This essay will critically examine the relationship between Euro-American modernism and South African modern art. It will begin by putting the terms modernism and aesthetics into context with the world and each other. The South Africa artist that will be discussed is Walter Battiss who’s art engages with the art forms and aesthetic ideas of Euro-American modernism. The assignment will then address the following issues; contextualising and defining modernity and the aesthetics of modernism with reference to modernist theorists such as Clive Bell, Clement Greenberg and Wilhelm Worringer. The essay will then introduce the artwork of Walter Battiss, African Figures and Whall. Followed by explaining why the works demonstrate the artists relationship to the Euro-American avant-garde. In conclusion the critical discussion will critically discuss the aesthetic and ideological underpinnings of the works chosen within the context of modernism.
Introduction of Modernism
The term ‘modernity’ and the aesthetics of modernism in art has been largely theorized. The theories are relevant to different parts of the world at different times. The definition that will be contextualised is the Euro-American ideals. The movement began in the late 19th century and early on in the 20th. Modernism was shaped by the development of modern industrial societies and rapid growth of cities as well as the reactions to the horror of World War 1. Modernists rejected Enlightenment thinking as well as religious beliefs. Modernism is characterized by a deliberate rejection of styles from the past and emphasizing instead on innovation and experimentation in forms, materials and techniques. The first concept to know is that modernism extended further than simply art and literature, it was what “truly was a live in our culture” (Greenberg 1992: 754). The beginning came along with the artist Kant, who began by criticising the discipline itself. Modernism made clear that, although past masters in art had touched on the same topics that artists were doing then, the old masters had emphasised the wrong or irrelevant information (Greenberg 1992:760).
Discussion on aesthetics
Clive Bell in his article titled “Art”, 1914, speaks about ‘significant form’ which he uses to describe the idea that the form of an artwork or forms within an artwork can be expressive, even if largely or completely divorced from a recognizable reality (Bell 1914). He describes it to be ‘lines and colors combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, [that] stir our aesthetic emotions’. Worringer, proposes in his book, Abstraction and Empathy that art has nothing to do with the aesthetics of beauty, bur rather the conditions under which the representations of the artwork came about (Worringer 1992:68). He goes on to say that aesthetics have become subjective and therefore beauty has been replaced with life denying ignorance and is all abstract and necessary. Modernist art orientated itself to flatness and became fully focused around being flat (Greenberg 1992:756). The flatness rebelled against the three dimensional illusions that the old masters had tried to create. Bell describes the feeling that arises from an artwork ‘aesthetic emotion’. He describes the feeling as a stirring within the viewer as a quality only good works of art have in common (Bell 1914). Harrison says that nothing about modern art matters so much as it aesthetic merit (Harrison 1996:146). One can conclude from all theorists that modern art was flat, not necessarily beautiful and a rebellion.
Modern artworks as examples
To support the discussion of artworks that are generally accepted as expressions of Euro- American modernist ideals the examples of works that will be used are Kandinsky and Matisse.
Modernist artists become aware of the relation that mankind had to the cosmos, an awareness that extended into the phenomena of the external world (Worringer 1992: 69). For this discussion, the works of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) hold true to this statement. His works such as Composition VIII (figure 1) represents the deep and spiritual emotions of the human capability (TheArtStory 2017). Kandinsky’s background of living a childhood enriched by ethnic and spiritual interactions play out in his paintings. The mature and modernist theme of spirituality and the emphasis of stirring emotions through shapes and colours was very fitting for a modernist artist.
The other famous modernists, Henri Mattiesse (1869-1964), painted the portrait Nancy, as seen in Figure 2. The painting is completely flat and holds a feeling of movement within the colours. Matisse had already met Picasso when he painted this portrait and the African masks/primitivism is highly prevalent.
Introduction of South African Artists
By showing an example of South African artist, Walter Battiss’ work, the discussion will then demonstrate the artists relationship to the Euro-American avant-garde. Battiss’ work was made in 1950
Introduction of Battiss
The South African artwork that will be discussed is Walter Battiss’ African Figures made in 1950 as well as his artwork Whall made in . Battiss (1906-1982) is one of the most influential South African Modernist artists. His training was done in South Africa and completed at the age of 32. Training included archaeology, Sanskrit as well as traditional San rock art.
His painting African Figures (Figure 1) depicts seven African women surrounded by nature, cooking and cleaning. The color scheme is largely blue and green. The expressionistic and flat surfaces influenced by the modernist movement is evident in his painting technique.
Paintings relationship to euro avant guard
Many early theorists on African Modernity argue that the origins of the modern movement began with the Western art influences brought to Africa through colonisation (Okeke 2000). In Africa one can refer to many different modernisms specific to the continent’s different countries. Therefore, African modernism cannot be broached merely by invoking European modernism, for it is not simply an African manifestation of twentieth-century European art.
Discussion on the aesthetics and ideologies of the paintings
The chosen Battiss paintings will be critically discussed regarding their aesthetics and ideological underpinnings within the context of modernism. The discussion will focus on women and nature. The female figure in art has long been associated with nature, the combination of the two implies that women are passive, possessable , available and powerless (Parker and Pollock 1992:116). The ward primitivism is also often associated with females as well as African modernist art (Antliff and Leighton 1996). The figures in African Figures by Battiss’ contain both female figures as well as a primitive style in which they are painted. Knowing that Battiss is an African artists, practicing in South Africa, he is bound to come across nature as well as more traditional and basic lifestyles. Therefore his choice of portraying the women in a natural scenery is not absurd. However he chooses to depict them as uneducated and natural as possible, implying the same ideologies as the colonialists before him, women, especially African women had no place in the particle and formal world of men. Female figure thought time have mostly been depicted as figures that are unconcerned with mortal things, allowing undisturbed and voyeuristic enjoyment of the female form (Parker and Pollock). The figures in African Figures display the notion of the voyeur looking into the lifestyle of the unoccupied females.
Although, Battiss had an advantage of not being stereotyped as a black African artist during the time, as these qualities lended the audience to assume certain primitivism and erotic associations, Battiss continued to make more African inspired art.
In conclusion, this essay has managed to critically examine the relationship between Euro-American modernism and South African modern art. Modern art is defined by the characteristic of rejecting the traditions of the past and creativity and innovation for new techniques to make art. The South Africa artist, Walter Battiss who’s art engages with the art forms and aesthetic ideas of Euro-American modernism. The assignment will then address the following issues; Contextualise and define modernity and the aesthetics of modernism with reference to modernist theorists such as Clive Bell, Clement Greenberg and Wilhelm Worringer. The essay will then introduce the artwork of Walter Battiss, African Figures and Whall. The essay will explain why the works demonstrate the artists relationship to the Euro-American avant-garde. In conclusion the critical discussion will critically discuss the aesthetic and ideological underpinnings of the works chosen within the context of modernism.
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Harrison, C. 1996. Modernism, in Critical terms for Art History, edited by RS Nelson & R Schiff. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Harrison, C & Wood, P (eds). 1992. Art in theory 1900-2000. An anthology of changing ideas. Oxford: Blackwell. (A critical reference book that addresses virtually every aspect of modernism.)
Okeke, C. 2000. The Short Century : Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994, Prestel Verlag, Munich
Parker, R & Pollock, G. 1981. Painted ladies, in Old mistresses: women, art and ideology.
“Wassily Kandinsky Artist Overview and Analysis”. [Online]. 2017. TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Eve Griffin. Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors. Available from: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-kandinsky-wassily.htm
[Accessed 25 Mar 2017]
Worringer, W. 1992 . ‘Abstraction and empathy’, in Art in theory 1900-2000. An anthology of changing ideas, edited by C Harrison & P Wood. Oxford: Blackwell: 68- 72.