Understanding Visual Culture- Part 1- Modernist Art: The critic speaks

The first exercise we were asked to do for Understanding Visual Culture, had us read an article by Clement Greenburg entitled “Modernist Painting”. We were also given a number of questions to answer when we had finished.

What is he talking about in general?

Generally the article is about modernism and its application to painting. It also compares paintings by “Old masters” and Modernist painters and how they are critiqued and created.

What are his main arguments?

There are a number of points that Greenburg makes within the article however I feel they are more opinions then arguments. Arguments tend to make an article sound quite aggressive whereas this article seems more passive and is more about Greenburg expressing himself.

  • Modernism was needed to push the boundaries of art and was more about doing art for yourself as opposed to for an audience (usually on commission).
  • How Old Masters paintings were created to try to emulate sculptures, whereas Modernists tried to stray away from this. However, even though the Modernists did this, it didn’t mean that items within their paintings would be unrecognisable; a teacup would still be a teacup even if there were no 3D effects/techniques used within the painting.
  • By using self-criticism, it would allow the art to be “pure” and by keeping the purity it would “guarantee quality, independence and self-definition”.
  • Old masters worked hard to create paintings that were realistic and gave the viewer the feeling that they could just pick up the item or walk into the image whereas Modernists wanted the viewer to see the image as a painting before they saw what the image was actually of or about.

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

There are a large number of people mentioned within the article however Greenburg rarely gives his opinion of them. They are merely mentioned as more of a passing comment. The main people mentioned were:

  • Kant, who is described as “the first real Modernist”.
  • Manet and Cezanne, who he describes quite positively as though they were the forerunners within Modernism and how their work stands out as an example to others.
  • Kandinsky and Mondrian; at first he seems quite unimpressed by their work, saying that they had “not proved to be an altogether necessary moment in the self-criticism of pictorial art”, however later in the article, that Mondrian’s work seems to be comparable to the later work of Monet which he sees as quite positive. Within these comments it almost feels as though he is apologetic for judging Mondrian too soon.

Does he quote others and make reference to their work?

Although Greenburg doesn’t use any quotations, he does make a number of references to artists work. Artists included were

  • Manet
  • Cezanne
  • Kandinsky
  • Mondrian
  • David
  • Ingres
  • Monet

Greenberg also mentions in passing Uccello, Piero, El Greco, George de la Tour, Vermear, Giotto, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt and Watteau.

My opinions of the article

When I first began reading the article I felt that it was very difficult to digest. It took a few reads and some further research and discussion with people before I felt ready to start making notes. It has been an interesting article to read and it has given me a lot to think about. As Modernist art and new ways of practising art have always been around in my lifetime, I have always accepted that no artist is necessarily constrained by any societal rules or expectations. At the time Modernism began, photography was also in its early days, which makes me wonder if Modernism was also born out of the idea of artists, in this case painters, wanting to set themselves apart. If people wanted portraits you could have a photograph taken. This also allowed painters the chance to create art for themselves and be able to experiment more with the various mediums available. The main point, I feel about criticism, is that the “Old Masters” were pre-occupied with what others thought of their paintings whereas Modernist’s created art for their own enjoyment.



About kunsworthphotography

I am currently studying towards a BA (Hons) in Photography with OCA and I have 2 children, Evie(4 years old) and Connor(3 years old)
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