A fresh look at for­saken fig­ures

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

When in 1959 Bernard Smith, Australia’s great­est art his­to­rian, en­cour­aged a group of con­tem­po­rary painters to hold an ex­hi­bi­tion in de­fence of fig­u­ra­tive art and drafted its ra­tio­nale as the An­tipodean Man­i­festo, up­hold­ing the claims of rep­re­sen­ta­tional and nar­ra­tive paint­ing against the new hege­mony of ab­strac­tion, the con­tem­po­rary art es­tab­lish­ment was aghast. The whole en­ter­prise was con­sid­ered worse than re­ac­tionary; it was naive, ridicu­lous, em­bar­rass­ing.

Didn’t Smith and his painter friends get it? Ab­strac­tion was the con­sum­ma­tion of modernism, if not the end­point of art history it­self. The gospel came straight from New York, elo­quently preached by Cle­ment Greenberg and oth­ers. Not to be out­done, lo­cal epigones and would-be crit­ics were even more stri­dent in their sup­port of the lat­est aes­thetic dogma and their scorn for those who failed to toe the line.

A decade later, ab­stract paint­ing had largely run its course and would never again enjoy the same pres­tige. But what a pity that Smith didn’t know in 1959 what came to light only in the mid-1990s: that the vogue for ab­strac­tion was not just another run­away art-world in­fat­u­a­tion but the re­sult of a de­lib­er­ate, though nec­es­sar­ily se­cret, Cold War cul­tural of­fen­sive funded by the CIA.

Even though most Amer­i­cans and even Amer­i­can politicians loathed it, ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism could be pro­moted in­ter­na­tion­ally as demon­strat­ing the free­dom of the creative in­di­vid­ual un­der cap­i­tal­ism (Nelson Rock­e­feller called it ‘‘free en­ter­prise paint­ing’’). The CIA spent large sums of money sup­port­ing in­ter­na­tional ex­hi­bi­tions, pub­li­ca­tions and lec­tures, but also covertly ma­nip­u­lat­ing the mar­ket to ramp up the prices of ab­stract painters.

Ab­strac­tion had in­deed ex­isted for half a cen­tury be­fore its Amer­i­can apoth­e­o­sis, and had al­ready posed a chal­lenge to fig­u­ra­tion, ex­ac­er­bated by the dis­as­trous events of the 20th cen­tury. Sup­port for the move­ment came from sources as seem­ingly dis­parate as theos­o­phy and rev­o­lu­tion­ary ide­olo­gies, un­til both fas­cist and com­mu­nist regimes ended up re­ject­ing it as elit­ist and ob­scure. But ab­strac­tion never established it­self as the only game in town un­til its fi­nal in­car­na­tion as Amer­i­can ac­tion paint­ing.

Nor would this mat­ter par­tic­u­larly ex­cept that so many of the as­sump­tions of mod­ernist his­to­ri­og­ra­phy were formed dur­ing the hege­mony of ab­strac­tion: cer­tain in­di­vid­u­als were given canon­i­cal roles in the great tele­o­log­i­cal un­fold­ing, and oth­ers were vir­tu­ally wiped from the his­tor­i­cal record. This ten­den­tious history was not prop­erly re­vised dur­ing the post­mod­ern pe­riod, which largely lost in­ter­est in paint­ing, and lives on in fos­silised form in sec­ondary and ter­tiary cur­ricu­lums across the world.

But th­ese as­sump­tions are pre­cisely what Ti­mothy Hy­man’s new book calls into ques­tion, re­veal­ing or re­dis­cov­er­ing a whole suc­ces­sion of artists, in­clud­ing Max Beck­mann, Mars­den Hart­ley, Balthasar Klos­sowski — bet­ter known as Balthus — Diego Rivera, Pierre Bon­nard and Stan­ley Spencer, as well as many less fa­mil­iar in­di­vid­u­als, who strove to keep fig­u­ra­tive paint­ing alive against all the odds dur­ing the 20th cen­tury.

Th­ese in­di­vid­u­als were not re­ac­tionary or un­aware of the earth­quakes of avant-gardism

(1933)

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