur mis a nu, which has the project of sketching an intimate, but necessarily provisional, portrait of the poet and, by extension, of the modern subject, he puts forward that he can arbitrarily begin anywhere and continue as his inspiration dictates. In contrast to the homogeneity of public opinion that was being fostered by the new organs of the press, Baudelaire pitches for heterogeneity of form. Does this not sound as if Baudelaire is mapping out the aesthetic position of Braque’s and Picasso’s cubism?
These notions of arbitrariness and fragmentation of form arise from the dynamic of city life, driven by technological disruption of nature. They also reflect Baudelaire’s growing sense of the ills of this new civilization. Rousseau, a century earlier, had begun his Confessions with the famous statement “I form an enterprise with neither precedent nor imitator. I wish to reveal, to my fellows, a man consistent with the truth of nature; and this man will be me.” Baudelaire in Mon coeur mis a nu has the same project to reveal his fundamental human identity, but in rivalry with Rousseau and against nature. Baudelaire had resolved to look behind the social appearances and conventions of modern life and everywhere he found falseness. Where the new society had accepted the rousseauian notion that man was fundamentally good, Baudelaire was acutely aware of the dimension of evil. To a great extent, his emerging outlook was shaped by personal experience. Baudelaire had contracted syphilis early on and had turned for consolation to, and found inspiration in, opium. In Le Spleen de Paris he writes of the torments of this habit. Another predominating concern, apart, of course, from his perennial problems with money or its lack, was his prosecution for publication of Les fleurs du mal. Baudelaire was accused of “offense against public morality”. Baudelaire was deeply shocked and humiliated by his trial and condemnation. Nevertheless, the language employed by the state prosecutor reads today like a favorable, indeed perceptive, literary review of Baudelaire’s poetry. “Charles Baudelaire belongs to no school. He is of his own making. His principle, or theory, is to reveal everything in the most naked terms. He plunges into human nature in its most intimate recesses; he renders it in the most vigorous and striking tones, exaggerating above all its hideous aspects; he enlarges it beyond measure in order to create the impression, the sensation.” These terms did not praise Baudelaire, they sanctioned him. The reward for his modern poetry was suppression of the publication, removal of four poems deemed explicitly offensive and a substantial fine. Yet the prosecutor could also have been speaking in appreciation of Manet’s painting and, specifically, the notion of ‘sensation’ will become a guiding principle for Cezanne.
Baudelaire is a man who has been wounded by modern life. He is on the defensive, but also on the attack. It is perhaps best to think of Mon Coeur mis a nu as a book that was never written, that could not be written, because it wants to speak about what modern society, that of his time and also of ours, could not and cannot acknowledge, what it denies. Its theme is what Freud would later explore under the concept of ‘repression’. His target is the anonymous crowd, the homogeneous mediocrity of public opinion and secular beliefs: the utilitarian, progress, military metaphors applied to politics and the press, commerce. He is disillusioned with the course of recent history after the great promise of the revolution. The Revolution had given way to the Second Empire of Napoleon the Third. Baudelaire brims over with contempt. “My fury at the coup d’Etat. Countless riffle shots brushed aside! Another Bonaparte! What disgrace!” Baudelaire is a nightmare for political correctness. He caustically rails against bourgeois life in all its forms: judges, priests, ministers, bureaucrats, professors, professionals and specialists of all kinds, what he calls “universal fatuity”. In opposition and by way of contrast, he speaks of his “strong taste for life and pleasure”. He lauds solitude and asks the large existential questions: “Why are we here? Do we come from somewhere? What is freedom?” At one moment, in yet another attack on the Enlightenment, he declares: “Life in France disgusts me, above all because everybody resembles Voltaire”. At another he takes a swipe at the respected feminist writer Georges Sand, offended at “the famous flowing style, so dear to the bourgeois” and “her good heart and good sense”.
It might be wondered why, at this juncture, we should pay attention to Baudelaire’s obstreperous invective and condemnation of so much that today is taken for granted as part of modern life. It is because, paradoxically, as he elaborates his aphoristic assault on modern society, he is at the same time constructing the modern aesthetic. This aesthetic, as he understands it, is the quest for rare experience, for what had been the preserve of ‘mystery’, for what he calls “Beauty”. Again, Baudelaire on Voltaire: “Voltaire, like all the lazy, hated mystery” and on popular taste: “Hatred of the people for the beautiful”! Baudelaire’s ultimate judgement: “The world can only function as a misunderstanding”. It is important to not lose sight of the original French word here: the “malentendu” or otherwise “what is wrongly heard”. Mon Coeur… is an insurrection of poetic language thrown up against the utilitarian values of modern life.
Allegory as the ‘Real’
If the modern aesthetic did not emerge from a struggle of ‘Isms’, Romanticism pitted against Classicism, no more does it identify with ‘Realism’. Nevertheless, Courbet is a great modern artist and the modern aesthetic cannot be understood without him. It is important to note the early bias of the artist’s outlook. He firmly rejected the academic model from the outset, claiming in a letter to the editor of La Presse in 1851 that he was an autodidact: “I must declare that I have never had a teacher”. Secondly, he adopted, as Géricault had before him, the habit of studying the paintings in the Louvre. His models would be the great artists of the past. All this was anathema to the established academic system.
However, we can hardly deny the virulent debate of the day over ‘realism’ and the claim that Courbet is perhaps the greatest painter of a ‘realist school’. After all, in another letter of the same year of 1851, this time to the editor of Le Messager de l’assemble, he declares forthrightly: “[M. Garcin] calls me ‘the socialist painter’. I accept the title with pleasure. I am not only a socialist but a democrat and a Republican as well – in a word, a partisan of all the revolution and above all a Realist (…) for ‘Realist’ means a sincere lover of the honest truth.”
Courbet has certainly endorsed Baudelaire’s exhortation of 1846, to be “partial, passionate, political”. Courbet also wholeheartedly embraced Baudelaire’s call to paint modern life. Yet Courbet, in this early part of his career in 1851, is certainly far away from the author of Mon coeur mis a nu. Courbet, in fact, engaged with modern life in a way that Baudelaire never could. While Baudelaire was focused on the artifice of city life, Courbet took the portrayal of modern life to include the everyday realities of the countryside of his native Franche-Comte, to which he was so attached. It is important to also bear in mind that Baudelaire could not make a living as a writer, while Courbet felt that the new institutions of modern life would recompense his painting. He continued to submit his work to the Salon, and enjoyed some acceptance along with a lot of resistance and rejection there. However, he also saw the opportunity for his work to benefit from an emerging system of dealers and private collectors. Courbet, at this early stage of his career, was optimistic about being able to function in the new commercial model of society. Success duly came in 1849, but in traditional manner, when the French state, still the principal buyer of art, acquired Courbet’s After Dinner at Ornans, a scene of ordinary family life in his father’s home and ostensibly a prime model of realist painting. That such official support was forthcoming for this kind of painting might perhaps have indicated that there was the beginning of a shift in public appreciation of art. In fact, its tolerance for a modern aesthetic would prove still to be severely constrained by the academic outlook.
After the success and recognition in Paris of After Dinner at Ornans, Courbet moved back to his home town in the Franche-Comte and settled into a new studio set up for him by his father to whom, along with the whole family, he was very close. There he planned the execution of three large paintings which would confirm his stature: The Stonebreakers, The Burial at Ornans and The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair. These paintings also were of ordinary country life. They did not find easy acceptance. They provoked considerable resistance and even scandal when they were presented in the Paris salon of 1851. The response here brings into focus what is in play with the modern aesthetic. After Dinner at Ornans, though a realist work, did not give offense. It was bought by the state. The following paintings had some other element which troubled public opinion. Again, the realistic themes of the paintings were perhaps acceptable in their own terms. The general cause for offense was elsewhere. Courbet had presumed to dignify such scenes of ordinary life by giving them a monumental format, painting ordinary people in full-figure and life-size. Such treatment would previously have been reserved for major historical scenes and events. A challenge of values to the established social and political order was implied by the artist, and was so understood by the critics and the public. Of The Stone Breakers, Courbet had gone out of his way to argue for the inherent interest of representing the banal, stating that he had been attracted by “so complete an expression of poverty”. This was completely beyond what consensus opinion was prepared to accept. The general critical opinion of these ‘Ornans paintings’ was that they were “ugly”, “dirty” and “vulgar”. In a famous letter to George Sand, the same that Baudelaire would denigrate, the critic Champfleury reported the view in Paris that “Your painter lacks an appreciation of the ideal”, adding “One does not want to admit that a stone breaker is worth a prince”.
Today when artistic innovation, or its pretense, is accepted as a convention, the whole sense of social scandal attaching to modern art in the nineteenth century has been lost. We may tend to complacently feel that this earlier public was less enlightened and tolerant than our own. Such an attitude is a complete misunderstanding. The nineteenth century public was, at a minimum, no more obtuse than our own. Through its mouthpiece of critics in the popular press, and through its adherence to the academic establishment, it very acutely perceived that modern art entailed a departure of vision and value. Scandal erupted because the social and political order of society understood that there was a definite challenge to its values. With Courbet, this challenge is taking a new shape. Where Géricault had substituted a microcosm of individual experience, in the person of his Chasseur de la Garde, for the panoramic grandeur of the battle scene, thus revealing the unheroic underbelly of the first Napoleon’s military ambitions, Courbet has shifted his view from the nephew’s Second Empire doctrine of metropolitan progress to examine the microcosm of every-day life, as lived at village level. It should perhaps not be assumed that Courbet is intent on, or exclusively making, a political judgement in favor of one class against another, yet he considered himself an associate of the socialist philosopher Prudhomme, who in turn wrote in advocacy of his painting. Courbet introduces an earthy element to the ‘modern life’ of Baudelaire, which has become an indelible component of the modern aesthetic. This element runs straight from Courbet to Robert Smithson.
Courbet was interested in boosting his and the artist’s social status. Courbet gave extraordinary evidence of his sense of individual consciousness and self-worth in every aspect of his life. In itself, this can be seen as belonging to the modern outlook. It could be felt in all his dealings with people, most notably and significantly with his collectors, the most important of who was undoubtedly Alfred Bruyas of Montpellier, son and heir to a rich banker. The relationship is told in the famous painting The Meeting or Bonjour Monsieur Courbet, bought by Bruyas and now hanging along with the rest of his collection in the Musee Fabre of Montpellier. Courbet travelled to Montpellier to meet Bruyas in 1854 and the painting shows the artist encountering his patron in a scene from the montpellierois countryside. Courbet greets Bruyas on equal terms and his patron in turn salutes him respectfully, as if in acknowledgement of the new social status being sought by artistic genius. One detail of this painting is of particular interest. The patron wears a stylish jacket with a striped lining prominently showing on the collar. In the first decade of his career, Courbet had painted a remarkable group of self-portraits. During the visit with Bruyas, he painted the last of these self-portraits wearing this article of clothing, presumably borrowed from Bruyas, in a manner that reinforces his presumption of equal status between the two men. Then, in the following year, when back in Paris, Courbet paints the major statement, The Studio of the Painter (Real Allegory of Seven Years of My Artistic and Moral Life), placing himself at the center of the painting, in front of his easel, with Bruyas in attendance. Both are wearing the same identical jacket, with the stripes of the collar now enlarged on the painter’s pants. Courbet did not believe in burying his message in nuance!
In the mid-1850’s, Courbet was certainly ready to envisage his life as a modern artist in terms of commercial freedom and social equality in the new society. We will have to await Picasso for such another to arrive with a comparable sense of his own self-worth. However, later events in Courbet’s life will raise doubts as to the willingness of society to accept this view of its artists. In any case, is it these issues of power and authority, ostensibly offshoots of anaesthetic ambition towards ‘realism’, which will qualify Courbet, or another artist, as genuinely modern? That depends on what one understands by the terms ‘realism’ and ‘modern’. Does Courbet’s realism represent the artist’s engagement in social issues or does it lead somewhere else? Courbet introduces a significant doubt as to the former avenue with his paradoxical notion of ‘Real Allegory’, the real not being allegorical and allegory hardly real. True, The Studio of the Painter is put forward as a portrayal of society, but Courbet gives equal balance to his own personal and intimate social circle, including Bruyas, Champfleury and Baudelaire, in the right-hand half of the canvas, to his left, and standing behind him if, as the impresario, he were suddenly to turn and present his actors, as he does to society at large, on the left, or to his right, and ranged before him. Left, right, left, a great deal of the mysterious power of the painting derives from both the face-off and merger of these two entities, the personal and the social, which leads the eye of the viewer to shift from one to the other, and back. Is Courbet giving us a portrait of society or is he rather saying that it is the artist’s intellectual and personal experience which guides his hand in rendering society? To the same end, he has placed the painter himself, seated with his canvas within a canvas, in the center of the painting.
Again, is he placing the artist in the context of society, or is he rather insisting that it is his idiosyncratic vision of society, mediated by his sources of inspiration, including the landscape subject on his easel and the naked model looking over his shoulder, and not an objective realism, which has value? Does art simply portray society or does not society rest on art?
Courbet’s preponderant personality bursts the boundaries of any simple definition of realism. Every painting emanating from the artist’s brush is pregnant with an underlying presence. It infuses every square inch of the canvas surface. Courbet was certainly a supremely self-confident man but the extent of his self-fascination also reveals a search for self-knowledge. One of the remarkable features of Courbet’s work is its early phase of psychologically complex self-portraits. For long these paintings posed a problem for art historians who found that they did not fit with the profile of a realist painter.
However, Courbet’s self-portraits, or again a painting such as The Cairvoyant, or The Sleepwalker, continue the tradition of Géricault’s studies of children and the insane. Further, there is an intriguing chronological continuity between the self-portraits and two other major themes in Courbet’s oeuvre, namely sleep, or the unconscious, and the erotic. Courbet’s self-portraits are begun in the early 1840’s and continue up to the 1854 painting in three-quarter profile with the striped collar, executed in Montpellier, which belongs to the Bruyas collection in the Musee Fabre. The preceding year of 1853, Courbet had executed another painting, also acquired by Bruyas, The Sleeping Spinner.
This painting is charged with an unexpected physical, indeed sensual, presence. It is as if the self- portraits have finally sunk into unconsciousness and entered the body of a woman. The girl, of peasant origin, no doubt from Courbet’s provincial Franche Comte, has been involved in the useful and productive occupation of spinning yarn. Sleep has overcome her to undermine utility, beckoning to other pursuits. Perhaps she will awake in different circumstances a year later as the naked muse of The Painter’s Studio in cosmopolitan Paris, with her head still tilted towards the right shoulder and her country clothes, now made of fine silks, lying in a provocative, disordered heap on the floor at her feet. He/she, with the same rumpled petit-coats, will then throw herself down on her stomach, during a languorous summer Sunday afternoon, in Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine of 1856-57, her semi-conscious brain heavy with what she has learned since her arrival in the big city, and lie sated on her back, with her lesbian lover cradled in her arms, in Sleep of 1866.nIt is almost as if the languid expression of heavy eye lids, prominent nose and generous bearded lips of The Wounded Man, dated 1844-54, or Self-Portrait with Pipe of 1849, have reached across the intermediary years to unveil the modern, and Freudian, Origin of the World, another painting from 1866. If Freud, along with Courbet, would arrive to link human intelligence and the human sense of beauty with the sexual drive, he would also have to treat the discontents of a modern civilization, with anxiety and paranoia at its core. The peasant sensibility of Courbet from the Franche-Comte has coupled with Baudelaire’s modern city life. If this is true, Courbet had done much more than bring a ‘realist’ vision into modern art. He had put forward, in a manner which anticipates Jacques Lacan’s re-reading of Freud, that ‘the real’ is, in fact, something very different from what the eye sees. One might consider Courbet’s The Man Mad with Fear of 1844-45.
The painting is unfinished, with the whole bottom right of the canvas merely sketched in, yet Courbet exhibited it in his 1855 private exhibition. The painting is a self-portrait in a landscape with the figure, a prey to desperate anxiety, the left hand pressed to his head and the right reaching forward as he projects himself towards us. Has he formed the intention of precipitating himself out of the canvas and into the viewer’s space? In which case, we would have a complete collapse of the symbolic system. Or will he fall into what Lacan would term the ‘beance’ or ‘yawning’ of the real, which Courbet may have felt could not be filled in by his brush? Again, if this latter notion can be countenanced, and we should be clear that the whole force of official nineteenth century opinion is ranged in opposition, we should acknowledge that Courbet has affected a profound shift in our vision and understanding. Is it this perception of reality that will preoccupy Cezanne’s inability to realize his vision in complete terms, forcing him to leave blank areas of his canvas and his painting unfinished in the eyes of his contemporaries? Is it this perception, further, which will lead Pollock and, following him, Hantai, to take his canvas off the perpendicular axis and work it on the studio floor?
The Painter of Modern Life
Edouard Manet, not Eugene Delacroix, is the painter of modern life, as conceived by Baudelaire, though the latter would doubtless have demurred. If Géricault, Courbet and Baudelaire, were pioneers of the modern aesthetic, whether by timing or temperament, which included excellent instincts and good taste, Manet embodied its essential outlook. Manet was born into the higher social ranks of the Paris of the Second Empire. The new men of administration, such as his father, and business had taken the reins of power.
Modern life was establishing itself. Baron Haussmann was physically transforming the city. Manet inherited the changed outlook. He instinctively adopted the choices of the modern artist. He was introduced to the Louvre in his early teens by a cultivated uncle and took up the habit of copying from the masters. He was also in a position to travel. Artists had traditionally spent a period of time in Rome. Courbet had begun a wider, more touristic, itinerary, mostly visiting the low-countries to the north and Germany. In 1856, Manet made a similar circuit, continuing into Italy to visit Florence, Rome and Venice. In 1864, eight years later, he spent a memorable week in Madrid with the express purpose of seeing the paintings in the Prado. Velasquez made an indelible impression. He wrote to a friend at the time that Velasquez was: “the greatest artist there has ever been …” (p. 231). Interestingly enough, Manet could not grasp El Greco on that visit. “Bizarre” was his judgement. El Greco would have to await Pollock and Hantai to exert his full influence on modern art.
In the mid-1860’s, therefore, an artist such as Manet, from first-hand experience, had a much wider and deeper knowledge of the history of art than his predecessors. Manet was part of a vogue for Spanish painting which was a reaction to the ‘Raphaelism’ of Ingres, with its classical, idealist aspirations. Manet also tended towards Courbet’s ‘earthy’ materialist outlook, though from the more refined perspective of a denizen of the modern city. Manet took up the subject matter of modern life as lived in the big city with such paintings as Music in the Tuilleries of 1862, The Balcony of 1868 and The Bar at the Folies Bergere of 1882. He was also sensitive to the disparity of fortune in the new economic order, focusing attention on the unfortunate, as in his early The Absinthe Drinker of 1859, among other paintings.
He, like others such as Degas, adopted cropped view points in his compositions, drawn from photography. Manet was a man of modern political views, which found a place in his painting. Like Baudelaire, at least at the outset, and Courbet throughout his life, Manet was a committed republican. All were irreconcilable opponents of the Second Empire and its dictatorial ruler, Napoleon the third. Manet painted topics of current affairs, not only the famous Maximilian affair, which showed the banality and brutality of a supposedly grand design gone wrong, but also The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama, of 1864, between a Union and a Confederate warship, which happened to take place off the Norman coast where Manet frequently stayed.
Alongside the engagement with modern life, Manet began to paint in a new way, which would be the complete opposite of academic technique. Where academic art had sought to create the illusion of objective vision through a neutral application of paint, Manet placed emphasis on the material substance of his medium. Where academic art had sought to capture the truth of its subject matter by minute attention in rendering every detail of a scene, Manet employed an open brush-stroke and broad areas of color to convey an over-all truth of experience. In doing this, he was following the path which had been begun by Géricault and further opened up by Courbet. To an even greater extent, he was developing the example of the Venetian and Spanish painters, above all Velasquez, in exploiting the inherent qualities of oil paint.
Manet captures an original freshness and immediacy that had not been found in the art of painting before him. It is as if he had gained a renewed access to life in the light of a new day. All this can be seen in a modest little painting such as The Lemon of 1880-81, where a single fruit is presented in close- up on an oval dish placed on a table against a background. The lemon is rendered with an energetic brush-stroke and a vital yellow hue, charming the viewer’s gaze. It has mass but also seems related to the flatness of the canvas, giving it a sense of material existence on its own terms. The dish and table are no more than implied with a few rapid strokes of dullish paint, contrasting with the scintillating yellow of the lemon, and the background, logically an interior wall of a dining- room, is painted as a simple area of grey paint. This lemon resounds on our senses, to borrow a phrase from Matisse, “like a reverberating gong” and will make its way through modern art until, via collage, it reaches that master’s late cut-outs.
Manet identified with the modern ‘yawning’ or ‘beance’ which had made its appearance in Courbet’s ‘realism’, but was actually already present in the enigmatic gaze of Géricault’s mounted horseman. The nineteenth century public had always acutely remarked this and other elements of the modern aesthetic, and had manifested its sense of scandal. It is this aspect of scandal and the notion of ‘beance’ which drew the interest of Georges Bataille to Manet, to the extent that he wrote a book on the artist, entitled simply Manet, in 1955. This book is one of two that Bataille devoted to the visual arts. The other is Lascaux, or The Birth of Art. Both are remarkable. There is a tendency to think of Bataille as a critic when he writes on art. He is, in fact, one of the great modern philosophers, “the best thinking head in France” of the time, according to the opinion of Heidegger. When the philosopher Bataille writes on the painter Manet, he fuses the concerns of their two distinct disciplines. Bataille was interested in identifying moments of fundamental transition in human development. He made the case that the cave art of Lascaux represented the moment when primitive man became human, through the invention of art as a symbolic practice. Manet represented another beginning for Bataille, that of modern art. For Bataille, Manet represents the moment when man became modern. It is interesting to note that Bataille’s conviction about Manet, namely that he represents a moment of fundamental transition, aligns the philosopher with the broadly held view of contemporary art history and criticism, which sees Manet as the first ‘modernist’ artist. The notion that Manet is the first artist of a new tradition occupies a position of privilege in the history and criticism of modern art because it is taken as the point of departure for ‘Modernism’. Near the end of his text, Bataille states: “Let me repeat it: What counts in the canvases of Manet is not the subject, but the vibration of light.” Such a statement sounds like it could show up in a ‘modernist’ critical essay, albeit without any notion of Bataille’s larger theory of economy where the cultural identity of light is completely rethought. Nevertheless, Bataille’s manner of looking at art is very different from that of ‘Modernism’ and, for this reason, it has attracted little attention from English language art historians and critics.
It was inevitable that sooner or later the case made here for the birth of a ‘modern aesthetic’ would run up against the term of ‘Modernism’. ‘Modernism’ offers a critical and historical account of modern art, as does the notion of the ‘modern aesthetic’. Yet, they are fundamentally different. At its outset, Modernism embraced an anti-academic outlook, as modern art had done. It saw modern art as a break with the pictorial illusionism and narrative content of academic vision, as did modern art. More specifically, it argued that modern art offered an alternative to representation. This attachment to the narrative of representation, to ‘content’ or ‘subject matter’, had always been taken as the basis of visual art. If it were to be removed, what would remain of art’s relationship to the natural and to the social worlds and how could it be explained? It should be remembered that both Picasso and Matisse had been troubled by the prospect of abandoning figuration and, indeed, refused to do so. Modernism argued that modern art was overturning the order of representation and replacing it with ‘abstraction’. It undertook the challenge of defending this deeply unpopular development, in order to reconcile modern art with its public. It would be the task of ‘Modernism’ to provide an answer to this question of the disappearance of representation and the advent of what has been called ‘abstraction’. The response of Modernism was that modern art had operated a separation of ‘form’ from ‘content’ and had undertaken the pursuit of formal invention as its central purpose, as an end in itself. Modern art, with this development, became ‘modernism’, according to the ‘modernists’. In its extreme form, ‘Modernism’ takes up an argument for ‘medium specificity’, identifying the two dimensionality of the physical canvas mounted on stretcher with a concept of ‘flatness’, which leads to the notorious ‘modernist reduction’ and to notions of ‘self-criticality’ and ‘opticality’. Manet’s new pictorial technique, which nevertheless comes directly from Velasquez, is identified by Modernism as the moment when modern art dedicated itself to abandoning any interest in ‘content’ or ‘subject matter’.
No one has ever explained how the term of ‘Modernism’ was grafted onto modern art and became accepted as its synonym. However, from the moment that ‘modernism’ appeared, it has been used in just this way, as a term of replacement. So, Matisse and Picasso, Pollock, Rothko and Newman, by virtue of the fact that each are supposedly a step on the path to an ever more complete or ‘pure’ abstraction, are held to be ‘modernist’ painters whose work constitutes this practice of ‘modernism’. Rather than a modernist critic offering his interpretation of Picasso’s cubist paintings, Picasso, in this account, has become a modernist painter, making modernist paintings in the style of cubism. Is the term just a mere sleight of hand? Baudelaire never used it. It appears nowhere in the literature of the nineteenth century. When the event, known as ‘the Armory Show’, occurred, which we are told introduced ‘Modernism’ to the United States, the term was nowhere present. ‘Modernism’, when it emerged, set out to appropriate the identity of modern art. The great museum institution which was founded in 1929, nine days after the Wall Street Crash, to celebrate modern art was named, not so surprisingly, the Museum of Modern Art. Should it now be renamed the Museum of Modernism, or should it categorically not be so renamed?
The story of conflict between modern art and popular taste, as represented by the Academy, which Modernism took up, had begun at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as we have seen, long before any mention of Modernism, and had run across its entire arc. Géricault, Courbet and Manet, as ‘modern’ but not ‘modernist’ artists, successively provoked reactions of outrage and denial from critics and the public on account of the direction of their art. In the second half of the century, contemporary with, and following on from, Manet, first the broad association of ‘Impressionist’ painters and then Cezanne, the great example of modern art, and also of ‘modernism’, would be decried and rejected, as was Géricault in his day. With the new century, Matisse and Picasso, developing the appeal to color of Fauvism and the disruption of line comprised in Cubism, pursued the modern inquiry into an ever more extreme abandonment of natural representation. The problem of understanding modern art and relating it to the accepted values of society became ever more acute. In response, Modernism arrives with the purpose of providing an account of modern art which would make sense to a general public. It sought to offer an explanation and a purpose for the innovations of modern art in order to reconcile it with its public. Géricault and Courbet remain a problem for Modernism because they are still clearly preoccupied with subject matter. They, therefore, cannot be genuine modernists. Manet, on the other hand, offered a precious beginning for the new account because his apparent distinction between subject matter and the formal application of paint offered the opportunity of separation from the past. The issue of the transfer of representation into abstraction could then be resolved. Abstraction can be seen as a formal invention. With Manet, modernism would transform modern art into a series of innovative and autonomous styles and movements: Impressionism, Symbolism, the Nabis, Fauvism, Cubism, Constructivism, de Stijl, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism etc. These are categories of Modernism, not of modern art. Modernism gives the practice of art history an agenda to research and document. Everything would be explained in a homogenous account that the viewer could understand and reconcile with broader ideological values. Modern art, under its new ‘modernist’ identity, could eventually be assimilated after the Second World War by the American utilitarian economic model as a form of light industry. This is where we stand now, but it is utterly divorced from the origins of modern art and from the on-going modern aesthetic.
This alignment of modern art with its formal properties in the ‘modernist’ account serves to turn art into an object and, ultimately, a product: exactly what Newman, as we saw at the outset, had struggled all his life to avoid. Once art had been constituted as an object it could be reconciled with the ideology of contemporary consciousness, which is structured by the exchange of objects in commercial transactions. Art may be given a place in social consciousness. What is lost, as Newman fully understood, was the relationship of art to human feeling. An alternative view is to be found in Bataille. Quite to the contrary of modernism’s endeavor to situate modern art in social consciousness, Bataille seeks to emphasize its dislocation. Bataille opens up consideration of this notion with an anecdote taken from Manet’s student period when he attended the studio of Couture. It was customary in human life studies for the model to adopt an heroic or stylized pose, to be copied by the students. On this occasion, in Couture’s absence, Manet had asked the man to drop his pose in favor of a more everyday comportment. When Couture returned to find his model standing in a natural manner, as he would in the street or in a bar, he was furious with Manet for interfering with his pedagogy, supposedly telling the young artist that if he wanted to found a new school of art he should do so elsewhere. Bataille’s summary of the incident is that Manet “introduced disorder into the pose”. (p. 130)
The great crisis of modern art arrived in 1863, with the painting of Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, followed by a second painting, L’Olympia, in the same year. Le Dejeuner was presented in 1863, in the newly invented Salon des Refuses, having been rejected by the official salon, and caused a wave of opprobrium. Manet held L’Olympia over for two years and finally submitted it to the Salon of 1865, where it was accepted, only to provoke an even greater wave of disaffection, which developed into clamorous outrage. The scandal had arrived. Bataille wrote: “Olympia is the first master-piece where the crowd laughed with an immense laughter”. It requires an effort of mind now to hear that laughter echoing down the years, but we must make the effort if we want to grasp the modern aesthetic in all its significance. The repudiation of modern art by its public was not born of one event. The modern aesthetic had appeared half a century before Manet executed these two great paintings. It had been noticed with Géricault, and further with Courbet. It had caused both Baudelaire and Flaubert to be dragged into court for corrupting public morals, with Baudelaire actually found guilty! Yet with L’Olympia, the quarrel between social propriety and the modern aesthetic took on a suddenly more urgent focus and clarity. Bataille declared: “We enter a new world and the curtain is raised on L’Olympia”.
The subject of the first painting, Le Dejeuner, shows a naked woman seated at a picnic in the company of two young men, certainly virile, fully clothed in the fashions of the day. Much has rightly been made of the contrast between the nude in classical tradition and the nakedness here, brought into relief by her companions, who are not naked and clearly not mythological heroes, but members of contemporary bourgeois society. Manet’s painting was no idealized vision of seduction between god’s and nymphs. It was uncovering the prevalent social custom of prostitution in the Paris of his day. If this was a salacious afternoon in the woods, it was also, potentially, a conversation of modern philosophy. Does Manet, pre- Freud, suggest that sex and thought are intimately connected? His gentlemen viewers, drawn from the high bourgeoisie of his milieu, with their wives by their sides, were, of course, very familiar with this ‘Olympia’, though perhaps less with modern philosophy, and they did not expect that their evening entertainment would be presented as an afternoon advertisement in an art gallery, which they would have to deny to those wives, who would not believe them in any case. They strongly objected to this display of their private pleasures. The second painting, L’Olympia, takes this contemporary prostitute, with the same model for continuity of meaning, that everyone, both female as well as male, could recognize for having seen her pass by on Haussmann’s new Paris boulevards, and installs her in her place of business. Manet apparently wanted to add insult to injury! Every aspect of this painting has been noted and commented upon: the pasty skin tones, the black choker, the hand placed over her pudenda mirrored by the open bouquet of flowers, the cat standing erect. Olympia nonchalantly reclines on her canopy with cushions piled up behind her for all the support she will soon need. The client has recently entered, bearing the offering of flowers which the maid displays for the approbation of her mistress, who stares vacantly out of the frame. The client, of course, is the modern man of business and pleasure of the nineteenth century, but also of our own. He is the viewer standing before the painting in the 1865 salon. He is also you, although you will only have the picture, you will never have Olympia. Manet’s painting offers only an Immaculate Conception in modern form!
In his book, Bataille discusses a famous commentary of the painting by the celebrated poet Paul Valery, in order to emphasize a dissenting view. Valery makes the case that L’Olympia represents the obscene underbelly of modern life, which he implicitly, and properly, condemns. It is essentially a moralistic discourse. Bataille rejects this, out of hand. Bataille’s retort: “It is to the extent that Manet did not want to say what Valery says, to the extent that, quite to the contrary, he set himself to suppress or annihilate this meaning, which makes it possible for this woman to be there on the canvas. In the provocative exactitude of her presence, she is nothing (no thing). Her nakedness (…) is the silence which emanates (…) from a presence whose simplicity is absence. Her crude realism (…) for us is the consequence of the painter’s concern with an effort to boil down what he saw to the dumb simplicity, to the yawning (my italics) simplicity, of what he in fact was seeing in front of him.” (p.142) Bataille flushes out the hypocrisy of the new bourgeoisie which frequented brothels but could not openly acknowledge their existence. L’Olympia opposes itself to social hypocrisy and to the power which it protects and protects it. Manet’s viewers at the salon in 1863 made no mistake in their rejection of the painting. It should also be remembered that, for these viewers, the subject of Manet’s painting, contemporary prostitution, presented a social scourge, in the form of the disease of syphilis, for which there was no treatment at the time. For many, standing in front of L’Olympia, they were looking at the face of an ugly death, a death that would be their own. Manet himself would die prematurely of the disease at the age of fifty one.
One important aspect of what Bataille is saying concerns the issue of context. For Bataille, Manet’s realism separates itself from that of Zola, and presumably also Courbet, in that theirs is situated in the context of what they describe. Bataille claims that Manet “for once had the force to situate it no where”. (p.142) Realism becomes ‘the real’, in Jacques Lacan’s sense. Yet if Bataille sees Manet as the origin of a new modern art tradition and if he discerns this de-contextualization, this ability to “situate it no where”, in his approach, he is still interested in placing the artist in a larger historical account, that of the revolution of the previous century and of the modern society which had emerged from it. There would appear to be a paradox. How are the two positions to be harmonized? It is, in fact, exactly this point of rupture between the historical account and Manet’s aesthetic that Bataille wants to identify. In the words of the philosopher: “It is that the painter of the past, who had no autonomy in the system, was merely a cog in a majestuous edifice, which put forward a totality of meaning for popular consumption”. Bataille amplifies his point: “I insist on this fundamental issue: this grand didactic monument of noble house, church, temple or palace, which had been interminably made and remade by history, this speaking and authority-proclaiming monument, which had always brought the assembled population to heel: the moment came when it was abandoned by the foundations of its very integrity. It was dislocated. Its language finished up as a pretentious eloquence from which the formerly submissive crowd turned away.” Thus, when the Parisians of Manet’s day turned away from L’Olympia, in acknowledgement of its message, little known to themselves, they were embracing the modern aesthetic.
The divergence between Modernism’s interpretation of Manet and that of Bataille should be evident. It suited Modernism to choose the divorce of form from subject matter as an end in itself because it allowed its account of art history to follow concerns of style, discounting the broader emergence of a modern aesthetic linked to fresh human experience and a new emerging identity. Bataille agrees with Modernism that Manet represents the detachment, or dislocation, of the subject from a narrative context, of form from subject matter, but this agreement does not lead him to conclude that form will be free of content. On the contrary, it leads Bataille, as it leads Manet, ever deeper into the vacuum of meaning to be found in the apparently meaningful. For Bataille, this disruption of context is full of a new negative meaning. Bataille had written that, confronted with L’Olympia, the Paris crowd had laughed “with an immense laughter”. To grasp the full measure of this laughter, it would be necessary to read more broadly in Bataille’s philosophical writings. Without detracting from Bataille’s choice of Manet, parallel with that of Modernism, as the crucial initiator of a new aesthetic, we can perhaps now extend its import. At the heart of Manet’s painting, linking art to philosophy, lies the impenetrable gaze of Olympia. This gaze is redolent with a meaning that we can only intuitively grasp. For Bataille it is “this profound opposition to the fixity of meaning”. For me, it looks back with acknowledgement to the chasseur’s gaze in Géricault’s great painting; it closes the eyelids of Courbet’s demoiselle, who is succumbing to reverie, as she lies by the river bank on a Sunday summer’s afternoon, removed from her provincial childhood and contemplating the new life of the metropolis. It is the Origin of a New World.
When the innovation of Manet’s painting, justly identified in Bataille’s text, is situated in this notion of an evolving ‘modern aesthetic’, which already has a significant history reaching back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, and notably relating to Géricault and Courbet, one begins to appreciate the force of vision of both artist and philosopher, and what we may genuinely name as this ‘modern aesthetic’.