Death of the Masterpiece


We speak and write about masterpieces and great works of “art,” using these terms with confidence when discussing not only Michelangelo, Rembrandt or the works of other such greats, but also when singling out the finest work of lesser artists, the one or two pieces perhaps which justly deserve to be singled out from the mediocre body of other work.

However, in approaching the 20th century, it becomes increasingly difficult to single out works of art as “masterpieces”; individual paintings or pieces of sculpture that is, which clearly rise above the other good or even first-class work and stand on their own, comparable in sheer quality to the very best that has been done in different media styles or historical periods.

It would be difficult to list ten great paintings of the 20th century. And interestingly enough, the line of speculative thought usually beings with almost rhetorical self-assurance: “Surely one would have to include one by Picasso, and also by Klee.” But then, the difficulties arise; which painting by Picasso? Guernica comes most readily to mind [see above]. But is this because of its qualitative superiority over the rest of Picasso’s ouvre or because there has grown up around this work, as with few others, a considerable critical and historical bibliography?

Guernica poses many scholarly problems. It contains overt reference to historical events of political and social significance; and, it is both a testimony against human wickedness and a lament for human suffering.  As a painting using no colors except black, white and grays, it is also important art, historically. But is Guernica really aesthetically superior to other works by Picasso if we are careful not to confound the intellectual aspects of significance with that of artistic quality? Perhaps indeed it is a great painting, and supporting that case would quite correctly appear all of the arguments concerning intellectual or scholarly significance. At any rate, they should never be allowed to detract from its aesthetic quality. Even if we accept Guernica, there are nine other blanks to fill-in, and the going gets tougher very quickly.

With Klee, for instance; will some of Klee’s thousands of paintings live longer than others—that is exist with an undiminished or perhaps with an enhanced aesthetic intensity for people three or four hundred years from now? One might argue that Klee is a greater painter than Picasso--there are artists who will present a good case--and yet the difficulty of selecting a particular painting from all of Klee’s work is frustrating.

Of course, such list-making, despite our propensity for making up roles of honor for the record books, whether football players, best-dressed women, or Nobel laureates, is a diversion that can be forgotten as quickly as it was conceived; except, it does suggest something interesting about contemporary painting that makes it different from earlier work.

The change starts to take place, already, with the impressionists. Manet does two or three (more if you like) masterpieces: “Déjuner sur l’herbe,” “Olympia,” and “Bar aux Folies Bergere.” No matter if you add one more; it will be a specific painting. But this is not the case with Monet, where one might have to ask for a dispensation to include several canvasses of “Water Lilies,” having them count as a single work—or perhaps a painting of Rouen Cathedral or haystacks. Only one who has long meditated on Monet’s work can even call specific paintings to mind, let alone pick the superior work from among them. In fact, we suspect that this very approach would be entirely out of sympathy to Monet’s work in a way it would not be to Rembrandt’s or Manet’s. The paintings of the cathedral and of haystacks were intended as a series, just as the waterlilies constitute a single artistic project, if not a single canvas. It would be something like singling out Raphael’s fresco of the “School of Athens” from the others in the whole program of the Stanze. Except  that it is really not quite the same. The Raphael fresco stands on its own much better than does one of the Monet paintings (each viewed vis a’ vis their respective contexts). Earlier artists painted programs composed on individual paintings but in the 19th century artists began expanding individual paintings to whole programs.

There are still monumental individual works towards the end of the century. Seurat’s “Apres mide sur le Grande Tarte” and Rodin’s “Gates of Hell” as complex but integral works of art really rise above all the studies and lesser versions—wholes both greater than the sum of their respective parts. But if we wanted to name a Cézanne in the Top Ten for the 19th century, which of many, many still-lifes or views of Mt. St. Victoire could you single out with confidence from the rest? Unlike Seurat, Cézanne did not have the one great work in mind; there was no concentrated ambition to create a single great piece like Balzac’s Chef d’heure inconnu or Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray.

Cézanne apparently becomes much more concerned with the act of painting itself than with what is being painted. This goes hand in hand with the almost contemporary or abstract approach to painting, as clearly and explicitly stated by Manet, although implicit already in the writing of Kant in the 18th century. Hence Cézanne paints almost anything—whatever he sees around him. In this he follows the lead of the naturalist painter Courbet of a quarter century earlier. But Courbet still had reasons for painting non-ideal subject matter, just as content and subject matter are important aspects of Daumier. But with Cézanne, it is really only the painting that counts.

By the same token, it is possible to view Seurat as being just as engrossed in the act of painting itself, to the point of not bothering to change subject matter, a scene so incidental as to qualify for Camus’ existential “Absurd.”

In the 20th century this tendency coupled with the explicit rejection of specific subject matter (at least in the traditional sense) after the development of non-objective painting becomes dominant. Properly speaking, neither Klee no Picasso can be regarded as non-objective painters. But if we wanted to include Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko in our Top Ten, the whole problem arises. Even titles of their paintings have become mere numbers or purely descriptive and ex post facto rather than prior and prescriptive. The 20th century painter does not work on paintings in his studio, he works on his art. So it is to be expected that books appear on “The Art of Paul Klee,” etc. New standards of selection should be introduced which enable us to consider the complete oeuvre of a painter as an entity. And any Top Ten must be a list of artist’s names and not of the titles of paintings, because the concept of “masterpiece” among artists is dead.

Kurt von Meier
Circa 1962