Manual About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96

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Among exponents of photo-based art, going back to Hartfield sic , they come second only to Warhol. Among English artists, they are the successors to the line of visionary painters that runs from Fuseli to Blake and Palmer to Watts to Spencer and Bacon and Morley. In such passages — fortunately rare, yet in this case included by the author in his collection About Modern Art — Sylvester adopts a mandarin tone, in the smooth delivery of an assured opinion.

Yet the Sylvester who was the despair of editors, passing deadlines as he anxiously reworked articles and books, was anything but assured. The judgements made in this questing, searching and self-critical spirit are correspondingly shaded and thought-through, and they arise from questions Sylvester asks himself, as opposed to pronouncements he feels called upon to make.

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Questions such as: where is Chaim Soutine on his home ground? In this mood, he worried over his evaluations, particularly where his deepest loyalties and attachments were in question, for example respecting his loss of faith in Bacon in the later s. Nothing authentically mattered to Sylvester save what he was drawn to. He neither followed consistent evaluative principles nor did he voice any.

About Modern Art: Critical Essays, 1948-96

He judged, really, by attraction and aversion, even though of course informed by knowledge and experience, and stimulated by a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. One of these early pieces of writing on tragedy seems to have been instrumental in getting him a place to study Moral Sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge — a place he did not take up.

About Modern Art by David Sylvester (Paperback, 1997)

He read the philosopher Wittgenstein at this early age, and Bertrand Russell, and, later on, A. Thus Cubism does not represent objects but a series of perceptions of an object, a system of aspects.

And for the artists wanting to create not merely a map but an image of the world, it must still, to be valid now, be about that subjective world. Evidently Sylvester, unlike Leavis, felt the need to generalise. It might at first seem, then, that his critical judgements did after all rest on more than his personal impressions, in so far as there was a theoretical basis to them. Yet the theory itself, in asserting the primacy of individual sensibility, vindicates the personal impression. Sylvester, in his early essays, construes painting as a field of uncertainty in which the viewer is enmeshed as the painter had been.

David Sylvester

A late Klee is the face of a cliff. In the former case, you move about untouched … With a Klee, the relationship between the picture and yourself is reciprocal; you touch a loose rock with your foot, it falls from under you and you are left dangling in space. Sylvester drew a little pencil diagram of them in the margin of his copy of the exhibition catalogue fig.

Like Greenberg, Sylvester was pre-eminently a critic attuned to modernism, though typically preferring to write on artists whose work lay outside of, or even defied, any technical or formal line of advance. His ventures outside the broad modernist ambit show less personal investment, carry less conviction.

About Modern Art

It interposes between the painter and his motif an autonomous structure which, instead of effacing itself, asserts itself. I let it wander, concentrating first on one thing, then on another, recognizing different things in turn and ignoring others or vaguely noticing them without bothering to identify them.


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It might come as a surprise, in view of all that has been said so far, to find Sylvester, in a New Statesman review of , disparaging the very artist in whose work he had found the prototype of this uncertain, immersive field. Writing on an exhibition of work by Wols, he finds Klee by comparison bloodless. The essay on Soutine, one of his best, fully manifests this anti-rational turn, Soutine being, as he shows, an artist who proceeds wholly though feeling, as if blindly following imperatives of which he himself has no understanding — to the extent that he comes to destroy some of his best work.

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It is at this pole, this extreme, that we may find an analogy with the gambler, as understood — from the inside — by Sylvester. Bacon is one of the two artists with whose work Sylvester has been most closely identified, the other being of course Giacometti. His remarks on Wols and the essay on Soutine are exceptions to this general rule, and the strange dismissal of Klee in the Wols article perhaps reflects a concern that he had not been able to do sufficient justice to the Dionysian in painting. Sylvester recognised this in a review of , comparing Bacon unfavourably in this respect with de Kooning.

Criticism, as he pursued it, and whatever its subject, was such a venture, in so far as, at its best, it rested on nothing but perceptual resourcefulness and a capacity for insight: as a swimmer trusts her body to the water and plunges in, or as a climber, by bodily instinct, reaches for a hold. What Sylvester gives us, at his best, is the inside story of this chancy and uncertain pursuit; the story, as Victor S.

Vuillard has grasped the entire space of the scene and everything in it as a comprehensive whole: sensation has become composition. Vuillard translates what he has seen into a painting; Sickert sees like a draughtsman, and then builds a painting round his drawing. There is the same dissociation between his eye and his handling of paint. Edouard Vuillard , The Laden Table, Blog at WordPress.


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Walter Sickert , Ennui, … Sickert , however un-English he was in his habit of looking straight at the visual facts and in his easy mastery of picture-making problems, was thoroughly English in his lack of single-mindedness.