A fresh look at forsaken figures
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