BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 10 OCT 15
Featured in
Issue 4

Under the Influence

How art evolves

BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 10 OCT 15

The evolution of art history is not neat: how ideas and images come into being is a messy, often mysterious, correlation of talent, timing, influence and coincidence. Take, for example, the great Spanish painter, Francisco de Goya, who famously declared: ‘Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.’ Late in Goya’s life, when, depressed and totally deaf, he was living in Madrid, a Belgian showman, magician and physicist, Étienne-Gaspard Robertson, visited the Spanish capital with his ‘spectacle of phantasmagoria’: ghoulish images projected onto screens and clouds of smoke. In this fourth issue of Frieze Masters, novelist Chloe Aridjis speculates that Robertson’s ghostly projections influenced the artist’s brilliant cycle of ‘Black Paintings’ in the early 1820s. Goya’s own considerable impact on the evolution of the art of the last few centuries is discussed in one of our lead features by Matthew McLean; as he observes: ‘What is incontestable is that something profound enters art history with the “Black Paintings”. For all the major movements of 18th-century painting […] the visual world is essentially light.’ The exhibition ‘Goya: The Portraits’ opens at London’s National Gallery on 7 October.

Goya was, of course, a superb chronicler of his time, but he also understood that the imagination is as important as a paintbrush, and that fantasy and invention can be as enlightening a reflection of the human condition as a more sober approach. In this, he influenced many of the major artists of the 20th century, including Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso, whose work Charlie Fox discusses in his whistle-stop tour of the relationship between artists and their favourite hallucinogen: alcohol. Fox concludes that, however good the tipple, what great artists conjure is always ‘much stranger and more powerful than whatever swirls at the bottom of a glass’. Sonia Delaunay’s myriad approaches to creativity are a case in point. In her essay exploring Delaunay’s radical indifference to the conventional boundaries between genres and disciplines, novelist Ali Smith declares: ‘Her transformations changed and united the worlds of design, decor, fashion, always gesturing to, changing and uniting all the divided things throughout the world itself.’ Delaunay’s approach embodied the truism that art is never produced in a vacuum: she influenced not only her fellow artists and designers, but poets, too; Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars were her devoted fans, with Apollinaire inventing the term ‘Orphism’ in 1912 to refer to the joyously sensual abstract work being created by a number of artists in Paris at the time, of whom Delaunay was a leading light. (Her major retrospective was held earlier this year at Tate Modern; it was organized with the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris-Musées.) Smith herself is not immune to influence: her Man Booker Prize-nominated novel, How to Be Both (2015), was, in fact, inspired by a reproduction she had seen in frieze of a detail of a fresco by the 15th-century artist Francesco del Cossa at the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara.

Every year, Frieze Masters invites a cross-section of international artists from different generations to nominate a work of art from the past that has influenced them. This year, 17 respondents — from Ryan Gander and Camille Henrot to Alex Katz and Shahryar Nashat — discuss the importance to them of a wildly divergent group of artists, from Lucien Freud and Kazimir Malevich to Diego Velázquez and more. As Gander states in his homage to the Italian artist and designer Bruno Munari: ‘He understood that being an artist means not having to make the same thing, or variation on a theme, every day for the rest of your life. He knew that this was the greatest job there will ever be — but he also understood it was quite a lot to live up to.’ Reading over the contributions of these artists only serves to highlight how integral ideas from the past are to contemporary art; many of them, in fact, are more alive and relevant today than they’ve ever been.

Main image: Francisco de Goya, plate No. 5 of 'Los Desastres de la Guerra' ('The Disasters of War') series, 1810–1820. Courtesy: Museo del Prado and Wikimedia Commons

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.