Pioneers of Modern Art (...1880-1917...)

Henk van Os

‘It is an apparent self-contradiction but a historical fact that modernist works, produced to provide an aura of heresy, should end up being called classics’

(Peter Gay, Modernism. The lure of heresy, p. 10)

Prof dr Mikhail Piotrovski & Ernst W Veen


In the early spring of 1997 I was in St Petersburg in the company of Ernst Veen. Ernst had just conceived the idea of transforming the Amstelhof complex into the Hermitage Amsterdam. His initial intention had been to use this projected new addition to the Amsterdam museum scene exclusively as a venue for displaying artworks from the State Hermitage Museum’s amazingly extensive depots. This relatively modest ambition rapidly evaporated, however, when the sight of magnificent paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Derain and all the other heroes of modern art, on the top floor of an annex to Mikhail Piotrovsky’s palace museum, sent him into raptures. ‘Wouldn’t it be grand to show all these masterpieces in Amsterdam?!’ he kept exclaiming. It was then and there that we realised that the Hermitage’s collections perfectly complemented the range of art then on display in the Netherlands. We felt like little boys before the window of an ice-cream parlour, gazing covetously at pictures of extravagant sundaes which our Calvinist parents would not permit us to eat. Such a wealth of ‘luxe, calme et volupté’ would not be good for us.

© Succession Henri Matisse, sunflowers in a Vase, Pictoright Amsterdam 2010

Mikhail Piotrovsky and his curators graciously proved more than willing to allow these top pieces to travel to Amsterdam, providing their condition permitted such a journey. They thus gave Ernst Veen additional stimulus to turn his dream of the Hermitage Amsterdam into reality. So it is not entirely fortuitous that the first exhibition of paintings to be held in Hans van Heeswijk’s exhibition building on the River Amstel is one devoted to these masterpieces. For these were the works which truly fired Ernst Veen’s enthusiasm all those years ago. I was privileged to be appointed guest curator. It appeared a rather easy task. ‘A sure-fire success’, ‘a piece of cake’, ‘a guaranteed blockbuster’, friends and colleagues opined. Nevertheless, it did not seem enough to me simply to create an orderly display of these self-evident masterpieces by the pioneers of modern art, my reason being that “modern art” means something very different to our generation that it does to our children’s generation. For us modernism was a religion, a means of defining our place in our own time. It allowed us, for instance, to stand out from our parents, who simply failed to ‘get’ it. Or from middle-class narrow-mindedness in general. The pioneers of modern art were heroes, who had disclosed a new world. And we were following in their footsteps, marching shoulder to shoulder with an avant-garde!

Modern art as historical phenomenon

Those days are long gone. Postmodernism dawned and put the rhetoric of continuous artistic innovation into perspective. ‘Retro’ came into vogue and the notion of ‘an avant-garde’ was devalued to the title of a glossy women’s magazine (ill. 1). Students in my lectures no longer talk of ‘modern’ but of ‘contemporary’ art. For them modern art has become a historical phenomenon, on a par with mannerism, baroque, or romanticism. As such, it is a subject that has been studied since the 1970s. Neo-Marxists in particular have been impelled by their preoccupation with the relationship between art and society to view modernism as a device for forming cultural elites. An obvious drawback with this kind of interpretation is that often the actual art, the products of modernism, are discussed with a bitter resentment, which apparently derives from the assumption that the primary objective of the pioneering artists who made these pieces was to create works which would totally baffle ordinary people. Ultimately, however, these critical art historians have fallen victim to the irony of history. For when they characterised paintings by the modernists as exclusive attributes of an arrogant bourgeois elite, they finally drew hordes of visitors to museums to view the art of Matisse, Picasso and Kandinsky.

© Vasily Kandinsky, Composition VI, 1913, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2010

One of historian Peter Gay’s greatest merits is that he has endeavoured to define modernism without Marxist bias, in his comprehensive 2007 study Modernism. The Thrill of Heresy from Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond. Gay approaches modernism in the way cultural historians approach eras such as the renaissance. It began at some point, although nobody knows exactly when; it flourished and declined but the timing of that decline is just as imprecise as its beginning. The main characteristic of modernism was the constant need to innovate. When innovation emerged as the chief criterion for art, it became possible to feel the pulse of the era in artworks. ‘Être de son temps’; that was the crucial factor. The initial wave of modernists wished to destroy museums for they believed that art was simply interred in such institutions: modern art guaranteed life, while museums were no better than graveyards. Nevertheless, these same innovative artists simultaneously cherished an entirely incompatible desire, for their work to find a place in those very museums, and thereby escape the curse of transience and mortality.

© Pablo Picasso, Boy with a Dog, 1905, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2010

Gay delights in such paradoxes. Another example. Modern artists were non-conformists, he declares: they were constantly engaged in overturning sacred cows, demanding absolute artistic autonomy in the process; they were also explicitly anti-middle class, for they regarded the middle classes as stupid, conceited, greedy and narrow-minded; middle-class pettiness determined everything, so modern art was designed to undermine middle class complacency and constantly baffle the middle classes. Yet at the same time modernism would not have been able to exist without that same middle class, whose ranks produced rich collectors, faithful patrons, dedicated critics and passionate groupies; members of this class were plucked as it were, out of their bigotry by the modern artists and swept up in the stream of Real Life. Art became an exclusive replacement for religion. This is why the cultural establishment displayed such an astonishing capacity for absorbing the new, why this establishment constantly allowed itself to be baffled, then defused the baffler through adoration, allowing a new cycle to begin.

Nevertheless Peter Gay’s study leaves the reader somewhat dissatisfied. For this, and other cultural-historical and sociological studies, generates the apparently unavoidable impression that modernist artists spent day and night defining their unique personae, their paintings serving solely as a means to this end; they begin to resemble social strategists in their readiness to use any method in the course of promoting themselves as art innovators, in their continual preoccupation with presenting their art as the most effective window on their own time, in their indulgence in all kinds of extreme behaviour. But if you read the writings of ‘the wild beasts’ (‘les fauves’), the first cubists and all those other pioneers of modern art, you will see that this was not how it was. This was not what modernism was about.

© Pablo Picasso, Woman with a Fan, 1907-1908, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2010

New paintings

All those pioneering artists engaged first and foremost in producing entirely new paintings, of a kind never previously seen. They discovered that painting had its own, autonomous meaning and did not simply consist of depicting an existing reality. They turned painting into a theme in itself. This exhibition has provided an opportunity to relive that crucial moment in art history, through its masterpieces, and also to reflect on the emergence of modern art as a historical phenomenon. But rather than bewilder us with all kinds of interpretations by learned art historians, the exhibition intends to focus attention primarily on what inspired modernist artists when they unleashed their revolution at the beginning of the twentieth century. For it was a revolution – of that they were thoroughly aware.

In conversations with our Russian colleagues from the Hermitage St Petersburg, Albert Kostenevich and Mikhail Dedinkin, the first question to which we collectively needed to find an answer was: when did this revolution actually occur? We, the Dutch half of the team, were inclined to leave the beginning of modern art just as inexact as Peter Gay had done; we included predecessors, such as Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, considered the range of new ideas concerning art developed by impressionists and symbolists, and in no time at all had annexed a large portion of nineteenth century art into the impressive dawn of modernism. Kostenevich and Dedinkin, however, were much more imprecise in their thinking: the pioneers of modern art, they declared, were those individuals who had made the autonomy of visual media the central theme of their art. Just start with fauvism and cubism was their advice; a second exhibition can subsequently examine the heralds of modern art and all kinds of fascinating subsidiary phenomena. Presenting painters such as Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and others as modern artists, they believed, would not do justice to these individuals and would ignore their roots in the nineteenth century. Thus the idea of a diptych developed: one exhibition to present the pioneers of modernism, a second exhibition to examine what had happened before these artists, and the context in which they had worked. This clear-cut demarcation would also allow us to clearly show the factors which had initially motivated these pioneers.

© Succession Henri Matisse, Woman in Green, ca 1909, co Pictoright Amsterdam 2010


One of the most important sources to reveal the intentions of a modern art pioneer are the notes on painting made by Henri Matisse in 1908, a golden year for fauvism. In these writings Matisse makes clear that for him painting was the art of articulating the visual plane, whereby decoration and expression converged. Traditional art denied the visual plane by creating the illusion of three-dimensional space, the painter declared. He considered this a mortal sin, for such illusionism deprived artists of the opportunity to transform visible reality, on canvas, into a new, ideal reality with its own strength of line and colour, its own harmony. In his notes Matisse described in great precision how his paintings came into being. He could not simply scale up a drawing of a composition to the structure of a painting, for every visual plane had its own parameters. A composition designed to be expressive had to be based on the visual plane. Merely putting a dot on a plane intended for painting was in itself an artistic act. As was a single brushstroke. What would a second brushstroke do to the first? How did colours work, individually and in combination? Matisse thus formulated a grammar for a new visual language, and became totally absorbed in this voyage of discovery into the autonomous effect of lines, colours and planes.

portrait Matisse

Matisse also made a number of ‘en passant’ general remarks regarding the meaning of this new painting. In 1909 he said in an interview: ‘The artist no longer need concern himself with trivial details. That’s what photography is for, what it’s much better suited to as well […] Nor is it the task of painting to represent events from history anymore. One finds these in books. For us painting has a higher meaning. It allows artists to give expression to their inner visions.’

Formulated in these terms the visual language of modern art thus offered an opportunity to realise romantic ideals from a hundred years previously. For it was in the romantic period that artists discovered their inner life as the source of their creativity. Matisse regarded an artwork as an existential expression of the artist which could have a salutary influence on the mind and body of the viewer. He wanted ‘an art full of harmony, purity and peace. An art that will have a comforting and calming effect, that will soothe after the exertions of daily work, in the way that a comfortable armchair gives relaxation after physical effort.’ It is tempting to think that tranquil, charming landscapes, of the kind painted by the impressionists, would provide such reassurance. But Matisse regarded these works as false art, as illusionism. For him the primary factor was the autonomous effect of the visual resources which artists had at their disposal.

Matisse had not the slightest desire to be a provocateur. Baffling people was the last thing he intended. Nor did he respond aggressively to art from the past. On the contrary, he endeavoured to set his revolutionary works in the painting tradition, on the principle that ‘there are no new truths’. His behaviour was far from that of an aggressive innovator. Matisse was one of the most important pioneers of modern art yet he did not brag about this. It seems that his total absorption in his voyage of discovery into the effect of lines, colours and planes did not allow him the time to present himself as an innovator and to formulate a slew of new theories.

© Succession Henri Matisse, Seated Nude, ca 1908, co Pictoright Amsterdam 2010

Although Matisse did not behave like a provocateur, he was thoroughly aware of the fact that artistic innovators did not necessarily have a place in real society. On occasion he complained of feeling an ‘exile in his own time’, another theme from romanticism. Artists, more than anyone else, were aware that ‘il faut être de son temps’, but in order to be contemporary, to feel the pulse of their time, they should not be part of the crowd. Matisse did not develop this complicated relationship between artist and society, however. There was no need: others had already done this for him. Nineteenth-century theories of art and the artist thus provided the context for the twentieth-century revolution in art.

© Succession Henri Matisse, Study of a Foot, 1909-1910, co Pictoright Amsterdam 2010

An essential role in the way the pioneers of modern art thought was also played by a third theme from romanticism: a desire to return to the origins of art, to escape from suffocating bourgeois culture, from society with its surfeit of regulations, middle-class values and all the rules that governed art, to go back to the beginning when everything was pure and unsullied, when unmixed colours displayed their potency, when artworks could cast spells with their magical energy; they longed for a return to elementary forms, to an art from before there was art. It did not matter whether they called themselves wild beasts (‘les fauves’), cubists, expressionists, constructivists, futurists or dadaists – all were driven by a craving for art that could represent and release elementary forces.

De Vlaminck and Derain

In 1929 the painter Maurice de Vlaminck looked back on his years as a ‘fauve’. He wrote: ‘In art, theories are as useful as medical prescriptions: to believe in them one has to be sick. Knowledge kills instinct… I strove to find myself anew in the depths of the unconscious where passions slumber of which I have been robbed through living on the surface; through bourgeois conventions…I wished to unleash a moral revolution in everyday life… I was a tender and tempestuous barbarian.’ His brother-in-arms André Derain recalled in a conversation with André Breton, published in 1922, that as ‘fauves’ he and Vlaminck had deployed colours like ‘dynamite cartridges’, elevating everything they painted above reality. In a number of letters sent to Vlaminck in the early twentieth century, Derain movingly described how rising above reality in this way did not (yet) come easily to him: ‘In working from nature, I am a slave to such stupid things, that my emotions feel the repercussions of it.’i He also wrote: ‘Nevertheless, I am going to do some landscapes, but against my will, almost. I don’t feel the need for landscapes, nor for portraits, nor for still lifes.’ii Derain was also bothered by the lack, at that time, of a connecting principle or theoretical foundation for his artistic adventure and viewed this as a personal problem. He wrote to his fellow artist: ‘I want to talk to you about what interests me, the modern view of life. I think about it intensely here. It seems that everything converges on the search for happiness.’iii

© Maurice de Vlaminck, Small Town on the Seine, ca 1909, co Pictoright Amsterdam 2010

© André Derain, Still Life with Skull, 1912, co Pictoright Amsterdam 2010


Although Derain’s need for a modern view of life makes him the major exception to the rule amongst the pioneers of modern art, his preoccupation seems to have been no more than a tentative search for ideals that could well be consistent with a more general human desire for happiness. Picasso had no interest in such vague musings. In a famous interview from 1923 entitled Picasso speaks, with Marius de Zayas, the first person to display paintings by Picasso and Braque in the United States in 1911, the artist dismissed art criticism associated with cubism. He declared: ‘Mathematics, trigonometry, chemistry, psychoanalysis, Music, and whatnot, have been related to Cubism to give it an easier interpretation. All this has been pure literature, not to say nonsense, which brought bad results, blinding people with theories”.i During the years in which Picasso was painting his cubist works, he was sometimes asked about his theoretical principals. He would reply: “It is forbidden to speak with the pilot”.

portrait Picasso

New art requires new terms

The first pioneers repeatedly countered all theoreticising with the assertion that creating art obeyed its own laws, that they wished to free art from any kind of subservience, for art no longer referred to anything else, only to itself. It was for this reason that they felt pioneers. Only modern art had such trailblazers, they asserted. Caravaggio was not a ‘pioneer’ of the baroque, nor Mantegna a ‘pioneer’ of the renaissance; to call Monet a pioneer of impressionism was simply ‘not done’. Only modern artists who had developed an independent visual language had the right to claim this sobriquet. Every cultural historical interpretation of modernism should therefore take the character of this innovating art movement as its starting point, rather than the social effects of modernism or attendant art theory.

One of the great difficulties encountered in the pioneering period was how to anchor never seen, autonomous images in words. Such art required an entirely new language and it took some time before the words for this were found. Thus references to other fields of human creativity, so despised by Picasso, were the product of an inability to delineate the new art. By far the most common reference was to the world of music, for music was not a descriptive art either: sounds had their own meaning and their own structure. As early as March 1899 Paul Gauguin had written to André Fontainas from Tahiti that colour would play the role of music in modern art; colour, he declared, vibrated just like music and thus had a universal meaning, which touched the inner force of nature. It was Wassily Kandinsky, who visually developed the correspondence between colour and music in his 1911 tract Das Geistige in der Kunst; colour and sound, Kandinsky asserted, moved the soul, which he compared to a piano being played.

In Munich Kandinsky met Arnold Schönberg and listened to the first performances of the composer’s works. There he enjoyed the experience of synaesthesia for he heard the colours of music and his colours evoked music. This is why Kandinsky gave the title of ‘concert’ to a number of his paintings from this period. The structures of cubist paintings could also be experienced as rhythmically ordered lines and planes. The incorporation of elements from musical instruments in many of these virtually abstract paintings is therefore not accidental. Such works confirm that the language of music had become significant to the autonomous visual language of modern art.

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, ca. 1930– Staatsmuseum Hermitage St.-Petersburg

Studying the writings of ‘modern’ visual artists from the stirring years before the First World War, one continually encounters various expressions of the need felt by these artists to free themselves from nature in order to be themselves, plus all kinds of philosophical notions relating to art making visible what lies behind, beneath or above reality. Kandinsky developed a kind of visual mysticism to clarify his non-representational art. Futurists endeavoured to graft art onto the vitality of modern life and developed a dynamic cubism. Kazimir Malevich took that cubism to its ultimate conclusion, as did Piet Mondrian, in his own unique fashion: for Malevich an artist could only work creatively when what he was painting bore no relation to nature, while Mondrian experienced a tragedy in nature that could be transcended through art. But the earliest experimenters such as Matisse and Picasso felt no need for such talk. They left the theoreticising to others.

Did the contours of a new art eventually become visible in the pioneers’ expressions? Was this a modern view of life, of the kind sought by André Derain? Not really. Every artist had their own story, and those stories were often far from original. What these pioneering artworks have in common, however, is that they show how their artists were in search of freedom from nature and academic traditions, how they gave the visual media available to them a new, independent meaning. It was in this respect that these artists felt they were pioneers. Many of them explicitly rejected theoreticising in the name of art. But anyone who despised academic art and regarded salon art as a symptom of artistic degeneration, anyone in search of artistic authenticity through denial of the art of an indolent middle class, inevitably assumed a discrete and conspicuous position in society. Simply calling oneself a ‘fauve’ entailed rejection of a bourgeois attitude to life. Nevertheless, there is little evidence that the pioneers of modern art entertained any social theories. Modernism was – in the first instance - about art.

It was only after a number of years that this changed, when Italian futurists sought an art that would quite explicitly express a modern sense of life and its very different pace; they identified aeroplanes and racing cars as the attributes of a new world and believed art should reveal the contemporary dynamic. During the same period artists like Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian chose a range of ways to set their art in a philosophical or social context. As pioneers of modern art they also felt they were the creators of a new future. Artists throughout Europe were motivated by all kinds of utopian visions. This idealism was often accompanied by a glorification of destruction and aggression. Peter Gay rightly emphasizes the thrill of such heresy. More importantly, however, this tumultuous period produced artworks that have become some of the great masterpieces of European art. And sources of inspiration, whose importance is hard to overstate, for the ideals of twentieth-century society.

© Vasily Kandinsky, View of Murnau, 1908, co Pictoright Amsterdam 2010

In conclusion

When Ernst Veen and I were so impressed by the quality of the first masterpieces of modern art we were not yet aware of the fact that those paintings had been brought together by just two collectors, Ivan Abramovich Morozov and Sergey Ivanovich Shchukin. They must have been very closely involved in the revolution in art. It seems as if they bought the paintings in the artists’ studios while they were still wet. So in this case it was the collections of citizens, not those of the tsars, which ended up in the Hermitage. Good reason, thus, for paying special attention in our exhibition to the unusual provenance of the paintings. The exhibition does not offer a more or less complete overview of the early years of modern art, but is intended to show the Dutch public the intensity and feeling for quality with which two Russians in Paris collected innovative art. Given that their collections are central, it is natural that 1917, the year in which the Bolsheviks seized the private collections from their owners, should also mark the end of the period covered by this exhibition. Where it was desirable, additional pieces from after 1917 were sought among the other works of modern art in the Hermitage. The painting by Amédée Ozenfant is an excellent example of a work from the last phase of Cubism. Malevich’s Black Square makes an impressive end to the exhibition, even if the version in the Hermitage was not painted until 1932. I added the painting by Soutine because I couldn’t resist it.

© Amédée Ozenfant, Still Life with Dishes, 1920, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2010

Our primary concern was that this first art exhibition in Amsterdam should consist entirely of works from the museum in St Petersburg. The Hermitage Amsterdam, the Hermitage on the Amstel, is intended above all for presenting art treasures from the Hermitage on the Neva. In the Netherlands doubts have sometimes been expressed as to whether the board of the museum in St Petersburg would be willing to remove the finest works from the rooms in which they are permanently displayed and send them to the Netherlands. As guest curator of this exhibition, I have found that this willingness is definitely present in ample measure. In fact sometimes I began to be concerned about whether the visitor to the Hermitage in St Petersburg who was hoping to see modern art would still enjoy his visit when so many important works had been loaned to the Netherlands for over six months. The fact is that nearly all the works in this exhibition came from the permanent displays, not from storage rooms.

© Chaim Soutine, Self-portrait, 1920-1921, co Pictoright Amsterdam 2010

When my friend Ernst experiences something wonderful, he tends to declare: ‘It’s a feast’. This exhibition has the makings of a feast for a great many people.


  • Peter Gay, Modernism. The Lure of Heresy from Baudelaire to Beckett and beyond, New York 2007
  • C. Harrison and P. Wood (ed.), Art in Theory 1900-2000. An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Malden, MA. 2008
  • W. Hess (ed.), Dokumente zum Verständnis der modernen Malerei, Hamburg 1956


  • 1 Quoted in C. Harrison and P. Wood (ed.), Art in Theory 1900-2000. An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Malden, MA. 2008, p. 63. Original French text: “… dans le travail d’après nature, je suis l’esclave de choses si stupides que mon émotion en reçoit un contre-coup”. Lettre 64 [de Derain à Vlaminck de l’Estaque, 1906], André Derain, Lettres à Vlaminck, 1995, p. 178.
  • 2 Quoted in Harrison and Wood, Op. cit. (n. 1), p. 64. Original French text: “Cependant, je vais faire quelques paysages, mais à contre-coeur, presque. Je ne me sens ni le besoin de paysages, ni de portraits, ni de nature morte.” Lettre 67, André Derain, Lettres à Vlaminck, 1995, p. 184.
  • 3 Quoted in Harrison and Wood, Op. cit. (n. 1), p. 65. Original French text: “Ce qui m’intéresse et dont je voudrais te causer, c’est la conception de la vie. J’y réfléchis intensément ici. Et il me semble que tout concorde à la recherche du bonheur”. Lettre 67, André Derain, Lettres à Vlaminck, 1995, p. 185.
  • 4 Quoted in Harrison and Wood, Op. cit. (n. 1), p. 217. The interview was published in English as ‘Picasso Speaks’ in The Arts, New York, May 1923, pp. 315-26.