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Who Dares Wins: The Artists Who Changed The World

Posted 27.10.16  - Culture

On 29th April 1874, the French critic Emile Cardon wrote in La Presse of a new exhibition: 'One wonders whether one is seeing the fruit either of a process of mystification which is highly unsuitable for the public, or the result of mental derangement which one could not but regret.'

That show was the first Impressionist exhibition, put on independently by painters such as Monet and Pissarro who, despite their obvious talent, were repeatedly refused space in the stuffy Paris Salon.

It changed everything. Painting, after Impressionism (it was another sniffy critic, Jules Castagnary, who coined the term), would never be the same, and it brought a paint-splattered end to the reign of the highly finished, classical and historical-themed work that filled the Salons. Who now recalls the name of Charles-Edouard Boutibonne? Whose biscuit tin is adorned with the work of Jules Joseph Lefebvre?

On first seeing Picasso’s transgressive masterpiece Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Russian textile magnate Sergei Shchukin gasped, 'What a loss for French art!'

Of course, artists who actually change the art world are rare. For every Monet there are a thousand Morets - competent, even vivacious imitators who, ultimately, are just that. But that rarity - and the inevitable triumph over fear of the new - is what makes those who do so exciting. Picasso, whose Cubist attack on the picture plane blew apart representation in art, struggled for years for his most daring work to be accepted. Even one of his most dedicated collectors, the Russian textile magnate Sergei Shchukin, found his work hard to cope with. On first seeing the painter's transgressive masterpiece Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, he gasped, 'What a loss for French art!'

Andy Warhol, whose lasting genius was to see that, in the 20th century, our images were becoming as important as our bodies, appalled the art establishment with his seemingly vacuous obsession with celebrities and the mainstream. He would have been fascinated by the rise of Kim Kardashian, but without him we'd also have no Jeff Koons, no Damien Hirst - both of whom have changed the art world (or at least the art market, which is almost the same thing) in their own particular ways.

Without Frida Kahlo, we might never have had Cindy Sherman, or Louise Bourgeois. Kahlo's uncompromising, visceral work, which mixed the personal (her lacerating self-portraits expressed the lifelong physical and emotional pain inflicted by a serious car accident in her teens) with the universal mystery of her native Mexico's folk traditions, challenged the long-held 'male gaze'. Her body, in her work, was unobjectified - a vessel for her pain and strength, a cauldron of power and emotion.

Though an entirely different kind of artist, Georgia O'Keefe also did her bit. At a time when the prevailing mode was for the swaggering Abstract Expressionism of Pollock and Rothko, or the Minimalism of Donald Judd or Frank Stella (the huge impact of all of whom I could also talk about, if I had room), she defied fashion and developed her own form of authentically American Modernism by semi-abstracting the natural world - 'She's not bad for a woman,' she recalled critics saying. 'She paints like a man’. In the process, she became the first American woman to achieve recognition on a par with her male peers and created a lasting part of the artistic iconography of America to boot. A rare beast indeed.

Image: The Louise Bourgeois artist room at the Tate

Credit: Tate Photography

Nancy Durrant - Arts Commissioning Editor at The Times

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