Notebook (steam)

March 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

13602177914_129508e543_h“Modernism was about some form of agony, then; but the point is that the agony, in modernity, is not separable from delight. That is true of the Manet, but also true, I would argue, of the Picasso. This is why Picasso’s effort at an imagery of horror is bound up with a pictorial dialogue with Matisse. “I shall show you that horror is beauty, under modern conditions”: that seems to me what Picasso is saying. And it was not as if Matisse simply disagreed with him, or failed to see what Picasso’s art meant. Certainly horror and agony are never the right words in Matisse’s case. He wanted to go on believing in the dream of appetite and sensation. Of course – but in practice he too knew that the machinery of pleasure and possession was just that, a machine; and that time and again what the machine churned out was a vision of plenitude on the verge of stridency and overkill (or smugness and fancy dress). […]

Nobody is denying that this impulse is integral to modern art, and responsible for many of its highest achievements. But it is a moment. On the other side of the isolated and phantasmatic in modernism is always the dream of the figure taking its place in space again, and exercising its new powers. Against Picasso’s terrible eternal present there is always de Chirico’s dream of history. So I go back to Nostalgia of the Infinite, and put beside it another Malevich – a painting done sometime during the terrible years of forced collectivization around 1930. I see these two pictures as modernism facing the world – of course, in both cases, facing it in a profoundly strange way.

What do I think was modernism’s subject, then? What was it about? No doubt you can guess my starting point. It was about steam – in both the Malevich and the de Chirico a train still rushes across the landscape. It was about change and power and contingency, in other words, but also control, compression, and captivity – an absurd or oppressive orderliness is haunting the bright new fields and the sunlit squares with their eternally flapping flags. Modernism presents us with a world becoming a realm of appearances – fragments, patchwork quilts of color, dream-tableaux made out of disconnected phantasms. But all of this is still happening in modernism, and still resisted as it is described. The two paintings
remain shot through, it seems to me, with the effort to answer back to the flattening and derealizing – the will to put the fragments back into some sort of order. Modernism is agonized, but its agony is not separable from weird levity or whimsy. Pleasure and horror go together in it. Malevich may be desperate, or euphoric. He may be pouring scorn on the idea of collective man, or spelling the idea out with utter childish optimism. We shall never know his real opinions. His picture entertains both.

Modernism was certainly about the pathos of dream and desire in twentieth century circumstances, but, again, the desires were unstoppable, ineradicable. The upright man will not let go of the future. The infinite still exists at the top of the tower. Even in the Picasso the monster flashing up outside the window is my monster, my phantasm, the figure of my unnegotiable desire. The monster is me – the terrible desiring and fearing subject inside me that eludes all form of conditioning, all the barrage of instructions about what it should want and who it should be. This is Picasso’s vestigial utopianism. You think that modernity is a realm of appetite and immediacy! I’ll show you appetite! I’ll show you immediacy! I shall, as a modernist, make the dreams of modernity come true.

Modernism was testing, as I said before. It was a kind of internal exile, a retreat into the territory of form; but form was ultimately a crucible, an act of aggression, an abyss into which all the comfortable “givens” of the culture were sucked and then spat out.”


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