It is sometimes easy to forget that during most of the 20th century, there was always one guy in the room, one guy in the back of everyone's mind, that in the night sky every star in every constellation was outshone by that big round smiling moon! And every artist for almost a hundred years felt mooned by that greatest of French artists, who of course was actually Spanish! In that way that the biggest loser of every NFL season is the Superbowl runner-up,
we will always feel a little sorry for Braque, who really was French!
Art history, like all history, is very tidy. We get to observe every artist on a pedestal, or in a context. We get to pour over their body of work and actually forget that every time they finished a masterpiece they suffered the knowledge that the world cared more about what that guy scribbled on a napkin. Say what you like, but every big shot, every Kandinsky or Mondrian or Pollock or Bacon or Modigliani or de Kooning or Miro or Morandi or Warhol or Moore played a distant second fiddle to that guy.
The Tidiness of art history rarely tells us that you could never have Marsden Hartley in a room with Man Ray, or Duchamp, much less Franz Marc, or Diego Rivera, but you could and did. For an excellent example of the sheer mess of the art world just look at the Armory Show of 1913 that finds Duchamp with Delacroix, and Courbet with Hopper! Life clashes everyday but art history is a well hung room at the Met with all the right people in it. The truth is that every room at the Met in real life should have that tan grinning bald man standing there in his stripped shirt! Front and center!
When I was a boy in Rome I got to sit at the knee of a woman who had regularly bounced on his knee as a toddler in the Paris of the early Twentieth Century. Her father was his friend and fellow artist, the Italian Futurist Master Gino Severini, who like many painters had also made Paris his home. When he was in Rome she would take me to see him and he would tell me things like how to cast sand onto wet plaster and let the patterns which emerged speak to the composition of the painting or in my case, mural. But still, even from her, I noticed an occasional remark, albeit the tiniest aside, hints of a kind of professional jealousy. That man was always in the conversation!
I was curious what I should think as a boy. Shouldn't so many people who agreed so vehemently be right? But I will tell you, it always struck me as envy. The most articulate, rational, reasoned critique always seemed tinged. Any kind of dispute at all just made him all the more the undisputed king of the art world. And people just hated that!
My mother had a good friend who was the mistress of another prominent painter in Paris, and I swear I think the family pass-time, she had children from a previous marriage, was chanting hate for the man. I also swear that I know mature, major league art world players that when they see his work their heads snap to the side as though he wasn't there! They just hold their breath hard until they get past. That is how much pain his celebrity caused and still causes. Alliances of pain. This Mozart made a Salieri of not only every painter alive but even, maybe even especially, their loyal friends and family! All reason, all grace, all sanity just went straight out the window! This brash man just had this effect on people! He might as well have been American!
So as I enjoy the work of some or other painter, contemplate them in all their glory, I can forget for a moment; I sense the shadow is lifting and that they can breathe a little, that they can pretend for a moment, like every artist does, that they are the world's greatest painter, and sigh, and smile. A moment's peace from that man who never allowed any artist much more. Maybe the world will bury him for a few hundred years, forget him, forget his greatness, forget his influence, forget that he was at once the absolute painter's painter and painter's nightmare. That every brush stroke made belonged to him! Was his! That he was the Father of 20th Century art and that we are all his descendants. Like it or not. Maybe. Maybe we'll forget. But I don't think so.
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