BooksWeekend

Timothy Hyman’s Alternative View of Figurative Painting in Art History

Most of the artists in Hyman’s book, the author claims, are generally excluded from most survey courses and textbooks. Their presence here offers a sharp rebuke to the narrowing of creative possibilities and the disparagement of painting as a vehicle for the expression of modern life and consciousness.

In this time, when the world has become increasing unstable, and when truth is strangled daily, it remains for art to bear witness, not just to social consciousness, but beyond it to psychic reality, not merely to the intellect but also to the imagination. Painting can be seen as a poetic weapon for the liberation of consciousness…but how to go about it? With uncanny timing, a critically passionate and personal history of painting’s recent past has appeared.

The World New Made: Figurative Painting in the Twentieth Century is Timothy Hyman’s brilliant follow up to his essential monographs on Pierre Bonnard and Sienese Painting. Hyman sketches an anti-formalist, alternative history of modernism from his perspective as a painter, arguing for the value of modernist figuration and the importance of narrative for painting today. It is unlike any surveys written by other critics and historians who focus on a few well worn, theoretical threads of art making, the better to control contemporary history and the marketplace.

Timothy Hyman (photo by Richard Burton)

A British writer, Hyman implicitly offers a challenging perspective on American art that, on its own, would make this book a worthwhile read. What results is an expansive assertion of pictorial diversity that includes the sexual, political, psychological, literary and narrative impulses that have been previously relegated by other critics to photography, installation and performance art.

Hyman first studied art when Clement Greenberg’s formalism had a stranglehold on Modernism. “Abstraction”, Greenberg wrote, “is the major mode of expression in our time; any other mode is necessarily minor.” Greenberg’s reductive formalism exchanged pictorial space for flatness and insisted that everything that didn’t have to do with the process of painting was irrelevant and extra-pictorial or literary. Hyman writes, “Like many others of my generation, potential painters of narrative and confession, fantasy and history, I was often paralyzed by the fear that the kind of art I aspired to create was a lost cause.”

And English realism would also prove to be problematic, too often pleasing and polite. Euan Uglow initially trained Hyman in William Coldstream’s perceptual analytical process, a deeply puritanical method that values accuracy over feeling, objectification over empathy. Eventually he turned to Howard Hodgkin, who was wrestling with fundamental questions regarding depiction. Hyman recalls, “How, for instance, to represent the experience of being with another person?”

Most of the artists in Hyman’s book, the author claims, are generally excluded from most survey courses and textbooks. Their presence here offers a sharp rebuke to the narrowing of creative possibilities and the disparagement of painting as a vehicle for the expression of modern life and consciousness. Hyman charts a personal constellation of men and women, whose work has both touched and quickened him on his own journey as a painter, and that of other members of his generation of English artists.

Leafing through this beautifully produced book, one may wonder how Hyman can claim any unity at all, since the work discussed is so diverse: James Ensor, Mario Sironi, Diego Rivera, Paula Moderson-Becker, Frida Kahlo, Alice Neel, Paul Rego, Charlotte Salomon, Jacob Lawrence, Benode Behari Mukherjee, Henry Darger, Pierre Bonnard, Chaim Soutine, Francis Bacon, Stanley Spencer, William Kentridge, Alex Katz, Leon Golub, and Ron Kitaj.

Hyman’s answer is that each of these artists is “resistant” to the legacy of 19th century academic naturalism and it’s numbing external vision of materialism. They all possess a need to transfigure their pictorial language, to claim a personal subjective experience of the world.  A world, Hyman asserts, often conditioned by an awareness of the universal Void and what I would call the loss of innocence about realism as self evident truth.

In its place, the re-invention of representation entails the investigation of systems of signs and forms, that reflect more complex relations to aspects of high and low traditions in both Western and non-Western art. This is the post-abstract consciousness that hurls each artist out into the uncharted space of hyper-subjectivity, away from a common, normative visual syntax.

Stepping past the titanic presences of Matisse and Picasso without entirely avoiding their long cast shadows, Hyman positions Henri Rousseau as a key catalyst, pointing the way to a childlike wonder evident in the pictorial inventions of artists like Marc Chagall, Carlo Carrà, Max Beckmann, early Balthus, Philip Guston, and Bhupen Khakhar. Several large and nebulous divisions attempt to group fifty-four men and women as expressionists, classicists, new realists, visionaries and outsiders. Still, this is not so much an “objective” survey as a personal examination of specific works from the vastness of twentieth century achievements that Hyman believes can serve as a foundation for twenty-first century painters.

In this, Hyman is something of an ideologue; he argues for complex pictures —pictorial worlds, really — that can convey our immersion in the reveries and ambiguities of everyday experience, in opposition to mere images of skill and good taste. He is especially interested in what he calls “first-person painting”, by which he means the exploration of the self, the personal confession, a self, fragmented or whole, narcissistic or selfless, and its possible transcendence or submergence through objectivity.

Underlying all this is an enthusiasm for Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of the carnivalesque, the comic–grotesque traditions of caricature and expressionism as an essential enlivening agency for work that would resist any and all artistic norms: not only formalism and its many spin-offs, but also Pop’s corporate spirit, and the equally “cool”, perceptual, photo, and idealist realisms that have flourished in America, Europe and the UK from the mid-sixties on. Thus Hyman’s book implicitly advocates for a Romantic individualism against all “isms”; and this is what makes him invaluable to young artists trying to discover themselves in relation to their experience of the present and against the conformist forces of the art market and academe.

It was both surprising and refreshing to read about Hyman’s nuanced ambivalence about an iconic work like Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” (1942). Hopper is compared rather unfavorably to his contemporary George Bellows, “a magnificent, generous talent, fuelled by political conviction…the dour, hard bitten Republican Edward Hopper was Bellows’ opposite.” (Curiously, a work by Bellows isn’t discussed.)

Focusing on the “Nighthawks” Hyman writes:

Hopper’s realism has something of the neutrality of the lens, eliminating not only the mark of the painter’s hand but our sense of any process by which the image has come into being. In “Nighthawks” the space is clamped into a simple perspectival scheme, a kind of no-nonsense normalization of vision (…) Yet “Nighthawks” is so intensely realized as to transcend its apparently banal representation, to create a strange, unforgettable icon, with its own new resonance (…) The conflict between mere naturalism and The Real was always on his mind. Whether or not he was aware of Carrà or Sironi (…) that is the company in which I would place him.

Indeed, the best Hopper’s always seem to wed the mystery of Metaphysical painting to a perceptual experience, where Hopper expresses alienation by his use of light. For me the accurate parallel is with de Chirico, an artist not discussed. I also disagree with Hyman’s remarks on Hopper’s hand, which is often clumsy, at times even crude, and yet this can add to the affect in his best works. Perceptual naturalism does not preclude empathetic expression.

This book has many short and often pellucid entries on specific works and in the longer entries, Hyman allows himself to expand on “how an artist organizes reality”, not without criticism, as he does with Max Beckmann, Stanley Spencer, early Balthus, Ron Kitaj, Ken Kiff, and especially Bhupen Khakhar and Indian Experience. Hyman writes a fluid, jargon-free prose that is infused with his emotional engagement with his artists. Like the best critics, his writing is a form of teaching, both generous and exacting. One can turn to the book’s notes and find a wealth of useful commentary on Hyman’s sources and his recommendations for further reading.

The book produces a certain tension in the reader, between reading the book through and dipping into the artists one is most interested in. I did both and the latter proved to be a mistake as each chapter points away from the specific towards the larger re-appraisal that Hyman sets out as his foundation: the future of figurative art. His prescription focuses on many key and urgent issues which may or may not fully fit the reader’s. Yet his aim throughout is to champion the marginalized artists who stand apart from what has been the mainstream culture and often with a Saturnine imagination have fashioned a poetry of transcendence out of despair. The example Hyman makes in forming his own trajectory through the recent past is a fine model for every artist who has the self awareness to want to find their own kindred spirits. The World New Made deserves to be read and re-read.

Timothy Hyman’s The World New Made: Figurative Painting in the Twentieth Century (2016) is published by Thames & Hudson and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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