Photo of Paul Trachtman

BEASTS OF NOW: How I See Modernism

When I think of the first modern painters, I recall the last lines of Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming:

“And what rough beast, it’s hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethleham to be born?”

That beast was let loose in the paintings of Delacroix and Cezanne, clawing away the old façade of representation to expose the painter at work with all his gestures and brushstrokes.  Delacroix wrote in his journal that his greatest problem was how to keep the freshness of the sketch in the finished painting. And Cezanne felt he could never finish a painting. This was, and remains, the essence of modernism—at least the modernism that interests me. The new painters might still make images of the world, but the paint on their canvases took on a life of its own.  This made modern painting more about how we see than what we see.

 When Cezanne said, “We live in a rainbow of chaos,” he may have been thinking of the contemporary philosopher Hippolyte Taine, whose writing he followed. In 1870 Taine wrote a book on Intelligence with this passage: “The objects we call bodies are but internal phantoms…Strictly speaking, this sky, these stars, these trees, all this sensible universe each of us perceives, is the work of each of us, or rather his emanation, or rather his creation, effected by him spontaneously without his consciousness of it.” Cezanne must have loved reading that! Cezanne’s heirs, including Matisse, Picasso and Giacometti, were similarly absorbed in the work of their contemporary philosoher, the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty, and their conversations often turned to the nature of perception.

I remember the first time I saw a Matisse figure of a bather—he left a “careless” gap between the paint of the body and the outline—as a child might in a coloring book. I thought that gap of raw canvas was the most important part of the painting. I got the same feeling when I noticed a large, dirty brown paint smudge Picasso left on his Demoiselles d’Avignon. He could have painted it out but he didn’t. “Mistakes” and “accidents” like these were ways of telling us that painting had moved beyond depiction and become charged with self-reference.  As I see it, much of what followed in modern art, Duchamp, Dada and conceptual art, abstraction and action painting, Warhol’s Brillo boxes, Johns’ flags and Twombly’s scribbles, were all implicit in those early modern gestures and ideas.

After all, it’s not a far leap from Cezanne saying, “Painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realizing one’s sensations,” to Pollock’s remark that the modern artist is “expressing his feelings rather than illustrating.”

In my own work I feel closest to contemporary artists like Dana Schutz, who paints figures that make seeing an unfamiliar experience; or Peter Doig who paints layers of interference to make seeing an uncertain experience. The questions that interested the early modern painters can’t be answered. But to keep asking them now makes each new painting an exciting step into unknown territory.  And it keeps painting alive.