OF 20TH-CENTURY ART
Chapter 4, Part 4
Esthetics against Barbarism: The Fourth Decade
Fantastic realism seems self-evident in the work of Stanley Spencer, Balthus and Pavel Tchelitchew -- and in the post-Cubist work of Picasso, Braque and Léger, and even in the cutouts of Matisse. It is also evident in the Pittura Metafisica of Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà, and the still-lifes of Georgio Morandi, an artist who shares their sensibility if not their style. It is, in my opinion, a pervasive compromise formation in 20th-century art -- the major esthetic way of reconciling the demands of inner and outer reality, that is, the artist's inner drama and the outer world.
To get more precise about it, we have to turn to Picasso's 1937 interview with André Malraux, in which he explains the reason for his use of African masks in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. He first saw them in the old Musée d'Ethnologie du Trocadéro in Paris, which he described as an "appalling" place, "like the Flea Market." Alone in the "awful museum, with masks, dolls made by the redskins, dusty manikins" as his only company, he had a revelation: "The masks weren't like other pieces of sculpture. Not at all, they were magic objects."(1) It was then that Picasso realized that, as he later said to Francoise Gilot, "painting isn't an esthetic operation. It's a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires."(2) Or, as he said to Malraux, "the Negro pieces were intercessors, mediators. . . . They were against everything -- against unknown, threatening spirits. . . . They were weapons to help people avoid coming under the influence of spirits, to help them become independent." In other words, art had a "spiritual" purpose, that is, it dealt with spirits, both good and bad, within the artist and in the outer world, defending against the hostile, terrorizing, destructive ones, encouraging the friendly, libidinous, life-sustaining ones.
Clearly Picasso is describing the battle between Thanatos and Eros -- barbarism and beauty, one might say -- that raged in his psyche and in the outer world. Art is a way of articulating the conflict, at times fusing the opposites in an esthetic compromise formation, which makes for a kind of harmony, however awkward and bizarre -- so-called "modern beauty" -- at other times suggesting that the war between them can never be resolved, for the triumph of one over the other would be a Pyrrhic victory, emotionally and esthetically.
(This is what the moderns thought traditional beauty was, since erotic surface and form seemed to triumph over fatal reality and unhappy feeling. The result was too tame -- vacuous, for something was missing, whereas in modern beauty neither term dominated the other. Both are explicit, which is why so many modern works of art look distorted, the result of being pulled between the opposites. Thanatos and Eros remain on the modern surface, which is why it becomes disjointed, fractured and finally crumbles into almost complete painterly chaos, as in Pollock's all-over paintings. Their rhythm, however broken, is the last semblance of integrating form.)
Picasso never lost his sense of art as "magical," that is, a defense against inner and outer reality, and, more crucially, a way of influencing or controlling, and even changing, them, that is, modifying the reality of one's internal objects -- the spirits within oneself -- and of external objects, which have their own spirits. This is sheer fantasy -- hence what I call fantastic realism, for it involves both the defense of fantasy and what Freud called "omnipotence of thought," the magical thinking that is characteristic of childhood. It survives in art, as he said -- especially in modern magical/fantastic art, of which Picasso's is an extreme example, especially his Surrealist-inspired work of the '30s. As Charles Brenner writes, the child assumes that "all the objects" in its "environment. . . have thoughts, feelings and wishes just as he himself does. All nature is animate until experience, and his parents, tell him otherwise."(3) When Picasso said that "I use things as my passions tell me"(4) he shows his reluctance -- inability? -- to give up childhood thinking. It seems particularly evident in the still lives that proliferate throughout his art, from Guitar on a Table (1915) through Mandolin and Guitar (1924) to Still Life with Horned God (1937), and beyond. The objects in these pictures, whether natural or man-made, not only seem to be alive, but to have an inner life, that is, to be tense with inner drama.
Nonetheless, one can regard the classical streak in Picasso's art as adult, particularly because it offers organically whole objects rather than the fragmented, partial, peculiarly inorganic ones of Cubism. But he never abandons the disintegrative Cubist mode. Girl Before A Mirror (1932) ingeniously integrates them. This dialectical image, in which woman is split into a desirable good spirit and a terrifying bad spirit -- the blonde beauty in front of the mirror, the dark-haired succubus within it -- shows an organically ripe body partially flattened into a Cubist shadow and Cubist planes enriched by libidinous color. It is a strategy that can be traced back to Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. In other words, the splitting between the "real" woman and her mirror image continues into her body, and also her face, and in fact in every detail, which is simultaneously rounded and flat, belly and breasts being the most obvious examples. The background grid, with its nipple-like circle in each little square -- rows of protective amulets, as it were -- shows the doubled-edged dynamics succinctly. This work encapsulates Picasso's ambivalence toward Woman, indeed, the difficulty he had reconciling his conflicting representations of her. The conflict spills into the space, which is also divided against itself. Two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality vie for dominance, with three-dimensional figures constructed of two-dimensional planes, which more often than not seem forced together, making them seem like ironical deconstructions as well as ingenious constructions. Picasso's 1933 drawing of a series of different abstract anatomies -- not always clearly male or female -- makes the point clearly. Picasso's pictures tend to be dramatic contradictions, that is, psycho-esthetic dramatizations of self-contradiction.
Picasso's idealistic classical phase seems to coincide with his 1918 marriage to Olga Koklova, a minor performer in Serge Diaghilev's Russian Ballet company. He portrayed her, in 1917, dressed in Spanish costume, and in 1921, the year of the birth of his first son, Paolo, he painted, in his so-called Roman style, Mother and Child, the one rather matronly, the other somewhat plump. It is worth noting that this same year he painted the Cubist Three Musicians, in which the figures are fragmented as well as abstract. Thus, on the one hand, we have the whole, mature human figure, connected to Picasso's new sense of maturity and responsibility, and on the other hand we have, as though left over from the childhood of his art -- the fresh start he made with Cubism -- a work in which splitting dominates, making for a figure that is a sum of eccentric planar parts that do not add up to a coherent whole. I think a good reason for the expressive appeal of Picasso's art is its use of splitting -- it is the essence of Cubism -- and his projective identification with the objects he paints, to the extent that their identity seems to be displaced by his own. Both reveal the deepest level of defense -- the magical defense against the world he spoke of when explaining the appeal of African masks. But in the classical works he presents whole, integral, intelligible figures, suggesting a different sense of reality, indeed, a new reality principle. The world is no longer hostile, and he doesn't have to defend against it -- this is the inner meaning of the classical images.
They began before his marriage to Olga, with the so-called Ingres portraits, drawn in lead pencil, of his friends Max Jacob (1915) and Apollinaire (1916), among others, and were reinforced by a 1917 visit to Rome, where he was inspired by classical sculpture and painting, which he also saw in Naples and Pompeii. (His mature, sturdy women seem Roman and Pompeiian at once.) He was invited to the eternal city by Diaghilev, who wanted Picasso to design the scenery and costumes for Parade, an avant-garde ballet commissioned by him. "We made Parade in a cellar in Rome," said Jean Cocteau, who described it as a "ballet realist." He wrote the incoherent plot, and Erik Satie wrote the dissonant music, which incorporated the sound of "dynamos, sirens, express trains, airplanes, typewriters," among other modern sounds.(3) Cubist in style, mixing realism and fantasy, and utilizing collage and what Cocteau called "organized accident," Parade was a consummate statement of what Apollinaire, in the program introduction, called the "new spirit" of art. Fusing populist spectacle -- vaudeville and circus performance rather than high theater were its model -- and avant-garde absurdity and irreverence, it was a major attempt to go public with avant-garde ideas. It was successful in the usual avant-garde way, that is, it outraged and offended the audience, suggesting that it was still possible to shock and confuse the bourgeois. Clearly, avant-garde art had not yet been assimilated, despite several decades of production (although the lag of acceptance became less and less as time when by, until, as Leo Steinberg wrote, it required only a few years for an enfant terrible to become an elder statement -- and no time at all these days.) The audience felt insulted and mocked -- the work certainly did not live up to conventional expectations of ballet theater -- and responded in kind, declaring the organizers, troupe, and artists "Sales Boches" (dirty Germans), not exactly the thing to be during the last year of France's long, drawn out, ruinous war with Germany. Once again, the avant-garde seemed to betray art, which made it all the more intriguing.
Picasso portrayed Diaghilev and his colleague Selisburg in a 1917 drawing. They have a stately classical look, much more so than the Jacob and Apollinaire portraits, where the bodies seem less full-bodied, even frail. The impressarios have an invulnerable look, the artists look somewhat more vulnerable. But both have a wholeness of being that seemed unimaginable in the Analytic Cubist portraits, made just a half decade earlier. Picasso's classicizing images promised tranquility in turbulent wartime, a tranquility he found for a while with Olga -- it seems no accident that he married her the year the war ended -- and which is evident in such paintings as Two Seated Women (1920) and Seated Woman (1923), with their dignified, monumental figures. Perhaps he felt that his Cubism had disturbed the artistic peace too much, and he wanted to restore it by a return to tradition, which also suited his benign new mood. Depicting Paolo, the Artist's Son, at Age Four, in 1925, he shows an unexpected, refreshing tenderness -- evident in the softness and delicacy of the handling -- for the intimate other. Perhaps this was because he identified with children, indeed, struggled to keep the child in himself alive, as his 1956 remark about children's art suggests. But in 1925 he also painted the abstract The Dance, in which the figures are not only malevolently distorted, but seem to represent the crucifixion, as the central figure, her arms outstretched as though on a cross, suggests. The two attendant figures, one attenuated and shadowy, the other grotesquely shaped -- indeed, a cruelly deformed monster, ineptly balanced on one gross leg, with the other clumsily raised -- represent the thieves who were also crucified, one on each side of Christ. It is a picture of mocking, destructive alienation from women, signaling the beginning of the end of his relationship with Olga, which occurred a decade later, precipitated, no doubt, by his affair with the young Marie-Thérèse Walter -- with whom he had a daughter, Maia -- but long in the offing, by reason of their incompatibility: Olga was a rather conventional woman, eager for the trappings of success and propriety, while Picasso was a free creative spirit. He clearly felt hemmed in by Olga -- a creative inhibition that turned to impotent despair in 1933, when Picasso's usually prodigious output diminished, and some say vanished for a time.
This contradiction between classicizing and what one might call a crucifying, abstract style persists and climaxes in the '30s. On the one side there is patient, gentle concern for the other, and a certain sense of inner harmony -- instead of tortured drama -- and on the other side there is the impatient, aggressive Juggernaut of abstract style, contemptuously crushing whatever crosses its path, indeed, consuming, digesting and excreting the remains of whatever human beings get in its way. Picasso's style becomes an impersonal instrument of dissection and torture, like the punitive machine in Franz Kafka's story The Penal Colony. Picasso's 1927 etching Painter and Model Knitting, illustrating Balzac's story The Unknown Masterpiece, summarizes the split in Picasso's style. In the painter's hands, the realistic model dissolves into an abstract matrix of lines forming geometrical patterns. A similar pattern appears in an iron wire sculpture of 1928, which seems to be a framed figure, indeed, a cage of art. On the left we have what is in effect a canvas. A stick figure -- female, as the huge oval that forms her body suggests -- stands more or less in the center. Orthogonal lines extend between the model and the canvas, measuring parts of her body in the process of bringing them into focus. Three straight lines, spanning a section of the perimeter of the oval -- the work is a composite of curves and angles -- converge in the center of the canvas, forming a vanishing point. All the lines seem to be parts of an eccentric perspective construction -- the same complex perspective evident in the painting depicted in the 1927 etching. It is the grid the artist in a Dürer print uses to help him draw the model in perspective, but now the perspective is modernized -- no longer single-point Renaissance perspective, but the disjunctive multiple perspectives of Cubism, generating many vanishing points, which are oddly connected, however divergent. Thus the strangeness and relativity of reality is brought out by the seemingly infinite variety of perspectives it is possible to have on it, especially because none of them is absolutely binding and convincing - definitive -- in itself.
The absurd, abstract, monstrously deformed and mangled females in three 1929 paintings -- Head of a Woman with a Self-Portrait (Olga's abnormal head has the same sharp tongue that later appears in the horse in Guernica, and Picasso shows himself to be normal compared to her), Woman in a Red Armchair and Seated Bather -- not only suggest Picasso's angry new view of Olga, now his enemy, and his low opinion of marriage, but make it transparently clear that he uses abstraction to caricature and crucify bad spirits. In the 1930 Crucifixion, crucified figures and crucifying style fuse in a fresh sense of rabid violence. The contradiction between classicizing clarity and crucifying abstraction -- the one serving to represent good spirits, the other bad spirits -- is again spelled out in the difference between two bronze sculptures of female heads, made about the same time. The lovely Mediterranean Head is calm and introspective, the insanely grotesque Sculpture of 1931 conveys distress and outrage. Picasso goes back and forth between neo-classicizing representational and modernizing abstract styles, the former evident in his illustrations for Ovid's Metamorphoses (1931) and Aristophanes' Lysistrata (1934) as well as the images of The Sculptor's Studio (1933), the latter visible in such works as Portrait of Dora Maar and Weeping Woman (both 1937) (a new and unhappy mistress). Sometimes the integrative tendency seems to soften the disintegrative tendency, as in Portrait of Maia and Girl with a Cock (both 1938). Picasso seemed to be able to reconcile the opposites more readily when children were his subject matter. They are in fact the embodiment of fantastic reality.
Braque and Léger did not suffer Picasso's conflicts nor have his virtuosity, but they did create solid, unitary styles. The one made a connoisseur art of studio solitude, the other made an extroverted, social art -- indeed, a modern art for the people. They were both fantastic realists, but in Braque's case the fantasy was about the artist's self -- embodied in a ghostly bird, suspended in the studio space like a mirage of creative freedom -- while in Léger's case it was about a modern utopia, in which the worker could enjoy life in effortless happiness. Both modified their abstraction in the service of representation, to the extent that abstraction lost its novelty and came to seem like a code. In retrospect, Braque, realizing that avant-garde art could not survive outside the sanctuary of the studio, seems like a clear-eyed realist, while Léger's optimistic fantasy of social solidarity seems naive. In contrast to both, Matisse's optimism was sustained by a faith in nature and art -- both appeared in his Mediterranean imagery, seamlessly integrated to sublime effect -- however much the suffering of the world made its imprint on his late cutouts, fusing no doubt with his own personal suffering, evident in the life-threatening illness which catalyzed his last burst of creativity.
Braque was obsessed with esthetic harmony, that is, the subliminal formal relationships that exist in nature. "It suggests emotion," as he said, "and I translate that emotion into art. I want to expose the Absolute, and not merely the factitious woman."(6) This is a kind of esthetic idealism or absolutism, in which the sense of transcendence the esthetic brings with it seems to overcome the contingencies of life and nature, indeed, mortality. Thus, the nude woman in his series of Canéphores (1922-26) is not only a traditional symbol of nature's abundance, as the fruit and flowers associated with her suggest, but also conveys the intense emotions her fertile body arouses in him. It is more light than shadow, but her head is divided into light and dark halves, suggesting Braque's ambivalence. As in his series of Guéridons (pedestal tables) (1928-29), also laden with symbols of life -- domestic life in this case (it also seems "natural") -- contradictory emotion is conveyed by the harmonious balance of unequal forces. Esthetic harmony becomes a metaphor for emotional harmony, or at least of its possibility. In both types of picture, a comparatively gigantic object, a human body or a substitute for it, is juxtaposed with much smaller still-life objects, which the human object contains and supports. Just as they peacefully rest on the young Mother Nature's soft lap, so they repose on the safety of the hard tabletop. "Nobility grows out of contained emotion," Braque said,(7) and the monumental body and table contain the emotions symbolized by the smaller objects associated with them. This is what makes the body and table seem noble -- spiritually grand -- rather than simply physically large.
The discrepancies in size, shape and surface are overcome by Cubist esthetics. Solid, stable figure and vivid, unstable still-life objects are reconciled in "the new space" of Cubism, as Braque called it, that is, in modern abstract space. For Braque, Cubism was the decisive move from conventional representation, in which objects are mirrored, to pure representation, in which relationships are created, or rather teased out of intimate space by esthetic means. In Cubism, it is the rendering of relationships that matters rather than the discreetness of objects. There are no independent objects, only objects that exist in and through their relationships. Braque's series of Ateliers (Studios) (1948-55) are the grand climax of his career, indeed, the most ambitious, difficult works he ever made. Objects float in space-time, and seem to embody its flow, presided over by an enormous bird, the age-old symbol of the free human spirit -- the soul liberated from the body. Indeed, Braque's still-life objects are spiritualized. They become mysterious phantoms in the solitude and safety of the studio, immune and indifferent to the outer world. It is a tense place -- electric with creativity -- in which harmony has become complex, for it involves a seemingly infinite, ever changing variety of relationships. The same objects exist in conflicting relationships; they seem to belong to different constellations at once. All are finally harmonized in an oceanic, cosmic space, in which they become intersecting imagistic currents. The studio looks like a domestic space, as the still-life clutter of familiar things suggests -- but it is an infinite space of purely esthetic beings.
The insularity of Braque's visionary works, which carry Cubism to a climactic new height -- they are in fact its consummate final statement -- is balanced by their expansiveness. Space is more magnificent and imaginative -- not simply "analytic" or "synthetic" -- than it ever was in early Cubism, and objects more evocative. Braque's Ateliers series was begun when Pollock was making his painterly field paintings and ended when Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still were making their post-painterly abstract field paintings, in which eccentric gesture was reduced to an abstract minimum on a flat surface, making for a tauter if also tenser harmony between figure and ground. Braque's works are also grand abstract fields. Objects conform to the field by flattening, which turns them into esthetic gestures. They become pure forms whose eccentric shape is determined by their esthetic relationship to other forms. But Braque's field paintings are less minimal than those of Newman and Still, and their gestures fuller, because they are images of life at its most subtle and intimate and, as such, more emotionally resonant and intricate than even the most flashy abstract gestures. What seems rhetorical in Newman and Still is authentically epic in Braque. Braque's studio is not only a world unto itself, but the whole wide world, in which Braque soars freely, magically transforming the remains of reality into pure art. For the bird is Braque himself, the holy ghost of pure esthetic aspiration, the subtle esthetic wizard, able to give esthetic life to a reality that seems strangely dead. It is as though the studio was a cemetery that had become a heaven of art -- a truly sublime, otherworldly place, for in it objects have only what Braque called "a sort of intellectual non-existence," which is why they can live in mythical harmony. For Braque, the esthetic resurrection of the world of objects gives them value and meaning, which they otherwise lack.
Léger accommodated to machine reality in a way Picasso, Braque and Matisse never thought of doing. In 1923, he gave a lecture on "The Esthetics of the Machine: Manufactured Objects, Artisan and Artist," which was in effect his credo. He was drafted in the first world war, and found himself in the Engineer Corps, working among ordinary Frenchmen and dealing with weapons, which seemed to him to have a life of their own. Indeed, he was particularly impressed by the breech of a 75-millimetre gun -- it shone in the light as though there was a halo around it. The piece of artillery had in effect become a "personage," as he said -- a much more impressive personage than any ordinary person. He represented people as machines. Their bodies became blueprints, but they didn't quite measure up. Even fitted into the dehumanizing procrustean bed of the machine, they were not as pure as the inhuman machine, Léger's model for esthetic purity as well as for the good life.
The City (1919) is a place of machines and machine-like human beings -- or are they robots who look like human beings? This tendency to mechanize appearances -- indeed, to see reality entirely in mechanical terms, or to celebrate machines as the ultimate reality -- accelerates in the '30s and climaxes in a series of populist, decorative murals Léger made in the '40s and '50s. Full of mechanical joie de vivre, in conformity with their mechanical figures, his cyclists of 1948-49 -- supposedly "classical" by reason of its clarity and precision, which is why it was also called Homage to Louis David (David was also a social revolutionary, like Léger, although Léger seems to have forgotten that later in his career David forgot the people and endorsed the new, post-revolutionary ruling class founded by Napoleon) -- and The Constructors (1950) have left Cubist complexity behind. The figures are lined up like puppets in a theatrical tableau, their inertness countered by the bold background color, which seems to have nothing to do with their dull reality. Fetishizing the machine, Léger confirmed that he had, as he once said, no imagination. It is a failure of artistic vision -- at bottom a failure of creative nerve, or the sacrifice of it to make a collective point -- that becomes explicit in the garish billboard-poster look of his later works, which seem like mass-produced designs rather than hand-made paintings. These grandiose works are heavily dependent on a media idea of mass communication. The figures in them have the hollowness of people in advertising images. Braque's final works are facile panoramas of platitudinous people -- soulless social landscapes in which avant-garde art has lost its soul.
Léger identified with the people, which is why his work lost its identity as high art. Or rather it is a high art version of people's art -- a case of high art accommodating to popular art to make a social point that even the people lost interest in, for they didn't think they were inhuman machines, and they didn't care to have their lives predetermined by ideology, revolutionary or otherwise. In a sense, Léger gave Cubism -- or what was left of Cubism in his art -- legitimacy by bringing it to the people, which is also to corrupt and falsify it, esthetically and emotionally. In fact, his murals seem to condescend to the people they are meant for even as they descend from the esthetic perch of avant-garde art, which not only loses its complexity but its meaning. To stoop to conquer society is to fall from esthetic grace. In letting one aspect of the outer modern world take over his art, Léger destroyed its inner drama and confirmed that he had none. Léger's art lost esthetic resonance by limiting itself to the simplistic esthetics of the machine, and human resonance by blindly professing the cause of humanity. There is an odd naivete to Léger's work, which makes it self-defeating as both art and social advocacy, however charming.
Where Léger's later works have a kind of unwitting charm, for all the heaviness and cumbersomeness of their figures and handling, Matisse's later works have a determined grace and ease, in both handling and imagery. He wanted, as he said, a "comprehensively human" art, from which "troubling or depressing subject matter" was banished. In the '20s, this meant a sensual Mediterranean art, in which odalisques became the centerpiece of an interior landscape and the Riviera landscape a kind of exotic odalisque. (He moved to Nice in 1917.) After a few early works in which the male figure appeared, Matisse never abandoned the female figure, for it was the source of "luxe, calme et volupte" (to refer to a Fauve work) in a harsh world, which Matisse, like Braque, kept out of the studio. The female body was a mix of consolation and excitement for Matisse, and the Riviera was the female body in another form. He in effect worshipped woman with a cult-like devotion. Matisse's '20s works have been called ingratiating, by reason of their seductive lushness, amplified by flowers and textiles, forming exquisite patterns, autonomous and interlacing at once, but they reflect a deliberately upbeat lifestyle, in which happiness was cultivated and suffering -- that inner human ugliness -- banished, along with the ugliness of the modern world, especially of modern Lumpen society (Léger's anonymous world of lumbering machines and commonplace people) and the grotesque German world of barbaric war and social insanity.
This is no mean feat, all the more so because it seemed to have been accomplished with no sense of strain or effort, but rather with lyrical spontaneity -- a lightness of touch that made the reality represented seem magical. This is why Matisse's work is an esthetic beacon in the social blackness, even more than Braque's, which has a certain melancholy cast, for all its formidable esthetics. Both are masters of the intimate, that is, expert at creating sacred esthetic space, a studio sanctuary that seems to concentrate all the goodness of life in it, which is why it seems more important than the outer world, and why it must be protected. But Braque's studio has a certain shadowy sadness, for all the light that permeates it -- all the light that blazes from the bird -- while Matisse's studio is all shadowless luminosity, which makes it seem permanently fresh, indeed, a marvel of sophisticated innocence. Stendhal said that art was for the happy few, and the art of both Matisse and Braque is esthetically happy, which is why it is for the few who truly realize that the point of life is to be happy, which involves a deliberate effort to enjoy it and not suffer, possible only in privacy, far from the maddening crowd. It is also why they never tried to appeal to that crowd, nor represent it, the way Léger and the German artists did. Theirs is not a public art, but a private art of passion recollected in esthetic tranquility.
If Cubism gave us a "new space," then Matisse gave us a new elegance -- modern elegance. It is especially clear in his drawings. We see Matisse's sophistication and freshness in their seemingly innocent, unlabored touch. The white surface of the paper becomes absolute light and crystal-clear space, and the few swift lines of the female figure exist like the rustling of leaves in the wind. There is a persuasive deftness to Matisse's drawings, which show a remarkable economy of means, and have a deceptive simplicity that became more and more pronounced and refined as he developed, climaxing in the abrupt suaveness of the religious drawings he made for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence (1947-50) and the subtle cutouts -- the paper is a sheet of color -- that illustrate Jazz (1947), a book with a text composed and handprinted by him, which also has a certain religious dimension. (Many of Matisse's drawings were made to illustrate books, and the cutouts are in effect drawings made with a scissor. But they are also sculptures: "To cut right into color makes me think of a sculptor's carving in stone," he said. Just as he wanted to reconcile drawing and painting, as he said, so he wanted to unite them with sculpture.)
Between the mid-career works of the '20s and the late works of the '40s and early '50s -- a series of blue nudes is especially noteworthy -- he made a number of large female nudes, beginning with the Dance mural he made for the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania (1931-33). It takes his famous 1910 Dance as its point of departure, and seems less successful, probably because Matisse had to fit the work into three lunettes, which is why it looks incoherent and fragmented, compared to the more cohesive, vigorously Dionysian earlier Dance. Indeed, the '30s murals seem to be all movement and no energy. Part of the problem seems to have been that Matisse was given the wrong measurements to begin with. He apparently had to redo the work; the first, unfinished version, discovered in the '90s, was much more masterful. The Pink Nude (1935) was much more successful -- lively and elegant at once -- than the nudes of the Dance mural, perhaps because Matisse was making it for his own edification, and above all with no architectural destination in mind. The figures in the Vence Chapel also seem diminished by the architectural setting, especially because of its relentless whiteness and the colorful stained glass windows, both of which make a greater impact than the figures, which seem all too schematic and subdued, even peculiarly trivial, as though Matisse couldn't put his heart into religious art, which demanded a certain sobriety and restraint rather than joie de vivre. I suspect that Matisse was inhibited by the task, but however much he felt the approach of death -- he sculpted a crucifix for the altar in Vence, and depicted the Stations of the Cross -- he never gave in to it, retaining his sense of happiness and love for the pleasures of life to the esthetic end.
Joie de vivre is not exactly what we find in the "metaphysical" imagery of de Chirico, Carrà and Morandi, but reality has become fantastic, if not the esthetic fantasy it is in Braque and Matisse. For all three Italian artists, real things exist in a loneliness that makes them seem unreal, creating an in between state of unreality that is the inner theme of their art. This is what makes it "metaphysical" rather than merely physical. "Metaphysical content," as de Chirico called it, conveying his "surprise" at the inner reality that existed beneath the threshold of appearances, is evident in the deserted spaces of such works as The Joys and Enigmas of a Strange Hour (1913) and The Melancholy and Mystery of a Street (1914). Symbols abound in de Chirico's proto-Surrealist works (he was discovered by Apollinaire and celebrated by Breton). The locomotive refers to his father, an engineer who worked for the Greek rail system, and with whom he had a distant relationship. The locomotive is usually pictured in the distance, behind a wall, suggesting his father's aloofness and emotional remoteness. The ancient temples and sculptures represent Greece, where he was born and lived until he was seventeen. But the essence of de Chirico's pictures is their emptiness -- the desolate, depressing urban spaces emblematic of the emotional vacuum, passivity, even paralysis he felt deep inside himself. No doubt modernity and antiquity were in conflict in his mind, and more broadly technology and art. In The Joys and Enigmas of a Strange Hour, the dynamic locomotive, puffing smoke, and the classical sculpture of a woman passively reclining, are in altogether separate spaces. They also show father and mother at odds, and neither available to de Chirico, invisible in the empty space that is his signature. The picture's core is in fact its profound emptiness, dramatized by an absurd perspective, which manneristically extends it, presumably to infinity. A tiny couple -- the parents again? -- can be found passively standing in the empty space like wraiths in Hades, or like somnambulists in an incomprehensible world. Their smallness suggests that de Chirico has turned the tables on them: They are now small, worthless children, indeed, toys he can play with. They are as isolated and abandoned as de Chirico felt himself to be. The space is the symbol of that abandonment and isolation.
De Chirico studied in Munich, where he was influenced by Arnold Böcklin, particularly, no doubt, his famous Island of the Dead, and by Max Klinger's dream pictures, already quintessentially Surrealist in their juxtapositions, especially of such things as a woman's glove and a weird, bat-like creature from "the other side," to use Kubin's term. He wanted his pictures to have what the Germans called Stimmung, a certain mood or atmosphere, particularly the melancholy mood in which the real world became fantastically unreal without losing any of its reality. That is, a world in which the real became subjective and objective at once. But the Germanic influence went only so far. De Chirico was interested not only in what we called "metaphysical loneliness," but "plastic loneliness," or what we might call "esthetic loneliness" -- the loneliness of forms, indeed, the loneliness of an esthetic epiphany. De Chirico's modern-looking mannequins embody these "two different lonelinesses," as de Chirico called them, especially The Great Metaphysician (1917), an ironically geometrical, machine-like statue -- it has planes for gears, and seems about to fall apart, especially because none of the planes seem synchronized -- isolated in an empty square whose perimeter is marked by banal official-looking buildings, a sort of Potemkin village of pretentious facades with nothing behind them. Thus, the forward look in the backward situation -- a typical metaphysical absurdity, that is, the dialectic of emotional stagnancy with avant-garde and technological progress, de Chirico's accurate vision of modernity.
De Chirico abandoned this brilliant vision for his version of Renaissance classicism, but it was too academic and artless to measure up to Renaissance standards. He did so because he felt abandoned and misused by the Surrealists, even though they recognized him as their forerunner, and by his Italian Futurist compatriots, who were more hopeful about modernity and machines than he was. Moreover, Carrà, in his 1918 book on Pittura Metafisica, did not give de Chirico the credit he deserved for his innovations. In the '20s and '30s, de Chirico made a series of images of heroic horses, usually on a beach -- clearly a throwback to Renaissance grandeur (or else a sterile relic of it) -- often accompanied by classical temples. These works have a schematic, mechanical look, even though the fantasy is compounded by the pointless juxtaposition of modern figures with the ancient symbols. These works are supposedly full of the old melancholy, but they are boring. Carrà struggled to sustain the haunting, melancholy mood of Pittura Metafisica in such odd fantasies as The Drunken Gentleman (1917), with its sculptural tidbits, and The Daughters of Lot (1919), with its pseudo-classicism, but it survived more intact in the subtle still lives of Morandi. His work appeared in the first Futurist exhibition in Rome, held in 1914, and after the first world war he allied himself with the Scuola Metafisica. He came into his own in the '30s, and especially after the second world war, in works that seem like meditations on ordinary objects, plastically transformed to reveal their inherent loneliness. Where metaphysical esthetics goes bankrupt in later de Chirico and Carrà it comes alive again, along with the pursuit of esthetic purity -- which they shunted aside -- in the uncanny realism of Morandi.
De Chirico had great influence on René Magritte -- a reproduction of de Chirico's The Song of Love (1914) converted him to Surrealism, and the little locomotive emitting smoke, absurdly in a fireplace with no fire, in Time Transfixed (1938) derives from de Chirico -- but his fantastic reality seems contrived and inauthentic compared to that of Morandi as well as de Chirico. In Morandi's still-lifes banal everyday reality is "naturally" fantastic -- fantastic in its plasticity (indeed, Morandi is a master of "plastic loneliness" as well as "metaphysical loneliness," which eloquently unite in his objects) -- while in Magritte's The Human Condition (1933), a pseudo-speculative painting in which a real landscape and a realistic painting of it are all but indistinguishable, the effect is one of manufactured absurdity. Where Morandi offers us an epiphany of reality, Magritte drains it of life, and archly arranges the dead dregs to pseudo-intellectual effect. His objects certainly do not have the esthetic and intellectual non-existence of which Braque spoke. Magritte is cleverly toying with illusion, but his somewhat forced, coyly deadpan irony results in an empty paradox. His intellectual wit is evident in the statement he published in La Révolution surréaliste (in 1929, the last issue), where he distinguishes between objects and their images and names while suggesting the ironical arbitrariness of their relationship, but it doesn't work as well in his paintings, where it becomes all too facile, indeed, a kind of labored joke. The interplay of language, image and object in The Treachery (or Perfidy) of Images (1928-29) -- a somewhat bland picture of a pipe, with the words "This is not a pipe" written underneath (in French) -- is more amusing than philosophical.
Magritte's most authentically fantastic works are those in which his personal barbarism, indeed, raw sadism, is apparent, for example, in The Menaced Assassin and Pleasure (both 1926), and both painted with a forceful crudity and an authentic sense of absurdity. The danger and violence in these vital, astonishing dream pictures -- his first and most truly Surrealist works, for they involve eruptions from the unconscious -- disappeared in his later intellectualization of Surrealism. It was a deliberate repression that drained Magritte's works of their emotional impulsiveness and insight -- their emotional staying power, indeed, the emotional insidiousness so crucial for Surrealism. Magritte had a short-lived career as a provocative visionary, and a much longer one as a clever manipulator of images, in the end producing works that had no emotional impact, which made them peculiarly farcical.
The metaphysics of the absurd, and the morbid sense of estrangement that went with it, became domesticated in the reality-based fantasies Balthus and Tchelitchew painted in the '30s. Where Braque and Matisse set up esthetics as a barricade against the barbarism of the outer world, and Picasso and de Chirico used it to mediate inner drama, Balthus and Tchelitchew carry fantastic realism to a charming anti-climax, however sensational their works seem to be. Tchelitchew's magical Hide-and-Seek (Cache-cache) (1940-42), with its children, their blood vessels exquisitely visible and magnified through their skin, in a matrix of meticulously detailed iridescent nature, and Balthus's intimate Living Room (1942), with its young, self-absorbed girls -- the one on the curved couch seems in a kind of ecstatic trance, and the dresses of both are temptingly short -- are fantasies that leave little or nothing to the unconscious imagination, for the artists have become all too self-conscious about the unconscious. They did not abandon the unconscious the way Magritte did, but they knew its interests all too well. Balthus is known for his perverse fascination with females who have just become adolescent and thus aware of their sexuality and bodies, and Tchelitchew's so-called "X-ray" perception carries vision to a disconcerting extreme, but their pictures lack mystery, however provocative. And yet Tchelitchew's quasi-scientific representation of nature brings out its fantastic character, just as Balthus's inquisitive observation of adolescent girls brings out the fantastic character of sexuality. But their fantasies are somewhat predictable, and their realism more shrewd than evocative - Balthus's works supposedly have the same sublime subtlety as Renaissance art, but if so then it looks somewhat worn (his impersonal figures supposedly have the same majestic stasis as those of Piero della Francesca, but they certainly don't have the same inwardness) -- suggesting that fantastic realism has become a cliché.
Fantastic realism had become the dead-end of esthetic and emotional resistance against the barbarism of the outer world. Braque and Matisse picture private space, esthetically sanctified, and so do Balthus and Tchelitchew, but in their works it has lost its esthetic intimacy and sacredness, however private it remains. The objects in it have lost their intellectual non-existence, indeed, even the pretense of intellectuality that Magritte accords them. They clearly exist on earth -- in the outer world, however strange they seem to be. Without plastic loneliness and metaphysical loneliness, magic realism becomes a descriptive shell without a mystical kernel, which is what happens in Balthus and Tchelitchew. Barbarism can take many forms, including that of outward appearance without inward reality or with false inwardness -- a simulated, Hollywood inwardness. This is what occurs in Balthus and Tchelitchew's works -- they look like something out of a lurid, art(y) film -- and this makes their works subliminally barbaric. They lack inner drama and esthetic conviction -- esthetic inwardness. They are essentially outer dramas, with whatever inwardness they may have turned inside-out. They seem suggestive, but they wear their emotions on their sleeves. Both depict children -- very young children in Tchelitchew's picture, slightly older children in Balthus' picture -- but the child's fantastic vision of reality that we see in Tchelitchew's picture and the vision of childhood sexuality we see in Balthus' picture are no longer fresh, which suggests that outwardness has triumphed over the inwardness and esthetics, not to say spontaneity, that it once masked.
Apart from Morandi, the one truly authentic fantastic realist of the '30s was Stanley Spencer. In the provocative Self-Portrait with Patricia Preece (1936), the artist stares at the flesh of a modern Venus, not exactly with the so-called male gaze but rather with astonishment at the ease with which she exhibits her nakedness. He looks at her body as though at a dream come true: She's as much his fantasy of an ideal woman as she is a real person. The boyish Spencer -- not exactly an Adonis -- is no emotional nor for that matter sexual match for her. He's wide-eyed with innocent desire; she's knowing and indifferent. Their eyes don't meet, and she remains untouched and unavailable, except in fantasy: Spencer said that he crawled over her skin with his paint brush like an eager ant. She's an exotic odalisque within reach, but he can only reach her through art. She's blonde, beautiful and perfect; he's black-haired, unattractive and imperfect -- they're clearly not meant for each other. In the picture, his head is positioned between her left breast, which lushly spreads between the top of his forehead and the bottom of his nose, and her pubic hair, which he turns away from, unconsciously realizing he's not likely to have sexual intercourse with her -- her legs are tight together -- although he's free to look at her body as much as he likes. He is caught between her pincers, suggesting her emotional cruelty. It is her hauteur which in fact makes her oddly barbaric, along with the primitive abundance of her body.
In fact, Spencer never overcame his sense of the primitive character of the body. His infatuated picture of Preece, with whom he was self-destructively involved, is the closest he comes to doing so. But there is something disturbingly primitive, indeed, confrontationally primitive, about her body, especially in Spencer's Nude (Portrait of Patricia Preece) (1935), where she seems harsh and sinister. The bodies in Spencer's "Beatitudes" series (1937-40) are unequivocally primitive, with not the slightest hint of beauty -- ungainly and even ugly, as he acknowledged. It is in these works that his fantasy of the human body as a kind of bizarre creation, and of human life as a kind of fantasy, becomes explicit. Spencer was a religious primitive, as his biblical fantasies of the '20s indicate -- a latter-day Blake, as it were, without the literal visions (and like Blake obsessed with the body and sexuality). For him, the body could be possessed by the soul, and the more completely it was possessed the more strange and fantastic it became, at least until he encountered Preece, who seemed all body and no soul. In the notorious Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and His Second Wife (The Leg of Mutton Nude) (1937), in which Spencer and Preece remain at odds emotionally however physically intimate and naked, she is implicitly the cold leg of mutton. But waiting for her to allow him to have sex with her -- "it is so extraordinary to get near to her at all," he wrote -- his genitals also became cold mutton. (There is in effect an odd resemblance between the two in both color and shape.) She finally spreads her legs, but she remains inaccessible, except to his eyes, as usual.
Sex is always a frontier of fantasy, and so is the naked body, by reason of its sexual explicitness -- the figures in Spencer's Leg of Mutton Nude, with their aggressively displayed genitals, apparently inspired Lucian Freud's similarly exposed, equally confrontational nudes, which also have more than a touch of fantasy about them -- but Spencer, like a good mystic, could find the fantasy, one might say the miraculous, in even the most everyday reality, as his wonderfully luminous From the Artist's Studio (1938) indicates. The prominently placed daffodils are an offering to the sun, and the whole scene has a sacramental aura, as the play of light suggests.
A really fantastic realist does not have to pull fantasies out of his hat as though by artistic magic -- fantasy is not a magic trick, as de Chirico seemed to think it was -- but rather finds it in the street, as it were -- readymade in ordinary reality. Again and again Spencer passes the test, capturing the inner strangeness of reality, often turned inside out, so that outer world looks strange. It is their everyday realism that makes such visionary works as The Resurrection of the Soldiers (1927-32), implicitly an indictment of the barbarism of the war, magical -- the fantasies of a true original -- not their religious content.
Notes(1) Quoted in Wayne Anderson, Picasso¹s Brothel (New York: Other Press, 2002), p. 62
(2) Quoted in ibid., p. 63
(3) Charles Brenner, An Elementary Textbook of Psychoanalysis (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1974), p. 217
(4) Quoted in Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Picasso. Fifty Years of His Art (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1946), p. 271
(5) Penrose, p. 199
(6) Quoted in Chipp, p. 260
(7) Ibid., p. 262
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.
His new book, A Critical History of 20th-Century Art, is being serially published in Artnet Magazine. For an archive of the chapters posted so far, click here