Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology

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

42 Les Données Bretonnantes: La
Prairie de la Représentation

Fred Orton and Griselda Pollock

The term 'Post-Impressionism' floats in the clouds of Academe above Portman Square and Central Park, over the Thames and Hudson rivers. It is a signifier in a camouflaging rhetoric of Modernist art history that will not name those concrete historical and social relations, those structures and conditions of art practice which determine and mediate the complex and opaque representations made by some of the painters working in Europe between the mid-1880s and the early years of this century. 'Post-Impressionism' has no foundation in history and no pertinence to, or explanatory value for, that historical moment it is used to possess. This is admitted in the catalogue to the exhibition of Post Impressionism: Cross-Currents in European Painting which was held at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1979- 1980. Nevertheless, its reassertion as the title to the exhibition and its use in the catalogue essays expose its specifiable and significant function within this rhetoric. 1 [...]

In Alan Bowness' introductory essay both the purpose of the project and its attendant confusions and inevitable contradictions assert themselves with astonishing insistence. They leak out of the text despite the efforts of his urbane prose to conjure them away. Bowness is at pains to explain that 'Post-Impressionism' was an unhappy neologism. It was a 'somewhat negative label', 'the vaguest and most noncommittal' name which Roger Fry could think of in 1910 and which John Rewald chose to revive in the mid-1950s. 2

'Post-Impressionism' was derived from a number of particular texts as part of an endeavour to lay hold of the art produced in the period posterior to another lumpen category, 'Impressionism'. 3 As a chronological description the term designates something after and its use reveals the underlying assumption that sequence is of itself a significant factor in historical processes. The history we are offered is that of a developmental, unilinear progression, an illusion of continuity. It is implicit in the essays wherein the term was first used in 1910 and 1912 that it was meant to indicate a reaction against that which preceded it, a reaction which instantly fragmented into various competing and disparate alternatives. However, the reactions against 'Impressionism' which serve as the point of defining difference do not, and cannot, constitute a unified category. Indeed, as Fry, Rewald and Bowness are forced to admit, 'the unity of an artistic movement is quite simply lacking'. 4 In the absence of any common ground but with some vague notion of an unsubstantiable reaction against an imaginary entity — 'Impressionism' — we are offered merely the spectacle of diverging stylistic and aesthetic tendencies which are held together by the celebration of individualism and genius. But why is 'Post-Impressionism' still retrieved so categorically when both its vagueness as a label and the impossibility of

____________________
Source: Art History vol. 3, no. 3, Sept. 1980, pp. 314-344. Edited for this volume by the authors.

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