I spent an afternoon in the Pompidou Centre, viewing their permanent collection of modern art. It’s a magnificent collection, well worth seeing, with works by some of my favourite artists, including Picasso, Chagall, Kandinsky, Lichtenstein, Goncharova and Larianov. Having all of these works in one place gave me the chance to see if I could figure out what it was that separated the masters from the weekend painters. Why were some seemingly simple pictures in the art gallery and others at car boot sales? Aside from the obvious aspects of reputation and acclaim, could one spot the difference in the work itself?
I looked at the works carefully and came to a conclusion of my own. What seemed apparent to me is that the works of the great artists, however simple the subject matter or how abstract the painting, had this one thing in common. All exhibited a certain confidence in the brush strokes and placement of lines. Things were applied to the canvas with decisiveness and certainty. There was no apparent doubt or prevarication about the exact position of single strokes. The artists had painted with confidence, assurance and a sense of knowing what they were about.
This was most striking in the Picasso abstracts. In those paintings, there are very few lines indeed, yet each one is painted in a single action and placed exactly where the artist wanted it to be. Similarly with Chagall, whose strength of technique was a total surprise to me, there is no evidence of indecisive playing around with the paint or of finding where the lines and strokes should go. They appear to be simply placed where they are supposed to be, once and for all.
What you will struggle to find is any hint that a line has been placed, and then moved. Either their technique is so good that the mistakes are so well covered they become undetectable, or they really didn’t hunt for the form and line. My money is on the latter. Even with blends, they were placed deliberately, with a minimum of brush strokes, designed to preserve the brush marks, not a wishy-washy diffuse cloud of a thing. Colour contrasts were established with authority and certainty. There is no evidence of accidental muddying. When two contrasting colours adjoin, the transition is painted with deliberate design.
It appears to me that the masters share this characteristic. They have so conquered their doubts and fears, along with their technique, that they are able to place the paint on the canvas in the manner of taking dictation. It appears not to be an experimental lab. They paint with supreme, self-assured confidence of stroke and line. Every brush stroke and line is painted once and only once, in a single, fluid motion. In this, the masters share the same assurance of draughtsmanship as Raoul Dufy, for example. Dufy places areas of colour on the canvas, in a definite balance of colours and then paints (or rather sketches) the figures and features of the painting in deft, dancing strokes, executed flawlessly and with poetry.
I think this confidence and self-assurance extends to the curating of great museum collections too. Having viewed three significant permanent collections of modern art in the space of two days, the thing that binds these collections under one theme is the confidence with which works are collocated and chosen. I have to say, with regret, that we have nothing comparable in Britain. What works there are, representing nineteenth and twentieth century modern painting, are scattered haphazardly amongst canvases from other eras. Even in the Tate Modern (and this is especially true of the Tate St Ives and Turner in Margate), there is no permanent collection to speak of, or more correctly, what there is turns out to be a potpourri of remnants that more important collections had already passed over. There are few pieces of genuine gravitas and significance in the British collections of modern art (meaning painting), at least when compared to the national treasures of the French. You have to wonder how this came to be.
I believe that in Britain, we shunned our modern and post-modern painters. There must have been practitioners, but we barely know their names. We have no practitioners of modern painting that get anything like the sort of recognition afforded to contemporary artists in France (except, perhaps Hockney). I think the roots of the difference in attitude date back to the humiliation of the Salon, once the bastion of classical painting rectitude, at the hands of the Impressionists.
After many decades, it became clear that the public had a clear preference and deep appreciation and affection for Impressionist works. Thus, the Salon and its defenders became a laughing stock. Not so in Britain. It is still possible to hold contemporary painters to the aesthetic standards of Turner and Constable and thus find their works risible. Britain still holds that British abstract painters of the last two centuries are not real artists, compared to the seventeenth and eighteenth century greats. This, of course, starves braver artists and prevents them from being experimental and pioneering. Any effort to attempt to be so is met with derision or savage criticism. No wonder they give up. And so we confine the works of these British modern artists to the side lines, forgotten and underappreciated. That’s why our modern art collections are so patchy, in my opinion. We didn’t even have the wit to buy up Impressionist paintings when they were cheap. One of the better collections, in Cardiff, was given to the nation only because two obsessive ladies bothered to collect these works, when they could be obtained at reasonable cost.
It also has to be recognised that France and America were more welcoming of refugees, embracing painters fleeing persecution from war torn areas. Consequently, these artists thrived in their new homes and produced some of their finest works in these countries. Britain was not quite as open to starving artists. These days, an artist seeking asylum as a refugee in Britain would be demonised as an illegal immigrant, taking our jobs, whether or not they were a genuine asylum seeker fleeing death, torture and persecution and irrespective of how brilliant or promising they were.
How short sighted that attitude is, yet the media and our less reputable politicians are happy to constantly sound this dog whistle, to get the predictable Pavlovian response, in order to divert attention from their own real failings and shortcomings. Let’s not talk about zero wage growth and record levels of personal indebtedness, when we can turn artists away at the border, protecting the crumbs that the rest of us divide up between ourselves. Indeed, there would be revolution tomorrow, if we didn’t fear the withdrawal of the crumbs we are permitted to retain.
I wonder which nations, today, will embrace and protect the persecuted artists that seek asylum, who are our contemporaries. Which nations will take them in and allow their art to thrive? Which nations will permit artists to live as artists and survive, well above the bread line, so that they can practice their art and become confident in their lines and strokes? Will our nation even support its indigenous artists to a standard that allows them to continue to practice and improve? It seems doubtful, to me. There is little evidence of it.
All I know is that the proof of our collective attitudes toward contemporary artists will be written indelibly in the permanent collections of national art museums of the future, just as our past attitudes to artists of a former age is permanently burnt into the modern art collections in our museums today.
That’s why you have to visit France to see decent collections of modern art.