Few people are endowed with the faculty of seeing; even fewer are able to express - Charles Baudelaire
Time to discover the fascinating world of van Gogh: Modernity and modernism in art
An attempt to define modernity can be as problematic and controversial as modernity itself. When modernity began, where, how, are questions that now seem as current as when Baudelaire, the first and one of the most important theorists of modernity, tried to conceptualize this phenomenon in his Salons. Whether modernity begins with Romantic sensibility or Manet's Breakfast on the Grass in 1863, the Impressionist Revolution, or the triumph of art for art's sake is a matter of form rather than content.
In order to follow this phenomenon in what is more specific, it seems revealing to me what Antoine Compagnon called "the birth of the new as value" (The five paradoxes of modernity). From its beginnings, what was defining for modernity was this aesthetic of the new, of the unusual, of the original, of the individual.
Art loses its value of mimetic representation of reality, becoming an image of the artist's subjectivity and his original way of perceiving, and at the same time artistically re-creating, the surrounding world. The fundamental need of man to give a meaning to existence is no longer fulfilled in the objective rendering of reality, but in the possibility of offering a subjective interpretation of this reality, an interpretation by which the artist justifies his condition as creator par excellence.
In the conditions in which reality could be known through the means of science and the new photographic technique, art could return to itself, in an attempt to finalize its own language that would become expressive in itself and through itself. For many modernist painters this language was color.
Painting no longer meant anecdote, composition or perspective, it could only gain meaning through the proper use of color. William Turner, Eugène Delacroix and the Impressionists were the ones in whose work color acquired a fundamental importance. The visual element becomes essential because what is required to be represented is the present reality, not the past or mythology.
Along with the cult of the new, the rejection of tradition is the second fundamental component of modernism. The acute sensation of the passage of time and the need to give meaning to the world in what it is, leads to the rejection of traditional schemes of representation and to the emphasis on the importance of looking as a means of knowing and representing the world. You have to paint what you see, not what you know - William Turner 's statement emphasizes precisely this desire to approach the world through visuals.
Due to progress, the world is constantly changing and changing, and the perception of time is changing in the context of hectic and confusing modern life. Thus, along with aesthetic modernity, a bourgeois modernity is born, which determines it, but also opposes it at the same time. Born of the urban society in formation, modern artists have always opposed the practical bourgeois sensibility (hence the desire for épater le bourgeois).
Regarding the modernity of pictorial representation, quoting Baudelaire, Antoine Compagnon lists in The Five Paradoxes of Modernity four features of it: the non-finite, the fragmentary, the insignificance (or disappearance of meaning), autonomy (reflexivity or circularity). To illustrate these features of modernity, we chose van Gogh's painting, The Wheat Chain with Crows, one of his last works, completed in July 1890. So let's take them one at a time.
The contours of the outside world are fading, the shapes are only suggested by energetic brushstrokes; In a landscape that is rather a state of mind, reality becomes as confusing as inner states.
There are endless expanses of grain under the sky in the wind, and I did not shy away from bothering to express sadness, boundless loneliness. (Vincent van Gogh, Letters, vol. II)
The restless, dark, cobalt-blue sky merges with the shimmering fields of wheat and the three winding paths that seem to lead nowhere. The descending flight of the crows makes the connection between the planes, emphasizing at the same time the impression of chaos and pressure. The birds are stylized to the maximum, representing rather only the idea of flight, a flight that, however, is not an ascent.
In another letter, talking about the portrait he had just made of his friend, Dr. Gachet, van Gogh speaks of the expression of deep sorrow of our time that he imprinted on the doctor's face. From the sadness of the human figure, this painting shifts to a metaphysical sadness of the whole world, reminiscent of that shore of the century from which all artists of the late nineteenth century suffered. The expression of this feeling is all the stronger as the painter simplifies his technique more and more, not giving up the figurative yet, but prefiguring, to a certain extent, the abstract painting.
Reprimanded by all modernist artists, and especially by the Impressionists, in Baudelaire's opinion this tendency can be explained in the accelerated rhythm of the modern world. The new consciousness of time due to technical progress finds its artistic counterpart in these quick, energetic touches, and in the renunciation of a meticulous, academic painting. The reverse of this technical positivism is the feeling of world decadence and despair. As the same Antoine Compagnon observes, since Baudelaire's texts, modernity is inseparable from decadence and despair.