Sunday, April 15, 2007

Everyone is afraid of modern art

Why should this be the so? Why is modern art apparently so intractable? Are the artists simply emperors parading in their new clothes? What lies at the root of a fear that we are being deceived or tricked? Is this art which can have meaning for the many or is it simply for the few, those critics, curators and collectors who form an inner circle? To try to give some answers I shall have to examine my own experience.

A painting or sculpture may be a window on the visible world; it may heighten the sense of your place in that world or engender reflection on the nature of being. It may also provoke joy, laughter, anger or pain. Many of us would associate these attributes with the art of the past: the experience of space, light and colour in Chartres Cathedral, the muscular beauty of a young male torso in a Michelangelo drawing, the poise of Vermeer's Girl reading a letter, the radiance of nature in a Constable oil sketch. But for many people it remains hard to see how similar qualities can be found in the art of our own time.

Much modern art is, at first sight, unnerving. Personally, I rather welcome this. In the contemporary world we have come to expect instant response and immediate understanding. The very fact that a painting or sculpture can be taken in at a glance encourages the belief that everything should be immediately comprehended. However, new art, like old repays prolonged attention as layers of meaning slowing disclose themselves.
Damien Hirst's Mother and Child Divided 1993 is a work which can at first glance be read as nothing more than two brutally severed carcasses. "A freak show" was how the art critic of the Sunday Telegraph responded to its presentation in the Turner Prize in 1995. For me, the undoubted shock, even disgust provoked by the work is part of its appeal. Art should be transgressive. Life is not all sweet. Walking between the two halves and seeing the isolation of the calf from the cow encourages deeper readings of the work. Perhaps this is an essay on birth and death and on the psychological and physical separation between a mother and her child, especially given that the work was first made for an exhibition in Venice, a city filled with images of the Madonna and Christ child. For me Mother and Child Divided is an unforgettable image, at once raw and tender, brazen and subtle.
But I've come to realise that it's precisely when I am most challenged in my own reactions that the deepest insights emerge. Frequently, the greatest rewards come from the most unyielding. For many years, and like many British people, I had little feeling for the most expressive and roughest form of early twentieth century European painting, the expressionism of German artists around the First World War like Kirchner. In the late Seventies I was confronted by contemporary German painting of an expressive kind. My initial reaction was to dismiss the rough hewn sculptures and aggressively painted figures of an artist like Georg Baselitz. And, of course, Baselitz made it even more difficult by inverting his figures in order to encourage a reading of the painting as a composition of shape and colour rather than primarily as a likeness. Gradually, however, I found myself attracted to this language of raw anguish and emotion. Later I was able to connect the work of Baselitz with the carved figures of German Renaissance limewood sculptors and painters like Gr�newald, whose Isenheim altarpiece showing the removal of Christ's body from the cross is one of the most harrowing images in art. Recently, I came across Nigredo one of Anselm Kiefer's expansive landscapes from the Eighties in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was surprised that this huge painting of the burning stubble of a razed cornfield which had appeared so rough and incoherent only fifteen years ago, now had an elegaic quality.

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