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The artist Simon Hantaï (1922–2008), who was Hungarian born, made his way to Paris in 1948 and became a longtime French resident. Knowledgeable about both Marxism and Catholic tradition, he was inspired by the art of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, as well as by the visiting exhibitions of Jackson Pollock, to make ambitious abstract paintings and develop a highly personal aesthetic. Well-known in France thanks to gallery exhibitions, he is not as familiar a figure in the American art world. And so the books under review, which offer very different perspectives, deserve a warm welcome.
It is impossible to understand Hantaï’s art or these commentaries without knowledge of the work’s larger cultural context. Two generations ago, the general outlines of the history of mid-twentieth-century American painting seemed clear. According to the then immensely influential narrative of Clement Greenberg, the center of the art world had migrated from Paris to New York. And so the true successors of Picasso and Matisse were the American Abstract Expressionists—and, in the 1960s, Morris Louis and the other Color Field painters took up that tradition. More recently, further dramatic revisions in the canon have taken place. In fall 2019, when New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) reopened after lavish rebuilding, these radical changes were evident with the inclusion of art from many non-European visual cultures. As yet, the relatively marginal place of postwar French art has not been much changed; however, what has been influentially imported from France is the writing of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and a host of other figures. And in the academic world, at least, the intuitive journalistic writing of Greenberg has been replaced by high-powered theorizing.
Paul Rodgers’s two lavishly illustrated, privately published books set Hantaï in a history starting with mostly familiar earlier artists and writers. (Purchases can be made by emailing email@example.com; the titles can be accessed as e-books free of charge for students and researchers.) Beginning with Théodore Géricault, with reference to Georges Bataille, Charles Baudelaire, and Friedrich Nietzsche, The Modern Aesthetic rejects the modernist account that “serves to turn art into an object and, ultimately, a product” (51). Modern art, Rodgers argues, develops an aesthetic, which is realized by Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman. Analyzing the much-discussed photographs of Pollock’s working techniques, Rothko’s readings of Nietzsche on tragedy, and Newman’s rejection of realism, Rodgers argues that these American artists prepared the way for Hantaï, who early in his career “was making his own distinct discoveries in the fields of figuration, abstraction, and positive and negative pictorial space” (114). Modern art thus was “carried forward through the elaboration of a vast and ambitious body of work that spans the second half of the twentieth century and beyond” (137). In his reversal of the figure-ground relationship, for example, Hantaï takes us back to “[Paul] Cézanne’s vision of how light, which escapes the artist’s eye, reveals color in nature” (148), thus “reinvent[ing] the link between the physical and the metaphysical and, in doing so, taking account of both the nuclear and digital age”(157). But Robert Rauschenberg and his postmodern successors only have created a “new commercial art world” (124), which fails to extend this great tradition.
Rodgers’s Pablo Picasso | Simon Hantaï: Drama Shared, Cubism and the Fold, a briefer, more focused book, argues that Hantaï’s folding of his canvases marks him as Picasso’s authentic heir: “Picasso’s cubism and Hantaï’s fold were dramatic aesthetic responses to the dynamic of modernity” (31). Close examination of Picasso’s Guitar (1912) reveals that the materials are folded, a technique pursued systematically by Hantaï half a century later. Comparing Hantaï’s Meun (1968) with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), we see that the unfolding of the seemingly abstract form “looks back at Picasso’s revelation in the Demoiselles of representation fleetingly emerging from behind the curtain” (91). Picasso was mistaken, Rodgers goes on to say, to think that “if you step into abstraction . . . you . . . lose the touchstone of reality” (94); Hantaï retains that link to reality in his abstract paintings. Picasso’s claim, Rodgers adds, about the dichotomy between figurative and abstract art is erroneous; the human figure remains in Hantaï’s abstract-looking paintings. A marvelous photograph shows Hantaï and Rodgers walking together in the French countryside (fig. 1). What a lucky artist Hantaï was to have such a persuasive champion!
Molly Warnock, a skilled academic art historian, offers an elaborate reconstruction and explication of Hantaï’s aesthetic. She describes his early relationship with the Surrealists, his interest in Marcel Duchamp and antagonistic relationship with Georges Mathieu, and his concern with thirteenth-century Catholic theology. She discusses Gaston Fessard, a French Jesuit scholar of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who influenced Hantaï, and particularly the artist’s vision of “the canvas’s newly discovered capacity to serve as a vehicle of incarnation in its own right,” demonstrating “its ability to birth unforeseen results from within its folds” (126). She also presents the relationship between his paintings and the late paper cutouts of Matisse, as discussed by Georges Duthuit, the art historian who had once been Matisse’s son-in-law: “Like the great decorative panels by Matisse cited by Duthuit, the work begins to suggest an expansive quality that will be one of the hallmarks of Hantaï’s later pliage work” (151). The artist, she suggests, “approaches the canvas as a body in its own right” (153). Toward the end of his life, Warnock observes, Hantaï, responding to the claims of his friend Derrida, drew attention to the political implications of his procedures. The French state, which had been open to outsiders, sought to close itself, while his paintings always aimed at openness, at “further unfolding” (218).
Rodgers and Warnock offer very different but not necessarily incompatible accounts. Rodgers compares Hantaï’s Painting (Rose Writing) (1958–59) to Demoiselles d’Avignon: into Picasso’s scenario of the performing Demoiselles and the “imps of atavistic desire . . . Hantaï reintroduces a principle of trinity . . . the third element of Jacques Lacan’s model, the imaginary, to the dyad of the symbolic and the real” (Modern Aesthetic, 141). And Warnock explains that Hantaï wrote on the canvas, transcribing not only the Catholic liturgy but also quotations from Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Hölderlin, Sigmund Freud, Saint Augustine, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and other writers: “All are copied in inks corresponding to the liturgical code, with the hue assigned each day’s Mass, and the citations therefore alternate among white, red, green, violet, and black” (90). What, then, is the relationship between these details and the visual meaning of this painting? I confess I do not quite know how to answer that challenging question. Warnock describes the artist’s highly complex procedures in a lucid way. Given this genealogy for Hantaï’s working techniques, the critical question, still, is what it demonstrates about the value of his artworks. Why, to be very literal, does transcribing all of those quotations enrich our visual experience?
The most persuasive arguments about Hantaï’s importance are in Pablo Picasso | Simon Hantaï, in a sequence of well-illustrated comparisons of Picasso’s figurative pictures of women with Hantaï’s quasi-abstract figurative pictures. You can see the relationship between these paintings. But the significance of Hantaï’s working procedures as presented in Rodgers’s and Warnock’s loving reconstructions is less easy to grasp. When one is dealing with some obviously complex figurative work—an allegory by Nicolas Poussin, for example—it is easy to believe that an elaborate verbal account of the subject is required. But these Hantaïs are relatively simple-looking abstractions, and so the claim that they embody highly complex meanings is harder to grapple with. Paintings by Pollock and Louis also inspire some complicated interpretations. But according to modernist commentators, the visual qualities of these works are self-sufficient. What, by contrast, is distinctive about Hantaï is that identifying the visual significance of his works requires esoteric theorizing.
Art critics often make large claims for a younger emerging artist, and art historians regularly add old master figures to the canon. Recent revisions to the canon have focused on art by women, by people of color, and, of course, from cultures outside of the Eurocentric world. And so, the claim that Hantaï deserves concentrated consideration is surprising. It may seem as if Rodgers is merely offering a modest extension of the canon, replacing Greenberg’s “modernist painting” with his own history of what he calls “modern art.” But, in fact, Rodgers’s claim for Hantaï’s importance is altogether more radical and challenging than that. The phrase “modernist painting” is associated with Immanuel Kant’s claim that this history involves the self-critical capacity of painting. But although Rodgers describes many of the same artists as Greenberg, he reads that history very differently. In a note at the end of Pablo Picasso | Simon Hantaï, he elliptically alludes to this implication of his inquiry when, quoting Nietzsche’s critique of Kant’s asceticism with reference to Stendhal’s famous description of beauty as “the promise of pleasure,” he asks: “Who is right, Kant or Stendhal?” (105). That great question deserves further discussion.
Anyone interested in the contemporary canons or methodology of art history will find much of interest in these books. In this short review, I have focused on the shared concerns of these two very different art writers. It is astonishing to see the same artist and many of the same artworks described in such varying literary styles. But adjudication of their comparative claims would be the task of another commentary, one that Hantaï surely deserves. Much remains to be done!