Visiting a newly opened collection of modern art in Hannover’s the recently extended Sprengel Museum, it seemed to me that the history of 20th century art can be described as a series, or rather, a network of reflective steps of thinking or perceiving.
Any knowledge we are using, either to interpret what we perceive, to think or to do something, defines a closed “space”. We can leave that space and take a vantage point outside that bit of knowledge. From this meta-level or point of reflection, we can critically think about that piece of knowledge and make changes to it. This operation of creating an external reference on existing knowledge is at the heart of creativity. It is at the heart of philosophy and also, it seems to me, at the heart of modern art.
At a given time, an artist is using a certain chunk of knowledge, a bunch of ideas and concepts, ways of seeing, methods and practices etc. that result in works of art of a certain stile. This knowledge might be the result of a tradition in which the artist was trained, but to an extent it might be something he or she developed himself. At the beginning of the 19th century, there was still some norm artists had to follow. At the end of this century, this norm had begun to dissolve. Just as western culture as a whole became more and more self-reflexive, so did the knowledge used by artists. Step by step, different aspects of art seem to have been called into question.
By ceasing to work within the paradigm defined by a body of knowledge – or maybe we should better call it a practice – and by looking at this knowledge from the outside and identifying its previously unreflected preconditions and matters of course, artists changed their use of color, of perspective, the way real objects where mapped onto pictures, the very concept of a picture as a representation of something, the role of randomness vs. design, the two-dimensionality, the materials used, the goal or purpose of the work of art, the concept of beauty, etc.
For each work of art, the knowledge or practice from which the artist created it could be approximately reconstructed. If you look at the pictures in such a collection, going from room to room and from one “ism” to the next, you can see the different “turns” artists took. You can see how they started with one practice and then made certain changes. Each “turn” involves stepping out of the framework used at a certain time and making certain changes to it, from the outside, generating a different and new possibility of art and redefining the rules of the game.
Going from one room to the next, one can follow this history. There are sequences of turns or breaks and in following them, our perception and thought is changed as well. Taken this way, a walk through such an exhibition is a philosophical experience.
In medieval times, artists used to work inside a given paradigm. They often did not sign their works. What we view as “medieval art” today might have been more something like a craft with painters organized into a guild. Later, individual artists appear but at the same time, a standard paradigm was developed that defined the goals and methods of art. There even might have been some development that was perceived as objective progress, e.g. in the development of perspective. In the late 19th and early 20th century, this standard paradigm collapsed. What emerged was a new definition of the artist in which taking new turns and not following the tradition even became defining characteristics of the work of an artist.
The possibilities of making such turns might have been exhausted and maybe the next turn to take is to think about this role of the artist. There are inexhaustible possibilities to create individual works of art and each might take a small turn in itself, but is there may be only a limited number of basic ways this can be done(?).
So the development of art in the 20th century might have been something like the Cambrian explosion in the history of life, an epoch that wiped out the earlier Ediacaran faunas and created a large and diverse number of different new phyla of animals. After that, a lot of innovation still happened but the basic body plans of animal evolution had been defined.
Perhaps that “Cambrian” explosion of art is finished and artists have to start working along given ways. And just as the golden ages of animals came after the Cambrian, this might not be so bad after all.
From the new exhibition, I started following one such path, the Dadaist art of the Hannover based artists Kurt Schwitters (and his part-time Russion companion El Lissitzky). This collection of Schwitters and related artists alone justifies a visit to this museum.
(The first picture is from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:August_Macke_016.jpg. It shows one of the paintings – from 1912 – of August Macke in the exhibition, an artist who died in World War 1. In some of his paintings, he is still quite close to impressionism, but in this one, he is on the brink towards Cubism and more abstract forms, just about to take a turn.
The second picture, from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6b/1924._Merz_Magazine_Layout_by_El_Lissitzky.jpg shows a cover of the Dadaist journal “Merz“, co-authored by Kurt Schwitters and El Lissitzky. Both artists also worked as graphics designers in the 1920s, e.g. for the Hannover-based ink- and pen-producer Pelikan.)