Cézanne’s lesson, according to Picasso, was not to be found in his beautifully painted apples, but in his anxiety. This is echoed in the words of the artist, Paul Signac, who reported that Matisse was “anxious, madly anxious”, in the year of 1905, when the Fauves made their cataclysmic debut at the Salon d’Automne.
It is a cliché that great artists are possessed of mastery: an impression generated by Hollywood movies, and the self-promotional antics of ambitious would-be geniuses. The best artists are always anxious about their work. They are anxious because they set their own challenges, never being sure that each step in a new direction might not prove to be a terrible faux pas.
In a contemporary world in which almost every form of artistic expression has been collected by a major museum, we can scarcely understand the terrors and ecstasies of those early days of Modernism. Maurice Denis spoke about “a quest for the absolute”. On the eve of World War 1 Wassily Kandinsky heralded “an epoch of great spirituality”. Émile Bernard said that Cézanne had opened “this amazing door”.
The great adventure – and crisis – of the years 1867 to 1917, was the loss of the subject. For the first time artists consciously set out to make works where abstract qualities of form, colour and line might exist on a canvas independently of recognisable motifs. It was not a unified process, but the result of many different influences and experiments – an evolution, as Mondrian put it, rather than a revolution.
In charting this story, Paths to Abstraction at the Art Gallery of NSW is a unique exhibition for this country. The more common tactic is for an Australian gallery to take a touring blockbuster – sometimes a hastily assembled survey of a well-known artist, sometimes a selection of works from an overseas museum undergoing renovations, such as Canberra’s recent Masterpieces from Paris extravaganza.
Paths to Abstraction is a very different proposition: an international show initiated by a local gallery that undertakes a scholarly investigation into an important topic in the history of art. I can’t recall a more ambitious project in an Australian art museum since the National Gallery of Australia’s Surrealism survey of 1993. Although the NGA made big claims for Turner to Monet in 2008, that haphazard collection presented only one idea – that the nineteenth century witnessed the rise and triumph of the landscape genre – and a distinctly second-rate catalogue.
What makes Paths to Abstraction so superior is the quality of intellectual engagement. It has taken curator, Terence Maloon, five years to prepare this show, and much of his life to think through the issues involved. He has engaged three international experts – Jean-Claude Lebensztejn from Paris, Richard Shiff from Texas, and Annegret Hoberg from Munich, to write excellent original essays for the catalogue. He has produced an exhibition in which every piece makes a meaningful contribution to the story, and enjoys some relationship with its neighbours.
One of Maloon’s proven talents is his ability to construct a tight, coherent exhibition from whatever works are available. This is crucial, because it has always been notoriously difficult for Australian art museums to secure international loans, or afford the spiraling costs involved.
Having given Paths to Abstraction a ringing endorsement, I have to admit that it suffers from the familiar problem of securing important loans. Although the show contains a roll-call of big names, including Whistler, Monet, Cézanne, Gauguin, Bonnard, Vuillard, Derain, Picasso, Braque, Léger, Klee, Marc, Munch, Mondrian and Malevich, it lacks those indisputable masterpieces that draw crowds. Most of these famous artists are represented by prints, drawings and small oils; including some of the tiniest and most low-key pictures Picasso ever painted.
The leading set piece in the show features three paintings of the same theme, Nude woman reading (1915-20) by Robert Delaunay – one from Melbourne, one from Lisbon, and the largest and most impressive, from Bilbao. This is a fascinating display, but I couldn’t help thinking that Delaunay will be an obscure discovery for most visitors. The same might hold true for another strong sequence of early pictures by Piet Mondrian, which are interesting in their own right, but utterly different from his trademark geometric abstractions. Many works from the permanent collections in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney may already be too familiar to gallery-goers, including the AGNSW’s terminally over-exposed Monet, Port-Goulphar, Belle-Ile.
This adds up to an exhibition in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and where viewers are subject to certain demands. To get the most from these works one has to fully appreciate the way they contribute to the gradually unfolding narrative. It may be surprising to learn there are relatively few pieces in the entire selection that could be called abstract. The vast majority, from Whistler’s nocturnes to the experiments of the Cubists and Futurists, remain grounded in figuration.
The end point of this show coincides with the Bolshevik revolution, which would help define the political framework of the rest of the century. It marked the beginning of a brief flowering of avant-garde activity in Russia, including the rise of movements such as Suprematism and Constructivism. Maloon notes that 1917 also saw the first Dada exhibition in Zurich, and the birth of the Dutch art and architecture movement, De Stijl.
The beginnings of the exhibition are more obscure, with 1867 being the year that James Abbott McNeill Whistler began to give musical titles to his works to draw attention to their formal qualities. Symphony in white No.3, was a portrait of two girls in flowing white dresses. In calling the work a ‘symphony’, Whistler earned the displeasure of many who felt him to be both arrogant and pretentious. This was probably true, but Whistler had made a conceptual leap that would have long-lasting ramifications. When artists could willfully ignore the image of two girls in favour of an overall impression of colour, the genie of abstraction was out of the bottle.
Art historians have credited Kandinsky with the first consciously abstract painting – a watercolour hesitantly dated to 1913, but the search for origins is a futile affair. There are numerous artists who made works that might nowadays be called abstract, although they were not recognised as such at the time. Abstraction was a state of mind rather than a style, a coming-to-consciousness not a calculated innovation.
When Whistler painted nocturnes, showing only fog, darkness and a few stray points of light, this was a significant step in the direction of abstraction. When artists such as Cézanne and Monet concentrated on the relationships between forms rather than those forms themselves, this was an abstract impulse. When Bonnard, Vuillard and the rest of the Nabis group began to work with flat, decorative planes of colour, it was another occasion when subject matter became merely an excuse for an essentially abstract composition.
A vogue for rough-hewn woodblock prints speeded the ever-growing appreciation of the formal dimensions of an image. The analytical approach of the Cubists expedited the dissolution of the object, while artists such as Kandinsky, Marc, Kupka, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, began to explore the physical and emotional properties of colour. The final room of the show contains fully abstract works by artists such as Malevich and Kliun; Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp; and the Americans, Patrick Henry Bruce and Morgan Russell.
This is a plausible but not definitive blueprint for the birth of abstraction. If one tried to draw these activities as a diagram, it would end in a tangle of overlapping lines. The most problematic aspects are the motivations behind each move. While the constructivists celebrated the artist-engineer, Kandinsky emphasized the spiritual aspects of his activities. Mondrian, who looks so austerely geometrical, claimed that he sought a deeper form of ‘realism’, while being influenced by the quasi-religious doctrine of Theosophy. In this he had plenty of company, as Madame Blavatsky’s mystical ramblings struck deep chords in many prominent artists, writers and composers.
The Theosophical connection is downplayed in this exhibition, but it should not be underestimated. Artists turned to the occult as they looked to science, to psychology, to African and Oceanic art, to work by folk artists and children, as a way of connecting with the world in a deeper way – a way that transcended the logic of appearances. These were years when the pace of change was so ferocious that to stand still was to perish. Why were artists so anxious? Because their plunge into abstraction was not simply an experiment with form, but a matter of life and death.
Paths to Abstraction 1867-1917, Art Gallery of NSW, until June 26-September 19, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 3, 2010