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Andrew Browne: Spill

30 Jun 2018
Tolarno Galleries 7 Jun - 7 Jul 2018

In the final chapter of his 1931 book, An Account of French Painting, Clive Bell attempts to explain what he calls 19th century French painting's (i.e., modernism's) 'momentous lapse in taste'. Of course, he meant a lapse from the perspective of those trained in the 19th century Academy's tradition of taste, and all the standards of painting it sought to uphold. For Bell's generation, on the contrary, the late 19th century was seen as a new beginning for painting: whereas previous generations had followed tradition and imitated the masters of the Academy, Bell said, modernists sought an original genius, to break from institutional embeddedness, to present a pastiche of all that was on offer; a new synthesis of any style, genre and technique, symbolised by that eclectic tableau, The Luncheon on the Grass, by Édouard Manet, famously rejected by the jury of the 1863 Paris Salon.

But if the 19th century produced modern masters, Bell argued it also produced more bad art than any other century. For by imitating the masters of the Academy, an otherwise peripheral painter was at least capable of being acceptable. Only when the work of an original genius, having confused all the examples of the old masters, comes impure before the public is it recognised for what it is—something profoundly disquieting.

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