Monday, April 16, 2012

Reading: The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes

I recently blogged on the influence of modern artistic thinking on the development of photography and my own desire to better understand Art beyond the boundaries of photography.  I do not find this easy, I struggle with the conceptual thinking behind art, however, I feel this is important and I will continue the struggle to better understand this topic.  Other than continuing to use my annual pass to the art museums I am also engaged in some reading. A year ago I read E.H. Gombrich's "The Story of Art", which provided an excellent basis in the progression of art from it's earliest origins to the present day, however, such a book can clearly only deal briefly with the rise of Modern Art.  Subsequently I purchased "The Shock of the New" by Robert Hughes.

The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change

This rapidly became shelf-ware, it was only with my investigations of the motivations behind Andreas Gursky's work that I realized it was time to learn a little more.  This book provides a good introduction to the subject of 20th century art, beginning with the impressionists and finishing in the late 1980's with the rebirth of figurative art with British artists such as Lucien Freud and Landscape with David Hockney.  Between these periods he covers the progressive change in art from an expression of what we see and experience to what we feel and emote.  Although not the easiest read and with so much ground to cover at times the flow of information is too fast, I now have a better visual understanding of modernist art and the motivation behind different movements.  He covers the Fascist leanings of the Futurists, the constructivism of the communists and the raw madness of the surrealists.  I was particularly interested to see how art progressively decamped from its traditional home in Paris to New York, with American based artists such as Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, and Willem de Koonig leading the way.  One of the drivers for this move attracted a degree of criticism, the growing wealth of 1960'-80's America creating a supply limited art market, driving values up and ultimately leading to a lot of mediocre art being produced.

What I took from the book was a sense of an ongoing crisis in painted art,  that what was once a revolutionary art form that could inform and challenge simply had nowhere further to go.  Painting in the 20th century went from recognizable depictions of reality, through the dreamscapes of the surrealists into the complete abandonment of representation in abstraction.  The motivation of painters transitioned from a need to understand and represent the visual, to a method of expressing emotion and angst.  It almost seems that every avenue has been explored, what new is left to do?  Photography might be a culprit here, taking over paintings traditional representative role and also appropriating the political.  Whatever is the truth here, painting of the 20th century carries within it the visual language of our generation and this influences directly or subconsciously how we perceive new work in photography.  I think there is great value in learning more of this subject, hard as it is to penetrate.

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