Published  06/02/2008

Book review: The Formalesque: A Guide to Modern Art and its History

The Formalesque: A Guide to Modern Art and its History

Bernard Smith
Melbourne: Macmillan Art Publishing, 2007

According to the Australian art historian Bernard Smith, The Formalesque: A Guide to Modern Art and its History, is 'probably his last book'. At 91, he is probably right. What is certain is that this, his swan song, has lost nothing of the fresh, understated authority that characterises sixty highly prolific years of writing, lecturing and international publishing.

Smith is affectionately described as the father of Australian art history. It is not possible to fully appreciate this book without an appraisal of Smith's intellectual career. In his first two books, Place, Taste and Tradition: A Study of Australian Art since 1788 and European Vision and the South Pacific, he set out to write the first ever systematic history of art in Australia in what would now be called a postcolonial study of visual cultures at their limits. His pivotal work, Australian Painting 1788-2000 (1963, updated in 1991 with Terry Smith and in 2001 with Christopher Heathcote) is the standard history on the subject, and remains so. He also infused a very personal stance within Marxist art history, championing the Communist painter Noel Counihan, for example, when most art historians in influential positions gave him a wide berth. Smith's biography of Counihan is probably undervalued by most historians of Australian art for the part played by politics in Australian art history and within the art world itself. Yet Noel Counihan: artist and revolutionary (1993) attracted nothing of the incredible hype, for example, of the recent and relatively substandard biography of the more popular Arthur Boyd.1

Bernard Smith has maintained personal integrity and warmth as an individual through his long career, with an independent vision and lack of pomposity. He was highly controversial throughout his career, provoking debate over contemporary art from the 1940s to his period as professor of the Power Institute. Indeed, the key to his character can be found in the autobiography he wrote in 1984, The Boy Adeodatas: The Portrait of a Lucky Young Bastard, the moving story of his life as the illegitimate child of a domestic servant and gardener, and his upbringing with a foster family. Reading it 30 years ago one experienced the same intense identification with the subject as one did with a character out of a Patrick White novel. Bernard Smith still typically courted controversy at the age of 85 when he posed nude for a portrait entered in the Archibald Prize.

Place, Taste and Tradition was the first socioeconomic history of Australian art from its colonial and scientific beginnings, through to the Heidelberg School of Australian impressionists, Surrealism and the Modern movement in Australia. Smith's history was written during the war, after defining his views in a series of lectures. He was the first to recognise that Australian art had to be understood by placing its development against the background of the first European art in Australia; the 18th-century scientific drawings of the first settlers. Smith was to be the first historian to discuss and appraise the Heidelberg School within the wider context of European art. He established clearly that Australian art did not develop in isolation but through the interaction of the 'European vision' and the 'Antipodean experience'. A generation or more of Australian art historians were influenced by Smith's work, most notably Robert Hughes. The role played by Bernard Smith is central to the development of Australian art and criticism in being that of a teacher and a scholar with a wide appeal. It is appropriate that his last book should be pitched at 'intelligent students', for it is as a dedicated teacher that Smith has made his most profound contribution to society.

Bernard Smith was born on 3 October 1916, in Sydney, to Charles Smith and Rose Anne Tierney. He married Kate Challis in 1941. She died in 1989 after a long illness and he married Margaret Forster in 1995. Smith was educated at the University of Sydney and at the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, University of London, and completed a PhD at the Australian National University. He taught in schools in New South Wales (1935-44) and was an education officer at the Art Gallery of New South Wales country art exhibitions programme (1944-52). He then taught in the University of Melbourne's fine arts department (1955-63). Subsequently, he was the founding Professor of Contemporary Art and Director of the Power Institute of Fine Arts, University of Sydney (1967-77). Between 1944 and 1948 Smith developed a scheme for the National Art Gallery of New South Wales by which paintings in the gallery collection and other works - more modern art, works from private collections - could be exhibited in regional centres of the state. This gained him a British Council scholarship to the Courtauld Institute in London. Throughout his career he has been an art critic for newspapers and published extensively.

Smith decided to become an art historian after first pursuing a career as a painter. While teaching in rural New South Wales he spent most weekends drawing and painting the local landscape and reading books on art including those by Herbert Read and Jacob Burckhardt. When he returned to Sydney in 1939 he was involved in the establishment of the New South Wales Teachers' Federation Art Society. He and other members were deeply interested in the modern movement and set about organising regular lectures on the subject. Australia developed profoundly in cultural terms with a significant number of Jewish refugees arriving there during the 1930s. Their contribution has been well documented elsewhere. In the context of Bernard Smith's career and the development of his ideas, the lectures given by artists and art historians such as Dr George Berger and Dr Hedi Spiegel, both from the University of Vienna, were a revelation. Smith recalls that the 'excitement of listening to those professional historians from Europe must have been one of the many reasons why I decided to give up painting at the end of 1940 and become an art historian'. He was also outraged by the reactionary response to modern art, which then prevailed in Australia - the political conservatism and narrow-mindedness of museum directors and critics such as James Stuart MacDonald who said of the 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, 'These are exceedingly wretched paintings … putrid meat … the product of degenerates and perverts … filth'. Such views on modern art galvanised Australia's most brilliant art historian into action. Bernard Smith's own painting shifted from landscape painting to a form of surrealist work. As the war intensified his interest waned, adopting the view that Surrealism was only ' … the latest, fashionable solution to all the aesthetic, social and moral ills of modern society'. The last two chapters of Smith's book Place, Taste and Tradition became a rhetorical support for his left-wing stand. The very week that it was published ' … the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and newsreel documentaries began to reveal the appalling horrors of the Nazi extermination camps'. Yet Smith abhorred the politicisation of art. When the Communist party of Australia adopted Social Realism as its official style, Smith regarded this stance as just as bloody-minded as that of establishment figures such as JS MacDonald and Lionel Lindsay. Smith later concluded that it was not possible to write contemporary history and this he passed on to his students. I distinctly recall his comments when I enrolled for a PhD with Martin Kemp at the University of St Andrews, after publishing two books on contemporary art in my twenties, that I would be making 'the important transition from writing art appreciation to art scholarship'! 'One needs temporal and spatial distance to write serious history.' Acting as my external supervisor for my doctoral thesis on Arthur Boyd, Smith liked to point me in the direction of anomalies in the established art history in Australia, rather like a detective would seek out the truth.

The Formalesque uniquely sets out to bring the discipline of art history to bear on the 20th century. Smith's adversaries will view it as a personal justification for actions and views that were unfashionable during the 1950s and 60s. The personal experience and recollection vindicate his stand and now make for essential reading for any student of art history in Australia. Outside of the tightly knit art world of Australia it will be difficult to feel the same level of identification, though certain issues can be transferred into an international context more readily. Smith was one of a minority in the Australian art world and beyond who were deeply concerned about the role of American politics as the motivating force behind cultural initiatives ' … in order to oppose the Soviet Union's own mandatory use of Socialist Realism'. During this period exhibitions of American art were shown all over the world and they were in opposition wholly abstract. All other American art of this period was marginalised. As in Britain, art criticism in Australia was influenced by British Council overseas policies and in turn was greatly affected. The impact on the received wisdom of art of the second half of the 20th century was profound. What Bernard Smith seeks to achieve in this, his last book, is to rationalise the scholarship of 20th-century art history by uncovering such motives on the part of policy makers, in order to do this he confronts the terminology of the period itself. At the time - the 1950s - Smith acted in a more political and unpopular manner. He chose six artists for an exhibition 'The Antipodeans', accompanied by a Manifesto which was 'a trenchant attack on non-figural abstraction written from a humanist perspective'. It is interesting that the artists that Smith chose to oppose the fundamentals of American cultural imperialism included artists such as Arthur Boyd, who was championed by Kenneth Clark in Britain in the early 1960s. While Boyd later felt a little embarrassed to be included in such an overt political movement - he signed the Antipodean Manifesto - he benefited enormously from the very issues that Clark and Smith, for independent reasons, chose to champion.

The Formalesque follows the publication of Modernism's History: A Study in Twentieth-Century Art and Ideas (1998). In this seminal text, Smith wrote that the history of 20th-century visual arts could no longer be written as a succession of avant-garde movements. He argued that a return to the concept of period style was inevitable. Modernism - the dominant 'style' of art that emerged between the end of the 19th century and which continued until the 1960s should be recognised as a period style, like 'romanesque' or 'arabesque'. Smith has renamed this period 'Formalesque', on account of it being no longer modern and since the overriding quality is its emphasis on the formal values of art.

Sir Ernst Gombrich believed that Smith's book would ' … remain the focus of discussions about 20th-century art for years to come'. In his posthumous book The Preference for the Primitive (2002), Gombrich used Smith's coinage 'the Formalesque' for what is still described as 'Modernism'. Gombrich was probably the first art historian to use Smith's concept; it in turn prompted Smith to write this book, designed for students first undertaking a serious study of 20th-century art'.

I have written this book as a critical introduction to the study of 20th-century art which is still described as 'Modernism'. But the word cannot be used to describe the art of the 20th century forever, for it is now a part of the past. So, is it not better to agree that it is now part of our past, wiser to take a distanced view rather than see it as continuous with the art of our own time? If we do that it should be possible to view it as a period style emerging around 1890 which dominated art in its practice, theory and history, until the 1970s. As the dominance of what we still call Modernism began to decline over thirty years ago, isn't it a bit absurd to persist in calling it Modernism? So I have coined the word Formalesque as a better name for it, as one might refer to the Gothic or the Baroque.

Smith's logic here is dependent on the meanings of words. Accordingly, he has devoted the first chapter, 'On Words', to a list of words that are relevant to their discussion, and to the implications of their meanings. The second chapter, 'On Style', is a brief history of the history of art up until the beginning of the period in question - 1890. Here Smith illustrates the significance of period styles in art history. He points out that his history of art is a personal one, inevitably.

For me art history is a kind of biography.
Its infrastructure is aesthetic. It is based upon opinions that some artefacts are more interesting to look at than others. It requires such an aesthetic infrastructure of valuing terms such as 'beauty', 'symmetry' and 'proportion' in order to select artefacts worth discussing, and a narrative in order to place them in time. Although it is true that most artefacts are created by human beings, in order for them to take part in a history of art they must first be chosen for their value and ordered into a narrative to create a history.

He then traces the historiography of art history from the philosophical aesthetic roots in classical times to the development of an academic discipline in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is the critical point for the book, its stated intention being as a text for intelligent students. Given the dull texts all students have to wade through in final year fine arts, one can see the necessity of a clear, well written text such as this. Smith argues that if all preceding centuries have been treated evenly and logically then the 20th century should be no exception. Art history and theory should be one and the same discipline, 'art history itself has been theoretical from its beginnings'. Chapter three, 'On Form: The Rise and Decline of the Formalesque Style', is the heart of the book, in which 20th-century movements are discussed.

Smith divides the Formalesque style into three phases in line with Julius Meier-Graefe (1867-1935): an avant-garde phase (c.1890-c.1917); a high institutionalising and globalising phase (c.1918-c.1945); and a late phase (c.1945-c.1970). He traces art historians and critics who have been pivotal in the development of 'the Formalesque'. Meier-Graefe was also occupied with 'attempts to distinguish the modern art of Germany, from that of France, Holland and Britain'. Smith believes Nikolaus Pevsner to hold a more balanced view in his review The Englishness of English Art (1956). But Meier-Graefe takes a longer view by claiming that, 'Art began during the Renaissance when Venetian painters began to make the first move away from the dominance of line towards a mode of painting based upon colour, a development that continued until the time of Impressionists'. Meier-Graefe's four heroes of modern art were Manet, Cézanne, Gauguin and van Gogh; with all he refers to flatness. Six years after the publication of Modern Art by Meier-Graefe, Roger Fry organised 'Manet and the Post-Impressionists', including all of Meier-Graefe's chosen four. Apart from serving as a dramatic introduction of modern art to a conservative British public, Fry's writings on art, especially on the concept of 'significant form', were forged here. Clive Bell, a close friend, popularised Fry's ideas in Art (1914). 'Significant form' was transported seamlessly to America where Alfred Barr and Clement Greenberg dominated art criticism until the 1960s. The overriding concern Smith observes for artists as diverse as Manet, Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin, was not with meaning but with structure, colour and planes on a flat surface. They were not concerned with 'art as an ethical or political instrument'. Maurice Denis (1879-1943) gave an excellent definition of abstract art and abstraction, 'It is well to remember that a picture, before being a battle-horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order'.

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957) have been attributed with producing the first 'abstract' painting. Smith introduced his reader to the purely abstract 'spiritualist' work of Georgiana Houghton who exhibited 155 'Spirit Drawings in Watercolours' in London in 1871, 20 years before Denis' statement. Abstract art manifested itself as the late period of Formalesque in a wide range of different styles. It originated in Europe (Houghton, Kupka, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich) inspired by spiritualism and theosophy; Nabis is Hebrew and Arabic for prophet. Further factors, Smith points out, precipitated the interest in the emergence and development of the Formalesque: the invention of photography and the increased status of the decorative arts. European colonisation of the 'New World' saw its spread and the development of regional variations through the interaction with other cultures. The globalisation of the Formalesque from Europe has not been considered by art historians to date. Smith examines examples of the dissemination of the ideas to the USA, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Mexico, India and the Northern African countries of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algiers and Morocco. In this Smith provides an overview that has not been made before, and it is this comprehensive approach that makes it a cohesive whole.

The institutionalisation of the Formalesque, Smith states, took place with the establishment of the Bauhaus in Weimar (1910-1925), by Walter Gropius (1883-1969).

Here, at last, the formal flourished in triumphal excess for the first time; Formalism was thus transfigured into a period style: the Formalesque. Significantly, it was an architect who made it possible. Ever since Vitruvius, architecture has been viewed as the mother of the visual arts. It was only under the mantle of architecture that the Formalesque could be successfully established as the period style of the 20th century.

The last part of Smith's pivotal chapter, 'On Form', looks at 'the late Formalesque' (c.1945-c.1970), the period in which the USA became the most powerful nation in the world and New York its centre. 'Alfred Barr had historicised Modernism and Clement Greenberg had continued the work Meier-Graefe began. The Formalesque had spread through the Western world, its colonies and former colonies.' In the 1960s, American non-figural abstraction was seen as the art of the 20th century. Individuals such as Edward Hopper (1882-1967) were marginalised at this stage. But new movements were growing that would undermine this supreme position: Pop Art in America and Britain; the Realism of Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Lucien Freud (b.1922) in Britain; the Antipodeans in Australia, all brought the cultural hegemony of the USA into question. Smith stresses that it was the dominance of the Formalesque that declined in the 1970s, not the style itself, as artists continue to work within its ambience today.

The role of Gombrich's Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (1960) was pivotal in bringing about a shift in the critical preoccupation with non-figural abstraction to a growing interest in representational art. Gombrich wrote, 'The innocent eye is a myth, vision is intentional, its function to preserve survival: sensation cannot be separated from perception'. Smith states:

Art and Illusion is grounded on the claim that all art is conceptual and based on a process of 'making and matching' in which the making precedes matching. On this basis Gombrich wrote an innovative history of the development of representational art at a crucial time when it was still regarded as unfashionable by contemporary artists. It thus provided a powerful support to the return of meaning then developing on all sides. Interpretation, not form, became the new name of the game.

Smith makes reference to a range of key influences in the shift from form to meaning, from Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) to Sigmund Freud (1895-1939) and he does so with scholarship and alacrity. Smith makes reference to an impressive range of ideas and he weaves them together in an understated authority that makes the journey through this complex and vital period riveting. The end of the dominance of the Formalesque can be traced to Surrealism, which opposed the preoccupation with form, even though the artists were greatly indebted to the stylistic nature of form. Picasso's 'Guernica' which Smith describes as ' … the most famous and most important of all 20th-century paintings', is used as a test case.

Stylistically, it is flat and formalist. This is not surprising. Picasso, with Braque, created Cubism, the first of those 20th-century manifestations of the Formalesque that led to the dissolution of three-dimensional space in painting, and Picasso himself defended Cubism on formal grounds … But, on the other hand, 'Guernica' is as much a product of Surrealism as it is of the Formalesque. Here, the two great trends in dialectical opposition in painting during the 20th century converge, the former dominated by style, the latter by meaning - a new kind of meaning, the meaning of dreams as promoted by Surrealism.

'On Meaning', takes 'intelligent students' through Western Marxism, anthropology, linguistics and feminism. The Formalesque itself is, however, a unique book, an original and lively impassioned tour of the 20th century by a dedicated and remarkable individual. Smith's prose is understated and spare of superfluous detail, courageous and original. It is a must read for students and practitioners of art history alike. In his 'Epilogue' he reminds us of all our responsibilities:

It's when the party's over that the art
historians arrive and do what they can
do to understand why the newly-minted
masterpieces were so admired in their
own time and what they may still mean
to us today.

Dr Janet McKenzie

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