“An exclusively modern discovery, born only when art began to contemplate itself from a historical view.” - Italian writer and critic, Massimo Bontempelli, on the avant-garde.
The term avant-garde is usually used to describe artists since the mid nineteenth century who have considered themselves as ahead of their time. Originally a French military term, today it is generally associated with the artists and writers who were the “vanguard” of artistic movements and ideas as well as instigators for political change. Aside from the Futurists, avant-garde artists were associated with leftist politics such as communism, nihilism and anarchism. Tracing history one can see that avant-garde movements always arose out of political turmoil and a need for societal change.
Today it is generally accepted by art historians that the artistic avant-garde began with Gustave Courbet, born in Ornans, France in 1819. Courbet lived a life that set a standard for all future generations of artists. The artist, with behavior set by Courbet, would come to be known as a bohemian, a radical, a questioner of society, a mad genius. The unorthodox behavior of the artists would become tolerated and even expected as it was considered part of their genius. Courbet was part of the Parisian bohemian life in the mid nineteenth century and associated with many of his contemporary writers and artists. He was good friends with anarchist and philosopher Pierre Joseph Proudhon. He became involved in French politics and was part of the short lived Paris Commune government arts committee in1871. When the Commune collapsed Courbet was imprisoned and eventually voluntarily exiled to Switzerland.
What is important about Courbet is his rejection of the previous academic artistic movements such as Romanticism. When the Paris Salon turned down his painting for display at the Exposition Universalle, due to his bitter relationship with the superintendent of fine arts, Courbet audaciously exhibited his own work by himself nearby. He displayed The Painter’s Studio, at his own exhibition called the ‘Pavillon du Réalisme’ which competed with the government sponsored exhibition in which he also had paintings shown. This pivotal defiant act was the break in the art world that created the avant-garde. No longer was it necessary for the artist to blindly conform to what the Paris Academie des Beaux-Arts dictated good art was. It was at this point that the artists started to decide what constituted good art and began to refuse dictation from others. Courbet set a precedent that split the art world in two – the established academic French Salon and the avant-garde.
In the second half of the nineteenth century other artists immediately picked up on the trend set by Courbet of deciding for themselves what art should be despite what the Salon proclaimed. For instance, Édouard Manet’s, Déjeuner sur l’herbe, of 1863 was considered an outrage in the Paris art world. The manner in which he presented an unidealized nude female who looked directly at the viewer was unprecedented. Manet, in turn, had an influence on the Impressionists, who held their own exhibits separate from the Salon. They had their own ideas on what they wanted their paintings to convey and it was not what the Salon decreed. This line would continue on with Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, the Expressionists and so on.
Another group that formed in the later nineteenth century was the Symbolists. Symbolism was originally a literary movement associated with poets Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine and Stephan Mallarmé who reacted against accepted poetic conventions of the time. They also upheld the idea that artists and writers should be eccentric and act out irrationally in public and private life as it was part of their “genius.” Rimbaud perhaps has the best known quote on the subject, “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses.” There developed a belief that this unorthodox behavior and a “derangement of the senses” which would come to be done through alcohol and absinth, especially in the last decade of the nineteenth century, were conducive to creativity.
The ideas of the Symbolist poets soon reached into the art world. Symbolist painters did show at the Salon on occasion but were often rejected and some exhibited their works with the Impressionists. Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau are two of the best known Symbolist painters. They wanted to express ideas symbolically in paintings and thought that any image depicted in a painting should not be seen at face value but as something that was representative of an idea. The Symbolists wrote manifestoes on their beliefs; they were unhappy with the materialism of society and believed that they could change things through art and writing. They had an interest in occultism and brought in a new spiritual aspect to art that did not simply focus around the Catholic Church. Spirituality would later play a significant role with the Abstract Expressionists.
It should be said that the Symbolist painters seemingly did less for the avant-garde movement than the Symbolist poets who opened the door, if only a crack, to a second break in the art world. Their emphasis on acting out and especially the antics of Rimbaud and Verlaine likely led to the artist acting out as part of his work and not just as part of the creative process. The Futurists would be the first group to truly incorporate this into a form of art.
1 Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerald,(Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968) 14.
2 Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu, Courbet in Perspective, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentics Hall Inc., 1977) 6.
3 Georges Boudaille, Gustave Courbet: Painter in Protest, (Greenwich: New York Graphic Society Ltd. 1969) 31.
4 Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu, Courbet in Perspective, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentics Hall Inc., 1977) 21.
5 Linda Nochlin, Courbet, (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2007) 184.
7 Wallace Fowlie, trans., ed., Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters, A Bilingual Edition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966) 377.
8 Edward Lucie-Smith, Symbolist Art, (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1972) 74.
9 Ibid., 59.
10 Rose-Carol Washton Long, “Occultism, Anarchism, and Abstraction: Kandinsky's Art of the Future,” Art Journal, Vol. 46, No. 1, (Spring, 1987), pp. 38. http://www.jstor.org/stable/776841 (accessed December 12, 2008).