“Too bad! What? Isn’t he going – back?” Yes, but you understand him badly when you complain. He is going back like anybody who wants to attempt a big jump.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Saul Nelson–

Nietzsche’s maxim, written at the start of the modern period, encapsulates a great many of the temporal contradictions that would come to define modernist art: not only the push towards the future but also, crucially, the Orphic glance back over the shoulder; not only the leap but also the doubt, the hesitation, the shiver of regret that comes before. Artists made a great deal out of this shiver. Regret for a lost past could shift into visions of a different future. Excavation and innovation could be two sides of the same coin.

I found myself thinking of Nietzsche last month – about the physicality of his metaphor, its emphasis on embodied activity – while looking at Willem de Kooning’s Excavation (1950) at the Art Institute in Chicago. Has there ever been a painting that is so much about the labour of breaking with the past – about the physical difficulty of tearing yourself away? The creams and greys, slopped on in a thick encaustic goop, pull apart to show the teeth and gums of a figurative tradition de Kooning never quite abandoned. These glimpsed body parts are stretched like the surface itself, subjected to a kind of pressure that buckles line and bends form. It is a large painting, de Kooning’s largest to date by that point – two and a half meters across – but by no means huge by the standards of high modernism. It is dwarfed by Matisse’s Bathers by a River (1909-17), another treasure of the Art Institute. Excavation’s size balances expansion and compression. Clement Greenberg was certainly right when he wrote that de Kooning’s ‘shading of every plane’ sucked viewers into a pictorial space that was ‘Late Cubist’ in its emphasis on firmness, contour, and surface pressure – but that simultaneously was ‘haunted… by the disembodied contours of Michelangelo’s, Ingres’s and even Rubens’ nudes’.[1] The results of modernist design, in de Kooning’s hands, are something like the movement of tectonic plates, grinding slowly together, twisting the surface, throwing up the past as crushed and molten debris as they go.

Bathers by a River, Henri Matisse, 1917.

How novel was this? Painters have always reused canvases, have always layered new compositions over unsuccessful old ones. Weeks rarely seem to pass by without x-radiography or infra-red imaging turning up a new pentimento hidden beneath some masterpiece or other. The use of one such discovery to attribute Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (c.1499-1510) is only the most notorious recent example. The reworked thumb of the Saviour’s right hand was used to argue that the painting was an original, not a copy (as had previously been thought). What is distinctive – and characteristically modernist – about Excavation, however, is the way it makes the fragments of older compositions and earlier styles into the subject matter of the picture itself. To really look at de Kooning’s painting is to look through its custard-like surface, to piece together the remnants of the painting’s own past. Rosalind Krauss compared the process to looking through gaps in the plywood hoarding round a building site. We might call it ‘stratigraphic viewing.’

De Kooning was far from alone in making paintings susceptible to this kind of diachrony. It is everywhere in, once you start looking for it. Certainly, as I drifted through the Art Institute last month, it came to seem to me that it is rare for a major work of modernism (I mean major for the artist, in the sense of marking a gear-shift in their mode of painting) not to give a positive, determining force to the ghostly traces of older compositions. Bathers by a River is definitive in this regard. Matisse finished it in 1917 by painting over an existing image begun in 1909 and resumed (then left again) in 1913. The painting has been extensively x-rayed. Earlier states show a more hedonistic vision, with the rightmost woman bending to towel herself off and the woman at the rear grasping her knee in a posture of relaxation. These details of vitality have vanished from the current version. It is supposed to be Matisse’s response to cubism, but its chilling, blank-faced women also have much to do with the depersonalised slaughter unfolding on the Western Front at the same time as Matisse picked up his brushes. I have always thought the greyish hue he gives to his women’s skin has more of the corpse to it than the statue (as Alfred Barr once wrote).

But what struck me most, as I looked at the painting in Chicago, were those parts where the colours of the former work – of Collioure and the Riviera and Provencal mirth – come poking, with whatever hesitation, through the wartime overlay. A glimpse of blue, the blue of sky, or of a Blue Nude, drifts through a buttock; grass-green peeps over a shoulder. Dead flesh turns warm. There is a suspicion of sunburn. None of this does much to disrupt the painting’s overall effect of ghostly, massive stillness. Death is still the major note. But the painting shows this deathliness emerging out of the imagery of bourgeois hedonism that had been, for Matisse and the society he painted out of, a lodestar.   

River Bathers, Grace Hartigan, 1953.

Overpainting is a kind of temporal hesitancy for de Kooning and Matisse, a way of situating a single work in multiple traditions at once. Their great paintings are at once very new and very old. When modernists later in the last century started to theorise their own tradition – when they began to refer to themselves as modernists – they were often drawn to this temporal hesitancy. In 1953 Grace Hartigan made a painting after Bathers by a River called River Bathers that is crammed with pentimenti. F.N. Souza made Black Paintings from cheap Woolworths gloss paint that cracks and peels to show the bright marks of older canvases. These traces glow like little fires beneath each composition, echoing his apocalyptic subject matter. With each fresh layer of paint, the temporal complexity of the modernist artwork became more pronounced. Going back, yes. But it is only with hindsight that the great leaps achieved by such a process become visible.

[1] Clement Greenberg, ‘“American-Type” Painting’ in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), p.213.

Saul Nelson is Junior Research Fellow in the History of Art at Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge.

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