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Modernist Preoccupations With Progress: An Exploration

The term ‘Modernism’ relies upon notions of progress in that it is defined by an ‘artistic and literary superiority of moderns over ancients’. The ‘modern’ era enjoyed scientific, technological and social progress, whilst the uncivilized and primitive past was very much left behind.
That is not to say that modern artists neglected to recognise their debt to the past and although modernists tended to reject notions of time as linear, the causal development of time meant modern artists and writers often looked to the past at least as a tool for comparison. It could be said that Modernist art reacted to the rapidly changing and dehumanised world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by actually challenging common notions of progress and demanding a reappraisal of the direction in which society was moving.
The artistic movement known as Cubism originated in the minds and art of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, and at first stood as an experiment in style alongside avant-garde developments in western art. Like many of the movements under the ‘Modernist’ umbrella, Cubism sought to move away from established notions of art; Cubism’s roots are in realism, but Cubist artists also challenged the convention of naturalism and the illusion of three-dimensional seeing. This was initially done by presenting a two-dimensional picture surface with flat forms and tonal colours, which aimed to bring together the mind and the eye without trying to fool the viewer into seeing something other that the ‘reality’ of the picture surface. In this way, Cubism presented a more accurate reality than previous artistic movements that used the convention of three-dimensional representation, because we do not see the world from a singular perspective. Whilst self-confessedly indebted to his Impressionist forebears, Picasso changed modern notions of art by ‘reappraising [his] fundamental materials, to redesign composition and remake form’.
What was seen as a breakdown in society, with the advent of mechanised warfare and impoverishment of the human spirit, encouraged Cubist artists to present a new way of looking at the world. Cubist techniques of presenting both sides of a chair or all the perspectives of a model’s face served to create an art in which normal notions of vision and thought are challenged; are we not able to move around an object and see it form all sides?
Cubist artists first introduced collage as a tool to communicate their desire to bring life and art closer together, and so allow society to progress through ideas within art. Collages were paintings with objects attached to the canvas; Picasso stuck pieces of newspaper, stamps and rope to his canvas in order to ‘break down the boundaries between art and life, causing the viewer to ponder various kinds and degrees of artifice’. That small pieces of ‘real’ life were appearing on the canvas showed the Cubist’s increasingly innovative style and the lengths to which they would go to move away from art as artifice and present a new type of artistic ‘progress’ that attempted to bring observers away from the constructed emotional portrayal of the artistic subject (as in Impressionism) and towards an art which gives ‘more attention to sensuous and tactile quality’. Critics of Cubism blamed Picasso and his peers for becoming more concerned with geometry than with art; the response was that science and emotion are brought together in Cubism to create a more rounded and stimulating experience of life than previously offered by other art forms.
Whilst the Modernist’s obsession with moving away from past conventions and creating new intellectual depths may have seemed extreme, this preoccupation with ‘progress’ was a direct response to what they saw as the devaluation of art, literature and society in general throughout the Victorian period. Techniques used by the Cubist artists to comment on and re-evaluate art included ‘fragmentation, multiple perspectives, and juxtaposition’, which were part of the standard Modernist repertoire. Modernist artists wanted to create and communicate new ways of experiencing art and therefore the world.There was very much a feeling that art could not only reflect and represent life, but also lead to changes within society; by challenging notions of progress, especially in the wake of the war and mechanisation, Cubist artists created their own type of progress, which was very much involved with the way the mind and the eye worked.
Cubist art was controversial and little understood and any contemporary commentary could be seen to devalue the art itself, but it could be said that Cubism was an art that sought to see everything without conforming to accepted forms or styles and without pandering to popular notions of civilized human progress. The modernist era brought about the notion that everything’s been done and said and painted already and Cubism was at the centre of one of the last great revolutions in early twentieth century art; partly because it fought against notions of progress, incorporated the devalued and partial art forms of the past and created a new world view which epitomised the Modernist preoccupation with progress.

Watson and the Shark Painting Analysis

John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815), was an American painter born in Boston, Massachusetts. From the time Copley began to paint at the age of fifteen, many people throughout Massachusetts admired his paintings; also, people from other colonial cities recognized his portrait paintings. A big inspiration and benefit to him was his stepfather, Peter Pelham, a successful English engraver, painter, and teacher[1].
At the age of twenty-one Copley left Boston to travel around Europe to learn more about the art of painting. First, he went to London where he met Benjamin West, a respected painter around Europe and an established painter in the Royal Academy. While in London, he learned different techniques from West.
These techniques seemed common in London, but were unknown in America. Copley wrote in a letter back home to his stepfather telling him about a simple technique he had learned “…Before painting, make drawings.”[2] From there Copley moved on to Paris where his confidence grew even more as he saw firsthand paintings from the best known painters in Europe at the time. As he got the chance to see works from his two favorite artists, Poussin and Rubens, Copley started sketching every time he saw something he thought was a beautiful form.3]
When he arrived in Rome, Copley would rise early in the morning and sketch reliefs and antique statues at the French Academy. Although confident about his abilities to sketch and paint, he worked humbly on all the details of his painting projects. At the end of his stay in Rome, Copley faced a hard decision; return to America, the country he was born in and loved, or move to London where his art career would flourish. At this time, the American Revolution had started and he feared for the wellbeing of his family back in Boston. Although the fear for his family was strong, Copley decided that moving to London would be the only place where he could sell his historical paintings, for which he had been working on tirelessly around Europe. While he was trying to make this hard decision, his family was already on a ship to London unbeknownst to him.[4]
This painting is the story of Brook Watson, which took place in Havana harbor, Cuba around 1749 when he was only fourteen years old. Watson, an orphan was working as a crewmember on a trading ship. While he was swimming alone out in the harbor early in the morning, a shark attacked him. His shipmates ran to his rescue, but not before the shark attacked him at least two times. According to tales, Watson and Copley met while they were traveling from Boston to England in 1774. However, history says that Watson never traveled that year. Copley must have heard the story and its details from Londoners who might have been Watson’s political followers.[5]
Watson and the Shark is a large oil painting on canvas measuring 183.51 x 229.55 cm (fig. 1). Copley decided to depict the dramatic scene where Watson was about to be attacked for the third time by a shark. This painting is a work during Copley’s English period; it was such a great success from the beginning that it was put on display at the Royal Academy in 1778.
Watson, who is naked in this painting and the shark attacking him are in the foreground (fig. 1). The shark has already devoured Watson’s right leg, as we can see from figure 1 Watson’s right leg is missing from the knee down. The shark is turning toward Watson, with its mouth wide-open and sharp teeth suggests that he is not satisfied, and is returning to finish what he has started.[6] Besides Watson, in a small boat, two of his shipmates are reaching to grab him and pull him on the boat. One of them is trying to fight off the shark by plunging a harpoon at the monster from the bow of the boat. A rope thrown at him is dangling useless in the water. This painting has captured a moment of fear and sadness in the faces and eyes of every man on that boat.
The quiet waters of the harbor serve Copley in the composition of the painting to bring the viewer’s attention to the action. Copley’s placements of elements in the painting allow the viewer to trace the action. The boat is coming from the harbor toward the shark. The movement of the shark that is taking a turn and a part of his body is outside the painting. We can clearly follow the movement of the harpoon that the sailor is plunging toward the shark. In addition, the movement of the men toward the boy makes the scene even more tragic. (Fig. 1).
Watson and the Shark, even though off center, are the focal points in this painting. The artist has successfully made this a tragic scene, by making Watson appear as he is frozen in the moment, portraying him exactly the way he was in those moments struggling for his life. The shark with his mouth wide open and his sharp teeth painted in detail make the scene even more dramatic to the viewer.
The artist has portrayed Watson naked in the water helpless on his back, which shows him as very vulnerable. His has a freighted look in his face, with his mouth and eyes wide open looking directly at the shark, which seems to represent the evil predator, and one hand up as if he is reaching for help from the heavens. The artist has painted the sun rising in contrast with the situation, but has also put the light on Watson the shark and the crewmembers trying to get him out of there.
The predominant color is sea green with some brighter colors in the background. These somber colors contribute in depicting these tragic moments in this scene. Sadness is all over the faces of men in the boat. The composition is centered at the man in the middle of the boat. All around him there is action.
Lines seem to be less important than shapes for the artist in this painting. The artist has been very careful in painting the men on the boat and depicting their actions, so that the story and individual actions of each man in this scene would be very clear to understand to the viewer. However, the most details have gone to portray the situation in which Watson is in, and to show his vulnerability.
While most reviews around this painting describe it as a painting that is describing a historical event, Irma Jaffe mentions in her journal, “John Singleton Copley’s ‘Watson and the Shark,’” that people have missed one very important aspect of Copley’s life; his religious life. As Jaffe points out, Copley was a very religious man, he went to church every Sunday and religion had played an important role in Copley’s view of himself as well as an artist. She says that this painting is about “resurrection and salvation”[7]
In her journal, she takes on the symbolism of the shark as a monster as described in the Bible and the symbolism of water as a life-giver and a trial in the Bible. Jaffe then analyzes all the other elements. It is noticeable that Copley has taken poses from earlier sculptures and put them in his painting. He has taken them and put them in different positions to accomplish his final painting.
Copley made the effort to paint every detail. The shark has very detailed features; his teeth and eyes were painted in detail to show the true nature of this evil creature. Watson’s hair, his eyes, and his facial expression were painted in detail. Copley really wanted the viewer to get involved in the tragic story that had happened to his patron, Brook Watson.
[1] Rebora, Carrie.John Singleton Copley in America. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1995. p. 79.
[2] Plate, Robert.John Singleton Copley America’s First Great Artist. United States of America: David McKay Company, Inc., 1969. p. 100.
[3] Plate, Robert.John Singleton Copley America’s First Great Artist. United State of America: David McKay Company, Inc., 1969. p. 101.
[4] Plate, p. 105-109
[5] Jeffery, Margaret. “A Painting of Copley’s English Period.”Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series1.4 (1942): 148. Web. 03 Mar 2010.
[6] Jeffery, p. 148
[7] Jaffe, Irma B. “John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark”.”American Art Journal9.1 (1977): 15-25. Web. 03 Mar 2010.