Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


H.R. Rookmaaker - Book Review H. Sedlmayr

Book Review

H. Sedlmayr, Die Revolution der modernen Kunst ('The
revolution of modern art'), Rohwalt Verlag – Hamburg , 1957.
by H.R. Rookmaaker
We saw last time [in the first of our four reviews of recent books about
modern art] that J.M. Prange supposed he could, in a small,
contemptuous book, unmask the god Hai-Hai, which is to say the
spirit of the modern era, as non-existent. In that framework he also
declared tremendously creative geniuses like Picasso to be charlatans,
gold-diggers, bunglers and whatever. Indeed, Prange used a machete,
rough and without nuance, more than the fine lancet of analysis. He
failed to see that one may label the worship of the god Hai-Hai as an
illegitimate, degrading idolatry of the worst kind, but that this deity
nevertheless exists and endures as a power that one may not mentally
dismiss without falsifying or even rendering impossible one’s
apprehension of today’s world. Mortally dangerous, we called his theses,
because he wants to lull good folks to sleep – ‘it is there but is without
significance’ – whereby the spiritual struggle threatens to be entirely
neglected. The result can only be that the god acquires more power over
the spirits, as no resistance is offered.
Hence we must be happy with the opportunity to discuss another
little book that delves much deeper in an effort to understand modern
art and that sheds light on many aspects of the subject, which can only
be to our benefit. Its writer concludes with the important thesis that it is
by no means necessary for us to conform to the revolution in modern art
and, further, with a brief summary in which he states that the spirit of
modern art – Prange’s god Hai-Hai – is destructive of all human value
and threatens human being and culture with ruin. This man has in any
case perceived the seriousness of the subject and has not walked past it
with a laugh – Prange reports that he stood in front of Picasso’s Guernica
and laughed; he ought to have wept – and he has endeavoured to
fathom the modern mind in its depth, the better to investigate and
understand the abyss that is gaping ever more clearly before us.
We refer here to H. Sedlmayr’s book Die Revolution der modernen
Kunst. This is a volume in the so-called RoRo series, German
pocketbooks about important problems and themes which in general
have very good content (and are inexpensive). Light reading it is not,
but here at least difficult material is not simplified into an
unrecognizable caricature. On the other hand it is also not too difficult;
it was not written for professionals.
The German art historian Sedlmayr has developed a method of his
own for fathoming the art of a period. He namely looks for fundamental
features, basic characteristics that make the phenomena transparent.
Whether his method is really the right one for art history is not a
question we shall try to answer here, but we can say that in this case this
method leads to clarity. He identifies four essential characteristics of
modernity in art: a desire for purity; art under the spell of geometry and
technical construction; the absurd as a refuge for freedom; and the
quest for the original, primal forces.
The first of these, the desire for purity, is indeed a motive that
anyone who has looked into these matters must recognize as an
important component. The issue is to make art pure art, to cleanse it of
everything that is not art in the proper sense, of everything that cannot
be understood in a purely aesthetic way. In painting we encounter this
in so-called abstract art, i.e. art that has no subject. This occupies an
extensive chapter in Sedlmayr and we shall not venture to relate it at
length here. It shows us the results of a long development: in the Middle
Ages art was often an ideogram, a sign for making a higher reality visible.
With modern times naturalism set in, the effort to present things in the
work of art as the eye sees them. But the deeper element endured:
Giorgione’s Venus, Michelangelo’s David, a Rubens landscape, a biblical
scene by Rembrandt, Vermeer’s Street in Delft and Jan Steen’s St Nicholas
morning494 involve infinitely more than showing a nude lady, a nude man,
a piece of nature, a reconstructed photo of ‘how it was’, a detail of Delft
or a party, respectively. With these subjects the artists addressed themes
that in one way or another were close to their hearts and through which
they wanted to express their view of reality, or at least a facet of it. A later
era, above all the nineteenth century, rejected everything that could be
called literary, everything that was a ‘story’, everything that Venus is,
besides a naked lady, everything that made a landscape by Rubens
something more than a registration of light rays cast by a piece of nature
on one’s retina. People now represented only what the eye could see,
and the work of art meant nothing more than that. In part this
happened in reaction against an official and decadent academic art that
was virtually entirely preoccupied with the story, an art that forgot that
art must be more than that to be art. The aesthetic aspect was forgotten
by the academicians but declared to be everything by their opponents.
Our century follows next. Now the subject, too, is dropped. The
principle persists that the work of art is exactly what it offers one to see,
but now in a much more consistent form. The painting is no longer a
‘landscape’; it is itself. ‘Do not ask me what it represents,’ said Mondrian
to those who viewed his art. ‘It represents exactly what you see,’ black
vertical and horizontal lines on a white surface. A modern abstract
image means nothing, or rather it means itself, it is pure form that
represents nothing but rests only in itself. The work of art is its own
content, is itself the artistic reality – and no longer a representation,
symbolization or depiction of something else. A remarkable
development, to be sure. In the course of recent centuries the work of
art has drawn ever closer to ordinary everyday visible reality, to reality as
a camera registers it, in order in the end to become itself the reality.
Such a development may serve to make clear that there are deeper
forces at work in modern art than profit and impotence.
The second – art under the spell of geometry and technology – is in
a certain sense an extension of the first. This too is a facet that at least in
part defines modern art.
Sedlmayr’s third point, the absurd, that found and finds form
particularly in Surrealism, is indeed a remarkable and important
phenomenon. It goes much deeper than the desire to make something
crazy. The last basic principle, the quest for the primal forces that
determine reality, is clear in Expressionism and likewise unmistakably
present in many modern artists. They want to escape the trivial and the
not particularly meaningful external side of things, go deeper and look
behind the things for their ground. Thus this art, a clear example of
which is the work of Paul Klee, often comes very close to mysticism: one
flees from the hated and despised reality of individual things for the sake
of apprehending the absolute, the enduring, that which rests in itself.
People know they cannot accomplish that, so this work often breathes a
certain melancholy, doubt or despair.
After this analysis of the various forms in which the modern mind
manifests itself, Sedlmayr attempts to delve deeper, to see what is behind
them, to penetrate to the why. And then he points to nihilism. It need
not astonish us that the core of much that can be called ‘modern’ is to
be found there. For people have rationalized away and have rejected the
God of the Bible, but they cannot simply put any other gods in his place
for it is precisely the Bible that has taught them that other gods are
only human inventions and creations. But God and the reality of his
work, also in the creation – remember what Paul wrote about that at the
beginning of his Epistle to the Romans – cannot be rationalized or
explained away. Someone once remarked correctly that modern people
live ‘in the shadow of the non-existent God’, which is why their nihilism
is a crisis, a permanent revolution, rebellion. They live in a permanent
fear of being deeply moved by something in reality – which always
reminds us in some way or another of God as the Creator and Sustainer
– or of losing their heart to something. People desire freedom severed
from all ties and restrictions but can only discover that they are
‘confined’ in God’s world.
Many modernist phenomena can be understood by seeing them
as expressions of aestheticism, so Sedlmayr asserts correctly.
Aestheticism is a matter of art being the highest value and having its
meaning in itself. But art is thereby denatured into a non-committal
game without content and without meaning: for every meaning or
content would constitute a reference or an attachment again to
something beyond art. Or art is seen as revelation. More often than not,
however, people will show how they understand the reality in which they
live – and then voice is given to all the hatred against God’s creation, to
all malaise and sense of being confined in this cosmos, to all hatred and
revolt against anything that in any way can impede or bind human
beings. Thus a great deal that is awful and ugly in modern art is a
consequence of aestheticism, of glorifying art.
People sometimes seek in art the revelation of general, reality-defining
basic principles. Art thereby sometimes loses its meaning as art
and often its comprehensibility, namely when people seek to depict
through it basic principles of reality without referring to anything
concrete. For it is a fact that abstract concepts can never be grasped as
such; they only exist as abstractions, which appear only when one divests
concrete givens of their concrete characteristics. Therefore I must always
use examples if I want to explain what love, hate, beauty, language,
history or marriage is. All of these exist only in concretized form and
cannot be separated from it. Abstract concepts cannot be defined apart
from the reference to reality in the ‘for example’ or in the simple
showing of things. Therefore it is also not true when the modernist says
that he or she has liberated art from the story and can therefore now
offer what is essential in visual form. For the nineteenth-century
academic pieces may have presented stories, pure and simple; a Street by
Vermeer or a St Nicholas morning495 by Jan Steen offers us much more,
even if the content of these works is never separable from what is shown.
These last works one may compare to the ‘for example’ I just mentioned
above: in and with these objects something of value is told us that can
never be given in separation from them, for then I would either be
saying nothing or else no one would be able to understand me.
We are digressing. What Sedlmayr wants to show, and we followed
him in it, is this, that behind all modernist work there is a spirit that we
may not ignore if we desire to understand what it is that modernism is
an expression of and why it is what it is.
We want to conclude now with an example that may serve to make
various matters somewhat clearer. I have in mind Karel Appel’s art,
which I would typify as nihilistic iconoclasm. Iconoclasm, which means
literally the destruction of images, because by radically destroying,
deforming and turning around everything that was once offered in the
way of representations, views and images of reality, he at the same time
destroys, knocks down and dishonours the values that were contained in
them. With the image, the values contained in it went by the board.
And it is nihilistic because the destruction is not aimed at things
that had decayed and were due for renewal; rather, he distrusts every
value or attachment to laws, norms, givens or attainments, while he no
longer can or will believe in anything. If we keep this in mind, it can no
longer surprise us that if anything recognizable appears from his brush,
it is freaks, monsters and terrors. The view that we find amongst the
deepest of this type of painters is often closely affinitive with gnosticism,
which regards what is created, and the fact that it is created, as sinful,
bad and inferior.
We can warmly recommend Sedlmayr’s little book. Although there is
a ‘but’ involved. It is our belief namely that this study does not
sufficiently teach us to look, does not tell us enough about the origins
and the grammar of that new language that is also an important aspect
of modern art. The study is somewhat too one-sided in its focus on
spiritual problems and, while everything that the author mentions is
certainly true, it is also good to look a little further and inspect the other
side of the coin. Sedlmayr is so fascinated by the countenance of the god
Hai-Hai that he forgets to notice the people involved, neglects to listen
to their song, neglects to listen in on their everyday conversations. Is it
not an unmistakable fact that art is art and not philosophy or a life and
world view, however much art may involve these as well? Therefore we
shall return the next time with a brief discussion of two more little books
about modern art.
This review appeared in Dutch in Opbouw 2, 39, 1959, pp. 309–310.
This is the second in a series of four related reviews.
Published in English in M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker:
The Complete Works 5, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003. Also obtainable as a CD-Rom.