Modernism and Neomodernism - 13 minutes read
Painting had a great renaissance in France in the 19th century. This renaissance we call impressionism. Color and form came to life in a style that had heretofore been unseen in painting. The artists painted to express themselves, and nature in terms of painting (color, brush, composition, and style - the art form itself).
In a real sense, the whole culture entered the modern era. With the coming of the industrial revolution, it seems the times demanded a shift in awareness. The industrial revolution served modern art by producing color in easy to dispatch tubes, with greater variety and intensity.
Modernism means that a painter can paint, compose and express her or himself and if there was talent and genius, create harmonies of color, brush, self, and nature that represent a true balance of all these elements. Most importantly self expression is the keynote. It started to be understood that painting was an aesthetic language which could propel the artist and her/his audience into states of ecstasy, i.e. other states of consciousness.
At this point it is important to understand the difference between style, and 'stylized". A quote by the master Antonio Salemme (1892-1995) explains this beautifully:
"Style is most important, whether it be a book, a piece of music, a painting, or a piece of sculpture. But style is recognized only in retrospect. If one has style in mind while one is painting, one becomes stylistic. One produces a style after the Gothic, or Renaissance, or African. The style becomes superficial and becomes a manner, and we call that stylistic.
My style comes out of my whole life. The style is the result of the state of mind of the artist, the subject matter one is handling, the state of one's health, and the clarity of one's mind, all that goes into the work. After it's done, the style can be recognized. Whatever comes out is a spontaneous and mysterious thing. Style cannot be defined intellectually. It can be seen only in retrospect.
For example, the Gothic style came out of the condition of France and Germany in the 13th and 14th century. The 12th century was Romanesque: after the Romanesque came the Gothic. The Romanesque was a result of the Roman Empire, the Greek art and all of that. Then the Gothic came because the people began to express themselves more directly. It came out of The climate, the stones they had to work with, and their religious approach... their interpretation of Christianity. That whole thing produced what we call the Gothic style, and the word 'gothic' means 'barbarian', uncivilized'. It was original expression, getting away from the Greek and the Roman. But it all came about in retrospect. The people who built the Gothic cathedrals built them as well as they could under the condition and the state of mind they were in, and out came what we call the Gothic style.
So when someone does a painting, the same process takes place. Everything one is comes out in that painting. If one's able to be spontaneous, then there is spontaneity in the style and there is vigor in the brush strokes. If one is not able to be spontaneous, because one is still immature and one is uncertain, and one's technique is not complete, then style doesn't come through, because one is still struggling with technique. If one has mastered the technique and lived, and is still vigorous, and paints with pleasure, then out comes what we call style. Style is never an intellectual and willful effort. It is like grace in the spiritual life. We try, we pray, we sit, we meditate. By the grace of God in a mysterious way we become enlightened. You don't become enlightened by mere effort. You don't achieve enlightenment. Enlightenment comes after great discipline and effort, but we don't achieve. It is the same with style in Art."
'Always be a beginner...'- Suzuki Roshi
The true masters all through history express style and their value ever resonates with us. The great painters of the l9th century create the space for a more mature understanding of style. They are the first modern masters. Impressionism is not an appropriate title if you allow it to chain them to a stylistic concept of art. Their work is not conceptual, nor are they dated now, but their works still live. Because they are true paintings and art, they transcend time.
So, Morisot, Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Sisley, Pissaro, Le trec to name a few, are our modern masters. They have real style, they paint with their whole selves- they were not merely intellectual, not merely emotional, but at their best they form a balance of mind and heart seasoned with transcendent intuition that creates works of ecstasy. Works of great music. They create visual music, Raga!
The generation that followed naturally was caught up in this flow of apparent revolution. Most notably Picasso and Matisse, two of the better known neo-Moderns. They say, 'look what has gone down, We'll go farther out.' Not realizing the basic fallacy of that kind of self conscious search for a style to set them apart from everyone else. While they both show genius and moments of brilliance, neither of them truly dig as deep or with the intensity of their predecessors. They become children of their fame and the media before they had truly been grounded in the art. Thus they were always searching for the next great step like most of the twentieth century world.
What has not been truly understood by this culture of ours is the originality of self. It is already original. To paint a simple still life without concept, without prior ideas, but with one's own heart, mind, and soul, it will be different, it will be a manifestation of one's self. Have faith in your originality and forget all you've been taught to see. See beauty with your own eyes.
I recently read a quote by Matisse that was rather disturbing to me. In it are implied the forces of neo-modernism. He says" a Cezanne is a moment of the Artist, while Sisley is a moment of nature." A seemingly to the point statement, because certainly Cezanne is that. He transforms his motif into a personal style that is his connection to the universal- yet he doesn't rely wholly on himself. He is in relationship to nature, the world. Sisley, in his own way transforms nature into painting and sings to us in an exquisite voice which may not have the depth of contemplative genius visible in Cezanne ( he lacks Cezanne heavy temperament and nature, and is more fluid in his expressions.) He nonetheless is a poet of color and form, and should not receive anything but thanks from his descendants for his moments as an artist. For Matisse to say Sisley is a moment of nature (as if to suggest merely) shows the immaturity of Matisse! All one has to do to realize this is to look at Sisley's struggles that broke the ground for men like Matisse to gain their reputations.
In this universe there is understanding. There is the relative and the absolute. As above so below. It is very important to grasp how the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. In a true painting you will find this understanding expressed. It will within its perimeters carry you from HERE TO THERE, you can see it as the unfurling of cosmos. This is achieved through understanding. The artist must further understand the tools by which he practices the expression of his understanding. The appreciator must also be part of this understanding in order for her or him to enter fully into the depth of possibility the artist creates.
A painting is a doorway into Psychological/Spiritual space, it is an expression of transcendent form which opens out into the infinite. If you can allow your judgment to arise out of your experience of art rather than have your experience be tainted by your pre-conceived judgments, you are on the right path. Fashion has little to do with true art, while the ebb and flow of real history (not the history of books and words, but the living reality of each moment) evolves art from understanding to understanding. SO PAINTING IS NOT MUZAK FOR YOUR WALLS , But contemplative doorways. Communications of ecstasy and understanding. To have a painting on your walls is to have a great positive vibration in your life. It is not muzak for your walls.
In the Eastern visual traditions we have Mandala and yantra. These are visual designs which the viewer would concentrate upon in order to go within her/himself. They are rather formal and generally very rigidly executed. In the Sumi e brush and ink tradition an aesthetic understanding of the spontaneity of the brush and ink is established but becomes generally formalized and thus stylized and ritualized , the student mimicking the master and taught thus, The danger of all traditions. The work of the l9th century French "impressionist's" is a more evolved and mature understanding of painting involving a synthesis of east and west. These artist who we now label impressionists or post impressionist, which are by the way poor labels, are visual musicians.
In India, music has developed over the centuries and these classical works are called raga. They are so sensitized in this tradition that certain ragas are played only at certain times. Thus there are morning ragas and evening ragas which fit these specific times and are to be played and practiced only at those times. They carry the vibrations of those times. They arise directly out of the heart of nature and one's attunement to it. Ravi Shankar is a famous example of the player of raga on sitar. Singing out the beautiful notes of moment to moment understanding, his music is an expression of the 3 great forces of cosmos, creation, preservation and destruction, all one in the great universal flow. Who has understood Vincent sees Vincent in ecstasy in the midst of nature's cosmic dance expressing himself in the moment to moment heat of creation, preservation and destruction and his paintings are visual expressions of that ecstasy. Look at Monet, each brush stroke a player in a great symphonic harmony of color and form. Cezanne, incomparable raga of aesthetic understanding. Gauguin, Sisley, Le Trec, All magnificent.
Modernism is contemporary classicism. A modern will allow her/ his painting to evolve naturally out of visual reality and its relationship to her/himself. We must break the chains of glamor and romanticism in our art and culture, and begin to see things as they are.
Gauguin has been a great inspiration to me. In his epic painting- WHO ARE WE? WHERE DID WE COME FROM? WHERE ARE WE GOING? He asks 3 basics questions in life. It has been said the soul must arrive at the point where it asks out of the depths of its being, Who am I? Where have I come from? Where am I going? This then marks the beginning of the spiritual journey. The greatness of Gauguin is that he asks not Who am I? but Who are We? He speaks for all of us. He has become priest, Shaman, Lover of Humanity. He reaches and his paintings are communications coming out from his touchings with infinity.
Painting teaches you to see things as they are. Where can you look that the absolute nature of visual reality is not before you. You simply see. Through painting you can bring yourself to some wonderful conclusions. Bring yourself to see the everflowing , everchanging light of nature. Reality is abstract. THE ABSTRACT NATURE OF REALITY IS THE SOURCE OF VISUAL BEAUTY, not some romantic sentiment about some specific form, not some personal preference or dislike but the absolute nature of a thing as it is in any given moment, recognizing there is nothing static about nature. Yet, if you see the abstract nature of a cup (to take a simple example) and begin to note the complexity of visual relationships in such a simple object, you will find that it is not so simple, and also that it is not just an abstraction but it is still a cup. Will remain a cup. you cannot separate the cup from its abstract nature. Even if you break it you cannot separate the broken cup from its abstract nature. If the truth is reality is both abstract and representational, it follows that a true painting will be both representational and abstract.
A true work of art is abstract, to take away the representation or to simply have abstract shapes doesn't make for more sophistication, it just shows a lack of understanding and subtlety.
Cezanne says "We are the primitives of a new art. And proceeds to show us an aesthetic reality both purely classical, and personal. All the best of his contemporaries express themselves in terms of a more evolved understanding. They begin to use the palette and brush as the pianist uses his keyboard or the conductor his orchestra. They don't throw out representational form but imbue it with the rhythms of its abstract nature, translate it into visual music each according to her or his artistic personality. There is today a new academy to rebel against. An academy of neo-modernism, neo-classicism being the other side of the coin.
Who will see the world with their own eyes and break the chains of culture. Who can see a vase and flowers with some fruit (a still life) as the width and breadth of cosmos and bring to it painting that has originality. Who is willing to have art be Her or his life and have her/his life be art. Who is willing to say with the simple conviction of honest seeing "but the Emperor has got no clothes on!
Begin by looking without judgment. Do not be too sure of yourself. allow your sensitivity to develop slowly and surely or quickly and surely. You must be able to receive a painting fully , and out of that openness a sure judgment will arise, not based on some idea of what makes something art, but on an experience of which intellect is merely a servant.
Cezanne says if you want to paint you must avoid the literary spirit! Likewise if you are to appreciate a painting, you must avoid the literary. It is the disposition of color and execution of the same on a specific surface that determines a paintings value.