This is the second in a series of four books about art and its interpretation from the mid-nineteenth century until the late twentieth century. As a series, composes the main texts of an Open University course, modern art: practices and debates. They represent a variety of approaches and methods characteristic of the contemporary debate about the art history.
The chapters in this book consider aspects of visual and artistic culture of Europe from 1900 until the late 1920s. Though organized chronologically, each chapter investigates a period or art movement of the early twentieth century in relation to theoretical issues and broader issues of interpretation. In developing questions are raised about research and historical methodology, as well as on the status of "art."
In chapter three, Charles Harrison considers some problems of interpretation and evaluation made by specific examples of abstract art, exploring some of the relationships and differences between forms of figurative and abstract painting. He discusses the need to give attention to specific historical building on the career of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, while the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian is considered in relation to the analysis of valuation.
Abstraction, figuration and representation
This essay deals with primarily the emergence of forms of abstract art in Europe during the second decade of the century, and some problems of interpretation and evaluation that they raise. Talk about "emergence" is affirming that these were somehow new forms of art. To understand the significance of some claims made on behalf of abstract art, we must first assess what is involved in a particular moment in history, in meeting the terms "abstract" and "art."
The term "abstract" is now widely used, and since the beginning of the XX century was applied as a label for many different art forms. When writing about art, the related term "abstraction" tends to be used in two related but distinct senses: to refer the case of certain works of art, the property of being abstract or "non-figurative" and to refer to the process by which certain aspects of themes or motifs are emphasized in works of art over others.
156, Vasily Kandinsky, Painting with Red Spot, 1914, Musée National d' Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
The illustrations 156-159 show examples of abstract art in the 1910s to 1920, produced by artists of Russian-speaking Czech, Dutch and Swiss. In describing these works as abstract implying that, whatever its appearance, the thing that they seem not to be explained by reference to a theme represented. Despite some obvious differences, they have that in common.
157, Hans Arp, Collage, 1916, Offentliche Kunstsammlung Basel.
In fact, although in everyday use we refer to works with "abstract" in the absence of any obvious similarity with the world, might happen to be seen as an abstract work not because it does not look like anything, but because its theme or subject is difficult to identify. And this may occur because a process of abstraction led to the suppression of certain easily recognizable characteristics of the original theme. In 1932, the English painter Paul Nash referred to Picasso as "the greatest of all abstract painters." We call this a sense of "weak" of abstraction, since, according to the most stringent criteria to be applied in this test, no one could say that Picasso did not even an abstract painting during his long activity as a painter. Moreover, the processes of abstraction that he practiced on his themes were often those that made it difficult to understand exactly how these issues were represented in his paintings. It is easy to see that a Picasso painting as Fiddler, the summer of 1910, could be understood as an abstract in the weak sense (illustration 159). By comparison, the work shown in the figure 158 could be called the abstract sense of the term that means it is a work that has no apparent desire to be part of a scene or person. She introduces herself simply as a "composition".
158, Piet Mondrian, Composition, 1916, Guggenheim Museum, Nova York.
As we shall see, and like Picasso Fiddler helps to show the weak and strong senses of abstraction are linked both practically and in terms of art history.
159, Pablo Picasso, The guitarist, 1910, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
On the other hand, it is important to bear in mind that while cubism arose in the context of a Parisian avant-garde, most of the first developments in abstract art occurred some distance from the French capital in Germany, Austria, Holland and Russia. Abstract art was not simply a continuation of that form of modern tradition that had its center in Paris during the previous half century. Rather, the idea of painting a "pure" or pointless tended to invest predominantly against the direction of modern French painting, whose strength lies in its sophisticated exploration of the problems of realism and self-consciousness in figurative representation. Certainly, this tradition was an indispensable resource for all artists involved, but it was extended, diversified and changed under different historical conditions and intellectuals of northern and eastern Europe. The resolution of this process, coinciding with the period of I World War marked the beginning of the end of French dominance on the visual forms of modern. While Paris remained an important center until the beginning of II World War in the early 1920s the idea of modern art and design had been associated in many minds with the possibility of a universal aesthetic, and therefore internationally to which forms of abstract painting would provide prototypes and examples.
Abstraction and meaning
The process of abstraction typically emphasizes those aspects of painting that we see as formal. The artist Theo van Doesburg offered a schematic demonstration of the process of abstraction in his book The Principles of New Plastic Art Illustration 160 shows the stages by turning a photographic picture of a cow in a sort of abstract composition - presumably to highlight aspects individually and emphasizing its "essential." There is something patently absurd in the contrast between the first and last image of Van Doesburg. This absurdity was intended or not, the contrast serves to demonstrate an important point about abstract art in general and the possible ways in which it could be interpreted or regarded as significant. In the clash with traditional forms of painting, we are accustomed to being able to compare certain images with the world, to see where they match or not the appearance (or our expectations), and understand types of intention in the resulting similarities and differences. Given the sequence of illustrations of Van Doesburg, we can actually participate in a similar way of comparison. If we are informed of the stages involved, we can quite easily "understand" abstract painting referred to as "cow". This means that we can reconstruct the painting for a casual kind of story that begins, first with a real cow in the world and, secondly, with a set of intentions by the artist. The process of abstraction is, so to speak, the sequence of effects that these intentions have on the image "original" cow is thus implicitly reconstruct a chain of causes, intentions and effects, however strange they might have been.
160, Theo van Doesburg, aesthetically transformed Subject, 1917, Bauhaus-Archive, Berlin.
But if we were confronted only with the last image of the sequence (illustration 161), as could well occur in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he is now painting? Possibly it could see a pattern like a cow, but in no doubt that his title would take much to persuade us that our perception was accidental How else, then we might find meaning in the painting? The question has obvious relevance for the interpretation of abstract art as a whole. In fact, the sequence of Van Doesburg case presents a deceptively sharp. The illustration 158 can be seen as illustrating a similar process of abstraction, and, guided by the example of Van Doesburg, would therefore seem reasonable to assume that Mondrian's Composition in Line for 1916-1917 is in some sense a painting of the sea. But suppose this would imply a continuous connecting it to earlier paintings. This assumption is not that we can do it safely. In the years 1909-14 Mondrian also drew pictures of trees, windmills and church towers. A different sequence of illustrations would seem to connect the last painting a different reason naturalist.
161, Theo van Doesburg, The Cow, 1917, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
If we have to give up information that a sequence of illustrations appears to provide, we should seek another way to repackage an abstract painting to the world of things, and so understand how it was shaped by the artist's intentions? Or should we instead seek meaning in relationships within the painting itself, given the differences between forms and colors the way we hear the words of an unknown language, not to convert them immediately in terms of our own language, but to achieve that form of understanding that must accompany any act of translation as such, an understanding of grammar relevant? Instead of seeking to establish the meaning of the painting by placing it in a system of causes and effects, we consider the meaning as part of that formal system is that painting?
It is true that all types of human representation can be viewed as ordered according to some system. Indeed, call an object of our experience of a form of representation is to say that we perceive it in a form of a more intentional, i.e., an order form that is meaningful and significant human design in human terms. "Human Terms" are inescapably terms of human language. But it does not follow necessarily that the forms in art are like words or words as they are ordered, or that they are in a correspondence with a given word. They are not subject to the same kind of grammatical rules or the same principles of consistency in use and not come together to form language statements or propositions.
As the example of Van Doesburg suggests the idea of abstract as a process tends to involve a kind of essentialism: up at least half of the XX century, joining the trend in modern art abstract - at least in its more clearly geometric - tended to lead to the belief that a more pure, higher or deeper reality is revealed by eliminating the accidental aspects and "inessential "things. This kind of essentialism derives its justification from the Platonic idea that there are universal or fundamental entities of which the things we encounter are simply examples of imperfect or impure. The work of abstract art was, therefore, associated by many of its early practitioners and advocates a kind of "see through", the idea that the artist is the one that penetrates the veil of material existence to reveal a spiritual reality underlying and essential.
In the early years of this century, Kandinsky and Mondrian were both attracted by the ideas of the Theosophists, who taught that human beings evolve in levels of physical existence to the spiritual, and that certain fundamental laws, hidden from the mass of humanity, are revealed to the initiated as philosophers, founders of religions and - perhaps - the artists. By 1915, Mondrian was also strongly affected by Neo-Platonism theories of mathematician Dr Schoenmaekers published that year. Meanwhile, in Russia, Malevich was interested in pseudo-scientific speculation about the fourth dimension.
It is not difficult to see how the development of Mondrian's work may seem to an essentialist search a gradual that universal reality that is supposedly hidden in the accident. In a footnote to his first published essay on art, Mondrian himself explicitly characterized the artist as a kind of medium for the expression of the universal.
If this view is attributed to the artist a kind of prophetic role, it also gives it a special responsibility. Your practice should be exemplary and in tune with the highest degree. The circulation of such ideas (no matter how eccentric they may seem) in the early years of the century may help explain the powerful sense of mission that is transmitted by the writings of Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich. Given the usefulness of the analogy between abstract composition and grammar, and grammar as they rely on the basic condition is to invoke a rational expression, we must not forget that each of the major artists involved in the initial development of abstract art was involved in some period of their training Neo-Platonism and mystical ideas - which means not rational. (We should be warned by the example of choice of Van Doesburg. Why a cow? "What a cow over a set of illusions Neo-Platonism should result in abstract painting is not, after all, a rational idea.)
Of course, not all forms of abstract art that presuppose an initial point of view or Neo-Platonism theosophical plausible. Nor is this view that a work of abstract art as necessarily commits itself to essentialism. Is not to exclude all other interests with what the work looks like or how she came to look like it has, nor is it necessarily deny that there may be other categories in which certain abstract works could be located in a more fruitful. Often is more informative look to material differences between the abstract works considered to realize that avoidance of figurative reference that they may have in common. If we want to discriminate between those works that meet the requirements of abstract, we need a range of appropriate subcategories in which to situate them, as well as labels for these categories.
The pictorial space is something we learn to understand, and we do so by reference to other forms of pictorial space. The history of painting in Western culture is largely a history of relevant forms of learning and the ways that learning was made. In his essay "A. And Pangeometry "written in 1925, El Lissisky said" The new optical experience has taught us that two surfaces of different intensity must be conceived as having a variable ratio of distance between them, even though they may be in the same plane ", the" new optical experience "he had in mind had been provided by the work of Malevich and Mondrian.
Another point to note is that the concept of non-figuration as a deliberately assumes that the figurative is what is normally expected. The consequence is that abstract painting depends for its status as art, the expectations created by paintings that are paintings, i.e. paintings by that, because of its resemblance to other things in the world can be seen as representations or illustrations of these things. It follows that the possibility of being seen as abstract paintings (i.e., as potential forms of high art) depends upon our tendency to look at their surfaces as other than purely flat - looking at them, in fact, potentially figurative. As the Greenberg noted, "The first mark made on the surface destroys its virtual plan" ("Modern Painting"), the effect of reading this mark is to split the screen visually and conceptually in "figure" and "bottom", and therefore , so to speak, to create space for any type of content or meaning (even though, again in the words of Greenberg, is not an illusion "in which someone can imagine yourself walking ... (it) is an illusion in which one can only look, just go with the eye. "To this point stating otherwise, it can be said that not only" see "the surface of a painting, we" see inside "surface of this evidence of some kind of intentional activity.
It is the invocation by the abstract paintings of this experience to "see inside", I think, that most strongly distinguished ornament. Abstract art assumes a critical position in front of figurative art, and the actual prevalence in European art and descriptive narratives of those functions that the procedures of figuration help facilitate and develop. But in order to establish this critical position, and to entertain the viewer to experience the real, the abstract work of art must first invoke and implement those same functions that you want to discredit. While we see the plan as Mondrian, we see it as meaningless (or, it may be said, see it as "pure design"). On the other hand, if we see something resembling the world, their identity and purpose as art are compromised. An abstract painting is something that is in place a framework which, however, is not a picture of anything.
Now we are better able to address an issue raised in the opening paragraph. Despite the universal and explicit assumptions of many of the artists themselves, the historically and culturally specific character of abstract art is emphasized when we consider how the two constituents - "abstract" and "art" - depend on each other. It may be useful to consider some counter examples. For example, in Islamic culture in which that less priority to the representative functions of art and more priority to the significance of the pattern or ornament, an art "abstract" does not in itself remarkable. Neither has she deserved any special attention in a culture that had no substantial basis for distinguishing paintings and sculptures from other forms of design and decoration. It is pertinent that theoretical pre-modernists like John Ruskin and William Morris, who wrote in the mid and late in the XIX century, have idealized the medieval period as one in which art and design were indistinguishable with respect to its statutes and aesthetic interests. To these critics, the realization of an abstract art - an "art" that is categorically distinct from "design" - could only have appeared as the realization of his worst predictions. This means that they probably would have seen as an extreme form of that tendency to isolate the "aesthetic" and "utility" which they saw as a negative consequence of industrialization.
In contrast, the modern theory of abstract art by Greenberg assumes that, for better or for worse, the practices of art and design are distinct but not really incompatible. A tension and a growing difficulty in relations between the concepts of art and design, respectively, are revealed in varying critical fortunes of the term "decoration". In the late 1880s, the Symbolists used the concept of decoration to refer to those who saw positive aesthetic values as independent of the requirements description and imitation. For Matisse, writing in 1910, the decorative aspect of painting coincided with its expressive function, in pursuit of which every single component was critically adjusted. In 1910, when presenting his translation of the article about Cézanne from Maurice Denis, Roger Fry wrote of "a new courage to experiment in painting that direct expression of imagined states of consciousness, which has long been relegated to music and poetry." He saw this trend as associated with a "new lease of art, in which decorative elements predominate to the detriment of the representative." Clearly the emphasis was thus placed in a decorative way to affirm the relative autonomy of art forms as vehicles of expression. With the beginnings of practical interest in the development of abstract art, on the other hand, the realization of "mere" decoration became the hallmark of aesthetic failure - or the failure to establish that promise of intellectual and emotional depth that was associated with painting as art form.
The intention to produce abstract art was then an intention to present works not as non-figurative forms of "mere" decoration or ornament, but as forms of modern art - that is, as forms of representation. In reviewing its development in 1913, Kandinsky wrote about the "frightening depth of issues, charged with responsibility," he thought he had before him. "And most importantly, what should replace the lost object?" The danger of ornamentation was clear, the death of alleged stylized could only drive me away. “As we shall see, the intention to produce abstract art was not made suddenly or by an individual who acted alone. She has developed, I think, as a partial consequence of those long-term changes in the relations between "art" and "design", and both with the "figuration," which we can follow along the nineteenth century - changes that are themselves associated, in some theories of modernism, the inception of the modern period in art. That is, the emergence of abstract art was specific to a modern European world in which the mainstream of economic and industrial development was to boost the distinctions between art and design, and between higher and lower forms of art, in which the meaning of high art was usually associated to figuration, and in which the paintings and sculptures were candidates to the status of high art, while examples of design and ornament were not.
A note on abstract art in his time
As noted, the evidence is that the problem of the value of abstract art was a pertinent question in particular the practice of European art at the beginning of the XX century. Why then? Some clues to an answer may extract from the previous discussion, namely, examining the relationship between abstraction and non-figuration. At the end of the century. Century, the practice of critical configuration - the critique of illusion and all that the techniques used to provide the illusionistic art salons and academies in Europe - often tended towards abstraction. The emphasis on "purity" of the potential form was both a means to challenge the traditions in their own merits classicizing Neo-Platonism, as a means to depreciate the superficially descriptive, anecdotal and the imitative. Coincidentally, the idea of a universal reality and the underlying served as a kind of symbolist contrast critical to the burdensome requirement of truth in appearances. Meanwhile, the idea of a spiritual truth served by some as a light which revealed what they saw taking the generally materialistic values of the contemporary world. The initial justification of abstract art not only resorted to criticism well exercised in the traditional way, but also a varied literature of thought "anti-materialist," to which the philosophers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Wagner the composer, the poet Malarmé, mystics and Ouspensky Madame Blavatsky and many others had contributed in various ways, although not equally. In the early years of this century has won a feature utopian anti-materialism. This means that he was associated with a positive ideal of human potential and human society. In a decade that includes World War, a failed revolution in Germany and a successful in Russia, the new art forms were associated with optimistic forms of opposition to the prevailing political and social order, although not usually organized to socialism.
The idea of abstract art - the vision of a universal aesthetic potential and its extension to the "daily life" - was part of the conceptual apparatus by which certain persons, individually and in groups, have tried in the early XX century imagine your way to a better world. That is, the intention to produce abstract art, though an artistic intention, and was formed in a world that was not simply a world of art.