Today we'll take a look at the second half of Harold Speed's chapter on Modern Art from his 1924 art instruction book Oil Painting Techniques and Materials.
I'll present Speed's main points in boldface type either verbatim or paraphrased, followed by comments of my own. If you want to add a comment, please use the numbered points to refer to the relevant section of the chapter.
1. The "extreme impressionist movement" was the product of an age of scientific discovery.
Since we often think of Impressionism as a nostalgic style, it's easy to forget that it was founded on new scientific theories of light and vision. Speed is receptive to the gains that impressionism brought to painting, particularly in the freshening of the palette.
|Childe Hassam - Une averse|
The Impressionists were revolutionary not only to their approach to color and painting, but also to their subject choices, painting contemporary life at unusual times of day or atmospheric conditions.
3. "...it did not lead art very far and had no possibilities of development."
There had to be a "but" in there. Speed sees the development into Post-Impressionism and Cubism as a consequence of the inevitable dead end of the "extreme impressionist movement."
4. Cutting with the art of the past
He argues that a flaw of the extreme impressionist position was to "entirely cut with the art of the past." That attitude exists even today among many academics, curators, and art historians. For example, a college near us built a big art museum, but they only show work of the later 20th century and beyond. All of their traditional realist paintings are either put in storage or relegated to a private, locked building that the public is not allowed to enter. The result is that the art of pre-20th century is effectively obliterated from consideration.
Had he lived into the 1960s, Speed would have been shocked to see the fervor for dumping the past as art schools gleefully pushed their plaster cast collections out of second-floor windows to crash in pieces on the ground. Speed is arguing that the extreme end of any ideological or religious movement can get destructive. He says, "There is something of Puritan austerity, a love of destroying pleasing things, and a dislike of seeing things going on too comfortably, in many of these modern movements....and a secret pride in being misunderstood, and if possible, persecuted."
|"La Mont Sainte Victoire" by Paul Cezanne|
It is remarkable what a large shadow Cezanne cast over painters in the 20th century. If you look at 1950s American Artist magazine, you can see realist painters trying to absorb Cezanne into their way of seeing. He was rapturously elevated all the time in our art-school composition classes. Speed says: "He was deeply concerned with the third dimension in painting." I don't personally see that—maybe I never "got" Cezanne. His work has always struck me as rather concerned with flatness, and full of deliberate distortions.
6. Art, like religion, holds that these emotional perceptions put us in touch with things transcending the material world...and open up a correspondence with the world of ultimate realities.
This is an important value of art that was often overlooked in the era Speed was talking about, and is still often overlooked today, as many people are concerned with painterly surface and natural appearances. Speed seems to be acknowledging that the modern movement (meaning primarily Impressionism) was sound and valid at its core, but that the extremists were distorting the value of it by forgetting spiritual values, good design, and subtlety.
|Painting by Thomas Moran|
To me, this was the problem with the abstract painting movement. I love the beauty of abstraction, but the abstract artists weren't the best at it. I always thought that the best abstract painters were realists like Thomas Moran or Andrew Wyeth, perhaps because they were accountable to nature. As Speed puts it: "Abstract ideas "gain their full significance in painting and sculpture only when associated with the representation of nature. Unassociated with anything but themselves, such abstract lines, tones, or colours become mere geometrical diagrams."
Most abstract-only painters have had a clumsy sense of color and design. Other abstract artists, it must be admitted, found their way to this way of painting because it doesn't require the drawing skills of realist painting.
Some abstract artists were sincerely trying to find in the visual arts some equivalent to the pure expression of music, but for reasons I'll have to cover in another post, visual art and auditory art are fundamentally different, making the goal of "painting aspiring to the condition of music" an impossible goal. Or at least that the goal of achieving pure abstraction in the visual arts is reached most perfectly by music visualizer programs, wallpaper, or motel art (not to disparage any of those forms—they all have their purpose).
8. "I am inclined to believe that every age has the art it deserves."
Maybe so, but I think we deserve better. Given that the Internet has created a level playing field where young artists can immediately find their way to the work they love, there's no reason that our age can't be the breeding ground of great work in every field of art. Speed here talks about a theme he developed earlier in the chapter, associating the art that is ascendant in any age with the cultural values that circulate around it.
9. "There are formulas at the basis of all good artistic design."
...but he says the life of the art is not in the formula. Art escapes the formula.
10. "There is no modern art any more than there is any modern truth. There is just Art and Truth. There is good and bad art, as there is truth and untruth."
Speed says that when you have to put an adjective in front of a kind of art, such as "Futurist Art" or "Post Impressionist Art" it marks it as second rate.
Speed concludes with some interesting points:
"The vigor and directness of expression one finds in good primitive art may be the thing we need in these days, but the scrapping of all traditions of fine painting and going back to a crude primitive means of expression is not the only way of reinculcating it.... The true advance in art is along the middle lines, in tune with a tradition of natural truth."
"What is original is only what is true, a newly perceived truth."
Next week: Chapter 3, The technique of painting.
In its original edition, the book is called "The Science and Practice of Oil Painting." Unfortunately it's not available in a free edition, but there's an inexpensive print edition that Dover publishes under a different title "Oil Painting Techniques and Materials," and there's also a Kindle edition.