Patricia Leighten, The Liberation of Painting: Modernism and Anarchism in Avant-Guerre Paris.

Author:Allmer, Patricia
Position:Book review

Patricia Leighten, The Liberation of Painting: Modernism and Anarchism in Avant-Guerre Paris Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013; 304pp; ISBN 978-0-226-47138-9.

Patricia Leighten's new volume immerses the reader in a carefully argued exploration of the artistic and theoretical engagements with left-wing politics, and specifically anarchism, of a selected range of pre-World War I artists in Paris. Building on her previous work, Leighten provides a revisionist account which insists on understanding the political intention of artists and the specificity of historical moments, countering a number of still-prevalent misconceptions about the construction and constitutions of modernism as 'discrete-isms', detached from political positions and cultural contexts, and rigidified in hierarchical orders.

As Leighten argues, in this matrix, which can be traced in part to Alfred Barr's influence, 'an apolitical Henri Matisse comes to overshadow the politicised Vlaminck, Andre Derain, and Van Dongen, and fauvism is drained of its socially critical dimensions; Picasso--seen by many as the only "true cubist"--comes to lead even Georges Braque, while the remaining cubists are dismissed as more [...] or less [...] interesting strangers' (p 2). This structure not only asserts false hierarchies, it also fails to account for complex and often fluid cultural and political interactions with and influences on artists at specific historical moments.

Leighten's book offers an important corrective to such established histories by focusing not only on elements of form--line, colour, and space- but also by exploring the political purpose of the works, paying attention to 'subject, medium, venue, and audience, all those choices made at a particular historical moment in anticipation of a culturally specific viewer' (p 10). Focusing on anarchism, she argues for the politically informed engagement of a number of avant-guerre artists with contemporary social issues. Anarchism here becomes a driver of innovative new avant-garde practices and artistic languages.

Alert to wider contexts, she remains closely focused on the artistic production of Kees Van Dongen, Maurice de Vlaminck, Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and Frantisek Kupka. This evades generalisations and fulfils two aims: the revision of widespread misconceptions of Anglo-American literary...

To continue reading