Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Ten Modern Artists

I've been reading the scripts for Sylvester's television series Ten Modern Artists (1964) and declare myself pleasantly surprised. Even for someone as invested in Sylvester's work as me, I saw the list and thought I knew pretty much what to expect. The artists are, of course, familiar enough: MATISSE-PICASSO- MONDRIAN- BRANCUSI- KLEE- BONNARD-SOUTINE- GIACOMETTI- POLLOCK- DE KOONING. And given the educational format of the programmes, and the tedium induced by many more recent television documentaries about the modern masters, I did wonder whether this series would end up as much more than Sylvester on autopilot.
In fact, the series is extremely clever. In the episode on Bonnard, Sylvester remarks that 'nothing about his work is what it seems to be', and that Bonnard's subject matter is a disguise, a veil drawn over what his paintings are about. I felt like the same thing was going on with these programmes. In part they are inevitably biographical lectures, but Sylvester's skill lies in using the format (and I can imagine him having to tread carefully to get the series commissioned) to make broader points about 20th century sculpture. The programme on Brancusi is a case in point. The Romanian, for Sylvester, 'streamlined sculpture', revolutionising the art form by choosing not to compromise himself by taking a job as an assistant to Rodin. Putting form before movement, taking a DIY attitude to sculpture, belief in truth to materials, these things all mark Brancusi out as a key figure.
But then the programme changes tack, and turns into a programme about Henry Moore. That wasn't in the title. And not only that, but Sylvester seems pretty sure that Moore is, if not as revolutionary as Brancusi, ultimately more interesting:
'Moore’s art is not only more complex than Brancusi’s: it is more dramatic and more robust, less refined and less perfect. It probably lacks the absolute authority of Brancusi’s greatest images, but I feel it has a greater richness of meaning. Because Moore is a less pure but more fertile kind of artist than Brancusi, it’s not surprising that his work is much more various in style'.
Reading the script, I realized something that hadn't come across in any of Sylvester's written work: that Brancusi's perfectionism and independence might have been limitations. Perhaps there is no greater endorsement of Moore's work in Sylvester's mature work than the implication here that the British sculptor was able to combine Brancusi's innovations with a professionalism and willingness to adapt (often underrated in artists), and thereby create a more wide-ranging art. Let's not forget, a previous programme was about Picasso, in whom Sylvester admired the inexhaustible range which made him the 'quintessential' modern artist. Picasso stated in About Modern Art (1st ed. 1996) that the big question of modern art was that of Matisse versus Picasso, and after initially favouring Matisse Sylvester came down on Picasso's side. In the Brancusi programme I can sense some of the same issues, such as the impact and perfection of an artist's very finest works (Brancusi and Matisse would be favoured in this sense) judged against the range and depth of the body of work. In this series Sylvester seems to suggest that for the twentieth century the latter criteria are more telling. He was to find Picasso's inexhaustible variations on a theme and Moore's vast output of public sculpture more relevant in the end than the interminable quest for perfection, I think.
This is no doubt a gross simplification of all four of those artists and Sylvester never makes this explicit, but what is certain is that he plays off Brancusi against Moore, and Matisse against Picasso, and in this series I always feel that the individual artists are being discussed in a way that stands for characteristics which could be applied in larger contexts.
I won't go through all of the programmes here, but to give further examples, the Bonnard programme is a wonderful demonstration of how the Frenchman was absolutely contemporary in his understanding of the subject-content division, which Sylvester spent so many column inches on in the 1950s, in the face of those who were adamant a painting was about the subject depicted.
My other favourite is the final programme on De Kooning, which most clearly addresses Sylvester's continued belief in the power of figuration. Much of the programme is taken up with De Kooning's  
Woman paintings, which are compared with nudes by Bacon, de Stael and Giacometti to assert the continuing relevance of the theme. Sylvester had, of course featured abstract artists in Mondrian, Klee and Pollock, but in concluding his series with De Kooning, Sylvester concludes with his final vindication of figuration. Indeed, his portrayal of De Kooning as the maverick Abstract-Expressionist reminds me of the prodigal son, or the former Communists such as Stephen Spender and Arthur Koestler who renounced the Party in The God That Failed (1949). Anyone wondering why there was no programme on Bacon will see that, by putting Bacon's Crouching Nude (1960) in this final programme, he is bringing the Irish painter into the same category of faith in the figure in an age of abstraction. And Sylvester certainly thought Pollock a greater artist than Bacon, but he is unequivocal about his own position on the figuration-abstraction debate, as he returns once more to Bonnard:
'I would say that figuration in art is likely to go further than abstraction. This is not because there’s any special virtue in figuration for its own sake. It’s because figuration offers a resistance. It creates a tension. It makes the work exist on two contradictory levels at once, as in this drawing by Bonnard where the marks have their own life as a dance on paper but also a precise statement of another kind of life'.

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