Coinciding with the publication of the present issue, The Burlington Magazine is launching its most ambitious initiative since its foundation in 1903. This is Burlington Contemporary, an online platform for reviews and new research on contemporary art, which is accessed through our website.1 Every week it will publish reviews of current exhibitions and new books. There will also be an online journal, which will appear three times a year; the first issue is due to go online in December. Every element of Burlington Contemporary will be free to access.
As the first batch of reviews to appear makes plain, this new venture exploits the potentials of digital publishing: we can post reviews of exhibitions much more promptly than they could appear in print, at greater length and with fewer restrictions on the number of illustrations. We can embed video and audio files, a facility made use of in one of our first reviews, of the Bodys Isek Kingelez retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which incorporates the playlist of Congolese music put together for the exhibition by its designer, Carsten Höller, with Kristian Sjöblom. We can also be more inventive about editorial formats: the review of Video Games: Design/Play/Disrupt at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, takes the form of a discursive conversation between the artists Larry Achiampong and Wumi Olaosebikan.
We plan to publish reviews by artists and literary figures as well as art historians and critics, but this is not an innovation: the Magazine’s past contributors include Henry James, Oskar Kokoschka, Bridget Riley and Howard Hodgkin. The fact that the authors of the first roster of reviews includes names as familiar to readers of this Magazine as Andrea Rose and Gauvin Alexander Bailey makes it plain that Burlington Contemporary is not intended to be a break with the past. We shall continue to publish articles and reviews on contemporary art in the Magazine, and Burlington Contemporary will follow its definition of ‘contemporary’ – work produced in the past twenty years – although perhaps with a more consistent stress on experimental and emerging artists.
Another great advantage of digital publishing is that Burlington Contemporary can be treated to some extent as work in progress. This is particularly important with the journal, which is frankly experimental. So far as we are aware, there is no other academic periodical dealing with contemporary art in what might be called the ‘Burlington way’ – object-focused, empirical, rigorous in scholarship (all the articles will be peer-reviewed) and with a stress on clarity of prose and argument. We cannot be sure where this ambition will take us. It would be very gratifying if the development of Burlington Contemporary in close partnership with The Burlington Magazine helped to reduce the polarisation between contemporary and historical art in the minds and practice of so many historians and curators. At the very least, as was written in an Editorial in 2000, which sought to encourage submissions on recent art, we hope that taken together The Burlington Magazine and Burlington Contemporary will help to ‘bridge the gap between the “modern” of the recent past and the “contemporary” that signposts the future’.2
The launch of Burlington Contemporary coincides with the 110th anniversary of the moment when the Magazine first acknowledged that serious appreciation and analysis of recent art was part of its remit. This was a result of Roger Fry’s letter of 1908 to the Editor, Charles Holmes, protesting about an anonymous review of an exhibition at the New Gallery, London, which had sneered at contemporary French painting – ‘with M. Matisse motive and treatment alike are infantile’.3 After making his eloquent defence of Cézanne and Gauguin, Fry concluded that ‘I do not wish for a moment to make out that the works I have named are great masterpieces, or that the artists who executed them are possessed of great genius. What I do want to protest against is the facile assumption that an attitude to art which is strange, as all new attitudes are at first, is the result of wilful mystification and caprice on the artists’ part’.4
That was the beginning of a major shift of attitude, helped by Fry’s appointment as co-editor of the magazine in 1909, a position he occupied for a decade. The Burlington became a platform for his articles on recent French art: while Editor, he wrote on Aristide Maillol, Frank Dobson, Boris Anrep and Matisse, and in the 1920s he contributed articles on Van Gogh, Cézanne and Seurat. As this suggests, for the Burlington, as for most British people until at least the Second World War, ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ art meant almost exclusively French and British painting and sculpture. It was not until the involvement of the German émigré art historian Edith Hoffmann with the Burlington – appointed as secretary in 1938, she was Acting Editor from 1944 to 1945 and Assistant Editor from 1946 to 1950 – that twentieth-century German art, and in particular the Expressionists, received sustained and serious treatment.
By the 1960s the Magazine was publishing regular reviews of exhibitions on contemporary art (mostly in London), which were usually written by Keith Roberts. Like many British critics of the time Roberts was not entirely comfortable with the shift of the avant-garde focus in the 1950s from Paris to New York. He could see, for example, that Robert Rauschenberg’s exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1964 was a major event but he didn’t much like it: ‘Nothing is single and clear, everything is muddled and plural and as life passes it leaves a dirty stain round the bath’, he lamented, concluding – remarkably – that Rauschenberg’s ‘work suffers from a lack of surprise and freshness’.5 It was only in the present century that this slightly pained tone disappeared altogether and the Magazine began consistently to treat contemporary art as dispassionately as the art of the past. That was unusual in the frenzied boom-days of the market at the outset of the century. Although contemporary art is as popular as ever, the mood has been less brazenly commercial and more reflective following the financial crash of 2008. It is a mood from which Burlington Contemporary will benefit and to which we hope it will contribute.
1 It also has its own url, www.contemporary.burlington.org.uk
2 ‘Editorial: From modern to contemporary’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 142 (2000), p.203.
3 ‘The last phase of Impressionism’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 12 (1907–08) pp.272 and 277.
4 R. Fry: ‘The last phase of Impressionism’ (Letters to the Editor), THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 12 (1907–08), pp.374–75.
5 K. Roberts: ‘Current and forthcoming exhibitions: London’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 1964 pp.137–42, esp. pp.137 and 138.