Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Associative play makes a good painting

In a famous letter to the French mathematician Jacques Hadamard, Einstein confesses:

“The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities, which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images, which can be voluntarily reproduced and combined… The above-mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously, only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.

What follows is an account of a project to investigate the idea that abstract paintings tap into a fundamental, primitive part of our existence - the part of us that experiences life without words, beyond language, and transcending definitions.

The making process

Einstein’s letter is a reminder that an important thing that art does is to externalise the minds of maker and viewer. The artist guides us to the threshold of being by placing before us pictures representative of his or her morals, experiences, emotions and values. The hope of the painter is that they are enough like our own to reassure both maker and viewer of their authenticity and that they have a legitimate place in the wider world. A picture articulates the experiences of our very existence, such as matter, light, time and order, because they are recognised as microcosmic representations of the world. This is the short answer the question, what is art? It also introduces related questions that can be investigated in terms of two central problems of how and why paintings are made. These questions are:

Does painting proceed along the lines of musical composition where a particular structure is taken as a theme that is repeatedly varied and each variation is a valid entity? Or is making a painting like a process of scientific experimentation where all possibilities of placing lines, shapes and colours have to be examined before one particular arrangement is taken as being ideal?

The truth of the first proposition is a self-evident because from its beginnings, representational painting has been bound up with the existence of unity in the art of individuals and of schools. The second proposition is less obvious, but is best investigated from the philosophy of abstract art, which involves the interdependent visual processes of invention of an image and its reception. An appropriate point to start an analysis of the second proposition is at the forefront of abstract art, where art and science come together as a struggle with the concept of the marked surface as an evolved aspect of being human. Gerhardt Richter, who has an outstanding presence in the contemporary world of abstract art summarises the ‘making’ and ‘viewing’ aspects of his craft as follows:

“ ‘What’ is the hardest thing, because it is the essence; ‘How’ is easy by comparison. To start off with the ‘How’ is frivolous, but legitimate, Apply the ‘How’ and thus, use the requirements of technique, the material and physical possibilities, in order to realize the intention. The intention is to invent nothing, no idea, no composition, no form, and to receive everything; composition, object, form, idea, picture” Gerhardt Richter.

This leaves open the question of feedback from viewing the surface of the canvas to the artist and viewer. This was answered by Robert Rauschenberg (1975) as follows.

A good painting is one that is misunderstood for a very long time. When you get understanding or if you can remember what you are looking at, well. Then there is no need for it, it’s finished. When the painting starts looking like the way you remember it, well. Then that’s the end of that painting. And like the reason I’m interested in all those changes, actual changes, something that exists, and like I found out recently that scientists use the term ‘real time’, then it will have a presence that’s related to that particular moment, and the fact that you are the one that’s experiencing it”

Both Richter and Rauschenberg were influenced by John Cage, the legendary musician/ composer/artist who befriended both artists in Paris in 1949, encouraging them to approach their art without preconceived ideas. Cage was a prolific lecturer, particularly in New York City, and his famous "Lecture on Nothing" (1949) advocated "nonintention" on the part of artists, and a receptiveness to and acceptance of ordinary life in the previously "hallowed" halls of the fine art world. This contributed to a pivotal shift away from Abstract Expressionism and geometric abstraction; in sound (music) and colour (in art). In 1986 Richter himself described his abstractions as a search for something "which I could not plan, which is better, cleverer, than I am, something which is also more universal"

Based on the above quotations, the first part of our project is to make pictures, which involve starting with nothing. There are no ideas, and therefore no target composition or forms. We make marks in a random process that adds form, colour, line, texture, pattern, resulting in a composition. This allows us freedom and flexibility to express our world viewers and inner realities. To achieve this baseline it is necessary to return to the basic human behaviour of making marks. Any training in art must be renounced and the picture maker must simply rely on access to a surface, pigments and applicators. Our process involves randomly applying paint to the canvas in response to what the maker sees emerging in the picture plane. The response is made with hand gestures, such as picking up a tube of paint and spreading it e.g. with finger, brush or piece of crumpled paper, or adding collage components. Composition, object, form and idea are then perceived as a sequence of outcomes as the painting progresses, each merging into the next. We end the making process when a memorable ‘something’ exists.

The viewing process

The second part of the project is to use our abstract pictures to elicit responses of viewers, on the supposition that it is through its texture, structure and matrix that an abstract painting detaches itself from all privileged conventions of perceptual cognitive and semantic experiences. In this sense, it is a test of the viewer to make it legible. Here we are in need of objective criteria that others might learn from and apply.

Here we are dealing with what it means to be human and live socially with the concepts of:

· aesthetic preference i.e. the degree with which people like a particular visual stimulus or not, how much they prefer it to another, or how they rate its beauty,

· aesthetic judgment i.e. the valuation of a certain visual stimulus.

· and, aesthetic appreciation i.e. the human capacity to divide the world into beautiful and ugly things, to prefer a blue car to a red one, and to like blond men more than others.

The first two concepts are dependent on education and other cultural influences. But it is likely that aesthetic appreciation is a general genetic endowment that:

“was present at least at the time of our species’ birth, though it probably built on pre-existing cognitive and affective processes. It led the first Homo sapiens to decorate their bodies and to make necklaces, enabled our upper Paleolithic ancestors to create breath-taking murals on cave walls, drove Michelangelo to sculpt David, and allows us to admire all of this. But it also allowed our ancestors to avoid settling in resourceless environments, feeling attracted by sick-looking people, and it allows us to avoid living in bare-walled houses, and wearing brown with red’.

Every painting, abstract as well as representational, is open to all sorts of meanings, but at the same time all paintings point beyond themselves. The "meanings" often referred to as being the paramount criterion of "high art" revolve around historic, philosophic, and religious dimensions. Religious images of a sensory reality are expressed in Christianity for example, in saints and their lives, but projections of a non-religious extrasensory reality can better be addressed through abstract painting. Richter speaks of this transcendental side to abstract painting. When we look at a picture representing a material subject our response is to dwell on the subject matter to feed our material understanding of it and its cultural context. Our response to an abstract work of art, which is not produced in response to a predetermined objective, is to dwell on its spiritual richness to feed our own aesthetic thoughtfulness. To the viewer of the painting, references to the real world may be seen and where one individual can make out and 'see' the information or an idea with, another viewer may have a completely different experience seeing the work in a completely different way.

A link between the work of many of the artists emerging in the 1990’s is that the work lives purely through its audience, in other words the art takes place within the interaction between the viewer, with his/her body of knowledge, and the art object, as information structured in a particular way by the artist, whereas unseen, it remains simply structured information and ceases to be art.” Jackson Pollock, one of America's most famous abstract painters of this era described the response of one of his viewers as follows:

"Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you. There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn't have any beginning or any end. He didn't mean it as a compliment, but it was."

It is left to the viewer to relate to the paintings within their own framework of expectation and understanding. In the final analysis the seemingly impersonal method we have chosen for this investigation leaves our work fundamentally open to interpretation, so that it is free to mean anything and nothing at the same time. This is perhaps its real significance - that it is at once both an affirmation and a calling into question of the meaning of art.

Here are some pointers to gaining meaning from abstract works.

One way to gain meaning is to look at abstract art in the same way that you would listen to music. This is how one educational website described this approach to elicit meaning.

“When you listen to music, you don't try to hold on to the notes - you let them wash over you. Let your eyes wander over the painting the way the notes of a symphony wash over your soul. Let your eyes play with the painting, slipping around corners, following the twirls, twists and turns, dipping in and out of the surface. Let your eyes dance around the piece. Rather than trying to figure out what the painting looks like, just allow yourself to be taken in by the painting. See what emotions, sensations or memories emerge. Let your eyes relax and travel around the piece without expectation. Examine the colours, forms, materials, surface, and how they interact with each other. Take your time. Let the painting "speak" to you”.

Regarding scientific studies, Kurt A Bruder has investigated how viewers verbalize their experience of paintings in order to interactively manufacture meaning. This sense-making process is consequential not merely for the viewers' understanding of the artwork but for their conception of the world, and of themselves and others in it. Perhaps most significant, viewers employ artwork as a material and symbolic resource in the ceaseless interactive fabrication of their own identities. Bruder’s study explored the talk of viewers as they encountered paintings in an art gallery. An inductive analysis of conversations recorded between viewers and one of the researchers resulted in the identification of three categories of art talk: Evaluation, Attraction, and Storytelling. Further, the authors distinguish two design features governing this kind of talk, Narration and Reification.

Marcos Nadal Roberts carried out research into the complexity and aesthetic preference for diverse pictorial stimuli and found that people tend to base their rating of the complexity of visual stimuli on different aspects, depending on their sex and the kind of stimulus. His results suggest that there are three main categories of response:
(i) those related with the amount and variety of elements,
(ii) those related with object recognition and scene organization,
(iii) and (iii) asymmetry. These three aspects of complexity seem to be related in different ways to general ratings of the complexity and to ratings of beauty of visual stimuli,

Finally, the analogy with music is worth taking further. It is claimed by Abraham Walkowitz that music is the ideal of all art. Abstract painting "dwells in the realm of music with an equivalent emotion. Its melody is attuned to the receptive eye as music to the ear." According to Jerome Ashmore, "pure music and non-objective painting are alike:

· in their richness of purely aesthetic experience, that is, as an experience of sensuousness;
· in ignoring physical objects as models for representation;
· and alike in being a stimulus to something analogous to mystical experience.

The mystical experience provides an illusion, which is accepted as a genuine insight into part of the basic character of the universe, an insight 'felt' to be much more 'real' than any provided by physical objects.

However, in order to be an equivalent experience to listening to music, a picture as a production has to be presented as a sequence of images on the way to an end point. These intermediates would then be somewhat analogous to musical movements. They would be entities that have to be viewed in a certain sequence. Richter has photographed the various stages on his way to making some of his abstract pictures. These have been described as a rhythm of becoming and passing away. Each one in the sequence differs both in terms of the style of the marks and textures and hence they do not form a unity in the sense of traditional composition. Each is a state of a temporal continuum that is stored as a snapshot. By looking at them in sequence the viewer is reliving the ‘score’ of Richter’s creativity.

The education resource

The following six pictures are presented as a resource for downloading or eliciting written comments about aesthetic preferences.

1 (original size 20cm X 20cm)

2 (original size 20cm X 20cm)

3 (original size 20cm X 20cm)

4 (original size 20cm X 20cm)

5 (original size 20cm X 20cm)

6 (original size 20cm X 40cm)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Zig zagging into abstraction

1 The scope of romanticism

Edmund Burke's 'Inquiry into the Origins of the Sublime' published in 1757 marked the birth of the literary Romantic Movement as an expression of fear. It is based on Burke’s the proposition that:

'what soever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, is a source of the sublime',

from which he deduces

'the sublime effect of darkness, or destructive power, of solitude and silence and the roaring of animals'.

Seven years later Horace Walpole dreamed that he was in the hall of an ancient castle, and on the uppermost banister of the staircase saw a gigantic hand in armour. When he awoke he wrote the first horror story, 'The Castle of Otranto'.

Not long before, in painting, this sentiment of the sublime had been expressed in Giambattista Piranesi’s Carceri etchings of 1745. Piranesi was born in 1720, the son of a Venetian stonemason, and was trained to become an architect. For thirty years he was diverted to draw the ruins of Rome with relentless accuracy; but he never ceased to find them terrifying and oppressive.

The ‘Carceri’ or ‘Prisons’ folio exists in two different forms. The first was largely designed in 1745 and published in 1750. A new edition (in fact the third) appeared in 1760. To this edition Piranesi added a couple of plates, and reworked most of the others. In some he added only a few details, but others were transformed. In most cases there was considerable gain in power and intensity, and it is from the 1760 edition that the Prisons are generally known. The frontispiece of the second edition itself offers an example (Fig 1). A large toothed wheel occupies the foreground, a pointless and sinister bridge crosses the middle of the scene, and a vertiginous catwalk appears high above our heads. This zig-zag of crazy diagonals is added to all the plates in the second edition, and thereby increases our sense of frustration. Every time our eye undertakes a journey, it is sent back, sharply and painfully. There is never a smooth transition between the two points and the zig-zag appears almost as an abstract form in many drawings of the 1760s.

In the two plates, which he added to the Prisons in 1760, he has gone all out to make them effective by filling them with reliefs representing what were to become the standard Romantic symbols of fear such as lions and bound captives, and has even included a scene of torture. We recognise the fears and frustrations of Piranesi's prisons immediately. In this context, the factories and communications infrastructures of the nineteenth century, which so often achieved a Piranesian confusion and gloom, become the prisons of industrial society. They were the visible aspect of the economic bondage of men and women who passed their days in frustrating journeys, leading only to incomprehensible work. John Gay captured this in his photograph of the zig-zag superstructure of Liverpool Street Station (Fig 2).

Kenneth Clark's reaction to Piranesi's etchings was to imagine he was able to enter the picture and experience the problems of illogical navigation.

'You must go up the stairs to obtain a permit, then take it over to one of those little round towers to be stamped; unfortunately this office is closed, and you are instructed to go up to the top gallery, but in doing so you have taken a wrong turning and have infringed the regulations, so you must come down and visit the office of the security officer'.

In other words, to Clark the Carceri represented how we are imprisoned by the frustrations of bureaucracy in the modern world.

Fig 1 The Carceri (1760)

Fig 2 Liverpool Street Station (John Gay)

In his essay of 1911 entitled ‘The Ruin’, the German sociologist Georg Simmel writes:

"Architecture, is the only art in which the great struggle between the will of the spirit and the necessity of nature issues into real peace, in which the soul in its upward striving and nature in its gravity are held in balance." In the ruin, nature begins to have the upper hand: the "brute, downward-dragging, corroding, crumbling power" produces a new form, "entirely meaningful, comprehensible, differentiated."

This tells us that Piranesi in his depictions of ruins was really introducing us to the aesthetics of a random visual gain of entropy as the creativity of Ancient Rome’s architects crumbled away, whereas Gay was showing us, through the random meaningless cropping of the outcomes of a precise engineering logic, the fascination of the zigzag, an abstract motive common to both. The latter are actually responses to a picture’s spiritual richness and may be defined as its capacity to stimulate thoughtfulness on big questions of life, such as, What is art?. In both cases, the pointless ruin and the part-structure taken out of its functional context, both make the point that romanticism, in its literary, musical or graphic expressions, now means being a staunch individualist, believing in the rights of other individuals, and expressing deep, intense, and often uplifting emotions. Charles Baudelaire was able to articulate this important aspect of modernism in the mid-19th century when he wrote:

"To say the word Romanticism is to say modern art -- that is, intimacy, spirituality, colour, aspiration towards the infinite, expressed by every means available to the arts.”

2 Cortical abstraction

With the development of abstract art, Romanticism has now freed human imagination and skills from trying to capture reality, although all they were doing was to depict a particular type of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture. Nevertheless, the award-winning artists of our day no longer respond to materialistic objectives. They no longer have to hunt for earthly motives before painting. Art has developed to become spiritually creative but in a non-religious sense. To display the spiritual beauty of an intense yellow it is no longer necessary to paint a lemon, or search the sky to contrast it with a lovely blue. Forms and colours can be organised at will into the given space of a canvas. The aim is to enrich this space by following the inner workings of the mind beyond the pretence of make-believe. In this, the hand is guided to a form-ideal by random thoughts that bubble up in the mind, apparently from nowhere.

The systematic search for a new non-objective form-ideal as a mental process emanating directly from the cerebral cortex was set in motion by the painter/theorist Wassily Kandinsky. His described his cortical response to the world semi-scientifically, as follows:

“As soon as we open the door, step out of the seclusion and plunge into the outside reality, we become an active part of this reality and experience its pulsation with all our senses. The constantly changing grades of tonality and tempo of the sounds wind themselves about us, rise spirally and suddenly collapse. Likewise, the movements envelop us by a play of horizontal and vertical lines bending in different directions as colour-patches pile up and dissolve into high or low tonalities”.

Behind this statement lies the contemporary desire, promoted vigorously by the Dada group, to liberate art from academic stereotypes derived from the classical tradition.

The first production of a fully non-representational artwork was the assembly of objects entitled ‘Three Standard Stoppages’ by Marcel Duchamp in 1913. It illustrated Duchamp's fascination with the concept of chance and his interest in mathematics. This complex construction incorporates a number of complicated elements, all inside a wooden box:

1) Three pieces of thread, each one-meter long, glued on Prussian blue canvas cut into three strips These canvas strips are glued to three glass panels.
2) Three wood slats, shaped along one side to match the curved paths taken by the threads
3) A black leather label with "3 STOPPAGES ETALON/ 1913-14" printed on it in gold lettering is attached on one end of each canvas strip.

The following notations was printed on the back of each canvas strip, where you can see them through the glass that the canvas is mounted on:

"A straight horizontal thread one meter in length falls from a / height of one meter. (3 Standard Stoppages; belonging to Marcel Duchamp. / 1913-14)."

In other words, Duchamp included a detailed description of the making process within the artwork itself, which opened up discussions about the role of process and non-compositional chance operations in artistic creativity.

Kandinsky, in his probing of abstraction, was soon concerned with extending reality from familiar first appearances. In October 1907 he had met Rudolf Steiner, founder of anthroposophy, and Steiner’s highly personal ideas about spirituality and mysticism moved Kandinsky to investigate the non-objective artistic expression of his own mental state. For example, the ‘non-substance’ of Monet’s ‘Haystacks’ stunned him. It was also the time when he became involved with the new scientific concepts of reality. At the forefront of Kandinsky’s views about painterly universes was the discovery of how to split the atom. This brought about the collapse of all his certainty about the absolute and unequivocal solidity of what is real. Barriers to the senses were now to be breached through art. Here, his particular artistic lodestone was the synthesis of sound and colour he discovered whilst attending an operatic performance of Lohengrin by Wagner at the Bolshoi.

His provisional conclusions were presented in an essay ‘Point and Line to Plane’, which was published in 1926. This presented the mature flowering of ideas first written up in 1910 entitled ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’.

The use of line in nature is an exceedingly frequent one, and appears in countless phenomena of the mineral, plant and animal worlds. The schematic construction of the crystal is a purely linear formation. A plant in its entire development from seed to root (downwards), as far as the beginning of the bud (upwards), passes over from point to line and, as it progresses, leads to more complicated complexes of lines, to independent linear structures, like the network of the leaf or the eccentric construction of evergreen trees. The attachment of the leaves around the shoot takes place in the most exact manner, which can be expressed with a mathematic formula-numerical expression and science has represented this with a spiral-like diagram. The organic linear pattern of the branches always emanates from the same basic principle but exhibits the most varied placements (e.g., among trees alone: fir, fig, date palm, or the most bewildering complex configurations of the liana and various other snake-like plants). Some complexes are, moreover, of a clear, exact, geometric nature and vividly recall geometric constructions made by animals, as, for example, the surprising formation of the spider's web. On the other hand, some are of a” free" nature and made up of free lines; the loose structure reveals no exact geometric construction. Both types of construction are found in abstract painting.

Kandinsky’s pictures also consistently fulfil Gauguin’s call to abstraction by using colour enigmatically:

“not to draw, but to create musical sensations that issue from colour itself, from its own character, from its mysterious, enigmatic inner force”.

In the 1920s Mondrian, was developing an investigation of these universals of human reason applied to configuring the human body at the same time that Kandinsky was exploring the dynamics and laws of human instincts motivated by ‘inner necessity’. With the elimination of figurative associations and intelligible geometrical relations of line and colour, the viewer is robbed of all rational and literary aids to interpretation and is thrown back on purely emotive responses; on the psychological sensibilities, sensual responses and spiritual beliefs of the spectators own inner world.

According to Sandro Bocola, Kandinsky’s artistic cannon can only be grasped directly, sensually and intuitively because it is rooted in the biological principle of homeostatis. As expressed in psychoanalysis of Kandinsky’s time, pleasure is interpreted as the outcome of an instinctual process. Instincts, the body’s relationship with the unconscious, are regulated according to Freud by the pleasure/unpleasure principle. Central to this, Freud describes a concept he called the ‘id’ as a reservoir of psychic energy, the pool of biological drives that arise from our basic physiological needs for food, water, warmth, sexual gratification, avoidance of pain, and so forth. Freud’s drives are our instincts, and he believed that they power and direct all of human behaviour. The id in Freud’s scheme is an unconscious force. It has no link with objective reality. Consequently, the id responds to feedback from bodily needs to discharge tensions that comes by stimulating behaviours that satisfy bodily needs. Psychologically it can be said the id seeks only its own pleasure and cannot abide frustration or deprivation of any kind.

With regard to artistic creativity as a homeostatic mental activity, a material or mental vision activates a need for its physical expression as a work of art where all its elements are harmonised. This is the inner necessity, which defines the bodily needs for action. It gives rise to mental tensions that are only neutralised by the creation of a harmonising balance in the completed work of art. The creative force is an expression of an ability to think in plastic images. The German expression for this process is ‘gestaltungsfaehikeit’, which in English is covered by the phrase- ‘faculty of plastic configuration’.

There are four basic routes to the fulfilment of a painter’s artistic needs for expression according to whether the intention is to:

· Recreate the visible (realism);
· Reveal the relations of parts (structuralism);
· Express inner reality (romanticism);
· Evaluate the meaning of inner reality (symbolism).

Although each mindset is exclusive in any production process, a painter can move from one mode to another. Kandinsky was a realist before becoming a symbolist. Picasso, for example, was first a symbolist, then became concerned with structure, and eventually returned to symbolism.

3 Rules of placement

Kandinsky used the absence of external objectivity as the logical starting point to research the rules governing the correct placement of visual elements on the canvas in order to evoke predictable emotional responses in the viewer. To follow Kandinsky’s process, a painter has to cease looking for a meaning in his subject. To open a two-way channel of communication between painter and viewer, certain arrangements and positions of points, lines, angles, and particular colours are utilised to carry definite universal meanings. The scientific objective of Kandinsky’s mission was to unravel this code to reveal a theory of painting utilising only its basic graphic elements without which a work of art cannot come into existence.

Kandinsky’s basic elements were those that all previous theories of painting had to deal with, namely:

· Point
· Line
· Plane
· Colour
· Texture

He developed the idea of point as the ‘proto-element’ of painting. He believed that the systematic study of the role of point in nature, music and other art, and the combination of point and line, should reveal a unique visual language for communicating inner feelings. Painting and music, for example, would share a common language of the emotions. Starting with point, his innovation was to codify the contributions that each of the basic graphic elements of a painting has in isolation and then to examine their reciprocal effects in combination without attempting to reproduce reality. His method was to create a dictionary of graphic elements independently of the composition and then examine their additive effect in the plane of the canvas as the ‘grammar’ of an abstract composition. The mental impact of seeing involves the transmission of light waves between painter and observer, and he invented a new descriptive language based on the nouns and verbs used to describe the impact of sound waves and things in motion. Thus, a point has ‘a sound’, and a line exhibits ‘a tension for movement’. Regarding the effects of his pictures on viewers he said;

“The spectator is also too accustomed to look for the ‘meaning’, in other words an exterior relationship between the parts of the picture. Our era, materialistic in life and therefore in art, has produced a spectator who does not now how to simply put himself in front of a painting, and looks for everything possible in the painting but does not allow the picture to work an effect on him’

What counts he said, is “the effective contact with the soul”. However, it is significant that he cross-referenced this analysis with views of real objects, both man-made and natural. Some of his examples have been reproduced in the following figures (Fig 3 A-F).

Fig 3 Classification of real objects

A. Example of the visual impact of ‘discrete points): section through a root nodule made by nitrate-forming bacteria in a pea root (enlarged 1000 times)

B. Example of the visual impact of points created by the meeting of lines at an angle; pagoda of the ‘Dragon Beauty’ in Shanghai (built 1411)

C. Example of the visual impact of lines in combination; holograph of a radio tower seen from below (photo of Moholy-Nagy)

D. Example of the visual impact of curved lines; trichite crystals and a crystal skeleton

E. Example of the visual impact of complexes of lines in movement; swimming movements of algae created by flagellation

F. Visual impact of lines and points in combination; line drawing of a histological section of ‘loose’ ligament tissue of the rat

Nature was an important source of his basic graphic elements. He backed his arguments with examples of bone structure, branching of trees, the progressive circular pattern of development in plant shoots, and the galactic clusters of stars.

What are we to make of this in relation to his avowed approach of non-subjectivity and predictability in the spectator’s response? First, he was merely starting from nature to range freely beyond in the invention of forms suggested by its diversity. Second, they were elements chosen as parts of an imagined whole. Third, his basic elements would not normally be selected for graphic communication except by scientists or engineers wishing to make a narrow professional point. In this sense, there is randomness in Kandinsky’s choice as to what part of the picture ‘whole’ carried his mental message, which in any case does not require knowledge of the whole. An element is primarily a highly personal metaphor to help communicate the artist’s mental universe. In the history of art, the only parts of nature that had, up to then, been selected in this way were headless human torsos with partly severed limbs. Here the sculptor was trying to get a response to the curves produced by muscles and fatty connective tissue without the distractions of the essential linearity of the standing human body and its powerful interactivity with the viewer through facial expression and display of limbs.

4 Towards a language of planes

Kandinsky based his fundamental approach to the ‘language of painting’ by trying to define the visual messages emanating from different arrangements of lines on the basic plane of a canvas. This raised the important question of distinguishing between ‘top’ and ‘bottom’. There are associated unresolved questions about whether we respond differently to square, rectangular, circular and ovoid canvases. Also, is there a fundamental difference between the left and right halves of the basic plane, no matter what is placed there? (Figs 4-6).

Fig 4 Tensions and contrasts in the basic plane

Fig 5 Horizontal, vertical and diagonal positions produce contrasts in tension

Fig 6 Position of forms influences the ‘sound’ of the composition

The effects of some of Kandinsky’s compositions on the viewer are strongly influenced by rotating them through so that bottom becomes top (Fig 7).

Fig 7 Kandinsky: Illustrative composition in Point and Line to Plane

A. Kandinsky: Illustrative composition in Point and Line to Plane turned through 90 degrees.

B. Kandinsky: Illustrative composition in Point and Line to Plane turned through 180 degrees.

Finally, Kandinsky opened up the problem of including multiple planes within the basic plane. What is the influence of their shape, surface structure; colour and gradients of tonality? Artists were exploring photography at this time and it was being used to address the problems of creating depth by superimposing semi-transparent planes. This was a particular concern to the Futurists who were also merging compositional planes and superimposing multiple images to convey movement and noise. Kandinsky experimented with semi-transparent planes under the influence of contemporaries and friends, notably Feininger and Klee.

5 Selection of pictorial elements

An important characteristic of Kandinsky’s methodology of abstraction is that a process of selection from a universal dictionary of graphic elements provides the vocabulary for composition. Kandinsky did not incorporate naturalistic elements into his work with the logic of their reality. His pictures, the representational ones as well as his experimental abstractions, were built up like a jigsaw, each piece having a correct fit when it ‘looked right’, or ‘appeared interesting’ (Figs 8-12).

Fig 8 Kandinsky. Linear structure of the picture ‘Little Dream in Red’ (1925)

Fig 9 Kandinsky’s painting’ Little Dream in Red’

Fig 10 Kandinsky. Riegsee Village Church (1908)

Fig 11 Improvisation 28 (2nd version, 1912)

It is left to the observer to decipher his lines squares and circles, to crystallise a personal mental state. In his later paintings, homemade animalicules from the microscopic world of biologists appear, often cased as if they are specimens in a museum. If possible, scientists often make painterly decisions when choosing a particular field of a microscope to support a scientific model. However, the real world of aquatic biology, which spawned Kandinsky’s animal-like forms, is closed to most people, and it is not necessary to know anything about it for a spectator response to his pictures.

At this point in his life we are probably seeing a process of evolution from motifs of an East European medieval world of thick embroidery and jewels that dominated the fine structure of his first paintings (Fig 12).

Fig 12 Kandinsky. Russian Costumes (1902)

He also invited the adoption of real materials as aesthetic elements, and said that painters should paint with everything. Collage was invented by Picasso and Braque to provide elements of texture and graphics to enhance the messages of the paintbrush. According to Kandinsky, collage alone can make an image, and reality then becomes painting.

In his systematic approach to composition, Kandinsky was the first to paint for ‘art’s sake’, and try to create a language that incorporated scientific certainty into the production of paintings. His point of view was that his paintings owe their creation to a process of discovery without intentional design. He approached this task with sincerity but his words remain obscure. His texts are not easy reading; vagueness of terminology and a tendency toward mystification stemming from his absorption of Rudolph Steiner’s idiosyncratic ideas, are indications that he was not always sure of what he wanted to say. His own pictures have not produced a school of teaching but his precepts have been widely adopted. In particular, his influence can be seen in the contrasting works of Hans Arp and Georgia O’Keefe, who were Kandinsky’s contemporaries.

We are primates who have evolved great visual acuity, which is expressed in powerful pattern-finding abilities. As picture-makers, for better or worse, we have to remain satisfied when things ‘look right’. In this sense we recognise our own personal synthetic totality. What is involved in the process is rightness achieved pragmatically. A rightness of the possible with no justification from necessity of any material object of any kind. It remains questionable whether this innate potential for abstract picture making can be trained. With regards picture-viewers, this condition of ‘looking right’ requires research by investigating the responses of people to a range of compositions. Kandinsky was aware of this, although he only made one attempt to carry out attitudinal surveys. This was his idea for a questionnaire, which asked teachers and students to look at the combining of forms (triangle, square, circle) and primary colours (yellow, red, blue). This might have revolutionised art education, but his scientific curriculum was too personal to be widely adopted. Also, Kandinsky’s repertoire of basic forms essentially came from his interest in landscape graphics. In this respect, his compositions are mostly without depth and their reading depends upon following a map of interacting lines and spaces rather than the merging of closely positioned shapes to make a holistic impact. It may be that the gaps are too large for most people to make an interesting gestalt, which suggests many lines of investigation regarding Kandinsky’s belief that a painter could and should be aiming for a predictable response in his viewers.

6 The science of art

Times have moved on and the current focus of the investigation of art as the outcome of a hard-wired mental creative process is the abstract work of Gerhard Richter. In his wall-size abstract pictures, Richter builds up cumulative layers of nonrepresentational painting Paint is applied with expansive gestures so that the sweep of the artist's arm is deliberately emphasized. His gestural painting carries an implication that the artist's actions express his emotions and personality; just as in other walks of life gestures express a person's feelings. Richter tells us and demonstrates that his paintings evolve in stages based on his responses to the picture’s progress as incidental details and patterns emerge. To maintain this momentum Richter uses blurring and scraping to veil and expose prior layers. These were techniques used by English watercolourists of the 18th century to who saw their task as selecting from a landscape what nature had to offer. By chosing to use these techniques from a non-representational start to develop a dynamic structure resulting from changing texture and depth places his production process firmly between scientific and expressive conceptions of painting. It is clearly the personal working out of a sequence of mental responses in response to previous coloured and textured patchiness. To begin the process he puts down a simple colour form relation. Periodically he evaluates progress through discovery without intentional design:

“…. after a while I decide that I understand it or have seen enough of it and in the next stage of painting I partly desroy it partly add to it; and so it goes on at intervals, ‘til there is nothing more to do and the picture is finished”.

The elements and structures of colours that constitute the painting are applied with brushes, squeegees and putty knives layer by layer, with existing layers being superimposed or completely extinguished by new ones. Thus, his creativity steers a deliberate path between the application of paint as an accident and successive acts of composition, which follow as mere chance encounters between materials and structures. In this context, Richter’s finished works are suspended between utter meaninglessness and the chance constellations of marks and colour patches that he decides are acceptable because they look right. Richter’s straegy for discovering an image that terminates this unfolding is a rhythm of becoming and destroying.

Richter’s own descriptions of making a picture, which he sometimes records as a series of snapshots on the way to its completion, are important because they document the creative pathway for those interested in the scientific investigation of the sources and operations of artistic creativity.

From a scientific perspective, making marks on surfaces is the essence of being human. It's what we do with anything that can contrast with the surface we choose to mark. Rub a rock with a harder rock and you have the beginning of engraving. Pick up a burned stick and drag it across a cave wall and you are drawing. Stir some water into the black ashes of a fire lit for survival, drag a wad of dried grass through it, and you're painting. Surface outcomes of this marking activity from its primeval origins we describe as ‘graffiti’ and ‘works of art’.

Viewers are also impelled to read meaning into these marks according to their evolved primate cerebral behaviour patterns, which are conditioned by their education. Such was the documented response of one of the guards at New York’s Museum of Modern Art to Barnett Newman's abstract painting Vir Heroicus Sublimis (Heroic Sublime Man). This is a 17-foot-wide bright red canvas divided by five thin vertical stripes ranging in colour from white to maroon and black. The guard, Alec Sologob, could not discern how the Newman work provided, in the words of the official museum guidebook, 'direct, intimate contact' with the viewer’ as well as an 'affirmation of Newman's somewhat mystical sense of the human condition with all its tragedy and dignity.'

In the guard’s words:

"I don't see it. . . . With Cézanne or Bonnard, there's intimate contact because you can feel yourself walking into the painting, into that wooded area with the men chopping firewood. With [Andrew] Wyeth you always find something new. In Christina's World you see the details in her hands, you find cracks in the wooden boards of the house, you get a marvellous sense that this really is her world. . . . But this Newman has never looked to me like anything. This is a blank wall with stripes, and I don't like the colour red to begin with."

Here we have the responses of two viewers who are day by day in contact with modern art, a guard and a curator, about what ‘marks on a surface’ mean to them. Each sees and evaluates the outcome of the process of making of marks according to the expectations instilled by their education and both views are valid. From Newman’s point of view, his marks are presented as evidence of what was accepted by academia in the 1990s as a valid end point of the marking process classified as ‘abstract art’. The artist was confirmed by the minority gallery culture as being at the forefront of a millennium of behaviour change in both makers and viewers, a sequence defined academically by a relative minority of people in the curatorial profession as ‘the advance of European art’. This has inevitably left the bulk of ‘uneducated humanity’ bemused.

Regarding the existence of ‘un-educated majorities’, in an article titled "Is There a God?" commissioned, but never published, by Illustrated magazine in 1952, Bertrand Russell wrote:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

A minority is a sociological group that does not constitute a dominant voting majority of the total population of a given society. A sociological minority is not necessarily a numerical minority — it may include any group that is subnormal with respect to a dominant group in terms of social status, education, employment, wealth and political power. Therefore, in this cultural sense, the aim of every artist is not to conform to the history of art but to release himself from it, in order to replace it with his own history. A making of marks becomes art when its production, perception and reception are grounded on certain ‘truths’ that through education and group cohesion have become common to maker and viewer.

7 Evolution of mark making

There is no doubt that life is carried forward because molecules of DNA, which constitute the genes, embody a coded history of life’s genealogical past. In this respect we are part of nature in everything we do, from stepping on a bus to painting a house. Like all other living things our behaviour is governed by a chemical coding of our genes, which is a record of successful long-term interactions with the environments of our ancestors, near and in the distant past. It is a biochemical memory that remembers the body’s responses of growth, reproduction and behaviour that have been responsible for survival. In this respect, the body of a plant, animal or microbe represents a kind of prediction that its future environmental experiences will, to a general extent, resemble those of its ancestors. Animals, especially those with brains, are particularly good survivors because the nervous system also has a remarkable picturing ability for remembering what is the most useful way of responding to short-term variations in the environment. As a computer model, the brain (hardware) and its networks of memory cells (the software) have evolved to continuously scan the environment, and use memories of good and bad responses to keep short-term survival strategies up to date. The genes model the basic aspects of the environment that change very slowly over generations. The brain produces models of survival as day-to-day interactions between perception via the senses and a mental representation of environment that triggers the correct response. This interplay between changes in the environment and their representation as virtual images in the central nervous system allows us to move through a mental world of our brain’s making, and produce neuromuscular responses that aid survival. Since brains are also products of natural selection, ancestors, near and in the distant past, also carried virtual worlds of their contemporary environments in their heads. Brains are a particular expression of DNA tasked with the role of recording lifespan-events as pictures to help predict the immediate future.

We describe these virtual worlds as ‘patterns of thought’ and the process of perception that generates them as ‘reading the environment’. This faculty of ‘graphicity’ is a vital process of comprehension. We become interested in shapes and colours that do not fit into the known. In this we prefer intriguing suggestions to actual representation. For example, a trail of footprints occurring together with disturbed vegetation and dung deposits is read intently by a hunter as the pattern of his prey. It is comprehended as a detailed mental map of events over a wide area that points to the course of action necessary if the hunt is to be successful. According to Steven Dawkins it seems plausible that the ability to perceive the signs and generate such pictures might have arisen in our ancestors before the origin of speech in words. If the thought-picture could be represented as an arrangement of shapes and signs, constructing an environmental model in the head is a helpful way to communicate, and coordinate what has to be done in a social group. Such mental imagery could be an educational resource to help group cohesion and promote social evolution. This seems the likely origin of art, which depends on noticing that something can be made to stand for something else in order to assist comprehension and communication. Dawkins suggests that it could have been the drawing of mind-maps in the sand that drove the expansion of human evolution beyond the critical threshold of communication that other apes just failed to cross. It may be pertinent that ceremonial sand-pictures of native Australians function as maps. They are patterns created by an individual ‘dreamer’ through the two-dimensional spacing of symbols standing for people and local topographical detail. The fact that these patterns are closely associated with ‘dreaming’ is significant. Dreams are set up by our simulation software using the same modelling techniques used by the brain when it presents its updated editions of reality. These aboriginal maps of the dreamtime were community properties. Their role was to codify the neighbourhood and its use by the community in the form of a locally accepted non-representational pattern of relationships. The collection of pictographs reinforced the existence of a tribal territory and its natural resources by incorporating stories about its occupation by the group’s ancestors. The pictures, now being made permanent works of art on cloth and hardboard for the Australian urban consumer culture, had a social function to maintain a subculture of understanding by reinforcing comprehension of group identity and space. Rock art of North America, which consists of pictographs constructed from circles, spirals and lines, also seems to have its origins in dreams, and a significance in carrying messages about origins and group identity across generations. Reaching from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego there is tremendous variety in all aspects of indigenous art from prehistory to the arrival of Europeans, differing region by region, era by era, and often tribe by tribe. There are representations of flora and fauna, men and gods, earth and sky; symbols of clan and tribe, religion and magic; formal designs from the primal to the highly intricate. They appear in examples of basketry, weaving, pottery, sculpture, painting, lapidary work, masks, drumheads, weapons, apparel, beadwork, goldwork, blankets, ponchos, and may other forms.

All this tells us is that at the heart of being human, we enjoy nothing more than the demand made on us by a mark-maker a to use our own ‘imitative faculty’, our imagination, and thus share in the creative adventure of an artist. The greater the artist’s skill to induce ambiguity into a work, the greater the viewer’s pleasure in unravelling the puzzle. In other words, our pleasure rests on the mind’s effort in bridging the difference between surface marks and reality.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Neurophysiological illusions; perspective and colour

Art has always been meaningful and symbolic even when depicted with a collection of objects on a flat picture plane, which lacks visual accuracy. The issue of manipulating a flat surface to create the illusion of three dimensions was addressed in Europe during the Renaissance, when some artists conducted careful observations of nature and even anatomical dissections to try to better understand the world around them. But it wasn't until the early 15th Century that the Florentine architect and engineer, Lippo Brunelleschi, developed a mathematical theory of perspective. In a series of optical experiments he analysed and experimented with visual lines of sight emanating from points of perception. In this way Brunelleschi was able to understand the science behind perspective, the visual system that attempts to represent three-dimensional space on a flat surface. Perspective works because it is a visual "illusion". It depends on the way our eyes see something and the way our brains organize that virtual space, adopting perspective to give the illusion of depth. Brunelleschi's discovery was applied for three centuries as the norm of European art to picture the human imagination. The aim for the most part was to imitate tangible visual reality.

Art is distinctively a product of the faculty of the mind, which perceives the image of one thing in the form of another. Each person has the ability to think in two ways - judicially and creatively. The judicial function of the mind is to provide and analyse facts, to pass judgment on any incoming data about reality through the senses. In contrast, the creative aspect of the mind deals with the unknown, within the arena of possibility. In this connection, an artist demands a parallel fact or fancy, of which the first furnishes a suggestion. Human imagination has that extra power that allows us to peer beyond the ordinarily material world and explore deep into the abstract worlds of mathematics, science, metaphysics, etc. In art, from the middle of the 19th century it was colour which began to carry the imagination into the making of images. A key influence on this process was Goethe's book , 'Theory of Colours' published in 1810, from which the following two quotations show the ideas that artists began to respond to..

"When the eye sees a colour it is immediately excited and it is its nature, spontaneously and of necessity, at once to produce another, which with the original colour, comprehends the whole chromatic scale".

"The chromatic circle... [is] arranged in a general way according to the natural order... for the colours diametrically opposed to each other in this diagram are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. Thus, yellow demands violet; orange, blue; red, green; and vice versa: thus... all intermediate gradations reciprocally evoke each other; the simpler colour demanding the compound, and vice versa".

Goethe's writings on colour, although not scientific, were assimilated by one of his contemporaries, JMW Turner, who was also immersed in theosophy. Theosophy is the name used for any system of philosophy which starts from a supposed knowledge of God, and proceeds to formulate laws of the universe on the basis of revelation or of direct knowledge. Usually the claim of a supernatural revelation is made, though this is not essential, and usually, also, theosophy is mystical, holding that systems of truth are revealed through states of mystic feeling. Turner together with Anton Mesmer, the hypnotist and healer, the astronomer William Herschel, the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg, and the German idealist philosopher George Hegel, adopted and nurtured a world view which accepted the notion that the cosmos shapes human destiny. According to art historian Charlotte Douglas, the shift to abstract art in the early 20th century was prompted by a need for new dimensions of consciousness using forms suited "to serve as a passport to and report from" the so-called higher spiritual realms. As an early participant in this approach to creativity, Turner was a master of capturing the intangible in paint, increasingly pushing his subjects to the point of vaporisation.... the physicality of a snowstorm, where liquid becomes unyielding, sky becomes sea. His painting doesn't necessarily have to reproduce real life in specific detail. In this respect, Turner invented a way of using colour to provide atmospheric depth to the surface of his pictures- "land becomes sky. He revelled in those situations, where recognisable detail was only achieved by a fleeting intensity of focus, as if it were an apparition." Cornelia Parker (Tate online).

Goethe's 'Theory of Colours' contains some of the earliest published descriptions of visual phenomena such as coloured shadows, refraction, and chromatic aberration. Turner studied the book comprehensively, and referenced it in the titles of several paintings, one of which, Shade and Darkness- the Evening of the Deluge, painted in 1843, is just about as abstract a landscape as would be produced today.

Turner: (1843) Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge
Oil on canvas, 78.5 x 78 cm; Tate Gallery, London

In traditional European art, both form and colour are "right" or representational. The artist starts with form and the form determines the colour. Colour follows form; the artist cannot start with colour. The traditional artist cannot use colour alone as a means of expression. In the early 20th century, art underwent momentous changes from this old norm. Artists became increasingly interested in non-naturalistic representation, departing from the traditional use of form and colour. From 1904, the Fauve artists, including Henri Matisse (1869-1954), André Derain (1880-1954), Raoul Dufy (1877-1953), Henri Manguin (1874-1949), Maurice Vlaminck (1876-1958) and Georges Braque (1882-1963), began to portray familiar objects with "unfamiliar" colours. It was the use of colour as a starting point for creativity and a narrative thread of the imagination that produced the second revolution of European art. Perspective gave way to colour!

Matisse in particular liberated colour so that it is was no longer determined by form. His colour looks for a sensation that represents his subjective imaginative vision and state of mind. Therefore, his images would be, for most people, unnatural or non-representational. Even today, for the spectator, Matisse's form may seem right but his colour may seem wrong, because it is not used to convey likeness, but rather sensation. As Matisse put it, "When I put a green, it is not grass. When I put a blue, it is not the sky."

At first glance, the viewers of Matisse's work sense the intensity achieved by colour. Using his intuition, Matisse created the effect of a spring sky with complicated colour combinations and luminance. However, in choosing his colour combinations he was, mechanically almost, using the colour wheel popularised by Goethe. Altering the colours of a subject helps to alter the tone of the painting, and bring about a targeted emotional response from the viewer. In many cases, too many colours actually overwhelm viewers, distracting from the subject matter. To avoid this, Matisse used a limited colour palette.

In scientific terms, Matisse's paintings work on the brain like a black and white photograph. Although the photograph in tones of black and gray lacks colour, our brains are able to recognise the depicted elements as natural because our minds react to the unnaturalistic colours using one visual pathway. Even if we perceive the colour as wrong, to other visual pathways that are solely monochromatic, the scene seems more right.

Discussing colour in terms of right and wrong helps us to understand Matisse's work. Even so, it is important to remember that Matisse never discusses his work in these terms. For him, it does not matter whether colour is right, because the choice of colour reflects his subjective inner vision. Therefore, colour is always right to Matisse, since it responds to his artistic perception. The paintings done by Matisse, particularly 'French Window at Collioure' done in 1914, was picked out in the 1950s by North American artists, notably by Mark Rothko, as a starting point for the New York school of ‘abstract expressionism’.

Mattise: (1914) French window at Collioure

The Russian, Malevich, in his painting made in 1913 entitled ‘Black square on white field’, carried colour abstraction to its ultimate geometric simplification. Critics called his creation a "dead square" and a "void", as well as "the greatest by far among the fairground tricks of instant culture." To Malevich, however, this simple square symbolized a "full void," in that it showed how painting could fulfil itself unaided by any reference to a specific external reality. For him the square represented what he called Suprematism: "the supremacy of pure feeling" in and of itself. Malevich removed specific subject matter by shifting away from representation and mimesis towards the purity of mathematical geometry. "The square = feeling, the white field = the void beyond this feeling." It reads two ways, either a black square on top of a white ground or a black hole surrounded by a white border. Every object has a static facade and an inner dynamic, he believed. This hard-edge geometric abstraction is the forerunner of the later 1960s movement, Minimalism. The way in which Malevich does away with any representation of the material, physical world in this visionary, non-objective art parallels the way in which the Russian revolution will do away with the hated old order.

Malevich (1913) Black square on white field

Envisioning a new reality on a higher plane represented Malevich’s life as a devout Christian mystic. For him, spirit and feeling rule over matter. The painting was a statement of Suprematism: "To the Suprematist, the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling, as such, quite apart from the environment in which it is called forth." Malevich's black hole set a new threshold for painting. Malevich knew about the European avant-garde through two sources: Shchukin's collection of Matisse and Picasso, which he assemble in Russia, and through Marinetti, the author of the Italian Futurist manifesto, who made two trips to Russia, in 1909-10 and 1914. From that point on, until Stalin established an official style of Soviet Realism in 1932, Russia was the most progressive country in the world in terms of modern abstract art.

Another founder of abstract art around this seminal time, Piet Mondrian, was an avid reader of theosophy, who once said he learned everything he knew from the founder of modern theosophy, Madame Blavatsky. He joined the Dutch Theosophical Society in 1909, when his work began its gradual evolution from representation toward the abstract. The shift was heralded in his landscapes: wide expanses of beach and sea; forest scenes that highlight the vertical thrust of trees from a horizontal expanse of earth. Mondrian's preoccupation with the tension between vertical and horizontal was later depicted in the haunting abstract cruciform patterns of primary colours that would become his trademark. According to Mondrian's own notebooks, the patterns represent the struggle toward unity of cosmic dualities and the religious symmetry undergirding the material universe. A strong believer in the theosophical doctrine of human evolution from a lower, materialistic stage toward spirituality and higher insight, Mondrian wrote that the hallmark of the New Age would be the "new man" who "can live only in the atmosphere of the universal." For him, all art would converge on geometrical arrangements of primary colours.

Mondrian (1912) Trees in blossom

This was also the route to abstract art taken between 1896 and 1913 by Russian born Wassily Kandinsky (1866 - 1944). His path from figurative landscape painter to the modernist master of abstraction led to the creation of what he claimed was the first truly abstract paintings. He only become an artist in his thirties after viewing one of Claude Monet's series of 'Haystacks' at the 1896 exhibition of Impressionist paintings in Moscow. The physical landscape and the haystack were immaterial to Kandinsky. Indeed, he failed to recognise the haystack in the painting. Instead the colours and composition suggested a new direction for this lecturer of law who decided to study art in Munich:

"...suddenly, for the first time, I saw a picture ... And, albeit unconsciously, objects were discredited as an essential element within the picture."

Kandinsky considered Goethe's theory "one of the most important works". It led him to consider art as a spiritual expression, in line and colour, of pure imagination and feeling. Like music which is also an abstract creation, a painting need not have a basis in the material world.

Kandinsky wrote the following to J. B. Neumann in a letter from Neuilly-sur-Seine, dated 4th August 1935:

'When I left Moscow in December 1921 several of my paintings, some of them very large ones, remained in the custody of the Museum for West-European Art. Among those paintings is my very first abstract painting from the year 1911 (this was the first abstract picture that was ever painted in our time). Unfortunately, I do not even have a photograph of it. At that time [i.e. 1911 I was dissatisfied with the picture and, therefore, did not number it, did not inscribe it on the back as I otherwise always used to do, and did not even note it in my handlist. But when I saw it again after years I was very pleased with it. It is a very large painting, almost square, with very agitated form, and a large circle-like form at the upper-right.

When I became a German citizen all those paintings were declared to be Russian state property, and I could not get them back .. Should it be possible to have a good photograph made of the first abstract painting I should be delighted.'

Kandinsky (1913) Composition 7

A century later, we are now firmly in a world inhabited by artists who are no longer dominated by perspective and where colouring is used to reassert the picture plane with flat forms which destroy illusion and reveal their spiritual truths. This allows the abstract artist to use synonyms for describing the mystical space his or her picture has revealed. These synonyms are, paradoxically, more concrete in subjective attributes such as 'depth of feeling', 'penetration into knowledge', 'revelation' or the 'unfolding of veils, which have obscured what is behind them. The depth of their creations penetrates deeper into the mind than the illusion of perspective can ever produce.

The following powerful statement of what the shift from perspective to colour meant to artistic creativity was made by Adolf Gottleib and Mark Rothko in 1943.

"We feel that our pictures demonstrate our aesthetics beliefs, some of which we, therefore, list:

1. To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks.

2. This world of the imagination is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense.

3. It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way-not his way.

4. We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.

5. It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why we profess spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art.

Consequently if our work embodies these beliefs, it must insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decoration; pictures for the home; pictures for over the mantel; pictures of the American scene; social pictures; purity in art: prize-winning potboilers; the National Academy; The Whitney Academy, the Corn Belt Academy; buckeyes; trite tripe; etc".

This statement is still valid to describe the artistic breakthrough that began at the beginning of the 20th century, when a few artists realised the limits of representational art to raise picture making to the same level of emotion and intensity as music and poetry. To achieve this, painters still apply colour to canvas with the objective of communicating to someone else how the world is. The difference with the Renaissance tradition is that the message is coded through the medium of abstract coloured forms in a flat picture plan. In making these forms the artist is expressing basic human emotions such as tragedy, ecstasy and doom. After receiving the message, the viewer’s world has changed because of his/her idiosyncratic emotional response, which is a neurophysiological phenomenon, sometimes expressed in tears, which we hardly understand.

Mark Rothko (1961) Untitled

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Deconstructing landscape

"Primordial feelings are those feelings that make me want to paint. I get up in the morning and I want to paint. Before I go to bed I am either painting or am tired of painting. Even when I am relaxing, watching television or listening to the radio, I am doing a third thing that is more important. People walk in and wonder how can I watch the TV and listen to the radio simultaneously. It is because I am doing a third thing. I am concentrating on painting. I get used to the noise. It does not bother me. It makes me focus internally. I move in and out of it but my mind is always still. It is like being in a trance where thinkiing is not disturbed. Noise also is a companion." A. S. Boghossian Ethiopian painter.

Each artist goes through a journey of learning how to articulate what is inside of her. For example, it could be 'pointedness', 'volume' or 'colour'. It could be emotions, feelings, graphic renderings of nature or organic images. Whatever the internal focus the artist is struck by it when she sees it. This could be said about any aspect of human creativity that takes over the mind. Whatever is achieved is imperceptible and extraordinarily slow in coming. This is basically why artists and scientists tend to doubt their achievements and wonder whether they make a contribution to society. Thinking as a process is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. The difference between artistic and scientific creativity is that art can only retain its radical autonomy by allowing the spectator a 'free' space of interpretation. In order to interact with abstract landscape art we have to adjust our idea about scenery in terms of a mental expression of mood and history, well laced with a desire to get to the spiritual heart of things.

Since Picasso and Cezanne we have been taught to make and see art with our minds, not our eyes. Even Claude Lorraine and his 18th century followers in their realistic depictions of semi-rural Italian scenery were actually constructing personal spiritual takes on reality and legend. Their aim was to produce imaginary scenes of the mind, depicting a strain of poetic fantasy that delighted in myth. Also, we should remember that pre-Impressionistic, photographic Constable saw clouds, particularly in his sketches, as an expression of the infinite cosmos and not simply as a versimilitude of weather. Turner in his 'Rain Steam and Speed', transformed notions of time, space and physical matter'.

Surrealism developed in the 1920s with the aim of showing something that is there, but not yet visible to everybody. Artists thought they had achieved this by discovering worlds of fantastical images, altered realities and the oddest encounters of people and objects. Their vision transfigured tangible material reality into something completely new; discovering how to approach a spiritual dimension of matter by arranging objects and people in ways that challenge the viewer's understanding. Basically they were trying to say things that are not contained in the component parts of the picture, such as reveries, allusions or associations.

What we wish to view or express graphically is really always based on metaphors of our state of mind at a particular time and in a certain geographical place. Because of Surealism, avantguard, abstract 'landscape artists' now have to really struggle for a personal mental clarity of expression to produce a picture of a reality that has never before been seen. The deep blend of intense emotion and physical sensations requires the artist 'knowing' before 'seeing' in order to to express a personal obsession . This kind of abstraction from what is optically perceived will often produce an outcome that requires textual clarification before a viewer can become truely interested in the work of art and come to an understanding. Ideally, this gloss should come from the artist, but it is more often a figment of the mind of a critic who stands before the work as a self-appointed intermediary. Without an interpretation in words, abstract landscape can easily become impossible to decipher.

To express a total view of a scene requires the artist to combine the ideas of 'environment', with its emphasis on function, and 'landscape' with its focus on form. This way, the artist can play the role of a participant in the narrative as well as an activator of its creation as a two-dimensional image. The painter Ben Nicholson expressed this multifaceted definition of creativity as setting up a group of objects 'to see what we can do with them; make them into not like they are but something else; lets draw lines round them; draw lines out from them and so on'.

This can lead to works that are multiple viewpoints in parallel, with many layers of meaning.

For the painter Peter Lanyon in 1964, whose work telescoped time in an overlap of different times, views and subjects, landscape painting was about transforming the environment as a source for looking forward, not an echo of the past:

"The real place of the painter today in a landscape tradition is in the creation of works which transform the environment and fill people with images to understand the immense range of human curiosity particularly in the sciences, Landscape then is not any longer tied specifically to 'nature' as the country, but infuses a painting with a sense of the forces beyond human scale'.

Lanyon's place pictures are very difficult to understand without knowing his life story and the actual places where he painted and why he painted. Regarding the important issue of the viewer wanting to know what goes on in the artist's mind, what is needed is not a cut and dried answer- it clearly defies that- but rather an extension of a viewing experience. Widening the scope of the meeting between viewer and maker at the canvas could be an important way of answering the question.

Some paintings are ideas and others are experiences or imaged landscapes from actual experiences. In the following ‘interface experiment’ an artist and her viewers are both working with ideas which makes them concentrate on the process of creativity rather than the final product.

The method was for viewers to deconstruct one of Susi Bellamy's pictures (Field of Dreams) so that artist and viewers could both articulate a shared experience taking place between the end of the artist's experience and the beginning of the audience's experience. At this point the viewers are actually turning a work of art into another work of art.

Susi describes her picture as being a representation of the 'field ' of her lifehistory, expressed metaphorically as a landscape; a stratified sequence of sedimented memories from the different places that have influenced her development as an artist. The geological idea of 'weathering' comes to mind with respect to the power of dreams to provide only a partial view of the past, which is exposed to the loss of memories, producing isolated peaks of experience and lacunae in event sequences.

To be continued....

'Field of Dreams'; Susi Bellamy

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Art and spiritual intelligence

Spirituality is the innate human need to connect with something larger than ourselves, something beyond our ego-self or constricted sense of self. It may be defined as having two components: the vertical and the horizontal. The vertical component is something sacred, divine, timeless and placeless a Higher Power, Source, Ultimate Consciousness or any other language the person prefers. Spirituality creates a desire to be connected to and guided by this Source. The horizontal component is being of service to our fellow humans and to the planet at large.

Cathedrals and temples are places where these two components of apiritual connectivity are made available to a thoughtful public.

Danah Zoharhttp://www.dzohar.com/ coined the term'spiritual intelligence' and introduced the idea in her 1997 book ReWiring the Corporate Brain: Using the New Science to Rethink How We Structure and Lead Organizations. Later, together with Ian Marshall she developed the concept, which was introduced in 1999 at The Masters Forum. In the year 2000, Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall published a book, SQ: Ultimate intelligence. In 2004 the authors upgraded the concept with notion of Spiritual Capital and demonstrated the crucial link between SQ, SC, and sustainability. By their definition Spiritual Intelligence is the intelligence with which we access our deepest meanings, purposes, and highest motivations. It is the intelligence that makes us whole, that gives us our integrity. It is the soul's intelligence, the intelligence of the deep self. It is the intelligence with which we ask fundamental questions and with which we reframe our answers.

The word "spiritual" in relation to the intelligence has no necessary connection with organized religion. A person may be high in SQ but have no religious faith or belief of any kind. Conversely a person may be very religious but low in SQ. The word spiritual in the Zohar/Marshal concept comes from the Latin word spiritus, which means, "that which gives life or vitality to a system.
Zohar and Marshall introduced 12 qualities of SQ. They derive these principles from the qualities that define complex adaptive systems. In biology, complex adaptive systems are living systems that create order out of chaos, they create order and information and defy the law of entropy. They enable us to adapt to a changing environment and in this sense they are central to the establishment of a sustainable global culture.

Those principles are:
  • Self-Awareness: Knowing what I believe in and value, and what deeply motivates me;
  • Spontaneity: Living in and being responsive to the moment;
  • Being Vision- and Value-Led: Acting from principles and deep beliefs, and living accordingly;
  • Holism: Seeing larger patterns, relationships, and connections; having a sense of belonging;
  • Compassion: Having the quality of "feeling-with" and deep empathy;
  • Celebration of Diversity: Valuing other people for their differences, not despite them;
  • Field Independence: Standing against the crowd and having one's own convictions;
  • Humility: Having the sense of being a player in a larger drama and of one's true place in the world;
  • Tendency to Ask Fundamental "Why?" Questions: Needing to understand things and get to the bottom of them;
  • Ability to Reframe: Standing back from a situation or problem and seeing the bigger picture; seeing problems in a wider context;
  • Positive Use of Adversity: Learning and growing from mistakes, setbacks, and suffering
    Sense of Vocation: Feeling called upon to serve, to give something back

Zohar and Marshall dealt with questions such as how we have SQ and how it functions in the human brain. Using some of the most recent scientific research available, their work draws on a body of new neurological, psychological and anthropological studies of human intelligence, as well as studies of human thinking and linguistic processes, to provide scientific evidence for SQ. First, they cite research carried out in the 1990s, by neuropsychologist Michael Persinger and neurologist V.S. Ramachandran at the University of California , on the existence of a 'God Spot' in the human brain. This built-in spiritual centre is located among neural connections in the temporal lobes of the brain. These neural areas light up on scans taken with positron emission tomography whenever research subjects are exposed to discussion of spiritual or religious topics, or when talking about what is deeply meaningful to them. Subjects report experiences of profound peace, unity, love and spirituality. Such temporal activity has been linked for years to people who suffer from temporal epilepsy, seizures, or people who take LSD. Ramachadran's work is the first to show it active in normal people.

The 'God Spot' does not prove the existence of God, but it produces spiritual behaviour necessary for people to be nice to each other. In other words, it is the generation of electrical impulses in this region that provides a biochemical basis for spiritual intelligence. It is by means of this region of the brain that we function mentally as animals suspended in webs of significance held by thoughts about the making or contemplation of particular objects. Each object functions as a spiritual anchor or centre of focus for creating personal imaginative universes such as temples and cathedrals. Spaces and vistas are organised by design for the propagation of ideas of morality in the building through allegory. Allegory is a figurative mode of representation conveying a meaning, other than the literal teaching of a lesson, using symbolism. Allegory communicates its message by means of symbolic figures, actions or symbolic representation. An allegory does not have to be expressed in language: it may be addressed to the eye, and is often found in realistic painting, sculpture or some other form of mimetic, or representative art. Simply put, an allegory is a device that can be presented in literary form, such as a poem or novel, or in visual form, such as in painting or sculpture. A practical application of spiritual intelligence within the corporate cathedrals also involved the creation of bishop saints as icons of authority and the provision of guidance towards conduct that will lead us to the good. It also lead to spiritual guidance through church law, the art of the sacraments, pastoral texts and music. From this perspective, the periodic rebuildings, refurbishments, and extensions of cathedrals were motivated by the desire to increase and update the 'theatre of allegory' of the living church. However, we can say that in their everyday lives most people perceive spiritual intelligence through the placement of cultural products or signs within a multiplicity of complex religious, social, ethical, aesthetic and mythological structures.

West Front Wells Cathedral J Crook

Paul Binsky in his book 'Becket's Crown' argues that no commentary on the Living Church can match for spiritual exhilaration the extraordinary, and widely read, sermons on Canticles by St Bernard. A canticle is a hymn taken from the Bible.

"One of these (no. 62) catches the mystical sense of Wells's realization of the Living Church in its medieval West Front as a work of art. In this respect, it serves to demonstrate the astonishing sympathy of Cistercian poetics with Gothic imagery. The sermon in question is on Canticles 2: 14: my dove in the clefts of the rock, in the nooks of the wall (columba mea in foraminibus petrae in caverna maceriae).

The dove is the 'bride', i.e. the Church. Thus the wall, maceria, is not a mass of mere stones but the communion of saints; the nooks or clefts in the wall have been left behind by the fallen angels, and these imperfections are to be filled spiritually by the vivi lapides (the just) of I Peter 2: 4-5; indeed the guardianship of the angels is like the wall in the Lord's vineyard. The Church's desire for union with God is consoled by the memory of the Passion of Christ in the past, and the contemplation of her welcome among the saints.

Through the clefts in the wall flowed Christ's ransoming blood. The Church joyously explores the crannies, the many and varied resting-places and mansions (mansiones multae) which are in her Father's house (John 14: 2), in which God lodges his children according to their just deserts.
The clefts are a sign of the Church's desire for completeness, but they are made too by thought and desire, because the holy heavens, living and rational, will look on mortals lovingly and hear their prayers: everyone may hollow out a place in this heavenly wall.

Now one can see the patriarchs; now the prophets; now one can mingle with the assembly of the apostles, now join the chorus of martyrs. With the quickness of devotion we can run up and down the dwelling-places and ranks of the blessed orders of the angels, as far as the cherubim and seraphim. God takes delight in these nooks, from which ring out the voices of thanksgiving, the voices of wonder and praise.

The hollows in the rock are the means of self-incorporation into God, for while one divine happiness consists in the contemplation of the heavenly city with its multitude of heavenly citizens, the other is concerned with the divinity of God himself, the rock, into which by contemplation worshippers penetrate: the task is difficult, but the rewards sweet.

The sermon uses several familiar ideas: the communion of saints as the living stones of the Church; the act of contemplation, of spiritual penetration and ascent; the Church as the penetrable body of the wounded Christ and so on.

The language of the nooks vacated by the rebel angels which are to be filled by the just elucidates the terms foramen and caverna (foramina being a contemporary term for the holes in shrines by which access was gained to the relics of the saints). It offers a commentary on the spiritual potential of the Wells Front as a cliff face and a punctured and inhabited wall. It is into these foramina that one delves to disclose to oneself their secrets, for they are a means to union with God. Wells's sonic quatrefoils are literally those holes from which ring out the sounds of thanksgiving, wonder and praise.

Contemplation, visualization and interpretation become one, for Bernard's extraordinarily vivid powers of ideation are founded upon an exhilarating scanning process, the dove hovering and swooping across the wall surface to see the company of heaven lodged within it, in a sort of flight of the mind.

The depth and specificity of this Cistercian discourse on the wall and nook should not delude one into supposing that it represents anything like a positive source for the Wells accomplishment. Too little is known about the readership of Bernard's sermons in the West Country or about its Cistercian culture in general. Wells Cathedral, having history but no cult, had no obvious hagiographical context within which such ideas might have been the basis of its design".