In the fine arts, the spiritual revolution that ushered in modernism occurred
in the last decades of the 19th century. The decisive step thereby taken by the
great pioneers of modernism-Monet, Cézanne, and van Gogh-consisted in the
radical renewal of pictorial techniques and the change in meaning these artists
attributed to them in the artistic process.
To appreciate the audacity and singularity of their achievement, one must understand the then prevailing cultural climate. In quantity, art production during the Second Empire surpassed all earlier epochs. At the annual exhibitions of the Salon from 1864, some four to six thousand paintings and sculptures were on view, attracting some 300,000 visitors each year. The artistic quality of the works on display was in no way commensurate with the immense popularity and financial success of this event; apart from a very few exceptions, the aesthetic and spiritual level had reached an all-time low.
Most artists of fame and note in Paris between 1850 and 1890 do not even figure among the also-rans in today's history books (figs. 54-56). According to Hauser, the Second Empire saw the birth of kitsch: There had, of course, been bad painters and untalented writers, rough-hewn and quickly finished works, diluted and bungled artistic ideas, in earlier times; but the inferior had been unmistakably inferior, vulgar and tasteless, unpretentious and insignificant-the elegant rubbish, inartistic trifle turned out with dexterity and a show of skill had never existed before, or at most as a by-product. Now, however, these trifles became the norm, and the substitution of quality by the mere appearance of quality the general rule. The aim is to make the enjoyment of art as effortless and agreeable as possible, to take from it all difficulty and complication, everything problematical and tormenting, in short, to reduce the artistic to the pleasant and ingratiating.1
The supposed quality of this "elegant rubbish" was achieved primarily through excessive Naturalism. The meaning of this artistic device-deft verisimilitude in representing nature-has shifted several times in the course of artistic developments. Byzantine and Romanesque art were not naturalistic but rather symbolically expressive. An early, archaic form of Naturalism does not appear in Christian Europe until the 14th century in the work of Giotto. The rise of scientific thought based on the domination of Nature and rational insight, and the attendant secularization of the Christian faith, now finds an artistic parallel in the steadily growing mastery and perfection of a faithful representation of nature and the successive shift of artistic interest from the sacred to the profane, from the symbolic to the concrete. Both processes-the development of naturalistic means of representation as well as the emergence of a natural weltanschauung unrelated to Christianity-are sustained by a realistic attitude and furthered by ambitions that do justice to the needs of the ego, and both take their orientation from an idealized structure that espouses real, tangible, verifiable values, namely the real, the true, and the right.2 At the beginning of the 16th century, this two-fold development reaches its first climax in the work of Leonardo; the call for the real, the true, and the right is fulfilled in an exemplary fashion; artistic developments have entered their classical phase.
But once the mastery of naturalistic representation has been achieved, it becomes an attainable artistic technique. After the brief transitional phase of Mannerism, which foregrounds the style of a work, its so-called maniera, the emphasis of the artistic message shifts from the representation itself to the represented. Pictorial means are divested of all autonomous meaning and endowed with a purely subordinate function-they become a means to an end. The ground has thus been cleared for the spread of kitsch in European art, the more so as exhibitionist ambitions and naturalistic skills begin to loosen their original ties to an idealized structure and lose their spiritual orientation. In Georg Schmidt's words: Kitsch is outer rightness with inner untruth.3
In the 17th and 18th centuries, painting serves the purposes of political or religious absolutism. It is deployed by church and state as an instrument of domination and gratifies the need for prestige among the noble, mighty, and rich of this world. As the art trade becomes more democratic and a free art market emerges, the former patrons of the arts in the 19th century are replaced by an aspiring middle class with buying power but little aesthetic expertise. The new ruling class wants to be stimulated, amused, and entertained. Art is supposed to be stirring, elevating, or frightening with scenes that are melodramatic or slightly risqué, adventures without danger, heroic passions, moral convictions, models worthy of admiration, patriotic virtues, and all manner of vicarious thrills. Above all, however, it is meant to authenticate the opinions and prejudices of the bourgeoisie and ward off the doubts, anxieties, and guilt feelings that threaten its self-image and narcissist equilibrium.
The Salon art of the Second Empire replaces inner and outer reality with wishful thinking, with an illusion, whereby Naturalism is assigned the task of lending the subject matter of the representation credibility. This style, which originated in the desire to achieve objective insight, now serves the purposes of an opportunistic, idealizing attitude and thus denies its own spiritual foundations-art degenerates into kitsch.4
Significantly, the creative and genuinely innovative artists at that time
reject the illusionist Naturalism of the Salon painters. The reproduction of
nature with photographic precision can be reconciled neither with the free
brushstroke of Delacroix nor with the realistic approach of artists like
Daumier, Courbet, or Manet, who attribute vital significance to the process of
painting a picture.
The Impressionists, finally, do away altogether with the contradiction between artistic intention and means of representation by disregarding the literary meaning of their subject matter and concentrating only on the sensual-visual dimension of the visible. In so doing, they discover the power of color and a new form of reality: the reality of the pictorial.
In its first phase, modernism already undergoes the four basic interpretations that are to determine later developments; they correspond to the four attitudes also expressed in the art movements of the 19th century-Classicism, Romanticism, Realism, and Symbolism-but they now apply to a different world and are based on a new, holistic approach to reality.
I. The Reality of Perception
Édouard Manet (1832-1883) and the Primacy of the Present
The scandalous successes of Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe and Olympia seal Manet's reputation as the most important representative of the contemporary avant-garde. While official art criticism continues to renounce his work, he exerts a steadily growing influence on succeeding generations of artists. At the end of the 1860s, he is at the center of a group of young critics, writers, and painters who meet regularly at a coffee house, the famous Café Guerbois, not far from his studio. In the following years, the painters in this circle-Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas, Cézanne, and Berthe Morisot-will revamp the contemporary concept of art as well as the art trade in the French capital.
Their first common action is directed against the exhibition monopoly of the official Salon des Artistes Français. For want of any other noteworthy venues, the annual Salon was the only opportunity for most artists to present themselves to the public. A painter's success and livelihood depended not merely on being accepted but also on being well placed in the Salon. Unconventional art had little likelihood of being accepted by the academically oriented jury.
The fate of their admired model Manet and the repeated failure of their own uncompromising works to gain acceptance persuaded the Café Guerbois artists of the need to create an alternative to the official Salon. They decided to launch a strictly regulated association of artists, financed by membership dues which would enable them to rent a space for the public presentation of larger groups of work independently of the official Salon. The outbreak of the German-French war in 1870 and the ensuing uprising of the Commune temporarily thwarted these plans but the artists of the Café Guerbois tackled their project again after the war: on December 27, 1873, they signed the charter of the Societé Anonyme des Artistes peintres, sculpteurs et graveurs, and on April 15, 1874, the Societé and a number of befriended colleagues opened the first of the eight legendary group shows that have gone down in history as the Impressionist Exhibitions, although this is actually a misnomer.5
By subsuming all of the Societé's members under the label of 'Impressionism', the mistaken impression arises of a stylistically homogeneous group. The participating artists, different from exhibition to exhibition, certainly shared an opposition to the Academy and they all belonged to the avant-garde, but they did not all champion the same style. This even applies to the artists of the Café Guerbois, who formed the core of the group. They were all equally enthusiastic about Manet's spontaneous, immediate manner of painting and shared his joyous, unconditional affirmation of the modern world but they clearly took different approaches on how to represent it.
Paris-a bustling, pulsating cosmopolitan city with broad, tree-lined avenues-communicated an entirely new ambiance with its department stores (the grand magazins that still exist today), opera, countless theaters and café concerts, its famous Folies Bergères, and an inexhaustible palette of other diversions, such as promenades, horse races and boating, concerts, balls, and exhibitions.
In contrast to the Symbolists whose goal was to attain the sublime and the meaningful, Manet and his followers welcomed the expression of a new age in this exciting, though trivial spectacle. Using short, rapidly placed brushstrokes and eschewing clearly defined detail, they painted the grand boulevards and promenades along the Seine, the new railroad stations and steel bridges, the life in the coffee houses, restaurants, and bars, the world of the theater, the singers, dancers, and artistes of the cabaret. In these representations of the city and its everyday life, painting of the 19th century acknowledged the present for the first time (figs. 57-61).
Claude Monet (1840-1926) and the Primacy of Light
Despite the agreement of subject matter among the artists of the Café Guerbois, strictly speaking only Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Pissarro can be classified as Impressionists.
While Manet and Degas continue to paint figurative and urban motifs, Monet and his friends turn, at the beginning of the 1870s, to landscape motifs. But instead of romanticizing them like Corot and the painters of the Barbizon school, they paint the environs of Paris from the point of view of the cosmopolitan city dweller for whom Nature serves primarily as a source of recreation.
The ceaseless search for entertainment and diversion led to the discovery of the Seine: the river is used for rowing, sailing, swimming, the shores for excursions and picnics. One of the most popular sites for excursions is Argenteuil. The restaurants lining the shore, the innumerable pleasure boats with their colorful sails, the striped jerseys of the rowers, the soft coloring of the women's fashions, the motley parasols, and the constantly changing light reflexes on the water present a joyous and serene spectacle of life from which all troubles and cares seemed to have been banned.
Here young painters find a cornucopia of motifs and conditions that perfectly satisfies their artistic intentions. They are accustomed to setting up their easels outdoors the better to capture the immediate impression of their motifs. Argenteuil is eminently suited to their purpose. The constantly changing scenery forces them to work rapidly, in keeping with their desire to capture the fleeting moment but also the overall mood, the entire wealth of colors and shapes in spontaneous brushstrokes.
The surface of the rippling waters dissolves into an infinity of light reflexes, the sun melts all solidity, blurs outlines, colors the shadows, makes things weightless, and takes all sense of depth away from space. Nature loses its character as an object and is transformed into a flood of sensual impressions. The artistic rendition of this experience marks the beginning of Impressionism (figs. 62, 64).
Visible reality, which has already lost its symbolic significance in Manet's art, loses its physical weight as well in the work of his successors and is reduced to the impression that it leaves on the retina. Its material quality evaporates and, in this radical sense, becomes mere appearance, an "impression." Monet and his friends no longer paint their subject matter as it is but rather the way they see it. Not the perceived but the process of perception now becomes the subject matter of the representation. The medium of this process is light, or pure color, which is the same thing for the Impressionists. Instead of the haptic, tangible reality of the Realists, this medium now stands for the truth, it represents a new ideal. It is thus primarily through the use of color that these painters, the actual Impressionists, distinguish themselves from their predecessors as well as from their colleagues within the Société, who continue to cultivate the other modes of painting.
They realize that neither Courbet's discreet, earthy chiaroscuro nor Manet's strongly contrasting areas of colorful light and profound darkness can do justice to the light of Nature. Following first attempts to approach the matter by brightening their shadows and assiduously avoiding the use of pure black, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Pissarro develop a new mode of painting in largely unbroken colors, based on Delacroix's theory of complementary contrasts.6
According to Delacroix, white sunlight consists of a blend of the six colors of the spectrum as seen in the rainbow. If the colors are placed on a circle in the same order as they appear in the rainbow, the so-called color circle results: red/orange/yellow/green/blue/violet (fig. 63). Red, yellow, and blue are the primary colors; the other three the secondary ones produced by mixing the primaries: orange is a mixture of red and yellow; green of yellow and blue, violet of blue and red. In the color circle, a primary and a secondary color are always juxtaposed. These opposing colors each yield a complementary pair, meaning that they generate each other on the retina. This "simultaneous effect" can be experimentally tested. If you stare at a pure red surface for about one minute and then close your eyes, the complementary color green will appear in the darkness. The same effect results when focusing on the other pure colors of the spectrum (and also on black and white as a complementary pair of noncolors).
On the basis of this color theory, the Impressionists develop a number of artistic principles aimed at lending their paintings a greater luminosity and more intense coloring. They begin using the pure colors of the spectrum as much as possible and avoid all grays and browns. To heighten the intensity of their paintings even more, they take to placing complementary colors close together or interspersing large areas of a certain color with small particles of its complement. Finally, they apply unmixed colors in a compact layer (rather than a wash) in many short, even brushstrokes, each of which forms a single unit of color. The interaction between these countless, uniformly dimensioned elements of pure color sets the painting vibrating and generates the color-filled spaces of light that typify Impressionist art.
These artistic principles-the use of pure colors, of complementaries, and of the Impressionist comma-like brushstroke-have far-reaching consequences for the naturalism of their art.
Foreground and background are now equally bright and equally fuzzy; through the use of contrasting colors, warm and cool hues appear both in front and in back. The Impressionists thereby sacrifice naturalistic aerial perspective (dark and focused in front, bright and blurred in back) and naturalistic color perspective (warm hues in front, cool ones in back). The almost shadowless brightness of their paintings as well as the comma technique dissolves all contours and necessarily reduces the solidity of the subject matter. The loosely applied pastose brushstroke additionally undermines the illusion of materiality. Earth, grass and trees, walls and roofs, water and air are all rendered as pure physical color and can no longer be materially distinguished. The intrinsic laws of their coloring ultimately collide with the naturalistic color of objects: walls become green or pink, trees violet or blue, the sky possibly yellow.
As we know today, the weakening of what we grasp on the surface and perceive rationally did not merely entail a loss but actually led to unexpected enrichment. The use of the pure colors of the spectrum suffuses Impressionist coloring with an unprecedented musicality. Georg Schmidt, to whom I am indebted for the present analysis of the characteristics of the Impressionist style, aptly compares the thick, object-related painting of the pleinairists to our speaking voice, and painting with pure colors to our singing voice. Impressionism taught painting to sing, and turned the painter into a musician.7 The introduction of a musical dimension in painting, the so-called "liberation of color," undoubtedly represents the greatest artistic achievement of the Impressionists.
In consequence Manet cannot be cast as an Impressionist. Although he was their great inspiration and mentor, he did not join in the color revolution of his younger colleagues. The same applies to Degas, who unfortunately cannot be discussed within the framework of the present study. He is not an Impressionist either; his interest in color is secondary, his artistic concerns are formal in nature: If I had my life to live over again, the aging artist confides to a friend in 1906, I would work only in black and white.8
The purest and most consummate form of Impressionism and its discovery of the nonfigurative potential of color is found in the light-flooded paintings of Monet's late period. In 1890 at the age of fifty, the artist embarks on his Series, variations on a single motif painted at different times of day to show the modification to which all visible things are subject through constantly changing lighting conditions. He begins with his famous renditions of Haystacks, twenty all told. Seventeen Cathedrals follow in 1894, with titles indicating a fabric of sound, Harmonie rose, Harmonie verte, etc.; in 1903 the London pictures, then the Poplars, and finally the Water Lilies (fig. 65), the I, and the Venice series, c. 1912, in which image and mirror image have become interchangeable.
Monet transferred the artistic statement from the subject matter to the painterly process itself. The ideal is thus lent direct sensual expression of unprecedented proportions. The quality of concrete reality no longer pertains to the visible world, to the subject matter, but exclusively to its representation, to the painted picture. The essence of the artistic statement shifts from the content of the picture to the picture itself, from the level of objects to the level of dynamics. The artistic means are relieved of their purely subordinate function and step into the foreground as vehicles of meaning. The ideal loses its objective representation and becomes a dynamic principle. The represented and the manner of representation become one.
This new artistic approach is the decisive feature of ensuing developments. The most succinct formulation of this fundamental change, which ultimately led to nonobjective art, stems from Matisse. When a viewer accuses him of painting women the likes of which he has never seen before, the master retorts, I don't paint women, I paint pictures.
The achievement of the Impressionists does not, however, exhaust itself in the new meaning with which they invest artistic means of composition. By questioning the traditional approach to visible reality, they set a new goal for painting: the structures underlying the manifestly visible world become a new invisible reality that has yet to be charted.
Georges Seurat (1859-1891) and the Primacy of Analysis
Georges Seurat is the first artist to attempt to analytically grasp and systematically represent the structure of the visible world. To this end he founds the movement of Pointillism. He begins by examining and elaborating on the scientific basis of the Impressionist theory of color. He studies the most important works of modern color theory in order to apply systematically what the Impressionists have implemented with empirical license. The insights he acquires enable him to work out a new style of painting and a new artistic doctrine that is-in his own words-the necessary and logical consequence of Impressionism.
Color in his paintings serves the requirements of what might be called a scientific ideal. With the detachment and unwavering objectivity of a physicist, he proceeds to uncover not only the chromatic but also the formal laws of visible appearances and to reduce them to their elementary components.
Seurat adopts the Impressionists' principle of limitation to the primary colors of the spectrum; like them, he uses complementaries to enhance the luminosity of his colors. But his pictures are not fleeting, spontaneous records made outdoors; they are the result of a prolonged and laborious process in the seclusion of the studio, which in effect becomes his laboratory. Seurat applies his paint in countless, lozenge-shaped, closely crowded dots with the methodical precision of a technical draftsman. Like a color lithograph today, he constructs his subject out of an evenly placed grid of colored dots, which lends his paintings their unmistakable, mechanical and impersonal character (fig. 67). Although this grid generates a curious vibrancy in the body of color as a whole, Seurat is not as interested in making his colors sing as in expounding the validity and effectiveness of a physical principle, of a theory: the visible world consists of particles; and it can be synthetically created. The formal structure of his paintings is also governed by clearly defined rules. Thus, most of Seurat's compositions consciously obey the principle of the golden mean. The creative process is subjected to the primacy of reason and hence subject to the steady control of the ego.
Not only Nature but also the human figure must bow to the new discipline. In strict profile or seen head on, reduced to its basic cylindrical shape and stiffened into sculpture or into a wooden doll turned on a lathe, it becomes an element of a monumental architecture. The geometrical stylization and mechanical perfection of these bodies is doubtless the most conspicuous and perhaps the most modern feature of Seurat's art (fig. 66).
Despite their modernity, these paintings show certain tendencies of Classicism. Like the Classicists, Seurat understands his art as a reaction to the sensuality and frivolity of his predecessors; the idea also dominates his oeuvre, he also values persuasion above all; he also willingly conforms to the requirements of an admired model, except that, in his case, it is not an artistic but a scientific authority: the principle of physical analysis and the technique of mechanical production. Cézanne described his own pictures as constructions after Nature, while Seurat's constructions draw their guidance from a scientific principle. Impressionism is thus transcended; the process of perception is not simply represented, it is analyzed; the intellectual insight thus acquired becomes the new idealized value. Individual exhibition withdraws; the ideal is exhibited.
Seurat also shares with Classicism the theoretical, ideological leanings of his art. After his premature death, his slightly younger follower, Paul Signac (1863-1935) becomes the leading exponent of Pointillism and essentially the propagator of the new theory. Signac sums up Seurat's technique in a publication of 1899, in which he presents it as the natural culmination of a process that runs through the entire 19th century. He dedicates his study to all those who have not done over again what was done before; they have had the perilous honor of producing a new manner and of expressing a personal ideal.9 The optimistic belief in progress and the unbroken faith in the future, evident in these lines, are later encountered among the Futurists, the Russian Suprematists, and the members of De Stijl, the intellectual heirs of Pointillism.
Signac's book-the subject of much debate at the time among artists and art connoisseurs and a great influence on subsequent developments-closes with the prophetic statement: This triumphant colorist has only to come forward: his palette has already been made ready for him.
Seurat "overcomes" Impressionism through the pioneering invention of
a purely pictorial concept. Paul Cézanne also transcends the realm of
pure perception; he wants to relate it to his own inner order, to his
own self; he wants to interpret it spiritually and endow it with meaning.
He finds this meaning in the artistic process, in the réalisation,
and thus predicates a new primacy.
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and the Primacy of Synthesis
In contrast to Seurat, whose painting is devoted primarily to the analysis of the visible world, Cézanne's is an art of synthesis. His vision of pictorial unity has had a profound and enduring effect on the concept of modern art. Yet the early work of the painter from Aix shows no hint of the development that was to break new ground in the fine arts. With the exception of some few portraits and still life paintings, Cézanne's early oeuvre is dominated by erotic fantasies, violence and passion. His titles-The Orgy, The Rape, The Abduction (fig. 69), The Temptations of St. Anthony, The Courtesans, The Strangled Woman-bespeak the extent to which he was accosted by his instinctual drives. As their obvious outlet, these early pictures still issue entirely from inner imaginings, from longing, desire, and need.
The artistic evolution that gives rise to the oeuvre we now associate with the name Cézanne begins in 1869, when the artist, at the age of thirty, embarks upon his first and only love affair-with his future wife, the then nineteen-year-old Marie Hortense Fiquet. That year he paints the first pictures indicative of the basic attitude that is to determine his later work: the landscape, The Railway Cutting (fig. 70), and the still life, The Black Marble Clock. Here the artist's interest is not focused on the thematic, psychological significance of his representation, but exclusively on the coloring and formal structure of the picture, on its painterly composition. Eroticism, impetuosity, and passionate exhibition have given way to conscious reflection and artistic discipline. Nonetheless, Cézanne's art at this time still remains indebted to a realist tradition.
In 1873 Pissarro, with whom he has been befriended for years, invites him to Pontoise. The two friends paint outdoors, often working side by side on the same subject. Pissarro familiarizes Cézanne with Impressionist color theory and painting techniques, thus providing him with the formal tools that he uses in the years to follow to create, step by step, the style of painting which will give his new spiritual attitude a purely pictorial expression. Cézanne begins to develop the alphabet of a painterly language that is to become the actual message of his art. From the Impressionists, he assimilates the idea that painting is primarily a matter of visual perception and that its message lies in the use of painterly means. Formally, he adopts their use of pure color and their short brushstroke; in every other respect he goes his own way. He knows what he wants: to make something out of Impressionism that is as solid and enduring as the art of museums.10 Thus, the autonomous laws of the picture become his most important concern.
To achieve a greater flatness, Cézanne renounces the single vanishing point of classical linear perspective and generates depth in his pictures by painting overlapping, interlocking layers. Instead of reducing every surface to complementary particles of color and every line to single strokes of the brush, like the Impressionists, Cézanne distills his objects into large areas of uniform color, which he delimits either by painting distinct contours or by seamlessly adjoining lighter and darker surfaces. In contrast to the Impressionists, he underscores the material density and solidity of visible reality and gives prominence to the basically cubic structure of its components.
Finally, he flattens and spreads out the short, comma-like brushstrokes of the Impressionists, and clearly accentuates their vertical, horizontal or diagonal direction. Through parallel layering, repetition, and side-by-side placement, Cézanne's brushstrokes yield formal patterns or force fields that are combined into wholes consisting of gradations of color and contrasts that reinforce and brace each other, that are mutually interwoven and superimposed.11
These innovations form the basis of his painting. His picture space is not a static container into which he places objects or freely moving figures but rather a dense configuration of irrevocably joined bodies. These emerge, in turn, out of the uninterrupted structure of small flecks of color-his brushstrokes-which rhythmically charge the entire picture plane and set it melodically vibrating through the bright-dark and warm-cold contrasts of the colors (figs. 71-74).
Thus, in addition to the motif, an immutable fabric emerges, a sovereign, self-contained pictorial reality entirely independent of the viewer's standpoint. In Cézanne's art not a single fleck of color is related solely to the qualities of the subject to be depicted; although each dab has its source in a sensation derived from nature, from the motif, it is instantly transformed into a pictorial element, a shade of color, determined first and foremost by its function within the intrinsically autonomous medium of the pictorial and chromatic composition. The mountains, rocks and trees in his landscapes; the apples, glasses, and drapery of his still lifes are no longer of interest to Cézanne as objects: they become elements of form and color in a pictorial order that reveals the immanent laws underlying all being.
The real, the true, and the right-the values of all Classical art-do not refer, in Cézanne's case, to the immediate wishes and objects of his instinctual nature, nor to the external appearance of visible reality, but rather to the spiritual structure that he perceives behind and through this reality and that he tries to reveal and realize in his painting. Everything is form, scale, and proportion; everything is tension and balance.
Although Cézanne's oeuvre is also dominated by the idealized pole of the self, one cannot speak of an exhibition of the ideal, as in Seurat's case. In Cézanne's painting the idealized structure is neither represented nor demonstrated nor glorified for its own sake but rather fulfills a formal function: it imparts the necessary orientation to the artist's will to expression. Instead of the impersonal, rationally comprehensible discipline of the Pointillist grid, which is relatively easy to implement with sufficient devotion, Cézanne posits the individual rhythm of his brushstroke. In this, the passion of his earlier work is still clearly palpable; but instead of exhausting itself, unbridled and amorphous, in pure expression, it now enters into a dialectical relationship with the invisible order of an artistic canon. The exhibitionist urge of the artist is structured and objectivized through the requirements of this canon and, in observing them, acquires not only expression but also pictorial shape. Cézanne thus imbues the things that move him with the sublimity of permanence.
Cézanne's attitude is most clearly manifested in his representations of people. Although they are painted like still lifes, they do not seem lifeless but radiate an intense spiritual presence and vitality. His portraits preserve the individual character of his sitters, and yet they do not go into psychological depth, concentrating instead on appearance. The significance Cézanne attributes to the particular is based on the insight that singularity and uniqueness entail the only possible form in which the suprapersonal and general can be realized and represented (fig. 75).
Parallel to this synthesis of ideas between the unique and the general, he aspires to achieve a synthesis between parts and wholes. At no stage in the creative process does Cézanne lose sight of the formal unity of his painting. In his memoirs, Joachim Gasquet quotes Cézanne on this subject: This is a motif, you see […]. (He repeated his gesture, holding his hands apart, fingers spread wide, bringing them slowly, very slowly together again, then squeezing and contracting them until they were interlocked.) That's what one needs to achieve. […] If one hand is too high, or too low, the whole thing is ruined. There mustn't be a single slack link, a single gap through which the emotion, the light, the truth can escape. I advance all of my canvas at one time, if you see what I mean. And in the same movement, with the same conviction, I approach all the scattered pieces. […] Everything we look at disperses and vanishes, doesn't it? Nature is always the same, and yet its appearance is always changing. It is our business as artists to convey the thrill of nature's permanence along with the elements and the appearance of all its changes. Painting must give us the flavor of nature's eternity. Everything, you understand. So I join together nature's straying hands. […] From all sides, here, there and everywhere, I select colors, tones and shades; I set them down, I bring them together. […] They make lines. They become objects-rocks, trees-without my thinking about them. They take on volume, value. If, as I perceive them, these volumes and values correspond on my canvas to the planes and patches of color that lie before me, that appear to my eyes, well then, my canvas 'joins hands'. It holds firm. It aims neither too high nor too low. It's true, dense, full.12
Idealized structures and exhibitionist ambitions are only pictorially significant for Cézanne. Perhaps more than any other artist before him, with advancing age he lives only for and through his art. He knows no other reality except that which he gives himself the task of creating: the reality of the picture, the réalisation, which to his mind he never succeeded in achieving. Shortly before his death, in conversation with Emile Bernard, he laments his artistic inadequacy, What I lack is the realisation. I am too old, I have not realized, and I will not realize now either. But Cézanne, the great master of form, was well aware of the uniqueness and the trailblazing significance of his work, for he adds,
I remain the inaugurator of the path I have discovered.13
3. The Reality of Emotion
Monet, Seurat, and Cézanne are the great pioneers of a new pictorial reality
and an essentially 'objective' art. Through the renewal of artistic means and
the new meaning assigned to them in the creative process, these artists
establish the foundations that lead not only to nonfigurative art but also to a
new expressive painting in which the Romantic attitude of the 19th century is
lent immediate sensual expression and thus invested with new life.
Abiding by the demands of an autonomous pictorial canon, the longings and ambitions of Romanticism lose their former illusionary character and acquire an objective quality: they no longer represent fantasy but become a psychic reality, a fact. By acquiring artistic shape, they become not merely a spiritual but also a sensual experience and thus an undeniable reality in the here-and-now. The two most important exponents of this new current in painting are Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) and the Primacy of Love
The life of this legendary artist, though familiar, is so intimately bound up with his oeuvre that it shall only be outlined here in brief. Before finally coming into his own in Arles, van Gogh is faced with nothing but setbacks and defeat. A deeply religious person, he feels compelled to realize his longing for a better, purer world, for human communion and love, and for mystical union with the universe-feelings that never went beyond effusive professions of faith in the work of the Nazarenes, the Pre-Raphaelites, and Millet, whom he much admired.
His entire youth moves between the two poles of religion and art. At the age of sixteen, he begins working for his uncle, an art dealer, who dismisses him after six years for his sales incompetence. The next two years are spent in London as a teacher and assistant to a minister; again he is found unsuited to the task. Upon taking up theology in Amsterdam, he is soon advised to give it up since he clearly has no prospect of successfully completing the course of study. After training as a lay preacher, he works in the Borinage, and later nurses the ill but is once more dismissed for taking the commandment of neighborly love too literally when faced with the misery of the Belgian miners. In 1879, he finally begins drawing and in 1881, at the age of 28, he paints his first picture. Although criticized for a lack of talent and skill, he spends the remainder of his life seeking to give his love form and expression.
In 1886, the young Dutchman arrives in Paris where his brother Theo, who supports him from then on, manages the branch office of a renowned art dealer. Here van Gogh meets the Impressionists, under whose influence (George Seurat's in particular) the gloomy brown tones of his early expressive art (fig. 76) give way to the use of pure color and complementary contrasts. But he cannot align himself in the long term with the noncommittal hedonism of the new style. He moves to Arles in 1888; it is here in the searing sun of the Provence that van Gogh finally finds his artistic voice, uniting the expressive passion of his early work with the newfound luminosity of color. The Impressionist indeterminacy of his painting gives way to a formal compactness; pure color is brought together in larger surfaces and the expressive line acquires dominance. Van Gogh's lines do not merely lend contour and volume but become the defining element of form in the pastose application of his paint: […] without stippling or anything else, nothing but the varied stroke, he writes to his brother.14 Every monochrome area is filled with linear life and thus dramatically heightened in rhythm and expression. But unlike Cézanne, the goal is not to reveal a formal or "spiritual" structure but to express inner feelings.
Van Gogh is obsessed with his work as if sensing that he has only two years left to complete his oeuvre. The dam has broken. The anguished self-doubts of his early years are washed away, engulfed in the mighty flood of his ecstatic devotion to the burning light of the south. In a letter to his brother he writes, Oh!, those who don't believe in this sun here are real infidels.15
In the great landscapes, portraits, flower arrangements, still lifes, and interiors painted in Arles, the Christian message of love acquires its most immediate, forceful, and idiosyncratic artistic expression: the expansive, luminous wheat fields and gnarled olive trees, the weathered faces of his neighbors, the Postman Roulin, and the Berceuse, the menacing Night Café where he spent his evenings, his bedroom, his chair, his worn shoes, and the self-portraits in which the artist discloses his tragic fate with a merciless candor entirely devoid of self-pity (figs. 77-80). Van Gogh's mental disorder was primarily narcissist in nature. It took its toll in his personal relationships and ultimately led to suicide, but his art remained unscathed. It was not an expression of his illness but rather a compensation for it. The ideals and exhibitionist ambitions that van Gogh was unable to fulfill or gratify in his social life were realized in the domain of his art, where they could flourish unimpeded by the interference and reactions of his fellow human beings.
He dreams of a great communal fraternity; he seeks out other people, kindred souls, not in remote, enraptured timelessness like Gauguin, but in his immediate surroundings. All of his pictures speak of people. His landscapes and cultivated fields and the objects of his still lifes testify to human use, to labor, suffering, and joy. He himself is unconditionally and utterly present in every landscape, every still life, every portrait. With the exception of Rembrandt, his great compatriot, van Gogh-more than any other artist-recognizes himself in all life and infuses every stroke of the brush with his entire being. In a vast, impassioned gesture, he embraces the whole world, seeking to become one with it by tearing down all dividing barriers. His pictures are born of faith and hope. They cry out for love, they crave mystical unification. His passionately modeled brushstroke and the emotional intensity of his colors are not intended to discharge pathogenic affects but testify to the passionate urge to express the elementary harmony of all being. In the creative act van Gogh becomes one with the world, in it he overcomes the tragic alienation that causes him such anguish in real life.
His masterpieces demonstrate that he never loses control despite a near ecstatic dedication to his work. The teachings of Seurat have born fruit: Don't think that I would artificially keep up a feverish condition, he writes to his brother, but do understand that I am in the midst of a complicated calculation, which results in quick succession in canvases quickly executed, but calculated long beforehand. […] Sheer work and calculation, with one's mind utterly on the stretch, like an actor on the stage in a difficult part, with a hundred things at once to think of in a single half-hour.16 Van Gogh succeeds in transforming his feelings and affects directly into color and form with an unparalleled immediacy. His inimitable signature can be recognized in the smallest detail, yet his painting never lapses into pure subjectivity. Its singularity and its emotional intensity are consistently embedded in a structure of all-embracing, general, and 'objective' values. This unique blend of violent passion and a superior order yields a compelling whole, which accounts for the inner cogency and universal validity-in short, the greatness-of van Gogh's oeuvre. And it stands in painful contrast to the tragic fate of an artist who was able to find himself only in his art.
The time in Arles is probably the happiest and most fulfilled one of the artist's tormented life. But it is of brief duration. On October 20, 1888, Gauguin fulfills van Gogh's wish and joins him in Arles in order to form the core of a community of artists that has long been a cherished goal. But the character and temperament of the two artists proves to be irreconcilable. Gauguin hates the wild religious fervor with which van Gogh hurls himself upon life and art; he despises his friend's lack of contour and unbridled enthusiasm, and his inability to keep his distance. The two are worlds apart in artistic temperament as well. Van Gogh squeezes his pictures directly out of the tube. He wants his trees to stand, take root, and grow with strength and tells his brother, If you want to grow, you have to sink into the earth. Gauguin, on the other hand, says of himself, Intuitively, instinctively, spontaneously, I love nobility, beauty, refined taste, and that motto of a bygone age, noblesse oblige. […] Therefore (instinctively and not knowing why), I am an aristocrat. As an artist.17
On December 23, the two fall out with each other. In a violent quarrel, van Gogh first threatens his friend with a razor and then cuts off part of his own ear. While he is hospitalized, Gauguin beats a hasty retreat. A few weeks after van Gogh is released from the hospital, he voluntarily commits himself to the mental institution of St. Rémy, where he uses one of the two rooms at his disposal as a studio. In a renewed burst of creative energy, he paints a series of unforgettable pictures of his surroundings: the house, the garden, the vista in front of his window, and the director of the clinic (figs. 81-83).
Following another crisis, he leaves St. Rémy and retires to Auvers-sur-Oise under the care of Dr. Gachet, where he finds accommodation at a nearby inn. The artist reacts with mixed feelings to the physician and art lover, who dabbles in painting himself. Shortly after the move to Auvers-sur-Oise, van Gogh writes to Theo, I think we must not count on Dr. Gachet at all. First of all, he is sicker than I am, I think, or shall we say just as much, so that's that. […] Now when one blind man leads another blind man, don't they both fall into the ditch? 18 But he soon revises his opinion: […] I have found a true friend […] something like another brother, so much do we resemble each other physically and also mentally.19
Van Gogh's mental condition continues to fluctuate considerably but he seems to have taken new courage. He goes to bed early, usually gets up at 5 a.m., and works with extreme intensity. In the last two and a half months of his life, he produces close to seventy paintings, including some of his masterpieces.
One can only speculate on the cause of his last, fateful and fatal crisis. Theo, whose wife gave birth to a son a few months earlier, has informed Vincent in June that he is planning to give up his employment and start an art dealership of his own; he indicates that this will entail a certain risk and possibly financial constraints. After a mutual conference in Paris, Vincent writes to his brother: It was no slight thing when we all felt our daily bread was in danger, no slight thing when for reasons other than that we felt that our means of subsistence were fragile. Back here, I still felt very sad and continued to feel the storm which threatens you weighing on me too. What was to be done-you see, I generally try to be fairly cheerful, but my life is also threatened at the very root, and my steps are also wavering. I feared-not altogether but yet a little-that being a burden to you, you felt me to be rather a thing to be dreaded, but Jo's letter proves to me clearly that you understand that for my part I am as much in toil and trouble as you are. There-once back here I set to work again-though the brush almost slipped from my fingers, but knowing exactly what I wanted, I have painted three more big canvases since. They are vast fields of wheat under troubled skies, and I did not need to go out of my way to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness.20
On July 27, van Gogh takes the innkeeper's revolver and shoots himself in the chest. Two days later, on July 29, he succumbs to his injuries, watched over by his brother, who has hastened to his side from Paris.
Despite his tragic end, van Gogh had the good fortune of being able to find comprehensive and complete fulfillment in the neutral medium of painting. He succeeded in uniting the exhibitionist ambitions of his "grandiose self" with the supra-individual values of his idealized structure, thereby giving comprehensive and universal values a unique and individual shape of their own. His suicide was an act of loyalty. Through this act, he protected the integrity of his achievement, his incomparable oeuvre, from the potential distortion and falsification of his illness.
Despite the devastating lack of success in his lifetime, van Gogh put his mark on the artistic development of modernism, not only stylistically as a painter but also ideally as a human being. His exemplary life (as Picasso described it) has put its stamp, like no other, on the self-image of the modern artist.
Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and the Primacy of Longing
Although differing from van Gogh in many respects, Gauguin shares with him one of the fundamental traits of nascent modernism: the tendency to express feelings and ideas through purely artistic means.
Gauguin's artistic development, like van Gogh's, is sparked by Impressionism. In 1879, the humble, colossal Pissarro, in Cézanne's words, introduces Gauguin to the new painting technique. However, other influences prevail at an early stage as well. Inspired by Cézanne's post-Impressionist paintings, Gauguin begins to emphasize the volume of his figures, to paint in parallel brushstrokes and condense them into rhythmical force fields, and to outline the contours of his objects.
In the Japanese color woodcut, which made its European debut in 1867 at the World Fair in Paris, the artist first encounters the artistic principles that are to leave their imprint on his later work. Gauguin is enraptured by the two-dimensionality, the use of pure color devoid of modeling, the freedom of line, and the decorative impact of these foreign prints. In 1882, the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro, later renamed the Musée de l'Homme, opens in Paris. Toward the end of the 1880s, inspired by the oriental and Peruvian pottery on display there, Gauguin makes a number of bowls, pitchers, and other vessels. They are the first examples of European sculpture indebted to exotic art. This early period culminates in the artist's first journey to the tropics (Martinique in 1887). Gauguin's ambitions and ideals begin to consolidate; he draws on the expressive power of primitive art in order to lend artistic expression to the authentic and the meaningful.
The quest for authenticity takes Gauguin to Pont Aven in Brittany in 1888, where he finds many customs preserved from earlier times and a very different atmosphere to that of the "civilized world." Soon he attracts a colony of like-minded artists who join him there. Now in his painting he combines Impressionist coloring and Cézanne's treatment of form with the graphic flatness of Japanese art, out of which he and Emile Bernard, twenty years his junior, develop the painting style known as 'cloisonnism'. The two artists go even further than Cézanne in eliminating naturalist perspective. The ground, placed upright, becomes a colored backdrop; people, animals, plants are painted with virtually no modeling. Like the enameling after which this painting style has been named, areas of bright, flat color are enclosed by dark outlines, thereby lending their pictures greater luminosity.
Gauguin finds his artistic voice in Pont Aven. In March 1891, he embarks for Tahiti. In 1893 he visits Paris, Le Pouldu, and Pont Aven once more before his final return to Tahiti in 1895. There he is able to fulfill his longings and his artistic vision: Here near my cabin, in complete silence, amid the intoxicating perfumes of nature, I dream of violent harmonies growing in the midst of natural scents that intoxicate me. […] Animal figures rigid as statues, with something indescribably solemn and religious in the rhythm of their pose, in their strange immobility. In eyes that dream, the troubled surface of an unfathomable enigma. […] And all this sings with sadness in my soul and in my design while I paint and dream with no tangible allegory within my reach […].21
Despite their tapestry-like, decorative effect, the pictures painted in Tahiti communicate an ideal message. In the enigmatically distant gaze of his exotic figures, in the melodic weave of his colors, and in the sensually rounded contours (fig. 85), we can sense Gauguin's longing for authenticity, for a reconciliation with destiny, and for a lost paradise of profound, eternal pleasure.
This longing undoubtedly reflects the weariness of city life and culture that prevailed at the end of the 19th century but in Gauguin's paintings it finds an entirely new form of artistic expression. While the Romanticists and Orientalists saw the object of longing as an unfulfilled dream, a literary idea, depicted in a primarily naturalistic, descriptive style showing exotic scenes and fantasies, Gauguin seeks to achieve a pictorial equivalent to his longing and to render its spiritual quality. In the process of trying to find suitable means of implementing his goals, he discovers the expressive power of colors. As he writes to a friend, Why shouldn't we create different harmonies that correspond to the condition of the soul. It's bad enough for those who can't grasp them. The older I get the more I insist on communicating thoughts through something besides the literary. And in another letter, Being in itself enigmatic in terms of the sensations it gives us, color cannot be logically used except enigmatically, each and every time one uses it, not to draw, but to create musical sensations that issue from color itself, from its own character, from its mysterious, enigmatic inner force.22
Like Cézanne, Gauguin, while working, never loses sight of the artistic unity of his paintings, but it is not based on values of color and form alone, for he also orchestrates the ideas and emotions that are aroused by color, form, and object. I did a nude of a young girl. In that position a mere hint, and it is indecent. Yet that is the way I want it, the lines and movement interest me. So when I do the head I put in a little fear. For this fear I have to give a pretext, if not an explanation, and it has to be in keeping with the character of the person, a Maori girl. The Maoris have a very great, traditional fear of the spirit of the dead. A girl from our own part of the world would be afraid of being caught in that position (women here not at all). I have to explain this fright with the fewest possible literary devices, as in olden times. So this is what I do. Dark, sad, terrifying general harmony that rings in the eye like a funeral bell. Purple, dark blue, and orangey yellow. I make the cloth greenish yellow because the linen of these savages is different from our linen (beaten treebark), because it creates, suggests artificial light (a Kanaka woman never sleeps in the dark) and yet I do not want any suggestion of lamplight (that's ordinary), and because this yellow linking the orangey yellow and the blue completes the musical chord. There are a few flowers in the background but they mustn't be real, since they are imagined. I make them look like sparks. The Kanakas think that the phosphorescences of the night are the souls of the dead and they believe in this and are afraid.23
This suggestive description of the making of the famous painting, The Spirit of the Dead Watching (fig. 86), clearly indicates how hard Gauguin tries to synthesize different levels of perception and experience in his work, and how deeply his inner and outer experiences affect his artistic endeavors. His pictures do not describe his world; they invent it as artistic form with the evocative power of their colored signs. Gauguin's longing becomes pictorial reality.
Although the exhibitionist aspect dominates in Gauguin's painting, he too subordinates his individual ambitions to a larger idealized structure and thus unites both poles in the pictorial expression of a comprehensive, integrated self.
4. The Reality of the Irrational
The fundamental change of direction that marks the emergence of modernism can
be observed in the work of the artists discussed above. Their pictures give form
and expression to a new self-image and a new worldview. The artist's position
vis-à-vis his ideals has undergone radical change: these are no longer
represented as external literary ideas through allegories, metaphors, and
symbols, but are integrated into the artist's self. He experiences his ideals as
a spiritual structure which underlies nature and visible reality and also
affects his own inner world. As a dynamic principle, these ideals no longer
primarily determine the subject matter of the artwork but rather the process of
artistic creation. Consequently, the first artists of modernism fulfill their
exhibitionist ambitions by transforming the syntax of their artistic idiom in
their pictures. Inside and outside, emotion and reason, exhibition and ideal
form a unity that testifies to a self-awareness and a self-confidence that, as
in the Renaissance, considers itself one with God and the world.
This new artistic vision held a great attraction for contemporaries, especially for the concurrent movement of Symbolism. Faith, form, sensibility, and meaning-lost values, which the 19th century had sought in vain to recover-seemed to be within grasp again. But the extent to which they had changed escaped the Symbolists.
The Symbolists were at odds with the spiritual upheaval induced by the industrial revolution and new developments in the sciences. Their art was devoted to unreality and the supernatural, and sought to express only what lay behind or beyond visible reality. They suffered, as Hofstätter aptly puts it, from the painful longing to find a new object for feelings that had lost their old one.24 Ultimately they wanted to revive the idea of the "God-man"-the divine mortal-but in so doing they lost touch with reality. Gustave Moreau writes, Do you believe in God? I believe in him alone. I believe neither in what I touch nor in what I see. I believe only in what I do not see and only in what I feel. My brain and reason seem to me ephemeral and of a doubtful reality; my inner feeling alone seems to me eternal and indubitably certain.25
A similar artistic attitude is expounded in the Rosicrucian Manifesto, with which Sâr Péladan introduces the catalogue of the Symbolist exhibition of 1892 at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in Paris: Artist, you are a priest: art is the great mystery, and should your labors lead to a masterpiece, it is a divine ray shining as upon an altar. […] Artist, you are king: art is the great miracle and proof of immortality. […] Oh, ineffable, most serene sublimity, eternally luminous holy grail, monstrance and relic, undefeated banner, almighty art, art-God, I kneel in admiration, oh, supreme light, falling from above upon our putrefaction.26
The artist became the seer, the mouthpiece of supernatural powers that mysteriously infuse and influence life and the world. But the profound doubts about everything that had hitherto been revered and believed could neither be assuaged nor replaced by a new certainty; even the most convinced Symbolist had at best a vague inkling of what lay beyond the real, concrete world, and this inkling rarely exceeded an indistinct notion of the 'beyond'. Indeterminacy, ambivalence, and obscurity were thus the defining features of their art. According to Jean Moréas, the author of the "Symbolist Manifesto," the essence of Symbolist art lies in never conceptually fixing or directly expressing an idea. And therefore the images of nature, the deeds of man, and all concrete appearances need not be visibly present in this art but are instead symbolized through sensibly perceptible traces and hidden affinities with the original ideas.27
Despite their nebulous agenda and their distortion of light, color, space, distance, and scale in order to place the figures and appearances of their paintings in a new "supernatural" context, the Symbolists still cultivated a basically illustrative and mimetic style.
Nonetheless, they were deeply impressed by the "new painting." The rejection of realism in rendering nature, the violence of the formal idiom, and the unaccustomed luminosity of palette of the great pioneers heralded a new start, a new vision, in which the Symbolists thought they recognized the fulfillment of their own longings. But they themselves clung to a literary orientation, as illustrated by the themes chosen to express their "inner visions." They did not create a new form but incorporated their transcendental longings in the conventional tradition of figurative art. Certainly, they tried to reconcile the contradiction between the sensual and the spiritual, but, prevented by their idealism from taking seriously the teachings of Courbet and the Impressionists, they failed to analyze the visible world, which would have been the only means of making the world real through form, as Werner Haftmann has put it. The Symbolists overlooked the fact that, in the new painting, it was not the theme but color, form, and composition that conveyed the intensity of emotion they so vainly sought. Unable to recognize the pictorial discipline that defined the essence of the new painting, they idealistically (or rather, symbolically) interpreted it as a confirmation of their romantic vision of an artistic freedom in which one's own feelings are the measure of all things. The art historian, Philippe Roberts-Jones, rightly describes their approach as Irrealism.
Although the enthusiasm of the Symbolists enhanced the recognition of Seurat, Cézanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh among artists and art lovers, most of the exponents of this movement, who championed and identified with the great pioneers, had largely misunderstood the nature of their epochal achievement: the union of exhibition and ideal in the work of art.
However, even before the end of the 19th century, two artists enter the
scene, whose oeuvre liberates the Symbolist attitude from its literary
dependence and gives it pictorial form: Edvard Munch and James Ensor. In
contrast to Monet, Seurat, Cézanne, Gauguin, or van Gogh, their art is neither
guided by its own conditions and premises nor by an autonomous artistic canon
but is subject almost entirely to psychic exhibition. Psychic exhibition becomes
a supreme value and the pictorial canon, which represents the idealized order,
thus loses its autonomy. The importance of idealized structures diminishes; they
are no longer binding and can no longer confront the exhibitionist ambitions as
an equal force.
Without the dialectical exchange with objective, generally binding structures, these ambitions can no longer be integrated as part of a greater whole; instead they are the whole themselves and the standard by which all else is measured. The exhibitionist pole thus lays claim to the representation of the entire self. Munch and Ensor identify with their exhibitionist ambitions, with their 'grandiose self'. In consequence their art (unlike that of Gauguin and van Gogh) remains fragmentary despite its charismatic aura and the undeniable intensity of expression. It no longer reflects the full range of the human psyche; by treating the fragment as the whole, it distorts reality.
I have already imputed this essentially illusionary attitude to Symbolist art of the modern age, but Munch and Ensor are the first artists to give this attitude pictorial form. Distorted psychic reality thus acquires an unprecedented, typically "modern," sensual immediacy and is experienced as indisputably real. Herein lies the historical significance of these two northern artists. Their appearance in art history ushers in the transition from the Irrealism of the 19th century to Surrealism.
Edvard Munch (1863-1944) and the Primacy of Fear
In 1889, 1890, and 1891, the Norwegian Edvard Munch, whose earthy, realistically oriented plein-air painting already ranks him among the avant-garde of his country, has the opportunity to visit Paris on a government stipend. There he makes the acquaintance of Impressionist art as well as the paintings of Lautrec, Gauguin, and van Gogh. Initially he incorporates these influences in a series of typical Impressionist landscapes and cityscapes. However, the carefree uncommitted attitude of Impressionism is unable to capture the artist's imagination for long. Certainly by 1890 he has made the discovery that will exert a decisive influence on him: it is not unlikely that he attended Gauguin's presentation of a large group of works in the foyer of the Théâtre de Vaudeville, only a few steps away from his Parisian apartment. This exhibition, and the Symbolist writings then enjoying their first successes in Paris, form the spiritual background against which Munch creates his first Symbolist work, Melancholy (also known as Jealousy). All the elements of his future development are prefigured in this painting (fig. 88).
At the time Munch's friend, Jappe Nielson, was suffering from violent jealousy due to his involvement in a ménage à trois. This circumstance provides the external source and literary theme of the painting. The sensually undulating coastline of a lonely beach unites a large, silently brooding male figure in the foreground with the silhouettes of a distant pair of lovers. The overpowering figure cut off at the picture's edge is thrust between the viewer and the events in the depth of the picture, and establishes the context which transforms the distant figures, barely indicated with two short brushstrokes, into a tormenting vision, an echo of agonized jealousy. In this painting, Munch has found his artistic voice.
In quick succession the famous paintings, later restated and varied, now emerge, in which loneliness, anxiety, sex, sin, and death are lent the suggestive and inimitable expression that have come to be associated with the Norwegian artist's name: 1893 Evening on Karl Johan Street, Despair, The Kiss, 1893 Moonlight, The Storm, Starry Night, Death in the Sickroom, Hands, The Voice, The Scream, 1894 Madonna, Vampire, The Day After, Separation and Fear (figs. 89-91).
These paintings testify not only to the profound alienation of their maker's image of himself and the world but also to his finding of himself. They have often but unjustly been equated with van Gogh's work. Not only do the two artists suffer from mental disorders of a very different nature, but in each case the function and significance of their mental ill-health plays a very different role in their art.
Van Gogh's disturbance is narcissistic in nature; his painting does not give direct expression to his conflicts but is rather a means of compensation. The impact of Munch's art, on the other hand, is inextricably bound up with the neurotic syndrome expressed in it. If one considers Munch's art as an attempted cure, then this cure does not consist of compensation but of catharsis,28 of an adequate discharge of pathogenic affects.
Munch's most important themes-woman as a kindred soul and as the object of sexual desire, sin and jealousy, loneliness, anxiety and death-mirror personal experiences and the neurotic conflicts of his childhood and youth.
It would certainly not be difficult to uncover the source of his mental imbalance in the familial and social circumstances of his youth, but in the present discussion its cause is of secondary significance. Munch's incestuous closeness to his mother and sister, his experience of their premature death, his father's professional failure and religious mania may well form the core of his neurosis and determine the subject matter of his paintings, but they contribute little to an understanding of his artistic significance. The latter is not based on the essence of his inner conflict, nor on the fact that this conflict determines his art, as it also did that of many other Symbolists; Munch's significance is based on the mental attitude with which he faces his conflict and the pictorial form he lends it.
This attitude, extremely unconventional in its day, is manifested in the pitiless realism with which he exposes his most secret desires and deepest anxieties. With confessional candor, Munch casts off the veil of social convention and gives unmistakably explicit pictorial expression to the central though hidden drama of the male psyche-the Oedipus complex discovered by Freud at about the same time. Thereby, for Munch as well, woman becomes the symbol of sex, sin, and death. But instead of idealistically transfiguring sex as Moreau does or caricaturing it as Beardsley does, Munch reveals its entire conflict-laden ambivalence as a psychic reality caused by the tension between desire and anxiety, between the id and the superego.
Equally unusual at the time was the sensual immediacy with which Munch gave form and expression to these elementary human experiences. Although all of his representations are thematic in nature, the work is not illustrative. The sexual rarely manifests itself in a corresponding episode but rather in the sensuality of linear arabesques; sin does not appear as a symbolic snake but confronts us in the horror, fear, and loneliness that follow in its wake; death is not a skeleton but rather the final emptiness and absence in the face of which all life is frozen in horror and awe. Although Munch's paintings still reflect the literary significance of their subject matter, this significance is pictorially and psychologically transposed through a number of artistic devices. It is sensually experienced: through the dramaturgy of the pictorial composition, through the spatial staging of the scene, through the placement of the figures and the direction of their gaze, through the expressive power of the line, through the frighteningly magnetic pull of the perspective, and through the emptiness of the receding horizon.
Color is not employed to render appearances or for decorative effect but as an expressive device. Phosphorescent and nocturnal, familiar and alien, it is always unique. It is never limited to a mere atmospheric enhancement of the general meaning of the scene. The pallid yellow of an empty sky, the aggressive red of the inflamed woman-these colors always lie just slightly askew of the expected, never become a cliché, always remain an individual experience.
In Munch's paintings as in Gauguin's, color and form become pictorial equivalents of psychic emotions. In the tragic self-image and world view, which confronts us in the motionless figures in Evening on Karl Johan, in
The Voice, or in Death in the Sickroom, we may well recognize the "black romanticism" of the Symbolists, but in Munch's pictures its entire literary ballast has been jettisoned. It is not merely experienced through a symbol
but also through pictorial form, that is, it is a sensual and therefore a real
The expressive intensity of these pictures has, however, been purchased at the expense of their narcissist balance. Because this art primarily serves to discharge pathogenic affects and places the pictorial exclusively in the service of individual exhibition (in other words: the pictorial in this art is guided by exhibitionist ambitions and not vice versa), its idealizing tendencies have no other object but the artist himself. All of his skill having been mustered to serve self-representation, Munch's painting is no longer rooted in a higher pictorial canon. It draws its entire strength from the artist's narcissist self-reference and loses its strength the moment Munch turns away from himself and towards the outside world. Thus his most important works were painted between 1891 and 1894, in a brief span of four years. What follows is initially restatement and later decline. This circumstance is blurred by the fact that Munch repeatedly and almost literally copied his early masterpieces-in some cases even decades later. Nonetheless, a brief treatment of his further development follows.
When his work begins to enjoy success from 1895, Munch turns to more reconciliatory themes; existential anguish gives way to great, life-preserving forces.29 In addition to large, poetic and decorative landscapes, Munch paints allegorical works steeped in Symbolist pathos, such as Fertility (fig. 92), Metabolism, The Dance of Life, or Calvary, whose surface idealism is no longer pictorially transformed, hence losing its intrinsic reality. The alteration in his art at this stage is unmistakable; the neurotic contingency of the need to express himself through art takes a new, entirely unexpected turn.
His important early work, marked by the provocatively undisguised revelation of his mental anguish, his anxieties and desires, blatantly opposed the prevailing order and the sexual code. Instead of bowing to their standards, he denounced them. His paintings were a mirror in which a frightened and shocked bourgeoisie came face to face with its own hypocrisy. The early success bestowed upon Munch was tantamount to a victory over his enemies but it also eroded the psychological foundations of his rebellion and protest, yet these had provided the essential impulses for his creative endeavors. With the widespread recognition of his art, its status in his mental household began to change: It no longer served primarily as a means of discharging his pathogenic affects but rather as a confirmation of a supposed-but actually only externally achieved-reconciliation with his surroundings and his integration into bourgeois society. He had lost the enemy onto whom he had hitherto been able to project the suppressed part of his self. Affects and aspirations, thus robbed of an outlet, began to invade Munch's private life.
The thirty-four year old artist's relationship begun in 1899 with Tulla Larsson, an emancipated woman of upper middleclass Norwegian origins, plunges within a few short months into a serious crisis. Two years later their break is final, after a notorious accident in which Munch shoots off a finger of his left hand with a pistol. Several times, the now famous artist provokes physical fights with his artist colleagues, which receive sensationalist newspaper coverage. His alcoholism increases alarmingly. Despite periods of recovery in several sanatoriums (1906/07), his condition continues to deteriorate. He starts arguments and fights in restaurants with chance acquaintances and writes to numerous friends accusing them of pursuing him. Afraid of being committed to an institution, he flees to Denmark. However, he still suffers from paranoia and increasingly frequent hallucinations. When he is finally stricken with paralysis, his friends persuade him to commit himself to the clinic of the psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Jacobson in Copenhagen, but he signs himself out again a year later.
His art deteriorates in proportion to his steadily growing success. In 1909 he buys a second home on the southern coast of Norway, in 1910 another residence on the Oslofjord, and in 1916 the Ekely estate near Sköjen not far from Christiana, as Oslo was then called. The now world-famous artist is showered with major retrospectives, honors, and publications, and undertakes countless journeys all over Europe.
Despite several attempts from various sources to reinvigorate his art, Munch never manages to win back his lost vigor. He dies on January 23, 1944 in his house in Ekely. In a long series of self-portraits, his favorite means of self-mirroring into advanced age, we are confronted with a man vain, yet weak, insecure, wallowing in self-pity, and a living confirmation of Freud's maxim: a victim of his own success (fig. 93).
James Ensor (1860-1949) and the Primacy of Delusion
James Ensor is the most enigmatic of the painters whose oeuvres lent reality a new face at the end of the 19th century. He was born in Ostend in 1860 of a Flemish mother and an English father. At the age of seventeen, he attends the Academy in Brussels but returns to his hometown again two years later, full of contempt for his teachers. Apart from a few short trips, he is never to leave his birthplace again. In the first years after his return, he paints earthy, intimate portraits, still lifes, and interiors, devoting himself to his petit bourgeois surroundings with almost wistful tenderness. At that time he also creates several melancholy, deserted, landscapes and seascapes suffused with mysterious light. Their limitless expanses prefigure the tendency towards the grandiose and the absolute that is later-distorted by illness-to pervade the work of the aging artist.
In 1883 the subdued serenity of these early developments is rudely disrupted by the shrill tones of a picture in which, for the first time, the faces of the figures are transformed by masks: an old woman in a bespectacled mask menacingly enters the hideout of a drinker, who is also masked (fig. 94).
Ensor's phantasmagoric subject matter has often been associated with the souvenir store run by his parents on the ground floor of their home. Here they sold a serendipitous range of articles: seashells, corals, stuffed animals, exotic items from distant lands, and curiosities of every kind, including an array of masks and costumes. This colorful collection made an enduring impression on the boy and was doubtlessly an important source of inspiration. However, his first use of masks is not only indebted to his parents' business. In his essay, "Ensor As Exorcist," Gert Schiff takes the autobiographical interpretation of the painting much farther by identifying the old woman as Ensor's grandmother and the man with the beaked mask, whom she is scolding, as his father.30
His father, an exiled Englishman living in Ostend, had found assimilation difficult and had never succeeded in building a new life for himself. Entirely dependent upon his wife, who despised him as she later despised her son, he began drinking. For the boy, he was a kindly mentor who introduced him to the world of art and literature, rescued him from the drudgery of school, and encouraged his artistic leanings; but as a father figure for the projection of his son's ambitions and ideals, he must have been a great disappointment and must have profoundly wounded the artist's self-esteem.
While Ensor initially succeeded in compensating for these narcissist injuries and the attendant disruption of his self-esteem by following idealized goals in his painting, this compensatory function collapses for the first time in Scandalized Masks, which lends expression-albeit veiled-to the family's conflicts. The idealized structure gives way to exhibition.
The budding crisis is accelerated by the course of Ensor's artistic career. In the year that he paints Scandalized Masks, Ensor joins the circle of artists, musicians, and writers known as Les Vingt. He contributes to their annual exhibitions and, for the first time, is confronted with progressive tendencies in the arts from abroad.31
The resulting doubts are followed by further professional setbacks. The critics are baffled and hostile to his work, and in 1884 the Salon in Brussels rejects all of his submissions. In ever shorter intervals, the hitherto separate, archaic fantasies of Ensor's own grandiosity erupt in his paintings and begin to flood his consciousness and the content of his pictures.
1885-86 sees the creation of a cycle of drawings inspired by Rembrandt, Visions-les auréoles du Christ et la sensibilité de la lumiére, the first of numerous works in which Ensor depicts scenes from the life of Christ, whom he endows with his own facial features (fig. 96). In many of these drawings, Christ-Ensor is surrounded by a dense crowd of grotesque monsters, madmen and fools, grimacing faces, masks, and skeletons, all maliciously grinning, tormenting and mocking the crucified figure (fig. 97). The painting Ecce Homo or Christ and the Critics (fig. 102) patently indicates that the monstrous figures in this mob are the critics, writers, and supposed friends who rejected his work. It is they who are the target of the hatred and narcissist rage of the injured artist, expressed in countless variations on this macabre theme.
The roster of grotesque figures, wearing masks, beaks, or false noses, and bizarre headgear-hoods, feathers, cocked hats, hussar caps, or top hats-ultimately creeps into the quiet, brooding early works as well, overpainted by Ensor at a later stage. These spectral appearances, all the more disquieting for blurring the boundary between the living and the dead, exert an extraordinary fascination that undoubtedly accounts for the Symbolists' growing interest in his work from 1900 (fig. 98, 99). The mystifying ambivalence, the fantastic and the demonic, reminiscent of Goya and Fuseli, plays into the esoteric tendencies that dominate the spiritual life of the first decade in the 20th century. Ensor's art enjoys increasing acclaim: in 1903 he is awarded the Order of Leopold; in 1908 the first monograph is published; in 1913 the first book of prints; in 1920 the Giroux Gallery in Brussels mounts the first major retrospective; in 1926 Ensor represents Belgium at the Venice Biennale; in 1929 he is created a baron by King Albert; and in 1932 a large exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in Paris attests to his international renown.
In the wake of these successes Ensor's production steadily declines; the monsters, masks, and skeletons become sparser and less menacing. From 1915, Ensor spends more and more time writing aggressive speeches, sarcastic reviews, and pamphlets condemning environmental destruction. The aging painter adopts a softer and more harmonious palette. In addition to still lifes, flowers, and landscapes, he paints Arcadian landscapes and gardens of love (significantly not until after his mother's death), in which the first nudes appear as a case of tardy wishful thinking.32 Ensor dies on November 19, 1949. Thousands of people join the funeral procession. The vision of his greatest painting The Entry of Christ into Brussels (figs. 100, 101) has acquired macabre reality.
In addition to his compelling and magnificent paintings, Ensor's oeuvre includes an astonishing number of weak, simpleminded, and utterly insignificant works, entirely lacking in pictorial or expressive quality. This discrepancy requires an explanation.
The delirious character of Ensor's art and the extreme instability of his ego, revealed in his paintings and writings, place his oeuvre at the fringe of the modernist developments investigated so far. However, for this very reason, these qualities are of the greatest importance in understanding the psychological conditions that determine the creative process in general.
The story of Ensor's life is an exemplary study of the basic structure and dynamics of narcissist personality disorders, as examined and elucidated in Kohut's studies of the 'psychology of the self'. Ensor's early childhood is dominated by his mother's imperious conduct and lack of empathy and his father's idealistic but disappointingly ineffectual attitude. With his need for phallic exhibition frustrated, the child splits off his fantasies of grandeur (his grandiose self) and turns in compensation to the idealized values of music, literature and art, represented by his father. Hence the quiet serenity of
his early work, in which the light-which lends them their strange enchantment-becomes the psychic representative of the ideal and thus of his own self.
As he grows older and more confident, Ensor probably becomes increasingly aware of his father's failure, which undermines the compensatory hypercathexis of idealized structures. In any case in 1883, aggressive impulses erupt for the first time in the painting Scandalized Masks and push idealized goals into the background. Also for the first time, Ensor uses pure color, not for the sake of the pictorial concept, as in the work of the Impressionists and the post-Impressionists, but exclusively as a means of psychic expression.
The steadfast refusal to subject this intense coloring to an 'objective' chromatic order generates the inimitable, strident tone, characteristic of Ensor's most compelling pictures, and at the same time suggestively heightens their expressive impact. The lack of a binding rational order underscores the presence and efficacy of an irrational, psychic order: Ensor's colors do not generate an objective chromatic structure but rather a subjective semantic structure. The latter defies rational grasp and can only be empathetically appreciated. All the more does it activate our subliminal, unconscious reactions and resonate in the irrational regions of our souls.
The literary subject matter of the representations follows a similar course. In the most forceful works, it too remains ambivalent; the figures occupy several levels of reality at once and thus thwart the synthetic efforts of our reason to impose an order. The mutual relationship of these levels of reality eludes us; the meaning of the picture remains an enigma. It turns into a hidden psychic reality whose significance can be sensed although not understood.
The creative process in Ensor's work makes no concessions to the viewers' tastes and their ability to understand; it is governed by the pressure within the artist of dark, irrational ideas that force their way to the surface, seeking light and expression. Ensor's achievement lies in his willingness and ability to accept this pressure unconditionally,33 and to give the upwelling ideas a coherent form, and yet one that corresponds to their essence. His artistic endeavors are thereby not guided by an objective, i.e. an autonomous canon or a supra-individual ideal, but exclusively by his emotions and his 'inner countenance'. In contrast to a mental patient who is dominated by his delirium, Ensor succeeds in dealing with his visions in a manner that satisfies the needs of his ego. He gives them shape and expression and recreates them outside his own self as pictorial reality. His stand is thus detached: he frees himself from his delirium by banishing it to the canvas. But once such visions pale and the inner pressure diminishes, the lack of a binding relationship with a superior spiritual structure becomes noticeable in his art. As Ensor's success grows, he creates fewer and fewer masterpieces. With a self-indulgent lack of critical insight, the artist succumbs to the seduction of praise and begins to identify more and more with the delirium that he holds to be the source of his success. Grandiose fantasies and narcissist rage, derision, and mockery usurp the ego and invade its territory-the territory of pictorial creation. The delirium is no longer perceived as alien and menacing, but is idealized: Ensor's art becomes subject to an uncritical exaltation of the self. His works lose their expressive power and become illustrative. The ensuing art is obviously kitsch (fig. 103).
In Ensor's pictures we encounter either an artist who objectivizes his real anxieties and visions or an enraged, insulted, complacent person who avails himself of inadequate means in attempting to invest his self-image and worldview with an illusionary reality. Inasmuch as Ensor succeeds in creating a convincing pictorial rendition of his delirium in the early culmination of his work, he ranks among the pioneers of modernism and the forerunners of Surrealism.
In retrospect, we can recognize the extent to which the great pioneers
determined the subsequent course of modernism.
After Courbet demystified painting and liberated it from its idealistic superstructure, the emergence of four basic directions can be observed, in which the new consciousness was to develop and acquire artistic shape and expression. The first targets the grasp of visible reality, i.e. the actual givens. Manet, Monet, and the Impressionists discover a new subject matter, the life of the city, and, at the same time, they expose the subjective conditioning of our visual experience: the choice of contemporary motifs (Manet) and the conditions of visual perception (Monet) are their main concerns. They not only create the conceptual and pictorial prerequisites for the emergence of the other three lines in the development of modernism; their unconditional acceptance of daily reality persists in the realistic attitude that characterizes artistic endeavors from Léger to Pop Art.
The second direction targets the 'autonomous picture': Seurat and Cézanne see their painting as an ordered configuration of forms and colors, and recreate visible reality as a cogent, self-contained, purely pictorial structure. Their efforts feed into a formal, constructivist art represented by Cubism, the De Stijl movement, the Russian Constructivists, and the Bauhaus.
The third direction seeks to reveal the inner life of the soul through the expressive potential of pictorial means: Gauguin and van Gogh discover the psychic linguistic potential of color and form and recreate visible reality as an immediate emotional echo of their inner impulses and feelings, much like a musical composition. They are followed by the Fauve movement, which leads to the painterly nonfigurative art of Kandinsky, to emblematic Surrealism, and to the découpages of Matisse's late period.
The fourth direction seeks to reveal the inner life of the soul through the associative potential of external appearances and their relationship to inner ideas. Munch and Ensor unite various levels of experience in one pictorial space and interpret visible reality as the form and expression of irrational inner ideas and visions. They are succeeded by German Expressionism and figurative Surrealism, represented by artists like de Chirico, Magritte, and Dalí.34