Art Must Be Modern

Artist and author, WALTER PACH was born in Now Yorh City in 1883, studied at the New York School of Art and at the Académic Ranson in Paris, and in addition to his one-man shows has exhibited with the Independent Artists yearly since 1917. The biographer of Georges Seurat, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Van Gogh, and Ingres, and the author of widely read studies on modern art, Mr. Pach continues for Atlantic readers the argument initiated by Francis Henry Taylor, Director of the Metropolitan Museum, in “Modern Art and the Dignity of Man.”


ONE of the conspicuous facts about modern art is that the interest in it continually increases. Whereas the Armory Show of 1913 attracted 86,000 people in New York City, the recent exhibition of only one of the painters shown at the Armory, Vincent van Gogh, drew some 350,000 visitors.

Art must be modern because life must be modern. You may reverence the past for its great works, but you can neither live in the past nor produce its art. What you do today, if art at all, is modern art, as Giotto’s was in its time. (Dante says it was.) So that, if a thing has never been modern, it has never been art. The one valid question is how your art compares — not in appearance but in quality — with that of bygone times.

People who criticize the work of today must do so with a very different set of principles from those of an earlier time, which tried to condemn modern art for its departure from the naïve naturalism and the spurious classicism inherited from the nineteenth century. Such matters are quite discredited now, but the case stands differently with the books and articles of Leo Stein, Bernard Berenson, and Francis Henry Taylor, whom, with their varying taste, age, and authority, I am temporarily grouping together as exponents of a latter-day opposition.

These critics know a great deal about art. But no one knows everything; and where prudent people stop talking when they come to things they no longer understand, all three of these writers let themselves be carried along by the impetus of their former studies — and get into bad company. Why could not a man of so keen a mind as Leo Stein see that he was siding with the worst element in the artistic community when he wrote of Picasso? For years he had been threatening an exposure of the Spaniard’s history and shortcomings, and finally, in 1947, just before Mr. Stein’s death, his book, Appreciation, came off the press.

Among many passages on Picasso, I select two, after carefully examining their context to be sure that I am quoting without injustice. Here is one statement: “Breathing life and charm into things is what made me take to Picasso in the first place, and if he had gone on doing this with increasing passion and power as he matured, my interest would have continued and doubtless grown. But when he became an intellectual at a contemptible level of degradation, I couldn’t accept it.”

Or take the following, from Appreciation again: “Picasso is no fool — anything but it. He is observant and often shrewd, he is humorous and can wisecrack on occasions, but having significant thoughts is quite another matter, and having one’s direction determined by ideas is altogether a serious matter for an artist. It is to subject his essential purpose to the direction of his intellect, and it would seem to me that any sane person looking at the result could see how absurd it was in this case.”

The confusion which I venture to believe existed in Leo Stein’s mind was caused by his uncertainly about the intellect of artists, and his distrust of it. Picasso is anything but a fool, he has some minor attractions, like humor and the ability to breathe life and charm into things, as his critic said just previously. Two pages further on, one may read: “In the powerfully effective Guernica, the research was for effectiveness of composition and expression, not form.” If we observe that only a research is conceded to Picasso, it does seem at least that the painter’s “essential purpose” included very important things, even according to Stein, who attaches great weight to composition and expression, though he objects to the artist’s “intellect.”

An example of Mr. Stein’s mistakes about artists occurs in his earlier book, The A-B-C of Aesthetics, and will today be understood by more people than did so twenty-three years ago, when the work appeared. Writing of Cézanne, he said: “For a while, no painter excited my interest more vitally. . . . Now no pictures interest me less. He is for me more completely the squeezed lemon than any other artist, of anything like equal importance.” When Picasso once asked me what Leo Stein was doing, I quoted the above passage, the book having appeared very shortly before. Picasso observed, “ Well, if Cézanne is a squeezed lemon, you can be sure that Stein never lasted a drop of the juice.”

In a way, the Spaniard’s remark was like that of Romain Rolland about a lady in his novel, JeanChristophe. He sums her up in a single sentence: “She understood music, but did not love it.” Again we have the distinction between thinking and feeling. The lady and Leo Stein were like the anatomist who can dissect a body, and can tell you minutely about everything in it, but who is all at sea when faced with a manifestation of the life that is, after all, the essential thing about the body.

The question as to Bernard Berenson is a different one. Over half a century ago, Berenson was the first critic in the English language, as far as I can learn, to refer to Cézanne. It was with a favorable tone, since he associated the great modern with some of the masters of his beloved Italy. And in 1947, at the age of eighty-two, when giving a final revision to his Aesthetics and History, Mr. Berenson was still growing in his admiration for Cézanne. The book referred to is as impressive for its ripe wisdom as for its amazing erudition. So that, if we are to pick from its pages certain ideas regarding modern art which demand caution, at the least, it is always with a sense of the proportions of the work where they occur.

Throughout his book, every reference to the art. of the last forty years that registered at all in my mind was hostile or dubious. At one point he says, “Since 1900, except for survivals, we have been stumbling and wallowing and strutting.” As Mr. Berenson’s own period brought forth so many men of real eminence, the natural tendency is to look to it with a great prejudice in its favor, and I speak of the difference in the time-outlook only because he himself constantly brings up the subject. For example, he says, “It has taken our time — with its tendency to hail as a good everything my own generation regarded as evil — to discover originality in the distortions and absurdities resulting from mere incompetence.”

“Distortion” is an allowable word if we define figure drawing as a statement of anatomical facts. To be sure, many a great picture of the past would reveal such shortcomings, though not as many as are found today when artists are chiefly interested in aspects of drawing that stand quite apart from naturalistic correctness. But “absurdity” and “incompetence” are terms dependent not upon a checkup from some objective criterion, like the anatomy chart, but upon the subjective question of the impressions of this man or that man. We do not need to go to a field so split, up by conflicting opinion as that of the arts to find ideas which seem absurd to some and magnificent, to others.

Who are the people referred to in Mr. Berenson’s vigorous and often admirable chapter on “Value”? He says, “It is something new in the world that value, choice, preference, no matter how freakish and perverse, should be excluded altogether.”

I submit what every frequenter of studios and museum offices knows to be the case: that extremely marked choices and preferences hold sway there; the values sought are different from those esteemed by the artists and connoisseurs of fifty or a hundred years ago — who, in turn, rejected many of the idols of their predecessors, in the eighteenth century, for example. And so one can go on back through the ages condemning a later school through the standards of an earlier one. One can reverse the process and call the earlier one primitive, archaic, or Gothic, so as to prove that the golden age began at a given point. But to do either thing is to commit the cardinal sin of criticism, which consists in judging one period by the standards of another.

It seems to me that Mr. Bcrenson himself offers the most crushing refutation of this argument in the sentences immediately following the one quoted above: “Not only is value to be tabooed in questions of art but in questions of history and even life itself. Thus I have heard of an Italian nobleman in the best society, who could not understand why there should be such an outcry over the treatment of Jews in Naziland and none over the forcible feeding of geese in Strasbourg.”

Here, at last, the writer identifies the people he is attacking. They are the degenerate-minded and the fools! And since he does not name a single latter-day painter or sculptor to indicate that not all modern art falls into the category which he condemns, the reader is practically compelled to infer that everything of our time — history and life as well as art, to recur to the author’s warning — has fallen into this abyss. It will be seen anew that an opportunity to make our decision on such a claim must be of extreme value — which is the reason for exhibitions of modern art.


FIVE years ago, when I first read Mr. Taylor’s analysis of museum problems in his book Babel’s Tower, I might have waxed indignant over his saying that “P. T. Barnum’s dictum ‘There’s a sucker born every minute’ has been one of the mottoes of our profession ever since” — an idea he returns to a little further along when he says, “The constant pressure of social service has so complicated our future that we must put an end to charlatanry and come to grips with the real problems of our profession.” It is not my own profession, since I have never been permanently employed by a museum. Therefore the words about suckers and charlatanry would have made me indignant because the immense enrichment of American life through museums has been due to intelligent, idealistic, and devoted men and women for over a hundred years; what exceptions there may be to this description of them are insignificant and paltry in the extreme.

A further misuse, it seems to me, of a term just glanced at occurs a little later again. Mr. Taylor had been discussing what he calls “the romantically Victorian mural of the Spanish Civil War, Guernica by Picasso”; and after saying that “the horror of actuality surpasses even the dream world of the little Neros who fiddle while Rome burns,” he remarks: “But the problem of modern art is not merely that of distinguishing between genius and charlatan.”

The whole quality of the references to Picasso in Mr. Taylor’s article in the Atlantic Monthly for December, 1918, leads me to think that he would not today come so near to implying that the painter is a charlatan. He would be right, indeed, if he said that we do not need to concern ourselves with charlatans among the artists: like faked Old Masters, their moment of acceptance is a limited one. But I maintain that it is very much the problem of modern art (as of the older arts) to distinguish between genius, mere talent, mediocrity, and the ridiculous. And I believe that the “pressure of social service” referred to by Mr. Taylor is a mighty poor alibi for the failure to make the distinction. The classification of artists is supposed to be made by the museum, which, for nearly everyone, decides the degree of importance in the masters of the past, and is therefore looked to for similar decisions about the present. The authority of time puts our thought about ancient things into a different class from that about recent ones, but we should strive to see our time with the clarity that we possess as to former times.

Mr. Taylor, taking Toynbee as his spokesman in the Atlantic Monthly, cites the historian’s words: “Our abandonment of our traditional artistic technique is manifestly the consequence of some kind of spiritual breakdown in our Western Civilization.”Perhaps I should not interrupt to say that the “abandonment” is far from complete in a period that contains such masters of technique as Degas, Maillol, and Derain, among many others. But I hasten to let Mr. Taylor give his own statement, in the same article, about this alleged bankruptcy of our time: “What will the art of today tell the spectator of tomorrow? in the sense that it announces the sterility and the intellectual vacuum of twentieth-century America or Europe, it w ill have at least that questionable validity; it will be recognized as the product of its time.”

Now it is my good fortune to be acquainted with many fine, upright people, and to know some inspiring things about the fortitude with which they and millions of others — here, and in what Mr. Taylor calls “an hysterical and defeated Europe” — have gone through bitter trials; also (and keeping away from my own art) I have derived much pleasure, and I believe elevating pleasure, from music and books of our time. So that I cannot see the spiritual breakdown, the sterility, and the intellectual vacuum that the two writers affirm for us.

Despite Mr. Taylor’s claim that the quality of a work of art must be communicable, I insist that one add the words “to a mind prepared to receive it.”And, to offer proof that the difficulty with recent art is not peculiar to our times, I will repeat, from a book that I published twenty-five years ago, certain lines from Petrarch’s will. The great poet, standing at the threshold of the Renaissance — a time when judgment of art was on a very high level — could write: “ I bequeath my picture of the Virgin by the noble painter Giotto, whose beauty, unintelligible to the ignorant, is a marvel to the masters of the art. . . .” And about such matters the final word is always the one spoken by the masters of the art.


NATURALLY, there are immense draw backs to modern art as a whole. How could there fail to be? By statistics which I gave years ago, in Ananias or the False Artist, I showed that the number of persons practicing the arts had been multiplied during the past century in the fantastic proportion of one to two hundred. The amount of talent in the world has not increased in like manner. So it is inevitable that a great deal of bad painting should remain unseparated from the good, or even that it should conceal the good.

The great numbers of inferior artists now so much in evidence are not, however, what I meant when speaking of the drawbacks to modern art. I referred to the absence of qualities we have loved in the older arts. Yet even on this point I must cite a phrase of Goya’s that is too little known and that is terrifically to the point in the present matter. The great old Spaniard said, '"L’art est fait de parti pris et de sacrifices.” I give the words in the original because you may be able to find a better equivalent for parti pris than I have after years of search. My closest translation would be “Art is made up of decisions taken (or, in some cases, of prejudices or preferences) and of sacrifices.

Go down through the centuries and you will see how those few words of the strong painter apply, time after time. The Greeks are glorious, but did they not sacrifice much of the grandeur — even much of the truth — attained by the Egyptians? In the Byzantine time, with what scorn a lover of the old marbles of Venus and Apollo must have regarded the “moderns” of his day with their “ignorance of drawing,” their “abandonment of traditional artistic technique,” as Toynbee phrases it, and their “sterility,” for I think Mr. Taylor must agree that his word could well have been used by men who had loved the old Hellenic intoxication with the visible world, and who found themselves confronted with the shaftlike austerity of the new Virgins and Christs.

The discovery of the European “primitives” by Ingres, more than a century ago, had a great effect on his art. Sixty years later, a few days before he died, he touched pencil to paper for the last time with a drawing after Giotto. The discovery by Delacroix of the abstract art of the Moors affected the great painter’s work for the thirty-one years he had still to live; it may well be one of the reasons why he wrote in his Journal, in the long entry of January 13, 1857, “Painting does not always need a subject.” And painting does not always need light and shade, as the modern period, turning now to Asia, learned from the great artists of Japan and China. (More sacrifices each time, you see; but also new achievement, as everybody admits when observing such accepted men as Manet, van Gogh, and others who have been influenced by the Far East.)

Other countries and periods have been giving up their secrets and causing changes in our conception of art, as much as have our scientific discoveries as to speed, space, time, photography, and so forth. This twofold set of influences has given us things that the past, with all its glories, could not know. The failure to appreciate these things of our time, the illusion which lets some people think they still can live in Quattrocento Italy or fifth-century Greece, are explanations of the cardinal sin of critics — their using the virtues of one period to condemn a different time for not employing them.

To continue with the positive side of the account: take that liberation from copying appearances which came with our gradual realization that what a machine, the camera, could do in an instant, an artist could not do in a lifetime. Before the camera was invented every real artist had, by instinct, stressed those elements of form or expression which made of his work something that photography could never attain—in one lifetime or a hundred thousand. Modern art contains no vestige of criticism of the naturalistic schools of the past; but its isolation of the qualities that place a painting or sculpture in a dimension totally different from nature and from mechanical imitation of nature has given to our time a new creativeness.

That is the main reason for the rapid change, since the Armory Show, in the state of mind of the eager and intelligent throngs to be seen every day in places where the great work of our time is studied and enjoyed.

Matisse gives us a magic of color and design that no Islamic miniaturist or ceramist could show in such freedom. I shall not try to decide whether some old Persian or the modern Frenchman is ihe greater artist; I do affirm that Matisse’s suppression of what are for him irrelevancies gives to our day a confirmation of its rightness in judging essentials, For, thanks to the modern artists, we now have the freedom of choice which lets us say, “This moment of life and sight is interesting. It connects with that other one. It does so by a leap through space like that of the radiations we get by wireless. The pattern made by the successive lines and their interspaces is the pattern of our existence today. I do not see anything so close to my experience in the work of that court-painter of ancient Persia. I admit that what he did is beautiful and perfect, and I am very much obliged for your showing it to me at the museum.”

And what Matisse does for the world of the eyes, Picasso does for the world of the mind; needless to say, each has some qualities of the realm I have assigned to the other. Why is it that book after book on Picasso’s work is appearing? It is because he has always — even before Cubism — given us a statement of what takes place in the modern mind. In the “Blue Period,” when he did things like The blind Guitarist or The Sad Mother, he gave us images so poignant that we recognize his sensations as our own. Someone objects that the Old Masters had done that and Picasso agrees — excusing himself for following El Greco, Goya, and others by reminding you that at that time he was but twenty-three years old. Five years later, he began to shake off the double yoke of the past and of external appearances. And so he could tell in a more direct, way of the impressions which the world made on him. Instead of the roundabout course — from painter to guitarist, from guitarist to spectator — he makes the unexampled leap from painter to spectator, so that, for a while, no aspect of nature appears.

When Ingres was accused of taking one of his madonnas from Raphael, he replied, “The picture is mine; I have put my claw into it.” That is mere assertion — like the one I make as to our contemporary. But the world has supported Ingres in his assertion; no one today thinks of him as a mere imitator of Raphael. And when I submit that the lines, tones, and spaces of the most anti-representational canvas by Picasso have nothing in common with designs for textiles, tiles, and other merely decorative objects; when I affirm that every picture by the Spaniard follows the course of experiences in a mind — the world of today, with its intense interest in the mental sciences, is giving support to my side of the argument by its increasing preoccupation with this artist and the men around him.

The departure from the formulas of the “moderns” has been going on for a long time, though in a relatively inconspicuous way, especially if we consider the men who never really followed the directions of the two artists most in the limelight. Bonnard and Rouault were comrades of Matisse’s youth, and the public success of the latter never bcaused personal difficulties with the other two, nor, on the other hand, an acceptance by them of every development made by the great innovator. So, also, the fact that Derain first made some of the steps which led to Cubism, but that he turned aside from the movement which Picasso and Braque were following out with sensational results, does not mean that any of the three is to be condemned for the actions of the others. It means that two Cubistic painters had one type of interest, that Derain had a different one, and that each of the three did right to follow the course suited to his talent. I know nobody who denies that all three do have talent.

It has required stamina on the part of Derain to stand aside from the turmoil — like that of the noisy waters of a millrace — the flood of little talents that have simply gone with the current. It the mind, with its world of forms, offered fascinating opportunities to the Cubists, nature also kept her inexhaustible supply of mysteries, Derains confidence in the classics as his guide to nature has produced admirable results and is still doing so. He is not alone in his effort: it continues in the work of other “Neo-Realists ” in various countries.


FOR our country an approach different from any thus far observed may be necessary. Though we have made immense strides in developing public collections which include both the ancient and the modern schools, and though most of us are convinced that such museums are of quite immeasurable value, it may well be that a very long time will have to pass before our people can respond to the stimulus of art in the way that Lurope does. The opportunity here must long remain incomparably more limited than that of the Old World, for the reason that not merely centuries but millennia have left their alluvial deposits of architecture, sculpture, and painting on the soil of Europe — deposits of which our own soil is literally bare. Within it, we may dig up relics of the splendid art which the earlier Americans, the red men, produced in response to a world that is, in most of its physical aspects, still our world. But the tradition of the Indian is practically destroyed, at least for the United States; whether Mexico can continue it is still an open question.

In any case, the achievement of certain artists of this country appears to be distinct not only from the aboriginal sources here, about which our painters and sculptors knew nothing, but also from European developments, about which they knew very little during the decisive years when their art was forming. I would cite the examples of three of the best American artists, John S. Copley, Thomas Eakins, and Maurice Prendergast. Of the first of them, Arthur B. Davies, a brilliant appreciator, said, “He is still the greatest painter we have had.”

Now the really dramatic thing about Copley’s art is that it was produced here, and at a time when, on this side of the Atlantic, there was so little opportunity to know European art that it counted for next to nothing in developing the genius of the young Bostonian. His only guides were a few reproductions and a few weakly derivative paintings; yet he brought forth masterpieces unequaled, in some ways, by anything of the English school, his nearest neighbor.

The same pattern holds for Eakins, A powerful artist already, when he went to Paris at the age of twenty-two, his four years abroad were concentrated on almost purely technical studies, and he came back — never to visit Europe again—the same man as when he first went there, earing little and understanding little about the great movements which were stirring the Old World. The art of Thomas Eakins is directly based upon the sights and the character of the New World.

Only when we come to Maurice Prendergast do we find an American who, in his formative years in Paris, could enter the modern movement of his day, have a share in the splendid developments that succeeded those of the Impressionists, and then go on to produce an art as distinctively of his native soil as was the art of Copley and Eakins.

As it is our job to isolate from the multitude of insignificant, even valueless men of the modern schools the few who tell of the greatness of our healthy and stirring period, so it is essential for an understanding of the American genius that we group together the men who for nearly two hundred years have been establishing our tradition. No one can he positive about it as yet, I believe, but I offer the foregoing ideas as a contribution to a grasp of our problem.

And as to that word “tradition" which has cropped up again, I must still recall a phrase that Léon Werth used, just forty years ago, in his preface to the catalogue of the Salon d’Automne in Paris, He said, “Tradition, tradition,—they are forever hammering us with that word! But a man is not in the tradition when he puts on his grandfather’s hat. He is in the tradition when he produces a child.” That phrase very well defines the tradition of American art as I have attempted to follow it. Few men, so far, have been able to put, it into practice, but there are many more than the three I have mentioned. The public able to recognize their achievement— and that of Europe — should, from the ideal standpoint, include nearly everyone. If even important men have failed or partly failed at the problem, nobody should relax in his effort to profit by work so much alive as that of today: it is too interesting and too rewarding for that.