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Notebook

Notebook, 1993-

APPROACHES - In The Words Of . . . .

From: Ferrier, Jean-Louis, Director and Yann le Pichon, Walter D. Glanze [English Translation]. Art of Our Century, The Chronicle of Western Art, 1900 to the Present. New York: Prentice-Hall Editions. 1988.

Pol Bury

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The Rear End of the Avant-Garde
1987 - Writings and Theories

Is it avant-garde or new Academicism? Though the question is not new, it is asked with more urgency than ever today, as can be seen in the following text from Le Figaro of September 17 [1987] by the internationally renowned sculptor Pol Bury. Bury, a brilliant polemicist with an incisive style and a biting wit, is known for his writing. This article is addressed to all those who believe all the paths of contemporary art have been blazed, and it deserves our attention for questioning what we had assumed were certainties.


The nineteenth century was strict about the virtue of its daughters, who, when they lost theirs, were promptly allocated to the trash heap. The twentieth century is just as strict about its avant-gardes in the fine arts: At the pinnacle of success for the duration of a single season, rejection awaits them when they lose their novelty.

But what can be said of the scholasticism that has emerged from these multiple avant-gardes? What is to be done when a student in fine arts has to adopt the strategy of a weather vane so he can adapt himself to the specials of the day?

It has been a century since pictorial impertinences began. When Cézanne's painting gained admission to art galleries and later to museums, aspiring painters tried to paint like Cézanne. Followers, we all know, exaggerate the faults of their model, as is evident in certain landscapes by Vlaminck. It did not take long for the followers to gain their own following. It is said that Monet, toward the end of his life, commented with a sigh as he left that year's Salon and its army of pale paintings watered down in Impressionist fashion, "Sometimes I would like to paint nothing but black."

From plagiarists to plagiarism, painting was simplified, becoming a smooth, monochromatic surface. You might have thought it had gone as far as it could go. In fact, it "started from scratch." Everything was erased, and art began again. The market economy and cultural commentators did the rest.

Nowadays, esthetic fashions have adapted themselves to the era of jet planes. Yesterday, stringiness stiffened with resin was all the rage; today, tree branches grow wrapped in clay or cotton. For tomorrow, people leaf through the latest art magazines.

Totally at a loss when confronted by so many transient and contradictory models, students tend toward the least constraining, the most rapid . . .

If it were permissible to be radical, it could be stated that the abandonment of Academicism [perspective, anatomy, etc.] results in the abandonment of the teaching of fine arts. The purpose of Thomas Couture has been taken up by the cinemascope of Cecil B. De Mille.

Academicism, thanks to its strict rules, was necessarily pedagogical, and therefore transmissible. It is contrary to the very essence of the avant-garde to allow itself to be codified and transmitted by teaching.

The force of habit, the fear of what people might say, annulled all the questions that were being asked. The teaching of fine arts adapted itself to the fashions of the day, to the climate of the time with a fair degree of flexibility. In its consequences, it has not changed much. As had happened in the past, it follows official art: that which is shown and seen in museums.

Faced with this tourniquet of esthetics, you can well imagine the confusion of students. The moment they take their place at their easels, the models begin to follow one another on the podium: Impressions, Neoimpressionism, Postimpressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Constructivism, Neoconstructivism . . . the waiting room is full, and still more keep coming: Minimalism, Conceptualism, Pop Art, Arte Povera, Body Art, Land Art, not to mention the negation of art, which was also a scholastic model.

This enumeration is enough to show how amusing the situation is. To adapt oneself fully to the circumstances, it is of the utmost urgency to replace the treatises on perspective and anatomy with manuals on dot, gesture, and monochrome painting. At least it would be entertaining.

Today, the garbage cans are full of obsolete avant-gardes. Less space-consuming than radioactive waste, they should at least make us understand that esthetics pass, but that technique remains.

For lack of anything better. Pol Bury, Le Figaro

[An Exerpt From: Ferrier, Jean-Louis, Director and Yann le Pichon, Walter D. Glanze [English Translation]. Art of Our Century, The Chronicle of Western Art, 1900 to the Present. New York: Prentice-Hall Editions. 1988. p. 827]




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