What most of us have in mind when we speak of post-war painting is the work of those painters whose aim is not to reproduce the outward appearances of things but to investigate the underlying significance of reality. It must not be forgotten, however, that this kind of painting already has a tradition of its own; it originated in the movements of the early 20th century which, stimulated by Cézanne, transformed the relationship between the artist and visual reality. What before had been an attitude of passive acquiescence on the part of the painter, became now a dialectical relationship; the painter asserted himself and penetrated, as he never had before, the inner life of things and images. "Expression, as I see it, does not lie in the passion lighting up a face or breaking out in a violent movement. It lies in the whole arrangement of my picture: the position of the figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, all this has its part to play." Matisse expounded these principles in a magazine article in the Grande Revue of December 1908. Over fifty years later they still hold good, they have lost nothing of their importance. And painting, all the while, has never ceased to evolve; the revolutions and counterrevolutions of art have added their lessons and precedents to these principles, and painters have constantly sought to suit their language to the conditions of the time, fully realizing that no return is possible to the outmoded standards of the past. But for all the changes that have come about in recent years, however sweeping, there is a connecting link, traceable stage by stage, between all the successive experiments of painters from the beginning of the century to the present day.
It seemed at one time that the limits had been reached: between the violent outbursts of Fauve color, heralding the first art revolution of the 20th century, and Broadway Boogie Woogie of 1942, which virtually brought the curve of Mondrian's career to a close, all possible meanings, both artistic and moral, seemed to have been wrung from reality and expressed in paints. Beyond this point it seemed impossible to go. But painting is not an escape mechanism. It has always reflected man's estate or predicament at a given time, it is bound up with human history, and is at the same time the history of the artist. If it is to remain alive, a tradition of artistic endeavor and research must necessarily evolve and renew itself; new ideas and aims supersede the old, and are themselves superseded in time. Painting can never really serve as the pretext for an academic evasion from reality, from society, from the climate of the times, even when it repudiates representation and narration. Today less than ever, with the example before us of the masters, like Matisse and Mondrian, who, in working out new solutions of their own, have shaped the taste of our century. In the great paper cut-outs made at the end of his life Matisse embodied the flowing arabesques of his paintings in a heavier, more immediately effective medium. Mondrian Broadway Boogie Woogie broke through the two-dimensional patterns of Neo-Plasticism and initiated that rhythmic repetition of image-forms which, since the war, has led to a more drastic dissolution of the old limits of form and design.
But what link remains between the achievements of the early 20th century masters and the solutions proposed by those painters who have come of age (artistically speaking) and produced their maturest work since 1945? What is the relationship, for example, between Cubism and Action Painting? Or between Fauvism and French Abstract Impressionism? The words of Matisse quoted above point to the nature of this relationship, while the common denominator of all the investigations and experiments of 20th century art may be defined in the words of Mondrian.
"All modern art is distinguished by a relatively greater freedom from the oppression of the subject. Impressionism emphasized the impression of reality more than its representation. After the impressionists, all art shows a relative negation of nature's aspects; the cubists delivered a further blow; the surrealists transformed it; the abstract artists excluded it." Freedom of expression, then, with respect to the subject, this is the common denominator of art in our time, in our century. But this does not mean that the artist has ceased to express the shifting yet permanent sum of features and factors that go to make up the human situation in all its complexity. The fallacy of superficial detractors of non-figurative art is to suppose that it signifies a more or less complete abandonment of reality; on the contrary, it probes into reality more deeply than ever before. This is as it should be. The artist cannot divorce himself from a state of society which, on the one hand, is profoundly disturbed by doubts and anxieties, but which, on the other, has achieved a great deal in the way of technical advances and social betterment. Why should painting reject new conceptions of time, space, matter and energy (and the new sensibility perforce bound up with those conceptions) when the other forms of artistic expression accept them? Already in Proust we read of the painter Elstir, that his "effort to exhibit things, not as he knew them to be, but in accordance with those optical illusions of which our first glimpse of a thing is compounded, had led him to emphasize certain laws of perspective, thus rendered peculiarly striking, for his art was the first to disclose them." And what is "le temps retrouvé" of the final volume of Proust's masterwork, but a new dimension of the mind, a new sensibility, transcending the measurable, chronological lapse of years, days and hours? It is not for nothing that we find Proust writing in 1919 of "the great, the admirable Picasso."
Here, then, is the subtly modified approach to reality with which all the painting of our century has swung into line, for, as Apollinaire said, "the plastic virtues, purity, unity and truth, hold nature vanquished underfoot." And the work produced by the younger generation of moderns even before the end of the Second World War justified the historical importance of the avantgarde movements which, before the First War or immediately after, had charted the way and raised the problems of the future. Fauvism and Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism, NeoPlasticism and Constructivism, Dada and Surrealism, and all the rest, were the successive aspects of a change taking place, but a change which, far from being clinched and accomplished, required to be made again after the explosion of rage and pain with which Picasso, in Guernica, reacted to one tragedy and gave instant warning of another. After Guernica there could be no question of reverting to the old familiar language, there was no turning back to a bygone classicism; the old "call of Italy" now goes unheard, for it is cut off forever from the realities of life. "One never paints what one sees or thinks one sees; one paints, under stress of a thousand vibrations, the shock received." Such is the affirmation, thoroughly pessimistic at bottom, of a painter like Nicolas de Staël, who never quite succeeded in overcoming the implicit contradiction between his human condition and his desire to single out a point of stable equilibrium in a flux of appearances which he felt to be too remote from reality, or too contingent on it, for him to identify the hidden thread of growth and purpose running through it.