Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Continuing today with a look at the ideas of Kirk Varnedoe*. In his book, A Fine Disregard, he talks about what he feels are deficiencies in the most common approaches to understanding modern art. (See 2/1 post.)

Before talking about Degas' Place de la Concorde, Vicomte Lepic and his Daughters, (1875), it might be a good idea to spend just a second explaining the commonly accepted ideas about how modern art developed. Varnedoe says:

There has been a kind of ortho
doxy, inculcated in countless devotees, about how it all came to be; and the doctrinaire version of that story, of Edouard Manet who begat Paul Cezanne who begat Pablo Picasso, in a march out of servile naturalism into the promised land of abstraction , explains what has happened in art since 1860 about as adequately as the seven days of scripture account for the fossils in the Devonian shale. . . . Any account of modern art's origins has to tie together a bewildering variety of objects and events, from Manet's urbane spaces and Claude Monet's landscapes, through styles as disparate as Paul Gauguin's flat color and Georges Seurat's dots, to the more hermetic departures of Picasso and Georges Braque in Cubism. The tendency has been to describe all these "rapid-fire changes as a march of progress and explain the welter of new forms as revelations of necessary truths." There was a belief by some of these explainers, that there must be sources in science, mathematics, mysticism, primitive art, and so on, that formed the basis for these truths.

At the same time, others looked to other explanations, primarily having to do with a distillation of each art form as it "moved toward a purer and purer nature." Still others explained modern art by looking at the social context of the artist and his/her times. Was Seurat commenting on a problem of leisure time in Paris? (Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-6), above left. What about Manet's bar scenes? Were class distinctions being examined?

Varnedoe thinks all of these approaches are either incomplete or just do not work.

We do not have to agree either with Seurat's color theories or with his anarchism to find profound human content in his landscapes, any more than we have to
be Einstein to be fascinated by Cubist portraits. And only an infinitesimal percentage of those who jammed Picasso's 1980 retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, or who have come to stand before Pollock's drip paintings in various degrees of bewilderment and thrall, cared an iota about the historical destiny of the picture plane. And yet people . . .have found in these odd and difiuclt things a rich spectrum of meanings and uses. . ." (p.20)

Modern art, he says, "did not originate in the wholesale overthrow of all conventions. . .It has been the product of individual decisions to reconsider the complex possibilities within the traditions available (to the artists), and to act on basic options that were, and remain, broadly available and unconcealed."

So Degas, in Place de la Concorde (Vicomte Lepic and his Daughters), did not find a photograph with the quite common feature of a loomin
g distorted foreground and just try it out. He was already somewhat in the habit of assembling his compositions by moving elements around quite freely. He just made some new choices. In composing this painting, he has made a series of decisions - to crop the figure at the knees, to place the figure of Lepic off center, to move the horizon higher - but not, Varnedoe asserts, because he saw all this done in photographs. For whatever reason or reasons, he was feeling freed from the constraints of perspective, of creating a foreground, middleground, and background, in his compositions. So he made a modern picture:

What's odd about Lepic (in Degas' painting) is that he is striding past without looking at us, so that we have a portrait's intimacy with a narrative, genre aspect added to it. And what's even odder is that it is set in the middle of a cityscape. The cityscape is not so odd. The portrait is not so odd. The genre scene is not so odd. What is new and crucial is a portrait-cityscape-genre scene, which is the form of something unknown; a new sense of the engagement of a private personality with a public space, a new sense of how one might define singular personal identity in modern Paris. (p.88)

I know this is getting long, but I want to add that the influence of optical
devices was not new. Several centuries before, Canaletto would have been set up with his device in the Piazza San Marco, and as Varnedoe points out, a number of Lepics would have wandered by in the foreground. But he would have ignored them; he did not choose to paint a figure looming in the foreground. At right, Piazza San Marco, 1757.

There's more, to this, of course, that brings in the influence of Japanese prints. But Varnedoe thinks we have this backwards, that the influence began when Japanese artists saw European pictures composed using perspective. More Friday. Would love to know what you think of all this, or if you already came upon these theories when they were first published.

*Varnedoe, who died in 2003, was the Director of the Dept. of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, NY. Prior to that, he taught at Stanford, NY University's Institute of Fine Arts, Columbia, and Williams College.


  1. Great post, Suzanne. I'll be eagerly awaiting the continuation. I have been viewing, reading and trying to write on some of the early Impressionist works and find it is so easy to fall into a cliched rendering of what was an incredibly complex history.

    I find very compelling the point made by Vernadoe that you quote to the effect that modern art "did not originate in the wholesale overthrow of all conventions. . .It has been the product of individual decisions to reconsider the complex possibilities within the traditions available (to the artists), and to act on basic options that were, and remain, broadly available and unconcealed".

    The current Impressionist show in Madrid that I mentioned in a comment to a previous post of yours does a good job of showing that the dynamic between the incipient Impressionists and the old school favored by the Paris Salon was much more complex and nuanced. There was more give and take on both sides than we are sometimes inclined to believe.

    Anyway, I do not want to go on at too much length in a comment, but I recognize the fear you express of making long posts and just wanted to let you know that, speaking for myself, go ahead, we can handle it. There are ideas that cannot be developed in short picture and sound bites. I definitely appreciate your sharing these efforts with us.

  2. Claiming something like "purer and purer" just makes you wary doesn't it? That's quite interesting about the loop of cultural influence he suggests.

  3. I'll admit to being a little suspicious of the claim (repeated as the Gospel truth) that photography had a huge influence, and was perhaps the greatest influence, on the Impressionists. The early photographers had to take time composing and framing a shot; they weren't working with Instamatics.

  4. Thank you all for your comments - about the Instamatics, you're right. Apparently the snapshot wasn't in existence until 1888, and as Varnedoe points out, early photographers were always trying to make the picture look more like the scene by reducing the strange effects: raise the camera, crop out the looming foreground, etc. They worked hard to exclude the very things the artists decided to work with and leave in. Even the Vermeer, Officer with the Laughing Girl, reveals the distorted foreground effect of the camera obscura (the officer is so big). But Vermeer left it that way.