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The What and the How
December/January 2016/17

Left: “Adelard The Drowned, Master of ‘The Phantom’”, by Marsden Hartley; right, 1938-9;“Self-Portrait with Lemon”, by Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906. Images courtesy of Thames & Hudson

Matisse asserted that when “the means of expression have become so refined, so attenuated . . . it is necessary to return to the essential principles”, so that painting may become powerful again. While all modernists agreed that art’s old ways were no longer working and something radical had to be done, not all agreed that the “essential principles” of painting did not include human subject-matter. The World New Made: Figurative Painting in the Twentieth Century by Timothy Hyman (Thames & Hudson, £32) gives a surprising and genuinely challenging account of how modern figurative painting survived against the odds.

Hyman begins by praising Matisse’s The Dance, of 1909-10, with its “Âge d’Or” subject, as a truly “Golden Age” work heralding a revolution — at the start of the book it stands for “the cleansing of pictorial language” in a “moment of joyful liberty”. However, from here on he deliberately restricts discussion on Matisse and Picasso, because their prodigious contributions to the story tend to overshadow the work of so many less familiar and less fashionable artists. The book is then a survey of painters of the last century who, Hyman feels, have not received all the acclaim they deserve. And it is a deeply personal survey because these “post-formalist” painters — artists for whom, in Otto Dix’s words, “the What comes before the How” — have given Hyman himself, as a painter not just a critic, courage and hope.

The survey is not completely chronological, because the connections Hyman likes to draw between artists are ideological and ethical, but not always historical. There is a section on modern painters’ return to “muralism”, from Mexico to Europe to India, which in Diego Rivera’s own words was motivated by “the need for a popular and socialised art” (easel paintings were always destined for well-to-do homes, so they were dismissed as bourgeois). But despite the artists’ radical politics there seems a milder, conservative motive in muralism too: to make painting an applied art again; on public walls, as in the Renaissance, to make decoration serious and even edifying again. We all may sympathise, though Hyman quotes José Orozco (an associate of Rivera and “often a deeper thinker”) mocking wisely, “Why paint for the people? The people make their own art.”

Even so, it is the search for common language — for a new vernacular — that occupies Hyman most and connects many of his favourite artists. He draws attention to the “exaggerated” and “over-emphatic” black outline that features in the work of artists as diverse as Fernand Léger, Max Beckmann, Marsden Hartley and Philip Guston, and he takes it as evidence of these artists’ will to resist, to turn their backs to “the dematerialising Void” and “insist on the Real”.

“The Void” looms large over the whole book, and indeed over all Hyman’s thinking. It stands for that peculiar modern sense of chaos, of over-abundance and emptiness, of flux without direction — for the grand post-Nietzschean meaningless of it all. George Grosz is quoted: “We were . . . pure nihilists, and our symbol was the vacuum, the void.” And Willem de Kooning: “. . . in the beginning was the void and God acted upon it. For an artist that is clear enough . . . you can float in it, fly in it . . . and today it seems, to tremble in it is maybe best or anyhow very fashionable.” The sense of terrible perplexity among the artists is well conveyed; yet I struggle with the concept. How is nihilism any sort of resistance against “the Void”? Surely it is surrender — giddy, even gleeful surrender.

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