CÚzanne and ModernismWhat does it mean to be "modern"? We might call it up-to-date, or contemporary or perhaps recent. Except in art, modern is about as up-to-date, contemporary, and recent as your great grandparents. In art we add an "ism" to it and talk about Modernism; and roughly speaking, we mean the time from about 1880 to the start of WW II. Actually though, art historians have as much trouble agreeing on the time frame as the meaning of this term. It's a little like Romanticism in that sense. Okay, if we can't precisely place the time frame how about its meaning? Well, Modernism demands two characteristics. One, being a general tendency for each generation to improve upon the best of the previous generation. The second characteristic is a belief that art could have an impact on modern life and problems. Of course there was little agreement on what those problems were, but that didn't change the emphasis on the fact that art could be part of their solution.
To our eyes today, both these elements seem a bit naive. Most artists have now long since given up on the idea that there is any kind mainstream art, much less any linear development to it. It seems that our definitions of art have become too broad for it to have a mainstream. And, if ever there was a time when art had much of an impact on society's major problems, I think we're safe in saying it has now passed. when did it pass? That's a little harder to say. Possibly around the end of the 1960s when art historians started talking about the Post-Modern age. But the transition wasn't like passing through a door; it was more accurately like entering a fog.
Although there are those who might cite others, Paul CÚzanne is often credited with having been the first modern artist. Although the Impressionists might accept the second criteria of Modernism to some degree, they were not so much interested in linear development, but in rebellion against what the generation before had wrought. CÚzanne, on the other hand, tried to take Impressionism, and, as he put it, "...make something solid of it," which is linear development, and on top of that, he was very much taken with the idea that art could have a profound civilising effect upon mankind. Perhaps in his day, it could, and did. Whatever the case, whatever Modernism really means, CÚzanne certainly fills the bill as the first of them.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
9 June 1998