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August 15, 2003

Was It Really Progress?


Do you like looking at the juvenilia of famous artists? Itís a total weakness of mine. I love looking into all the little nooks and crannies that artists poke their heads into before they get a haircut and a real job, so to speak.

For example, everyone knows Vladimir Tatlinís famous work as a Russian Constructivist. But would you have guessed that he also could produce a tender nude like this one?

V. Tatlin, Monument to the Third International, 1919 (Copy of 1967-8); V. Tatlin, Female Bather, ?

And while Mondrianís mature work is instantly identifiable, I find the styles of his earlier work to be in many respects more seductive:

P. Mondrian, Tableau No. IV, 1924; P. Mondrian, Chrysanthemum, 1908-9; P. Mondrian, Still Life With Ginger Pot I, 1911-2

And of course everyone knows that the AbEx painting at the upper left is by Mark Rothko. But would you guess that he had earlier produced an urban genre scene or landscapes like this?

M. Rothko, Untitled, 1953; M. Rothko, Underground Fantasy (Subway), 1940; M. Rothko, Untitled, Late 1920s

It makes me wonder, frankly, if the categorical imperative of the 20th century artistóto develop a unique and fully realized styleóis all that conducive to letting the full humanity of artists come out and play. I wonít deny that the early work of each of these artists contains the seeds of their later work (Tatlinís evolution is a bit mysterious, I grant you, except for an evident interest in, er, male and female principles). But there are many, many other roads that could have been taken in the early work of each of these artists which were ultimately suppressed to create the final signature style. Is this really a gainóexcept for the artistís reputation and pocketbook? (Is a signature style really a form of self-parody?) Anyway, I have my doubts.

Where do you come down on all this? Do you see a similar sacrifice being made in, say, literature? Movies?



posted by Friedrich at August 15, 2003


Never truer than with Hemingway. Read his early poetry, short stories -- a 1920s creative ferment climaxing with The Sun Also Rises (which I see as an odd fusion of Henry James and Gertrude Stein). Then read Papa's WWII journalism and Old Man and the Sea.

Hemingway's "signature style" turned to self-parody pretty quickly; even A Farewell to Arms feels vaguely imitative. It's still great literature, though.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on August 15, 2003 2:10 PM

See Al Pacino's career.

Posted by: annette on August 15, 2003 4:24 PM

When the National Gallery here in DC did the Modrian show here several years ago, they included a number of his ealry realist works. As I got in to the mind-numbing galleries of his "signature" style, the thought occured to me that I would like to have seen more of the flower paintings. I do think I read somewhere that he actually painted the flower paintings at some point to make money because he couldn't sell the abstracts. Must have been too far ahead of his time.


Posted by: Harry Phillips on August 16, 2003 12:00 AM

There's not such a huge jump between Cezanne's early pieces & his mature works, but the the early stuff is markedly different from his later works. The early works have a kind of boiling, fluid energy not present in his art later. Conversely, the early works don't have the stillness & geometric precision the later works have.

Jackson Pollock's earlier art isn't much like the paintings he's famous for, but you can tell what direction he was working in. It's not such a stretch as, say, the early & late Mondrian.

I've got to say I'm pretty cynical about this. I think a lot of the early modernist painters had a finger in the wind & realized they were in something of a race to come up with something new and innovative before somebody else came up with the same idea. To me, much of the celebrated modernist canon has worn thin. It doesn't bear repeated visits. I've got to wonder what was really going through somebody like Mondrian's head. What did he really think he was creating? Was he thinking in terms of permanence at all, or only the moment? Works like "Broadway Boogie-Woogie" are emblematic of a movement & an age, but they are also just design. Mondrian's style has been used repeatedly for product packaging (L'Oreal shampoo & such comes to mind).

I've seen exihibits of Mondrian's work as well, and they do become monotonous quickly. There just isn't that much in them. At best they are cyphers -- and damned dull cyphers, at that. Today, after nearly a century of modernism, the average Joe out there still won't recognize works like Mondrian's as art at all, unless it's hanging on the wall with a label. Of course, Joe A. might recognize the design -- and maybe that would satisfy Mondrian.

Arghh. I could go on & on. . . .

Posted by: Twn on August 16, 2003 9:27 PM

Notable examples:

Picasso pre-Cubism.

Joyce, "The Dead" and other human stories in "Dubliners" compared with "Ulysses" and "Finnegan's Wake."

I don't agree, but some people have made a well-argued case against Kubrick's pathos in "Paths of Glory" versus the coldness of his films after "Barry Lyndon."

Frank Miller has been in disappointing decline in the comic book field, particularly with "The Dark Knight Strikes Again."

As familiar as his style has always been, David Mamet had more tough emotions in his earlier work than the more honed plays and scripts of late.

Mozart's Salzburg Symphonies? That's a tough call there stacked against his later work, but I've always loved how alive those were.

Posted by: Ed on August 19, 2003 7:07 PM

And, Jesus, the obvious choice: Jean-Luc Godard!

Posted by: Ed on August 19, 2003 7:08 PM

How about Hitchcock? Absolute master of his domain or forever teetering on the brink of self-parody, at least from the mid-'50s on? I think he was semi-often pretty great myself, but also think he often got a little too comfy and expert with his effects. On the other hand, why not? As a purveyor of a trademark style, he probably did better than most at finding ways to make it seem fresh. Certainly better than Pollock. I saw the big MOMA show five-ish years back. Loved the big pink-and-silver-and-black mist ones -- but he had all of about two good years in him. His "trademark style" fell apart on him -- or he burned it all up -- almost instantly.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 19, 2003 11:32 PM

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