In search of forms
I. Timelessness and universality
of the criteria
The early years of the twentieth century were a time of remarkable intellectual ferment, as artists set out to overturn thousands of years of thinking on art. The artists brought the development which had freed art from its dependence on religion and power to its conclusion, freeing it once and for all from reality. They succeeded in creating an art that obeyed none but its own criteria and aims. Language was entirely open and available, there were no rules limiting the choice of subject, no authorities to buy flattery: artists were able to experiment as freely as they wished. The artist, absorbed in formal research, faced the possibilities open to him as if he were somehow beyond time, while an uncharted universe opened up before him: abstraction. For a brief period, art seemed destined to undergo a renaissance. The coming upheaval was encouraged by poets and writers whose influence over the movement grew ever greater. They were impatient to bring the latest discoveries in the field of psychoanalysis into the creative sphere, to break down the barriers of the last taboos, and encouraged boldness and individualism, while social forces were soon to capture the attention of a number of them. At that time, not all artists reacted in the same way to the pressure to politicise and to intellectualise art. Some strove to maintain a barrier between expression and political or intellectual engagement. However, the Second World War was to bring a definitive end to the comfort of timeless research.
The reaction overstepped the boundary of absurdity. Art turned away from the cataclysm, hesitated, explored, experimented, and reaffirmed its resolution to wipe the slate clean. Artists began a dialogue with the audience, stigmatising traditional conceptions, feting new idols, aiming to distribute their work widely, and alienating the independence of art, charging it with all sorts of social responsibilities. Under the aegis of the social sciences, the avant-garde used art in their denunciation of the shortcomings of politics, burdening it with an ever more aggressive lucidity. This led to an inversion of the values that were still dear to the preceding generation. Refinement was no longer an issue when what was important was to hit hard or cast the net widely. Artists turned expression away from its plastic criteria and redirected it towards scandal and publicity. Aesthetic pleasure was held up as an object of scorn. The proclamations and demonstrations of the period have one common denominator: artists were no longer willing to be taken for fools and were ready to make their voices heard. The power of illusion was denounced, sabotaged, and caricatured on all sides.
Meanwhile, the history of art, which flourished over the course of the twentieth century just as much as science and technology, was rediscovering its neglected heritage, deciphering archaic forms of writing, and producing research and documents on religions and myths. However, this did not awaken a desire in artists to build a bridge between modern experimentation and the languages of the great civilisations. Such indifference is all the more regrettable since current motivations and objectives do not seem to suit art and are inappropriate. How can artists acknowledge the contradiction that the masterpieces of the past still have power over us, although our era breaks the rules, turning its back on all the teachings of tradition and refusing even to study them. For the avant-garde, there is a great gulf separating superstitious mentalities, unyielding customs, and despotic regimes, on the one hand, and the spirit of revolt, individualism, and the desire to try out new techniques on the other. All are convinced that art must represent – and belong to – its day. Our radically new society, the thinking goes, requires a radically new art.
Yet all it takes is to look closely at history to realise that beliefs are not entirely outdated, that the feeling of insignificance in the face of an omnipotent deity bears some relation to our sense of the absurd, that archaic rites have turned into private resolutions, and that prayers are just the same as hopes. All it takes is to admire temples and bas-reliefs, spurred on by the wish to attain a comparable degree of perfection, to acknowledge that the obligation to honour the gods has been transformed into an enslavement to beauty which is just as tyrannical. Although to begin with we are simply intrigued by their unusual nature, prolonged contact with the deities of Antiquity teaches us to rediscover feelings and recognise necessities. Everywhere – not just in Egypt from the first dynasties, in Sumeria and the Cyclades, but also in India and the Far East – the recurring role of characters and symbols is proof of the timelessness of values and passions, while their style convinces us of the universality of criteria. Different options draw our attention to the mistakes we have made, while alternative solutions to similar questions shed light on our own specificity.
The world art which has been made available to audiences over the last thirty years could be a rich lode for our thinking. Adventurers and explorers have found sites and brought back frescoes and statues. Archaeologists and historians have reconstituted palaces, established chronologies, and worked out the routes by which influences spread. Aesthetic theoreticians and iconographers have rehabilitated eras and interpreted mental patterns long since forgotten. They all give us tools for comparison, thereby stirring motivations, suggesting paths to explore, and giving us the space to step back and consider the development of European art.
In the early twentieth century, art produced in accordance with canons other than those of classical Greece and the Renaissance was already challenging our criteria and our certainties. At the same time as Byzantine, Roman, Gothic, Egyptian, and Indian art made the notion of progress relative, their re-evaluation threw the supremacy of realism into question. Cycladic art and archaic simplifications from ancient civilisations reminded artists of the age-old appeal of abstraction, while menhirs, pyramids, and steles were the pure representation of an ascetic power. Even totems and tribal masks represented the expressive power of the sign, confronting us with primeval forces long since buried deep within us. On all sides, customs modified our hierarchies and deities extended our repertoire of forms and subjects.
Our sensibilities were aroused but we did not manage to make anything of these resources. What is more, even once alerted to their existence, we returned to a state of mistrust or indifference.
It goes without saying that art has always been subject to influences and integrated material from elsewhere. Such borrowings were fragmentary and incongruous; rapidly the memory of their source was forgotten and they remained without a heritage or, sometimes, enjoyed a remarkable destiny. It might be a decorative motif, a monster, or a symbolic figure. The motif of two lions flanking a tree was copied from fabric from Constantinople, where it had already been copied from Persian models. Emile Mâle notes, “The two animals stand guard over the hom, the sacred tree of Iran”. The gryphon, the phoenix, and the gryllus all passed easily from Antiquity to the Middle Ages to represent the enigmatic and the bizarre. The good shepherd in the parable of Saint Luke is none other than the Roman allegory of philanthropy, which was in turn based on the Greek Hermes Cryophorus, recorded as far afield as Syria. Even a legendary episode such as the future Buddha discovering his vocation thanks to an encounter with an old beggar, a plague victim, and a corpse being taken to the pyre gave us the Lay of the Three Dead and the Three Living, a striking scene whose power was underlined by the words We were what you are, you will be what we are. The frescoes of the Siennese school in the convent of San Benedetto in Subiaco and by Francesco Traini in the Camposanto in Pisa are magnificent illustrations of this. European culture was not alone in benefiting from such exchanges. The Emaciated Buddha of Gandhâra would be unthinkable without the influence of Greek realism. In Japan, the origins of Buddhist sculpture owe much to Chinese examples imported in the sixth century. The Arabs borrowed from Byzantine and Visigothic architecture and in turn passed on their onion domes and decorative motifs to the Normans in Sicily, while the alternate red-and-white doors of Andalusian mosques made it as far north as Vézelay. Finally, the Qutub Minar and the mosques of Ahmadabad demonstrate the successful symbiosis of the prolific Hindu imagination and Muslim abstraction, which at first sight appear irreconcilably different.
It is reasonable to consider that bringing all of the world’s art together would bring about ever more fertile and unexpected interactions. Such interactions could give rise to flights of fancy, redirect themes, and provide innovative new solutions to the issues of today.
Such a process began at the turn of the last century. Gauguin was the first, making a Vase-Portrait inspired by a Peruvian model in 1889. His Idol with a Shell clearly draws on a decorative motif found on canoe paddles in the Marquesas Islands. Although African sculptures and masks had been on show in antiques shops and the like for many years, it was Gauguin’s deliberate decision to begin producing art that was radical in its otherness that set his friends on the same path, thus constituting the point of departure for a radical renewal.
The enthusiasm with which Picasso, Giacometti, and Brâncusi embraced the art of Africa and Oceania developed in keeping with their own temperament. The Surrealists’ keen interest in the psychic forces of the subconscious – particularly the boldness of Max Ernst – was encouraged by an interest in shamanism and totems. The Chacmools of the Toltecs – reclining sacrificial figures – appealed to Moore, informing his large figures of reclining women. Moore recorded that he had found the ideas Roger Fry developed in the 1920s in his book Vision and Design illuminating: "In his essay on Negro culture, Fry underlined the three-dimensional conception which characterised African art and its 'respect for the material'. Even better, Fry opened the way to further reading and the discovery of the British Museum and that was really the beginning for me".
The contribution, however incomplete, of these contrasting cultures, brought about decisive and radical change, so keen was that generation of artists to break with routine and realism. There was a certain amount of confusion. Turn by turn, Gauguin identified with American pioneers, Plains Indians, Incas, and Spanish conquistadors! Until the First World War, the term “primitive” was used without distinction to refer to figurines from Egypt, India, pre-Columbian civilisations, Africa, and Oceania. Artists came away from the Trocadero or the British Museum with an understanding of these civilisations that was as incomplete as those which prompted the Pre-Raphaelites to enthuse over Raphael and Lippi while ignoring Masaccio and Piero della Francesca, or Wackenroder to share his passion for Dürer and Gothic painting with his artist and poet friends – none of whom had the curiosity to travel to Rome or Florence. For all that Moore was pleased with the access his generation had to world art, it must be said that this access was still very limited compared to the breadth of our knowledge today. He limited himself to European collections, relying on photographic reproductions that were much less faithful than they are today. Trips abroad were still a considerable journey.
Moreover, artists showed no intention of wishing to pursue the dialogue with the styles of the past. A few examples were enough to begin a renewal. A subtler approach to the masterpieces of Antiquity, India, and Egypt was neither desirable nor feasible. Japanese prints had proved a revelation for Van Gogh, Matisse, and Degas, influencing their use of space. Gauguin traced the outlines of the low reliefs of Borobudur for his 1891 painting Io Orana Maria, and they long influenced his style. Picasso was drawn by curiosity to Iberian art of the 3rd century BC. Yet interest in these foreign cultures was short-lived and after this period, neither the Seated Scribe in the Louvre, nor the Etruscan sarcophagi of Cerveteri, nor the Khmer sculptures in the Musée Guimet were to arouse further interest. The transformation of the human form begun in the Demoiselles d’Avignon held such sway that anything approaching objective coherence was ignored. Even the extraordinary Four-Footed Dancer from Hawaii on display in the British Museum, which Moore certainly admired but which was doubtless too realist for his taste, could not make him overcome his aversion for the human anatomy. Sculptors did not turn to the Roman carvings on gates or Gothic statuettes for inspiration, even though they were close at hand. There was thus little chance that sculptors would draw on little-known and far-off works such as the high reliefs of Ellora, portraits of Japanese monks, or Liao dynasty Buddhas.
While primitivism and archaism provided a basis for the change in criteria, for the last fifty years or so the avant-garde has used the rift that defines the modern day as an excuse to systematically overturn the tried and tested values of tradition. Yet anyone interested in creation should be looking at the ideals of the past. Where does art exist, if not in the past? Even if the search for the new is an aim in itself – which I am quite willing to admit – this imperative in no way prevents us from integrating the past achievements of a discipline which has provided ample proof not only of savoir-faire, but of unparalleled inventiveness. It is worthy of our attention not simply as evidence of mastery and painstaking labours – qualities to which dissident spirits will in any case pay little heed. It is also worthy of attention because of the range and variety of its innovations, its imagination, and its boldness, which are a source of constant amazement. Their power is such that they remain the guardians of aims and high standards, while their refinement and intensity still transport us to heights of aesthetic emotion.
Comparison is indispensable in judging quality. The rejection of past references is so excessive that it seems suspicious, hiding an incapacity to maintain the heritage as well as dismay when faced with the certainty that our productions will not come out the better in the comparison. Art seems to be at the end of the road, with all its achievements in the past. There are no major discoveries in view; its language is now saturated.
Its language is now saturated. If we conclude from this that all has been said and done, are we not simply dependent on a progressive notion of history, although such a notion has frequently been condemned? On the one hand, we repeat that there is no progress in art, while on the other, we continually cut ourselves off from the past as if we were scared of anachronism or conservatism. The question of progress is still very uncertain in people’s minds – it hardly has any substance. If it includes the notions of evolution and value, it is subtle and worthy of study.
One initial remark. While the majority agrees to consider progress as relative, many people still consider it to be evolutionary. This is what cuts us off from the past and deprives us of its teachings. We are willing to admit that art does not improve, but we still insist on linking its expression to mentalities whose evolution seems beyond question. Is such certainty justified? Should the impact of the evolution of mentalities on forms not be investigated more thoroughly? Is dependence on customs not transformed into other kinds of enslavement? We are so proud to be free of religion and authoritarianism, but we are blinded to the ills of publicity and we are convinced that anything new must be spectacular. If the notions of progress and quality are done away with, evolution is the worst of theories: it allows any innovation, as long as it is new. By some cunning sleight of hand, the negation of progress has led to the negation of value.