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5.0 out of 5 stars The best investigation of modernism in art, 14 Oct. 2012
This review is from: Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (Paperback)
TJ Clark travels between the French Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall,the period which gave birth to modernism in art,specifically painting,from David's Death of Marat to Jackson Pollock's drip paintings.Called Farewell to an Idea ( with subtitle Episodes from a History of Modernism).The concept of revolutionary socialism which gave birth to Marxism and anarchic socialism is the framework of the painting.The mood is one of elegiac sadness,pathos at the dying embers of revolutionary hope,an elegy for modernism's unrealized promise.Socialism and modernism are coterminious,feeding each other.This leads to clarity rather than obfuscation and the avoidance of jargon words,and an improvement over surveys of modernism.The progressive abstraction that grew where structures, marks and signifiers departed from objective representation(photography did that),as art reflected ever more deeply on itself.The autonomous work of art had no parameters outside its own surface materiality.This covers moments of rupture and anti-art like cubism,surrealism,abstract expressionism,absolute inwardness/exteriority.

He covers the apocalyptic nature of utopian nihilism and Freudian anxiety.He begins modernism early,from the French Revolution.Marat's murder and the subsequent painting as the revolution was for the future project of democracy. "I am doing it because I want to think about modernism as a set of responses to modern social and political conditions." He depicts the mystery of the letter,the writing,the background,the dedication,how it engages with politics and the world's disenchantment.Modernist work is a painting produced at times of "maximum (social and political) stress",which replies to those extreme circumstances with an extreme response.We are dealing with "the disenchantment of the modern world"(Weber). Farewell provides a series of limiting cases in the construction of modernism,core samples in a dialectic strategy.

His definition of modernism has 3 features:i)a recognition of the social reality of the sign;ii)the simultaneous belief that the sign was grounded in some experience of World/Nature/Sensation/Subjectivity;andiii)that modernism lacked the social and epistemological basis that these 2 beliefs could be reconciled.At the heart of the modernist enterprise is the peculiar status of the sign,suspended between convention and motivation,arbitrariness and origin. This antimony becomes the motor of his dialectical analysis. It reappears in a number of guises: the status of writing in David's Marat; the significance of `sensation' in the work of Pissarro and Cézanne; or the status of metaphor in Picasso and Pollock.

The book begins with Jacques-Louis David, painting at the height of the Terror in 1793, then leaps forward to Pissarro a hundred years later, struggling to picture Two Young Peasant Women in a way that agreed with his anarchist politics. Next the author turns in succession to Cézanne's paintings of the Grandes Baigneuses and their coincidence in time (and maybe intention) with Freud's launching of psychoanalysis; to Picasso's Cubism; and to avant-garde art after the Russian Revolution. Clark concludes with a reading of Jackson Pollock's tragic version of abstraction and suggests a new set of terms to describe avant-garde art--perhaps in its final flowering--in America after 1945. Shifting between broad, speculative history and intense analysis of specific works, Clark not only transfigures our usual understanding of modern art, he also launches a new set of proposals about modernity itself.

Cezanne and Cubism are often seen as the starting point of modernism,especially Cezanne's Large Bathers(1904-6),Cezanne abstracting progressively away from naked bodies in Nature,to leave unfinishedness and overall structure as definitive. How buttocks and shoulders merge in Freudian condensation and displacement.This delivers painting over to the psychic machine and mechanization of forces.Matter.Materialism.Aesthetic non-transcendence.A`turning of the handle of the representational machine'.Then analytic Cubism(1911-12),breaking form down to the exclusion of interest in colour,a reduction of natural forms to their geometric shapes.A balance between the abstract totalizing process and the local acts of illusionism. For the project to succeed, cubism would have required not only a new description of the world, but also an `overall recasting of social practice.'

This proved a failure. The antimony between visuality and texuality is central to his analysis of the Russian avant-garde. Clark's argument turns on two examples by El Lissitzky: a propaganda board from 1920, and a small gouache from 1920-21, Untitled (Rosa Luxemburg).The presence of writing energizes and complicates the picture's whole economy.Malevich and Lissitzky's stress on the sign as profoundly arbitrary,their belief that the world it posited was truly a fiction,led towards forms of public and collective action.Visuality vs.textuality. In both David'sMarat and El Lissitzky's Rosa Luxemburg, writing enters the picture and unsettles the relation between work and world.

Lastly Pollock(1947-50).There is the battle between sign/figure/metaphor and abstraction.He sees the exhilaration, freedom and energy together with the risk,nervousness,doubt,the threat of trivialization/absorption in mass media, of the creator's fragile ego and self-destructiveness."Is this a painting"?Pollock once asked of one of his.Pollock is perhaps at the end of modernism.He expressed his feelings directly,he walked around his paintings,he felt in his paintings.Abstract painting must set itself the task of cancelling Nature,and ending painting'srelation to the world of things.Painting becomes a kind of writing at last,writing a script no one has read before.None of this is achievable with the means it has,Nature will not go away,reasserts its rights over the new handwriting, writes a familiar script:One-ness,Autumn Rhythm,Lavender Mist,returning painting to the body.He simulated Nature's variety, unpredictability,vitality.His lighthand borne of intelligence and a deep sense of the natural world,space a 3D physical fact.From the dance,choreography,space seeps through the thickets and skeins of paint poured.Clark sees this as the reason abstraction stopped at the moment of triumph.Clark's brilliance is his radical political engagement in a formalism in the arts and its implications on Marx's utopian project is the great drama of ideas carried out in this book's fond farewell:to preserve the dream of freedom in a world increasingly hostile to that dream.
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