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The What and the How
December/January 2016/17

It is conventional to describe the process modernist painters went through in the early 20th century as “de-skilling”, though it is not quite accurate: the methods and even the pictorial “grammar” of Cubism, for example, depended on an academic artistic background. Innocence is as tricky to recapture in practice as in spirit; so a skill may with effort be reapplied, but not completely lost. Hyman quotes Léger trying to get to grips with the similar wonder he felt at the paintings of that modern primitive, Henri Rousseau, and at Romanesque sculpture: “I was attracted to . . . the completely reinvented figures, the freedom with which the Romanesque artist constructed them.” His conclusion: “The Renaissance copies, the pre-Renaissance invents, Rousseau invents.” But the Romanesque artists had no freedom at all. They did all that they could, according to the little they knew, following the “stylistic imperative” of their own times; the results may well be enchanting, but they are not the results of the widest and fairest selection or the best-informed judgment.

Rousseau, in different circumstances, did all that he could according to what he knew. But an educated modernist, such as Léger, was doing the opposite. Suddenly he had all the freedom in the world to invent; and it might have been just that newly-found freedom that really left him and the others so bewildered. Too much choice; perhaps Léger envied those old artists not so much for their innocence as for their ignorance — he just wished it were all simpler. He knew very well that the Renaissance never merely copied; but the calm, the confidence and the coherence with which the Renaissance invented was — and is — now beyond all comprehension. The same explosive tension, in all 20th-century radical thought, is responsible for so many acts of artistic and political extremism. Because the Romantic desire for total freedom, even anarchy, was always matched by the Romantic desire to set out — or to follow — some perfect new “imperative” for all social and cultural endeavours; and the two desires were not reconciled.

In his introduction, Hyman admits his preference for artists who “create narratives and microcosms”, and his bias against “straight realism”. Now, it is fair to assume that if painting is to find its proper role again it will not be with “straight” appearances, since photographic imagery has become common currency. But it remains possible to emphasise direct observation without painting so “straight”. Indeed, alongside Hyman’s story of self-discovery and self-expression, another story could be told about the survival of figurative painting with the examples of artists who asserted the unique power — the naturally feeling insight — of the human eye against the camera.

It would begin with Impressionism, which emphasised all those colouristic after-images and vibrating mid-tones that the camera cannot see. It would proceed to Georges Braque’s beautiful later work, which resolved Cubist fracturing into some of the most concrete expressions of the process of looking and understanding. This is the story of how the drama and poetry of immediate visual experience may become part of the subject. Giorgio Morandi showed us only how delightfully the eye wants to organise. Alberto Giacometti, provoked by André Breton’s exclamation that “Everybody knows what a head is!”, replied, “I don’t!”, and promptly left the Surrealists to grapple with what, exactly, in the process of recognition is visual and what is sentimental. His portrait drawings are among the most virtuosic of recent times; sometimes they are moving too.

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