TANGIBLE LIFE FORMS
IT seems human beings have a natural tendency to think everything is going to the dogs. Many or most cultures seem to look back on a better past — whether golden age or mythical creation time — and to consider the present as a period of comparative decadence and depravity. Not infrequently, as one finds both in Hesiod and in ancient Indian mythology, it is imagined as the penultimate phase of decline before the cataclysm that will lead to the beginning of a new cycle.
No doubt this chronological paradigm is a way of making sense of the misery of present conditions and postulating a standard for the better world to which one may aspire, and which is mythologised as a lost reality. At the same time, the schema of decline is probably reinforced by a human tendency to look back on the happy years of one’s youth as a better time: the old, as it has been observed since antiquity, tend to become nostalgic for times gone by.
Things were certainly very bad during the half-millennium that followed the fall of Rome. But then, after the new security and prosperity established in the Middle Ages, Europe began to think in a different way. The Renaissance considered itself a period of dramatic improvement, of the restoration of high civilisation after a millennium of decadence. There was still a fear of relapse, and the theme of regression recurs sporadically throughout the following centuries, but in a longer perspective we can see that what was emerging was an entirely new paradigm.
The beginnings of modern science during the 16th century and its explosion in the scientific revolution of the 17th at last regained and then surpassed the scientific knowledge of antiquity, while the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries fundamentally changed the conditions of modern life. The snowballing development of knowledge and its consequent technology led to the assumption that things were consistently improving: the invention of modern science in Europe brought us the new idea of progress.
The new paradigm extended to political thinking — in what has been called the Whig interpretation of history — and the optimism of social and democratic progress survived the catastrophic events of the 20th century; only in the past few years has it dawned on us, through the encounter with violent religious bigotry, that large parts of the world don’t want to become modern or share in social progress, human rights and democracy. At home, meanwhile, the ecological movement has been a reminder that progress can come at a high cost.
The new idea of progress, as we have seen, was closely associated with the development of art from the Renaissance, but it has become a more serious problem for the understanding of art since avant-gardism, which was the practical application of the idea in contemporary art, became confused with a progressivist view of art history itself. As far as our understanding of the art of the past was concerned, this led to the illusion that each successive phase was somehow an advance over its predecessors, each great master better than the last.
It is surprisingly hard, for example, even for academics to avoid suggesting that Caravaggio was better than his precursors, or that the impressionists, or Cezanne and so on, were in their turn superior to those who are implicitly assumed to be repeating the formulas of the past. In fact, although of course some artists are better than others and some periods richer in great figures, the fact remains that art is not essentially progressive: it is not a story of successive improvements but of changes in orientation, and each new achievement involves some kind of sacrifice — Rembrandt’s dramatic chiaroscuro, for example, consigns large parts of the painting to darkness; impressionism’s vivid sense of the moment entails relinquishing the timeless for the ephemeral.
The history of modernism has been particularly distorted by the fallacy of progress and in the most extreme case by a teleological version in which that progress has an end point, namely abstraction.
The result has been to privilege certain movements and artists — considered progressive or innovative — in a standard historio- graphy of the late 19th and 20th centuries, and to ignore others who simply don’t fit in. This narrative has been under review in a piecemeal fashion for some time, but there is still much to be done, and the post-war half-century remains murky.
One of the Australian artists who does not fit into the standard modernist story is Lloyd Rees (1895-1988), and this has led to his being almost entirely left out of any historical view of the 20th century. Late in life, partly thanks to the connection with Brett Whiteley, who had admired Rees from an early age, and partly thanks to the luminous late paintings with their Turner-like dissolution into light and the pathos — as with Monet — of an artist losing his sight, Rees became a quasi-legendary figure, yet without thereby gaining a proper place in any historical sequence — like Whiteley, to a certain extent, he was in his last years considered a kind of genius standing outside history.
For all these reasons, the Lloyd Rees exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW is a welcome opportunity to reconsider Rees as an artist, and the beautifully produced book by Hendrik Kolenberg that accompanies the show — it is far more than a catalogue — at last does justice to the variety and breadth of his oeuvre.
If the reason for the popularity of Rees’s late work was an airy dissolution approaching the all-too-familiar abstraction, the reason for the incomprehension of the early work was its basis in what had come to seem almost the antithesis of modernism, careful and precise draughtsmanship.
At the same time, modernism had made audiences lazy: while the best modernist art, like that of any period, was intellectually demanding, the movement on the whole had trained audiences to expect bright colours, simplified forms and facile decorative effects. Postmodernism, in turn, has trained them to expect gimmicks that can be grasped and consumed in the time it takes to walk past a display.
Rees’s work demands and rewards close attention, of which most gallery visitors seem incapable. In the time I was looking at the exhibition, a single couple engaged relatively closely with the work, and they had known the artist. A few younger people drifted in, walked around with a glazed expression and left again