Romantic Modernism

Romantic art turns the volume up — classical art turns it down.

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In a typical study of Modernism, books & instructors tend to blend three important aesthetic strains ...

Romantic Modernism
Classical Modernism
Subversive Modernism

. . . creating one gargantuan octopus of "isms," "ists" and colliding theories. They render Modern Art a beast of complexity, especially at this point in the century.

In Romantic Modernism and post-Modernism, one finds beauty and the sublime (the lineage of Claude Monet, the Fauves, Mark Rothko, the color field painters and Frank Stella's wall constructions), as well as the dark side of the psyche, angst and melancholy (the lineage of Van Gogh, the early German Expressionists, Jackson Pollock, the '80s Germans, Francis Bacon and others).

Classical Modernism includes formalism of many kinds—reductivism, geometric art, hard-edge, minimal, environmental abstraction and postmodern abstraction. We include here: Cezanne, Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Agnes Martin, Ellsworth Kelly. The Subversive Moderns produce confrontational art on the subjects of victimization, the supremacy of high art (anti-art), psychology, spiritualism, politics, racism, sexism, genocide, ecology, conceptual art . . . art that subverts reality. Examples include: Marcel Duchamp, Paul Klee, Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein.

Who then, is the archetypal Romantic? It is the person who operates on feeling first, reason later: The highly imaginative, idealistic, fantastic, extravagant, impractical sponge of sensation. The long-suffering victim. The dreamer of dreams that lead entire countries into waves of idealism that nearly everyone loves and most confuse with reality. It is one side of each of us.

The Romantic is a blend of Cain, Satan, Prometheus, Rousseau's "child of nature," the gloomy egoist, the gothic villain, the noble outlaw, the melancholic, quasi-eratic rebel. It is Clint Eastwood, Walter de Maria, Frida Kahlo, Spike Lee. Martin Luther King, William Blake, Cesar Chavez and Christo. Mark Rothko, Joan of Arc, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. Romantics are phoenixes, continually reinventing themselves, lifting us with them, or slamming us into the ground. We follow them to try to understand ourselves. Wild courage and endlessly flowing creativity are not given to us in the amounts we would like, so we find them in great art. These elements in fact, carefully disciplined, make Great Art.

The late 1980s and the 1990s is a romantic period in history, swirling in the throws of upheaval and great shifts in consciousness. Two hundred years ago, the American and the French revolutions created a new kind of citizen: the free person. The free person makes art in a different way from the King's servant (Goya, Rubens, Velazquez), or the Pope's right-hand man (Michelangelo, Raphael, Bramante). We now watch the creation of the "free person" in the former USSR on television daily. The near-impossible struggle to bring idealism and reality together is the struggle of the romantic. The cliche "rules were made to be broken" was first spoken by a romantic.

The classicist conversely, does not waste time wrestling demons and breaking rules. Instead, this person seeks them out. Rational systems, to this mind, erase the horror of "not knowing." Formal religion, the patriarchal system, the far Left and far Right, the justice system, the belief in absolute right and wrong, the military and club mentalities all speak "truth" to inner voices. To romantics, they are prisons.

Some romantics try to smother inner voices by creating things or escaping into addictions. Others become crusaders, obsessed with sublimity, beauty and an abstract passion for good. Intertwined with the concept of personal freedom, the belief that the conscious mind cannot know when the transitory, internal brightness of the mind-in-creation will appear or depart underlies all of romantic activity for the last three hundred years. Susan Rothenberg, a painter working in Galisteo, described drawing as "moving my hand on the paper . . . like a Ouija board." And, Van Gogh said, "Paintings have a life of their own that derives entirely from the painter's soul." Jackson Pollock said, "The modern artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing an inner world in other words--expressing the energy, the motion and other inner forces."

Modernism Exhibit in Santa Fe

In Summer 1994, the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe mounted an exhibition bringing masterworks to the Museum. Appropriately for New Mexico, the exhibition's focus and title were Romantic Modernism, 100 Years. Much art produced in New Mexico follows the romantic tradition. At mid-century, Transcendentalism was important here, with Raymond Jonson leading it. Also, Georgia O'Keeffe caused romantic modernism to become the most popular aesthetic in New Mexico.

The subject of this exhibition was the person searching his/her soul. The paintings gave us fleeting evidence of that search. In most cases, either agitated brush work or the human visage—the map of feeling—created physical/psychic energy. This is the energy of life, its pulse, its sound. Romantic art turns the volume up; classical art turns it down. The exhibit began not with the work of Jos. Mallord William Turner, Delecroix, Manet or Cezanne, as most modern histories do. It began instead, with Claude Monet, the painters' painter.

Monet dared to make paintings of colored light. He invented mural-scale abstraction. His late works and the dynamic, beautifully abstract gestural fields predicted the entire movement of abstract expression to come fifty years later. Willem De Kooning's paintings are lyrical color symphonies indebted to Monet, as are Morris Louis' and others. Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, Wassily Kandinsky and the Fauves also stand at the beginning 20th century romanticism.

The romantic's goal—to return imagination to the world—was also the Museum's goal with this exhibition.

By Sandy Ballatore, Former Curator of Contemporary Art, Museum of Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 8

Related Pages

Enduring Inspiration article
Modernism in New Mexico article

Early American Modernists in New Mexico article

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