Thoughts on Modernism

Introduction

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.

Composition-VIII

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.

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Figure 2: Henri Matisse, Nancy, oil on canvas.

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.

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Figure 3: Walter Battiss, African Figures 
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Figure 4: Walter Battiss, Whall

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

 

Sources Consulted

Antliff, M & Leighten, P. 1996. Primitive, in Critical terms for Art History, edited by RS Nelson & R Schiff. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.King, A. 2013. Exotic fruit. Apollo December:72-77.

Bell, A. 1914. Art. [O]. Available: http://web.csulb.edu/~jvancamp/361r13.html Barnard, M. 2001. Approaches to understanding visual culture. New York: Palgrave.

Blogspot, 2011. [O]. Available: https://freelybornthoughts.files.wordpress.com/2017/03/9dd5c-12003_madame_nancy_matisse_dpw.jpg. Huston.

Fried Contempary Gallery, 2012. [O]. Available: http://friedcontemporary.com. Hatfield.

Greenberg, C. 1992 [1965]. ‘Modernist painting’, in Art in theory 1900-2000. An anthology of changing ideas, edited by C Harrison & P Wood. Oxford: Blackwell: 754-760.

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 [1910]. ‘Abstraction and empathy’, in Art in theory 1900-2000. An anthology of changing ideas, edited by C Harrison & P Wood. Oxford: Blackwell: 68- 72.

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What motivated Feminism in Art?

As said in Parker and Pollock’s reading, Painted Ladies, to be a great art master one had to be male as only males were given the necessary ‘tools’ of becoming one. Namely the academic skills as well as the power to have access. This essay aims to critique the ideological construct of Modern Art. It will make reference to the artwork Self portrait, 1906 by  Paula Modersohn-Becker,  as the artist attempts to redefine the female figure.

Modern Art has ideologies that were born long before ‘Modern Art’ was defined. During the Renaissance up until the nineteenth century, an artists success was defined by their skills in representing the human figure. Artists were taught to stay the female body. However women were not denied this privilege. The male access to the female body is form of power and control. Therefore males during this time had the ‘tools’ of being well trained as artists as well as having power and control over the female body and therefore were permitted to become great ‘masters’.

In Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Self Portrait of 1906, the artist tries to redefine the female figure. Previously the female figure had been one that males have access to, one that is ‘passive, available (…) frankly desirable and over sexualised'(Parker and Pollock). Although the title suggests that the painting is a portrait of the artist, she has failed to make it one the does not subject her as a woman. Due to the parallel that is established between woman and nature, the image is a depiction of a self possessed individual.

What also critiques against Modersohn-Becker’s self portrait is that she used Gauguin’s paintings as reference. Gaugin has a long history of being a man who used women as objects in his paintings and very much asserted his male and dominant power upon them, in real life and very blatantly in his paintings.

In conclusion, Paula Modersohn-Becker in her self portrait has tried to address the issue of the female body within Modern Art, saying that it needs to become one rid of passiveness and desire only. She has managed to question the patriarchal society and ideologies around being a female artist and what it means the be one. However in her artwork she has failed to achieve her aim.

Reference

Parker, R & Pollock, G. 1981. Painted ladies, in Old mistresses: women, art and ideology.London: Routlege & Kegan Paul:114-133 [Chapter 4].

Cover image – Zinaida Serebriakova’s Nude. Available from: http://www.webetc.info/art/Art-Folders/Russia/Serebriakova/serebriakova-nude.jpg

Oil Paint rough and textured in the new exhibit at Everard Read

Philippe Uzac and Deon Venter’s works strikes out to the viewer here in the Everard Read Gallery in Rosebank. Venter’s work pushes the viewer to stand back and see the paintings in perspective as most of them are over three meters large. While the bold colours of Uzac’s works draw the viewer into a different mood in each bold colour. While both artists attract one with their fantastic use in textures.

Title of Deon Venter’s  exhibition There is no Path/The Path is Made by Walking is printed in in large letters as one enters the room. Immediately one is lulled into the nude colours of his paintings and the abstractions of his use in texture.

Born in 1956, the South African artist Deon Venter now lives in Canada and exhibits around the world. His artistic career began after he graduated with a Fine Arts Diploma Hon from the Port Elizabeth School of Art and Design in South Africa.

His style is characterised by the bare grids that lie between the thick layers of oil paint. His larger than life paintings push the viewer to the opposite wall to be able to see the images, yet simultaneously pull them closer to view the details of the oil textures and grids of each painting.

His exhibition points out the detail of skin tones in his many nudes referencing the painting of Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” as he too named his paintings ‘Olympia’. His paintings come into being from highly charged historical events primarily the turing point of having painted Olympia in 1880. Venter explores the event seven of his eleven paintings while the other painting are a mashup of faces and landscapes.

However, the exhibition feels tiering and repetitive. Each painting is in a similar colour scheme and feeling as the one next to it. One is not drawn into every painting, it is as though Venter had to explore Manet’s Olympia in as many different canvases, not necessarily angles or situations as possible.

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Deon Venter’s Olympia 4 (2016), on display at Everard Read Gallery’s ‘There is no Path/The Path is made by Walking’ exhibit

When walking into Philippe Uzac’s solo exhibition, ‘Laub’ a feeling of fun and stronger emotions occurs to the viewer as the paintings are bold and speak loudly. Each painting is almost a solid colour. The contrast between Uzac and Venter’s work is worlds apart in terms of atmosphere and intellectual feel.

Laub consists of eight large wooden panels each reveals the scratched away layers of oil paint, wax and chemicals. On first glance the paintings looks simple and easy to comprehend, yet on further inspection the detail of each one draws the viewer in so see how each layer has been worked on and scratched away. The collection of work give a feeling of warm and peaceful emotions, the longer one views them the more the feeling of nostalgia is felt.

It is clear that the artist has been inspired by the flat works of colour from Mark Rothko and Kasimir Malevich. Although each painting has a character of layers the overall canvas is set in one single colour. The process of Uzac’s paintings are visible as each layer of paint is pealed away to expose the underneath surfaces. His works are inspired by the textures around his studio in downtown Johannesburg. One can almost feel the old cement floors waxed patiently and unremittingly over the years, rusting industrial equipment abandoned in a forlorn wasteland or walls of old buildings stained and patched with layers of paper board teared off and hanging in the wind which inspired him.

Laub 16 faces the viewer as one enters into the room, it immediately draws one into a warm and comfortable space. The orange hues overlapping the greens and blues are finely woven with the odd harsher and larger scratch markings.  The exhibition of the work is done in such a seamless manner that one can almost overlook the details of the scratching, etching and rubbing of the paint.

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Philippe Uzac’s Laub 16 (2016), on display at Everard Read Gallery ‘Laub’ exhibit

When exiting the main two exhibit rooms the gallery still holds many other artworks from previous exhibitions. For the regular visitors to the gallery one will reencounter many works, however each work is enchanting enough to capture ones attention again. The works include those of Walter Battis, Wane Barker and Guy du Toit amongst about 40 others.