Apollo Magazine

When was the avant-garde?

The term 'avant-garde' has shifted meaning from its military roots to the byword for artistic innovation. How should we apply it to art history?

Black Square (1929), Kazimir Malevich, Courtesy The State Tretyakov Gallery

Debates at this spring’s View Festival traced the changing use of the phrase avant-garde through the 18th and 19th centuries as it shifted meaning from its military roots to the byword for artistic innovation it became in the 20th century. Three current major exhibitions in London – ‘Rubens and his Legacy’ at the Royal Academy, ‘Inventing Impressionism’ at the National Gallery and ‘Adventures of the Black Square’ at the Whitechapel Gallery – were linked to the festival’s avant-garde strand. Between them they cover 400 years of art history, but can the term really be used with such a broad chronological scope?

The argument may seem academic, but time is central to avant-gardism as an arbiter of quality. The military term refers to those sent ahead of the ordinary troops, those going first, who will inevitably be followed by the masses. The value in an avant-garde artwork comes, in part, from it being first. Malevich’s Black Square is a perfect example, not least because Malevich himself dated the work, which is thought to have been painted in 1915, to 1913, confirming the importance of being first. When Malevich repeated the work in the 1920s geometric abstraction had taken hold; the aesthetic value of the later versions may be barely distinguishable, but their art historical and potentially therefore their market values are wholly different.

If avant-garde refers to a combination of innovation and influence – being ahead of one’s time – then it could be applied to artists with those qualities of any period. The concept behind the Rubens exhibition at the Royal Academy is surely not that far removed from that at the Whitechapel. Celebrating Rubens’s artistic legacy amongst artists widely considered avant-garde like Manet, Cézanne and Picasso, reminds us that avant-gardism relies as much on continuity as it does on rupture.

So why would calling Rubens, or indeed Masaccio, Caravaggio or Rembrandt avant-garde break a taboo? Avant-garde is a noun as well as an adjective. It refers to groups of artists and writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, specifically, those making and distributing art in a different way to their contemporaries; artists who self-consciously created ‘isms’, were promoted by themselves or critics in little magazines and showed and sold their work in private galleries or artist-led exhibitions. The National Gallery exhibition focusing on the role of the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel demonstrates the importance of the art market in establishing the reputations, not to mention ensuring the survival, of artists today considered canonical.

Awareness of the circumstances of the avant-garde helps to give the term meaning beyond its role as marketing department shorthand for artistic importance. If we are in awe of artists achieving avant-gardism before the fact, then perhaps we should be mindful of the implication of lateness this gives to many aspects of our present art world of brands, media strategies and market forces, which the avant-garde foretold.

‘View: A Festival of Art History’ was at the Institut français du Royaume-Uni, London, from 27 February–1 March 2015.

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