The Regressive Avant-Garde

Radicalism in the arts, with its search for root causes, can be more closely aligned with conservatism than many people imagine. Harris opens Romantic Moderns with a crisis within England’s visual arts avant-garde, when the painter John Piper rejected a nonobjective vision in favor of a growing enthusiasm for earlier strains in English art, ranging from Romanesque sculpture to the picturesque landscape. What is remarkable about Harris’s book is her refusal to simplify artistic debates, so that she has no trouble seeing that for John Piper “abstraction … always fed his other interests” and “landscape was not the antithesis but the ally of abstraction.” While Piper’s vision of “a machine-age but with tassels belonging to old-fashioned doorbells” evinced what Harris calls an “unusually elastic idea of modernity,” this was by no means exclusively an English idea. Let us not forget that Picasso and Braque had already, in their Analytic Cubist paintings, mingled hard-edged, angular structures and decorative flourishes—even tassels. Everywhere in Europe, even as artists embraced what Harris calls “an international language of form,” there was a yearning for “the lure of eccentricity, locality, difference.” Was not Brâncuşi, that giant of Parisian modernism, immersed in Romanian folk imagery? Harris’s approach will be of interest to anybody who cares about the classicizing and historicizing impulses that were integral to the arts of France, Italy, Spain, and Germany, and often reflected not a rejection of modernity but a fresh view of its possibilities.

More at The New Republic. The book being reviewed is Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper by Alexandra Harris.

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