Modern Painting in 15 Easy Pieces: The past 100 years

August 15, 2003

All definitions of modern art are bound to end in failure, but that has not prevented artists and writers from making the attempt. In fact, one might see the entire twentieth century as an unbroken sequence of definitions and re-definitions, with each movement taking its cue from an earlier one, but striving to surpass and annihilate its predecessor. It might be seen a series of “revolutions” – revolts against social, political and religious norms; and especially against standards of ‘good taste’ that rapidly solidify into rules and codes of conduct. These revolutions have not always been fought on the battlefields or the streets, but often in the clean, white spaces of the modern art gallery, or the pages of obscure magazines. Looking back over the past century, we can see how a minor tremor in Paris or New York, was able to send shock waves through the entire century.

The end of the twentieth century was celebrated by many weighty volumes looking back on an age of unparalleled cultural complexity. Foremost, by my reckoning, were Peter Conrad’s Modern Times, Modern Places (1998) and Peter Watson’s A Terrible Beauty (2000), which cover the same territory but uncover utterly different landmarks. Neither book is specifically about modern art, but the story cannot be told without looking closely at artists and their works. All the changes of modern life are reflected – and often anticipated – by artists. It is a story of highly-organized movements and manifestos, and of great individuals. It is not a tale of ceaseless progress – for instance, the great modernist furphy that throughout the 20th century art becomes increasingly flat, abstract and self-referential – but a mass of false starts, double-trackings and acts of dogged persistence.

It would be impossible to come up with a list of the fifteen ‘greatest’ paintings of the modern age, because that would entail nothing but false and misleading comparisons. We all tend to think within the cultural parameters of our own society, but it was comparatively late in the century that critics and historians began to realize that the history of modern art was not exclusively the work of white European males. Opening the door to that small revelation has led to a re-evaluation of cultures that were previously characterised as the “exotic” sources from which the pioneering Europeans took raw materials and made them into sophisticated works of art. It was an echo of the colonial policies of European states that persisted long after “colonialism” per se, was dismantled.

So too with women artists, who have only recently begun to attain a rough equality with their male counterparts. The entire history of art is littered with stories of talented women who were ignored in their own lifetimes and rediscovered many generations later. The challenge nowadays is to separate the real achievement from the hype, since feminism – like Catholicism – has a passion for saints and martyrs. While we may change the way we view history we cannot change the facts – without becoming propagandists. It may be because of profoundly unfair social norms, but there were few female artists who influenced the course of modern art; just as there were few artists from the so-called ‘developing world’ that made the slightest impact on Paris or New York. Indeed, one of the effects of cultural colonialism is that artists in Asia, Africa, South America or Australia, spent much of the century trying to adapt their work to European norms, in order to be truly ”modern”.

The twenty-first century will be different – is already different – in that the museums and Biennales are making a concerted attempt to deal with issues of gender and ethnicity. This is partly because of political pressure, partly through western guilt, but mostly because of a gnawing anxiety that much western art has reached the point of creative exhaustion, having grown ugly and bloated on a diet of stale irony and marketing gimmicks. It may be that fashion still writes the script, but the cast of leading actors is growing more diverse. Neither is it coincidental that this is happening at a time when terrorism has made the West newly aware that its way of life and values are not universally acceptable. Contemporary art will continue to reflect those social changes, those upheavals and anxieties – which is not to say that all contemporary art is necessarily good and valuable.  On the contrary: the overwhelming mass of art being produced at any time will be consigned to the famous “dustbin” of history. Try as we might, we are virtually powerless when it comes to influencing the historical verdict.

I have tried, in this brief overview of twentieth century painting, to choose fifteen works that represent seminal moments in modern art history – works that suggest issues of aesthetic, social, philosophical and political importance. These are works that have stood the test of time – for the time being.

1. Paul Cézanne: Mont Ste-Victoire (1904-06)
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Any survey of modern painting must begin with Cézanne. He was the last great artist of the 19th century, and the first of the twentieth. Matisse called him “a kind of good god of painting”, Picasso hailed him as “the father of us all”. As Cézanne grew older, he became ever more reclusive and misanthropic, while his explorations grew correspondingly deeper. He said at one stage that he wanted to astonish Paris with an apple, and he largely succeeded. Although much has been written about his still lifes (with or without apples), and his late paintings of bathers, it is his many depictions of Mont Sainte-Victoire that have become the best-known examples of his work. This painting was completed in the year that he died and shows all the characteristic massing of forms, the sure but cautious touches of the brush, that banished the pseudo-mastery of the nineteenth century academies, and established modern art as a matter of doubt, scepticism and experiment.

2. Pablo Picasso: Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)
Museum of Modern Art, N.Y.

Picasso’s friends thought he had gone mad when he unveiled his Demoiselles in 1907. What had begun as a playful recollection of a Barcelona brothel, given the Victorian-sounding title of “the wages of sin”, had metamorphosed into the great iconoclastic masterpiece of modern art. Here was the classical theme of ‘The Three Graces’ transfigured by the features of primitive Iberian masks and African tribal sculptures that the artist had viewed in the Louvre and the Musée de l’homme. Draperies that owed something to El Greco’s twisted forms, became prototypes of Cubism: the style invented by Picasso and Braque that aimed to show objects from all dimensions simultaneously. The Demoiselles was a work that drew heavily on the past, but violently repudiated it: a gesture that set the scene for the shock tactics of successive avant-gardes.

3. Umberto Boccioni: the City Rises (1910-11)
Museum of Modern Art, N.Y.

Boccioni was 28 when he met the Italian poet and agitator, Filippo Marinetti, who had already launched the Futurist assault on European culture. Marinetti saw Futurism as a celebration of speed and war, a riotous homage to the machine age. Futurism was a deliberate act of provocation, and it drew the anger and hatred of those who felt an ingrained reverence for tradition. The Futurist painters were heavily influenced by Cubism and by Henri Bergson’s thoughts on time and duration, but there was never a unified style among artists such as Boccioni, Severini, Russolo or Balla. The City Rises presents a kind of science fiction scenario of urban energies taking the form of fierce but ghostly beasts, threatening the city they helped build. It prefigures the fate of Futurism itself, which was swept aside by the destructive force of World War One, the conflagration that Marinetti had so eagerly anticipated. Boccioni himself was one of the casualties, killed in a riding accident in 1916.

4. Henri Matisse: The Red Studio (1911)
Museum of Modern Art, N.Y.

It is hard to believe that when The Red Studio was hung at the Armory Show in New York, in February 1913, it was described as depraved, coarse, hideous and epileptic, while Matisse was dubbed: “an apostle of the ugly”. The painting was for sale for US$4,050, but there were no takers. Some years later, following a stint in a London nightclub, the work was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and swiftly became known as one of the most important paintings in the collection. It was, in retrospect, a repetition of the explosion that greeted Matisse and his comrades when they showed in Paris at the Salon d’Automn of 1905. Their bright colours and crude brushstrokes led to the artists the nicknamed the “Fauves” or wild beasts. But within a few years the critics and public had begun to accept Matisse’s revolutionary innovations. Today we see him as the modern artist who, above all others, defended a kind of ideal beauty in an art scene awash with deliberate ugliness and outrage.

5. Marcel Duchamp: Nude Descending a Staircase No.2 (1912)
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Few critics would claim Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 as a great painting. It is a rather mechanical exercise in marrying Cubism with a viewing of contemporary time and motion photography. Yet, along with The Red Studio, the work was the succes-de-scandale of the Armory Show, being derided as “an explosion in shingle factory”. It was Duchamp’s first serious taste of public notoriety, and he liked what he saw. Within a few years he had scandalized the artworld again and again, most notably with Fountain, a porcelain urinal signed “R.Mutt”, that was exhibited as a sculpture in 1917. The “readymade” had been discovered and Duchamp’s reputation was set in concrete. His urbane, conceptual style of iconoclasm undermined every accepted notion about the nature of art. For this, he has earned the undying admiration and hatred of successive generations of artists. Yet he has been more poorly served by his followers than his enemies.

6. Max Beckmann: The Night (1918-19)
Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf

The young Max Beckmann worked as a medical assistant in World War One, and – overwhelmed with the horror of it – suffered a mental breakdown. His work had always had a taste for drama, but in the years following the war he began painting with a new harshness and anger, drawing stylistically on Picasso and psychologically on seething depression and hysteria of the Weimar republic. When a Socialist uprising of January 1919 was brutally put down, the proto-Fascist Freikorps took it upon themselves to assassinate the Socialist leaders, Karl Leibknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. In The Night Beckmann recorded this murderous act, in a manner that left nothing – and everything – to the imagination. The murders are shown in perfect clarity, but this one violent moment conjures thoughts of the limitless store of violence that lies latent in the heart of a defeated and humiliated Germany. Perhaps only Picasso’s Guernica (1937) bears comparison as a modern work of art that makes a genuinely confronting political statement.

7. Kazimir Malevich: Black Square (1920s)
State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

The experimental approach of modernism meant that every gesture existed as potential, until someone actually did it. John Cage would give us a silent musical score, Yves Klein would exhibit an empty gallery. Kazimir Malevich gave us works such as the Black Square, and White on White. Yet these were not the gestures of a dilettante, but of a visionary artist who pioneered his own revolutionary art movement, Suprematism, which held that “matter was energy” and celebrated “the liberated nothingness of abstraction”. He claimed the Black Square as nothing less than the “naked unframed icon of my time”. This was a deeply spiritual quest that had it roots in Slavic mysticism, and was too abstruse for his rivals, the Contructivists, who held that art should be put in the service of concrete design problems. It was also too much for the workers committees and for Stalin’s bureaucrats who felt that Malevich’s form of revolution was too radical for comfort. He ended his career as a reluctant social realist, having bequeathed the monochrome to generations of shallow imitators.

8. Salvador Dalí: The Persistence of Memory (1931)
Museum of Modern Art, N.Y.

With Salvador Dalí, modern art stepped out of obscurity and sought the headlines. So well did he succeed in making a spectacle of himself, that today Dalí is one of the few modern artists that everyone seems to know. His famous soft watches have adorned innumerable teenage bedrooms in the form of posters, while his moustache is perhaps the best-known trademark in modern art. Through his publicity-seeking antics, Dalí earned the undying hatred of the Surrealist commander-in-chief, André Breton, who called his work a “glorification of high fascism”. Yet it is Dalí, not Breton, who remains the public face of Surrealism – long after this movement, with its fascination with dreams and the unconscious, has earned a respectable corner in the museums. The Persistence of Memory,  due to its location in the Museum of Modern Art, is probably Dalí’s best-known work. He was always a favourite of this institution which granted him his first retrospective in 1941, at the age of 37.

9. Frida Kahlo: Self-Portrait with Monkey (1938)
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo N.Y.

Frida Kahlo is the twentieth century’s outstanding example of the overlooked and underrated artist. During her life-time and long after, she was known chiefly as the wife of the great Mexican painter, Diego Rivera. But when recognition arrived, it was cataclysmic. By the end of the century, Diego was best known as Frida’s husband. If Kahlo had previously been all-but-invisible, she was now in danger of being over-exposed. Her story, as told by Hayden Herrera, in a best-selling biography, was full of larger-than-life characters. She lived with a broken body, caused by a tram accident in 1925, but matched Diego infidelity-for-infidelity. Her work is invariably small and self-obsessed, but at its best it has a mesmeric power generated by that extraordinary face with the dark, dominant eyebrows. She combines surrealism with Mexican folk influences, resulting in an utterly distinctive style. What is finally so compelling about Kahlo is that she took complete control of her life and art, when circumstances had fitted her to play the role of one of life’s victims.

10. Piet Mondrian: Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942-43)
Museum of Modern Art, N.Y.

Mondrian looked more like a chartered accountant than a Bohemian. He dressed in suits and ties, and came to live in a studio that resembled a monastic cell. His mature work, with its disciplined repertoire of squares painted in three primary colours and a grey-tinged white, seems like the most self-denying practise of the twentieth century. And yet, there were other sides to Mondrian: the jazz buff who watched Josephine Baker dance in the Revue Negre; the spiritual seeker, who followed the teachings of Madame Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner. In Broadway Boogie Woogie and its unfinished companion, Victory Boogie Woogie, the elderly artist began to show his true colours. The austere squares have given way to a vibrant pattern of tiny squares, mimicking the rhythms of the jazz music he adored. The uptight Dutchman has begun to celebrate the metropolis of New York, showing that even the most rigorous geometric abstraction can become a joyous affirmation of life.

11. Sidney Nolan: Ned Kelly (1946)
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Sidney Nolan has had more international attention than most local artists, but he remains an Australian special. His Ned Kelly series dominates twentieth century Australian art like no other group of paintings, turning the legendary armour-plated bushranger into a creature of the modern age. Not only do the Kelly works play on Australian sentiments, they signal the young Nolan’s willingness to borrow ideas from anywhere and everywhere; to make something truly new from that which is old and familiar. Constable Scanlon flies through the air in emulation of Chagall’s lovers in his painting, Birthday, while Picasso and other moderns are included in the mix of influences. In later life, Nolan even claimed Malevich’s Black Square as the inspiration for Kelly’s helmet! It may have been blarney, but Nolan’s talent was genuine – and his bushranger is a lasting symbol of his own desire to upset the dull, conventional habits into which Australian art had fallen.

12. Jackson Pollock: Blue Poles (1952)
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Blue Poles is probably the only twentieth century painting that helped bring down a government. Purchased for US$2 million in 1973, by James Mollison for the yet-to-be-opened National Gallery of Australia, it became a prime symbol of the waste and extravagance of the Whitlam administration. Even though the price in Australian dollars was only $1.3 million, which seems a pitiful sum by today’s standards, it was seen as extortionate for a work supposedly completed by a drunk and a few mates. But while Pollock was certainly a drunk, it seems impossible that those dancing rhythms could have been made by more than one artist, or by anyone under the influence. The victim of his own talent and insecurity, Pollock was made and destroyed by the drip paintings, that brought his work to world-wide attention. In cold-war America, he became a symbol of creative – and by implication, political freedom; but in 1970s Australia, a magnet for galloping philistinism. Blue Poles may or may not be Pollock’s greatest work, but it is the only abstract painting that helped speed a nation’s journey to self-discovery.

13. Andy Warhol: Mao (1972)
(any version: multiple screenprints)

With Andy Warhol, the only modern artist who rivals Dalí as a self-publicist, I’ve chosen Mao over Marilyn, or Elvis, or the Campbell Soup tins, because these images conflate politics and celebrity in a way that is utterly unique. The American writer, Don DeLillo, recognized this, titling a 1991 novel Mao II – drawing attention to the way modern reality seems to dissolve into iconic images, endlessly, indiscriminately reproduced. This was a case with Chairman Mao – the gigantic face that peers paternally over Tienanmen Square; the man responsible for the modern Chinese state, and for the greatest toll of human death and misery in the twentieth century. In 1972, Mao was being idolized by western intellectuals while the Cultural Revolution was causing havoc in China. Andy Warhol has captured the vacuity of the west’s attitude to Mao, the willingness to embrace an image and ignore the facts. In Warhol’s work, Mao’s face is only an image, endlessly reproduced in the media. The irony that the father of Chinese communism could be turned into an item of delectation for the Western art market, was probably not lost on the artist.

14. Anselm Kiefer: Innenraum (Interior Space) (1981)
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

I could have chosen any of dozens of works by Anselm Kiefer, works that burrow deeply into the dense fabric of German myth and history. Kiefer was a student of history and literature before he studied art with Joseph Beuys. He made his name with a series of photographs in which he stood giving the Nazi salute in front of various landmarks. This kind of bleak satire was too much for many commentators who accused him of fascist tendencies. The truth, however, is that Kiefer has shown himself to be the greatest interrogator and critic of those tendencies. His paintings of empty Wagnerian halls and mythic battlefields, or railway tracks leading to concentration camps, ask oblique but devastating questions about Germany, while the experience of two world wars means that this local history takes on universal significance. There are few painters in this century who have taken history seriously enough to make works that are both elegiac and challenging. For most, it has been a subject that was too awesome, too bloody or painful.

15. Jack Wunuwun: Banumbirr, the Morning Star (1987)
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

I end with Jack Wunwun’s Morning Star triptych, because it is an example of one of the world’s oldest living stories, and youngest art forms. Until Aboriginal artists began painting large-scale barks for the art market, such pictures had been made for decorative or religious purposes, and usually discarded. Bark painting was small and utilitarian until it became an activity with both a financial and educative value. For artists such as Jack Wunawun, such a work presented an opportunity to pass on knowledge to the next generation, but also to a white audience who knew nothing about indigenous stories and beliefs. The painting depicts a Creation story; it deals with the changing of the seasons, and the age-old relations of man and nature. Banumbirr is kept in a dilly bag by the spirits of the dead during the day, and returned there every morning, in an eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth. All earthly experience is contained within the parameters of the story – a cultural scope that puts the modern era into perspective as a short, violent episode in a much larger canvas.

Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, Good Weekend, 15 August, 2003