Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 14, 1999
T. J. Clark Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 458 pp.; 92 color ills.; 160 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0300075324)
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T. J. Clark’s latest reflections on the complex topic of Modernism in the visual arts have been much anticipated. When he writes about a “retrospective” exhibition held by Pissarro late in his career, his words also apply to the appearance of this new book: “Pissarro knew only too well in 1892 that whatever he did in the present would be looked at comparatively, and put to the test of the 1870s” (56). The many self-reflexive comments that we find in these pages suggest that Clark, too, is aware that he must live up to his reputation as one of the leading historians of modern art. He does so not only by revisiting aspects of the eighteenth- and especially nineteenth-century fundamentals of this period in French painting that he has done so much to define for our time in his books The Absolute Bourgeois, Image of the People, and The Painting of Modern Life, but also—and more significantly—by extending his gaze into crucial twentieth-century “episodes” of Modernism. He characterizes the seven chapters of his book as “core samples” or “items from a modernist dig” (6, 7). He does not dream of totality or even of complete consistency in his look back at moments as diverse—though loosely connected—as David’s construction of his Marat, Pissarro’s Two Young Peasant Women, Cezanne’s many bathers, Picasso’s early Cubism, Lissitzky and Malevich’s abstraction, and finally, Pollock’s painting and the legacy of Abstract Expressionism. Each chapter is very long, well illustrated, and notably successful in the daring attempt to bring into conversation the poles of close pictorial analysis and broad, often political, implication. Clark realizes that the “formal and the world-historical” do not always meet (175). It is a laudable aspect of his own Modernism that he constantly renews the project of showing their intimate relations. Indeed, in the writing and structure of Farewell to an Idea, Clark mimics many of the traits he finds characteristic of his overall subject.

The tone and style in this book are unusual. Clark writes very personally and with a dry wit. He seems both embarrassed and self-righteous about his self-consciousness. He says that his opinions are only his own and thus “banal” (318) and that he “hates” his lapses into a confessional mode (314), yet he also uses these seeming informalities of presentation to surprise us with sweeping claims about Modernism. “Modernism turns on the impossibility of transcendence,” he writes in the context of a long meditation on David’s inscription in his Marat of the minutia and inevitable contingency of politics. (22) The extraordinary historical detail that Clark makes relevant to this work and others throughout the book similarly defeats any historian’s premature attempts to transcend the particular with grand schemes. Readers appreciative of Clark’s scrupulous yet inventive employment of archival materials will be well satisfied in these chapters. Nonetheless, it requires a patient reader to think through the materials presented at such length: Pissarro’s complex relationship with anarchism and how his politics might have informed his painting in the 1890s, for example. Here again Clark works in concert with his Modernist interlocutors: “. . . as so often with modernism, the great question is how to strike a balance between making demands of one’s viewers and leaving them completely behind” (248).

If the particulars and sometimes unusual focus of some chapters make demands of us, the familiar chronological progression from early to later works and artists can be seen to provide a compensatory security. Although Clark argues in general against the sway of causal sequences in works of art—that Picasso’s experiments of 1909 must be worked out in 1912, for example—he does situate Cubism very much at the center of his book and as the pivot point of Modernism. This, of course, is the traditional view, and Clark neither challenges it nor sees fit to offer new reasons for its persuasiveness. I am not suggesting that he should do either, but in maintaining the status quo in this regard, he reveals inevitable biases to which not everyone may wish to concede. Significant strains of Modernism had little if any contact with Cubism and certainly didn’t work from it. Kandinsky’s “spiritual” abstraction is one example, an instance disqualified from the first rank of the Modernist canon by Clement Greenberg because of its remove from Cubism. Recall that Clark claims that “Modernism turns on the impossibility of transcendence” (22). Kandinsky disagreed. Clark has strong arguments for including the episodes that he does and omitting others. He is more than willing to put considerable weight on particular representative dates: David in the “Year 2,” Pissarro in 1891. As a result, the dates and people he doesn’t mention also become important to any dialogue with Clark.

Clark is very conscious of and concerned with the imbrication of word and image in the works of art he discusses and, I think, in the presentation of his arguments. The book’s endpapers reproduce Pollock’s Lavender Mist in detail, framing Clark’s confession that he came to realize only belatedly Pollock’s centrality in modernism. Also very effective is Clark’s use of photographs of artists with their work (Picasso, Cezanne, and Pollock especially) and of works in their carefully orchestrated settings (Lissitzsky’s agit prop, Malevich lying in state). His sustained discussion of Cecil Beaton’s infamous Vogue photos of models in front of Pollock canvases makes us rethink a range of issues, from the capitalist commandeering of these paintings to Pollock’s penchant for self promotion. Clark insists that Beaton’s pictures are important records, because “they raise the question of Pollock’s paintings’ public life” (305), which, Clark argues tellingly, is intrinsic to the works.

I suspect that many readers will wonder in what sense this book is a “farewell to an idea,” assuming that the idea is Modernism in all its facets. Clark concludes with examinations of art now forty or fifty years old. He also writes movingly on the “pathos” that he sees as built into much Modernist practice—its awareness of its own impossibilities we might say. This is not something we can only see after the fact, so we are not obviously coming to the end of Modernism in this temporal sense despite our chronological distance from Pollock, who Clark claims as its best exemplar. Clark drops a hint near the end of the book that Modernism “will go on thriving” (406). We could agree or disagree. On the other hand, he mentions that he is interested in extra-artistic practices, “which once existed and still might be learned from” (13). Perhaps for him the possibilities of Modernism are indeed past. Unfortunately, I think, Clark sides—cryptically—that “I want to avoid thinking of modernism in spatial terms, even in terms of conceptual space” (7). Could this aversion refer to the constant thematization of “space” in Postmodern theory? He focuses instead (and brilliantly) on the specifics of temporality. But Clark, in effect, refuses to recognize elements of the specificity of our present time in art, those that seek to review Modernism. In much contemporary art and theory that would accept the label Postmodern, the distinctions between the spatial and temporal are thematized and often provocatively complexified. Clark himself insists on the importance of historical coordinates that are as much about place as about time, or about both in their interaction. Perhaps he will in the future address the life of Modernism now. In any case, his book is central to such contemporary controversies.

Mark A. Cheetham
Professor, Department of Art, University of Toronto

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