A perpetually unfinished project on different criteria of success and failure.

Anne Lan, Invitation to a Voyage. Some twentieth-century painters made virtual copies of orientalist works. The French-Vietnamese artist Anne Lan’s Apollo and Daphne III closely follows fin-de-siècle models such as Cabanel and Bouguereau. The challenge for a historical text is to understand the conditions of these revisited contexts, rather than treating them as kitsch or as products of a commercial market.

Popular religious images in Mexico (like this poster), India, and elsewhere have all been studied as examples of mass visual culture. The field that encompasses them is generally called visual studies or visual culture. Such studies omit the long chain of copying that lead from pictures like this back in time to originals in the national canon, in this case Jesús Helguera’s La Leyenda de Los Volcanes, representing Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl.

John Wellington’s Sleeping Worker is derived from Poussin’s Echo and Narcissus in the Louvre. Wellington is part of a very large, committed realist movement in North American painting. It is a movement that has been largely bypassed by the critical literature, and needs to be reframed and reintroduced for its distinctive sense of history.


Success and Failure in Twentieth-Century Painting

(unfinished project, stalled, open for suggestions)

This book was a work in progress. It had been ongoing for about fifteen years, before it stalled in 2010 or 2011.

It's about painting around the world during the last century, with special attention to modernist art that is not known outside its country or region. It includes all sorts of painting, from clown painting and marine painting to high modernist abstraction. The idea was to be as inclusive as the current accounts are exclusive.

But the project was beset by all kinds of problems: the unending numbers of examples; the bewildering variety of ways in which paintings have been said to fail; art history's lack of engagement in second- and third-rate work; the absence of serious criticism of poor art (and therefore the lack of models for this book); the difficulty of avoiding kitsch and camp and taking read-guard work seriously; and the lack of aesthetic theories about normal, average, uninteresting work.

For all those reasons, the project has stalled. The chapter sketches I have uploaded here are not just rough, they're raw. I haven't tried to revise them because I don't yet have a sense of where the project might go, or what it shape it might take.

Before c. 1920, many countries had forms of international academic art, and after c. 1960, many countries began to take part in the international art market. In mid-century, much of the world was practicing forms of modernism. With a few exceptions, the only modernism that is internationally known was made in the North Atlantic: roughly the eastern United States and Canada, and western and central Europe. Outside of the major centers, modernist painting was often local, and has proven to be largely outside the interests of academic art history. In recent years much of this material has been recuperated by postcolonial and area studies, which is interested in specific socioeconomic contexts. The difficulty with that recuperation is that it needs to bypass the artists' own desire to be compared with the major North Atlantic modernists: in other words, postcolonial studies needs to avoid the question of quality and intrinsic aesthetic value.

In other periods in history, that might not be a problem: but value and quality are intrinsic to modernism, so it does not make sense to ignore them. I want to produce a fuller account that involves both socioeconomic conditions in particular non-North-Atlantic places, and also engages the importance of judgment, quality, value, and aesthetic that often drove the work in the first place. 

I have not yet figured out exactly how to do that, and the chapters uploaded here are very rough sketches, and they're only very small parts of the project.

The table of contents (posted above) lists every artist discussed in the book. For a number of years, I got emails every month or so from one of the artists, saying essentially "Why did I fail? Why am I in your book?" or, in an academic vein, "Why have you put this wonderful artist in the chapter called 'Artists who Lived Too Long'?" At one point, I was proposing this to a publisher, and we realized that when it came time to ask for copyright permissions, many artists would refuse us. We pondered the possibility of reproducing drawings of the paintings; technically, they would be mine (as original "artworks"). We also considered what might happen if we reproduced the paintings anyway; I proposed that a lawsuit on fair use might bring the book more attention.

These half-serious problems go to the heart of a very difficult issue: in the contemporary art world, there is not much serious criticism, as there is in the criticism of fiction, poetry, and theater. The kinds of negative judgments I try to understand in this MS are beyond the pale of ordinary reception, and would be perceived as irresponsible, and perhaps libelous.

That is just one of the odd problems that have beset this book.

So the project is stalled, because it intersects in unhelpful ways with other projects, including North American Art History and Worldwide Art (also on this site). Still, if you have an interest in any of these issues, and an idea of what this book might end up looking like, please let me know.

All comments and suggestions are welcome.

Wes Hempel’s (b. 1953) Fatherhood is a copy of Adolphe-William Bougeureau’s Charity (1878), with the same pose and the same five cherubs, except that the female Charity in Bouguereau’s original rests one foot on an overturned jar of coins; in Hempel’s version the man rests his left foot on a soccer ball. The language for a serious, sympathetic description of work of this kind does not yet exist: an obligation, I think, for an art history that hopes to be genuinely a history of the entire twentieth century.