Thursday, 21 May 2015

Matching Up

'The figurative artist [my italics] is now competing with all the art of the past. In the Renaissance he was only competing with the Romans and copies of the Greek.
Giacometti was competing with the Egyptian, the Sumerian, the Cycladic, the Byzantine, the Romanesque.
And there was also Cézanne to deal with [...]'

This comes from a notebook compiled by David Sylvester around 1992, possibly after having seen the major Giacometti exhibition at the Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris (November 30, 1991-March 15, 1992). Compare this with an earlier (c.1960) comment that Abstract Expressionism, like Surrealism, was an attempt to 'see what could be salvaged from the wreck' of Duchamp and Dada. Neither note made it into the book they both relate to, Sylvester's Looking at Giacometti 1994, but they both reinforce the point that Sylvester was above all an advocate of figurative art. This allegiance is easily exaggerated or misinterpreted, because Sylvester's interests were much wider than this, and in 1960 he was at his most energetic in promoting Abstract Expressionism.
But reading the comments above I was reminded of Francis Bacon's well-known outburst against abstract art in his second (1966) interview with Sylvester. Sylvester would lament Bacon's closed-mindedness to abstract art and the arguments they had as a result, but what Sylvester and Bacon shared was a strong sense of tradition and dialogue with the art of the past. However you feel about the Francis Bacon and the Masters exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre, it does approach this question of the grand tradition head-on. And Sylvester, like Bacon, was a quintessentially European in his regard for the integrity of a figurative tradition, as shown by his choice of artists- Moore, Giacometti, Bacon, de Kooning. And much of his advocacy of Bacon and Giacometti has to do with the fish-out-of -water character of their art. Bacon and Giacometti were for Sylvester the closest he got to finding his own Picasso and Braque. But where Picasso and Braque in their Cubist years were like mountaineers roped together, Sylvester saw Giacometti as more like a high-jumper. The mountaineer knows when he's reached the summit, but however much the high-jumper achieves, he fails in the end.

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