Monday, April 19, 2010


What is characteristic of many twentieth-century movements is the almost frantic search for contact with the primitive. Whatever you think of French Fauvism or German Expressionism, of Dada or Surrealism, or Abstract Expressionism-not to mention more recent movements and fads- they all have this in common: that they value regression. This valuation, as we have seen, reflects the distaste for the skills developed by the Western tradition, while I do not share this distaste I can appreciate the causes of this revulsion: the achievement of naturalistic representation as such has become trivialized. It has, anyhow, become somewhat redundant through the invention of photography. The resulting attitudes confront art with urgent problems.

An experience which I had when writing Art and Illusion may iillstrate what I mean. Interested as I was in the integrative skill which is required in composing a naturalistic landscape, I asked a child of 11 to copy a reproduction of one of the masterpieces of John Constable. It was the picture, Wivenhoe Park, which now hangs in the National Gallery in Washington. As I had expected, the child disregarded the interaction of elements, and so the copy, which I also included in my book, considerably reduced the complexity of the painting. The main elements of the scene are all recorded, the house in the distance behind the lake, the swans on the water and the cows in the fields, but all these items are arranged on a flat surface, lacking in depth and atmosphere, but compensating for this lack by a greater intensity of colours and a greater simplicity of the component shapes.

You will not be surprised to hear that when I showed the result to an art student of my acquaintance he expressed a strong preference for the child’s drawing over Constable’s masterpiece. You will admit that there is a problem here, because, if there is anything I know about values in art, it is that Constable was the better artist. This experiment took place many years ago, and the child in question has meanwhile grown into a splendid young woman, yet she never wanted to add art to her many accomplishments, let alone to surpass Constable.

On the other hand, it is easy enough to read the mind of the art student. You may remember that, at the very beginning of these talks, I contrasted the cover of a chocolate-box with a child-like scrawl by the French painter, Dubuffet. I ventured to say that, without the chocolate-box, we would not have Dubuffet. The sweet picture of smiling goldilocks or the bowl of appetizing cherries mobilizes the dread of kitsch because it is found to be cloying. Cloying at least to those among us whose taste has undergone that process of sophistication of which, two thousand years ago, Cicero gave such a masterly description, which I have quoted in my first talk. To be found actually liking such a piece would be a social embarrassment, the admission of an undeveloped, that is, a primitive taste, a taste for the primitive scrawl of a Dubuffet, on the other hand, is safe from this suspicion.

Now this, to be frank, is the danger I see in the cult of the primitive. It is the cult of an extraneous negative virtue, the preference for the absence of certain qualities which we have been taught to reject. But negation can never be enough. Nor can regression be. If I may return to Freud’s example, it is not the childish babble which makes the joke, but the skillful use of verbal confusion in the witty ban mat. True, sheer nonsense can also be delightful, as in the rhymes of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear, but who can miss the mastery with which this nonsense is presented?

I believe the great artists of the twentieth century who admired the primitive and appeared to reject the skills of tradition, knew equally well how to use regression in play or in earnest without surrendering to its pull. Take Picasso, whom I quoted for his alleged desire to draw like children. He never did. But in one instance, at least, where we find him deliberately regressing to the methods of child art, we can guess his purpose. I am thinking of one of his preparatory drawings for Guernica, the mural he did to commemorate the destruction of the small Basque town in the Spanish Civil War.

When Picasso received the commission to paint a work for the Spanish Government Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition of 1937 he first thought of symbolizing the civil war through the fairly obvious analogy of a bullfight. As a passionate aficionado, he had often painted and drawn bullfights before, and the theme of the gored and dying horse came to him almost unbidden. Some of these earlier compositions reach an intensity and poignancy in the image of the rearing creature in its death agony that illustrates how much the motif must have meant to him. It is precisely this formula which he first tried out and yet discarded in favour of what looks like a childish scrawl. He drew a horse which really recalls a child’s drawing, with four straight legs sticking out of an oval body and a crude head attached to a clumsy neck. Other sketches show even wilder distortions.

Pablo Picasso - sketch for Guernica 1 (1937)

I do not think I am over-interpreting if I say that Picasso tried to revert to elementals precisely because he found his skill obtrusive. He wanted to get away from what threatened to become a facile stereotype; he wanted to learn to draw like children. His fury and grief at the violation of his country may have demanded from him something more genuine, more intense than a repetition of a symbol, however moving. But for Picasso this extreme regression was a passing phase, a fresh charging of the mind with artistic energies. It is not the least instructive aspect of his search for an expressive symbol that, in the end, Picasso reverted to his earlier invention, the rearing horse in the agony of death. He must have felt that he could not do better and that the painting as such had meanwhile become so charged with emotion that he could afford this self-quotation. Even with this amendment Picasso’s Guernica, in its final form, remains one of the most impressive instances of the power of regression, casting aside the niceties of style in the heat of emotion. But just as the great actor can scream or roar without losing control of his faculties, so Picasso gave vent to his fury without becoming inarticulate.

Pablo Picasso - Guernica (1937)

This seems to me the decisive point in the use and abuse of regression as cultivated in our century. The disregard of the rules of grammar that occurred in poetry or of that of plot in the novel or drama, the casting aside of dexterity and even of the brush itself, must be compensated for by a heightened awareness of the means at the artist’s disposal. If I were asked to name one artist who exemplifies in his work just the right balance between regression and control, the exact dosage of the primitive handled with mastery, it would be Paul Klee. Studying his oeuvre and that of his peers in the employment of primitive modes, one arrives at a conclusion which is only an apparent paradox: the more the ‘Western artist courts the primitive, the more must his art differ from his admired models. African or Polynesian art — the styles we used to call primitive — have many resources, but, for good or ill, they must lack the one so dear to the sophisticated. I mean, of course, primitivism. The tribal artist cannot regress to an earlier phase for the sake of effect. The technical developments of the Western tradition have thus given to art an unexpected dimension. Hence one of the values of the primitive in art, its otherness, turns out to be a by-product of the striving for progress which the ancients and Vasari celebrated in chronicling the evolution of Greek and Renaissance art. It is a progress achieved by the systematic correction and adjustment of the conceptual schema, ‘Without this effort and the artistic perils it disclosed, we could not appreciate that distance between the elemental and the slick which plays such a decisive role in our taste today. We cannot opt out of this development which has carried us so far away from the genuine primitive. Nor can the self-conscious artist escape from the hail of mirrors which gives an added significance to whatever he does or leaves undone.

Paul Klee - The Goldfish (1925)

I was confirmed in my diagnosis of the situation in which the artist and the public find themselves in reading some of the utterances made by Roy Lichtenstein, whose rejection of artistic sophistication drove him to seek inspiration in the popular art of the comic strip. Asked by a reporter of Art News, “Are you anti-experimental?” he replied, “I think so, and anti-contemplative, anti-nuance, anti-getting-away-from-the-tyranny-of-the-rectangle, anti-movement and light, anti-mystery, anti-paint-quality, anti-Zen and anti-all of these brilliant ideas of preceding movements which everyone understands so thoroughly.’ Apparently, Lichtenstein found himself trapped in a field of force in which he could see no move but that of turning to the imagery beloved of the unsophisticated masses. And yet he, too, realized in his heart of hearts that art cannot come of rejection alone. Three years later, he put this insight into the following words:

I’m interested in portraying a sort of anti-sensibility that pervades the society, and a kind of gross over-simplification. I use that more as style than as actuality. I really don’t think that art can be gross and over-simplified and remain art. I mean it must have subtleties and it must yield to aesthetic unity; otherwise it’s not art. But using it as a style, I think that it’s really a kind of conceptual rather than a visual style which maybe permeates most art being done today, whether it is geometric or whatever.’

We must hand it to Lichtenstein that he has seen the dilemma in which his negation of negations has landed him and so many of his fellow artists. He realized the resulting plight, and tried to extricate himself by claiming that his art is really very different from the style he imitates, and therefore very subtle. But, whether true or false, this claim only brings us back to that sophisticated elitism from which he, like so many other primitivists, wanted to escape. But, on his own showing, the dilemma in which he finds himself enmeshed is the result of intellectual rather than purely artistic ambitions. If I am right that this applies to much of the art of our time, then intellectual arguments may also offer a remedy. I have always seen myself as a historian rather than a critic, and I would never want to tell artists what to do as long as they, and their public, are happy. But I think that, in the present malaise, even the historian of art can make a contribution because it was he, as I tried to show in these talks, who first appeared in the guise of the serpent, tempting the artist to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.

- E.H. Gombrich

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