Piet Mondrian

#101. David Sweet writes on ‘O’, ‘G’, ‘D’ and Flat Painting

George Stubbs, ‘Ringwood’, 1792

I wanted to try to say something about space in abstract painting. Not the sort of abstract painting that is crowded with marks and visual events, so numerous they almost force the retina to see ‘depth’ as a coping strategy, but rather paintings that employ relatively few, relatively simple elements: Paintings that look flat.

Generating pictorial depth is fairly easy. It can be controlled and directed towards a descriptive goal, as in figurative painting, or it can spontaneously emerge from random movements of worked pigment. However, on its own, depth makes little difference to an individual painting’s ‘quality’.

When pictorial depth is generated it usually has to be anchored to a two-dimensional construct, the surface and/or the picture plane. Giving enough emphasis to this two dimensional feature in the total experience of the work is more tricky. If successfully negotiated, unlike the production of space on its own, it does add value.

The Impressionists were the most successful in negotiating the surface/depth tension. Each dab of the brush was tethered to the surface and linked to the next mark in the passage, but the whole integument was able to convey an account of the natural world, glimpsed but not forensically examined, with its legible spatial cues, its phenomenology addressed to perception.

The Impressionists influence on the practice of painting is hard to overestimate. Michael Fried’s comment sounds reasonable when he writes that ‘the basic formalist-modernist view – enshrined in Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting” – that paintings consist essentially in flat surfaces conjoined with a sheerly visual or optical mode of spatiality amounts to nothing more nor less than a theoretical rationale for the Impressionist picture’.[i] Add to that the practical demonstration of the value of the Impressionist picture taken as far as it would go in the late Monet ‘Water Lilies’ acquired by the Museum of Modern Art from 1955, means that the identification of painting itself and the modernist enterprise is hard to deny.


#96. Alan Gouk writes on Key Paintings of the 20th Century; a Musée Imaginaire, Part 2

Joan Miro, “Painting”, 1953, Guggenheim NY, © 2018 Successió Miró Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ADAGP, Paris

“First the Giants, then the pygmies.”   Elie Faure

PART 2  

Notes Synthetiques ca. 1888  by Paul Gauguin: “Art is an abstraction; derive this abstraction from nature whilst dreaming before it, and think more of the creation which will result than of nature”.

To Schuffeneker Aug. 1888: “Like music it acts on the soul through the intermediary of the senses. Harmonious colours respond to the harmonies of sounds”.

And in Diverse Choses 1898: “ The impressionists… heed only the eye and neglect the mysterious centres of thought”.

The sources of these ideas, which were to prove so fertile for the development of abstract painting, lay in the literature of early German Romanticism, Jean Paul, E T A Hoffmann, the synaesthesic imagery taken up by Baudelaire, Schopenhauer’s views on music as reinterpreted by Wagner, and the cult of Richard Wagner in France, which influenced even the  young Cézanne, and the symbolist poets gathered around Mallarme (though some of these pronouncements of Gauguin antecede his friendship with the latter).

Wagner’s music, especially in The Ring, could be described as the triumph of bad literature over music, or the subjugation of music to the literary imagination. The idea that colour, like music, can express the “mysterious centres of thought” appeals to the literary minded, so it is not surprising to find it echoed in Baudelaire and Mallarme. (See the poem Les Phares by Baudelaire). It is for the most part foreign to the French line in painting stemming from Delacroix and finding its culmination in Matisse. Although Matisse echoes the Mallarmean aesthetic “to paint not the thing but the emotion that it arouses in the artist”, in practice his art remains wedded to the full lustre of the sensory world. The transpositions of colour, red for blue, black for azure, are less emotionally driven as arising from his discoveries in Luxe, Calme et Volupte, 1904/05, that degrees of saturation of hue can form the tonal structure, rather than oppositions of dark and light, just as simultaneous contrasts of colour create light rather than oppositions or gradations of warm and cool.

George Seurat and the theorist Charles Henry voiced similar ideas about the expressive role of line and colour in conveying emotion, on the analogy with music, independently of their function in representation. Chromoluminisme as practiced by Seurat and Divisionism as practiced by Paul Signac, endeavour to combine this emotive theory with the science of colour, a hyper-realism, the two sitting uneasily together, and with mixed results, Pissarro being one of the first to express disillusionment with both the pictorial outcome and the intellectual distancing inherent in the approach.