PRINT December 1978


Beyond Time and Place, and Modern Art 1890–1918

OF THE MANY, MANY new books dealing with general modern art history, three seem particularly worthy of note, although I still do not pretend to have covered the entire field. Beyond Time and Place, by Philippe Roberts-Jones (Oxford), treats the 19th century as the Symbolist century in painting and graphics. Written by a Belgian poet, and thematic in approach, it is packed with engaging visual parallels between, especially, Romantic-period material and high Symbolisme. Such an approach is not in itself new, but here it is searchingly and convincingly applied. Roberts-Jones’ subtitle is Non-Realist Painting in the Nineteenth Century, which tells something in itself, partly in the sense that his work reclaims much art that includes “images” for the history of abstraction, via Symbolist tradition. But it may also hint at a current critical proposition: that, in our century, Surrealism may not have been so simply anti-abstract, just for involving figuration, as we may have confidently supposed. How refreshing, too, to see so many wonderful unfamiliar things, not just all the old anthology pieces. And how entertaining to have such clever thematic juxtapositions—radical juxtaposition being, in itself, a symbolic/surrealistic, essentially poetic, technique, and one that is appropriate to the subject at hand.

Two new books deal with the transformations that took place between the culture of 1890 and that of the First World War, those two once distant banks that had been so carefully bridged, by building out from both sides at once, by Werner Hofmann (Turning Points in Twentieth-Century Art: 1890–1917) and others. Each of the new works takes a different angle of approach, both approaches also being equidistant from Hofmann’s. If you couldn’t possibly call these writers complementary, you could still be informed and entertained by all three, at least in different frames of mind.

Modern Art 1890–1918, by Jean Clay (Hachette Vendome/Viking) may look like a coffee-table book, but it is a formidable production. Clay’s very, let’s say, critically creative approach to the art, coupled with his very structuralistically French narrative approach to it (which of course guarantees a steady flow of words), together produce something pretty snappy—something that even has a (pronounced post-Cubistic) newspaper-like aspect, not for being “journalistic” but for its graphic texture. Mainly, the book consists of colorful plates—there seems to be a preference for the punchiest stuff behind the selections although the assembly is original and engaging—with Daily News, article-length, extended captions capped by headlines (“A Shower of Confetti Transfigures the Sky of London,” “Aerolites Drift in a Cream-Colored Sky,” etc.). In between clusters of, such items, “feature”-length essays are interposed (“Distortion,” “Frontality,” and so on).

Like so much contemporary French writing on art, Clay’s book indulges in relentless linguistical pyrotechnics—an approach that often enough makes for a 1970s belles lettres, compared with which Fry, Ruskin or even Reynolds seems downright homsepun. Clay, however, performs at this game on a very accomplished and masterful level: a wide knowledge and deep understanding of modern painting are at work, however melodramatic the narrative and its presentation as a texte (that peculiarly grandiose French term for a written passage) may be. But I still don’t like the inclusion, on a par with great art, of a surprising amount of far-out, “Wierdsville” stuff—the 19th-century equivalent of the “art” prints sold in head shops, something that otherwise sophisticated European students and intellectuals seem to love.

Joseph Masheck