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INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND

This site is an introduction to the vast subject of twentieth-century art, from the important perspective of the painters' techniques; a perspective that art historians, until very re-cently, have tended to ignore. Since the work of modern artists is almost inexhaustibly varied - in terms of vision, concept, style, form, content, materials and tools - this approach may seem at first to be unnecessarily limited. But, on closer examination, it proves a fruitful way of examining the changes that have characterized the art of this century.

In this age of artistic freedom and experi-ment, it might be expected that easel painting, for centuries the most important of all the artist's means of expression, would have been almost completely abandoned. Surprisingly, it survives, partly, at least, because it ;'s a conven-tion - the convention of the flat surface or rectangle. As such, it provides the type of limitations which often spur rather than in-hibit creative activity.

Technique goes beyond mechanical and manual processes; it is a useful standpoint from which to view artists' overall intentions. This is not just because choice of materials and working methods reveals crucial attitudes, but has more to do with the way in which modern artists have redefined not only the object of their creativity, but also the process by which it is produced. Indeed, an important contribu-tion of artists in this century has been to emphasize the critical mental aspects of tech-nique, as opposed to the merely physical ap-plication of paint, for example, to a support.

 

Painting and its opponents

No book on twentieth-century painters (as opposed to twentieth-century painting) can or should avoid at least touching on methods and materials outside the scope of painting. On a mundane level, many painters have also been sculptors and vice versa - Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966). For others, however, choice of materials goes beyond a desire to ex-periment with different media. Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), having achieved fame and success as a painter, virtually gave up con-ventional painting in 1913 at the age of 26, the same year his Nude Descending a Staircase{\911) took New York by storm at the Armory Show.

For Duchamp, the idea of the artist as a sort of magician was much more important than the notion of the artist as mere painter. By abandoning painting so abruptly after so much success, both as a conventional and as an avant-garde painter, he demonstrated his doubt about the validity of painting as a mod-ern art medium.

From 1913 on, Duchamp made a series of devastating attacks on the notion (among others) that the artist needed to have a tech-nique at all. All the artist had to do was to appropriate the techniques of mass produc-tion by, for example, setting a Bicycle Wheel (1913) upon a stool and exhibiting it as art. In the same spirit Duchamp purchased a Bottle Rack (1914), in his own words, '... as a means of solving an artistic problem without the usual means or processes ...', and a 'ready-made' Fountain (urinal) (1917). This last was turned on its back,signed 'R. Mutt' and sent into the 'Salon des Independants' exhibition. It was refused. In response to the criticisms Duchamp wrote: 'Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He chose it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful signifi-cance disappeared under the new title and point of view - created a new thought for that object.'
It could be said that Duchamp wanted to prove that, in theory, an artist's technique could be 100 percent a mental technique. The hands were not necessary; the eye and the brain would manage without them. Duchamp was in a strong position to attack painting: he had already demonstrated his proficiency in the medium during the period from 1902 to 1913. He was also in a strong position to attack manual technique because between 1915 and 1923 he produced one of the twentieth cen-tury's most technically elaborate works of art, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass); a work which cannot be prop-erly described as a painting, nor as a sculpture.

Marcel Duchamp is not the only major expo-nent of easel painting to envisage its demise. Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), a theosophist, an idealist and the creator of geometrical abstract painting, looked forward to the day when society as a whole would show more creative visual attitude - that pioneered by the De Stiji group of artists and architects of which he was a member- and would transform the environ-ment, making easel painting redundant.

Recently, various artists have criticized the art object, including easel painting, on the grounds that it is a 'bourgeois' form. They have social and political objections to the way paintings have been used for purposes unin-tended by the artist; in other words as invest-ments or speculations. Sol LeWitt (b 1928) a key figure in both the Minimal Art and Con-ceptual Art movements, neatly sidesteps such problems by producing temporary wall draw-ing. A small design on paper by LeWitt is magnified onto a wall. It can be viewed by people near and far, and any transport costs are reduced to postage. Like Duchamp, LeWitt has more or less delegated 'technique'.
In the face of such wide-ranging attacks it is a wonder that easel painting has survived at all. But it has more than survived. Not only is it still the stock-in-trade of the academic artist and the purveyor of boardroom portraits, it has also contained and conditioned a high proportion of the major statements of the modern movement in art, including Picasso's Les demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) and Matisse's 77u' Red Studio (1907). Many of the works dis-cussed in this site go beyond a literal or pedantic definition of easel painting. Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) preferred to pin his can-vases to the wall while painting and Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) put his large canvases on the floor. The results belong to the same class of object.

Larry Rivers (b 1923) took up painting in 1945, and studied with Hans Hofmann from 1947-1948. His work is pitched squarely between Pop Art, of which he is held an important precursor, and Abstract Expressionism, whose loose, improvised brushstrokes he put to his own original use.
Parts of the Face (1961) was painted in Paris and represents the artist's wife, Clarice, whom he had recently married. It has its source in a labeled language school drawing and the painting here is one of an intermittent series which varies both in length, pose and identity of sitter, as well as the languages used for labeling (English, Italian, Polish and Persian). Technically, Rivers has worked up a partially realistic head which is surrounded by thickly brushed swathes of color - yellow, green, white and black - which have been allowed to run and scuff over the surface. A commercial stencil (recalling the Cubists) and ruled lines have been used to itemize the head's parts. The painted area also extends around the sides of the stretcher, a i technique used by
]ackson Pollock.

Stuart Davis (1894-1964) was born m Philadelphia, USA. After studying with Robert Henri he became a member of the so-called 'Ash Can School' of American-scene realism which championed the depiction of low-life social subject matter. The Armory Show of international modern art in 1913 made a tremendous impact on the young artist, who was captivated by the technical and tonal innovations of Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism. House and Street (1931) is one of a number of 'stereoscopic' paintings which portray different views of a similar area. There is a complex (modernist) interaction here between technical decisions and subject-matter which can be found, for example, in Edward Hopper's series.

The reasons for the survival of such painting techniques are in part historical, social and economic and in part aesthetic.

When easel painting came into existence during the Renaissance, oil paint and canvas were beginning to be used in place of tempera and panel. Easel painting was supplanting the church fresco and reflected the rise of the secu-lar patron, an individualist who wanted an easily transportable image, often a portrait, and who could easily afford to pay for it at a time of advancing prosperity. The Renaissance patron was often a passionate participator in the creation of art. The twentieth-century pat-ron has tended, rightly or wrongly, to insist on the absolute freedom of the artist. But easel painting continues to survive, partly because it still satisfies the same sort of demand that was established during the Renaissance.

Perhaps the 'aesthetic' reason for the sur-vival of easel painting in an age of almost com-plete artistic freedom is that it provides a con-straint. Its basic characteristics provide the sort of limitations that often stimulate rather than hinder artistic endeavor. These character-istics are so elementary that their special qual-ities are easily underrated or forgotten. They condition the modern artist just as the cave wall conditioned the prehistoric artist. The easel picture has a flat surface and it is usually rectangular. In other words, easel painting stands for the convention of the flat surface and the rectangle.

Although increasingly since the nineteenth century, a premium has been set on originality and the modern artist is supposed to abhor convention, 'originality' is only a relative term. When Frank Stella (b 1935) breaks the rectangle with his shaped canvas, or Richard Smith (b 1931) contradicts the notion of flat-ness by his sloping canvas, they are playing their role in what the critic Harold Rosenberg has called 'the tradition of the new'. If the spectator did not continue to carry the notion of the flat rectangle in his or her head, such 'originality' would be meaningless. While no artist is obliged to paint easel pictures, easel painting may well have survived and flourished precisely because artists have in-stinctively needed order and tradition at a time of violent conflict in the visual arts.

Juan Gris has been described as t most 'refined and classical' of the four Cubist masters (with Picasso, Braque and Leger). Certainly he reintroduced color into the analytical experiments of Picasso and Braque from 1910-1912. Still life (The Violin) (1913) is painted entirely in oils, so that we notice at once the technical imitation of wood paneling, of the wood of the violin, of the white 'chalk' lines which continue the instrument and of the pink patterned wall paper. This imitation is more suggestive than eye-fooling, and alternates with the thickly painted monochrome or undetailed areas. Vertical and diagonal plane lines, disrupt and silhouette the still-life elements.

Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971) was the co-founder of the Berlin Dada movement in 1917, and the creator of pfiotomontage in tlie following year. Plioto montage is the art of arranging and glueing pliotograplis or other found illustrative material onto a surface. Strictly speaking it is a type of collage, and it is included here because it is a process of selection, placement and sometimes embellishment, which sets it apart from pliotograpllic record, no matter how much tins 'record' is distorted by the photographic apparatus or by subsequent techniques of developing. Hausmann actually gave up painting in 1923 and became more interested in various experimental pliotograpllic procedures. In The Art Critic (1919-1920) tlie orange-brick background is probably from one of Hausmann's phonetic poem-posters intended to be stuck on walls all over Berlin. The figure witli giant head and pen is stamped Portrait - constructed - of George Grosz 1920, and is probably a magazine photograph of Hausmann's colleague, Grosz.

 

Technique

One of the central problems which arises out of any discussion of artists' techniques is the difficulty of establishing exactly what is meant by the term itself. The work of twentieth-century painters is immensely varied and, consequently, the part played by technique is different for each artist. While to know an artist's materials is to know something of his or her technique, a complete understanding could never be achieved by cataloguing equipment and media. The manual and mechanical processes by which artists employ their materials is also implied by the term but, as Duchamp demonstrated, mental processes or intentions cannot be ignored when discus-sing methods of execution. What must be established in the case of each artist, therefore, is the nature of the relationship between the three elements: the raw materials; the manual and mechanical processes, and the intention.

A striking portrait of the painter Derain by Balthus (b 1908) provides a useful starting point for a discussion on the definition of technique. The subject of the picture is an artist, portrayed in his studio, with canvases leaning against a wall and a model sitting on a chair: the artist is placed where he belongs, at the center of the stage.

Albert Camus, referring to the technique of Balthus, wrote that it was the distinction of painters to be able to pin down fleeting im-ages glimpsed briefly on a journey upstream towards forgotten springs. For Camus, the true painters were those who, like the great Italians, conveyed the impression that this act of 'pinning down' had just taken place, just as if an aeroplane had stopped in mid-air. All the figures in great painting made Camus feel, as he put it, 'that they have only just stopped moving and that, through the miracle of art, they go on living and vet are no longer perish-able'.

What does Camus mean by the word 'tech-nique' here? If we substitute for 'technique', 'method of execution' (Webster's definition), the sentence barely makes sense. To substitute the word 'achievement' makes better sense but something is lost. Assuming that the word was chosen carefully, it seems likely that Camus uses 'technique' because of the nuance it has of what he calls, 'the miracle of art'. A painting lives in two different worlds - the mental or spiritual, and the physical - at one andf the same time. The patient approach of

After tlie First World War, Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) took up tlie Cubist's technique of collage and made it tlie basis of his life's work. Like so many of his generation, lie moved througli a succession of painting styles from Academic to Expressionist, Cubist and Abstract before, in 1910, he created the first of his MERZ-pictures. In tlie artist s words tliose consisted of 'disparate elements merged into a work of art, witli tlie help of nails and glue, paper and rags, liammcrs and oil paint, parts of macliinery and bits of lace'. Schwitters also produced MERZ-writing based on the same principle as his painting, where extracts and snatches from a wide variety of printed material were assembled togehier. -Fernspr(1926) is a fine example of tlie minute craftsmanship and original sense of design that Schwitters brought to his work of collage. A miscellany of printed and other paper material is disposed on a cardboard base and articulated in relation to more definite regular cut-out shapes, to produce a dense and original abstract composition.

Balthus, the slow painstaking realization ol the image in paint is the result of a long study of masters such as Piero della Franceses (c 1410/20-1492) and Nicolas Poussin (c 1594- 1665). Camus' use of 'technique' points to the intellectual intention of Balthus at least as much as to the materials he uses, or to his 'method of execution'.

The American critic. Clement Greenberg defines Modernism in painting as 'the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself ... to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence'. These 'methods' can only be considered part of the painter's technique. For Greenberg, Modernist painting is that which not only acknowledges its physical constraints but regards them as distinguishing virtues: flat surface, properties of pigments and shape of support are much more than just the grammar or substructure of art. In certain cases, for example the action painting of Jackson Pollock, the painter's subject and the only discernible content of his or her work is the act of painting itself.

The painter Frank Stella said in 1964: 'My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object ... What you see is what you see ... I don't know what else there is. It's really something if you can get a visual sensation that is pleasur-able.' Stella's statement leads, of course, to cer-tain difficulties. Mondrian, the inventor of modern geometrical abstraction, sometimes known as Concrete Art, pointed out that even a blank square or circle is an image of some-thing. Jean-Paul Sartre, in L'imaginaire (1940) demonstrated convincingly that an abstract painting is an imagined object, rather than a real one, its aesthetic life being feigned by the pigments just as a representational picture feigns reality.

Stella is implying that art and technique are indistinguishable, virtually one and the same thing. It is reasonable to assume that Stella paints instinctively without knowing the sources of his inspiration. Whatever the mo-tive force, his work demonstrates what paint-ing can do that no other art-form can compete with, at a time when cinema has taken over the role of the history painting, the photo-graph is a substitute for certain types of natur-alistic painting and so on.
Certainly introspective tendencies have been exhibited by all the arts, including drama in both theater and film. Sir Charles Eastlake, in the preface to his pioneering work Materials for a History of Oil Painting (1847), wrote that 'the author trusts that details relating to the careful processes which were familiar in the best ages of painting will not lead the inex-perienced to mistake the means for the end; but only teach them not to disdain the mechanical operations which have contributed to confer durability on the productions of the greatest masters.' In the twentieth century, with some artists, the durability has been de-liberately disdained and the mechanical opera-tions have grown enormously in significance. It is clear in this context that 'technique' is much more than a 'method of execution'.

A Dictionary of Art Terms by Reginald S. Haggar (1962) defines technique as a 'complex of manual and mechanical operations that act upon the raw material to organize, shape and mould it according to specific artistic inten-tions'. If we give this meaning to the word 'technique' in the passage on Balthus by Camus, the sentence makes sense. It furnishes a working definition for technique with re-spect to the art in the past and art now.

As far as intention is concerned, in many cases not even the artist can describe what actually took place inch by inch, minute by minute, precisely because the process
(however much it may rely on experience) is largely instinctive. A picture may have been conceived and painted very rapidly in a state of high emotion or trance. The general inten-tion may be remembered, but the order each area was painted, each brushmark made, is likely to have been forgotten. The intention may have changed as the artist proceeded.

Francis Bacon (b 1909) said that, especially as he got older, '... all painting ... is accident.
So I foresee it in my mind ... and yet I hardly ever carry it out as I foresee it. It transforms itself by the actual paint. I use very large brushes, and ... I don't in fact know very often what the paint will do ...'

'In painting, you know, there is not a single process that can be made into a formula',
Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) once told the dealer Ambrose Vollard. 'For instance I once attempted to fix the quantity of oil that I add to the paint on my palette. I couldn't do it. Each time I have to add my oil at a guess.'

The modern artist tends to start with ideas and feelings and has to come down to the mundanities of craft in order to express them. Some artists start as craftsmen - for example Renoir (who painted figures on porcelain) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) - and move on to the realm of ideas and feelings.

 

Art or craft?

The notion of the 'craftsman' is intimately connected with the artist's methods and mat-erials. It also raises the problem of the social role of the artist in a given society; a role which has changed from period to period and from place to place. Some societies have created or assigned a definite place for both artist and artisan, or regarded them as one and the same.
The intention of the cave artists is thought to have been one of magic. By drawing a beast of prey, a bison or a deer pierced by an arrow, psychological power was gained for the pur-pose of hunting. Since hunting meant survival, the artist's role must have been closer to the witch doctor than the craftsman. The role of the artist in prehistoric times seems to have been more fundamental to the life of the group than that of the artisan in modern times. Perhaps this is why certain artists of the twen-tieth century, especially Duchamp and the Surrealists, have tried to recapture a magical role for the artist.

Patrick Caulfield was born in 1936, and his work from the mid-1960s constitutes an individual contribution to British Pop Art. His familiar procedure evolved frorr about 1968-1970, during which time, like other artists before him, he changed from working in oil paint to acrylic paints, which promote greater flatnes'. and color contrast and whose solubility can make changes and revisions invisible.

After Lunch (1975) represents the interior of a restaurant done up in a 'Swiss' style. The design was transferred and enlarged by means of a grid from an initial drawing onto polythem which was placed onto the bare canvas. After the canvas had been covered with a ground color the design was traced onto it with bold, black lines. Touches of color or infill were then added where necessary, the waiter's bow-tie or the orange goldfish, for example. The photo-mural of the Chateau of Chilian was originally intended to be glued into the picture directly onto the canvas. When this proved technically impossible, the artist decided to execute a minutely exact copy of the original photo-mural, again using the grid-transfer method. The result is a striking confluence of modernist style, and illustrates the technical competence and resourcefulness of some recent painting.

By way of extreme contrast, in fourth century BC Athens, Plato in The Republic seems to have considered a painter of pictures as in-ferior in certain ways to a carpenter. This idea is reinforced by the Greek language: the word tenxy meant an 'art' and it was akin to tekton, a carpenter. According to Plato, a carpenter pro-duced something useful like a table which was an honest copy of the idea of an (idealized) table. (The whole of the physical world, according to Platonic philosophy, was a kind of shadow of an ideal world.) The painter por-traying that table was only making a copy of a copy of the idea of a table. Such a painter was a mere purveyor of illusions. Plato also believed that the artist was inclined to be socially disruptive, however admirable individually, and had the potential to inspire fear among a society's authorities.

In the Middle Ages, the artist was generally thought of as a sort of craftsman. In addition, from the seventh to the twelfth centuries, the clergy guarded the technical secrets of paint-ing as they guarded the secrets of medicine. In the thirteenth century, artisans' guilds were formed and technical knowledge became more widely accessible. In about 1390 Cenni-no Cennini, a somewhat obscure artist him-self, wrote his famous treatise, Il Libro dell'Arte (The Craftsman's Handbook) which gives an account of the tempera technique of the school of Giotto (c 1266-1337). Cennini noted that there are two attitudes among those entering what he calls 'the profession': some enter it through poverty and domestic need, or for profit; others, whose 'intellect will take delight in drawing' are moved by 'the impulse of a lofty spirit'. His words already reflect the dif-ference that was being discerned between the artist and artisan (and perhaps the artist and the commercial artist of today). It was the difference between the everyday world and that of the intellect and the senses.

During the High Renaissance, the position of the artist changed, strongly influenced by humanism and individualism. Some artists were also intellectuals; Piero della Francesca was a mathematician as well as a painter. And clearly Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Leonar-do da Vinci (1452-1519) were two of the great minds of the time: manifestly superior to a simple craftsman from some medieval arti-sans' guild. Interestingly, Antonio Pollaiuolo (1431-1498), Andrea Verrocchio (1435-1488), Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) and Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) all started their careers as goldsmiths.

Big Painting No 6 (1965) is one of a number of large-scale works representing brushstrokes that Lichtenstein executed in the mid-1960s. By isolating and amplifying a single or a small number of brushstrokes the artist is drawing attention to tlie basic unit of most painting techniques, as well as casting an ironic glance back at the metlwds of the Abstract Expressionists. The irony is augmented by the fastidious technical procedure that Lichtenstein engineered in order to paint these works on such a scale. 'The images were arrived at by applying loaded brushstrokes of black Magna color upon acetate, allowing the paint to shrink on the repellent surface and to dry, and then overlapping the sheets to find a suitable image, which was finally projected onto a canvas and redrawn.

The Renaissance view of the artist had a profound and lasting effect on technique in painting. The enquiring mind of the Renaiss-ance extended to technical experimentation. Hilaire Hiler, in his Notes on the Technique of Painting (1934), took a pessimistic view of the results: 'It [the Renaissance] was a great period of experiment, and technically the rush of re-volutionary ideas crying for expression made painters seek for new techniques fitted to ex-press them. In spite of the prodigies per-formed by individuals whose very names have come to be normalities in the history of art, such fame did these tours de force bring them, it must be considered from a standpoint of material technique as a period of deca-dence. Technically speaking, we are still in it.'

Hiler's points are as relevant to this century as to the fifteenth and sixteenth. He is not questioning the right of the artist to experi-ment but lamenting some of the results from the point of view of durability. Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper (1495-1497) is a notorious example of a great fresco which began to dis-integrate shortly after it had been painted. The wall in Milan on which it was painted was first covered with a mixture of resin, mastic, gesso and other materials. This coating proved in-sufficient for an unusually damp wall in an area prone to flooding. But Leonardo more than compensated for his unfortunate technic-al error. Sir Charles Eastlake (in Materials for a History of Oil Painting) credits him with intro-ducing the following changes in the practice of oil painting:' i) The exclusion of the light ground by a solid preparatory painting, ii) The use of essential oils together with nut oil in that preparation, iii) The practice of thinly painting and ultimately scumbling and glaz-ing over the carefully prepared dead color, as opposed to the simpler and more decided pro-cesses, or sometimes the single alla prima op-eration of the Flemish masters, iv) The re-servation of thick resinous vehicles (when employed to cover the lights) for fixed operation, so as to avoid as much as possible a glossy sur-face during the earlier stages of the work. v) The use of essential oil varnishes.'

This list gives us an insight into how a great innovatory artist proceeds with the practicali-ties of his work. Leonardo's pictorial achieve-ment was literally to create a new way of seeing, by inventing or perfecting chiaroscuro (light and shade to produce an effect of modeling), sfumato (the subtle blending of colors into a misty effect) and aerial perspective, which gives an illusion of distance by grading tones and subtle color relationships.

Increasingly, the artist was being thought of as a scholar and a gentleman. This coincided with the foundation of academies where painting could be studied, not primarily as a craft but as a branch of learning like mathema-tics, literature or philosophy. The Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture was found-ed in Paris in 1648, the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1768. The use of line, which is an abstraction, was thought to be more intellec-tual than the use of color, which is more obviously present in nature and more sensual. Students were taught to concentrate on the human figure and to idealize it. In the middle of the eighteenth century when excavations at
Herculaneum and Pompeii dramatically under-lined the interest that the Italian Renaissance had shown in the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, the Neo-Classical Move-ment gathered strength. Neo-Classicism boos-ted not only classical style and subject matter but also the influence of the academies; as late as the end of last century, art students learnt to draw by copying plaster casts of antique statu-ary before graduating to the live nude.

There is little doubt that during the early nineteenth century the cause of crafts-manship suffered greatly. Jacques Louis David (1748-1825), whose ideas dominated art education from 1790 into the early decades of this century, spurned the traditional expertise of crafts and guilds and in the cause of Neo- Classicism discouraged his students from studying the Baroque and Rococo styles or methods. The tradition of revolt, which is in-imical to the passing on of technical know-ledge, had begun to get under way. In addi-tion, the preparation of artists' materials was done outside the studio. As soon as the artist stopped grinding and preparing colors according to proven recipes, he or she became the dupe of the color merchants.

There was a general resentment on the part of artists such as Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) that the technical secrets of the great late medieval and early Renaissance oil painters, whose work has proved so astonishingly dur-able, had been lost forever. Even seventeenth-and eighteenth-century practices were not handed on to succeeding generations. To take one example, the nineteenth-century use of bitumen in underpainting, a purpose for which it is not suited, has been responsible for damage to innumerable pictures. Its poor drying power has tended to crack the layers above, causing the asphaltum to press through. In the seventeenth century, bitumen was correctly used as a glaze - by Rembrandt (1606-1669) for example - and it did no damage. Fortunately, as has been seen in Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper in Milan, it takes more than one technical error to spell disaster.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the debate about the status of the artist was resurrected. William Morris (1834-1896), the English poet, artist and socialist, wanted to re-turn to the medieval view of the artist as artisan. He refused to accept the Industrial

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was one of the most technically mventive of modern artists. But unlike Picasso, for example, he was not dedicated to the procedures, however innovative, of the fine art tradition. By 1913 he had abandoned conventional media such as oil on canvas, for experiments in three-dimensions, ready-made, constructions and 'machines'. After 1923 he virtually gave up work as an artist altogether. Nude Descending a Staircase No 2 (Jan 1912) caused a sensation at the Armory Show in America (1913), and has been claimed as 'one of the watersheds of twentieth-century art. Duchamp admitted the influence of chronophotograhy (figures, animals and objects recorded photographically in motion), and white points in the area of the hands recall the dots in chronophotographs which resulted from torches carried by the protagonists to aid tlic recording of their movement. But so complex are the sources for this work and its place in the chain of Duchamp's activity up to the early 1920s, that tlie viewer is constantly aware of the crucial interface between technique, form and tlie world of ideas.

The Conservationist (1978) by Boyd Webb (b 1947) is a recent example of the kind of challenge issued to painting by other media, but notably by the photographic image, either still or moving. Boyd has arranged a scene, a tableau, and then recorded the information at a crucial moment: here before the painter (decorator) reduces the interior to blankness.

Revolution and advance of technology and dreamed of reviving the handcrafts of weaving, pottery and furniture making. In 1862 he started a designing and furnishing business and used his private printing press, the Kelm-scott Press, for artistic productions. If society were to restyle the artist as craftsman, Morris felt, there would be a welcome relief from the pressure to be an individualist, an intellectual living up to a Michelangelo or aspiring to the Romantic notion of the passionate genius.

Morris had a great influence on late Victo-rian art and decoration in both England and on the continent, and his idealism continues to provoke discussion today. But he was not himself a painter of any importance, unlike the Pre-Raphaelite painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) (an artist who at one point influ-enced Picasso); and he was in no position to change society radically. Possibly when de-scribing the artist as craftsman, he was merely describing himself.

 

The twentieth century

Another art and craft movement, more suc-cessful and enduring than Morris's, was the Bauhaus Movement of the 1920s. It, too, took inspiration from the Middle Ages, wanting to fuse art and craftsmanship and lead art back into daily life. But its methods and style were essentially modern. The painters Paul Klee(1879-1940), Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Piet Mondrian were all involved in the Bauhaus, which still influences art.

Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), in his Manifesto Bianco (1946), developed a theory known as Spazialismo (Spatialism). Spatial Concept 'Waiting' (1960) is a work where the natural canvas has been slit. This mode of working grew out of his attempt to repudiate the illusory space of conventional painting and propose, in his own words, 'a new dimension beyond the canvas, time and space'.

Henri Matisse (1869-1964) produced The Painter and his Model(1916-1917) at tlie end of his own 'period of experiment', and suggests that for him 'painting was ultimately life-painting, recording an instinctive reaction of the living model posing in the studio.' Passages of densely worked black and white are relieved by the decorative Baroque mirror, but the work is deeply reflective, too, on the complex relation between artist, model and picture, and between the interior and exterior worlds represented.

The Bauhaus school placed its notions of art and craft firmly in the context of contemporary life, while Morris had a romanticized view of the medieval artist.which was misleading. In-terestingly it is Plato's view of the artist that turns out to have been prophetic. Plato's Re-public, his Utopian, closed society, could not tolerate the disruptive individualism of the artist. The same has proved true of the closed societies of this century. In Nazi Germany in the 1930s the Expressionists were declared de-cadent, and persecuted. In Russia immediate-ly after the 1917 Revolution artists, many of whom had backed the revolutionaries, were accepted or at least tolerated. As soon as the Bolsheviks were in full control, they stamped out what Lenin called the 'puerilities of the lef-tists' and the works of pioneering artists such as Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935) was virtually censored. Some artists fled; Kandinsky went to Germany. The official art approved by the authorities, Socialist Realism, became more like propaganda than art. Extolling the virtues of work in field and factory. Socialist Realism to this day often bears an uncanny resemb-lance to the art Hitler admired, in which heal-thy blond youths play the part of the workers.

Fortunately for the development of modern art, a significant number of important artists escaped the closed societies engendered by the Stalinists in Russia and by Nazism in
Europe. Many ended up in America during the 1940s, giving an impetus to the modern movement of art which had begun to grow there since the Armory Show of 1913.

A painter in the twentieth century has a highly individualistic approach to technique and to craftsmanship. It is instructive to com-pare Picasso and Braque in this respect, since at one point in the creation of Cubism, their work was so close. Braque is often referred to as a good craftsman. 'I make the background of my canvases with the greatest care', he wrote in 1954, 'because it is the ground that supports the rest; it is like the foundations of a house. I am always very occupied and preoc-cupied with the material because there is as much sensibility in the technique as in the rest of the painting. I prepare my own colors, I do the pulverizing ... I work with the materials, not with ideas.' Braque, like his father and grandfather, was employed as a house painter as a young man, and certain principles and practices of the craft stayed with him. He developed a sound technique patiently Picasso was often a good craftsman too but it does not seem to have been one of his primary con-cerns; he was more interested in ideas and the company of poets than painters. Restlessly in-ventive in the area of technique, Picasso was gifted with an instinctive knowledge of how to handle all kinds of materials. If sometimes his craftsmanship was less sound than Braque's, it is a small price to pay for his pro-tean inventiveness. Highly visible cracks have developed in the left center area of Picasso's painting The Three Dancers (1925), due to the contraction of the thick top layer of paint over the years. 'The paint is solid enough and will not flake off, Picasso commented. 'Some peo-ple might want to touch them [the cracks] out but I think they add to the painting. On the face you see how they reveal the eye that was painted underneath.'

For Picasso, vitality was the measure of art. For him a 'finished' painting, in the sense of being highly finished like nineteenth-century glossy varnished Salon paintings, was a dead painting. In fact, the technical difference be-tween Picasso and Braque, although seeming extreme, involves only a shift of emphasis.

It may be concluded therefore that for both philosophical and historical reasons the crafts-manship of a craftsman is unlike the tech-nique of a painter in important ways. A major distinction between the artist and craftsman is that we expect the artist, whose aims are more ambitious and complicated, to be more ex-perimental in terms of technique.

The issue of craftsmanship boils down to two main elements: the problem of durability or permanence, and the problem of facility with materials. Commonsense decrees that a painter should build a painting to last as long as possible; but the history of twentieth-century art is not the history of commonsense. One of the characteristics of the consumer society is that of inbuilt obsolescence in goods such as cars and even apparently in houses, in blocks of flats and offices. A number of modern artists have reflected this irony and have borrowed from it, deliberately stressing the impermanence of their own work. Obsolesc-ence featured in the historic This is Tomorrow' exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1956, which showed the artists Richard Hamilton (b 1922) and Eduardo Paolozzi (b 1924) as the precursors of Pop Art. The German artist, Diter Rot (b 1930), later made works of art out of substances such as cheese and chocolate.

Such advertising of obsolescence cannot be criticized on the grounds of dishonesty. It may be a perfectly valid comment for an artist to incorporate into a work and when the work itself disintegrates, a photograph preserves its memory. Such work must be valid as far as it corresponds with the intention of the artist.

A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris (1907-1910) by Gwen John (1876-1939) reveals the strong influence of the American James Whistler (1834-1903) with whom she studied in Paris. John's work consists mainly of figure paintings and landscapes executed in a simple retiring style, wfncli display an almost neurotic sensibility.

 

 

 

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