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The What and the How
December/January 2016/17

“Man with bouquet of plastic flowers” by Bhupen Khakhar, 1976

Critics usually single out Edouard Vuillard’s early work, around 1891, as his best. But Hyman has it differently: “Vuillard’s painting took on full resonance only when, around 1895, he overlaid that underlying structural flatness with flurries of small, wild marks; the combination delivers a formal tension that allows him to trap extremely elusive, subjective emotions.”

Hyman empathises with all these painters: “The fire in Balthus’s belly has allowed him to create [in his illustrations for Wuthering Heights] a convincing modern language out of Victorian cross-hatching.” And James Ensor “transfers the beautiful nacreous palette of his seascapes and still lifes to his inner wilderness — broken pinks beside rose-reds, though always set against that ridged and seamed, impastoed whiteness.” Some 70 years later, as Hyman notes elsewhere, this would become Guston’s palette too. Few art writers have this ability to make you see paintings you thought you knew, not just differently but more sympathetically, and better.

Yet along with such happy and grateful assent, the book inspires vital arguments around the responsibility of painters, the progress and even the purpose of painting in the modern world. Particularly for me, it raises questions about the problem of primitivism and the primitive in modern art. Is that heavy black line, defining areas of flat colour, necessarily a sign of “resistance” — an assertion of “reality” or realism against “the Void”? And, has that assertive line, drawn from an interest in “essential principles”, really evolved into something like the syntax of a new language for figurative painting? Or might it also be evidence of a falling back, accidental or not, to the pictorial “base line” — that is, to the basic minimum in figurative representation, to a sort of schema which, as Ernst Gombrich demonstrated in The Preference for the Primitive, has been common to images made by primitive cultures and untutored artists across the world through all time? It is important to realise that if Hyman sees the promise of another renaissance in 20-century figurative painting, it would not be a renaissance of classical sensibility; rather, the dream is for art to be reborn innocent. Primitive styles may be affected; but innocence is not achieved by will.

I also wonder, in light of Orozco’s taunting — “Why paint for the people?” — whether the sort of “socialised” primitivistic art some of these modern painters went in for isn’t terribly patronising to the “people” and their capacity to understand. In contrast, the classicising artists of the Renaissance, in the 15th and 16th centuries, were not “painting down” to their public.

Hyman quotes Guston on how the modernists’ loss of faith in the “known image and symbol . . . should not be celebrated as a freedom. It is a loss from which we suffer”. But if we suffer from the loss of all that was sucked into the void with “abstraction” — figurative form, no less — then do we not also suffer from the loss of articulate expression that is effected by this modern black-line style? A visual grunt may well be apt, sometimes, and even eloquent; but we must admit that it cannot communicate all that our previous figurative language could. Hyman graciously concedes this point; it is telling that he stays longest and goes deepest when writing on Bonnard, Beckmann and Stanley Spencer (whose retrospective Hyman curated at the Tate), with their more sophisticated and versatile styles, and their subtler and more varied choices in subject-matter.

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