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March 14, 2007

Vollard on Art Trends

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

What generates new trends in art?

Consider Ambroise Vollard the famous Parisian art dealer who championed (and wrote books about) Cezanne, Renoir and Degas. He also championed (but didn't write books about) Picasso, Rouault, Gauguin and Van Gogh.

The Met recently had an exhibit keyed on Vollard. I haven't read the catalogue, but an International Herald Tribune article takes issue with apparent insinuations that Vollard took unfair advantage of some artists.

But those are side-issues for this post. I'm interested in a passage I read in Vollard's book Reflections of a Picture Dealer (Souveniers d'un marchard de tableau). The book (1936 English translation by Violet M. MacDonald -- cast in a sometimes mid-30s-slangy Brit tone that might or might not have captured the sense of the original) is an interesting mélange of this 'n' that which included the following (pp. 230-31 of the Dover edition):

For painting is not stationary, it cannot escape the urge to renewal, the incessant evolution that manifests itself in every form of art. At the same time it may be said with truth that each of these forms reacts upon the others, with sometimes one, sometimes another predominating, providing the impulse in some fresh direction. As a rule, literature heads the movement, furnishing at once the theory and the example from which music and the plastic arts draw draw their inspiration. But the period of which I am speaking [1894, when he opened his rue Laffitte gallery], music had taken the lead. And what is music? A sort of incantation. It does not define. It does not aim at direct demonstration or description. It captivates precisely by its flowing, vaporous, indeterminate qualities. It feeds at the sources of mystery, on myths, on legends; and with what it borrows from these it creates moods, an atmosphere propitious to passion or reverie. Under its influence, and by way of reaction against the brutalities of realism on the one hand, and cold Parnassian perfection on the other, the writers, and the poets especially, were attempting to capture the almost immaterial charm that resides in the vagueness of the subject. They were endeavoring to induce the same moods, the same enthusiasm, the same transports of sensibility into which they were thrown in moments of musical exaltation. They would no longer describe, they would evoke. They would not state precisely, but suggest. The poet would consider it his mission merely to open up vistas. The poem was to prolong itself in the free and emotional meditation of the reader. The fascination exercised by Wagner's work thus gave rise to the esoterism of Mallarmé, and the "music before all things" of Verlaine. It was the symbolic epoch.

In the plastic arts, and particularly painting, the same influence was at work, an influence undergone directly by some, but propagated for the most part through the media of literature and criticism.

Vollard was a smarter cookie than I am, plus he was on the spot. Even so, I find it hard to grasp how music, an emotion-related yet otherwise abstract art, can be a strong influence on literature and painting. Furthermore, other than conceptually and subject-thematically, I find it difficult to see how literature influences painting. I haven't thought deeply on this, but my gut-reaction is that non-art forces such as culture, economics, politics, technology and religion affect all the arts, maybe simultaneously. And of course each artistic field has its own internal dynamics related to its history, technology, patronage, training system and honors / rewards system. Cross-fertilization strikes me as incidental.

Any thoughts?



posted by Donald at March 14, 2007


"...the writers, and the poets especially, [and by inference the artists] were attempting to capture the almost immaterial charm that resides in the vagueness of the subject."

Accepting, for the sake of argument, Vollard's description of the underlying motivation of the artists - Cezanne, Renoir, Degas, Roualt, Gauguin and Van Gogh - he championed, which of them fits the description?

Renoir. Maybe. And even Renoir went through periods of soul searching, when he fell into despair about the whole Impressionist project and longed to return to the severe line (draftsmanship) of Ingres.

Gaugin. But only by a long stretch. The impressionist Gaugin but not the symbolist.

Cezanne? The exact opposite. Obsessed with recapturing the solidity of the object.

Degas. An intellectual in paint. For the most part quite precise and quite dry.

Roualt? A religious mystic. Charm was the last thing on his mind.

And Van Gogh: in large measure a subset of Roualt(ism); even though he pre-dated Roualt.

No, I'm afraid it just won't float. Theories are pretty but no one knows, least of all artists, what makes them do what they do.

Posted by: ricpic on March 14, 2007 6:54 PM

The influence of music in symbolist poetry is well known. Mallarmé's "Un coup de dés" was composed to capture the movements and structure of symphonies.

In modernism, T. S. Eliot would try the same some years later with the repetition of themes technique (the "fallen cities" in "Wasteland" for instance).

Posted by: robert z on March 14, 2007 7:49 PM

"No one knows, least of all the artists, what makes them do what they do."

Really? The painters have no clue what they are doing, or why? What load of baloney is this? Of course they know what they are doing and why. Its the writers and pseudo-intellectuals that don't know what the painters are doing or why they do it. Maybe the writers should ask the painters what they are doing instead of making up a bunch of baloney. But I guess that might mean they wouldn't be the centers of attention. A pity.

Posted by: BTM on March 14, 2007 9:57 PM

I stand by my statement, BTM. In terms of technique, artists know a great deal about what they are doing. In other words they know (at great struggle) how to achieve the effects they are after. But what drives them to achieve those effects, and not others? Not a clue.

They work in the dark. As do writers. As do poets. As does any creator worth a darn. To understand this is not to look down at them. In fact, it is the beginning of humility.

Posted by: ricpic on March 15, 2007 6:47 AM

I'm afraid, Rick, you underestimate Degas.
With time I came to love him more than Renoir who used to be my favorite.
The difference between them is difference between a happy puppy madly circling on the spring grass and an adult pointer at hunt, tail straight, eyes alert, nose at work...

Posted by: Tat on March 15, 2007 12:52 PM

Tat - Degas: a great mind; but constipated.

Posted by: ricpic on March 15, 2007 7:11 PM

So you're trying to make a ridiculous statement seem logical by moving it into the metaphysical realm? Gee whiz, what's the ultimate ground of reality? Why do any of us do what we do? Is it the yin or the yang?

Look, painting is essentially no different from other forms of communication. It sure would be nice if people would look at painters like other professionals and not some sort of shamans. I like paintings a lot, but for chrissakes, they're just paintings!

You will never understand the genius of Degas unless you understand that he was mostly interested in visual design and documenting this through the ordinary experiences of everyday life. He was generally not interested in portraying people's personal emotions, although when he wanted to, he was good at that too. Just look at his painting "Absinthe". Fantastic! He was moved to the impressionist camp because of the freedom of subject matter they enjoyed, and their color ideas intrigued him to the point where he experimented with them for the rest of his life. But he had his limits there too. To him, a fidelity to nature was paramount. He was fascinated with genre scenes, not the portrait. That's why his pictures look detached. He was trying to paint a portrait of his time and his surroundings, which is a larger goal than painting portraits. Somehow that's okay for writers, but not for painters? I don't think so. I think he was a genius.

Before you dismiss the above statement, keep in mind that landscape and still life painting are the same way. Simply portaying nature honestly has the ability to move the audience. Think of the movie "Winged Migration" a couple of years ago and its unexpected success. The larger experience of nature is beautiful. This was Degas' interest. Other painters, like Rembrandt, had more personal motives. I think you should consider this when looking at his work. Not all painters operate the same way. But to each his own.

Posted by: BTM on March 15, 2007 9:28 PM

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