The Founding Father of Modernism

by Louise Coleman


Who doesn't enjoy a bit of Jeopardy?

Who doesn't enjoy a bit of Jeopardy?

A while ago now, the final Jeopardy! question within the category ‘History of Art’ asked the contestants to answer the following: who was the founding father of modern art?

As usual with IQ-testing game shows, the risk of saying the wrong answer, hurting your pride and potentially your ego far outweighs the self-satisfaction of a correct answer. However, with this particular question, the answer was plain as day.

It had to be Paul Cezanne. One of the most important painters of the 19th century, his unparalleled technical approach to painting was admired and mimicked by many of the great artists from the 20th century art movements, who saw Cezanne as an icon for his expressive use of colour and new, heavy-handed technique. There was no quandary, the answer would be Cezanne.

Paul Cézanne, self-portrait, ca 1880

Yet Alex Trabek, the host, did not concur. The other contestants had no new suggestions, and he was forced to reveal the answer: Francisco de Goya.

Amid a foundation in modern art by means of readings, teachings and research, this was a perplexing outcome. The devout standpoint on the subject contrary to, in my opinion, majority belief piqued my interest. What made Goya the most plausible patriarch of modern art?

Francisco José de Goya, Self portrait with spectacles, ca 1800

Arising from the 18th century and the Industrial Revolution, the birth of modernism was characterised by the challenging of realism and its subsequent fusion with abstraction. A new art was ignited: one that not simply recorded a picture of the world, but one that imprinted a complex and intimate perception of it.

The position of “first modern painter” has always been fluid, and often darts from one 19th century artist to another. Whittling down the parentage of modern art to a single artist is a subjective review, and often depends on which exhibition, artwork or artist currently has the critic’s attention.

However, Cezanne has remained a firm favourite for the role. Nature was a fascination for Cezanne, and this subject matter carried him through his progression from natural, light-filled paintings, typified by the Impressionistic aesthetic, to a new era of painting, Post-Impressionism, where he united colour and form through emphasis on structure and solidarity. His technique is distinguishable by thick layers of pigment, vigorously applied using small, pixellated brushstrokes, to construct planes of colour and distorted tonal variations.

Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from Bellevue, 1885

Goya arrived on the scene earlier than Cezanne, who began his technical experiments with still-life paintings in the mid- 1870s. Goya was a court painter to the Spanish Crown in the 1780s, until he became seriously ill in 1792, leaving him permanently deaf. It was from this point his art began a metamorphosis, as his style became less inhibited and revealed bold, penetrating characterisations that were almost caricature - unprecedented in contemporary religious art. His painting turned to a darker subject matter after the Spanish Civil War, in a period known as the ‘Black Paintings’, as Goya illustrated his embitterment and disillusion towards society.

Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-23

Cezanne and Goya applied similar stylistic techniques, such as the bold handling of paint and contrasting lights and darks, but in subject matter they starkly differentiated. Nevertheless, the crucial discrimination between the artists is how each perceives the connection between the subject matter and artistic technique. Cezanne used painting to indulge his technical experiments in the manipulation of the classical laws of perspective, with the natural subject matter taking a backseat to his practical artistic evolution in colour, space, and tone. Goya, however, utilised painting as an act of story-telling, to illustrate and emphasise the travesties he had witnessed through his technical expertise in dark tonalities and heavy brushstrokes.

Goya is the “first modernist” by lineage: he held particular importance for 19th century French Impressionist painters, such as Delacroix, Manet and Degas. Cezanne’s influence over the address of form and colour appeared later, and directly influenced 20th century artistic movements such as Cubism, Fauvism and successive avant-garde artists.

Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People

Jeopardy was correct in that Goya was technically the first influence on modernism; his deep pessimism and expressive searching was unprecedented in paintings, and would be significant for generations to come. But Cezanne’s analytical approach to painting also left its mark, as can be seen in the Cubist works of George Braque and Pablo Picasso to name a few.

In uniting and comparing the art of Cezanne and Goya, their roles are illuminated in the carving of modernism. Appointing one ‘patriarch of modern art’ fundamentally neglects a crucial facet of modernism; either the evolution in subject matter is overlooked, or the growth of technical ability is sidelined. But when it does come time to choose a winner, as the final question in Jeopardy for example, it is interesting to observe and analyse why that artist was chosen, and who was inevitably left in the dark.

Happy Friday!