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Farewell to an Idea

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review

Farewell to an Idea is a most ambitious attempt to examine the entwined fates of Modernism and Socialism when (says its author) both seem to have failed, writes Andrew Mead. American art historian T J Clark looks selectively but in depth at key art works and their context over the last 200 years, from Jacques-Louis David's Death of Marat (1793) to post-war Abstract Expressionism. His account hinges on two photographs. One from 1912, showing Picasso's Cubism, at its least decipherable, in paintings propped outside his studio in Sorgues, encapsulates 'Modernism's privacy, obscurity and autonomy'. The other, of El Lissitzky's propaganda board on a street corner in 1920, sums up Modernist ambitions to be in the vanguard of history.

There is a strong sense of Clark's personal engagement with his subject in this erudite and very well-written book; it is far from a dutiful undertaking. What gives it particular distinction is his ability to embrace the larger social and political theme and at the same time attend so scrupulously and sensitively to the painted evidence.

Much radical art in the last two centuries has 'courted indescribability', says Clark, but he proceeds to find convincing words for the most complicated effects. There are, for instance, two wonderfully attentive and discriminating long chapters on Cubism and Jackson Pollock. In the process he is highly alert to the conditions in which paintings are shown. A Pissarro in New York's Metropolitan Museum hangs in a room where natural light, falling through a partly translucent ceiling, is supplemented by tungsten and neon; only when the sun is high and unobstructed does the painting come into its own. 'On a summer day with broken cloud-cover - a typical New York summer's day - you sit there watching the picture flinch and recede and recover as the original studio light comes and goes.'

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