Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Art Establishment's View: Modigliani Book Reviewed


The February 26-27 2011 weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal had this review of a biography of Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920). The reviewer is Lance Esplund, the articled titled "The Bad Boy of Montparnasse: In Modigliani, the anxiety and triumph of Modernism is reduced to a conventional sentimentality" and the book is "Modigliani: A Life" by Meryle Secrest (Knopf).

I'm calling this to your attention because Esplund strikes me as being comfortably camped in the Art Establishment compound, so it might be fun to pass along some things he writes in the piece. Here goes:

Just as much of a problem is her attempt to raise his stature as an artist. While Modigliani garnered popularity and income toward the end of his life, and his early death gave him a certain cultish luster, he was a second-tier Modernist. He was competent, never innovative; a follower, not a leader. Rejecting Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism and abstraction—all of which were blossoming around him—he instead moved backward through C├ęzanne, hiding in the past. Modigliani embraced the "look" of Modernism but not the liberation and synthesis of past and present that the movement encouraged.

Modigliani's art is a timid amalgamation of primitivism, African masks, Cycladic idols, the machine aesthetic, Art Nouveau and Old Master paintings. His famous figures—with their swan necks, almond eyes and old-world varnishes—are generalized, mannered and interchangeable. They appeal because they signify Modernist reduction yet stop short of abstraction; they simplify and distort without abandoning the comforts of 19th-century realism. They are an art in which style overwhelms specificity and substance and the anxiety and triumph of Modernism are reduced to a conventional sentimentality. The individual becomes a type, and a sitter's personality—even a nude's eroticism—is neutered. ...

When it comes to discussing and analyzing art, however, Ms. Secrest is often strident and off the mark. Chaim Soutine painted "hideous writhing canvases," and his "still lifes throb with the music of the universe." C├ęzanne's bathers are dismissed as "awkward, bulging figures"; Matisse made "pseudo abstractions"; and Mondrian is reduced to a painter of "blocks and diagrams." ...

Just as revealing is her positioning of Modigliani "at the end of a long line of masterful portraitists from Whistler and John Singer Sargent to Mary Cassatt and Cecilia Beaux," which, seemingly unbeknownst to the author, situates her subject squarely among second-tier artists.

I really hate to spoil Mr. Esplund's day, but Yr. Faithful Blogger also thinks that Cézanne was a lousy draftsman, that Matisse was not an Abstract Expressionist and that Mondrian's later paintings indeed incorporate a whiff of the geometric. And on what basis does he establish his artistic league tables? -- why, the Modernist Narrative of Art History, of course. That is, since Sargent and Beaux -- skilled portraitists both -- were not on the same path as Picasso, Pollock and De Kooning, their work must by definition be second-rate. And I'm a little puzzled by his inclusion of Cassatt because she normally holds the status of Honorary Impressionist.

As for Modigliani, although his work doesn't much appeal to me, I can't quite see why Esplund is so eager to break is sword, pull off his buttons and drum him out of True Modernism. Esplund must be either (a) a True Believer or (2) afraid to think and see for himself.

4 comments:

kev ferrara said...

Ugh...

Declaring Sargent, Cassatt, and Beaux second tier artists is like saying the sun is too fat, bricks should be spongier, and drapery should be see-through. Stupid meaningless, dogmatic, anti-creative opinions...

And political too. As all absolutist declarations of taste are a form of gauntlet throwing, "you're either with us sophisticates, or you're a philistine against us!"

My distaste for snarky, cheap cultural tribalism is boundless. There are no defenses of Mr. Esplund's opinions that are not also opinions. I would cram that thought to the back of his skull through his mouth if I had the chance. (temper temper)

It is a strange thing how "critical thinking" becomes a runaway train when unchallenged as a mental method. I often wonder how much of cultural analysis is simply misdirected anger and frustration in the guise of rational discourse. I can only postulate that the entirety of the elite western educational mileu is giving short shrift to synthetic thinking... maybe because it requires talent... and resists dogma.

dearieme said...

Do you know Philip Larkin's book "All What Jazz"? His introduction is a most wonderful rant against Modernism in the arts.

dearieme said...

Aha, it's available on the web.
http://www.patchchord.com/blog/2009/03/03/philip-larkin-introduction-to-all-what-jazz-part-1/

Donald Pittenger said...

Kev -- An interesting thing about modernism is that modernist commentators still view the scene as if they're a persecuted minority rather than an Establishment. I've been mulling this concept over for a long, long time and will eventually write about it.

dearieme -- We're off to the Palm Springs area tomorrow so that the wife can soak up tennis matches at Indian Wells. Which means I'll be deprived of a decent bookstore for three weeks. But I'll keep Larkin in mind and will look at that link as time permits. (It seems we have a huge social schedule, plus I'm doing another part-time stint with my former employer, so it looks like I'll have to be doing a lot more than driving taxi to/from tennis and goofing off. Sigh.)