One day in 1823, on a football pitch in the north of England, a player picked up the ball and, with exquisite indifference to the rules of the game, he started to run with it: he had invented rugby. It is commonly held that around 1860 some artists invented modern art, rejecting all the rules and breaking the chains of tradition, such as perspective, which made up the commonly accepted and understood artistic language. But that is not how it went: Degas, Van Gogh, Rodin, Gauguin and Picasso did not restrict themselves to dodging the rules of the game, but, just like the inventor of rugby, they decided to seize the possibilities that lay hidden in traditional art to create a new game with a new system of rules. In this essay, brilliantly written and with a richness and depth of analysis second to none, Kirk Varnedoe offers us an overview of the birth and development of modern art, from what is an original and, in many respects, revolutionary perspective.
According to the American scholar it is simplistic to attribute the new pictorial dimension adopted by Degas and Van Gogh to the influence of photography and the flat perspective of Japanese prints. And it is equally reductive to interpret the primitivism of Gauguin and Picasso as romantic yearning for exotic representations of distant lands. On the contrary, its innovative force comes from the free exchange of forms in juxtaposition which, removed from their original contexts, give rise to new ensembles of meanings. The analysis of fragmentation and serialization in Rodin’s sculptures is a key stage in shedding light on how the development of abstract art is not concerned purely with form. The sudden spread of the aerial point of view in the painting of the belle époque period and in the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s is one of the instruments Varnedoe gives us to understand not only how dialectical the relationship between art history and the history of ideas is, but even what it is that links Degas’ ballerinas to Pollock’s Abstract Expressionism and the minimalist trends that followed.