Invention and Labour

I read recently about Alfons Mucha’s Slav Epic, an allegorical/historical cycle of gigantic paintings, some actually as much as 20 feet high.

Alphonse Mujcha, The Coronation of the Serbian Tsar Stefan Dušan as East Roman Emperor

Alphonse Mujcha, The Coronation of the Serbian Tsar Stefan Dušan as East Roman Emperor (early 20th. century)

I’d like to see them, but even before doing so I’m getting tired. Too much work! Mucha is clearly a modern artist, and in fact well known for his Art Nouveau posters, but he was not a modernist. Those conservative souls who bemoan the disappearance of technique in modern art would probably love his work, but they are missing the important point put forward by the modernists—that one moment of invention is worth a thousand hours of labour. This is why a small Klee, or a small Picasso still life (which might contain several moments of invention) is better, more inspiring, and offers more to enjoy than a grand museum filling cycle.

Pablo Picasso, Still life with stone, 1924

Pablo Picasso, Still life with stone, 1924

And this is why I’ve always felt that later modernism, in which one moment of creative freedom might be extended over an entire cycle of large pictures, is a kind of failure—a failure to maintain the energy of invention.

Mark Rothko, No. 61 1953

Mark Rothko, No. 61 1953

Some are happy to see art enslaved by nationalistic nonsense, others prefer the cosmopolitan modernism of the auction room, but in the age of Trump and the neo-liberals, it’s the underlying sameness of these two models that matters—and the recognition that there is another way.

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