Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Positivism, Impressionism and Magic: Modifying the Modern Canon in America and France from the 1940s

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Positivism, Impressionism and Magic: Modifying the Modern Canon in America and France from the 1940s

Article excerpt

A debate continues as to the value and definition of the term 'positivism' to our understanding of Impressionist painting and what came after. The blunt view has been presented by Albert Boime, who stated that 'during a period of conservative political backlash' in the 1870s after the Franco-Prussian War, Commune and semaine sanglante, the Impressionists 'still link[ed] their activities to the positivism and materialism of modern life expressed in Third Republic science, entrepreneurialism and colonialism.'1 James H. Rubin is more precise in a popular account of Impressionism, avowing that positivism was 'undoubtedly the dominant philosophy of the third quarter of the nineteenth century,' implying that its main philosopher Auguste Comte and contemporary representatives in literature, philosophy and history - Émile Zola, Hippolyte Taine, Jules Michelet and Ernest Renan - articulated a means of understanding the world that was shared by the Impressionists, confirmed by the repudiation of realism and positivism in a cruder form by Charles Baudelaire.2

However, Richard Shiffhad earlier criticised the ways art historians had handled positivism and how they had portrayed its relevance to Impressionism. Insisting that '[t]he term "positivism" has so many meanings that further qualification is demanded before it is to be used at all,' he went on to state that 'the more specific brand of positivism derived from Auguste Comte speaks clearly against an art of simple observation or realism.'3 The treatment of positivism as a central epistemological concern in a gendered reading of Impressionism by Norma Broude entailed a re-examination of the origins of its linkage with the movement in the nineteenth century. While accepting that Comte's ideas 'affected to some extent all fields of knowledge and cultural endeavour in nineteenth-century France,' Broude perceived an exaggeration among late nineteenth-century writers of the links between Romantic artists' interest in science 'to support the notion of a predominantly positivist and materialist orientation among artists in France during this period,' and concluded that the Impressionists and their supporters like Zola did not at all view the artist as a positivist in the vulgar sense of an 'impassive recorder of empirical phenomena.'4 Since then, T. J. Clark has weighed in with the opinion that: 'Monet's art is driven not so much by a version of positivism as by a cult of art as immolation,'5 while Mary Tompkins Lewis has reiterated the 'limited lens' offered by positivism as the 'most crucial context for Impressionism's presumed basis in material, visual fact.'6

Whatever its fate will be in this recent and developing historiography, there is an earlier one that can be reconstituted to show the crucial value given to positivism during the reassessment of the canon of modern painting in the middle period of the twentieth century. This article imparts a narrative that will demonstrate the importance afforded positivism in the 1940s and 1950s in the contestation over the significance of Impressionism and its relevance to the most important contemporary art, by modernist art history, on the one hand, and by Surrealism on the other. This difference of opinion between modernists and Surrealists rested partly on the priority allowed certain of the generation of artists who came after Impressionism or viewed it in a critical light, and were evaluated and elevated ahead of the earlier movement by modernists. Those 'patriarchs' - Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat and Vincent van Gogh - by no means received the blanket rejection from Surrealism that the Impressionists did, yet they were admired on entirely different grounds to those given precedence in the critical practices of modernist art history.

Surrealism and the eclipse of Impressionism between the Wars

Of the cohort of painters critical of the Paris Salon who came to prominence after the Impressionists, Gauguin was the one who came to reject their attitudes most violently in the wake of Symbolism. …

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