Art In History Art Blog
The moment at the beginning of the 20th century when artists made the lead to pure non-representational art is a fascinating one. It is the culmination of a number of trends over the previous 100-200 years, each interesting in itself, and together creating a uniquely self-aware moment in art.
First, I would like to register my complaint about the term "abstract", which has come to be applied indiscriminately to non-representational art. The term describes very well the process which led up to the leap, but is misleading when applied to "pure abstraction". Abstraction implies a process of generalizing and simplifying from the specific; it presumes a reality from which essentials are being drawn.
"Abstraction" desribes perfectly the process which Mondrian undertook in the early years of the century. In his "Grey Tree" and his later "Line and Color", we see him methodically stripping away nonessential detail in a tree, searching for the essense of line and movement. These works are abstractions, even when the original subject becomes lost. The "Composition with Blue Plane" which is the lead image above is not an abstraction, it is a cosntruction. The process is completely different.
A look at the two phases of Picasso's Cubism leads to the same discovery. Analytical cubism, as seen in the "Accordianist", reveals a process basically the same as Mondriaan's, working from reality toward the essentials of form and surface. In "Suze", a work of Synthetic Cubism, the process is reversed: Picasso takes bits of reality, combined with bits of line, form and surface, and constructs an image. Unlike Mondrian, Picasso never chose to take the step to eliminate all associations with reality in his work.
How did this all come about? One element was the remarkable historical awareness, and thus self-awareness, of the preceeding century. Artists were keenly aware of their place in history, argued at length about why their time had not developed its own style, and in fact, found themselves able to put on and take of "styles" like a suit of clothes. This trend is worth another post! Ultimately, it led artists to try to escape from "styles" altogether, and non-representational art was one way to do it.
A second trend was the emergence of the Avant Garde idea...definitely worth its own post! With the rise of the bopurgeois class came a buying public that really could not understand art as the artist understood it. In earlier periods, artists and patrons had basically shared a common understanding of the arts. Progressively through the 19th century, artists began to feel that if they were "understood", they were doing something wrong. The job of the artist became to lead an uncomprehending public into the future. A great deal that happened around the beginning of the 20th century had as one element the drive to escape from understanding and acceptance by the Philistines.
A third trend was the rise in awareness of pure aesthetic values in art. There was an increasing awareness that the nobility of the subject,or appeal of the "story", didn't have much to do with the works merits when viewed as an aesthetic object. It became a short step to the proposition that the subject or narrative was irrelelvant to the work as art.
All these things led to the emergence of non-representation art in the first decade of the 20th century. It came in many flavors. Kandinsky's expressionist approach used the example of music as an art free from specific reference, naming his works "compositions" or "improvisations", and aiming for the same direct appeal to emotions. He was fascinated by the intrinsic emotional quality of specific colors. However, the suggestiveness of the works allow the viewer to still make associations with reality.
The minimalists such as Malevich, however, went to great lengths to eliminate all possibility of association with a subject. By eliminating all "overtones", they force the viewer to deal with the elements of the work in isolation, almost without feelings, unless they be pure aesthetic delight. My personal view is that they threw the baby out with the bathwater.
The birth of non-representational art also led to changed attitudes toward the art of the past, including a theory which I want to comment on. This is the idea that what separates ordinary art from great art at ALL periods is the abstract qualities of the work. In this view, It is the subtle balancing of shapes and colors that separate Raphael from his imitators.
I agree that great works succeed on this level, but the emphasis on compositional or surface values varies greatly. As a way of valuing past masters, it is very flawed since it does not give weight to their intentions, and the many tools at their disposal. We tend to value Turner's works because they are "so modern", so nearly abstract, ignoring the fact that he added lengthy titles to the work to make sure the story wasn't lost: "Slave Ship Jettisoning its Cargo in a Storm" is still not the full title. It is misleading to think of Turner as "trying to be abstract".
I'd like to compare portraits by the two great 19th century rivals Delacroix and Ingres, direct opposites in terms of style. Are we to prefer Ingres based on his exquisite ordering and balance of the surface shapes, despite his uncompromising realism? Or should we prefer the suggestiveness and bravura of Delacroix, which allows us to be aware of paint and brushstroke on the surface? Why not just enjoy the way each enriches the subject by adding aesthetic overtones which are satisfying in themselves?