The Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal is free. This means you don’t have to pay, (except for some temporary exhibitions). That and the collection is quite astonishing – including the likes of Monet, Picasso, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, etc… There is also a serious ancient Greece exhibit which, unlike the ROM’s, doesn’t pretend that Roman copies of Greek statues are Greek. There is an excellent exhibit on 20th century style and design. There is an expansive collection of European painting between the 15th and 19th centuries.
In other words, there is enough here that one can get a sense of the entire history of painting in a day. As such, welcome to Tristan’s comprehensive theory of European painting. Just kidding of course, but even a cursory look through does reveal some very interesting events. First off, Painting seems to have progressed quite slowly between the 15 and 19th centuries – many pieces from the early 19th century could be confused with things painted hundreds of years earlier. Basically, until Monet, the advances seem to be mostly technical – as far as style is concerned, there are 14th century landscapes and portraits that look like early 19th century works by lesser painters.
With Monet, however, the codes seem to break down. “Impressionism” means the self-consciously recognized product of painting is emotional. The symbolic codes become the object of play (Picasso), and dismissal (painting black squares). Rejection of symbolic codes for a time is revolutionary (dada), but is later co-opted by the same system it wishes not to reproduce (dada on Starbucks water bottles).
What is most amazing about this history is how, taking Monet as a fulcrum, we can see such a disparate rate of change of artistic style on either historical side – before, 300 years of relative calm – after, less than a hundred before the codes have completely broken down. Of course, they do not disappear – symbolic painting and representational painting persist, but persist as one code among many options. The old code was not characterized by its properties, its attributes, but by it being the-code, the dominant – not one part of a plurality.
The reason the current age can be said to “have no style” is not that there are no trends in design, not that no one is doing anything new in sculpture or painting or furniture – but rather that no unified code develops amongst people ever inventing the new. Foundings ever repeat, but do not take hold. There are too many choices, freedoms, possibilities. The system embraces it’s own deconstruction. The post-modern self is the one products are marketed towards.