#119. Tim Scott quotes from Werner Haftmann, “Painting in the Twentieth Century”, 1966

Werner Haftmann, “Painting in the Twentieth Century”, 1966

Excerpts concerning the origins of abstract art, for discussion.

Abstraction: “…the German mind stylised it (the visible world), filled it with demons and hallucinations that varied in intensity, according to the degree of the artist’s participation. This went so far that at an early date questions arose such as these: Might it not be possible to disregard images of nature entirely? Might not the inner image expressed entirely in abstract forms be the only worthy content of a picture? Visible reality was an element hostile to art, a fetter, a world of pretence….”     P.65.         [Tim Scott:  ‘Germanic (i.e. north European)’ as opposed to ‘Latin’ (i.e. French)]

Picasso:”…The aroma that interests Picasso arises from the tension between the self and the ‘otherness’ of objects and can be made intelligible only by representational analogies. This is the basic reason why he kept clear of abstract painting and why he said in 1935: “Abstract art is nothing but painting, but what happens to the drama? There is no abstract art, one must always begin with something, then all traces of reality can be removed. There is a danger there, because the idea of the object has left an indelible mark. It is the idea that stimulates the artist, inspires his ideas, arouses his emotions…”     P283.

Matisse: “…Matisse had discovered that the motif arouses different sensations each time one looks at it, and concluded that nothing is fixed in nature. But the painter is free to synthesise his successive impressions, letting each one enrich the others. Matisse looked upon this as a part of the method he called “the organisation of sensations”.           P.73.

Analytical Cubism:    “…He (Cezanne) wanted to transform sensory orders discovered in nature into form, to give them permanence and embody them in painting. Form was the product of a dialogue between the mind intent upon order and the object. Analysis of the object was now to emancipate the new art of expression from all old forms, from all archaeological and ethnographic elements, and lead it to its own means of expression.         P.98.

Rise of abstract painting, Kandinsky:    “Beginning in 1905 the great goal was an art that would express human inwardness without recourse to metaphors drawn from the outside world. The essential was no longer to reproduce objects, but to make the picture itself into an object which, through the resonance inherent in construction, would awaken a feeling similar to that aroused by the things and processes of visible nature…”          P.134-5

“…Kandinsky is generally regarded as the originator of abstract painting. But we must bear in mind that he represents merely the culmination of a process that had long been maturing. Abstract painting can be said to have been born in 1910-11; Kandinsky’s first abstract water colour is dated 1910. But only a little later, in 1912 Delaunay and Kupka in Paris arrived at the sane solution quite independently of Kandinsky, and at the opposite end of Europe, in Moscow, Larionov found his way to abstract form in 1911. The problem had been so well propounded all over Europe that the solution was inevitably arrived at in many places at once….”           P.135

“…the Austrian Alfred Kubin, a painter utterly at the mercy of his psychic impulses, shows that the entire human structure of the decade – the malaise that sprang from an increasing doubt as to the reality and solidity of the visible world – sought a kind of redemption in abstract painting. In 1906 a look through a microscope had suddenly convinced Kubin that the existence of the visible world was by no means as self-evident as is generally supposed. His insight created an ‘intense pressure’ which he tried to dispel through painting…”          P.135

“…This was the source (Russianness) of the freedom with which Kandinsky moved away from the visible world. It is no accident that the echoes of the modern Western movements- Symbolism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism- should have taken a more abstract form in Russia. From 1910  to 1914 Moscow witnessed a veritable flood of modern tendencies in painting , but all ended in abstractionism…Pre-war Moscow was the citadel of abstract painting…”           P.137

De Stijl – “…Neo Plasticim as Mondrian named this style of painting in 1920 …harmony is a balance of contrasts (this goes back to an idea of Seurat’s). The most elementary contrast is that inherent in the right angle; constant balance is expressed by straight lines at right angles to one another. Accordingly, only lines meeting at right angles can be employed in elementary art. Since overlapping lines suggest depth so impairing the elementary flatness of the surface, these lines must appear as narrow bands that are tied as it were to the surface. The bands that give form to the surface constitute a system of regular fields, which are articulated and enriched by colour. The realm of colour is reduced to two basic groups; om the one hand the primary hues, red, blue, and yellow, and on the other hand, the ‘non colours’ black, white, and grey. It is only with these elements, arranged according to relations of form and colour, that one can express an elementary and hence universal harmony, entirely free from individual suggestions and representational associations – pure architecture, a pure harmonic art..”   P.198.

Mondrian:   “…it was during those years in Holland that he hit upon the crucial insight that aesthetic harmony is fundamentally different from natural harmony; that genuine abstraction – ‘real abstraction’, as Mondrian called it – could never be achieved by styling natural harmony, by abstracting from it, since natural harmony could be regarded only as a very inadequate embodiment of universal harmony; he decided that the universal harmony was obscured by the forms of objects. “The emotion of beauty is always obstructed by the appearance of ‘the object’; therefore the object must be eliminated from the picture.”…Objects and emotions make pure ‘plastic’ art impossible, because they always call for limited form and particular representation…”           P.201

“…the active creation of ‘nothingness’ proved to be a fundamental creative act. In it ‘the abstract’ was posited as an absolute value. In Kandinsky the form was still the particular symbol of an emotion; now the composition itself was ‘plastic’ expression, the work was ‘plastic ‘ object …Abstract form was established as a reality in its own right…”          P.202

“…The second act was performed by Malevich when, in order to define in the most rigorous manner the opposite of the world of natural appearance, he declared a black square on a white ground to be a painting. In this act the modern experience of form was defined as the experience of a concrete reality, which belongs to the human mind alone, and in which the mind represents itself. The two acts…have nothing to do with ‘art’; they were demonstrations…”         P.203.

“…Since then, there has been no painting concerned with images of things, whether naturalist or Impressionist, which does not to some extent reflect this experience. Nor can there be such a painting under the conditions that govern the modern experience of the world….”               P.204


  1. When I came across these quotes in Haftmann’s book, it occurred to me that Abcrit deication to abstract art had not spent much time on its origins, (other than analysing individual works).
    A good question for us nbw is just exactly how much today’s efforts still have (or not) to do with these.origins, and whether the motivations that inspired them are still relevant ? If not what are our motivations ?


  2. Some tentative thoughts on figurative/abstract painting considered as painting with and without objects:

    There are at least two different ways of thinking about objects:

    Objects in the sense of everyday Newtonian physics are things with volume, shape and mass, existing in three-dimensional space.

    Psychologically speaking, objects are things “out there”, not ourselves, which is a wider category, inclusive of elements which intuition, convention and what one might call humanity forbid us to regard merely as objects in the physical sense – other people, other sentient beings.

    Objects in this psychological sense, even if they can also be seen scientifically / physically must not necessarily be purely so perceived. They may also carry an emotional (or otherwise transcendent) meaning or significance. Think rivers, mountains, trees.

    Abstract art might be seen as the attempt to subtract objects of the former kind from the latter, to arrive at some kind of undiluted expression (Pollock), new realisation (Bonnard) or idealisation (Mondrian) of how it is to be sentient.

    But what exactly is to be subtracted?

    The kind of Newtonian objects referred to above are only a special case in the body of that which science in the widest sense has objectified – made accessible to scientific narrative. This “scientific reality” consists of rather more than just Newtonian physics, including as it does general relativity, neurobiology, particle physics etc. etc.

    It therefore seems somewhat arbitrary to single out Newtonian objects for elimination in order to arrive at “abstract” art. Geometrical, mathematical and statistical objects all belong together with Newtonian objects within the body of science. In this sense, grids, circles, gradients etc. are as figurative as tables and chairs.

    I want to suggest that abstract painting isn’t about elimination of three-dimensional objects but rather the elimination of any necessary appeal to objective narrative within the work. This corresponds to Kandinsky’s quote above: “art that would express human inwardness without recourse to metaphors drawn from the outside world” but not to the extremes of Mondrian’s: “The emotion of beauty is always obstructed by the appearance of ‘the object’; therefore the object must be eliminated from the picture.”

    The relevant difference would then be between illustrative and non-illustrative art rather than figurative and non-figurative or objective and non-objective art.

    These matters are particularly important for painting because painting creates illusory, three-dimensional Newtonian space and with it (however trivially) illusory Newtonian objects, even if they are very tiny or very thin.
    The pursuit of flatness as a solution to this problem has turned out to be a truly dead end. Painting can do spatial illusion combined with a tangible surface or it can do nothing that a screen or photograph cannot do better.

    Painting cannot avoid the creation of illusory objects but it can avoid relying on illustration/objective narrative for its import. In trying to escape the former it puts unnecessary and arbitrary limits on its own resources – “geometric good, organic bad; flat, parallel planes good, perspective bad; monochrome good, background bad” etc. etc.

    Maybe this applies in some form to sculpture too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The problem with these quotations is that they assume that the world that we live and move about in and that inspires us to make art, is the “real world”,and the job of abstraction is to deconstruct it and somehow make a new expression of it. The truth is that this real world is nothing more than a convenient user illusion that we use to negotiate our way through life. The current thinking about what constitutes abstract is a work that defines its own terms of existence without reference or literalness. In this sense each work is born afresh each time becoming real on its own terms. The Brancaster painters are ,in my opinion, going some way to achieving this, where each work is an entirely new experience and unrepeatable, becoming uniquely real.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A belated response to Richard and Mark:

    Richard – I enjoyed your ‘object” analysis; especially the following: “…I want to suggest that abstract painting isn’t about elimination of three dimensional objects but rather the elimination of any appeal to objective narrative within the work…”

    and again: “…the relevant difference would then be between illustrative and non-illustrative art rather than figuration and non-figuration or objectrive and non-objective art…”

    In sculpture’s case, quite obviously since a sculpture IS a three dimensional object by definition, the tables are reversed since one is not trying to ”eliminate’ three dimensionality but extract it from the conventions of the three dimensions of the object world.
    Certainly abstract sculpture is attempting to eliminate ANY reference or illustrative content, leaving it free to establish its own unique category of existence,..

    Mark – “…the truth is that the real world is nothing more than a convenient user illusion that we use to negotiate our way through life…”
    From birth our brains absorb the “real world”. Our reactions to this absorbtion cannot surely ignore the reality of it.. In art this absorbtion underlies any effort at its ‘expression’. I cannot therefore see it as “a convenient user illusion”. I would see it as essential to the building of any talent for creativity of any sort, particularly as art aims to put things INTO the real world to add to its enjoyment and wonder. .


  5. Mark – “…the truth is that the real world is nothing more than a convenient user illusion that we use to negotiate our way through life…”

    If the real world is a convenient illusion, it can be dispensed with, leaving us with …. fantasy.

    Most people would say that the real world is what we must overcome or control or arrange in order to negotiate our way through life because only in fantasy worlds are desires immediately realized, wishes fulfilled, intentions carried into action with guaranteed success.

    The real world is what we come up against in negotiating our way through life, which is why there are things like virtues – courage, resourcefulness, and commitment, and failures, notwithstanding our best intentions and efforts.


  6. I would simply say, Carl, that the ‘real world’ is by definition the basis of experience and that experience is the basis of any artistic drive. That can of course include fantasy as well and probably does most of the time. Are we simply in a semantic muddle


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