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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To them the great Water Lilies recently withdrawn from the seclusion of the studio at Giverny have come as a revelation.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.
Argenteuil and Impressionism
The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War (July 18, 1870) found Monet at Le Havre, where he remained as that fateful summer wore on. On September 2 came the German breakthrough at Sedan; Napoleon III capitulated and on September 4 the Third Republic was proclaimed. Leaving Camille and little Jean in Normandy, Monet sailed for England in September. Bazille volunteered for the Zouaves and joined a line regiment in August (he was killed in action at Beaune-la-Rolande on November 28).
Manet, as a confirmed republican, waited for the Empire to collapse and then enlisted (as did Degas) in an artillery unit of the National Guard. Pissarro, living at Louveciennes, found himself in the path of the advancing Germans and fled to England, leaving behind hundreds of his pictures together with many that Monet had stored with him. Torn from their frames and used as floor-mats and aprons by the Prussian soldiery, who turned his house into the regimental butchershop, all were destroyed — an irreparable loss, depriving us of by far the greater part of Pissarro’s pre-1870 output and a substantial part of Monet’s. To these losses, in the case of Monet, must be added the many canvases which he himself ripped to shreds in fits of despair or to prevent their being seized by his creditors.
Things went no better for him in London than in France. The English public showed complete indifference to his work. He submitted some pictures to an exhibition at the Royal Academy, but they were rejected. He had the good luck, however, to run into Daubigny, who introduced him to his own dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, also a refugee in London, who had opened a gallery at 158 Bond Street. This meeting was providential not only for Monet but also for Pissarro, who met Durand-Ruel at the same time. “Without him we’d have starved to death in London,” he wrote later. But in spite of his enthusiasm for their work and his persistence in bringing it to public notice, Durand-Ruel failed to sell a single one of their pictures in England. He nevertheless went on buying canvases from Monet and Pissarro, and thus enabled them to keep afloat.
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.
Amsterdam, MUSEUM: “A Water Mill.”
Antwerp, GALLERY: “A Water Mill.”
Brooklyn, MUSEUM: “Ruins of Kostverloren Castle on the Amstel.”
Chicago, ART INSTITUTE: “The Water Mill with a Great Red Roof.”
Cincinnati, TAFT COLLECTION INSTITUTE OF FINE ARTS: “Landscape with Cattle and Figures.”
Cleveland, PRENTISS COLLECTION: “A Wooded Lake with a Large Pool.”
Detroit, INSTITUTE OF ARTS: “A River Scene.”
Glasgow, GALLERY: “A Group of Trees,” “Wooded Landscape,” “Landscape in a Storm.”
Indianapolis, JOHN HERRON ART INSTITUTE: “Landscape with Cottages.”
Kansas City, NELSON GALLERY: “Road in the Woods.”
London, NATIONAL GALLERY: “Woody Landscape,”"Village with Water Mills,”"Ruins of Brederode Castle,”"Forest Scene,”"Castle in a Rocky Landscape,” “The Avenue, Middelharnis.”
Madison, N. J., TILGHMAN COLLECTION: “Old Mill.”
New York, FRICK COLLECTION: “View of a Woody Country,” “Landscape with Buildings and Figures.”
New York, METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART: “Entrance to a Village.”
New York, PRIVATE COLLECTIONS AND SALES GALLERIES: Many examples.
Paris, LOUVRE: “Landscape.”
Philadelphia, MUSEUM OF ART: “Wooded Road.”
Philadelphia, PRIVATE COLLECTIONS: Several examples.
Pittsburgh, PRIVATE COLLECTIONS: Several examples.
Saugatuck, Conn., ENO COLLECTION: “The Water Mill.”
Washington, CORCORAN GALLERY: “Landscape with Figures and Ruins.”
Washington, UNITED STATES NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART: “The Farm in the Sun,” “The Holford Landscape,” “The Farmyard.”
The Missing Man I Art Print
The Missing Man II Art Print
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