Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 26, 2001
Bernard Smith Modernism’s History: A Study in Twentieth-Century Art and Ideas Yale University Press, 1998. 384 pp. Cloth $40.00 (0300073925)

The dust jacket of Bernard Smith’s Modernism’s History: A Study in Twentieth-Century Art and Ideas features a figural sculpture by Henry Moore entitled King and Queen (1952-53). Though one could imagine that Moore’s couple looks into the future, the gaze betokened by the two figures is more likely retrospective, just as the artist’s was in the 1950s and as Smith’s study is at the end of the twentieth century. In his book, Smith looks back in order to survey and understand the accomplishments of Modernism in a new way. The book is unabashedly synthetic; it builds on the labors of generously acknowledged specialist scholars of the period. Certainly the time is right for this sort of sweeping reassessment, and Smith’s direct writing and lucid analyses provide both new perspectives and many memorable gems of wisdom. Yet his prejudices against postmodernism, however defined, lead to a lack of any detailed consideration of art produced in the last thirty years and diminish Smith’s ability to engage with ongoing debates about modernism’s legacy in the visual arts.

The book’s animating argument is that “the time has come to periodize the twentieth century,” to give it a workable period name based on a perceivable “style-cycle.” Smith coins the useful term “Formalesque” for this role, and his history then traces “the course between c. 1890 and c. 1960 of the suppression of the realist/naturalist tradition by formalism, and the dialectical interactions in the visual arts of architecture, sculpture and painting brought into play in the process” (5). Smith claims that art history and art criticism were, until the 1960s, “predicated mainly…upon the concept of style” (29). Instead of reviewing a series of somewhat independent avant-garde “isms” in the twentieth century, his more distanced view attempts to consolidate the “Formalesque as a period style [that is characterized by] the reduction of the concept of style to that of form under the over-arching conditions of cultural imperialism” (29). This widespread emphasis on form thrives at the expense of meaning in the arts of this period.

Smith begins his discussion of the Formalesque by tracing its theoretical roots in arguments for the increasing autonomy of the visual arts. Among those thinkers he discusses are Winckelmann, Hogarth, Kant, and Schelling, who, with others, initiated the arguments necessary for “the triumph of the Formalesque” as a style in the late nineteenth century. Tellingly, Smith ends his survey of theoretical positions with Wölfflin. He fails to discuss Panofsky, who was certainly no enemy of meaning. As we move with Smith to examinations of artists and movements, then, the dice seem loaded in favor of the Formalesque.

Smith is thorough in his attention to the rise, institutionalization, and eventual decline of the Formalesque style. His reading of Picasso’s famed relations with African sculpture, for example, is admirably lucid and balanced. In this context, as in many others throughout the book, Smith picks up the thread of a narrative about colonialism. Thinking especially of Picasso and Ivory Coast carving, he writes that “the vision of primitive art as universal and timeless was little more than a mirror image of the art, universal and imperial in its universality, that the Formalesque aesthetic promoted” (98). The aesthetic imperialism that would allow Picasso and others to employ the art of the Other in a primarily formal way is, of course, a nineteenth-century legacy of European colonialism. When the Formalesque “reduced meaning to style and style to form,” Smith argues, it represents “an end phase of European culture in a condition of global imperialism” (103). For Smith, the Formalesque as a period style always has meaning.

Whether or not one agrees with Smith’s assertion that the Formalesque was hegemonic during the period in question, his meditations on its rise and on resistances to it are replete with stimulating reevaluations of the importance of individual artists and movements. Gauguin has been undervalued, he suggests, because we have not fully acknowledged the centrality of his activities within the discourses of colonialism. Dada is cited as the turning point in the advent of a new and truly twentieth-century art because of its successful attacks on art institutions. Neue Sachlichkeit receives a full and revisionist treatment. He also argues that Surrealism “became a bridge between the old and the new…developing a dialectic, inaugurated by Dada, between the Formalesque and the diverse, fragmented arts of the twentieth century that developed in opposition to it” (129). Smith acknowledges this opposition—the latter part of the book addresses various “returns to meaning” in this sense—yet the logic of the Formalesque as Smith construes it leads him to claim that the dialectic of resistance to the formal suggests the triumph of this style. I think it would be equally plausible to come to the opposite conclusion: that the Formalesque has always met with such serious opposition—especially, perhaps, among those artists of the abstract in the early part of the twentieth century whose work appears to be largely formal—that any suggestion of its dominance is no more than a misconstrual of history stemming from the midcentury confidence of American formalist art history and criticism.

Smith claims to see postmodernism “as the final efflorescence of a twentieth-century modernism that had been growing in opposition to the Formalesque since the Great War of 1914-18” (6). Whereas other resistances to the dominant style prove to Smith its primacy, his distrust of the postmodern disqualifies it—and thus the art of the past thirty years—from dialectical status. While art historians agree that art changed substantially in the 1960s, many would also claim that postmodernism is closely linked to the modern and perhaps also to Smith’s Formalesque. Ending the story in the 1960s is surely premature.

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