Romantic and Modern Visual Art
[A term paper in preparation for my study abroad next month in Europe.]
To the Classical artist, there was no tension between representation and expression. As they focused on the object of their composition, representing it as it appeared through shape, perspective, plane, figure, and color, they sought to capture its true objective essence, expressing its form as it is. These tendencies come from a broad philosophical mindset in the Enlightenment period that prioritized reason and objectivity. As the Enlightenment mindset gradually broke down, so too did its art forms break down.
First, as objective expression was abandoned, the Romantic movement sought to represent their world through subjective emotional sentiments. They concerned themselves with the human element implicit in all things, rather than the highest Ideal aim of Reason. If all artists seek to find what Goethe called “what holds the world together most deeply,” then the Romantics “saw the path to this knowledge as lying not through the rationalism of science, but through exploration of their own, subjective perceptions, thoughts, and emotions” (621). While this did provoke a brief counter-movement of Realism, it would not be long before the second of the two pillars of Classical art would fall: representation. By the time of the Post-Impressionists, Cubists, Surrealists, and Dadaists – all of whom can be fairly tagged as “Modern” – visual art did not seek to express emotion in and through the real appearance of a subject, but in spite of the reality of that subject. Hence, Van Gogh: “I use color in a completely arbitrary way to express myself powerfully” (698). As Modernism progresses into the mid twentieth century, its artists increasingly left behind representation and objective expression.
What enabled these changes in visual art? How did representation and expression come to be opposed to one another? This paper will contrast Romanticism and Modernism by discussing first their perspectives on the world in general, then the major themes in each movement’s visual art, and finally one exemplary painting of each era.
The Romantic period emerged in response to many of the excesses of Enlightened thought. Enlightened thinkers like Rousseau and Locke considered all humans essentially alike, only differing in how civilized and ordered, or uncivilized and disordered, they were. Hence, a universal Reason and common rationality which all man could inhabit together. The tendencies of Romanticism were first seen beginning with the Sturm und Drang movement in Germany, then later blossoming into an entire period. This thought prioritized the particular over the general and expressing the inner emotions over the outer sensations. This is true on a personal level, but also collectively as societies:
As Goethe and Herder argued, peoples such as the Germans and the French had different spirits, which found expression in everything from the folktales told around their peasant hearths to the architecture of their greatest buildings. These writers advocated a return to nature, to the simplicity of the common people, and, as many of the Enlightenment authors had also urged, to sentiment. Out of these ideas would come the artistic, musical, and literary movement known as romanticism (589).
As Romanticism spread, it came to define the subjects and perspectives of artists in Europe. This mindset began to be seen in visual art with landscape painting, depictions of heroism, dramatic brushwork, light-dark contrast, and sad or suffering subjects. Romantic tendencies “[overturned] long-established stylistic practices and unsettles its audiences” (603); this was an intentional effort to provoke the audience (though not close to what the provocateurs of the twentieth century would attempt). They “put new emphasis on their audiences’ emotional reactions and tried to connect with them on a visceral level through a succession of vivid images,” with wider, less precise brush techniques, greater (and less real) coloring, and sharper lighting contrasts, all in an effort to “[ridicule] reason, preferring to celebrate life in all its glorious disorder” (621).
One exemplary Romantic painting is Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830).
The main subject, the Goddess of Liberty, stands atop a pile of bodies killed in the July Revolution. Horrifically, these twisted bodies together form a landscape characteristic of the Romantic period. She stands before the rebels – the people – waiving the national flag to symbolize that in them, and not the government they oppose, rests the heart of France. Delacroix has depicted a scene which would be sad, even devastating to experience. The white cloud of smoke behind Lady Liberty both centers the painting on her and alerts us that the scene is in motion, not still as classical art had largely been. The cloud also creates a misty, hazy look that was characteristic of the period.
The first pillar of Classical art to fall was objective expression; here, Delacroix has gone far out of his way to express the subjective, emotional quality of the people in rebellion, in mourning. However, the second pillar remains: the picture represents something, and it uses specific (if imprecise) techniques to capture the scene.
Though the next hundred years of art – which I will recklessly skip in order to limit this paper to six pages – saw the Romantic school close, its tendencies lingered into later art. Post-Romantic artists would continue to sacrifice representational clarity on the altar of emotional expression. What caused these changes to continue?
First, Modernism “represented a conscious break with earlier styles of art” (696). The mid nineteenth century “historical turn” would eventually “join hands with the religious and artistic movements of the period” (623). Artists would study not just the techniques of old, but the entire progression of movements leading up to the present day, and so begin to react against the old art forms for the sake of reaction. In any context, this effect radically spirals out of control into nihilism, because “originality” cannot be a good in itself. Second, and third, and fourth,
Modernism has many other, complex roots. Modernist artists, writers, and composers sought to capture something of the fractured, frantic, and whirling existence they associated with urban life in the fin de siècle. They sought to give artistic expression to what was often perceived as the destruction of traditional certitudes by heady advances in science… deliberately sought to assert the value of their work by differen-tiating it from the unchallenging, sentimental compositions, artworks, and literature that were being churned out in ever greater numbers to satisfy the demands of burgeoning middle-class audiences. (697).
In this setting, Modern visual art used techniques like “the expressive use of brilliant color and coarse brushwork” and “strong colors, shapes, and departures from realistic representation” (696), the “pure play of color, light, and shape” (697), “deliberately [violating] the traditional rules of perspective and plane, [reducing] its distorted figures to the essentials of shape, and [placing] them at unconventional angles to one another” (698), and “wholly abstract compositions of lines and colors in a grid pattern” (750). With these techniques the Modernists began to push beyond both pillars of classical art, into non-representation and subjectivity.
One exemplary Modernist painting is Picasso’s Girl with Mandolin (1910).
Here, the titular subject faces away (perhaps?) from the viewer as she plays her mandolin. The background, not to mention the subject herself, is composed of the famous cube forms from which Cubism takes its name. The painting is monochromatic, with differing tints and shades of tan.
Girl with Mandolin is representational – of a girl, with a mandolin – but does not seek to depict the subject as she would appear in reality. Indeed, Picasso ten years earlier had said “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them” (698), which clearly has remained his style a decade later. Her face and neck are a continuous block with two different widths; her eye is level with her nose; her breast, shoulder, and right arm are disjointed and attached at unnatural angles. Clearly this is moving beyond representation, and with it, Picasso seeks to express the subjective impression with which the Girl leaves him, rather than how she is herself.
The Classical movement’s twin emphases of representation and expression were gradually abandoned as they became opposed to one another. This occurred when expression became not an expression of the objective item being painted, but of the emotions underlying the item, and ultimately an expression of the painter himself. Now representation and expression stand opposed, and in order to resolve the opposition, artists increasingly favored the expressive end. Now the opposition is brought to its nihilistic conclusion, as non-representation and subjective expression together reach the mindboggling anti-synthesis that is late Modern visual art.
In both Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People and Picasso’s Girl with Mandolin, we have seen the turn to subjective self on full display, but it is only with the latter piece that non-representational art (if that is not already a contradiction in terms) begins to be seen. What can come after non-representational art? Now that these changes have taken place in the development of visual art, can they be reversed? Or should we seek a new form-of-art, one in which the art’s representation and subjectivity cannot be separated from each other?
Grafton, Anthony and David A. Bell. The West: A New History. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2018.