On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

A POSTSCRIPT: SOME RECENT NEO-ROMANTIC MUTATIONS 1993

No one, I am certain, will ever define Romanticism clearly, but then, no one will ever be able to drive a stake through the heart of a word that, for want of a better one, we cannot refrain from using when we try to describe the protean range of new forms and feelings that emerge in the late eighteenth century. Considering that it may be called into service for both West and David, Goya and Blake, Friedrich and Delacroix, Canova and Rude, logicians could surely tell us that Romanticism means either much too much or nothing at all. Nevertheless, most of us in the business of history know that something shattering happened in the late eighteenth century--T. E.Hulme called it "spilt religion"--and that ever since, the shock waves have been registering with varying intensities on the Richter scales of art. The word, of course, is so slippery that it can accommodate even the most ostensibly anti- Romantic aspects of the modern movement, embracing every contradiction. What could be more Romantic than Mondrian's or Malevich's dream of purging painting of everything but a distilled abstract purity, as untainted by the seen, material world as, say, Flaxman's Homeric outlines? What could be more Romantic than the realization in 1927 of a harmonious community of low-budget houses in Stuttgart, a vision of social and aesthetic utopia in which geniuses as individual as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe joined forces in a brotherhood of reformatory purpose and style whose pedigree could be traced back to the likes of the Nazarenes or the Pre-Raphaelites? What could be more Romantic than Picasso's or Matisse's espousal of African art in an effort to reach under and beyond those moribund Western traditions that Romantic artists as different as Ingres and Blake had already hoped to undermine in a search for more vital and therefore more archaic sources of art? If we choose, the semantic fire of the infinitely molten concepts evoked by Romanticism can ignite speculation about any art of the last two centuries. Nevertheless, the nostalgic revivalist mode of the last few decades, best characterized by a word--postmodernism--as ungraspable as Romanticism itself, but at least restricted in time to the later twentieth century (until perhaps we start using it retroactively to characterize, say, the "proto-postmodernism" of Reynolds's appropriations or Nash's witty architectural eclecticism), has turned up a diverse spectrum of art that, instead of looking forward to the Brave New Worlds promised by modernism and worshiping at the shrine of progress, appears to resurrect with irony or longing (or a mixture of the

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