Project 1-1: Modernist Art: The Critic Speaks

This project requires reading the article ‘Modernist painting’ written by Clement Greenberg1 and first published in 1960. The course notes explain that one of the purposes of this exercise is to get the student used to academic writing and the language used and suggests that a number of readings would be required to ascertain meaning. I certainly found this to be true! My approach was this – I read through the article first without making any notes and then reread the piece straight away this time making little attempt to understand it as a whole but underling key passages and making notes of words used in unfamiliar ways or what appeared to be key passages. I then set about doing some more research on these which gave me a little time for the article to soak in. I then left the article for a couple of days – this was more due to circumstances rather than planning but I did find my understanding increased on my next reading, although I was still left with the feeling that there was lots of information I still had not absorbed. I was left with a long list of artists and references that I still was not fully familiar, or references that I had done some research on but knew I was only scratching the surface. For example, I did a little reading about Modernism and know I only managed to gain a rudimentary understanding, however, I understood that gaining a balance between reading around a subject while ensuring this does not become a barrier to progressing would be a fine balancing act. I therefore decided to put my thoughts down about the article at this point rather than spend more time studying further. The course notes suggest that my opinion and understanding of the article may change as I progress and more knowledge is gained so I intend to revisit this project at the end of section 1 to see how true this is.

What is Greenberg talking about in general and what are his main arguments?

Main points –

  •  Modernist art is dialectical/self questioning.
  •  Modernist art makes a virtue of the flatness of the picture plane rather than trying to hide this through three-dimensional optical illusion. It consciously makes the viewer aware that they are viewing a painting.
  •  Modernist art is a natural continuation (evolution?) of art traditions.

Although the article does not explicitly express it, I felt this was Greenberg attempting to defend Modernist art against detractors. He refers to the philosopher Kant and likens his strategy of self criticism to what separates Modernism from other movements:

 “Kant used logic to establish the limits of logic.”

 He suggests there is an intellectualism to Modernist art and, “Modernism used art to call attention to art.”

He goes to great lengths to describe what makes Modernist art different to art that has gone before, for example, ‘The Old Masters’ who he states treated what they viewed as the limitations of painting (flat surfaces, shape of support, properties of pigment) as negatives and did their best not to draw attention to them.  The Old Masters tried to preserve the “integrity of the picture plane” while the Modernists regard these limitations, particularly flatness, as positive factors:

“Flatness, two-dimensionality, was the only condition shared with no other art.”

 “Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before seeing it as a picture one sees a Modernist painting as a picture first.”

 He discusses three-dimensionality representation in art and how this relates to sculpture. He sees sculpture as quite separate from pictorial art:

 “Three-dimensionality is the province of sculpture, and for the sake of it’s own autonomy painting has had above all to divest itself of everything it might share with sculpture.”

 This has led to painting making itself abstract.

Despite rejecting the sculptural, Greenberg is at pains to show how Modernist painting sits in the history of art and that it would not have been possible without the art that went before it:

 “it continues tradition and the themes of condition, despite all appearances to the contrary.”


 “By the middle of the nineteenth century all ambitious tendencies in painting were converging (beneath there differences) in an anti-sculptural direction.”

 The phrase “all ambitious tendencies” is key in showing how highly Greenberg views Modernist art versus other styles.

The theme of flatness and Modernism making the viewer implicitly aware that they are viewing a painting is returned to:

 “Old Masters created an illusion of space into which one could imagine oneself walking, the illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can only look, can travel through only with the eye.”

 The essay ends with an attack on art criticism, much of which Greenberg disparages as little more than journalism because each new phase of Modernism is hailed as a new epoch when, however, “expectation is disappointed” as these phases take there places in “the intelligible continuity of taste and tradition.”

The importance of Greenberg’s assertions that Modernism is a continuation of what has gone before is emphasised with the essays closing:

 “Without the past of art, and without the need and compulsion to maintain past standards of excellence, such a thing as Modernist art would be impossible.”

 Who Does he mention and what is his opinion of them?

  •  Kant, (Immanuel, 1724-1804):

Positive opinion, sees Modernism as having begun with the philosophy of Kant:

 “because he was the first to criticize the means itself of criticism, I conceive of Kant as the first real Modernist.”

  •  The Old Masters:

Does not explicitly explain who he is referring to with this term, however, the names he mentions towards the end of the essay as ‘past masters’ could be what he means. (Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Watteau.)

  •  Manet: (Edouard Manet, 1832-1883)

Hailed as the first Modernist painter by Greenberg:

 “by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the surfaces on which they were painted”

  •  The Impressionists:

Who followed “in Manet’s wake” and left “the eye under no doubt as to the fact that the colours used were made of real paint that came from pots and tubes.”

  •  Cezanne (Paul, 1839-1906):

Who followed the impressionists and sacrificed correctness (verisimilitude) to fit drawing to the rectangular shape of the canvas

  •  Kadinsky (Wassily, 1866-1944) and Mondrian (Piet, 1872-1944):

Calls them eminent artist but disagrees with their view that abstractness or the non figurative is in itself a necessary moment in self-criticism of figurative art.

  •  David (Jacques-Louis, 1748-1825):

18th Century painter who sought to revive sculptural painting “from the decorative flattening-out that the emphasis on colour seemed to induce.”

  •  Ingres (Jean-Auguste-Dominique, 1780-1867):

Pupil of David who executed pictures that were the flattest and least sculptural since the 14th century.

  •  Fragonard (Jean-Honore, 1732-1806):

Who David reacted against

  •  The Cubists (and Cezanne):

Reacted against Impressionism, “the Cubsit counter-revolution”

  •  Cimabue (c.1240-1302):

States Cubism was the flattest type of painting in Western art since Cimabue.

  •  Monet (Claude 1840-1926):

Suggests that once you are used to the Mondrian’s art it becomes “almost too disciplined, too convention-bound,” the last paintings of Monet are more radical despite not seeming so at first.

  •  Neo-Impressionists:

Believed they were misguided when they flirted with science but can see how they would do so since Kant’s way of thinking can be applied closely to scientific thinking.

  •  Corot (Jean-Baptiste-Camille, 1796-1875):

Disparaging in that he says he did not have fixed ideas about art (although he makes this point

  •  The Palaeolithic painter or engraver:

(Palaeolithic refers to stone age/pre historic) Unsophisticated, could disregard the norm of the frame because he made “images rather than pictures.”

  •  Uccello (Paolo, 1397-1475), Piero (della Francesca, 1415-1492), El Greco (1541-1614), Georges de la Tour (1593-1652), Vermeer (Johannes, 1632-1675):

States Modernism partly responsible for the revival of their reputations which suggests Greenberg thinks they are worthy of revival.

  •  Giotto (di Bondone, c.1266-1337):

revival not started by Modernism, hence not worthy.

  •  Leonardo (da Vinci, 1452-1519), Raphael (Sanzino da Urbino 1483-1520), Titian (Tiziano Vecelli, c.1488-1576), Rubens (Peter Paul, 1577-1640), Rembrandt (Harmenszoon van Rijn 1606-1669), Watteau (Antoine, 1684-1721):

Artists whose standing has not been lowered  by Modernism (possibly the ‘old masters referred to earlier) does state however that it is only through Modernism that these artists can be correctly appreciated.

Does he quote others and make reference to their work?

Strangely, Greenberg does not directly quote any sources in his text which seems unusual to me for an academic paper, even arrogant. Kant is the main source he uses at the beginning of the essay but he only asserts Kant’s theories rather than providing any evidence. The tone of the piece is extremely self assured – Greenberg’s arguments are presented as fact rather than opinion. No attempt is made to explain any of his sources and artists he references, in fact, only the surnames are given. Greenberg makes no concessions to the reader that does not have a wide knowledge and understanding of art history.

Is Greenberg convincing? Has he changed your mind or do you tend to agree with his arguments?

On the surface Greenberg’s arguments seem extremely convincing, however, this is from my limited knowledge of art history so is based on the forcefulness of his writing and I am not in a position to dispute. I would be interested to know if my opinion will change as I go through the course.

The idea of art being a continual, developing process seems logical to me. This is based on my knowledge of artists referencing each other in the present day. It seems strange that Greenberg does not mention advances in technology such as printing, the ability to travel as well as changes to the class system and the industrial revolution as being significant changes in the 19th and early 20th century that would have contributed to the development of artistic practices during this time. He also does not mention photography, although it is only recently that photographs have been accepted as art in their own right. I am struck by how little explanation Greenberg gives about any of the artists, artistic movements and concepts he mentions. I assume this is due to him recognising the academic audience the essay is pitched and the fact that deviations would increase the length of the article considerably.

I found his constant mentioning of flatness to be jarring, it is not a term I am fond of, although the idea that a key part of Modernist art is that it draws attention to the very fact that a painting is made on a flat surface (and to make the viewer aware that they are looking at a painting) is an intriguing one. Abstract art is something I know little about other than what I can instinctively view as aesthetically pleasing and the explanation of motives to produce it are enlightening. Further reading about Modernism however has made me realise that artists did not recognise themselves as being part of a collective school and that the label was applied by critics (particularly Greenberg) not the artists themselves.

I have spent nearly a week reading this article, doing further research and most importantly thinking about Greenberg’s intent when writing this article and trying to understand all of the meaning involved. It is extraordinary that the essay is written in such a dense way and I know I have only scratched the surface of the meaning it contains. I have learned a great deal about my study style and thought extensively about strategies I will need to employ to get the most from the course – not becoming too bogged down with the tiniest details while doing enough background reading is a particular balancing act I anticipate. It would be impossible to take in all of the references Greenberg mentions here and formulate a considered opinion and this will surely be a factor as I continue through the course.

 Keywords and concepts for research:

Paradigm, Dialectical, The Enlightenment, Modernism, Kant, Verisimilitude.

 Artists/artistic movements for further research:

Manet, Cezanne, Kadinsky, Mondrian, David, Ingres, Fragonard, Cubists/Cubism, Cimabue, Monet, Impressionists/ism, Neo-impressionists/ism, Corot, Uccello, Piero, El Greco, Georges de la Tour, Vermeer, Giotto, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Watteau.

1 Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) (2002) Art in Theory 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford: Blackwell. p. 773-779