Melting watches and insects against a Spanish coastal background are two of the trademark symbols Salvador Dali uses in his expression of the destruction of atomic weapons in “Soft Watch at the Moment of First Explosion.” Dali, as eccentric as his artwork, broke artistic ground with a Surrealistic style containing extraordinarily realistic detail and bold, disturbingly dreamlike images. Influenced by Freud’s writings regarding dreams and the subconscious, Dali exposed his era’s fears, hopes and frustrations.
The very nature of abstract art might lead us to suppose that it stands at an even further remove from Impressionism than Cubism did. The fact is, however, that by reacting against cubist rationalism and reverting to the basic forms and forces that appeal to the human instinct, abstract art has contributed to focus the attention of the younger generation of painters on the master of Giverny.
The first wave of abstractionism unleashed by Cubism was based, it is true, on a rational, intellectualized system of symbols. But it was followed by a purer form of abstraction embodying a very different conception of art. The latter, based not on the reasoning mind but on the senses, set out to give plastic expression to the blind, instinctive forces and uncontrollable pulsions that lie beneath the surface of consciousness. Since this is the prevailing trend of art today, it is only natural that the younger generation of painters should be more susceptible than their elders to a purely sensorial art; only natural, therefore, that they should see Monet’s last works in a new light.
To them the great Water Lilies recently withdrawn from the seclusion of the studio at Giverny have come as a revelation. In these canvases, executed when Monet’s eyes were clouded by cataract, they have found, as it were, the sponsorship of their own experiments in “abstract expressionism.” But the question arises: may not this apparent sponsorship be simply fortuitous, inasmuch as the works on which it is based were the result, involuntary perhaps, of failing eyesight? To this there is only one reply: after the operation which partially restored his sight, Monet preserved the canvases in question instead of destroying them, and it was his lifelong habit to destroy every canvas that failed to satisfy him.
Furthermore, the keen interest he took in these experiments in near-abstraction, in which the very shape of objects melts away in modulations of colors, is confirmed by his deliberate resumption of them after his recovery. It is easy to identify the canvases executed before his operation, when the cataract had spread an amber-colored film over the crystalline lens of his eyes: these canvases are not only woolly in outline but abnormally yellow in tone. Those painted after the operation, on the contrary, have an almost acid freshness of tone. Now some of the latter group, some of the most characteristic among them in fact (whose documented dating, moreover, is unimpugnable), nevertheless retain a haziness of outline which renders the subjects unrecognizable. These works can only be regarded as experiments in abstraction deliberately undertaken.
Among these irrefutable examples of deliberate abstraction is a Garden in Bloom, in green and acid pink, whose subject is only recognizable by reference to a second version, painted by Monet at the same time, from the same spot, but with normal eyesight. The composition, angle of vision, lighting and color scheme of the two pictures are identical. The only difference is the handling, the focus, if you will: clean-cut in one, blurred in the other. Without reference to the first, which corresponds to it in every particular, save handling, the second fails to convey any figurative impression at all; it is, purely and simply, a magnificent symphony of colors.
Series of Regattas: Sailboat at Argenteuil
In the series of Regattas, painted from his boat, slight stylistic differences are discernible from picture to picture. These reveal a rather subtle line of evolution, but a significant one.
Sailboat at Argenteuil (Bravington Collection), tacking with all sails set across the Seine, represents the next step after Pleasure Boats (May Collection). It is handled like the latter, with the paint swept on broadly in thin coats, but the strokes of the brush are no longer quite so separate and distinct as they are in Pleasure Boats; instead of being juxtaposed and contrasting with each other, planes tend to fuse and intermingle. Regatta in Fine Weather (Caillebotte Collection, Louvre) marks a further stage.
Reflections on the water are no longer rendered in molten dabs of color, but in straight, horizontal, distinctly separate brushstrokes. These strokes, however, are larger than those in Regatta in Gray Weather (Camondo Collection, Louvre). Here, in order to render choppy water ruffled by the wind, Monet dabbed on his paints in small, flickering touches that convey an effect of movement and agitation, and though motivated by circumstances (i.e. the state of the weather) they nevertheless mark a further step in his increasing concern with effects of atmospheric vibration.
In each of these pictures he never failed to adapt his technique to the nature of the scene before him. Sky, water, trees, sails, houses, no two of these things are treated in the same way. The brushstroke is adjusted in every case to the visual impression, which in turn depends not only on light conditions but on the form and texture of the object or element in question.
During the summer Monet was so completely engrossed in nautical subjects that he apparently found time for only one rural landscape: Springtime (Berlin), a masterpiece of sunny airiness, painted with the utmost simplicity in flat colors. At the approach of winter his thoughts turned again to the open country and he made some snowscapes, mostly handled in thin coats of modulated color (for example, Train in the Snow, Musée Marmottan, Paris, dated 1875), sometimes in a thick impasto, but always smoothly brushed on, without any division of color.
As a result of the severe winters of the early seventies (borne out by his snowscapes), Monet felt the pinch more than ever and, to make things worse, there seemed to be no prospect of better times ahead, for the “incomprehensible” novelty of his painting only widened the breach between him and the public. With his stout physique Monet could bear the hardships of cold and hunger, but his wife’s frail health was permanently injured. His painter friends were Monet’s only resource, but the whole group was faring badly.
In the course of 1906 Picasso turned more and more resolutely away from subjective expression, and, as becomes fully apparent in the light of his subsequent development, concentrated on objective, formal problems. He thus shares in the general artistic current of those years, even though the path he follows is his own and unique.
Significantly enough, it was only then, shortly before the death of Cézanne, that the epochal importance of Cézanne’s contribution to painting began to be realized. Ten Cézanne canvases were exhibited at the Autumn Salons of 1905 and 1906; the memorial exhibition of 1907 for the first time conveyed the overwhelming greatness of this painter who had repeatedly come to grips with the fundamental problem of representing the third dimension on the picture surface.
The Fauves, who under the leadership of Matisse made their first public appearance at the Salon of 1905, also subordinated subject matter to form conceived as an end in itself, but they followed Gauguin in their one-sided concern with color and decorative values, and neglected the spatial problem raised by Cézanne. For that reason Matisse, whom Picasso met in 1906, did not influence him to any important extent. Picasso was interested precisely in discovering the laws governing the representation of threedimensional form on the flat surface, whereas Fauvism with its fanatical cult of color was in a sense a continuation of Impressionism, which ultimately gave up any attempt to render volumes.
Only Cézanne, who sought to combine the Impressionist heritage with a solid structuring of the picture surface, could be of possible use to Picasso—and Picasso realized this with his usual clear-mindedness. Picasso’s hour struck when, after following a fruitful but somewhat isolated path, he assumed leadership of a movement that is justly regarded as the greatest revolution in painting since the Renaissance, namely, Cubism.
Like all great innovations, Cubism was prepared by intellectual efforts whose lasting influence no one could foresee, not even the directly participating artists. The best proof that Cubism has genuine historical roots is that various young painters associated with it—Picasso did not invent it single-handed—reached similar results though each of them worked on his own. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that Picasso’s development toward Cubism is more logical and inevitable than any other painter’s. In his work Cubism occupies a central position. Perhaps only his fellow countryman Juan Gris, who died prematurely, is comparable to him in this respect; but Juan Gris joined the movement at a later date.
The first to recognize the far-reaching importance of the Demoiselles d’Avignon (Girls of Avignon), Picasso’s main work of 1907, was Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the soundest theoretician of Cubism. But in 1907 even Kahnweiler, who began to frequent the Bateau-lavoir at that time, could only divine the revolutionary significance of this extraordinary painting: what this first attempt held in store for the future was still utterly uncertain. The history of the composition itself, which we can retrace on the basis of numerous preliminary sketches, once again illustrates the process by which form asserts its supremacy over subject matter.
The earliest studies (page 140) show that the original seven symmetrically arranged forms included a sailor seated in the center; a student entering from the left, with a skull in his hand, introduced an element of allegory into the picture. In the following sketches the clothed male figures have been eliminated, and the females are rearranged in such a way that they fill the entire surface. Here nothing suggests a specific scene or locality—it was only later that Picasso’s friend André Salmon gave the picture its poetic title, which refers to a brothel in Carrer d’Avinyó ( Avignon Street) in Barcelona. A description of the painting could only record five nudes placed in a room bounded by curtains, and a still life with slices of melon in the foreground. The still life appears in all the studies.
What happened in the history of European art after Giorgione and Caravaggio is well-known. Realism was very successful in private collections, classicism was dominant in the churches and the public buildings, and baroque decoration, which was an escape from both realism and classicism, covered the vaults of the churches and the walls of the palaces. Everything was decorated with painting. A reaction followed in the form of neoclassicism, which triumphed in the second half of the eighteenth century and continued into the nineteenth century in spite of the new trends of romanticism and realism. Neoclassicists were considered the natural heirs of the Italian Renaissance and of Greek antiquity, the imitators of a past art, of a perfection which could not be attained again. Theirs was a system of rules rather than an impulse to create–a refined Academy of Artistic Sciences.
During the first half of the nineteenth century the Academy had its best period; almost all the academicians were exalted as new Raphaels, while the romanticists were placed on a lower level, unworthy of the confidence of the government and of the élite. The convictions of the academicians were so widespread that even the greatest painters, those who were the forces behind the revolutions of romanticism and realism, were intimidated by the rules of the Academy and tried to compromise with it.
They chose subject matter different from that preferred by neoclassicists, as for example historical scenes of the Middle Ages rather than of Greek and Roman antiquity, events of contemporary life rather than of mythology. They gave a new importance to the harmony of coloring and to the movement of figures, but the system of drawing inherited from the Renaissance did not change. The change in the conception of drawing was the innovation of Manet and the impressionists.
It is well to recall here that Manet painted his most famous painting, Olympia, in 1863. Ingres was still alive; he had been deified by Napoleon III and his court in 1855 as the greatest representative of the beautiful, and in recognition he had been appointed a senator of the Empire. When he died, in 1867, four years after Manet painted the Olympia, it was officially declared that outside the perfection which goes from Homer to Ingres all was fashion and caprice.
The man who wanted to destroy the prejudice in favor of the ideal–of perfect beauty–and who affirmed his anticlassicism with the greatest emphasis was Eugène Delacroix. “If,” he wrote, “one understands by my romanticism the free manifestation of my personal impressions, my antipathy to the types invariably copied in the schools, and my repugnance toward academic recipes, I must confess that I am a romantic.” In fact, Delacroix did more than anyone before him to renew the conception of form, to liberate it from the idea of Greek sculpture and of Greek beauty. However, he was too busy with his romantic subject matter, with literature and poetry, to avoid making some compromise. Above all, when he painted the female body, he respected the tradition of form.
When we consider the painting of Gustave Courbet, we become aware that he felt the necessity to free himself from the academic rules of form much less acutely than did Delacroix. Charles Baudelaire pointed out that Courbet was a powerful artisan and that, as far as the solidity of form was concerned, his painting was somewhat similar to that of Ingres. In fact, the great realist profited by the art of the past in order to show the power of his execution, and he openly admitted that his origins went back to Gros and to Géricault, that is, to a conception of form older than that of Delacroix –less spiritual, less poetic, still tied to the tradition of the Renaissance.
This was the state of painting when Edouard Manet began to work. He learned from Couture a technique which was generally academic rather than classic or romantic or realistic. We know that Manet rebelled against the teaching of Couture, but he remained in his school for six years, and then he studied Velázquez, Goya, Raphael, and Frans Hals. He looked on himself as a rebel, but he knew neither the nature nor the aim of his rebellion. True, he was aware of the evils of historical painting, as was Courbet, and he longed for a not too finished form, like that of Delacroix. But at the same time he disliked Courbet, whom he considered vulgar, and he did not like Delacroix, for romanticism was no longer fashionable among the young dandies of 1860.