Book Review: A Concise History of Modern Painting – Chapter One by Herbert Read

Yet another book I picked up from my local library.  On a first glance this book looks very inviting, it looks like a good mix of text and full colour photographs of artworks.  The preface sets out the author’s position on the book, Read talks about significant omissions and sets the caveat that of course there is some personal prejudice about the artists he has chosen to include.  I think that’s an important point to keep in mind when reading any art book.  The book will never tell the whole story of art.

Chapter One covers the origins of modern art.   In the first paragraph is a very interesting point: in art, a school once established normally deteriorates as it goes on, it starts off as a burst of perfection sometimes too quick for a historian to capture and the equilibrium is permanently unstable.  This to me is why Art is so exciting, it is unpredictable and we don’t know what the next big trend will be, where it’ll come from or how long it will last.  I think in the modern age where information can be spread around the world so quickly and people from their own homes can share their artwork globally this is ever true.  There are little pockets of activity dotted worldwide and I don’t think we are confined to the big exhibitions anymore as our source of movements.

A few paragraphs later is the author’s definition of art ‘as a means of conceiving the world visually’.  The artist is simply the man who has the ability and the desire to transform his visual perception into a material form, this requires first perception and secondly expression.  A very important point made is that ‘we see what we learn to see’, we see what we want to see sometimes.  This is true in drawings I have done and then looke dback at, I have drawn what I thought was there instead of a true observation, something I am working through with the help of the ‘Required Reading – Experimental Drawing by Robert Kaupelis.

The author makes the claim that what is called the modern movement began with a painter who was determined to see the world objectively – Cezanne.  Cezanne wanted to an object without any intervention of the mind or untidy emotions. Cezanne followed the Impressionists who had seen the world subjectively and he wanted to get rid of the shimmering and ambiguous nature to get to the true reality that wasn’t changed by the senses.  Cezanne also thought the human perception was confused and he saw it as an artist’s role to bring some sense to this confusion.  The result from his attempts to eliminate the act of perception was what he himself called an ‘abstraction’.  Read goes on to claim that there was no considerable artist of the twentieth century that was not influenced by Cezanne, such was the importance of his break from impressionism.

At this same time in history were a couple of other significant influences, from Great Britain was the Arts and Crafts movement as styled by the likes of William Morris and Charles Rennie Macintosh, and from Japan came the likes of ‘curios’ and woodcut print.  For example in the background of Manet’s portrait of Zola (1868) is a Japanese print and there were many other examples.  Van Gogh took the Japanese influence further and began to copy Japanese woodcut prints in oil paint, even using Oriental reed pens for his ink drawings.  Gauguin was another to adopt features of Oriental art.

Georges Seurat was another to chase after the objective nature of objects and he read scientific papers on optics and colours in order to break down colours into their constituent hues and adding them to the canvas in tiny brush strokes or dots.  This is another technique I want to try when we start looking at colour later in the course.  His research into colour was followed by a scientific look at aesthetic harmony.

References:

Read H, 1998.  A Concise History of Modern Painting .Thames and Hudosn Ltd London

https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/artists/georges-seurat

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Author: claire516300

OCA Student. Currently studying Drawing 1

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