At the beginning of this century the most adventuresome painters and sculptors took it for granted that anything in art that was going to feel radically new was also going to look radically new. For Picasso, Matisse, and a host of other artists this wasn’t a matter of theory, it was a matter of fact. Since the 1860s, when Manet introduced a style of virtuoso informality into easel painting, most of the wonderful art created in France embodied unconventional ideas of pictorial structure. Monet, Seurat, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne changed the face of painting; Fauvism and Cubism went further yet. We can still argue whether these transformations of tradition were intended as assaults on the past or as renewals of the past (they were probably some of both). But whatever the intent, in practice it amounted to the same thing: art looked different.

Now we’re into a new period, a...


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