Modern Painting: Contemporary Trends


What most of us have in mind when we speak of post-war painting is the work of those painters whose aim is not to reproduce the outward appearances of things but to investigate the underlying significance of reality. It must not be forgotten, however, that this kind of painting already has a tradition of its own; it originated in the movements of the early 20th century which, stimulated by Cézanne, transformed the relationship between the artist and visual reality. What before had been an attitude of passive acquiescence on the part of the painter, became now a dialectical relationship; the painter asserted himself and penetrated, as he never had before, the inner life of things and images. "Expression, as I see it, does not lie in the passion lighting up a face or breaking out in a violent movement. It lies in the whole arrangement of my picture: the position of the figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, all this has its part to play." Matisse expounded these principles in a magazine article in the Grande Revue of December 1908. Over fifty years later they still hold good, they have lost nothing of their importance. And painting, all the while, has never ceased to evolve; the revolutions and counterrevolutions of art have added their lessons and precedents to these principles, and painters have constantly sought to suit their language to the conditions of the time, fully realizing that no return is possible to the outmoded standards of the past. But for all the changes that have come about in recent years, however sweeping, there is a connecting link, traceable stage by stage, between all the successive experiments of painters from the beginning of the century to the present day.

It seemed at one time that the limits had been reached: between the violent outbursts of Fauve color, heralding the first art revolution of the 20th century, and Broadway Boogie Woogie of 1942, which virtually brought the curve of Mondrian's career to a close, all possible meanings, both artistic and moral, seemed to have been wrung from reality and expressed in paints. Beyond this point it seemed impossible to go. But painting is not an escape mechanism. It has always reflected man's estate or predicament at a given time, it is bound up with human history, and is at the same time the history of the artist. If it is to remain alive, a tradition of artistic endeavor and research must necessarily evolve and renew itself; new ideas and aims supersede the old, and are themselves superseded in time. Painting can never really serve as the pretext for an academic evasion from reality, from society, from the climate of the times, even when it repudiates representation and narration. Today less than ever, with the example before us of the masters, like Matisse and Mondrian, who, in working out new solutions of their own, have shaped the taste of our century. In the great paper cut-outs made at the end of his life Matisse embodied the flowing arabesques of his paintings in a heavier, more immediately effective medium. Mondrian Broadway Boogie Woogie broke through the two-dimensional patterns of Neo-Plasticism and initiated that rhythmic repetition of image-forms which, since the war, has led to a more drastic dissolution of the old limits of form and design.

But what link remains between the achievements of the early 20th century masters and the solutions proposed by those painters who have come of age (artistically speaking) and . . .

Additional information

Publisher: Place of publication:
  • New York
Publication year:
  • 1960


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