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The many masks of modern art

Why is there so little tenderness in contemporary art? Is it because we are still reacting to the sentimentality and excessive sweetness of the Victorian era? Or is it merely that we fear appearing vulnerable to the gentler emotions?

A part of the answer lies in the nature of Modernism itself, in its often severely formal identity, and in the battles it has had to fight just to stay alive. It also must not be forgotten that tenderness can appear seductive, and that Modernism has learned to steel itself against anything it fears might seduce it away from the straight and narrow path of artistic virtue.

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Now, that's too bad, for it deprives our art of an important dimension of human reality, and limits it to the strictly formal, or to the tough, tragic, aggressive, cool, mysterious, or exultant. Only here and there, in a few drawings by Picasso of young mothers and their children, an occasional sketch or bronze by Moore, or some of Chagall's paintings of lovers, do we find tenderness openly portrayed. Sensitivity, interestingly enough, doesn't seem to bother us - witness Modernism's sustained genius for formal subtlety - but tenderness has been notably absent in our art from roughly 1910 to the present.

If anything, we are even further from it now than we were ten years ago, thanks to the recent incursion of painterly violence from Europe, and our own brand of pictorial coolness, flamboyance, or hysteria. Depictions of indifference, brutality, even of torture, are more likely to be found in our ''advanced'' galleries than images of human warmth or compassion. Art and love suddenly seem mutually exclusive, and any artist who disagrees is apt to find himself out in the cold.

It's not a happy or promising situation for anyone concerned about art - certainly, for the artist who finds himself cut off from expressing a significant aspect of his humanity, or for the viewing public, which often must content itself, in its art, with a vision of man that is brutalized or vacuous.

There is little room in art these days for the gentler emotions. If we must get emotionally involved at all - and the success of Pop Art, Photo-Realism, and the New Realism suggests we'd rather not - we prefer something dramatic and bold , or something that will sweep us off our feet. The idea that art should concern itself with gentleness, with the exploration and expression of subtle nuances of human feeling and emotion, strikes many of us as beside the point of contemporary art.

That, however, just isn't so. A recent exhibition of Mark Rothko's late paintings proves that tenderness was central to his art. And a careful study of the paintings of Morris Graves indicates how crucial the gentler emotions have been to hism art as well.

Even so, artistic toughness gets the nod today - just as it does in our Western motion picture heroes. When we really get down to it, weren't Benton and Pollock brothers under the skin to John Wayne? And isn't Julian Schnabel American art's ''fastest gun alive'' today? (I know at least a dozen younger painters whose one ambition in life seems to be to ''outdraw'' Schnabel, and thus to win his title.) Despite the passage of time and the liberalizing effect of the women's movement, we still feel uncomfortable with art that doesn't swagger a bit or act tough. Gentleness in art still seems suspect to us. For all our acquired sophistication, I doubt that Whistler would feel any more comfortable in the United States today than the did over a century ago. Unfortunately for him, however, he wouldn't find things much better in Europe now, either.

This insistence on creative toughness has, I'm convinced, limited our understanding and acceptance of one of the most powerful, compassionate, and extraordinary artists of our age. Kaethe Kollwitz's prints and drawings are among the real treasures of this century, and yet her name hardly ever appears on lists of major twentieth-century artists. It occasionally doesn't even appear on lists of our outstanding printmakers.

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Her ''crime,'' I'm convinced, is her humanity, and her insistence that in art , man counts for more than form or color. That attitude doesn't sit too well with us today. We'd think more of her if her subjects showed more anger, if they screamed and stomped about. But most of all, we'd prefer them if they didn't remind us so dramatically of our own vulnerability and need for compassion and love.

It bothers us that her subjects place love, dignity, and compassion above anger, escapism, or revenge. And that they can still be gentle and tender with one another in even the worst of circumstances. It's difficult, in any age continually seeking greater and greater external stimulation, for us to understand a conception of human greatness predicated upon patience, acceptance, sacrifice, compassion, and love.

Although Kollwitz was as passionate as any artist of this century, her passion was directed toward human, not formal goals. As with Rembrandt, her art was shaped by a need to universalize human emotion and experience, and to give them larger significance through pictorial form. Remarkably inventive as her compositions may be, they were fashioned primarily to give form to human truths, and only secondarily to stand as stunning black-and-white graphic images.

A good example is her extraordinarily tender woodcut ''Mary and Elizabeth,'' which depicts the young mother-to-be of Jesus receiving advice from the older Elizabeth. In its simplicity and clarity - but most of all in its humanity - it stands as one of the most humanly moving prints of the century.

These qualities didn't burst forth full-blown, however, but were carefully nurtured by hard work and careful planning. Her first study for the print shows the two women confronting each other like two bookends. In the second and third, they've moved closer together, but still lack any sense of intimacy. In the fourth, we begin to sense the deep bond between the women. And in the fifth, that bond is strengthened even further by the massing together of the two bodies as though they were one sculptural form, and by the positioning of Elizabeth's hand on Mary's belly. In the sixth and final study, the tonality has been reversed to highlight both women against a black background, and Mary's head has been lowered and tilted downward to emphasize her youth and vulnerability.

All this has been carefully and thoughtfully worked out to produce an image of great warmth and tenderness - the sort of image that touches upon the human feelings our art can little afford to do without.

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