Friday, November 27, 2015

Harold Speed on Modern Art, Part 2

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
2. "Aspects of nature that had been hopelessly unpaintable on the old formulas were found to lend themselves to expressions in colour."
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. " 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
5. "There is something about Cezanne, something about his uncompromising attitude toward all the softer graces of expression, and his love of uncouth directness, that makes him particularly attractive to a very large body of young painters." 
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
7. In modern "ism" movements, the aesthetic approach is to openly flout every other artistic consideration, and to limit the statement to a single principle.
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.


james holland said...

Hi James,
The Cezanne doesn't look right.It seems to be a copy or version of the Mont Ste Victoire in Edinburgh from the 1890s.That painting is based on blue/grey and ochre contrasts.

Rubysboy said...

The arguments justifying traditional realism as against any of the avant garde movements like impressionism in Speed's time, seem to me to have been settled pretty definitively by the notion of codes. When viewers process a work of art they 'read' patches of paint as standing for things that might exist in a possible world. The elaborate code developed in the West, culminating in 19th century academic painting involved perspective, a systematic treatment of the way light falls on forms, and several other subsystems useful in specific situations, such as atmospheric perspective for landscapes. In its heyday this set of codes was taken to be natural, THE best way to represent scenes of all kinds in paint on a flat surface. This is the way the world really looks, so this is the one true code for representing the world in painting. (Color was not strictly determined by the code. Depending on lighting, colors could take on quite a range and still seem natural and right. Also, people disagreed about whether marks could be left visible on the painting's surface.) The camera confirmed that the Western way was the true way to picture the world.

What the impressionists began and the subsequent avant garde movements extended was to challenge the hegemony of this set of codes by exploring others: color chosen for emotional effect, brushwork taking on interest for itself, replacing curved surfaces with flat planes, various kinds of distortion of shape and form, and on and on and on. At first, these new codes were taken as intentional flouting of accepted norms, but gradually viewers, artists, and critics came to see value in these other ways of showing things in paint. Eventually the pendulum swung so far that inventing new codes was seen as the artist's highest calling. Following the old conventions was seen as old-fashioned and perhaps cowardly.

Studies of human perception showed that we don't see like a camera. Our eyes are in constant motion, tiny involuntary saccades that project a flickering light pattern on our retinas which our brains then use for many different purposes. We CAN use these cues to build a picture that looks like it was taken by a camera, with great effort, but in going about our daily business we see quick glimpses that we take as cues for constructing a stable, partial, 'good enough' mental model of our surroundings. Some parts of the model we make have great amounts of detail, other parts slur over most detail. We have focal vision which takes in more detail and peripheral vision which takes in less, and then our brains store some of that detail and discard the rest. So the Western code is not THE way we see, but applies only to our focal vision and to the parts of that that we choose to notice and recall.

Representational painting can now be seen as a matter of choosing codes to stand for things in the world, there being countlessly many possible codes, conforming more or less or not at all to the Western traditional consensus. Many of these codes seem to work to express qualities people value, and people are free to choose among them and take their chances with public acceptance. Clearly traditional realism has much to recommend it, but claims that it is THE way or the REAL way to represent the world in paint can no longer be taken seriously. And claims that it is the BEST way have to be seen as matters of taste and opinion.

James Gurney said...

Fascinating perspective, Rubysboy, thanks for that. Yes, I never liked framing the debate as being Modernism vs. Realism, because there are so many kinds of modernism and so many kinds of realism, and so many forms of synthesis between the two. There are so many ways of painting realistically or representationally that don't look the least bit like photography.

And there are so many kinds of fascinating modern or contemporary works that fall outside the standard narrative of art history (for example, 1960s illustration, '30s animation, or underground comix). My love for all those truly modern, often abstracted works make me resistant to sign onto the "Realism is the Only Way" mantra of some recent art organizations and website.

James, I think you've got something there. The file I posted must have been boosted in saturation somewhere down the line. Other paintings by Cezanne of the same subject have a different and more subtle color range:

Unknown said...

Rubysboy, I think it is a matter of opinion as to the style one likes to paint in. Abstract artists have helped to marginalize realism and take away artistic freedom from those who do appreciate realistic art. I think this is wrong. Abstract artists seem to think that their way of painting is THE way. That's wrong. Let's allow INDIVIDUALS to be who they really are and maybe there will be more artistic freedom for all of us.

Chris James said...

Agree with Gr ia. The Modernists, at least the critics and establishment, were dealing in dogma. Exclusion is not valid if your business is to honestly assess any work of art. Yet exclude they did, anything that looked like any specific something. This smacks of a cultural/political agenda at play, such as destroying the old cultural values to make way for the new world envisioned by the self-proclaimed masters of the universe. Facilitate the isolation and thus control of peoples by un-mooring them from their traditions. At any rate, they stifled artists' freedom as much as they claimed academic realism did. What sense does that make?

But you know, the Royal Academy was dogmatic in its own way. Maybe Modernism was karmic retribution. I place a share of the blame for the "death" of painting on Academic art. Would abstraction and photography have been so easily able to supplant artists as idiosyncratic as Brueghel the Elder* or William Blake?

I believe that Impressionism was a positive for painting, but it seems/seemed to be limited to the depiction of prosaic subject matter, of which I'm not interested outside of exploring technique.

*I'm aware of the film 'The Mill and the Cross." Close, but no cigar. Because just like a Frazetta (of which you can see many unintentionally hilarious photographic recreations on Flickr), a large part of the aesthetic of Brueghel is in his figures, and good luck finding models with those traits.

seadit said...

At the core of everything Speed is concerned about is art: what is it and how does one create it. As in his book about drawing, he’s pretty adamant that things like composition and technique are simply the necessary tools used to express whatever it is that is driving the artist. This is a book about oil painting, and the introduction is setting up the interested reader (student?) how to best go about expressing oneself through this medium in part by understanding and appreciating the past. I think his arguments against Modern, abstract and even impressionists were that too often these tools are either lacking or not used correctly.

His discussion about art reflecting society and the changes they were experiencing prior to and during his lifetime are pretty interesting, and I see similarities to our own society and culture. A good example is in point #8: “I am inclined to believe that every age has the art it deserves”. Speed argues that because of economic pressures ‘art is suffering from…a proper place in the social economy’ and that ‘the mass of people do not easily recognize ability superior to their own…but they do recognize superior wealth, hence wealth tends in democratic countries to become the standard of values by which alone ability is recognized.” And then the kicker, which hit close to home (I work for a corporation doing graphic design and art direction): “Art, that should be directing the quality of our machine-made productions as it formerly directed the hand-made, is thrust aside in all the commercial rush, except in so far as it may, by attractive advertisements, aid the unloading of indifferent wares upon unsuspecting public.” Pretty much sounds dead on to me and my participation in it (no, I’m not terribly proud). We might deserve better James, but at the same time, maybe we’re getting (collectively) what we desire most (think Kardashians and Real Housewives of _____).

#6. On a related note, there is currently an exhibit in Seattle at SAM called ‘Intimate Impressionism’ - a collection of Impressionist work on loan from the the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.. I’ve seen less reverence shown in the great churches of Europe than I did the 2 times we went to see the exhibit, and yet I would argue that some of the works on display, were it not for who painted them and to some extent their age, would not fetch much at an antique store let alone a gallery. So what is it that makes them so endearing and delightful to see and experience? Maybe the best quote of the chapter sums it up best: “Great works of art still remain outside the world of pure intellect, and are best comprehended by the simple attitude of mind that drinks in the impression with only a long Oh! to express appreciation.”

James Gurney said...

@seadit: "...would not fetch much at an antique store..."
We call that the Thrift Store Test. Take a painting from a museum, erase the signature, and put it in a bad frame at a thrift store between the hockey skates and the yogurt maker. How much would someone really pay for it?

seadit said...

Ha! I like it. I'd like to think I'd pass the test when presented with such an opportunity :)

Lou said...

Thrift Store Test; perfect!

For me the biggest takeaway from this chapter was Speed's criticism of poorly executed work of any genre or "ism" whether one considers it fine art or not. Summed up in a couple of statements; "Pictures so shoddily put together that they prevent all but the few from perceiving that they have an aesthetic at all, underlying their obvious slovenliness of execution. And then "...such diagrams are not works of art but exercises in the anatomy of composition. And that is all that abstract drawing unassociated with anything but itself, can arrive at."

Rich said...

5. I will have to add this little anecdote in Cezanne's favour:

It must have been during the turn of the century: Cezanne's "Young Man with a Red Waistcoat" was up for purchase by the Duesseldorf Art Museum, which aroused the vehement protests from a prominent art critic of the times. He especially disliked the "distortion" of the painted boy's right arm. The purchase was prevented, but still the picture was on exhibition for some time. One day, in front of the painting, the critic happened to meet Max Liebermann (20.07.1847 - 08.02.1935), the accomplished realist painter who in his later years had turned impressionist. A hot debate between the two developed, with Liebermann full of praise for the painting's composition and mood of color. The upset critic finally asked: "And what about that unendingly long right arm?!"
"Well", Liebermann replied, "it is so beautifully painted - it just can't be long enough."...

James Gurney said...

Great anecdote, thank you, Rich!