Syukhtun Editions


Egyptian Sky Goddess Nut bending over the Earth
From the Sarcophagus of Uresh-Nofer, Priest of the Goddess Mut
(XXXth dynasty, 378-341 B.C. Metropolitan Museum New York)

In the compartmentalized bunkers of universities Art is referred to as one discipline among others, ranked equally with philosophy, science, mathematics and theology. This is an error. Art is not the sibling of the above disciplines, but their mother. This eternal misunderstanding automatically makes the artist an outsider, as history shows him to be. Through Art – the most ancient manifestation of human knowledge – all other knowledge was born. These very same alphabetical signs on this page are the vehicles of our knowledge, twenty-six drawings that have evolved from the most distant depths of paleolithic times. This modern alphabet is still linked to the mystery 30,000 years ago when what were believed to be humanity's earliest known drawings were scratched into a bone by an artistic hand to record the phases of the moon. The modern discipline called archaeoastronomy has established that the earliest evidence of an astronomical record comes in the form of notched bones, so-called “palaeolithic lunar counts,” as seen in this artifact:

30,000 year-old bone carving from Abri Blanchard (Dordogne, France)
which is said to represent the waxing and waning of the moon.

In 2002, decades after Alexander Marshackt discovered the lunar calendar on the Abri Blanchard bone above, archaeologists in South Africa discovered a geometric stone carving on red ochre thought to be 77,000 years old. Here are the earliest known traces of the subtle and enduring art of painting:

Carvings in red ochre from Blombos Cave
South Africa said to be 77,000 years old

Swedish writer Lasse Berg visited Blombos Cave in 2009 and wrote that since the discovery of the piece of carved ochre pictured above, similar carved stones engraved with geometric patterns have been found in the cave, a total of sixteen: “The oldest are at least 100,000 years old.” This amazing information Berg learned from archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood, Professor of African Archaeology at Bergen University in Norway, who specializes in Blombos Cave. This is an awesome period of time during which humans have engraved images on stone, bone or other materials. Berg compares the age difference between the oldest Blombos engravings and the one pictured above, as “about the same length of time between the oldest European cave paintings and Picasso.” Inside these caves in South Africa have also been found the oldest known human fire pits. Lasse Berg writes: “What we find here in Blombos Cave is the very foundation for everything that was to come.” (Skymningssång i Kalahari. Hur människan bytte tillvaro, Lasse Berg, Ordfront, Stockholm, 2012. )

The birth of Art on the continent of Europe is usually seen as the unique heritage of the Homo sapiens. And yet, the Neanderthals as well had their artists. The species is named after Neandertal (“Neander Valley”), the location in Germany where it was first discovered. Neanderthals are believed to have existed in Europe over 350,000 years ago. After hundreds of thousands of years of nomadic existence in Europe, they suddenly disappeared around the time that our species, the Homo sapiens, began establishing itself around 43,000 years ago. Despite the fact that the adult Neanderthal brain was larger than the adult Homo sapiens brain, and that the two groups are closely related, paleontologists see an important distinction in the respective artifacts each left behind. As far back as 45,000 years, intricate sculptures by the first Homo sapiens artists reveal that Art is the deciding difference. Art is what made humans unique to all other animal species on earth. In the tiny carvings of prehistoric Venuses, men with lion-heads and the first pottery figurines, the unique intelligence of our species was manifest that would evolve into the intelligence needed to land machines on precise locations to within a few meters on distant planets, tens of thousands of years later. The cave painting below is one of six paintings which were discovered in the Nerja Caves, east of Malaga, Spain. They are the earliest known examples of European painting. Ironically these are not images painted by Homo sapiens. They are the only known images created by Neanderthal man, at least 42,000 years ago:

Art is one fathomless metaphor of awesome scope. In it are fossilized the mysteries of Creation – birth, life, death, rebirth – an eternally evolving metamorphosis. From the painted images of stone-age artists in ultra-archaic times, to the images of Matisse and Picasso in our own time, the various art forms have been gradually formed, along with all human knowledge. Before Art, animal shrieks and cries developed in accordance with the Way into language, and then stone-age artists plucked forth symbols from their souls that contained the power of image and sound in concentrated form. They doodled in the clay of river banks, on wood, stone and bone, inventing letters and numbers. These earliest artists took the letters they had created and formed the Word.

Cuneiform tablet from Sumeria
(courtesy Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe)

Ivory tags
oldest known examples of Egyptian writing, Abydos, 3,400 to 3,200 B.C.
(Courtesy Günter Dreyer)

This accumulated knowledge tens and hundreds of thousands of years old has as its vessel today the creation of stone-, bronze- and iron-age artists: the alphabets and numbers. Whatever the epoch, Art has been the pathfinder, and its main function has always been to promote the spiritual health of the society at large. The arts need not refer only to such crafts as music, painting, poetry, drama and dance. Ideally the arts can also include government, economy, education, defence, commerce, science, mathematics, and just about everything human beings do. These very alphabetical symbols which I manipulate at present have as perhaps their earliest known beginnings the Duenos Inscription (left), dating from the 7th century BC. It is inscribed on the sides of a kernos, in this case three connected small spherical vases. It was found by in 1880 in Rome. The inscription was difficult to translate. It informs the owner of the vases that the perfume inside will help him if the maiden he fancies does not smile at him. This text is the ancestor of all the imperial inscriptions engraved in Latin on stone columns, porticos and facades throughout the Roman empire.

Venus of Willendorf
(ca. 26,000 years)

Woman (1952)
Willem de Kooning

The history of western art is usually measured in millennia. The Venus of Willendorf (discovered in Austria in 1908) and de Kooning's Woman (above) illustrate that western art is an unbroken tradition of tens of millennia. The earliest known European paintings, created by unknown masters 30,000 years ago in caves in Spain and France, are the first examples of western art. One can only imagine what these strange individuals had for practical function in their respective prehistoric societies, but it is not far-fetched to believe that they were the veritable leaders. Erich Neumann, colleague of Carl Jung, pointed out in his book Art and the Creative Unconscious that the isolation of the modern artist from the rest of society was not always the case in human societies. In earlier primitive times, the artist was central to all aspects of the community, for the guiding principle of creativity was also the guiding principle of the society. The artist, ”whose vocation it is to represent the cultural canon,” wrote Neumann, remained in a mode of timelessness (which he termed ”participation mystique”) while his brethren became more and more preoccupied with time.

Pre-columbian petroglyphs
located near the village of Leo, Ohio, USA

Drawing by a modern child

Writing of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), Neumann observed that the artist was now oppressed by ”one of the most modern problems of future generations: the Great Individual with his soul, alone in the mass of men.” The original situation where the creative principle was intimately integrated with community life, with the artist as middle man between Heaven and Earth, had disintegrated by Bosch's time. This despite the fact that the artist, in Neumann's words, ”is close to the seer, the prophet, the mystic.” Neumann's research clearly shows how there are similar motivations for creating in a child drawing with his crayolas and a prehistoric cave painter tens of thousands of years ago. (see above) Everyone experiences drawing and painting as children. This is our introduction to all the accumulated knowledge of our species at our disposal today, the first steps on the way to highly specialized professions, whether astro-physicist, molecular biologist or symphony orchestra conductor. The universal origins of creativity in human beings unite different cultures and epochs. With the insider’s deep knowledge of the art of painting, Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) explained this clearly as The Principal of Inner Necessity. Considering the vast degree to which this vital principle is ignored today (for it is the credo not only of the artist, but his connoisseurs as well), it is best to cite it in full:


1. Each artist, as creator, must express that which is unique to him. (Element of personality.)

2. Each artist, as child of his era, must express that which is unique to that era. (Element of the inner value of style, composed of the language of the people, as long as they exist as a nation.)

3. Each artist, as the servant of Art, must express that which is, in general, unique to Art. (Element of pure and eternal Art that one finds among all human beings, among all peoples and all times, that appears in the opuses of all artists, of all nations and all eras, and obeys no law of space and time as the essential element of Art.

Vassily Kandinsky

Unknown Chumash artist
Painted Cave, Santa Barbara, California

Depending on the epoch, one of Kandinsky's three points may take priority over the others. Artists creating from within great empires like Persia, Egypt, Greece and Rome tended to express that which was unique to the specific era in which they lived - the omnipotent power and wealth of the empire. In modern times, that which is unique to an individual artist tends to take priority over the era.

The era takes priority:
Persian guard, Palace of Xerxes at Persepolis
ca. 486-464 B.C.

The individual takes priority:
The Desperate Man
Gustave Courbet (self-portrait 1845)

In the art of antiquity, as in the Persian bas-relief above, the name and personal identity of the artist are often unknown. Approaching modern times, the name and identity of the artist become more and more important. The strange and unique individual Gustave Courbet outshines his era in the self-portrait above. Over time The Principle of Inner Necessity is shown to be the guiding force of Art, whether prehistoric or 20th century. Below, the prehistoric Galgenberg Venus (found in Austria in 1988) links its arched arm with the arm of the 20th-century blue dancer from Matisse's Jazz series, bridging 30,000 years of western art with the joie de vivre:

Venus of Galgenberg
ca. 30,000 years

from Jazz 1947
Henri Matisse

The prehistoric painter-hunter ”captured” metaphorical beasts on the walls of his cave, in a magical rite between the outside world and the inside world. And so it is today for the modern painter as well. To ”capture” has always preoccupied the artist, whether it be the flesh of a young woman, the fog of London, the reflections on the Seine, the light of Provence, or, in present times, the emotions in the human psyche, the pure language of color and form, or the phenomenon time/space.

Altamira, Spain (ca. 30,000 years)

The cow with a subtle nose (1950)
Jean Dubuffet

The period in European history between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance (roughly from 476 to the early 14th century) is known as the Middle Ages, the medieval period or the Dark Ages. One of the most noteworthy works of medieval art is the Bayeux Tapestry which is 0.5 m. wide and 68.38 m. long, annotated in Latin. The embroidered cloth — not an actual tapestry — depicts the events surrounding the Norman conquest of England in 1066. 20th-century research shows that it was possibly commissioned by William the Conqueror's half brother, Bishop Odo, during the construction of the Bayeux Cathedral (built by Odo), and completed in time for the cathedral's dedication in 1077.

Sailing to Hastings (from the Bayeux tapestry)

Compare the gruesome depictions of the Battle of Hastings (1066) with the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876):

Battle of Hastings: King Harold’s death (from the Bayeux tapestry)

Battle of the Little Bighorn
Yellow Nose (Cheyenne)

When the ”glory” of Rome ceded to the Middle Ages, art became stylized and flat dimensionally. Naturalistic perspective and depiction was abandoned. I was taught by art teachers that this was a negative moment in art history, one of stagnation and decay. However, naturalistic perspective and depiction were abandoned in much of 20th-century painting as well, but most of us do not see this as a negative development. The 7th-century Viking rune stone (left) was discovered at Tängelgarda on the Swedish island of Gotland, in the Baltic Sea. It tells the saga of Odin, chief god of the Vikings, who was also their god of battle, death, and inspiration. He is seen here in procession on his horse Sleipnir. The disdain that some of my art teachers had for the ”crude” art of the Middle Ages is unjustified. Despite its lack of ”naturalism”, this example of European art 700 years before the Renaissance displays a high level of sophistication and mastery. The silence of the early Middle Ages may just represent a healthy moment of healing after centuries of Roman excesses preceding the centuries of excesses that we call the Renaissance. Not since Roman times was the human form naturally depicted. Giotto (below) reinvented soft rounded modeling effects using subtle gradations of light and shadow(chiaroscuro). Giotto marks the turning point toward the Renaissance. However much mastery and excellence the coming centuries of naturalistic painting displayed, the overall effect was a grotesque distortion of history and a fictionalization of not only Jesus, but of the whole saga of humanity. As a servant of Catholicism the Renaissance offered us an unreal fairy tale in which a child is conceived without sexual intercourse by an unseen deity inseminating a virgin, her adoring priests living in virtuous celibacy and providing healthy spiritual guidance to the innocent sheep in the pasture of Christ. How we were fooled!

Madonna and child 1360-70
unknown artist, Hodegetria, Thessalonike

Madonna and child c 1320
Giotto di Bondone

Madonna with a flower1479-81
Leonardo da Vinci

Byzantine painting (above left) is named after the Byzantine Empire, which exsted from the 4th century until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. The term is associated with the art of the Eastern Orthodox church and as such is a sort of pendant to the art derived from the Roman Catholic church (above center and right). The two branches of European culture correspond to today’s eastern and western Europe. Christianity has influenced centuries of western art, which ultimately resulted in mass-production of crucifictions and madonnas according to strict rules of composition, symbolsm and color. Christianity became one of the tyrannical elements of western art against which modern painters revolted, even though Gauguin, Picasso (below) and other modern artists painted their respective crucifixes.

Crucifiction 1523
Isaac Grünewald

Crucifiction 1632
Diego Velasquez

Crucifiction 1892
Paul Gauguin

Raising of the cross 1610-11
Peter Paul Rubens


Crucifiction 1930
Pablo Picasso

Throughout its tens of millennia of history, Art has been an interaction with the Divine. No other human discipline surpasses Art for in-depth confrontation with Spirit. Bach, da Vinci and Shakespeare are some of the best examples of this in our civilization. Remove Art from religion — all the poetry, oratorios and other great music, the paintings, architecture, divine inspiration and psalms of poets like Isaiah and David — and religion is stripped of its spiritual legitimacy. Depictions of the Egyptian, Greek and christian myths reveal the gods not as the creators of men, but men as the creators of the gods. To modern viewers the human interaction with the gods in the paintings by Michelangelo, Correggio and Ingres below may not seem as close to the essence of the Divine as the bison and horses of the Lascaux and Altamira caves, despite the tens of thousands of years they may lack in cultural development.

The Creation of Adam(detail) 1508-1512 Michelangelo

Zeus and Io 1532
Antonio Allegro Correggio

Jupiter and Thetis 1811
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres


The ancient Greek deity Mnemosyne was known as ”Mother of the Muses” – the inspirational source of Art. The Greek word mousiké, the art of the muses, referred not only to music, but to painting, sculpture, poetry, dance, drama and all the other arts, which were ritualized with respective mysteries or initiation rites. The mystes or ”initiate” of the rites of Dionysos, Artemis and Demeter was instructed in each respective realm of knowledge – with drama as the realm of Dionysos. The overall mystery of Art began with painting in prehistoric times, with knowledge being passed on to a mystes or ”apprentice” as it would be during the Renaissance. The ultra ancient cave paintings are the beginning of history, although they are denoted as prehistoric. In many cave painting sites, flutes made of bone were found nearby. We can view stone-age paintings, but we can't listen to the stone-age music that would have been associated with many of the images. One sees the close connection between painting and music in the detail (left) of the musicians in Paolo Veronese's Marriage at Cana. Veronese himself plays the viola da mano, with fellow painters Tintoretto (violin), Titian (contrabas) and Bassano (cornett).

Egyptian wall painting showing harp, lute and lyre

Apollo and the Muses
Processional relief from Thasos (480 BC)

Seated woman playing a Roman cithara
ca. 40–30 B.C wall fresco (Metropolitan Museum of Art)


The Music Lesson 1877
Frederic, Lord Leighton

Chitarrone (bass lute) player
Michelangelo da Carravaggio

Self-portrait as a lute player 1615-17
Artemisia Gentileschi

The Old Violin 1886
Wiliam Harnett

Guitar 1913
Pablo Picasso

Women painters have practiced their art for centuries with much difficulty and little recognition compared with their male counterparts. Some very great talents have been neglected. In the 20th century historians have endeavored to rediscover the artistic accomplishments of women and to give these artists their due place in art history. One of the most famous women painters of all time, Artemisia Gentileschi, can be seen in Self-portrait as a lute player above. Her use of sharp contrast between light and shadow reveals how she was influenced by Caravaggio. Studying the lives and works of women painters, as with the men, is an unending project. The tip of the iceberg is revealed in the images below.

Self-portrait 1554
Sofonisba Anguissola

Self-portrait 1635
Judith Leyster

Marie Konstantinovna Bashkirtseff

Self-portrait 1782
Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun

Self-portrait with two pupils 1785
Adélaide Labille-Guiard

Femme au chapeau 192?
Jaqueline Marval

Chemin de Bas-Fort-Blanc 1885
Élodie La Villette

Nana 1974
Niki de Saint Phalle

Complete 198?
Joan Mitchell

The evolution of painting in North America after Columbus parallels that of Europe. The English painter John White (c. 1540 – c. 1593) is possibly the earliest example of the European painting tradition being practiced in North America. In 1585 he sailed with Richard Grenville and other colonists to North Carolina. During his time at Roanoke Island, he made numerous watercolour paintings of the surrounding landscape and native peoples.

An Indian werowance or chief, painted for a great solemn gathering 1585-93.
John White

Self-portrait c. 1680
Thomas Smith

For almost 200 years before the existence of the United States, the European tradition of painting was being practiced in the Americas. Above right is a self-portrait by Thomas Smith from Boston dating from around 1680. Both Boston and Philadelphia would become cultural training grounds for future American masters. As traffic and trade increased between the Old and The New Worlds, new European techniques of painting and printmaking were being imported along with philosophic ideas, goods - and slaves. In 1784, as the “Age of Enlightenment” was occuring in Europe, the American patriarch painter Charles Willson Peale founded his Museum in Philadelphia as an Enlightenment temple. His aim was to “diffuse knowledge of the wonderful works of ceation, not only of this country but of the whole world.” (as quoted from Peale's selected papers in Catlin's Lament by John Hausdoerffer, 2009) This was for better and worse. The artist-scientist-curator-educator-entertainer Peale strongly felt that for proper study, Nature had to be isolated from its “savage state” and systematically archived in the clinical environment of a museum of natural history. At left is Peale's famous painting of his two sons Raphaelle and Titian in The Staircase Group from 1795. When I saw it at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I was thrilled to see the final step emerge from the trompe l'oeil staircase as a real wooden step made not by a painter but a carpenter. (Infatuated with the European masters his other two sons were named Rubens and Rembrandt.) Many of the American masters had received expensive training from European masters in London, Paris, Munich and elsewhere. Their painting reveals considerable influence from such European movements as neo-classicism, romanticism, Barbizon school, impressionism, fauvism, cubism, etc. The similarities are as apparent as the differences. George Catlin began his painting career in Philadelphia strongly influenced by Peale's painting and philosophy. Despite belonging to the tradition of European painting, the works of George Catlin (below) and other painters of Native America reveal something unique to the continent of North America, something strange and new for European eyes.

(One-Who-Gives-No-Attention) Iowa
George Catlin

(Cannot-Be-Thrown-Down) Kansas/Kaw
George Catlin

As was the case with other nations colonized by Europeans, the fact that there exists an American art (both North and South) has been overlooked in Europe and even in America. Abroad America was traditionally known for its politics, technology, economy and military, but no so much for its art. (As for economy, Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington adorns the dollar bill.) Americans themselves were inclined to view the arts as impractical, frivolous luxuries, as they were viewed by Ben Franklin. But certain alert souls in Europe began to discover and praise American art, as did Baudelaire in his lucid appraisals of Catlin and Whistler.

Self-Portrait c 1778
Gilbert Stuart

Self-portrait 1780-1784
John Singleton Copley

Self-portrait 188?
James Abbott McNeill Whistler

In the 20th century New York took over the postion of occidental cultural capital after Paris, with American art forms like jazz and abstract expressionism in the limelight. The Virginian painter Patrick Henry Bruce (below), a former student of Henri Matisse, experimented with cubism and fauvism and became one of the first American "abstract" painters.

Watson and the Shark 1778
John Singleton Copley

Idle Hours1894
William Merritt Chase

Symphony in White 1862
James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Madame X 1884
John Singer Sargent


Still life 1926
Patrick Henry Bruce

Ocean Park 116 1979
Richard Diebenkorn

The art of painting has traditionally focused on three genres which can overlap one another: still-life, landscape and figure (humans and animals). In Tempest (below) Giorgione combined the genres figure and landscape. Matisse has said that painting the figure was the most difficult in his evolution as a painter. His strategy was to gradually introduce a figure into his still-lifes. All the genres of painting are as well represented in the various techniques of printmaking


Transparent bowl of fruit and vases
mural painting in Pompeii, Italy, 1 st century AD

Still-life with ginger pot 1876
William Harnett

Still-life with ginger pot 1880-1890
Paul Cézanne

Still-life with ginger pot 1912
Piet Mondrian


Prehistoric petroglyph
Tanum, Sweden's west coast


Venus of Urbino 1538

Blue nude 1947
Henri Matisse


Nude on sofa 1752
François Boucher

Large bather 1921
Pablo Picasso


Reclining figure 1951
Henry Moore


Tempest 1508

Moonlight Sonata 1889-92
Ralph Albert Blakelock

Goldau 1841
William Turner

Twilight in the wilderness 1860
Frederic Church

Wheatfield and cypresses 1889
Vincent Van Gogh


Among the techniques used by painters – oil, watercolor, collage, sculpture – is printmaking. Occidental printmaking, called le beau métier (“the lovely craft”) by French artisans, spans six centuries, beginning with the medieval masters of the woodcut who were the originators of books, passing by way of Dürer’s innovations to Rembrandt, Goya, Daumier, Whistler and so many more. Centuries before photography images of the great masterpieces of European art were seen by throngs of people in all corners of the world thanks to artisan printmakers. Although highly skilled, most were nonetheless merely scribes of images, tediously copying and bringing few innovations to their craft. It has been the great peintres-graveurs who brought innovation to this art which lies behind the printing of images and words on paper, most of all money.

Printmaking was as important for Pablo Picasso as painting, since both arts are in essence one and the same. He consecrated himself to la gravure totally, bringing this art into the brilliant arena of his attention and intensely practicing it for sixty-eight fruitful years. Picasso’s graphic opus is said to be the most comprehensive in the history of western art. The images which Picasso printed on paper only go up and up in monetary value over the years, when the paper money printed by national treasuries only goes down, down, down in value.

Portrait of Françoise Gilot
195? (silkscreen)
Pablo Picasso


Blind minotaur 1935 (etching)
Pablo Picasso

Portrait of Dora Maar
194? (linoleum print)
Pablo Picasso

The painter is a one-man state complete with department of treasury and department of war, “creating like a god, ruling like a king, working like a slave.” (Brancusi) When the peintre-graveur brings the art of painting into printing images of great value on paper, no government can rival his commerce. The painters were not only the creators of alphabets and numbers, they were the creators of minted and printed money as well.

Saint Christopher 1423 earliest dated
European woodblock print

Melancholia 1514 (etching)
Albrecht Dürer

Faust in his study 1652 (etching)

. .

Self-portrait 1798 (etching)
Francisco Goya

Rue Transnonain 1834 (lithography)
Honoré Daumier

Billingsgate 1859 (etching)
James McNeill Whistler

The Hand Eulogy 1958 (etching)
Joan Miró

untitled 1975 (etching, lithograph)
Antoni Clavé

untitled 1970 (lithograph)
Willem de Kooning

Romanticism, the yin to classicism’s yang, originated in the second half of the 18th century in Europe. It developed in defiance of the Industrial Revolution by maintaining strong bonds with nature, as heard in Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony. Goethe called it the “Velocepedic Age” and prophesied increasing technological speed as being a curse on humanity. The Romantic artists did not experience the previous Age of Enlightenment as especially “enlightened” and Byron’s potent satire was aimed at the cant of this false notion and its reflections in a narcissistic and unhealthy society. Byron was a major inspiration to Romanticism throughout Europe and the Americas, a movement encompassing the visual arts, music, and literature, but also history, education and science. The prettiness and vanity that had dominated much of 18th-century art ceded to strong emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, with new emphasis placed on such emotions as fear, horror, terror and awe. Such is often the subject matter of the two most remembered romantic painters, Théodore Géricault (1791 – 1824) and Eugène Delacroix (1798 – 1863):

The raft of the Méduse 1819
Théodore Géricault

The barque of Dante 1822
Eugène Delacroix

In 1848 John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti met at the home of Millais’ parents in London and founded the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”. Despite the studied Victorian elegance of their paintings (as in Millais' Ophelia below), they believed that Raphael’s elegant poses and compositions had been a corrupting influence on academic painting. Thus was born the idea of “pre-raphaelite” painting (which theoretically could include anything before Raphael, including the Lascaux cave paintings). By claiming kinship with the Quattrocento Italian and Flemish painters, they do not strike me as forward-looking painters in contact with real life, as were the Barbizon painters in France, who were their contemporaries. Their influence can be seen later groups like the the “symbolists”, “art nouveau“ and “surrealists“.

Ophelia 1852
John Everett Millais

The symbolist painters (as well as poets) had their roots in Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) of Charles Baudelaire. The prose and poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, whom Baudelaire greatly admired and translated into French, were also a significant influence on the symbolists and the source of several images. Symbolist poetry was developed by Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine during the 1860s and 70s. The symbolist paintings of artists like Gustave Moreau (1826 – 1898), Puvis de Chavannes (1826 – 1898) and Arnold Böcklin (1826 – 1898) (below) were distinct from, but related to, the literary movement of the same name, an outgrowth of the darker, gothic side of Romanticism.

Isle of the dead 1880
Arnold Böcklin

The apparition 1876
Gustave Moreau

Jeunes filles au bord de la mer 1879
Puvis de Chavannes

After centuries of visual tyranny derived from the Renaissance, impressionism came to western art as a breath of fresh air. The impressionist painters belonged to the generation after the Barbizon school of Millet, Courbet, Corot (below), and others. The Barbizon painters had a major influence on impressionists choosing “the great outdoors” as their studio. Impressionism was followed by neo-impressionism (also known as divisionism) and post impressionism. Among the neo-impressionists are Seurat, Signac and Cross. Among the post-impressionists are Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin. These movements in turn gave birth to cubism, fauvism and futurism. A gradual evolution away from the Renaissance manner suddenly speeded up in the last three decades of the 19th century which in turn inspired multitudes of transformations in the 20th century.

The Gleaners 1857
Jean François Millet

Bonjour Monsieur Courbet 1854
Gustave Courbet

Ville d'Avray 1867
Camille Corot

Impression Sunrise 1874
Claude Monet

Nude in Sunlight 1876
Pierre Auguste Renoir

The term “impressionism” was coined after Claude Monet's painting Impression Sunrise (above) by a critic whose meaning was derogatory. Monet outlived most of the other impressionists and after years of poverty and neglect he became a living national monument for France. In 1889 he painted the famous Japanese bridge (left) at his retreat in Giverny. 52 years after Impression Sunrise, in the year of his death, Monet painted the bridge for the last time (below), displaying how far ahead of his time he was, like the fictitious Frenhofer in Balzac's novel Chef d'Oeuvre Inconnu. Along with his water-lily and haystack paintings, it reveals how Monet's vision is going more inward as the outward subject matter gradually loses its identity. The pure flow of colorful calligraphic brushstrokes takes on more and more importance, anticipating the “abstract expressionism” of Willem de Kooning's Composition 30 years later:

Japanese bridge 1926
Claude Monet

Composition 1955
Willem de Kooning

Over the centures there has been a constant cycle of tightening the strictness of the rules of painting to an almost scientific degree, and loosening them to the spontaneity of untrained children. Signac's pointilism advocated strict adherence to color theory as seen in The Age of Harmony below. The impressionists before him had freed painting from the strictness of academic painters like Jacques Louis David, who, along with perversely distorting history, belabored the strict rules of Renaissance painting to the point of suffocation. Adapting the new liberty of impressionism, the neo-impressionism of Seurat and Signac strangely took a step back toward the neo-classicism of David, while the post-impressionists (Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin) took a bold step into the 20th century.

Leonidas at Thermopyle 1814
Jacques Louis David

The Age of Harmony 1902
Paul Signac

Signac was glad to have Matisse (however briefly) among his divisionists, but criticized the younger Matisse for his over-sized and unruly dots. Matisse soon tired of the rigors of pointilism, “repetitive, laborious hand-stitching, doggedly pursued accordng to fixed rules to a prearranged conclusion.” (Hilary Spurling, The Unknown Matisse) Matisse's friend, Henri Edmond Cross, a member of the divisionists, did not however enslave his creativity to the strict rules. Thirteen years older than Matisse, Cross could very well have been reluctant to liberate himself from Seurat's and Signac's strictness, but he too joined the gaiety of the younger generation mockingly called fauves – “wild beasts” – who harvested the delirious color and light of the Mediterranean. “Frankly, it was admirable. The name of Fauve could hardly have been better suited to our fame of mind.” (Henri Matisse, letter to Francis Carco) Cross' large and bright brushstrokes in Flowered terrace below reveal how he interpreted pointilism in a freer manner than previously, and the kinship with Matisse's landscape from the same year is apparent:

Flowered terrace 1905
Henri Edmond Cross

View of Collioure 1905
Henri Matisse

However, at the historic turning point of modern art – the Salon d'Automne in Paris 1905 (in which the name “fauvism” was coined) – Cross declared the kinship of his paintings with the “softer harmonies” of divisionism, and asked that they not be hung next to those of the “wild beast” Matisse, which were severely mocked by the critics. The constant humiliation suffered by Matisse caused him enormous anguish that resulted in chronic insomnia and despair over having chosen “the penal servitude they call the artist's life.” (The Unknown Matisse) This mockery by non-painter critics of master painters, whether Ruskin's mockery of Whistler or Zola's mockery of Cézanne, reveals a tragic pattern in the history of Art in which creators who are before their time must endure decades or even a lifetime of humiliation and failure. (If the Olympic games were conducted in such a manner, the minor athletes would be awarded gold medals and the greatest athletes would be sent home empty-handed.)

Woman in hat 1905
Henri Matisse

Le guitariste 1910
Pablo Picasso

Impressionism involved a fragmentation of the picture surface through spontaneous brushstrokes as well as an intensification of color that were new to painting. The fauvists were focused on the color aspect of this revolution, with less concern for drawing. The cubists were focused on the fragmentation of the painting surface with less concern for color.(A French art critic first used the term “cubism” in 1908 after seeing a picture by Braque. He described it as “full of little cubes”, after which the term quickly gained wide use although the two creators did not initially adopt it.) A few generations prior to this, the duality of “color vs. drawing (line)” was the essence of the rivalry between Delacroix (color) and Ingres (drawing). Ultimately, modern painters came to understand Cézanne's credo: “Line and color are not distinct.” Thus Cézanne could at once become an inspirational source for the color-focused fauvists and the drawing-focused cubists.

Portrait of Picasso 1912
Juan Gris

Houses in Estaque 1908
Georges Braque

These two most important movements in 20th-century art were short-lived, gateways into the nameless personal styles that would occupy their leaders – Matisse and Picasso – for the rest of their lives. The considerable influence Cézanne had for both Matisse and Picasso can be seen in the paintings below, as well as Courbet's considerable influence on Cézanne. (One of Matisse's most cherished possessions was a painting of bathers by Cézanne.) The unending echo of respected predecessors visible in these paintings evokes the echo from Bach to Haydn to Mozart to Beethoven to Mahler.

Portrait of Vollard 1899
Paul Cézanne

Portrait of Vollard 1910
Pablo Picasso

Bathers 1853
Gustave Courbet

Five bathers 1887
Paul Cézanne

Bathers by the river 1916
Henri Matisse

Futurism originated in Italy in 1909, when Filippo Marinetti's first manifesto of futurism appeared, and lasted until the end of World War I. Futurism was a celebration of the machine age, glorifying war and favoring the growth of fascism. Whereas Goethe had seen the speed of modern technology as a curse, the futurists saw it as a blessing. Futurism soon spread to other countries in western Europe and Russia:

Elasticity 1912
Umberto Boccioni

The knife-grinder 1912
Kasimir Malevich

Although cubism and fauvism came to dominate early 20th-century painting, other styles developed around the same time, notably art nouveau and les nabis. Art nouveau became popular at the turn of the 20th century, and denotes a style of painting, sculpture, architecture and especially decorative arts. It is also known as Jugendstil. Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (1860 – 1939) is one of the artists most associated with art nouveau. Mucha designed a lithograph poster which appeared on 1 January 1895 in the streets of Paris advertising the play Gismonda starring Sarah Bernhardt. It was an overnight sensation, and announced the new artistic style to the citizens of Paris. What was initially called Style Mucha soon became known as Art Nouveau and influenced many non-European artists as seen in the American Maxfield Parrish’s Jack and the Beanstalk below. Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918) is considered both a representative of “art nouveau” and “symbolism”.

Gismonda 1895
Alphonse Mucha

Jack and the Beanstalk 1910
Maxfield Parrish

Fulfillment (detail) 1909
Gustav Klimt

Les Nabis are a short-lived group of post-impressionist painters significantly inspired by the style of Paul Gauguin. Nabi means prophet in Hebrew and in Arabic. The name was coined by the symbolist poet Henri Cazalis who drew a parallel between the way these painter-prophets set out to revitalize painting and the way the ancient prophets had rejuvenated Israel, or because “most of them wore beards, some were Jews and all were desperately earnest”. Pierre Bonnard (1867 – 1947), Edouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940) and Maurice Denis (1870 –1943) became the best known of the group, although at the time they were somewhat peripheral to the core group. Pierre Bonnard especially developed a unique masterful style with colors glowing from the picture surface.

Swineherd 1888
Paul Gauguin

Dining room in the country 1913
Pierre Bonnard

Jacob struggling with the angel 1893
Maurice Denis

With all the “isms” involved in art history it is easy to forget that they are only artificial categories and most often the painters themselves objected to being compartmentalized in this manner. Two modern painters who do not fit under the category of any “ism” are Le Douanier Rousseau and Paul Klee (below). A reproduction in Wonder World Encyclopedia of Rousseau's Sleeping Gypsy hypnotized me as a dreamy child and was my first intense experience with western art.

Sleeping Gypsy 1897
Le Douanier Rousseau

Ad Parnassum 1932
Paul Klee

The Principal of Inner Necessity made painters like Cézanne and Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso go against the fashion of the time and instead be guided by their own personal inspiration. The result seemed like a provocation to conservative viewers, although provocation was not the intent. Today provocation is often the intent of modern art, as it was during the dada movement prior to World War I. A negative reaction by the public is often desired, when it caused Matisse great anguish. The reasoning is that since the art of Matisse and Picasso was a provocation, all provocation in art is a sign of genius. Somewhere in this evolution The Principal of Inner Necessity was abandoned.

The dadaists created other criteria than Beauty as their motivation. They misunderstood Beauty as something “precious”, something bourgeois that should be mocked and rejected. A primary inspiration for dada and surrealism was Isidore Ducasse, born in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1846 and who died in Paris in 1870. He is known under the pseudonym Le Comte de Lautréamont and his major work, Les Chants de Maldoror contains this famous comparison: beau comme la rencontre fortuite sur une table de dissection d'une machine à coudre et d'un parapluie (beautiful like the chance encounter on a dissection table of a sewing machine and an umbrella). Marcel Duchamp with his Bicycle wheel, Max Ernst with his collages (above) and other dadaists used this as a magic formula and proceeded with all the endless, tedious variations of this thought that are possible, and the variations continue to his day in museums and galleries around the world. Take any combination of any objects from any garage, attic or flea market, put them together in a “chance encounter”, and — voilà! — you too can be an artist and exhibit at the Tate Gallery:

Violin (1985)
Ai Wei Wei

Surrealism evolved from dada which mocked the Renaissance manner. Oddly, surrealism went back to the traditional Renaissance techniques! Despite their avocation of the irrational, surprise and spontaneity, surrealists painters like Dalí, Magritte and Tanguy were still using rational techniques from the Renaissance like trompe l’oeil and chiaroscuro in their laborious and unspontaneous paintings. (It would be the next generation of “abstract expressionists” who would unequivocally use the irrational, surprise and spontaneity in their work.)

Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a
Pomegranate One Second Before Waking Up

Salvador Dalí

Attempting the Impossible
René Magritte


Eye of Silence 192?
Max Ernst

Indefinite Divisibility 1944
Yves Tanguy

Among the various big European cities, Paris gradually became the center of western art up to the second world war. Following World War II New York overtook Paris as an international center of modern art, due to a group of struggling painters identified by the critics as “abstract expressionists”. (De Kooning was not satisfied with this name, protesting, “It is disastrous to name ourselves.”) Unlike the dadaists and the pop artists, the “abstract expressionists” felt themselves to be, not the deniers, but the heirs of the great European masters. When Elaine de Kooning was looking for an art dealer to represent her husband after his friend and dealer of twenty-one years, Xavier Fourcade, died, she was very precise in her demands. De Kooning’s works were not to be hung beside works of Rauchenburg, Johns or Lichtenstein, but next to Picasso, Leger and other masters. She felt that her husband was “the greatest living painter”, and that the pop artists did not meet the same standard of greatness.

Blue Poles 1952
Jackson Pollock

Golden Brown 1944
Arshile Gorky

Who's Afraid of Red, yellow and Blue? 1966
Barnett Newman

Berkeley No. 8 1954
Richard Diebenkorn

Le Gros 1961
Franz Kline

White Center 1950
Mark Rothko

North Atlantic Light 1977
Willem de Kooning

The freedom initiated by the impressionists flowered into many "schools", at times diametrically opposed to each other. The tightening and loosening of the rules of painting mentioned above concerning the two French painters Signac and Matisse can be seen forty years later in the works of the two Dutch painters, Mondrian and de Kooning:

Excavation 1950
Willem de Kooning

Broadway Boogie-woogie 1946
Piet Mondrian

Pop art is derived from dada, defined by its followers as being “anti-Art”. The beginning of the 20th century thus gave birth to two cultural groups: those who believed themselves to be the heirs of the old masters, and those who denied them. Pop art by definition is derived from not an inner, but an outer necessity: the popular icons of a given decade.

Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes
So Different, So Appealing?
Richard Hamilton

Retroactive I 196?
Robert Rauschenburg

One of the first pop artists, Robert Rauschenburg, invented the “Eraced de Kooning” and exhibited it as an intellectual prank. He quickly became world famous and an era of ”merry pranksters” continued the tradition of dada's anti-Art to the present day. (Little does it matter that de Kooning personally gave him the drawing in question, along with his permission to erace — but not exhibit — it. De Kooning later regretted his generosity.) Reminiscent of Rauschenburg's intellectual vandalism done to de Kooning’s drawing, Duchamp drew a moustache on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and these letters: L.H.O.O.Q. Pronounced in French they read: Elle a chaud au cul (“she has a hot ass”).

Thus the pose of mastery replaced the real thing. Andy Warhol became the pseudo-master of the extremely popular innovation in modern art: “piss painting.” (below) Art dealers, collectors and critics today not only covet Andy’s piss, but the piss of his followers, who were his “apprentices” (you know... like in the Renaissance), and who did the major ”work” on the famous “piss paintings”, which sell for astronomical prices. Such pranksters are booked at galleries and museums for years to come, as one tries to outdo the other in mild to outrageous pranks in the tradition of Duchamp's Fountain below.

Fountain 1917
Marcel Duchamp

Piss Pantings 1978
Andy Warhol and apprentices

Picasso called such pranks “lucubrations* that are purely mental”, and saw them as “perhaps the principle error of modern art”. (Le Siècle de Picasso, Pierre Cabanne) These mental (yet mindless) pranks, and the brief fame they generate, are the norm in art today, derived from the anti-Art movement called dada. First among the dadaists was Marcel Duchamp. With his famous Fountain Duchamp has become the patriarch of the pranksters who reign in the art world today. He is now to be found proudly listed among the ”urinal artists” on the following website: Warhol Faculty of Arts. It is an unfortunate development after tens of thousands of years of western art derived from inner necessity. The above two works reveal the state of the visual arts as they are today in the politically correct ”art world”, with a close proximity to the sewer. Beyond the concern of these ”merry pranksters” lie the problems of color and form that have occupied true painters for tens of thousands of years. The Altamira bison below displays an unpolluted spiritual intelligence and grace that tens of thousands of years of painterly evolution have hardly improved. Perhaps the millennia leading up to our atomic age indeed represent a deterioration, as our ”intelligence” presently leads us to ”piss-paintings” and self-annihilation.

While Marcel Duchamp publicly displayed contempt for the old masters, greater painters — Picasso and Matisse — held them in high esteem their entire lives. Duchamp's intent was to provoke. It was not an inner necessity that drove him, but the outer necessity of public reaction. No artist creates from a clean slate. No artist can intelligently deny that thousands of years of painterly evolution precede his every gesture. Despite the phenomenal evolution of painting since Leonardo da Vinci, no true painter can justify contempt for this master, not even Duchamp.
*studied or pretentious expressions

He who disparages the art of painting
loves neither philosophy nor nature.
- Leonardo da Vinci.

For further study see
Art History Resources on the Web

Andy Unwigged

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