Wikipedia’s cooperative public process makes it the nearest thing on Earth to the voice of global consensus. Better than any public opinion poll, Wikipedia tells us what views we share. Take for instance, 20th Century Art.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso, 1907
The page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/20th-century_art shows eight uncontroversially representative works by Pollock, Warhol, Matisse, Picasso, Kupka, Gleizes, Kandinsky, and Malevich. The Pollock (1948) and the Warhol (1968) are mid-century, not early-century, so the average date for the rest, all pre–World War One, is 1910.
The Wikipedia page is uncontroversial now, but an Edwardian Era time traveller visiting 2013 would not know what to make of it, because he or she would almost certainly never have heard of any of the artists. Though the roots of the bohemian art world went back to the middle of the 19th Century, to say that Modernism was small potatoes in 1910 would considerably overstate its prominence at the time.
In 1912, the year the artists were being selected for the seminal New York Armory Show, “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon” was five years old, and Picasso’s career had only recently progressed beyond poverty, when he first attracted the attention of Gertrude and Leo Stein in 1905. Even while the Armory Show was being planned, his London dealer was pricing his canvases at as little as two pounds–roughly a week’s pay for a laborer. That same year, a painting by Matisse first entered a museum collection, when his 1910 Still Life With Geraniums was given to the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich.
Still Life with Geraniums, Henri Matisse, 1910
In contrast, the Dutch-English academic painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema was regularly selling paintings for between six and eight thousand pounds (which works out to 76 years pay for a working man, or perhaps 150 years pay for a working woman.) In the years before the Great War, the future may have belonged to Modernism, but the present still belonged to The Academy. We see the pre-War period through the very particular lens of these artists’ later success. At the time, they were known only to a handful of cognoscenti.
Silver Favorites, Lawrence Alama-Tadema, 1903
The great revolution against the academies began early for painting. The painters of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood issued their first manifesto in 1848, seeding Britain and Europe with the idea that real art could be made outside of the official styles. The second half of the Nineteenth Century would see the Barbizon School, Realism, Impressionism, Aestheticism, Symbolism, Nabis, Post-Impressionism, Art Nouveau, and the Secession, to name only the best known movements, culminating in Modernism at the dawn of the new century. So, obscure though Modernism still was, extra–academic painting had been gathering steam for seventy years.
Rebellion comes naturally to painters because paint and canvas are cheap, execution is quick, and the results are easy to display, transport, and store. For painters, patrons are a nice–to–have, but not an absolute necessity. It is not so with sculptors of stone and bronze. Sculpture is inherently expensive to make—the materials, the industrial space, the help that must be paid. Painters can do as they please, but the sculptor works for the man, because only the man can pay for it, and only the man has a place to put it. It is the ornament of palaces, and parks, not apartments, and as such, remained primarily a creature of the established powers even as painting increasingly responded to the tastes of the new upper middle class.
Mourning Victory, Daniel Chester French, original, 1906–8, carving, 1912–15
Maggie, Francis Derwent Wood, 1912,
The wealth produced by the successive Industrial Revolutions, the rise of modern governments, and the explosive growth of cities had probably resulted in more architecture in the Classical styles being erected in the preceding century than in the rest of history combined, and sculpture was a part of all of it, but the old world died suddenly, at the pinnacle of splendor. The French Revolution notwithstanding, in 1910 the immemorial aristocracies still ruled as they had for a thousand years, but they had become an anachronism in a world that had outgrown them. The disaster of the First World War toppled the glittering but fragile structure of European aristocratic power forever. Of the five Empires that controlled Europe in 1914, only the British Empire would remain after the war, and it was moribund.
Alfred Beit & Sir Julius Wernher with allegorical figures, 1910, Paul Raphael Montford
Painting was ready for the revolution, primed to explode. A bohemian culture of painting three generations old was already champing at the bit in 1914, but sculpture was caught flat footed. Sculptors had known the old world was ending—the British New Sculpture and other movements had consciously sought a way for sculpture to exist in the world that was clearly coming—but the new powers of Europe, for the first time, did not aspire to the old aristocratic trappings; on all sides, they wanted to see the old ways buried.
The Victoria Memorial, 1911, by Sir Thomas Brock, K.C.B., R.A.
The Beaux Arts style and all that went with it deflated with amazing suddenness and finality. Lacking any real bohemian base, sculpture suffered an almost complete discontinuity. The influential sculptors who emerged in the post-war era did not descend from any sculptural tradition, but emerged newborn from the bohemian world, the world of painting and letters. Painters could draw a line of descent from the Pre–Raphaelites, through the Impressionists and Cezanne, down to the Fauves and Cubists, but sculpture was essentially born anew from the ashes of the War, as the contemporary Academic tradition—the only tradition there was—almost overnight became anathema.
No one in his or her right mind would mourn the old European aristocracy. Marx, wrong about so much, was spot on about them being vampires on the necks of the working class. But to give the devil his due, nobody builds like an emperor, and in those last days, the wealth of Empires reached a level never known in history.
The scale of it is hard to imagine. If Michelangelo had not existed, would High Renaissance Sculpture even have its own name? What would Neoclassical sculpture be if Canova and three or four others had never been born? But the list of brilliant sculptors of 1880 to 1920 goes on and on—-dozens and dozens, in every corner of Europe, in the Americas, in Australia.
The painter Francis Bacon once said, “Everybody likes Vermeer, except me. He doesn’t mean anything, he has no significance.” One assumes this was rhetorical—it is impossible to not like Vermeer— but there is a sense to the remark. Vermeer was a miraculous one-off. No movement descends from him, he influenced nothing, and his work was little known until long after art had moved on. In the history of art, he is a dead end. In the Britain of 1910 alone, there were Brock, Wood, Babb, Dick, Montford, Pomeroy, Ford, Bates, Gilbert, Thornycroft, Thomas, Frampton, and Bayes, to name only the most prominent sculptors, and all were more or less abandoned by history, as Vermeer once was, as a dead end.
The War left the mainstream of 19th Century sculpture on the wrong side of a generational divide, and it is still too near to us in time to seen on its own merits. The idea that art could be made outside the academy morphed quickly into the idea that art could only be made outside the academy. This is not an unreasonable view where painting is concerned, but it is clearly false for architecture, which, under the Academy, had been brilliant. Late Victorian and Edwardian sculpture was like a good kid caught running around with a bad crowd, and it paid the price.
The oldest people alive were teenagers when the Edwardian Era ended, and infants when Victoria Died in 1901. Even the generations that came up in the heyday of Modernism are mostly gone now, but the the loathing of the old symbols, which peaked decades ago, still hangs on as the conventional wisdom, informing the oversimplified view of history that is implicit in the Wikipedia article.
Ironically, Modernism, the essence of which was revolution, has now become just another old museum thing, like the Mona Lisa, and even the movements that succeeded it, and succeeded it’s successors, seem old-time now: Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Post Modernism—-it’s all from Grandpa’s day.
Galileo Hernandez Nunez with a sculpture from the making of Jurassic Park
But figurative sculpture is quietly once again flourishing today in an unexpected haven that was undreamed of when the academies fell: supporting cinema and CGI, by and for people who have mostly never heard of the old politics and could not care less. Like architecture a century ago, the gaming and movie industries is building a cultural mass of artists who are at home in three or more dimensions. When, like Vermeer, the humane naturalism of the Victorian and Edwardian sculptors gets a fresh look, something very new is going to emerge from the fusion.