Friday, July 19, 2013

From Representation to Abstraction in Art. An Interpretation Based on the Writings of E.H. Gombrich.

My intention is to lay-out a bare bones description of how abstract art developed from representational forms. This is a simplified discussion gleaned from a far more complete history presented in E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art. Throughout this essay, I will faithfully offer citation of Gombrich’s work, to which I am so indebted. Because it is simplified for clarification’s sake, this endeavor will necessarily lack the full complexity of the whole story. But this quick and dirty approach will show trends in such a way that the reader will be able to answer the question of how we got to abstraction.

By the late Nineteenth Century, markets which artists had traditionally relied upon were gone. Commissions from the Catholic Church had virtually disappeared. Aristocratic patrons were few. Photography had eliminated the artist’s role as illustrator of scenes which required travel to observe.  “The idea that the true purpose of art was to express personality could only gain ground when art had lost every other purpose” (Gombrich, p. 503).

This left artists free to experiment and express themselves in ways which the market had formerly constrained. The outgrowth was Modern Art, which primarily took three different directions, represented by three different painters: Cezanne’s experiments with color and form inspired Cubism. Gauguin’s work resulted in Primitivism. Van Gogh used art to express his feelings (Gombrich, p. 549). It is this last artist with whom we are most concerned in this article.

“Van Gogh liked to paint…motifs in which he could draw as well as paint with his brush, and lay on the colour thick just like a writer who underlines his words…It is clear that Van Gogh was not mainly concerned with correct representation. He used colors and forms to convey what he felt about the things he painted...He would exaggerate and even change the appearance of things if this suited his aim (Gombrich, pp. 547-8). This approach was an inspiration to later artists who also used art to express feeling, labeled Expressionists.
But within the school of Expressionism, there were those who wished to take visual art a step further. “If the doctrine was right that what mattered in art was not the imitation of nature but the expression of feelings through the choice of colours and lines, it was legitimate to ask whether art could not be made more pure by doing away with all subject-matter and relying exclusively on the effects of tones and shapes (Gombrich, p. 569). Like music, which inspires feeling without words, painters could rely on their media without pictures, without recognizable images. They could simply use paint to create “a pure visual music” (Gombrich, p. 569).

One of the pioneers of this view was Wassily Kandinsky who “stressed the psychological effects of pure color,” exhibited some “first attempts at color music” and “inaugurated what came to be known as ‘abstract art’” (Gombrich, p. 570). To Kandinsky and his ilk, using materials without subject to express what they felt was the main point of their work. For them, a more personal, inward expression had replaced externalizing a communication to the public.

I hope this essay has served its purpose in offering a simple explanation of how one trend in art progressed from representation to abstraction. The word “progressed” has some definitions which imply forward movement towards some destination; imply improvement. I do not wish to suggest that abstract art is an improvement over representation. Art is subjective, and one may find laudable qualities from any generation based on one’s own predilections. For many, the exquisite draftsmanship of earlier masters is what they enjoy. There is no one view of art that is superior to another. I use the word progression in its most elemental sense: to describe movement from point A to point B. For those seeking a less stark depiction, I suggest E.H. Gombrich’s masterful The Story of Art, which is the best general introduction to Art History that I have seen. My material is from chapters 25 through 27 of that work.

Gombrich, E.H. The Story of Art. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995.

For a book review of The Story of Art, see: