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Reflections of Historical Narrative and Values in Art-History: Reading Hyman, T. (2016) The World New Made

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 10 Jul 2018, 10:31

Reflections of Historical Narrative and Values in Art-History: Reading Hyman, T. (2016) The World New Made: Figurative Painting in the Twentieth Century London, Thames & Hudson.

I cannot judge the ultimate significance of this book as either a re-evaluation of artistic values nor of a reformulation of art-history, specifically in the now completed twentieth-century. Nevertheless in one way, my liking for much of this book also matches my amazement that it is still necessary to assert that a rewriting of the role of the figurative in art from the nineteenth-century is essential. It becomes increasingly clear to everyone now that the hubris of ‘abstraction’ in its claim that it was the teleological meaning of twentieth century art-history is totally wrong-headed, just as the we begin to see the odd role of the CIA in promoting it (alongside making America great again paradoxically by promoting the hagiography of Jackson Pollock) in the 1950s as more than the joke we thought it was. In particular, as Hyman says, the attempts to make both Matisse & Picasso ‘stepping-stones to abstraction’ (239) now seem absolutely blind to the art produced by both over their long and continual self-rejuvenating careers. Had I known about this book, I would have wrote more cogently about the work of Tom McGuinness, the miner-artist from Bishop Auckland, on my A843 course essay.

Let’s get the limitations of the book clear first though. My feeling is that it fails to understand the importance of constant re-evaluations of the body during the twentieth century and that this is the book’s main weakness. It is clear that you can get late Lucian Freud’s innovative importance wrong without some way of accommodating twenty-first century artists such as Jenny Savile. The negative judgements on Lucian Freud (‘numb realism’ 110) are probably symptomatic of these doubts.

 However, as a starting point for re-evaluating the constructed conventional historiographical accounts of specifically twentieth-century art, this book is intellectually refreshing, whilst being likeably readable and full of vitality. It correctly repositions R.B. Kitaj as one-in-the-eye for a largely anti-Semitic establishment. Moreover, artists that were not on my map now are – such as Marsden Hartley and Bhupen Khakar as significant voices in queer painting now are. Now I have finished the book, I feel I need to read more on the fate of German Expressionism and its deliberate marginalisation from the late 1970s, which might be read from the strange fate of the judgements made about Oscar Kokoschka, after his the peak of his fame then.

Hyman’s book makes some startlingly fresh juxtapositions across political divides that were once impossible to make. Artists with fascist sympathies such as Mario Sironi and Emil Nolde are now considered as using figuration in relation to similar metaphysical problems facing art across the twentieth-century. I would once have thought that unforgiveable but it now seems a necessity of understanding the history of the twentieth-century more holistically. Often those artists attracted to Fascism became its enemies – Nolde was to become as ‘degenerate’ as left sympathisers like Kurt Schwitters in Hitler’s eyes. Hyman’s shorthand for that problem is that so often repeated by his artists – the ‘Void’ created by the death of God, as perceived by Nietzsche (10ff.).

This rehabilitation of once-fascists is a price we pay for inclusiveness in history of art and its up-side is the valuable ways in which the art of the politically marginalised is re-positioned in the historical account. Whilst the role of figurative queer art is important to me, Hyman’s book makes it clear that the truly marginalised vision in conventional art-historiography is that of people experiencing mental disorder. Acknowledged and surviving figurative artists almost certainly made this marginalisation more potent – peopling the Void is after all more urgent in mental diatress and figurative artists interested in distortion often had to differentiate themselves from accusations of mental degeneracy – even outside the Fascist states. So artists such as Ida Applebroog (228ff) and Ken Kiff (184ff.) become more central to the history-of-art than we thought before and the notion of ‘illusionism’ (as in commentary on Kentridge 231ff.) less a judgement that belittles significance. We can also see the true importance of Max Beckmann (152ff.) in this light and can also re-evaluate Jack Yeats (174ff) and Stanley Spencer (138ff). I find it harder to come to terms with the centralising of Henry Darger (176ff.) and I longed for some of the sense of the problems raised here – as explored by Olivia Laing in The Lonely City (2016) – but what would you expect from an ex-social worker like myself.

My own feeling is that judgements that refuse to focus on ego-centred cognition (I believe neuro-psychology allows a return to Freudian shorthand)  will gather force and become the convention of art-historiography as the importance of neurological findings about the nature of brain connectivity become more well known popularly and the deficiencies of moral-cognitive perspectives in the psycho-perceptual realm diminish. However, for now, we have Hyman’s brave re-evaluations and their truth can be embraced from experience rather than what seems the clearly cognitive-ideological judgements of a Kraus or a Greenberg. Only then, I think we will see again, what links Frank Auerbach to Howard Hodgkin as truly figurative artists, if difficult ones.

I think the main reflection I am left with is that we must refuse to accept the inflated self-importance, that still emerges in the academy but that seems – to most contemporary artists – absurd, of ‘abstraction’ and of the ‘flatness’ and ‘objectivity’ of the canvas. The ‘medium’ was never only exogenous materials, like canvas, tools and marking-material,  but at the same-time included interaction with the our most materialist basis for all sensual perception and sense-meaning, the complex emergent complexity of the ‘material’ brain and body (for artist and viewer of art). Only with this perception will materialism again be recognised as a usable metaphysical base for judgement.

All the best


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