The Laws of Nature

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Mile 6 ...

Looks like we all moved to the beach for tonight's campfire discussion. Mmmm... the sand feels great between my sore toes! Before we get started, I have a message for everyone from fellow camper, Egmont. He's been traveling and has had trouble finding wifi access, but wants everyone around the campfire to know that he's anxious to get back into the discussion with us and hopes to arrive back home by Thursday. Egmont ... have a safe trip back and we look forward to all that you have to say!!

Before hitting the trail, I should remark on yesterday's discussion: WOW. If you haven't read all the comments, please go back and look at them again. There's a lot of substance there. We might want to continue discussing many of the points you raised, but I'll focus on only one at this point. Mark, you almost kept me up all night thinking about your idea that "each movement seems to be a rebellion against the others." Don addressed this and I'd like to push it a little further down the trail by using the overarching idea presented in Williams book. From what I've been reading, it appears that historical changes in art theory emerged from what was first a change in philosophy (often coupled with politics) which led to a change in the literary arts and then the visual arts. So the train of theory looks like this: the engine is the philosopher, the passenger car is the poet, and the caboose is the artist. This would mean that the artist reacts to and reflects the present condition of the world rather than leading it to the next condition. Although forms of rebellion took place in art theory, they may have been more circumstantial. For instance, Courbet's initiative to build his own exhibition to Realism happened only after he had already painted the work and tried to exhibit it in the traditional venue. On the other hand, as Don points out, Courbet was politically a radical figure and his motivation in art was also political. Quite honestly, I don't know the true answer, Mark, and am excited that you raised the question - more to think about.

The second point that Mark makes is "the constant ... that good art should connect." I guess I could think about this forever, and I can see where you'd come to that conclusion. What do the rest of you think?

Well, I'll lace up my hiking boots and head back to the trail. We still have a few more miles to go, and hope you'll forgive my tendency to take shortcuts through William's excellent book on the history of art theory. There's just too much in that book for me to explore here, and this journey could be one of a thousand miles if I attempt to do so. Back to the 19th Century ...

I marched through a number of "isms" that all fall under the general category of Modernism: Realism, Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, and Symbolism. I'd like to pick the trail at Symbolism again and march into the early 20th Century.

Henri Matisse was prominent among the Symbolists but also among the Expressionists who first appeared in Germany in the beginning of the 20th Century. Matisse and his associates created paintings that were considered so outrageous that they were dubbed the "fauves" at a 1905 exhibition. The translation of fauves is "wild beasts." Actually, Matisse and Wassily Kadinsky (1866-1944) are considered second generation symbolists at a transitional stage in art theory. In order to understand these two artists and their contribution to art, I'll give you a little background on each.

Henri Matisse received academic training, but departed from it to experiment with color. He liked being identified with the Expressionists by emphasizing the importance of expression in his paintings, but he also stressed the calm and rational - the scientific. He once wrote: What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter .. calming influence on the mind.... I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have about life and my way of translating it. A big influence on Matisse was a Parisian philosopher named Henri Bergron, who published the book Creative Evolution in 1907. Bergron brought us "vitalism," which places emphasis on the dynamic coupled with the sense of infinite possibility. His work helped Matisse realize the possibility of objective, scientific expression. I know this seems a little mind-bending, but if you look at Matisse's work, you can figure it out:

Wassily Kandinsky is an interesting character as well. He studied law before painting, and moved to Moscow from Munich where he became involved with progressive artists and writers. Then, he moved to France from 1906-07 where he was influenced by Matisse and the Fauves. After that, he returned to Germany and pushed his own work toward greater color intensity and freedom. In 1911, Kandinsky painted the first completely non-representational painting. So, he was the pioneer of this style. Here's an example:

In 1911, Kandinsky published the first comprehensive statement of Symbolist principles in his essay On the Spiritual in Art. Here are a few major points from that essay:
  • the task of the artist is to provide a new language for the spirit

  • Realist painting is associate with materialism and freer abstract paintings with the new spirituality

  • complete freedom of expression must be the work of art in order to achieve subtler, more articulate expressivity

  • establishes a close link between painting and music

  • provides a careful analysis of colors and how they interact
It would be difficult to overstate the amount of influence these two artists had on the art world during their time and since. By the time I entered college, it was ALL about abstract expressionism and, especially Kandinsky's contribution to art theory. I know that many of you have a lot to say about this, so I'll let you say the rest. You can do it better :)

Next time: Ruskin and the Aesthetes ... the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and a little more.


M said...

I wonder if changes through art history is as neatly packaged as Williams describes. History gets written after the fact and is based on whatever evidence remains. I always see the writing of histroy in terms of making a quilt. Depending on the pieces available, the design changes. Rarely are all the pieces accounted for. I think about change as multifaceted and interactive rather than sequential. But I'm not writing history!

Your example of Courbet's exhibition resulting from specific circumstances accounts for many of the changes that we see in art. I see them as more cause and effect rather than rebellion. The whole idea of reacting to (problem solving) will account for a lot of movement in any artist's career. At least those of us who could be classified as control freaks would like to think so. Then there's always serendipity. Don brought how personality and convictions can impact change.

In reference to Mark's comment "that good art should connect" I think to agree or disagree with this point I would have to question what connect means. There's a lot of art that is totally inaccessible to me for many different reasons. I don't get it, but I am responding by thinking about it. That to me is a form of connection. Any connection is in the hands of the viewer and artists don't have any real control over the viewer apart from our arsenal of elements and principles that we apply.

I'm wimping out on Matisse and Kandinsky for now.

I'm off to look for a more comfortable camp chair which will enhance my analytical skills.

Anonymous said...

One thing I keep reading over and over again here is how these great artist thought so rationally and analytically. How did artists get the reputation for being flaky? You see a rational approach by Matisse and Kandinsky. The same can be said for the previous artists mentioned, from Munch, Van Gogh, Courbet...etc. I keep being struck by how deliberate the process is, even in the Moderns. Just a little sidebar observation.

-Don said...

Margaret makes a good point about cause and effect. But, I would argue that not only were the Romantics, Realists and Impressionists reacting to the art that came before, but in many cases they were rejecting the work that came before. So, in most instances from the Neoclassisists up thru the Impressionists I'd say rebellion is the right word. From the Impressionists on, I'd call it more of an evolution. The radical ideals of each new school of art thought was a continuation of, although is some instances a reaction to, those schools of thought which came before.

Kathy, I've noticed we have gotten to Matisse and Kandinsky, but have not mentioned Cezanne - who I feel had one of the largest influences on modern art as we know it. I consider him the transitional element between the Impressionists and the ensuing development towards abstraction. His quote to the painter Emile Bernard could be construed as the essence of modern thought, "Drawing and color are not distinct... The secret of drawing and modeling lies in contrasts and relations of tones." Many of the artists of the early 20th century considered him the father of modern art. If you are going to be discussing him later, forgive me for jumping ahead...

One other word I would like to add to the description of Matisse's work is joy. There was joy in his expressive strokes. There was joy in his use of color. And there was joy in his subject matter. This joy distinguished him from the rest of the Expressionists as much as the calm and rational did.

I love the points you bring out from Kandinsky's essay. His work and words helped to free all of us to express ourselves in whatever way we deem fulfilling. For this, I am eternally grateful.


Unknown said...

Margaret, you're very perceptive. I think that Williams' book is a bit one-sided because he's trying to make a single point about the important of art theory. I never saw this work as being comprehensive, but rather a valuable perspective that could help explain why I think as I do as an artist. Thanks for bringing this up - it's a very important point! You make another good point about circumstances vs. rebellion, and I think that both are at work in differing proportions over time. And, finally, you make an excellent point about the connection between the artist and viewer. Thank you!

Unknown said...

Peggy - good question! How'd we artists get the reputation of being "flaky" as you put it? Most of us are a disciplined bunch who have a methodology, and even if we rely on intuition there's still a methodology. Perhaps that label is a misnomer, and what really unnerves people is that artists often have to adopt a lifestyle that's "different" in order to create. And, we emote (at least in our work) more than other people feel comfortable with. We're usually honest enough to expose it all when others are too inhibited. Just a guess :)

Unknown said...

Hi Don, Great comments as always. I will differ with you a little with you about applying the term "rebellion" to some of these "isms." By the end of the 1800's art and philosophy (or thought) had become so interdependent that art became a kind of philosophy. This hearkens back to the Renaissance as well. Philosophy isn't the product of rebellion. It's a rational investigation that could lead to "rebellion" but not necessarily. I think that it's quite possible to effect change from the established order without rebelling against it. Thanks for bringing up Cezanne. I agree with you, and include him in Mile 7. And yes ... "joy" is a great word to apply to the work of Matisse. Thanks!

Mark Sheeky said...

Here's a question; is the statement "Realist painting is associate with materialism and freer abstract paintings with the new spirituality." a call back to classical "idealist" art?

It seems that Kandinsky was saying; realism is soulless, so the further away one gets from the real the more spiritual the art, hence great abstraction leads to the most spiritual art. That doesn't hold water because all painting is abstracted to some extent; some idealist art like classical Greek sculpture isn't abstracted much compared to more "realist" impressionist art.

More ideas; If art is real and gritty, or ideal and divine, what product of realistic art makes it evocative, emotive, lovely? Is it true that realistic art can be emotional and unpleasant but not emotional and lovely? :)

hw (hallie) farber said...

I'm not sleeping--I'm listening and taking notes. I guess that, without the printing press, there would have been no "isms." I believe that only in looking back can we see movements or reasons (just as in life).

Unknown said...

Mark, You sure know how to ask the hard questions :) They're good ones! Courbet (lumped in with the Realists) wrote that "an object which is abstract, non visible, non-existent, is not within the realm of painting. Imagination in art consists in knowing how to find the most complete expression of an existing thing, but never in inventing or creating that thing itself." I think that he, and other Realists, didn't use our contemporary notion of abstraction as an element of design. Also, the philosophical Realists as a movement were different from the mode of painting realistically, or representationally.

Unknown said...

HW - yes, we have Gutenberg to thank for the printing press and all our subsequent "isms!" And, I agree with your comment about the revelatory nature of history. Boy, if I knew at age 20 what I know now, my whole life would have been lived differently - more rock concerts!

layers said...

you have a LOT here to think about but one small phrase did pop out at me-- 'good art should connect'-- first the artist does the work that connects to themselves-- but ultimately we want the work to connect to the viewer-- 'how' is up to them-- it may not be how we intended but of course we want the viewer to stop and take a second look-- react to something in the work.

Unknown said...

A very good point, Donna! Thank you.