Was modernism only about style?

Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1902-04, oil on canvas, 73 x 91.9 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

When discussing style we have to look at what the word actually means. A dictionary definition is “Term for the manner of execution in writing, painting etc”. So everything about the appearance of a work; subject, materials, technique and composition is style.

At the beginning of each new modern art movement, or when it is developing, the tendency will often be for philosophy, intellect, originality and concept to be at the fore, with style taking the back seat. But once an -ism is stable and merely delivering works for clients in the market then the tendency has to be for style to be in the ascendency. Till eventually only style is left.

From the invention of mathematical single point perspective, by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) in about 1413, paintings had sought to represent the world as if viewed through a window, with a high level of realism. The great masters of Western art, Raphael (1483-1520). Titian (1487-1576), Peter Paul Reubens (1577-1640), Rembrandt (1606-1669), Velasquez (1599-1660), Goya (1746-1828) all did this, though there were differences in their individual styles.

Claude Monet (1840-1926) and the Impressionists (with inspiration from Edouard Manet (1832-1883)) rejected all of this, instead they sought to portray what their mind had perceived the light as doing in one fleeting moment. This was not about style, it was about an entire shift in philosophy about what art should be. In fact the Impressionists all had very different individual styles. A Caillebotte, a Renoir, a Morisot and a Degas all look very different from one another, though they all followed the tenets of their -ism.

Once the style, craft, technique and philosophy of the great masters was largely rejected experimentation and evolution in art was inevitable. After a long and difficult struggle Pandora’s Box had been opened by the Impressionists.

The four great Post Impressionist painters, Georges Seurat (1859-1891), Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) and Paul Gaugin (1848-1903) broke down more barriers, principally in moving art further away from being representational, by deliberate use of distortion and using false colours, both of these to engender or portray emotion. So whilst the styles of all four of these artists was each very distinctive, what they were trying to achieve went far beyond style.

By now the stable doors were very well flung open. The Post Impressionists provided the intellectual foundations for many more art movements to build on. Fauvism, Analytical Cubism, Synthetic Cubism, Abstraction, German Expressionism and Surrealism. Whilst each of these can now be identified by a style, that was not what they were originally about, the intellectual and philosophical journey was far more important. The subject, materials, technique and composition were just the medium by which the message was realised. Style only happened as an eventual consequence of applying the idea. Much of this art was still representational, pictures of the real world.

Dadaism, in WW1 Zurich then in post war Germany and France, had no style at all, it was art that was anti art. Their aim was to challenge all that had gone before by being offensive and banal, challenging all preconceptions. Jean Arp (1886-1966), Francis Picabia (1879-1953), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Max Ernst (1891-1976) and the other Dada artists were in a state of constant experimentation.

Installation art tends to be one offs that are location specific and where it is the idea that is important. Often they have audience interaction. The elements that make up style come secondary to the viewers experience.

Ready Mades only have style in that they are ready made. Each is distinct and different to the next, unless an artist uses multiples, say 10 baked bean tins. It is the artist’s choice that makes these objects art, not his craft.

Conceptual Art deserts all painterly ideas and traditions. Only the idea, the meaning has any importance. It is the abandonment of traditional skills that identifies Conceptualism, not any notion of style.

A lot boils down to how alike the works within a given -ism are. If they are all wildly different from each other then the movement cannot be identified by style, it must be identified by something else. And that something else is the idea, intellect, philosophy, mantra, though etc that epitomise the working of the human mind. If the works in an -ism are roughly similar to each other then style is ascendant. And between the different modern art -isms this level of similarity has varied wildly.

Colour was important to modern art, but not in the way that it was important for Titian. Goethe’s Theory of Colours (1810) had been used by J M W Turner (1775-1851) who, in turn, was an inspiration to the Impressionists. Michel Eugene Chevreul brought science to colour with his book The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours and their Application to the Arts (1839) and his invention of the colour wheel. This was taken up and written about by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863). These pioneering thinkers had a profound effect on modern art, as modern art developed and colour became used to depict and portray far more than was traditional. So whilst a great master, or even an Impressionist, would paint a beach the yellow that it was, Henri Matisse (1869-1954) painted a beach red because it was hot. This was very definitely not about style. Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) went so far as to make the colour wheel itself the direct inspiration for his work

Colour became even more important on the relentless march towards abstraction in art. The idea being that a picture could be like a musical symphony, eliciting or portraying human emotions without recourse to an image that represented anything real. In Munich Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) produced his Improvisation series (1909) and Picture with a Circle (1911) that made this move. Mark Rothko (1903-1970), the New York Abstract Impressionist, had similar aims in the 1950s and 60s. Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) went further still with his Black Square (1915) with which the only image that can exist is inside the viewers head. The artists making these advances were not following any style. They were converting intellectual debate into works of art.

And then there is shock. Not just the shock of the new, but contrived shock as the artist seeks to ram home his message, to court publicity, or both. Eduard Manet scandalised Paris with Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1862/3). Paris was shocked again in 1905 when the Fauve artists displayed their brilliantly coloured works at the Salon d’Automne. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) published his Futurist manifest on the front page of Le Figaro on 20 February 1909, point 9 of this said “we wish to glorify war-the sole cleanser of the world-militarism, patriotism, the destructive act of liberation…”. In 1917 Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) signed a urinal as R. Mutt and called the resulting work of art Fountain making the point that art is whatever its creator says it is. Piero Manzoni (1933-1963) produced ninety cans of Artists Shit in 1961. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) made pictures of people copulating. Tracy Emin’s (1963-) My Bed achieved notoriety in 1999 and Damien Hirst (1965-) did the same earlier with his pickled shark in 1991.

In fact shock has been a prevalent facet of modern art, a consistent feature that the world knows it by. And shock cannot be a style because it works only once. If an artist wants to shock repeatedly then they have to come up with completely new ideas, as Pablo Picasso did as he moved from period to period, using each change as an opportunity for publicity.

Of course there are modern artists where it could be argued that style was the main thing. Or perhaps the only thing. Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), James Ensor (1860-1949), Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Lucian Freud (1922-2011) and Jenny Saville (1970-) could be argued to fit here for instance. And then there are the people who come late to a movement and whose main input is style, there are many Impressionist artists painting today 150 years after the point was made, likewise many modern Fauve paintings can be seen in the galleries of St Paul de Vence. Maybe whole movements could even be considered to be mainly about style. The Pop Art of Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) and Andy Warhol (1928-1987) perhaps.

In conclusion, throughout the modern art movement the artists and critics have continually questioned and challenged, some to a lesser and some to a greater extent, the whole concept of style, what it is and what it means. Style is itself a largely abstract concept, so a lot of our individual perception is driven by where and when the artist lived and who their friends were. Along the journey very many new styles have been created but often the art was so much more than this.

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