The What and the How

Timothy Hyman's book on 20th century figurative painting, The World New Made

Jacob Willer

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 “ge 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.

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.”

“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.

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.

“Child with Doll” by Henri Rousseau, 1904-5

But sometimes — and increasingly —Giacometti seemed to be turning reality into a formal problem. Hyman never mentions Giacometti’s post-Surrealist work; but he makes clear, anyway, his objection to a tendency he calls “representation-as-such”. It is a tendency with which Hyman, as a London painter, is extremely and uncomfortably familiar, since it became dominant among those painters now known as “the London School”.

He writes nicely and at length, about Lucian Freud’s early Interior at Paddington. But then: “There was — perhaps especially prevalent in post-war England — a view of ‘truth’ as brutal and unfeeling; of naked ‘reality’ as aggressively dull and grey.” And he laments how, after the ’60s, “Freud’s art switches to a numb realism”. “Numb” is the perfect word for it (Hyman values “warmth” above all in art). Many critics share this preference for the earlier style. But Freud’s late work should not be dismissed: it is rich in tone and varied in touch, complex, precise, uncompromising. In the best of times that may amount to no more than the starting point for a good picture; but in our times it is a far from inconsiderable achievement.

Hyman fundamentally objects to later Freud because the realism is without any critical dimension. “Implicit in Freud’s art . . . was an unquestioning confirmation of the status quo.” In other words, it is “bourgeois” painting. Perhaps Hyman thinks painting more by eye than critical mind is a bourgeois activity; perhaps he even feels that the eye, when left unmoderated, is an inherently bourgeois instrument, a recorder of false consciousness. He singles out Alex Katz’s cut-outs for praise; still, he worries over the “blankness” of the painted faces. He goes on to describe Katz’s sitters as generic: “Ada [Katz’s wife] apart, they are nameless thirty-somethings, so blandly affluent and unblemished as to make any true bohemian bridle.” But must we all be bohemians? Surely middle-class leisure, as painted by Monet and Renoir as well as Katz, is as essential a modern subject as existential crisis. Middle-class leisure may well be modernity’s great achievement. That leisure might have provoked the angst of the painters in this book, but it also gave their art its room to grow.

Matisse’s The Dance “achieves a vernacular of utter directness: painting unburdened by aristocratic or bourgeois tradition, available to all”. But what about the burden of bohemian tradition, now? Some of us feel that, and may seek liberation from it.

Hyman’s taste is mostly for the “Dionysian”; and he has a strong stomach for the grotesque. In many instances the paint he points to is so wonderful that we are awestruck; but when it doesn’t hit that mark, the extravagant despair, the irrationality, the squalid and occasionally sadistic imaginings of some of his “utopian” painters can begin to grate. And then the sadism might remind you where utopian ideas led in 20th-century politics. Were these painters the most sensitive souls, haunted and horrified? Or were they themselves horrifying, with all their reckless passion and infinite concern with “self”? If the modern world were really so perverse, why were they not acting against it instead of wallowing in perversity?

“Man eating Jalabee” by Bhupen Khakhar, 1974

Hyman writes — again, perceptively and instructively — that in Beckmann’s painting, “What is registered is a structure equivalent to the complexity, and disorder, of our own lives.” That is noteworthy, but it is not all that art is for. Once, art reinforced — or even gifted us — our deeper sense of order. Surely we need some “Apollonian” to balance our artistic diet.

Will the centre ever hold again? Art may have to show it holding, first. Matisse himself, while cleansing the pictorial language, continued to dream of “an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair”. Bourgeois, maybe. But what is so wrong with that now? The classicist F.L. Lucas wrote: “Our modern world has acquired a kind of demagogic resentment towards all poetic magnificence. We decry dignity. We despise grace.” Resisting that “demagogic resentment” could be another pressing cause for a new art in our time, after modernism.

Wherever you stand on such arguments, this is a book full of brave painting and sharp commentary, and unmistakably a work of conviction. It is, in fact, the work of a lifetime, and with it Hyman means to pass his life’s passions on. He is for the affirmation of “painting’s continuing function”; for painting as a means to life-affirming art. And he is endlessly, heart-warmingly, optimistic. He concludes: “In the painting of Beckmann and Khakhar, Kitaj and Salomon, a fully human pictorial language has surfaced, well equipped to mirror this new transitional world taking shape around us.”

The book does make a number of important historical points. It details the formative influence that Ensor and Chagall each had, in their moments, on other important modern painters, to an extent that cannot be ignored — the canon will have to be adjusted. The canon might also be enlarged to include a painter as unfairly neglected as Ken Kiff, who more than holds his own on these pages in exalted company.

Yet The World New Made is not a study meant for art historians. Really it is a manifesto. In surveying (some of) the places where painting has recently been, it is also suggesting where painting should go from here. Hyman is a committed art teacher, a major influence at the Royal Drawing School (formerly the Prince’s Drawing School) — and in young painters’ work his influence is often easy to spot. His previous titles (also for Thames and Hudson), Bonnard and Sienese Painting, are keenly read by art students in New York as well as London. Those students will read this book too; and it might just affect them as he hopes.

I may not wish exactly the same future for figurative painting as Hyman — I’d like to see re-skilled painting and some more coherent vision. Still, if his future were to materialise — a future in which it were at least agreed that, “Like true poetry, true painting goes deeper than concepts” — there would be so much more art to be excited about, and less to bemoan. That is made perfectly plain by this book: Hyman has provided the timeliest demonstration of how exciting painting can be, when so much seems at stake.

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