8/27/2017—A fascinating review of an art exhibition by Jed Perl in The New York Review of Books’ August 17 issue. The review is of the exhibit going on now in Paris of the works of Andre Derain, Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, known as Balthus, and Alberto Giacometti. According to Perl, the exhibit is about the artistic connection between Derain, whom many believed had become very conservative after a turn as an avant-garde celebrity in the first two decades of the twentieth century and the two younger artists of the mid-century. I had never heard of them.
What I found most compelling is Perl’s understanding of what these artists were trying to accomplish. Perl writes, “These three were determined to revisit the relationship between art and reality following the revolutions of early-twentieth-century artists, who had so often rejected the naturalism that dominated Western painting and sculpture for five hundred years. They were gathering together the broken pieces of what some disparaged as the sunny old reality. The wanted to discover a new, moonlit truth.”
Well, aren’t we non-artists in the same boat? We want a new relationship to truth after the revolutions in thinking and science of the twentieth century, and earlier, displaced simple metaphysical realism—the God’s eye view guaranteeing reality as safe, secure and beneficent. They could not go back. Neither can we.
Picasso and Matisse, whom Perl calls the “supreme magicians of modernism,” define painting for us and for these three as changeable expression by the artist. These three, whom Perl calls the “metaphysicians of modernism” were not satisfied with such expressionism. They were investigating anew “the relationship between style and truth.”
These three artists accepted the end of the truth of art as naturalistic—much as we are forced to accept the end of metaphysical realism. They accepted pictorial truth as the standard of truth. So a painting is not the world, but an imaginary world. In this, they follow Picasso and Matisse et al. But, Perl writes, “they wanted their imaginary worlds to have a logic and inevitability that transcended their own emotional appetites.”
The only way to achieve an impersonal view was through an intensely personal struggle beyond the subjective idiosyncratic to where thought and passion led them.
The painting shown in the review do not seem successful to me. They lack the expressive power of the artists from whom these three departed. On the other hand, who exactly stands up to Picasso and Matisse in the years since?
There is in this review and exhibit a model for us in the search for truth today and for the Symposium on the resurrection of truth at Duquesne Law School in November.