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 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