Modern Masters
Chagall, Léger, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso
May 2011

The great masters of the Modern Movement (which in fact began its life over a century ago, with the sensational appearance of the Fauves in the Paris Salon d’Automne in 1905) retain their allure for a variety of reasons. One of the most important is that they seem to deserve the adjective ’modern’ in two different senses. They are modernist in a generically historical sense yet still seem very much of our own later time.


This is not surprising, if we consider that two of their basic aims were, first, to clarify appearances, often reducing these to their most basic forms; and secondly, to communicate emotional states through both form and color a painting or drawing by one of the great experimental masters of the high modernist epoch nearly always has immediate appeal. We encounter it, and it at once begins to communicate what it has to say. At the same time, however, these are not superficial artists. Everything they did shows how determined they were to break down and remake visual conventions. We respond instinctively to the exuberant energy of their work.

There are a number of things that are fascinating about these modernist masters, which are perhaps not always sufficiently considered by art historians. The first, and perhaps the most important, is that they matured as artists in an age when culture was drastically broadening its boundaries. The influence exercised by African tribal art over Picasso, and other painters of his generation, is of course widely understood. What is not perhaps so fully understood was that this represented a new phase in an enlargement of European sensibility and European knowledge that had been going on since Commodore Perry forced open the ports of Japan in 1854. The leading modernists understood that culture was becoming increasingly plural, and that the idea that some things were essentially ‘exotic’, external to the European sensibility, was being replaced by a situation where the range of choices, and therefore of artistic opportunities, was much wider. They had the strength of character to make those choices, to launch themselves into new ways of thinking about art.

Paris, in particular, became the centre for an international community of artists. Some of them were French, but the city also offered its hospitality to artists from an increasingly wide range of other nationalities. Some, like Marc Chagall, came from communities that had never produced artists of international note before. The result was a mixture between a stewpot and a laboratory. A stewpot, because all kinds of cultural traditions were blended together. A laboratory, because this was where artistic ideas were continually tested to their limits. Nothing like this artistic community had ever existed previously, not even in Rome, during the 17th century, when artists from northern Europe flocked to Italy, to complete their technical and intellectual education. Nothing like it has existed since, not even in New York, during and immediately after World War II.

The School of Paris, as it came to be called, was a community where a myriad apparently contradictory ideas were given free play. Some of these ideas were linked to the rapid evolution of technology. Technology, was identified with the idea of material progress. It was also linked to the notion of threat. Many of the leading modernists, among them Fernand Léger, had very direct experience of both the bright and the dark faces of technology through service in the armies of World War I. The war killed millions, among their ranks a number of highly gifted artists, such as Franz Marc and Umberto Boccioni, who might have gone on to much greater things had their lives been spared. It also vastly accelerated the pace of technological development.

Fascination with technology, paradoxically, went hand in hand with a search for a special kind of innocence – visual innocence, where the artist tried to see the world surrounding him as if encountering it for the very first time. Picasso’s famous aphorism, “I do not seek, I find,” neatly summarizes this aspect of the modernist sensibility.

Essentially this attitude has its roots in the thinking of the French 18th century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who thought that the bad habits of humankind were the product of civilization. The great modernists, perhaps most of all Picasso, but also, in a totally different way, Matisse, made as much effort to unlearn as they did to learn. To make a successful work of art was to cast aside a carapace of received ideas, not only about how the world looked, but also about how humankind operated within that world.

This is certainly one reason for the enduring appeal of their work. What they created is open – it allows us to enter immediately into the artist’s own thoughts and feelings. There is no sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’ – we begin our conversation with what they made without any feeling that we are stepping over a sacred threshold. This is particularly true of the exquisite portrait of a young girl by Modigliani presented here. Painted late in Modigliani’s career, not long before his death from tubercular meningitis, it shows penetrating empathy with his subject. In this case, we enter not only into the artist’s world, but also into that of his subject. The elegant stylization of her body contrasts with her face, which seems to express, not just one emotion or state of being, but several conflicting ones – nervousness (betrayed also by the way she tugs at her long hair), but also self-contained contemplation, an air of female mystery that makes her a true successor of the Mona Lisa. We sense Modigliani’s determination to reach her inner core, her fear of this, and his ultimate failure to do so. The radical simplicity and directness of Modigliani’s technique enhance the effect made by the painting.

Simplicity is indeed one of the key words to keep in mind when considering this still crucial period in the development of the western artistic tradition. The Modern Movement was once celebrated – and also reviled – for its commitment to avant-gardism. One remembers the retort made by the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, when the then-young French poet Jean Cocteau was pestering him to be allowed into the inner circle of the all-conquering Ballets Russes. “Jean,” he said, “astonish me!” And, sure enough, the great first generation of modernists astonished their original audience by a radical departure from the conventions of art, as that audience understood them. It was often, as we know, enraged by the challenge the new art offered to long-established ideas.

Now, when be look back, often for nearly a century, we are no longer alienated. What astonishes us is how alive these paintings and drawings – sculptures too – still remain, despite the passage of time. They teach us how to look, which is something that later avant-garde art movements have seemingly forgotten how to do. By this act of looking, we connect more fully with the world around us, and enhance our own lives.

Edward Lucie-Smith was born in 1933 in Kingston, Jamaica and moved to Britain in 1946.  He was educated at King's School, Canterbury and Merton College, Oxford, where he read History.  He is an internationally known art critic and historian who is also a published poet, an anthologist and a practicing photographer.  He has written more than sixty books about art, including Lives of the Great Modern Artists, Visual Arts in the 20th Century, Sexuality in Western Art, and Movements in Art since 1945.  Lucie-Smith’s now classic Lives of the Great Modern Artists, first printed in 1999, was recently republished.