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« Free Reads -- Steven Pinker | Main | Tacit Knowledge -- Sound Levels »

October 31, 2002

Continuing Ed: The Chaos of History

Michael,

While in Las Vegas, my wife and I were at the Venetian casino to buy some new shoes (don’t ask), when we stumbled across a local branch of the Guggenheim located in the building. The exhibit was 40 or 50 astonishingly high quality Old Master paintings from The Hermitage. (It included a Poussin unlike any I’ve ever seen, an early battle scene that rushes towards you in a nightmare of diagonally crossing action, combined with a wall-to-wall Mannerist phalanx of bodies—the impact is like standing in a theater exit watching a wall of people running towards you after someone has yelled “fire.”) My wife couldn't believe the average Vegas gambler cares for what I call HFOP (“high falutin’ oil paintings”) but I pointed out to her that the Guggenheim doesn’t need everyone to come, just enough people to come. My estimate is that fifty people went through the mini-museum during there in the half-hour I was wandering around, which translates into maybe a thousand customers a day @ $15 a head--$105 thousand a week! Over $5 million a year! You know, they may actually have a business for themselves there. Especially since the Guggenheimers probably “borrowed” the Hermitage’s art for peanuts! Ah, the "art spirit"!

In the Guggenheim’s bookstore, which is about as big as the exhibit space, I came across a heck of a book—Robert Rosenblum’s, Maryanne Stevens’ and Ann Dumas’ “1900: Art at the Crossroads.” Starting from the art exhibited at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, the authors selected samples and expanded their search through the years just prior to and following the turn of the last century. While an exhaustive review would be impossible, even a single volume shows the enormous variety of painting and sculpture gurgling away back in the “dark ages” before anyone even thought of the NEA.

Views of the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris

The more I’ve learned about art, the less the tidy summaries commonly presented in college courses or in hagiographic histories of “modern art” seem to accurately describe reality. In part, this problem is methodological—professors and authors attempt to make sense of the chaos by clinging to their linear “story line” while in reality, all sorts of artistic cross-breeding is going on, producing litters of lovely “dead-ends” which must be ignored for their lack of progeny! The other problem is the fact that artists’ rarely have a “starring role” in art history for more than a few years or so—but they have the awkward tendency to go on producing for decades on either side of that brilliant window. The result is, of course, that you find out that painters who were dealt with two chapters back (the original French Impressionists, say) are still hanging around doing significant work after the invention of Cubism! Will they never learn to gracefully leave the stage?

While it may make hash out of neat scenarios, as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to love the junky messiness of it all, and to find more and more pleasure in the goofy oddities of art—the strange marriages of philosophies and techniques that I would never think to mix, the way artists of wildly different cultures, pedigrees and temperaments drag altogether different aspects of life onto canvas. (Walking through the Exposition Universelle must have been like trying to read a Horatio Alger novel simultaneously with a Thomas Hardy saga.) I thought I’d share a few of the paintings and sculptures from this book with you, some by famous artists, some by artists new to me, but all alive and painting or sculpting at the same time. As always these images are pop-ups and worth checking out at a much larger scale.


Carolus Duran's Danae of 1900, W. Trubner's Salome of 1898 and F. Von Struck's Amazon of 1903


N. Dubovskoy's Calm of 1890 and T. Van Rysselberghe's The Burnished Hour of 1897


W.Homer's Eastern Point, Prout's Neck of 1900 and T. Moran's Cliff Dwellers of 1899

I think that it might be better to do art history in this fashion, forgetting "narrative" and just doing decade-long surveys of interesting work. You know, my mother always told me honesty is the best policy.

Cheers,

Friedrich

posted by Friedrich at October 31, 2002




Comments

I loved that show for exactly the same reason. All kinds of shit was being done, all over the world, and not just what the usual art-history-survey class would have you think. I seem to remember that the Russians and Scandinavians had especially distinctive (and technically dazzling) realist schools going at that time. Even the proto-modernist works didn't look proto-modernist. They were just work that was being done at the time amidst a lot of other work. Nothing seemed to be "leading inevitably" to anything else -- which suits me much better as a picture of the way art really works than the usual view does.

I seem to remember that Rosenblum especially took it on the nose for the show. The critics -- don't trust me here, but I seem to remember this -- attacked it as being unfocused. Maybe his lack of focus is also a form of openness to evidence, I thought. A great show. I've poked around Rosenblum and his thinking and approach a bit since, and have gotten the impression that he's a mischief maker in the best sense.

Have you read much else of his?

Michael

Posted by: Michael on October 31, 2002 3:22 PM






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