Traditional Modern


The concept of a traditional Modernism is perhaps something of an oxymoron. Weren’t the Moderns the ones who decried the shopworn conventions of the old? Wasn’t “Make it new!” their battle cry? A Modernist tradition? Get with the programme.

The Moderns, for sure, were people who had the interesting idea that contemporary artworks might actually be better, or at least as worthy of attention, as those of earlier times; and that our age, while different from preceding ones, might be even more worthwhile as an object of enquiry. Back in the 19th century that was a fairly radical notion. Historically artists were taught to revere the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the great Renaissance masters. There were some dissenters of course, like the Pre-Raphaelites, but their dissent took the form of a reverence for different historical periods, not for the unique characteristics of their own time and place.

Somewhere during the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Modernist idea won, and painters turned from outmoded classical models to seek their inspiration in the new realities being opened up by contemporary science, technology, and philosophy. And although we have since moved from the Modern to the Post-Modern, the focus on the contemporary continues to this day. The past continues to be the nightmare from which we are trying to awake, not the model we are trying to emulate.

Or so say the art history survey books, delivered as gospel to each generation of 100-level undergrads. But of course, history always simplifies (kind of like I’m doing here): it has to, to create a coherent narrative out of what was ultimately a relatively incoherent mess of things that just kind of happened. That narrative becomes less convincing the more you start to dig into it.


For starters, there were depictions of the contemporary in painting well before the Moderns got there. Often it was dressed up in religious trappings, but sometimes not, as in well known paintings by Pieter Breughel the Elder and other Dutch masters. Manet didn’t exactly invent realism. And to turn it around, many of the greatest Modern painters had a profound liking for historical painting. You don’t want to “do Poussin again after Nature”, as Cezanne did, if you don’t really like Poussin.

Picasso is well known as an artist who worked from a variety of historical models, some classical, some not. And he was only one of many artists who fell under the spell of classical mythology during the first half of the 20th century. Sir Arthur Evans’ excavations at Knossos unleashed the Minotaur all over again, who went rampaging through painting, sculpture, poetry and film for decades afterward. So the Moderns didn’t exactly ditch the classical models, they just dressed them up a bit differently.

And of course there were any number of Moderns who felt the relentless focus on newness at all costs might lead to a certain superficiality, and that maybe it was unrealistic to expect an aesthetic revolution every five minutes. For example, Amedee Ozenfant’s highly influential and well-regarded (at the time) book “Foundations of Modern Art” betrays a certain weariness with the endless pursuit of novelty for its own sake:

Masters of the first importance have been revolutionaries. Yes. People seem to assume that every artist owes it to himself to be a Lenin, but against what nowadays, O God of the Arts? To leap over a wall is not a particularly good joke when the door is open. I esteem the revolutionary spirit […] But the one revolution essential to art nowadays should be the breaking with all revolutions that have no object …

I could go on with the problematizing examples, but hopefully you get my drift. Even during the period of Modern ascendancy “newness” was only one of many values, and its relative place in the hierarchy was open to debate. Many of the Moderns were engaged in a dialogue with historical painting, not a repudiation of it. It wasn’t until the Late Modern period where newness became entrenched as the only value that really mattered. It was linked (spuriously, I’d argue) to a utopian ideal in the writings of Clement Greenberg et. al., but ultimately I think this worked less in the service of utopia than it did to turn painting and art in general into even more of a branch of the fashion industry than it already was.

To a historian, the historical narrative is the most important thing. But to a painter, the paintings are more important. Paintings don’t derive their importance from how they fit into a historical narrative, but firstly as things in themselves, in the connections they make with everyone who sees them; and secondarily how they relate to other paintings, past and present. So I think that we as painters have to construct our own narratives, historical and otherwise, opening up possibilities that the official narratives seek to close off. For me, that opens up the possibility of that most unthinkable of things, a Modernist tradition. I’ll write more about that in a future post.

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