How Modern Art Began

When people talk about 'Modern Art', they usually think of a type of art which has completely broken with the traditions of the past and tries to do things no artist would have dreamed of before.
Some like the idea of progress and believe that art, too, must keep in step with the times. Others prefer the slogan of 'the good old days', and think that modern art is all wrong. But we have seen that the situation is really much more complex, and that modern art no less than old art came into existence in response to certain definite problems.
Those who deplore the break in tradition would have to go back beyond the French Revolution of 1789, and few would think this possible. It was then, as we know, that artists had become self-conscious about styles, and had begun to experiment and to launch new movements which usually raised a new 'ism' as a battle-cry. Strangely enough, it was that branch of art which had suffered most from the general confusion of tongues that succeeded best in creating a new and lasting style; modern architecture was slow in coming, but its principles are now so firmly established that few would still want to challenge them seriously.
We remember how the gropings for a new style in building had ended with the architects cutting the Gordian knot, and throwing the whole idea of style overboard. At first it seemed as if the engineers would take over. For, if Morris had been right in thinking that the machine could never successfully emulate the work of human hands, the solution was obviously to find out what the machine could do and to regulate our designs accordingly. The architects of modem 'sky-scrapers' are engineering firms.
To some, this principle seemed to be an outrage against taste and decency. In doing away with all ornaments, the modern architects did, in fact, break with the tradition of many centuries. The whole system of fictitious 'orders', developed since the time of Brunelleschi, was swept aside and all the cobwebs of false mouldings, scrolls and pilasters brushed away.
When people first saw these houses they looked to them intolerably bare and naked. But after only a few years we have all become accustomed to their appearance and have learned to enjoy the clean outlines and simple forms of modem engineering styles. We owe this revolution in taste to a few pioneers whose first experiments in the use of modem building materials were often greeted with ridicule and hostility.
One of the experimental buildings which became a storm-centre of propaganda for and against modem architecture is the Bauhaus in Dessau, a school of architecture founded by the German Walter Gropius (born 1883) which was closed and abolished by the National Socialists. It was built to prove that art and engineering need not remain estranged from each other as they had been in the nineteenth century; that, on the contrary, each could benefit the other. The students at the school took part in the designing of buildings and fittings.
They were encouraged to use their imagination and to experiment boldly yet never to lose sight of the purpose which their design should serve. It was at this school that tubular steel chairs and similar furnishings of our daily use were first invented. The theories for which the Bauhaus stood are sometimes condensed in the slogan of 'functionalism ' - the belief that if something is only designed to fit its purpose we can let beauty look after itself.
There is certainly much truth in this belief. At any rate it has helped us to get rid of much unnecessary and tasteless knick-knackery with which the nineteenth-century ideas of Art had cluttered up our cities and our rooms.
But like all slogans it really rests on an oversimplification. Surely there are things which are functionally correct and yet rather ugly, or at least indifferent. The best works of modern architecture are beautiful not only because they happen to fit the function for which they are built, but because they were designed by men of tact and taste who knew how to make a building fit for its purpose and yet 'right' for the eye.
To discover these secret harmonies a great deal of trial and error is needed. Architects must be free to experiment with different proportions and different materials. Some of these experiments may lead them into a blind alley, but the experience gained need not be in vain for all that. No artist can always 'play safe', and nothing is more important than to recognize the role that even apparently extravagant or eccentric experiments have played in the development of new designs which we have now come to take almost for granted.
In architecture, the value of bold inventions and innovations is fairly widely recognized, but few people realize that the situation is similar in painting and sculpture. Many who have no use for what they call 'this ultra-modern stuff' would be surprised to learn how much of it has entered their lives already, and has helped to mould their taste and their preferences. Forms and colour-schemes which were developed some forty years ago by the 'maddest' of the ultra-modern rebels in painting have become the common stock-in-trade of commercial art; and when we meet them on posters, magazine covers or fabrics, they look quite normal to us. It might even be said that modern art has found a new function in serving as testing-ground for new ways of combining shapes and patterns.
But what should a painter experiment with and why can he not be content to sit down before nature and paint it to the best of his abilities? The answer seems to be that art has lost its bearings because artists have discovered that the simple demand that they should 'paint what they see' is self-contradictory.
This sounds like one of the paradoxes with which modern artists and critics like to tease the long-suffering public; but to those who have followed this book from the beginning it should not be difficult to understand. We remember how the primitive artist used to build up, say, a face out of simple forms rather than copy a real face; we have often looked back to the Egyptians and their method of representing in a picture all they knew rather than all they saw.
Greek and Roman art breathed life into these schematic forms; medieval art used them in turn for telling the sacred story, Chinese art for contemplation. Neither was urging the artist to 'paint what he saw'. This idea dawned only during the age of the Renaissance.
At first all seemed to go well. Scientific perspective, 'sfumato', Venetian colours, movement and expression, were added to the artist's means of representing the world around him; but every generation discovered that there were still unsuspected 'pockets of resistance', strongholds of conventions which made artists apply forms they had learned rather than paint what they really saw. The nineteenth-century rebels proposed to make a clean sweep of all these conventions; one after another was tackled, till the Impressionists proclaimed that their methods allowed them to render on the canvas the act of vision with 'scientific accuracy'.
The paintings that resulted from this theory were very fascinating works of art, but this should not blind us to the fact that the idea on which they were based was only half true. We have come to realize more and more, since those days, that we can never neatly separate what we see from what we know. A person who was born blind, and who gains eyesight later on, must learn to see.
With some self-discipline and self-observation we can all find out for ourselves that what we call seeing is invariably coloured and shaped by our knowledge (or belief) of what we see. This becomes clear enough whenever the two are at variance. It happens that we make mistakes in seeing. For example, we sometimes see a small object which is close to our eyes as if it were a big mountain on the horizon, or a fluttering paper as if it were a bird.
Once we know we have made a mistake, we can no longer see it as we did before. If we had to paint the objects concerned, we should have to use different shapes and colours to represent them before and after our discovery. In fact, as soon as we start to take a pencil and draw, the whole idea of surrendering passively to what is called our sense impressions becomes really an absurdity. If we look out of the window we can see the view in a thousand different ways. Which of them is our sense impression? But we must choose; we must start somewhere; we must build up some picture of the house across the road and of the trees in front of it. Do what we may, we shall always have to make a beginning with something like 'conventional' lines or forms. The 'Egyptian' in us can be suppressed, but he can never be quite defeated.
This, I think, is the difficulty which was dimly felt by the generation that wanted to follow and surpass the Impressionists, which underlies the search for new standards by artists of such uncompromising honesty as Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin, and which finally forced young artists to take up experimenting as a means of finding a way out of the impasse.

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