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PRINT April 1980

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A Fable of Modern Art

FOR INNUMERABLE ARTISTS, FRENHOFER WAS a powerful and abiding reference. Legend has it that at the end of his life the aged Cézanne, on hearing the Balzac fable, pointed his finger to his chest, designating himself as Frenhofer. Picasso illustrated the text, often quoted from its credos, and boasted to his friends of inhabiting Frenhofer’s world. Matisse revered him, Rilke paraphrased him, and Schoenberg emulated his precepts. To this day, de Kooning and scores of others still make allusions to Frenhofer’s quizzical tale. But who, then, is Frenhofer?

On one level, surely, he is the hero of The Unknown Masterpiece, Balzac’s tale that has as its focus a first unseen, then “unseeable” or typically “modern” artwork. The Frenhofer of the story devotes ten years and countless meditations to painting the “essence” of a famous courtesan. But her “image,” as such, does not exist; when the artist finally agrees to show his work, consternation greets the attempt. A “wall of painting” meets the eyes of the viewers. Furious at their response, Frenhofer burns his paintings (and himself) that very night. Yet this simple tale is hardly all of the story, for Frenhofer is truly Balzac’s vehicle for esthetic deliberation.

Balzac, we know, created Frenhofer from his own historical circumstance, figuring in him the artist who is plagued by metaphysical doubt, who thirsts for the absolute, that abstract infinite which lurks beyond the realm of appearance. Frenhofer says that there are no lines in nature, that the artist’s problem is to abstract from nature its essential forms. And in his last painting, “known” only to himself, he leaves behind a tangled skein of lines, buttressed by the solitary remains of an exquisite foot. Balzac, we sense, used Frenhofer as an example of the creative principle (just as he had employed the heroine of Seraphita as a model for the mystical). In a similar manner, The Unknown Masterpiece affords Dore Ashton a device to explore tenets of personality and creative principles which are pertinent to the modern period.

Frenhofer, she writes, is the archetypal modern artist; his fable explores the dialectic common to modern art, manifest in the “abstract” image and “observed” foot. In the varied reactions to the fable, Ashton finds many hints to, and basic convictions of, modernity. The mythic role of Frenhofer endures, she states, because its intrinsic conundrums remain with us. Just as Balzac placed The Unknown Masterpiece among his philosophic works, stressing its emphasis on the “operating forces” in life, so, too, might Ashton’s book be termed “philosophic,” for its intent is less to cover or explain the contemporary period than to peruse its underlying precepts.

Philosophy, however, must be taken here in the Balzacian sense, as there is little of precise disquisition, or precision of approach, to this book. A Fable Of Modern Art presents neither cultural history nor social history, nor art theory, but involves a large, encompassing vision by which the context of 20th-century abstraction is shaped, through parallel allusion. Indeed, Ashton has composed it as an ellipse, embracing similarities among all the arts within the general modern era. She begins with a chapter on Balzac, moves on into Cézanne, then illuminates Rilke and Picasso, to conclude in a wide, summary study of Schoenberg. Key themes are stated and reiterated; parallels develop between painters and poets, painters and musicians, painters and philosophers; the book seems neither to begin nor end, but emerges from the 19th-century past to slide ambiguously into the present. Beyond the parallels between disciplines (such as analogies between Kandinsky and Schoenberg; or Picasso, Ruben Darío and Jacob), there are forays into science and psychology, into philosophy, social theory and politics. This kind of latitude may seem somewhat alien to the contemporary mind, nurtured as we are on love of that marvelous Excalibur, method. But the catch afforded by Ashton’s netlike approach yields a larger haul than all the cuts, incisions or fashionable coupures achieved by methodical hacks.

Ashton’s book has the appearance of a heretical text since it is not about our current nemesis, Modernism, but, rather, about modern art. Form, not formalism, provides the subject; Ashton traces an alternative, expressive tradition of structural development. Her thesis concerns the steady germination of the “constructive ideal,” a highly specific definition of the artwork as a totality of interrelated parts. That this formal nexus depends on, and reflects, organic structure, is obvious, but less obvious is the way its principles diverge from the autonomy, innerness, or general self-reflexiveness that comprise the modernist organic legacy. Beginning with the premise of the artwork as a world, Ashton indicates how the moderns sought to shape plastic analogues to nature, finding in art’s concrete components parallels to the laws underlying the phenomenal world. Condensation or reduction-to-the-minimum-means replaces “medium purification.”

Ashton sees in this primitivism, that persisted into the new century, part of the primal, original urge implicit in abstraction. This concept is as applicable to Rilke’s search for the “cell” of his art (“. . . . the smallest basic element. . . . the tangible medium of presentation for everything. . . .”) as to Cézanne’s passionate reductions of Montagne Ste.-Victoire, or Schoenberg’s search for a law within the row, whose infinite transformations yield infinite diversity. It is a concept at once simple and complex, providing unity and variety, and it offers a better resolution to the art and nature dialectic than do the majority of current methods.

Critical theory tends towards polar opposites, moving from senseless, “visual” artifacts to contexturalized models of external signification. Form in the former is necessarily without content, while in the latter meaning becomes the iconographer’s paradise, planted with gardens of overlaying motifs. One merit of Ashton’s thesis is that it provides a way out of the terms of form and content, subject and object, which we have inherited in irreconcilable pairs.

The constructive ideal, we are told, provided an alternative subject for the modern artist, substituting the “governed relationships of forms” as vehicle for the meaning once embedded in figures, settings, modes. Rilke located this tendency in Rodin’s fragments, those minute body parts that comprised, within themselves, new unities, but such an inner, abstract value had been pondered decades before. Indeed, A Fable Of Modern Art is about the immanence of abstraction in all work of the modern period, whether figurative or non-figurative, representational or abstract. (Valery’s crystal, with its inter-reading facets, might provide a spatial metaphor for this “meaning” secreted within internal mirrorings of form.) That the whole of a painting is “a greater spiritual entity than its parts” is, Ashton stresses, Frenhofer’s strongest message, a message both historically derived and resonant in later decades.

Ashton’s point—which distinguishes her, again, from orthodox formalists—is that both immanent and external dialectics interweave throughout the modern period, achieving, through the complexities of form, an amalgam of esthetic and historical references, artistic and social concerns. The moderns expressed their sense of their own era in their vision of spaces, finding confirmation in science, philosophy and psychology for those vast, shifting regions that Balzac had intimated in his Absolute.

This formal mission to represent, or signify, modernity, so that an esthetic space becomes coincident with a worldspace, providing the authentic index of an era, has been widely discussed within literary spheres, but it is seldom broached within the visual arts. Much as “Un Coup De Des” served Mallarmé esthetically as material language and, on a metaphysical plane, as an image of transformative, “modern” space, so Ashton projects the analogical tradition into further levels of microcosm and macrocosm, form and world. The urge to “name” spaces, to find inner equivalents for these external visions, is one that Ashton sees accompanying the general search for laws. Thus, Cubism becomes both a spatial poetic and a spatial dynamic; Cézanne is sighted through formal structure as well as perceptual psychology; Kandinsky’s fields are seen both as the loci of formal innovation and as the imagery of a fragmenting world. That the new directions in composition were concordant with other contemporary movements is one of Ashton’s key themes, and it is with this aim that she plies art’s relation to science, psychology, philosophy.

One can clearly see this imbricated texture, embracing internal and external dialectics, immanence and mediation, in Ashton’s final chapter on Schoenberg. Here, in a magnificent ellipse, Ashton joins the common desire within the arts for logical reduction to Schoenberg’s own, specifically “ethical” urge—to create a form-world corresponding to the external world. In this approach even such an overworked concept as simultaneity becomes capable of astonishing revelations. Stressing the composer’s desire to find musical forms to express the non-symmetrical universe, rather than the false cause-and-effect symmetries of conventional music, Ashton indicates how, in the years 1908–12, Schoenberg and other composers were trying to replace large blocks of symmetrical material with small units, single intervals and decentered form. In this, they:

were making discoveries that corresponded closely to the painters’ and poets’ vision of simultaneity. The broad search for new forms led to what have been called micro-forms, and to a situation that commentators have sometimes likened to the scientific revolution . . .

She then goes on to show how these scientific discoveries of fragmented matter confirmed the general direction towards a spiritual view, and continued in an all-inclusive arc, which echoes the Balzacian vision. Uncertainty as a principle, she says:

had entered discourse and had revived again the paradox Balzac had stated when he said that numbers were as abstract in imagination as in the realm of science. The desire to reduce experience to its concrete components, symbolically speaking, led many artists to speculate in the Platonic mode and to arrive, as did Kandinsky, at the statement that all form winds up in number. When Delaunay spoke of the movements of colour, he was keenly aware of the microforms—the light waves—which could be reduced to number, just as musical sound could . . .

Over 25 years of her writing have made known Ashton’s bias for the “visionary” in art, as well as for idealism, metaphysics and other unfashionably lofty sentiments. This book offers her strongest statement. While most critics stress the materialism in modernity, beginning with Impressionism and moving, through substantive reductions, towards positivist formalism, Ashton bases its development in an “other,” earlier tradition, anti-materialist in tenor and originating in reaction to the July Revolution and Louis-Philippe’s juste milieu.

The juste milieu was the socio-political climate in which Balzac’s sentiments were nurtured, but in Ashton’s hands it becomes a metaphor for that world of appearances, conventions and general naturalism, against which the modern movement turned. And it is a metaphor of considerable power: whatever our lean minds and revisionist temperaments tell us, the forming impulses of abstraction were anti-materialist in cast. This is as evident from the artists’ words (which Ashton quotes extensively) as from those many figures and phenomena (often lodged so uncomfortably within materialist ranks) which now emerge into idealist clarity. Thus the search for timeless, interior laws better “explains” the achievements of Krauss and Loos than do anti-ornamental urges; their roles in establishing Schoenberg’s ethical impulse more effectively illuminates his similarities to Kandinsky’s transparent purity than do wholly technical concerns. It covers Matisse’s metaphysics, plays up the poetics in Picasso, clarifies Mondrian, makes Klee cosmic. The put spaces of Malevich as well fall neatly within the realm of feeling. And the list goes on and on.

Indeed the value of the idealist tradition is evident in Ashton’s chapter on the over-written, but under-grasped Cézanne. In what is undoubtedly one of the most original writings on this artist, Ashton builds towards comprehension of his gesture for the “realized image”—a tapestried interweaving of fingers held before his eyes—in terms embracing both his formal and metaphysical yearnings. She begins with the Merleau-Pontyesque notion of doubt, recasts it into Frenhofer’s anxiety and then develops it into a major, historic dialectic, his “struggle with both nature and the nature of painting.”

In Cézanne, Ashton writes, the highest forms of paradox functioned; like Frenhofer, he was both the tremulous idealist and the workmanlike painter of the motif, and she takes these equivocations as exemplary within 20th-century art. Baudelaire’s poem “Une Charogne” is cited to support Cézanne’s need both to gaze at the world unflinchingly (to be objective) and to compose a vision of the universe which, in its formal profundity, would be in keeping with the demands of pictorial unity. In this paradoxical realm, “vision” veers towards double entendregvb c, and Ashton resolves its conflicting demands through her concept of profound attention. The idea of an attention so intense that it transcends the visible object is an important 19th-century notion implicit in those frequent comments pitting the “accidents of life” against “intimate knowledge.” It is also one of significant latitude. (It is, for instance, one of the few intuitions that can explain the visionary leanings of the late Monet in terms not reducible to edges and paint.) At this level, discrete details vanish, or are commingled, and the level of the law is attained. “Realization” comes close to a rhyming scheme of interrelated forms. Ashton describes the achievement of this absolute metaphor:

His need to reconcile discrete elements and to create a totality is obvious in his last paintings, in which his emotional intensity . . . brings him to the threshold of the Baudelairean conception of universal correspondences. In his last years, Cézanne sought increasingly to realize relationships of real things—that is, in their materiality—in terms of their myriad relationships, or correspondences. Drapes corresponded to mountains, skies to waters, walls to skies. In the end, all forms for Cézanne were there only to be related, or realized. . . .

Ashton goes on to show just how these invisible correspondences could be formally presented. More austere temperaments may disclaim metaphysics and quibble over its language, but how else can you speak about an artist who said his favorite color was “general harmony”?

Ashton has much to say on numerous other important topics, which function variously as evidence of, or metaphors for, her thesis. She discusses the 19th-century notions of genius, and of angelism; the abyss, absolute, or nothingness as the lure underlying the spaces within modern art. Similarly, the pitched battles of “the finished versus the sketch” are rounded into their 20th-century equivalents. In her Rilke chapter she plays fancy footwork with objectivity, stressing the germination of a “modern” view, by which things are trans-shaped, trans-formed into reflections of the felt (“from Gautier to Rodin to Cézanne to Rilke to Picasso to Matisse,” the preoccupation of these artists was “with things and thingness in the salutary way proposed by Balzac. . . . ”). And both the image of mask, the emblem of the artist-transformer, and the image of the acrobat, representing the artist as performer, are here presented such that we can never again look at all those circus figures and saltimbanques in quite the same way. The imagery is taken as index of certain root-level, “philosophical” preconceptions, much as Balzac used the Frenhofer fable for his own philosophical ends.

Underneath this book there’s a notion of form so large, capacious and applicable to the vast abstractions of 20th-century art that we can only wonder at the narrow visions of formalism. And there is a message: that if the impetus of Frenhofer, as testified to by many artists, persists, we run perilous risks in surveying those forms through the slanted lenses of Modernism. Quite possibly the art was something very different indeed, and only re-visions of our revisionism can reconstruct it.

Kate Linker is an art critic living in New York.