Alexandra Yakovleva (BR)

The dilemma of the modern artist

From Manet to Warhol

In the essay Myth of Artisthood, that our project is based on, the famous Dutch art critic, Camiel van Winkel is dividing all the artists in three different types: Romantic, Modernistic and the Beaux-Arts (classical type).

In today’s post we will talk about the Modernistic type and especially about the dilemma that many modern artists seem to face since the very beginning of the Impressionism, in early 19th century, until nowadays.


Piero Manzoni. Merda d’artista. 1961. (Photo via: -

“Ever since Édouard Manet, artists have attempted to eradicate the myth of artisthood. The last 150 years have seen a continuous series of demystification, some more successful than others, functioning as the engine of the development of modern art”, Camiel van Winkel mentions in his essay The Myth of Artisthood.

According to him, Manet, had to contend with the insults from critics who called his works “ugly and repulsive”, “an almost childish ignorance of the fundamentals of drawing” and “a prejudice in favour of inconceivable vulgarity”. Especially it was referred to the paintings The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe) and Olympia, both from 1863.
Pericles Lewis, the author of The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism, in his book shows that Luncheon on the Grass was one of the works that broke away from the classical view that art should obey established conventions and seek to achieve timelessness. Conforming to his analysis, the work was rejected by the official French academy, not so much because of the female nudes in it, as by their presence in a modern setting, accompanied by clothed, bourgeois men. “The incongruity suggested that the women were not goddesses but models, or possibly prostitutes”, claims Lewis.

Jonathan Jones, the journalist and art critic for the Guardian online column Portrait of the week, expresses his view on Olympia painting. As reported in one of his texts, the girl that lies in the bed is, in the eyes of 19th-century observers, was clearly a prostitute, in her trashy mules with a bootlace for a necklace.

But these critical comments and rejections were not scaring the artist from producing more art works. On the contrary, as Camiel writes in his essay, “the criticism was motivating them to find new forms of visual production more in line with the social, cultural and economic conditions of the day”. Artists believed that it was only by rejecting the social conventions of formality, refinement and civilization, that they could free art from the false pretensions imposed upon it.

A good example of this, is Andy Warhol’s Piss Paintings, the Oxidations (also mentioned by Camiel van Winkel in his work). Warhol experimented with the catalytic reaction of urine and metallic paints willing to create brilliant golds and acidic greens that radiate across richly textured surfaces. These series of work were the first abstractions that Warhol produced, looking for a different approach to the Abstract Expressionism, an art direction that dominated the New York art scene in the 1950s. Andy’s main idea was finding new forms of visual production that would be more adapted to a modern society. But almost a century later, the reaction of the public was still devastating.

Another good example of an innovating work that also didn’t succeed in terms of the positive feedback was produced by Piero Manzoni in May, 1961. He filled 90 tin cans with his own faeces and called them Merda d’artista.

According to Camiel, through the centuries, modern artists always have faced lots of difficulties with positioning their ideas and getting an acceptance in the ordinary/banal world. But now, it is even more complicated, because the modern artists really need to struggle to preserve their belief in the meaning of the expressive gesture. They must reconcile their belief with their disbelief. All the actions that the modern artists confront themselves with must be not only taken consciously, in full awareness of the context, situation and process of their work, but also, without losing faith in the significance of the expressive gesture. “What is left of the meaning of artistic expression, when it is always accompanied by its intellectual shadow - the artist’s consciousness and permanent self-reflection? How authentic and heart-felt is it then?” Camiel asks.