If Modernism is a jungle, how do you navigate a path through its thickets? Some explorers — Peter Gay and Christopher Butler among them — have been fool-hardy enough to attempt an overall map, identifying factors common to a half century of music, art and literature. But the borders remain disputed and light cast on one area only leaves another consigned to the shadows.
Philip Hook, however, has been less ambitious, confining himself to one patch of special interest: the painting and sculpture of the decade preceding the first world war. Although this may sound like familiar territory, it’s widely regarded, in Hook’s words, as ‘quite possibly the most important in post-Renaissance art history’, and thus always worth revisiting — particularly when one’s guide is someone as erudite and amusing as this former bigwig at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s, familiar to many from his urbane appearances on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.
Even if he’s limited himself chronologically (the Gauguin and Van Gogh exhibitions of 1905 being the starting point), he’s still given himself plenty of subsidiary ‘isms’ to chew on here — ‘Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, Rayonism, Vorticism, plus the breaching of the final frontier of Abstraction in 1913’— a list that embraces Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Léger, Kandinsky, Klimt and Munch, ranging geographically from Moscow to London, with Paris as the focus.
What (just about) unites these figures as modernists, according to Hook, is a belief in ‘the primacy of instinct’, which relates to a fascination with the primitive and a trust in the unconscious, as well as a general susceptibility to anarchic violence and alcoholic or narcotic intoxication. Unsurprisingly, none of them emerges as sympathetic or well-balanced: they treated women atrociously, quarrelled viciously with their friends and, despite their bohemian insouciance, had double standards when it came to money.
Hook has a restless eye and his book doesn’t stop anywhere long — some chapters are only snapshots — but the narrative is repeatedly drawn back to the mercurial figure of the young Picasso, abandoning his melancholy rose pastorals in response to the challenge of Cézanne, the clash with Matisse, and the private dialogue with Braque that drove Cubism into collage. Hook may not have anything to add to the story as related in John Richardson’s magisterial biography, but he provides a shrewd and vivid sketch of Picasso’s canniness and ruthlessness, as well as his total dedication to his art.
Hook’s experience in the salerooms has broadened his perspective beyond critical analysis of canvas and stone. He knows the price of everything and understands that even if the votaries of these ‘isms’ were brilliant innovators, they represented only ‘a small minority of painters operating at the time’. It was the insatiable American appetite for Old Masters that dominated the market, and academicians such as Alma Tadema and ‘wriggle-and-chiffon’ society portraitists such as Sargent or Boldini who drew the bourgeoisie tothe galleries.
Modern art was a scandal, particularly in Britain, which lagged so wretchedly behind continental Europe. Hook devotes an engaging chapter to London’s reluctant accommodation to the new movement, detailing not only Roger Fry’s ground-breaking Post-Impressionist exhibition of 1910 but also the satirical riposte simultaneously mounted at the Chelsea Arts Club, complete with spoof Cubist paintings by H.M. Bateman.
Dealers such as Vollard and Kahnweiler, and collectors such as Picasso’s early adopter, Leo Stein, and Matisse’s Maecenas, Sergei Shchukin, were taking boldly speculative risks on unknown quantities. Their initial investment would be handsomely rewarded. From 1911, reputations rose and prices rocketed. Adventurers who put 27,500 francs into the Peau d’Ours modern art fund in 1904 came away ten years later with 116,545 francs, before the war caused ‘a massive caesura’ that finished off many artists and precipitated radical changes in taste and practice.
One surmises that this book has been written in a hurry. There are some surprising omissions — surely Seurat was a seminal influence on Cubism, but he is barely mentioned — and too many names (Puvis de Chavannes, for instance) and phenomena pop up without being properly introduced or contextualised. There are some careless errors, too: anyone who thinks that Picasso’s amour of the 1940s was François [sic] Gilot and that L’Après-midi d’une faune [sic] was ‘a Stravinsky ballet’ hasn’t got his eye on the ball.
But even if the text can be breathless, slapdash and sometimes awkwardly proportioned, it is also unfailingly enjoyable. Rich in anecdote and candid in opinion, it has a panache free of sanctimonious claptrap that makes it an invigorating introduction to the subject. I have a godson who’s about to read art history at UCL, and I now know exactly what I’m going to give him for Christmas.