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The What and the How
December/January 2016/17

De Kooning’s point about the fashionable trembling is smart; when Hyman writes that a “sense of unreality in objects was shared by representational as well as abstract painters” I wonder not just why, but whether it had to be shared, or if it was always shared. Or how much it was even “sensed” at all. Undoubtedly, some “Void-consciousness” was genuine. The problem is that to see and know “the Void”, you must first have the specific “unfaith” that lets you believe in it. Hyman has it, and he sees “the Void” everywhere: in flatness and in infinite depth, in heavy black lines around monumental forms and in disjointed or dissolving forms. He may well be right in every instance; but readers who do not yet believe may struggle to understand.

Still, Hyman’s own closeness to “the Void” only adds to the appeal of this book. No one else could have written it: Hyman is a true, committed modernist; perhaps the last. And for his intimacy with the painters’ concerns, he is full of original and illuminating observations. Marc Chagall’s Half Past Three “is both riposte and manifesto — a declaration that Cubist language should serve not just The Real, but the poetic imagination also”. Mario Sironi’s “black paintings” are “an evocation of a blighted society, sullenly waiting for revolution”. Pierre Bonnard (on whom Hyman has written a monograph before) managed to “monumentalise the glimpse, to make altarpieces out of the ephemeral” while discovering “new constructions of wide-angled space, and astonishing intensities of colour, pictorial equivalents to his startled epiphanies”. Hyman’s criticisms can be even more incisive. For instance: Paula Rego’s “literalness could sometimes seem disconcertingly in conflict with her imaginative fantasy”. Or: “Soutine’s agitation and ‘morphing’ is more viscerally convincing than in equivalent figures by Francis Bacon — less formalized, less forced.”

Then there are observations of the sort that only a painter — and only a painter with a peculiarly analytical mind — would make. Of Matisse’s View of Notre-Dame, Hyman notes how we see “all the procedures — scrapings, erasures, surgeries — by which the cathedral is made to shift and swell so uncertainly; and we are made to feel the mystery and strangeness of spatial representation . . . a monumental pictorial statement.” Follow his words and in the painting you too will discern the artist’s painful descent into Cubist territory, and a coming out through it into the light, into sense — the Cubist “stylistic imperative” successfully resisted. I confess I had always found this the least interesting and most pretentious of Matisse’s great early works; but Hyman now makes me doubt my judgment.

When he takes us all the way to Rabindranath Tagore’s “forest university” in remote rural Bengal, to show us some of Benode Behari Mukherjee’s 75-foot-long fresco cycle of The Lives of the Medieval Indian Saints, Hyman explains how the artist’s “mural procedure was radically different from Rivera’s poster-like filling-in. He set out each day without any preliminary cartoon, painting almost calligraphically onto the wet plaster with an extraordinarily immediate touch, reminiscent of those sinopia underdrawings found beneath Italian frescoes. No one in the modern West has dared to paint on the wall so directly as this, nor achieved this fusion of a monumental public scale with such a lyrical and tender voice.”

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