Learning from Modern Masters
What being a self-taught artist really means
Today, most budding artists go to art schools or are art majors at liberal arts colleges. In earlier times, they studied under established artists or joined artist guilds. Still, some were self-taught — and were often called outliers or naive artists.
Stephen Brophy (1940–2015) was a self-taught artist, but he was no naif. So he never took an art class, but was nonetheless remarkably disciplined in his studies. Like generations of artists before him, he developed as an artist by reading artbooks, looking at art and reflecting. And then by doggedly experimenting in his work until he absorbed the lessons of those he admired.
What follows are examples of some “student-teacher” pairings that I’ve constructed, to help me piece together Steve’s beginnings as an artist…
Cézanne: On nature, humanity and painting
[See two paintings above.]
Of all the modern masters that Steve studied, he was most enamored of French artist Paul Cézanne (1839–1906). He had a ton of artbooks devoted to the grandpère of modern art; the last from the great Cézanne retrospective that we saw together in 1996 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
I understand why. Cézanne was a man of many — and some would say tortured — dimensions, who struggled to reconcile conflicting ideas and powerful stylistic influences to produce a new, post-Impressionist painting.
I could not possibly contain in this story what art historians have taken books to describe, but clearly his genius and colossal oeuvre has inspired generations of artists. With Cézanne, at the turn of the 20th century, art changed.
According to MoMA’s description of this work in its collection, Cézanne stumbled on the castle Château Noir while walking the Provençal landscape in search of subjects to paint. And he’d paint it many times over. In this beauty of 1904, we see the thick, broad “multi-hued swatches” of paint that marked his mature style.
Some 75 years later Steve also happened on the perfect house, nearly obliterated by foliage. The result was this perfect hommage à Cezanne. And like his mentor, Steve struggled to find a way to re-create nature and man-made structures and to do so en pleine air painting. Not to mythologize nor memorialize, but to capture the immediacy of light and color in painting.
Then and later, as his work got bigger and more abstract, Steve would revisit the artbooks to refresh his ideas about nature, humanity and painting — especially by consulting Monsieur Professor Cézanne.
Delaunay: On color and abstraction
In addition to sumptuously beautiful painting, French artist Robert Delaunay (1885–1941) is mostly remembered for his early forays into pure abstraction and color play. He paid close attention not only to the emerging science on color, but also to its symbolic, even mystical applications. A term for his style of art was coined at the time as “Orphism.”
In this circular canvas, which MoMA describes as his sign for the universe, Delaunay creates a rhythmic movement with his color shapes. MoMA describes a “…flux of reds and oranges, greens and blues… attuned to the sun and the moon, the rotation of day and night.” The artist is quoted describing his colored planes as the “structure of the picture,” with nature “no longer a subject for description but a pretext.”
Steve would experiment with both round-shaped canvases and color. But I chose to pair with the Delaunay one of Steve’s odd but appealing color studies. In this 1974 painting, rows of closely hued color bars — like so many Pantone colors sequenced by number — emanate from a hexagonal center of sunbathed clouds and a child-like rainbow. I can only imagine that this color-charted exercise opened the floodgates to experimentation with shape, color and light, and the pure act of painting. In time, he too would see nature as a pretext, as he abandoned representation for pure abstraction.
DeChirico and the Metaphysical School
In the decade before Dalí came to dominate a new Surrealism, the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) evolved a new kind of painting he dubbed “metaphysical,” having given his works such titles as The Great Metaphysician or the Grand Metaphysical Interior. An art historian** described these canvases as “the climax of the artist’s visions of loneliness and nostalgia, his fear of the unknown, his premonitions of the future, and the reality beyond physical reality.”
De Chirico filled the deserted landscape of Enigma of the Day with oddly juxtaposed dream imagery and classical monuments. Forms are stripped of detail, and a strong but unsettling light casts eerie shadows. The effect of this strange, disquieting scene is only heightened by the deep perspective — with two solitary figures off in the far distance.
The de Chiricos of this period still hold our interest today. And for Steve — for just one or maybe two years in his artistic life — they captivated him, as well. Steve was drawn to the dreamscape and deep, near unfathomable meaning of metaphysical painting. He shifted from his more expressively gestural style, erasing brushstroke.
In Table and Chair, mega black balls descending in size roll away from a fanciful table and chair setting, as if a waiter will soon arrive to take an order that will never come. Like de Chirico’s Enigma of the Day, Steve’s stylized landscape hints of life in some distant place and time, toward a faraway world not of our making.
Derain and the kindred spirits of Fauvism
Steve’s second favorite artist after Cézanne was the French master Henri Matisse. But I chose to pair him here with Matisse’s contemporary, André Derain (1880–1954), during his Fauvist and arguably best years. (Later, he took on the Cubism of Picasso and still later returned to a more naturalistic style.)
According to MoMA’s website, Derain’s Bridge Over the Riou shows an identifiable scene of a French riverbank and bridge, but one transformed by a radical use of color that no longer follows nature. “…Derain wanted to create images that would ‘belong to all time’ as well as to his own period…. This emotionally high-keyed color relates to the intensity of the light in the south of France, yet belongs less to nature than to art.”
Steve took his color lessons from these early 20th-century French artists. Like Delaunay, Matisse, Derain, places in nature were observed, as were the play of color and light. But that’s the point when observation stopped and the act of painting took off.
Paul Klee, a master of inventiveness and style
Steve didn’t talk much about Paul Klee (1879-1940), a monumental artist of intimate scale. But the Swiss artist provided such a rich artistic vocabulary that it would be hard not to trace most innovations of the modern era back to him. So going out on a limb, I’ll backward map Steve’s exploration and absorption in painting to Klee. (Incidental note: Klee died the year Steve was born.)
Like Cézanne, Klee’s art is difficult to briefly encapsulate. The artist created poetic fantasies from forms both abstract and recognizable. Many of his paintings, filled as they are with faces, symbols, architectural structures, and eccentric doodlings, use bold black lines over patterned or dissolving color fields. In Glass Façade, Klee just hints at what’s behind the brightly lit panels.
Klee didn’t belong to any art movement, surreal or abstract, so much as tinkered at their edges. An art historian writes**, “Klee’s world is so personal and individual, so completely a part of — yet so completely divorced from — either normal human experience or existing ideas of abstract picture structure, whether geometric or abstract expressionist, that it exists independently of these, yet still encompasses them.”
In the abstracted scene of Steve’s Bronx Backyards, abundant life is housed within linear structures, activated by bright daylight colors, its Klee-like perspective flattened. While Klee’s painting conjures the glass façade of its title, Steve’s recalls a residential section of the Bronx. Adjoining backyards behind rows of connected houses offer a blur of sights and sounds, from trees and plants to wash hanging out to dry to competing music and street noises.
The paintings in this pairing are architectural and abstract. They share shapes. Diagonals within squares within rectangles, with hand-drawn lines. Both are playful and musical, and are teeming with life within. But, we the viewer, are not part of that life; we’re left looking in, hoping to find the door.
In this story, I’ve compared Steve’s paintings with those of blue-chip modern masters. I have no idea how he would’ve reacted to me doing that…horror? Amusement ? Embarrassment? Or maybe, pride?
To my mind, Steve showed a lot of imagination and courage in tackling the task of learning from the mega-giants of modern art. And there were others. I have his artbooks of Kandinsky, Rouault, Morandi, Avery, Hopper…. I remember walking by a Modigliani painting of yet another of his dark, long-necked beauties, thinking “seen one, seen them all.” But Steve slowed me down. Look. See. I can no longer pass by a Modigliani now. It would be wrong.
*With the exception of the Klee and Brophy paintings, artwork is from the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
**H. H. Arnason in the History of Modern Art (no pub date given, but de Chirico was still alive when my copy was published!)