Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 1, 2017
Charles Palermo Modernism and Authority: Picasso and His Milieu around 1900 Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015. 384 pp.; 16 color ills.; 17 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780520282469)
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“Look at the Christs of Gauguin,” Émile Bernard once complained in an 1891 letter to Émile Schuffenecker, “they are human, they are of this world. Christ absolutely did not cry silly tears on beautiful, veiny hands. All that is Gauguin, which is to say self-worship, pure secularism, Renan.” For Bernard, an artist who had already returned to a devout Catholicism, a humanized image of Christ derived from the liberal theology of the day—Ernest Renan’s unmiraculous Vie de Jésus (1863) looms large—lacked both religious and artistic weight. And the one problem folded into the other. Paul Gauguin’s modernism was as much theological as artistic, and for Bernard the refusal of dogmatic truth undid any claims for artistic accomplishment. The failure was, at its core, a failure of authority.

With the sole exception of Debora Silverman’s Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000) (click here for review), art-historical writing has consistently failed to recognize the full significance of Bernard’s critique. Yet, as Charles Palermo convincingly demonstrates in his fascinating and stimulating book—one that builds on Silverman’s precedent—a vast swathe of French critics, writers, and artists in the 1890s and early 1900s circled round and round this very problem of theological and artistic authority, of the “relation between modernity’s refusal of extrinsic, received authority [the church] and modernist art’s search for a way to reestablish for itself a new authority” (27).

As the title suggests, Modernism and Authority: Picasso and His Milieu around 1900 is not just a book about authority. Nor is it just a book about Pablo Picasso. Gauguin and other members of the Symbolist generation like Paul Verlaine, Eugène Carrière, and Charles Morice make important appearances, as do Guillaume Apollinaire, Ramón Casas, and other characters who have already stood beside Picasso. But new faces are present too: Pope Pius X, for instance; Albert Schweitzer; Julien Benda; Søren Kierkegaard; and Félix Dupanloup, the bishop of Orléans. In this respect, and others, Modernism and Authority is a highly unusual art-historical monograph with a decidedly elliptical form of argumentation. The overarching claim is, as Palermo clearly articulates from the outset, “that Picasso and a number of the artists and writers who were important to him by about 1905 were deeply engaged with the problem of authority” (1). By the end, a radically new account of the painter’s early work emerges. On the way, however, the book reroutes its argument into several interlocking case studies in the wider crisis of authority in interpretation, literature, and religion.

As historians of religion know full well, the most prominent form of “modernism” in the early twentieth century was not the artistic but the theological one. Over the course of the nineteenth century, Catholic reformers elaborated various accommodations to modernity and to the specific problem of historical revisions of the Bible. In France, the problem of living in a secular society was acute, and “modernists,” as they came to be known, presented arguments for the separation of one loyalty, one authority, from the other. Bishop Dupanloup, for example, sought precisely to make it possible to live a religious life in secular times. His students included both Renan and Gauguin. As conservatives rightly feared, however, the risk of liberal theology was not only the secularizing of Christ, but the undermining of Church authority about religious truth. If the Bible was historically flawed, if its miracles were not true, religious belief was pushed toward a quasi-pantheistic view of the personal revelation of God’s immanence. Pope Pius X sternly rebuked such modernist views in his famous encyclical letters of 1907. He insisted that to locate God exclusively in personal experience was to abandon Christianity altogether; to accept such immanence as a manifestation of God’s divinity, his external authority, was to bow to the orthodox teachings of the Church. Modernism was heresy.

As Palermo points out, this escalating theological crisis brought a wider problem of historical interpretation into perspective. “The modern search for truth in historical criticism, at the expense of the Church’s authority, sets the stage for a crisis. The Church’s assertion of authority becomes problematic. In the process, however, historical method loses its own authority. (It can establish facts for us, but not compel us)” (36). As Schweitzer and others argued, understanding the historical figure of Jesus can do nothing to compel ethical or religious beliefs. It simply separates religious authority in two. A pair of distinct challenges thus emerged: “first, establishing authority by gaining a clear relation to a truth; second, establishing authority by living the consequences of the truth” (37). Palermo calls these two issues the methodological and ethical faces of the problem of authority, ones that structure literary and artistic practice around 1900 as well as art-historical interpretation today.

The problem of the authority of interpretation, whether scriptural or art historical, returns repeatedly in Modernism and Authority. Borrowing from the work of Steven Knapp, Palermo draws a provocative parallel between the problems mounted by theological modernism and art-historical interpretation. “The Church’s authority rests on its assertions about the truth of its doctrine,” he writes. “The authority of our arguments about a work of art depends on the soundness of our methods” (23). The methodological problem for any account of a work of art is how to unite “meaning (which is a historical fact about it)” with what compels us about it, “its authority (which always derives from our relation to it in the present)” (81; emphasis in original). As Palermo shows in his initial review of the literature on Picasso’s La vie (1903), art historians have consistently, maybe inevitably, failed to bridge a reconstruction of the artist’s intentions with an account of what makes the picture compelling.

An equally prominent problem throughout Modernism and Authority is how any artwork or text might compel conviction. How, that is, given the broader historical crisis of authority under modernity, can works of art continue to establish their own authority? Rather than providing an answer, Palermo points to the consistent posing of this question in modern art. He zeroes in on a number of key literary examples, notably Apollinaire, to demonstrate this problem of artistic authority in the milieu in which Picasso moved. He also underlines key modernist devices, such as “apostrophizing,” or directly addressing the reader or beholder, that can be found in precedents like Charles Baudelaire and Édouard Manet as well as in Picasso’s early work.

All of this comes to a head in the relatively short account of Picasso’s painting between 1902 and 1905. Palermo demonstrates three characteristics in the works of the Blue Period, largely unnoted before, that mark them out and place them firmly within the wider milieu outlined in the bulk of the book. First, in pictures like Poor People on the Seashore (The Tragedy) (1903), he finds an “unwilled conformity” (140)—the bodies have been pulled into “flat” and “stiff” positions (150)—combined with an ambiguous expressivity. The combination produces a tension between a beholder’s ability to read the merely conventional signs of, say, sadness and the painting’s directly, ethically, “calling on your sympathy” (150). Second, the works of this period “make pointedly ambiguous reference to the iconography of religious painting” (150). This has long been noted, but Palermo is the first to show the full ramification of such references, pulling the pictures fully into the wider theological concerns of the day. Lastly, he shows how, quite subtly, the Blue Period paintings “apostrophize” the beholder: the feet of the three figures turned toward the picture plane, a baby’s hand addressing us. And yet they are ultimately divided by their inward-turning thematics.

The problem of authority in Picasso’s painting is thus conceived as a problem of the divided self. The people in his pictures lack their own authority, as if they have been willed into positions they cannot control, even as they seem to express a deep tenderness or sadness. This division “blocks them from authority,” but it is, according to Palermo, the “source of their ambiguous sacredness” (156). The quasi-religious iconography merely confirms such a reading, while also drawing a parallel to the historically proximate problem of Biblical interpretation. In turn, the apostrophizing of the beholder brings the problem of the divided self back to the painting, offering a “meditation on our doubled relation to works of art” (159).

In his conclusion, Palermo brings this dividedness to bear on a wider range of Picasso’s art including, briefly, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). The continued thematization of the problem of authority distinguishes these works and maintains a connection with the roiling theological debates. “This parallel,” he writes, “between the task of beholding a painting (or reading a poem, or experiencing any other art work) and the task of reading the Bible—makes the matter of authority with which I began so central to Picasso’s works” (170). Where some might find these paintings demand only a recognition of the role “you, the beholder” (177) are asked to play, Modernism and Authority compels the conviction that modernisms such as Picasso’s turn on a dividedness, a tension between meanings intended and responses produced. They show, that is, how “a work of art is always a lesson in the limits of authority” (159).

Palermo’s argument will no doubt encounter resistance, not least from Picasso scholars intent on finding either anarchist politics or the free play of the signifier at every turn. In its combination of a contextual account of the cultural problem of literary-theological authority and close, formal readings of works of art, Modernism and Authority in fact offers a highly original, if perhaps overly roundabout, way of bringing these two sides of art-historical methodology together. Not that Palermo miraculously solves the problem of this dividedness in the discipline. He is clearly aware how difficult it is to treat works of art as both inextricably bound to their circumstances of production and yet irreducible to those same circumstances. This is, as Michael Podro has argued, the very problem that defined the “critical” art histories of Aloïs Riegl, Heinrich Wölfflin, and Erwin Panofsky. The disciplinary turns of the past half century seem to have buried this problem for good, but Modernism and Authority has, among its many qualities, the exceptional virtue of so concretely resurrecting it.

Marnin Young
Associate Professor of Art History, Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University

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