The years leading up to the First World War were the most exciting, frenzied and revolutionary in the history of art. This was the crucible of modernism, when in quick succession Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism and finally Abstract Art all took shape.
There were extraordinary new developments in avant garde art, in Berlin, in Dresden, in Vienna, in London, in Milan, in Brussels, but above all in Paris. Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Modigliani, Kandinsky, Kirchner, Malevich, Boccioni, Klimt and Schiele all came to prominence during these years. It was a unique generation of modernist talent, cut short by the outbreak of war.
Why did modern art take the extreme direction it did at this particular point? The beginning of the twentieth century saw huge technological advances in a very short space of time. Trains, motor cars, aeroplanes, telephones and the cinema all contributed to a sense that life was being lived at a much greater speed than ever before. As a result the old way of doing art, whereby artists were simply reproducing nature, seemed no longer adequate for the expression of the new dynamism. So it was a decade when advanced artists changed, became more individualistic, more temperamental, more self-obsessed, more in touch with their instincts. The twenty-first century cry of ‘Look at me, I’m an artist’ found its first utterance a hundred years earlier.
The intensity of the time is reflected not just in its revolutionary and shocking avant-garde art, but also in a broader undercurrent of febrility. Increasing numbers of artists commit suicide; in 1909 Munch goes into a Copenhagen psychiatric clinic (he emerges better in health but diminished as an artist); in 1911 the Mona Lisa is stolen from the Louvre; in 1912 Schiele is imprisoned for obscenity; in 1914 Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus is slashed by a Suffragette in the National Gallery, London. The same year the Tsar of Russia buys a Leonardo for £310,000, three times more than the previous highest price ever paid for a work of art. And meanwhile Expressionists distort, Cubists deconstruct, and Futurists preach a gospel of violence.
When I decided to write Art of the Extreme I realised I was covering well trodden ground. What could there be left to say about this extraordinary decade which has been the subject of so many books and exhibitions? But I felt I had something to add, in three respects.
First, the way the history of modern art is taught today can give the false impression that once revolutionary movements like Expressionism or Cubism were invented they caught on immediately. That’s quite wrong. Actually the vast majority of art lovers at the time were horrified by modernism. So to understand the revolutionary art of the period you’ve got to look more closely at the conventional art being created and admired in the same period. You need to know what the revolutionaries were rebelling against, and I try to provide that context.
Secondly I think that the art market of the time repays closer study. What people were prepared to pay for both new and old art offers very revealing insights into this extraordinary decade. As I say, most art lovers of the time wouldn’t touch works by Matisse or Picasso and their prices – if they sold at all - were very, very low. It’s fascinating to chart how – very, very slowly – they edged upwards.
And thirdly I have been personally very lucky: I have come to know quite a number of the masterpieces of this period exceptionally well because – with my Sotheby’s hat on over the past 25 years – I was asked to sell them. When you’re selling a picture it brings you into a very intimate relationship with it. You get the chance to study it in depth, to live with it over a period of weeks, to register both your own developing reactions to it and other people’s. I also got to sell quite a few less distinguished examples of the period, and you need to look at those too. Bad art teaches you almost as much as good art.
An unexpected bonus of my research was the emergence from the shadows of a number of eccentric bit players in the artistic drama of 1905-1914: Valentine de St Point, for instance, multi-talented activist, poet, dancer and feminist sex-bomb who produced a Manifesto of Futurist Woman; Henri Valensi whose Effusionism – most famous example a visual rendering of Chopin’s Funeral March – flared for a week or two in 1912; and Arthur Cravan, the boxer cum poet who briefly edited a polemical and libellous art magazine that he distributed round Paris in a wheelbarrow.
It was indeed a unique and extreme decade.