The Myopia of the Present


In 1918, who was the most famous living Spanish painter? I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t Picasso, although he had by then co-invented cubism and painted many of his most important works. It was probably Ignacio Zuloaga, a painter who has since mostly been forgotten (outside of Spain, at any rate). He wasn’t bad, actually: his technique was amazing, although his subject matter (crumbling castles, gypsies, femmes fatales, bullfighters) was old hat even back then.

Don’t believe me? Check out Google books Ngram Viewer, in either English or Spanish.

In 1890, who was the best-known French painter? If you guessed any of the Moderns – Monet or Cezanne, perhaps – you were wrong. If you guessed William Bouguereau, you were probably right, but only because you have specialized knowledge. Bougereau, a hugely popular academicien in his day, has been out of favour for many decades … although his works do make an appearance from time to time on greeting cards.

It is always difficult to judge the present. If you would like another illustration of this, visit your nearest large library and find a copy of Gaston Diehl’s The Moderns, a survey of painting published in 1961, when modernism was still a cultural force to be reckoned with. Here is a list of the artists whose works Diehl chose to reproduce in colour, starting with the most recent (1960) at the end of the book, and working backward for 20 pages or so:

Oswaldo Vigas
Miodrag Protic
Mordecai Ardon
Jannis Moralis
Alfred Wickenburg
Jaime Lopez Correa
Jean Bertholle
Geer Van de Velde
Jean Piaubert
Fritz Bultmann
Franz Kline
Serge Polliakoff

Of the 13 names above, only one has much currency these days. Diehl of course had a much higher hit rate in the chapters covering the earlier decades of the 20th century. It always takes a while for the relative value of things to sort themselves out.

The point of all this is not that Diehl was misguided. The point is that judging the works of one’s contemporaries is an uncertain business, and that’s just as true today as it was fifty or a hundred years ago. If the past is anything to go by, some of todays big names will be footnotes fifty years from now, and other currently minor artists will be better remembered. Depending on how you feel about what’s going on right now, I guess that could be cause for either concern or hope.

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