Many beers at Barbara’s bar at the Brewery here in LA resulted in the following list. They are all French. They are all painters. So it goes, in descending order:
5. Seurat. He’s underrated the way Roy Lichtenstein is. Divisionism / pointillism, like all Impressionist trends, was in part a reaction to the development of photography. In a mindbendingly sexy ironic twist, photography is now suffering (or, perhaps benefiting) from a similar crisis, as digital technology quickly redefines the old language and creates new. And the basis for digital photographic imagery? Pixels, my friend. The very notion of breaking an image down into small dots of color begins with monsieur Seurat, providing an excellent example of how the avant-garde trickles down to (read: gets co-opted by) the mainstream. People think La Grande Jatte was the only painting he ever made or something.
4. Monet. If it weren’t for the fact that we’ve all had to stare at posters of his paintings in waiting rooms, he would win by a narrow but substantial margin as the first modern painter, tied only perhaps with #3 down there (some say #2, also). I’m just talking conventional wisdom here, but it’s not undeserved. He was the first cat to make works that confronted the viewer with the notion of “you know and I know this is paint, you know and I know this is light.” That simple notion, of letting up on the illusionistic characteristic of painting inherited from the Renaissance, was like the monkey touching the John McCracken monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The fact that we even have the option of painting in a style other than tight, rendered, photographically representational realism is Monet. And now he’s on mousepads.
3. Manet. Depictions of modern life? Check. Loose paint handling? Check. Self-conscious appropriation of art historical references? Check. Another “first modernist”, Manet seems to be who every artist since needed to be to be an artist in the historical sense of the word. His transitional position between Realism and Impressionism affords his artworks with the full arsenal of everything modern art was just an expounding upon. Luncheon on the Grass is practically an Adbusters image, and that’s considered postmodern. A formal, contextual, and subject matter pioneer, Manet was also one the first to make obvious references to non-western artistic traditions (check out the background of Portrait of Emile Zola).
2. Courbet. Ever put on an art show of your own because no one else will show your work? Courbet. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of calling Courbet “the first punk rock artist” because of his alleged showing of The Artist’s Studio in a self built shack next door to the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1855. Let’s get down to brass tax – Gustave Courbet was the first human in history who could honestly reply to the question of what he was doing as “keepin’ it real”. His stance against Romanticism was so well articulated it is now more romantic than what Romanticism initially implied. Pop Art gets a lot of credit for confronting the “elephant in the gallery” issue of class, but Courbet figured how to paint “fuck you” over a hundred years earlier. Here’s a painting of peasants in my hometown at a funeral (Burial at Ornans). Here’s a painting of me and my influences in my studio because I’m great (The Artist’s Studio). Here’s a really, really sexy painting of a woman’s vagina (Origin of the World). Take it or leave it. These were the first paintings that you could have been in.
1. Cezanne. The 20th century only began because Paul Cezanne let it happen. The crisis of representation brought on by photography found its messiah and was delivered as everything every 20th century artist attempted because of this man. Look at The Bathers. Look at his still lives. LOOK. The explosion of abstraction that occurred in the first half of the 20th century was just a switching out of the variables of Cezanne’s intense commitment to understand exactly what was passing through his eyes to his brain, and his works are documents of this investigation. He pierced the veil of perception to see basic forms and non-local colors, and wrote much of what he discovered down in his letters to give us a road map of how these abstract elements function in nature and in art. In an evolutionary sense, he was the catalyst for painting become strong enough to survive into the next century, and become more influential to all art in the process. All of the affronts to the Classical traditions established by artists #2 - #5 were boiled down to their ontological similarities and used by Cezanne to come up with the blueprint for the spaceship that Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, and Warhol all arrived on. We were just looking before Cezanne; now, we were seeing.
Now, I am biased towards painting, so, as a compensatory act, I feel Auguste Rodin could be a possible in there. A lot was shaken loose by his rendering of human form, and the plethora of sculptural forms produced in the subsequent century could be attributed, in part, to his simple move of revealing the hand on the surface. It is worth noting, as what is considered the “last” modern movement – Minimalism – was most fully articulated by the sculptural works associated with it.
There’s no way I can be right about all that. Tell me why.