Chaotic, inventive, transgressive: Modernism is one of the most challenging yet exciting artistic movements in the history of Western art. In his new book, The Making of Modern Art: Selected Writings, art critic Michael Peppiatt gathers together an anthology of his work – from reviews in daily newspapers to exhibition catalogues – and gives his unique insight into the art worlds of London, Paris and New York from the mid-1960s onwards.
To celebrate the publication of The Making of Modern Art: Selected Writings we talked to Michael Peppiatt about whether there is a ‘right’ way to learn about art, how the London art scene has changed throughout the decades and why we should take a closer look at the impactful works of lesser-known 20th century artists such as Zoran Mušič.
Yale: In the introduction to The Making of Modern Art, you tell us that your initial interest in modern art was dismissed by your professor at university. What advice would you give students wishing to pursue areas of art history that sit outside current academic teaching?
Michael Peppiatt: That was nearly sixty years ago, and I think students today have much more autonomy. I was acting on a hunch, and in retrospect it’s odd to think that a stray hunch like that actually played a huge part in my subsequent career.
What kind of advice can I offer on that basis? I think young people often feel very confused and uncertain about their future (I certainly did: I didn’t think I even had one), so really, it’s a bit of a lottery. All one can do is try to establish what kind of life one wants, and recognise and follow up on whatever opportunities come to hand.
Yale: Francis Bacon told you that he perceived his lack of formal art education as a distinct advantage. What, do you think, can be the best ways to learn about art?
Michael Peppiatt: That of course is easier to say if you are Francis Bacon rather than some elderly failure. Once again, you have to follow your instinct, follow your passion. And if you can’t find it or don’t have one, that’s fine too – you will try an alternative route to happiness and fulfilment. Can you imagine a world made up exclusively of raving geniuses like Bacon?
Yale: You have written extensively about iconic 19th and 20th century artists such as Picasso, Klee, Manet and Pollock, but you also include lesser-known painters in your writings. Who, of these, would you like to draw our attention to, and why?
Michael Peppiatt: Well, first off, I don’t think Pollock’s art will endure like Manet’s or Picasso’s. Staël strikes me as a great, grand artist: one of a handful that have accompanied me as a kind of touchstone of absolute authenticity throughout. Zoran Mušič was a great man and a great friend whose pictures of the horrors of the concentration camps should be much better known and regularly, widely, disseminated as a reminder of the inhuman depths to which we are all, always, capable of descending.
Yale: The essays, reviews, and catalogue introductions in The Making of Modern Art span a career of several decades. How has the London art scene evolved during that time, and are those changes positive?
Michael Peppiatt: There was virtually no ‘London art scene’ when I started reviewing gallery shows for the Observer in the early 1960s: a handful of prominent galleries, a few well-known artists and even fewer museums interested in contemporary art. That world, which had a certain provincial charm and deferred first to Paris, then to New York, has now totally disappeared.
One applauds the success of the current London art scene while worrying what the huge influx of interest, and above all the huge influx of money, really means. Has art become fundamentally an alternative, high-value investment to be traded like stock? If so, when patently mediocre artists fetch huge sums, what does that do to the innate value and function of art? Well, we’ve been here before at various points in history, and the situation seems to have basically sorted itself out. So there’s no point in getting all indignant, but a certain amount of scepticism wouldn’t hurt …
Michael Peppiatt is an internationally respected authority on 20th-century art and the author of numerous books on modern artists. He has written regularly for Le Monde, the New York Times, the Financial Times, Art News, and Art International magazine.