Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology

By Francis Frascina; Charles Harrison et al. | Go to book overview

21 From the Easel to the Machine

Nikolai Tarabukin


I The diagnosis

The entire artistic life of Europe for the past ten years has proceeded under the sign of 'the crisis of art'. When Manet's canvases first appeared about sixty years ago at Parisian exhibitions and inspired a complete revolution in the artistic world of Paris of the time, the first stone was removed from the foundation of painting. Until recently, we were still inclined to see the whole subsequent development of painterly forms as a progressive process towards the perfection of those forms. In the light of most recent developments, we now perceive this, on the one hand, as a steady destruction of the integrity of the painterly organism into its constituent elements, and on the other, as a gradual degeneration of painting as the typical art form.


II The emancipation of painting from literariness and illusionism

The French Impressionists were the first revolutionaries in painting, liberating it from the paralysing paths of naturalistic trends and giving it new directions. They were the first to give pre-eminence, among the artist's skills, to work on form. At the same time, their work was directed towards freeing painting from a content dependent upon ideology or subject matter, and from the 'literary story' which usually prevailed over form in traditional canvases. For modern painters, the still-life, which is devoid of this 'literariness' in its subject matter, replaced the complex ideology of the Classicists and the alluring anecdote of the naturalists. It is possible to say that the concentration on painterly content in a canvas was in reverse proportion to the presence of a subject matter.

This trend is not only characteristic of the visual arts, but it is also true for other forms of contemporary artistic creativity. Thus, poetry, moving from the word as meaning to the word as sound, has replaced ideology and mood with an emphasis on the external structure of the poem, beginning first with Symbolism, then Futurism, Acmeism and Imaginism. The theatre has abandoned attempts at realistic and psychological interpretations of real life and concentrates its experiments on the formal laws of the stage. Music, which has essentially never been completely enthralled by naturalism and the predominance of a subject matter (programme), goes further in the exploration of the laws of rhythm and composition.

But the formal tasks, henceforth undertaken by art, were only partially intended to liberate the work of art from a subject matter. They were directed towards the purely professional exploration of the material elements integral to the forms of every artistic genre, in which the contemporary artist saw the only incontestable basis for the work of art, subject to the creative design. As well as the gradual

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Source: Nikolai Tarabukin, Ot mol'berta k mashine ( Moscow, 1923), ch. 1-12, edited and translated by Dr Christina Lodder.

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