Claudia Moscovici

The Postromantic Manifesto

Some artistic movements happen organically. The Impressionist and Fauve movements, for example, emerged naturally from the artists’ friendship and practice. The name and the aesthetic philosophy of Impressionism came almost as an afterthought, accidentally. Yet both the name and the concept stuck. An insulting word cast by an art critic about Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise became the seed that eventually gave this group of artists a recognizable image. Other artistic movements happen prescriptively. The Surrealists could not have been what they were without the philosophical structure and sometimes dogmatically narrow focus that the writer André Breton gave to their art. Today movements can come together in virtual space. The Internet connects artists from all corners of the world who would never have met, created together, seen that they share the same vision, become friends. This is how postromanticism happened. Before I met any of the artists, I had written about the aesthetic values contemporary art had lost and should attempt to recapture. I called that aesthetic “postromanticism” and posted it on the internet. Postromanticism as a movement, however, didn’t come into being until 2002, when one artist, the Mexican sculptor Leonardo Pereznieto, saw his art reflected in my words. Since then we have discovered dozens of artists who identify their art with our aesthetic vision. My book, Romanticism and Postromanticism (Lexington Books, hardcover 2007, paperback 2010) introduces some of these artists and the postromantic movement. This brief essay will describe how it originated.

A logical way to explain the nature of postromantic art is to begin with its name. Surely with a name like postromanticism, this movement has something to do with Romantic art. Yet since we put the post- in there, it must also come after Romanticism and be contemporary in some way. Postromanticism is, indeed, primarily, but not exclusively, inspired by nineteenth-century Romantic art. Postromantic painters admire the art of Bouguereau, whose sensual, palpable images of angelic women and shepherd girls were eventually displaced by the less idealized style of the Impressionists. They also find inspiration in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, which shocked Victorian society only to stand the test of time as one of the period’s most interesting artistic legacies. Postromantic sculptors identify with the art of the sculptor Rodin, who revolutionized sculpture as the expression of passion, sensuality and emotion.

When I spoke to a journalist about postromantic art to offer an introduction to one of our collective exhibits, she raised several questions that were crucial to explaining this movement. She asked me: where is the “post” in postromanticism? What makes postromantic art original? What makes this group of individual artists scattered all over the world a movement? Here I will answer these questions.

1. Romantic in Inspiration

It’s relatively easy to point to the continuity between the Romantic and Postromantic movements. Like Romantic artists, the Postromantics capture human passion, sensuality and beauty in their works. They mirror and at the same time idealize visual reality. When you look at the sculptures of Leonardo Pereznieto or Nguyen Tuan, you immediately detect the influence of Rodin. Similarly, Edson Campos’ paintings evoke the sensual purity of Maxfield Parrish and the allegorical narratives and elegance of the Pre-Raphaelites.

The postromantic artists, however, also incorporate other styles of art into their own. Which is why what renders them postromantic is not only the inspiration they find in the Romantic movement, but also the fact that like the Romantics, they privilege the expression of beauty, passion and sensuality in their art.

2. Original in Creation

The issue of originality is rather complicated. One might legitimately ask, how are these artists original when they clearly imitate styles of art that are at least two hundred years old? Moreover, haven’t modern styles of art—abstract expressionism, pop art and postmodern installations, ready-mades, pastiches—displaced the tradition of art that imitates and idealizes reality? To explain why and how postromanticism is original, let’s see first what originality means. What makes art be original? As opposed to new? As opposed to a passing fad? As opposed to something that has mere shock-value?

The whole notion that art had to be above all else original began in the nineteenth-century, with the Impressionist movement. Artists such as Manet and Monet staked the value of art on its ability to go against the norms established by the Academy and the Salons. They presented reality in an entirely new way. As the famous French novelist Emile Zola explained, Manet and the Impressionists set the new standard for what makes art be artistic: originality, which implies not mere newness of style, but a relevant and revolutionary newness. A novelty, in other words, that is important to society. After Impressionism, modern art was perceived as provoking thought rather than only stimulating pleasure or emotion. And so art became, as the critic Arthur Danto puts it, increasingly conceptual.

Modern art—the trends of cubism, abstract expressionism, pop art and postmodern art—stakes its worth on establishing this relevant newness. However, contemporary art that continues the trends that began during the early twentieth-century can no longer take it for granted that they’re being new and relevant to their society. When Duchamp placed his urinal on exhibit in New York during the early twentieth-century, he was certainly shocking, not fully serious and arguably original. But anybody who does postmodern ready-mades and installations today will need to think critically about how his or her art is original. Doing what Duchamp did eighty years ago cannot be assumed to be cutting-edge nowadays. Similarly, when Jackson Pollock splattered paint on a canvas and helped establish New York as the epicenter of international art, he was controversial and original. Now the tradition of abstraction is eighty years old. Any artist who paints in an abstract style cannot automatically present his or her work as original, fresh and modern.

I haven’t yet established the originality of postromantic art, but I have shown that its competitors haven’t either. We’re all in the same boat. In fact, it’s arguably more new and different to find inspiration in styles of art that are three hundred years old than to imitate those that are fifty years old. Modernist trends are much more common and accepted by today’s artistic establishment. Does this mean that we should abandon looking for originality in contemporary art?

Absolutely not. Art today can still be original if it puts a new twist on whatever tradition in the history of art it follows and if it shows that this twist is still interesting and relevant to the society and culture of its own times. For art is even more about the public—promotion, sales, influence, consecration—than it is about the creative process and the individual artists.

To illustrate this point, I’ll borrow an analogy from the novelist and paradox-maker, Borges. Borges once wrote a story about an author, named Pierre Menard, who tried to rewrite the novel Don Quixote in the twentieth-century. Menard reproduced Cervantes’ text word by word. Yet from a certain perspective his novel was entirely different. When you transpose fiction into a whole new context, Borges illustrates, everything changes.

Cervantes was creating a whole new lay Spanish language that was unpretentious and easy to understand for his times. Writing in the same prose several centuries later, Menard, however, sounded stale and quaint to his readers. Furthermore, the social and religious assumptions Cervantes could take for granted, Menard had to learn with great effort by reading biography, history and learning the classical languages. Last but not least, while Cervantes’ novel fit with his context and established the tradition of novel writing, Menard’s Don Quixote stuck out like a sore thumb in the context of twentieth-century literature. By then readers were used to the train of thought style and fragmentation of modern fiction. In this context, a novel like Don Quixote seemed glaringly traditional. Borges’ story shows that art is never just its content, but is in large part a product of its social context. Writing and readers, art and the public, are inextricably intertwined. Which is why one can’t bring back the past exactly as it was even if one reproduces older styles down to their smallest details.

3. Sticking Out

Much like Menard’s twentieth-century version of Don Quixote, postromantic art deliberately sticks out against the background of contemporary art, so heavily dominated by modern and especially postmodern art. But postromantic art is not reactionary. Postromantic artists realize, as Borges’ parable illustrates, that bringing back nineteenth-century Romanticism intact would be an impossible goal. We do not wish to freeze any art movement in time.  Instead, postromantic artists preserve the best of tradition—by placing emphasis upon technical skill, beauty and passion—while still keeping up with the times—by using new media, being sensitive to our contemporary public and creating new styles.

I consider artistic movements to be not only chronological, or following one another in art history and then dissipating and dying forever. Rather, art is also, at the same time, “chronotopic” (to use Bakhtin’s famous formulation): new art is constantly fertilized by various former styles and movements, which it renews for its own context. Which is why you will discover postmodern pastiche mixed with a traditional techniques in the paintings of Edson Campos and David Graux and the use of new media—acrylics and fiber optic illumination—in the Rodin-like sculptures of Leonardo Pereznieto. Not to speak of the exquisite photography of Guido Argentini, which endows modern images with the beauty, immobility, expressivity and endurance of Romantic and modernist sculpture. In this balance between old and new lies our originality. We are new in our unique and harmonious combination of modern and traditional techniques. We are relevant in providing the sophistication critics seek with the beauty, passion and accessibility that the public prefers.

4.  The Postromantic Movement

Does the fact we’re original in some ways make us a movement? More generally, what makes something be an art movement? First, a movement has to include a significant number of artists, a group. Such a group needs to be formed by artists who have a reputation on their own, as individuals. Our movement, which has just begun to form, already includes dozens of artists from several countries, including Mexico, Brazil, the United States, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Romania and Italy. And we’re growing rapidly as more artists see the appeal of postromantic art.

Second, to be a movement, a group of artists has to propose some shared techniques and a cohesive vision. The postromantic artists do have that in common implicitly. My job as a writer is to help render what they have in common more obvious by articulating an aesthetic vision.

Third, and most importantly, a movement has to move. An art movement affects the public; is discussed by art critics and the media; adapts to society; is challenged and reacted against (otherwise it becomes complacent and stale); it spreads and mutates; is imitated or followed by other artists. We’re starting to meet this much tougher standard as well. The postromantic artists have had articles written on their art all over the world. They had several collective exhibits, including at the Biennale di Firenze, the art expo in Florence, Italy, where a section of the museum was devoted to postromantic art. However, what ultimately will make this movement move is you—our public and readers—for whom we paint, sculpt, photograph and write. It’s to you that we devote postromanticism, the art of passion.

Claudia Moscovici

Postromanticism.com


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October 29, 2010 Posted by | aesthetics, art criticism, Claudia Moscovici, literature salon, literaturesalon, passion, postromanticism Claudia Moscovici, Romanticism, Romanticism and Postromanticism, The Postromantic Manifesto | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Book Review of She’s Come Undone: A Modern Bildungsroman

It’s probably no accident that the heroine of Wally Lamb’s engaging first novel, “She’s Come Undone,” is named Dolores, just like Nabokov’s young heroine, Dolores Haze, better known as Lolita. The plot lines of these novels also have some obvious similarities, since both heroines are raped by sociopathic older men posing as father figures. But whereas Nabokov’s Lolita comes undone from this experience, Lamb’s Dolores becomes a survivor after being a victim. She has a lot to overcome: the unraveling of her parents’ marriage; her difficult relationship with her mother; being raped at a young age; being ostracized by her peers at school. Dolores copes with her difficulties by rewarding herself with food, but predictably, overeating only adds to her problems. Even the man she falls in love with and eventually marries turns out to be nothing more than a narcissist in love with her adulation rather than with her. Yet by the end of the narrative, the heroine becomes stronger and more self-sufficient rather than weaker because of her troubles.

The best contemporary fiction, it seems, offers us two Aristotelian alternatives, as an escape from the humdrum of our  lives: heroes that are somehow better than us  and who can inspire us or antiheroes whose lives are so disastrous and whose problems are so heart-wrenching that they make our own lives seem downright easy by comparison. In “She’s Come Undone,” Wally Lamb magically manages to do both at once, which is not an easy task. This master of psychological fiction depicts a compelling heroine who is first defeated, only to rise above the worst life has to offer.

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

October 22, 2010 Posted by | book review, Book Review of She's Come Undone: A Modern Bildungsroman, Claudia Moscovici, fiction, literary criticism, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, psychological fiction, She's Come Undone, Wally Lamb | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Book Review of She’s Come Undone: A Modern Bildungsroman

Book Review of Wally Lamb’s I know this Much is True: The Best of Psychological Fiction

Wally Lamb’s second novel, I know this much is true, sets the bar very high for contemporary psychological fiction. Today’s readers have little patience with this genre. The best-known authors of psychological fiction, Henry James and Marcel Proust, have become relegated to the pages of literary history. Sure, we regard them as giants in the literary canon. But from that to actually having the patience to read them… Few contemporary readers take the time to appreciate all the nuances of James’ minute descriptions of gestures, gazes, hidden undercurrents and how each movement reflects the depth of human feelings and desires. Yet fewer take the time to follow all of Proust’s minute analyses of human motivations and page-long, tortuous sentences.

In his first two novels, Wally Lamb makes this now arcane genre palatable to contemporary readers. “I know this Much is True” traces the lives of two twin brothers: the narrator, Dominick Birdsey, an English teacher who has suffered through a troubled family life, an abusive stepfather, a failing marriage, a pathological relationship with his younger girlfriend (and her lover), and, above all, the burden and duty of taking care of Thomas, his fraternal twin who develops paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 19.

This novel is a psychological tour-de-force, both in its vivid characterizations (even Dominick’s sleazy friend and foil, Leo, is completely believable) and in its detailed descriptions of mental illness and how it affects both the individual who suffers from it and those who care about him. To describe mental illness in a way mainstream readers have the patience to read is no easy task.  Lamb does a masterful job of giving us a multidimensional picture of paranoid schizophrenia both from within Thomas’ deteriorating mental state and from without. He describes not also Thomas’s suffering but also Dominick’s struggles to save him from the illness that overtakes his life and protect him from the reactions of others. By showing us a before and after schizophrenia picture of Thomas, we can relate to him as a human being and follow the painful challenges he and his family face in dealing with his mental illness. Finally, Lamb’s style–accessible yet sophisticated–renders the lost genre of “psychological fiction” what it really should be: mainstream literature of the highest caliber.

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

October 13, 2010 Posted by | book review, Book Review of Wally Lamb's I know this Much is True, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, fiction, I know this much is true, literary criticism, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, mainstream fiction, psychological fiction, salon, Wally Lamb | , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Book Review of Wally Lamb’s I know this Much is True: The Best of Psychological Fiction