Monday, February 1, 2010

Well, having discussed the influence of Japanese prints on the work of Van Gogh a few months ago, I will now proceed to eat my hat. In my most recent attempt to understand modern art, I just started reading A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern by the late Kirk Varnedoe. With great excitement after only a few pages, I flipped to the beginning to find the publication date. . .1990. Oh well, the ideas seem new to me! (Have you read this? Or the more recent compilation of his lectures published posthumously in 2006, Pictures of Nothing?)

Anyway, in the opening pages he refutes two broadly accepted ideas: that the invention of photography greatly influenced the work of Degas, Caillebotte, and others of the time, and that European painters started heading on the "Road to Flatness" because they were so taken with the look of Japanese prints.

Before looking at what Varnedoe has to say (later this week), it might be a good idea to explain the title. He writes that back in the 70s he traveled to the north of England where he studied a marker erected on a grassy playing field. It says:

This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis, who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game. A.D. 1823

Varnedoe borrows this metaphor of grabbing the ball and changing the direction of the game and uses it throughout the book. He believes artists have made changes that grew out the conventions and traditions of the time, and rather than breaking sharply with those traditions, they've grabbed pieces of what was at hand, sometimes literally right on their drawing tables, and used those odd bits in new ways to change the game and take art in new directions.

Above is Degas' Place de la Concorde (Vicomte Lepic and His Daughters), 1875. Next post will talk about Varnedoe's thoughts on what makes this painting modern and all that might have influenced a composition like this one.


  1. I've been reading about Gauguin, who was certainly impressed by Japanese masters like Hokusai (sp?) but seemed to come to a flatter use of space and color later in another, more idea-based, way. I wouldn't entirely discount the Japanese influence though.

    What does he think caused the "road to flatness"?

  2. Well he has quite a lot to say about what set artists on the road to flatness, and I'm trying to figure out how to summarize for a few posts. What he suggests is that the influence was going in a circle. The Japanese were influenced by the Europeans before the Europeans became influenced by the Japanese, specifically with ways to use perspective. I'll try to have more ready to post Wednesday. Thanks for writing.