Part Two – Exercise 2.0: The Modern in Painting and Sculpture

Find two paintings and one sculpture, each of which appears concerned with modernity, modernism and modernization. Indicate the relevant features on annotated reproductions. The following questions should help.

  • Does the subject seem to be of its time? 
  • Does the work or its subject matter appear mechanical?  
  • Does the artist exploit the look of the medium?  

How hard it can be to choose 3 works from the ‘Modern’ era. After a deeper research on certain commonalities of ‘Modern art’ (see my notes) I found that it could be nearly split into two groups:

  • more’realisistic’ representations of modernity and class culture
  • more ‘abstract’, experimental works dealing rather with the medium-specificity.

Sure it is not black and white, a lot in between and any definitions would be insufficient.

I searched and picked out a couple of works that either appealed to me or are at the edge of what one could envision as ‘modern art’ especially considering Greenberg’s approach. So why those?

Here my shortlist in chronological order with added features that I found characteristic for modern art

  1. Gustave Caillebotte  (1848 – 1894) ‘Pont de l’Europe’ , 1876 (painting)
    => Depicting modern, urban life; Modernization; Class awareness; Allusions; Self-consciousness
  2. Edvard Munch (1863-1944) ‘Evening on Karl John Street’, 1892 (painting)
    => Self-consciousness; Depicting modern, urban life; Estrangement; Alienation
  3. Edward Munch (1863-1944) ‘The Scream‘, 1893 (painting)
    => Self-consciousness; Depicting modern, urban life; Estrangement, Alienation; Spiritual content
  4. Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864 – 1916)  ‘Montague Street of London’, 1906 (painting)
    => Self-consciousness; Depicting modern, urban life; Estrangement; Alienation; Spiritual content
  5. Pablo Picasso (1881 -1973) ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon‘, 1907 (painting), (in: Foster ed al, 2011)
    => Allusions; Experimental, Spatial inter-relationship of color and objects; Cubism
  6. Robert Delaunay (1885 – 1941) ‘Eiffel Tower’, 1911 (painting)
    => Allusions; Depicting modern, urban life, Modernization; Experimental; Spatial inter-relationship of color and objects; Cubism
  7. Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1927) ‘Sailor with Guitar’, 1917 (Sculpture)
    => Allusions; Depicting modern, urban life; Dynamic; Experimental; Spatial inter-relationship of color and objects; Cubism
  8. Thomas Hart Benton (1905-1970) People-of-Chilmark-Benton‘, 1920 = Realism; Class awareness; Depicting modern life
  9. Pablo Picasso (1881 -1973) ‘Bull’s Head’, 1942  (Sculpture)
    => Structuralism; Allusions; Ready-made; Representational experience
  10. Barbara Hepworth  (1903 – 1975) Pelagos’, 1946 (Sculpture)
    => Abstraction; Dynamic; Spatial inter-relationship of color and objects; Plastic projection of thought; Spiritual content; Medium-specifity
  11. Barnett Newman  (1905-1970) ‘Vir Heroicus Sublimis‘, 1950-51 (painting)
    => Abstraction; Experimental; Spatial inter-relationship of color and objects;  Representational experience; Spiritual content; Medium-specifity

From that my keywords for modern art are (not comprehensive, but for me a starting point):

Stefan513593- 2.0 - words for modern art

Stefan513593- 2.0 – words for modern art – made with: http://www.wordclouds.com

List of words:

Abstraction / Alienation / Allusions / Class awareness /Cubism / Depicting modern (urban) life / Dynamic / Estrangement / Experimental / Medium-specifity / Modernization / Plastic projection of thought / Ready-made / Realism / Representational experience / Self-consciousness / Spatial inter-relationship of color and objects / Spiritual content / Structuralism

I decided eventually for my three works for this exercise:  #1 (Caillebotte), #9 (Hepworth) and #10 (Newman) as those do cover more than two third of my keywords (marked bold in above list)

Caillebotte at the beginning of Modernism or Modern Art and Newman at its end. Although also Hepworth was challenged already by some post-modernism tendencies at the end of her life.



Examples of Modern Art:

I looked up for some assistance on how to annotate from the excellent OCA material ‘Looking at Artists’, 2015. For the digital transfer of my handwritten paper log I used the software ‘Inspiration’.

1) Gustave Caillebotte  (1848 – 1894) ‘Pont de l’Europe’, 1876 (Oil on canvas, 125 × 181 cm)

My initial handwritten note in my paper log.

Stefan513593- 2.0 - log - annotated Caillebotte 'Pont de l'Europe', 1876

Stefan513593- 2.0 – log – annotated Caillebotte ‘Pont de l’Europe’, 1876

… and with deeper annotation and its transformation as a digital document:

Stefan513593- 2.0 - annotated Caillebotte 'Pont de l'Europe', 1876

Stefan513593- 2.0 – annotated Caillebotte ‘Pont de l’Europe’, 1876

The document is available as pdf file here: Caillebotte_pont_1876

Summary of key questions raised (extract from annotatd image):

  • Does the subject seem to be of its time?
    =>  There is a clear underlying narrative from modern life in Paris. Reflecting the modern flàneur as described by C. Baudelaire, the gaze, the modernization of Paris, the public space as a place to stroll and to see and perhaps to be seen.
    The painting works along the notion of absorption that keeps the figures with themselves. The viewer of the painting does not have access to them, quite similar as Manet’s depiction of figures on the balcony with their ‘deadpan’ faces. Caillebotte found a different articulation for that kind of alienation between viewer resp observer and the looked at scenery. The viewer even has not access to the view of those figures, obscured by the brutal bridge.
  • Does the work or its subject matter appear mechanical?
    => The main aspect of the painting is a rather subtle encounter and criticism of modern life in Caillebotte’s Paris during the time of the Third Republic. A time of rapid modernization and consumerism by an evolving middle class. The depicted metal bridge, the railways, the new large building are all a representation of the modernization of Paris.
  • Does the artist exploit the look of the medium?
    => I can see Caillebotte’s painting as very modernistic: moving away from the illusionistic paintings from the past toward a self-conscious articulation with an overwhelming composition, subtle sight lines, and obscuring of views and gazes. The tranversal view and the concealed vanishning point in a at first glance ‘realistic’ painting, shows a flattening effect of the picture plane.

2) Barnett Newman  (1905-1970) ‘Vir Heroicus Sublimis‘, 1950-51 (Oil on canvas, 242.2 x 541.7 cm)

The Latin title of this painting means “Man, heroic and sublime.”

My initial handwritten note in my paper log.

 

Stefan513593- 2.0 - annotated Newman 'Vir Heroicus Sublimis', 1950-51

Stefan513593- 2.0 – annotated Newman ‘Vir Heroicus Sublimis’, 1950-51

… and with deeper annotation and its transformation as a digital document:

Stefan513593- 2.0 - annotated Newman 'Vir Heroicus Sublimis', 1950-51

Stefan513593- 2.0 – annotated Newman ‘Vir Heroicus Sublimis’, 1950-51

 

The document is available as pdf file here: Newman_sublimis_1950

Summary of key questions raised (extract from annotatd image):

  • Does the subject seem to be of its time?
    =>  In the aftermath of WWII this painting is a contemporay aproach with reference to the Sublime context of Burke and Kant.  But extended and reduced to the pure sensation and awe as Newman explained in his essay of ‘The Sublime is Now’ (Morley, 2010). His painting is his personal approach on a concept of pure idea and ‘spiritual transcendence’ to embody the sublime and convey a timeless encounter.  The self-referentiality of the ‘zip’ painting alongside the uncomprehensibility could be interpreted as a reflection of the outside soclal reality.
  • Does the work or its subject matter appear mechanical?
    => This painting is without a subject matter. It works with the present moment and experience – the ‘content is ineffable’ in the words of the American philosopher Suzanne Langer. The painting is build on pure idea and concept, the execution, the making of it looks rather ‘simple’ and mechanistic. As some critique mentioned that everybody can do that. And according to Greenberg a Modernistic painting that is aesthetically good do not need to have a of narrative or subject matter. (Duve, Greenberg, 1996, p. 128)
  • Does the artist exploit the look of the medium?
    => An geometric abstract painting build that builds on Barnett’s idea of a personal encounter with the sublime and the self. Pure abstraction, painted on very large scale.  The elimination of any sculptural shading and spatial depth illusion the painting lives from a mere optical illusion related to the experience of the vertical ‘zips’.  Through overlayed washes and some fuzzy edges where the zip paint is either in front of the red or behind, the viewer perceives an optical illusion of depth.

3) Barbara Hepworth  (1903 – 1975) Pelagos’, 1946

My initial handwritten note in my paper log.

Stefan513593- 2.0 - annotated Hepworth 'Pelagos', 1946

Stefan513593- 2.0 – annotated Hepworth ‘Pelagos’, 1946

… and with deeper annotation and its transformation as a digital document:

Stefan513593- 2.0 - annotated Hepworth 'Pelagos', 1946

Stefan513593- 2.0 – annotated Hepworth ‘Pelagos’, 1946

 

The document is available as pdf file here: Hepworth_pelagos_1946

 

Summary of key questions raised (extract from annotatd image):

  • Does the subject seem to be of its time?
    => An abstract geometric sculpture with connotation of Hepworth’s personal experiences in the aftermath of WWII in Cornwall St. Ives. The sense of pure form and material specifity alongside her innovative experiment makes this work a modernistic art.
  • Does the work or its subject matter appear mechanical?
    =>  This sculpture looks rather harmonic and organic. But through how Hepworth relates the sculpture with the taut strings to her personal experience by representing “the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills.” the strings became a mechanistic appeal.
  • Does the artist exploit the look of the medium?
    => ‘Pelagos’ is a modernistic geometric abstract sculpture and quite minimalistic. In context of Greenberg’s evaluation of the ‘purity of each discipline’ and to restrict to its own limits, Hepworth’s sculpture is truly sculptural, perhaps just borrowing the strings from music. The purpose for Hepworth was to engage people bodily and let them move around and sense the look and touch of the sculpture.

Learnings:

  • I found my structured approach through annotating the images quite satisfying and comprehensive. Although time intensive and perhaps double work, my applied structure avoided that I overlook easily some aspects.
  • I think I never spend that much time with one artwork. I learned and understood much more. Something to keep in mind for my future understanding of artwork.
  • As I worked on this and the following expercise partly in parallel and alongside my reading on Modernism I could better relate theory and how artists put this into practice. Some more intuitive some other more self-consciously.
  • I do have some open questions related to the ‘mechanical ‘ aspect. Wondering how pure abstract modernism paintings can look ‘mechanical^.

Images:

References

 

 

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