Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
modern art, 19th century French art

Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism[1] (1999) by T.J. Clark


Politics, I should say, is the form par excellence of the contingency that makes modernism what it is. This is why those who wish modernism had never happened (and not a few who think they are firmly on its side) resist to the death the idea that art, at many of its highest moments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, took the stuff of politics as its material and did not transmute it. I think of Géricault's Raft of the Medusa and Delacroix's Liberty Guiding the People, of Courbet in 1850 and Manet in 1867, of Morris, Ensor, and Menzel, of Pressa and Guernica, of Rude's Marseillaise and Saint-Gaudens's Shaw Memorial, of Medals for Dishonor, Monument to the Third International, Berlin and Vitebsk, Cologne and Guadalajara. No one but a fool, of course, would deny that politics provided the occasion for art in some or all of these cases. The disagreement turns on the words "occasion" and "material," and especially on the claim that in some strong sense modernist art not only is obliged to make form out of politics, but also to leave the accident and tendentiousness of politics in the form it makes — not to transmute it, in other words. (Otherwise the claim is harmless. For we know full well that Rubens and Velázquez operated as a matter of course with materials that had politics grossly inscribed in them. The Surrender at Breda, the Triumphs of Marie de Medici. Painters were providers of political services. But of a special, duly allotted kind — there is the difference from modernism. The service they performed was to transmute the political, to clean it of the dross of contingency, to raise it up to the realm of allegory, or — subtler performance for deeper sophisticates — to make its very everydayness quietly miraculous. Surrender at Breda equals Entry into Jerusalem.)

From the publisher:

In this intense and far-reaching book, acclaimed art historian T. J. Clark offers a new vision of the art of the past two centuries, focusing on moments when art responded directly in extreme terms to the ongoing disaster called "modernity". Modernism, Clark argues, was an extreme answer to an extreme condition - the one Max Weber summed up as "the disenchantment of the world". Clark focuses on instances of maximum stress, when the movement revealed its true nature. The book begins with Jacques-Louis David, painting at the height of the Terror in 1793, then leaps forward to Pissarro a hundred years later, struggling to picture Two Young Peasant Women in a way that agreed with his anarchist politics. Next, the author turns in succession to Cezanne's paintings of the Grand Baigneuses and their coincidence in time (and maybe intention) with Freud's launching of psychoanalysis; to Picasso's Cubism, and to avant-garde art after the Russian Revolution. Clark concludes with a reading of Jackson Pollock's tragic version of abstraction and suggests a new set of terms to describe avant-garde art - perhaps in its final flowering - in America after 1945. Shifting between broad, speculative history and intense analysis of specific works, Clark not only transfigures our usual understanding of modern art, he also launches a new set of proposals about modernity itself.

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