“Our epoch is a time of tragic collision between spirit and matter – a time of terrible, inescapable vacuum, a time of enormous questions. When religion, science and morals (the latter by the strong hand of Nietzsche) are shaken and when the outer supports threaten to fall, man turns his gaze from the external to the deeper essence within him.” Kandinsky
“I paint forms as I think them, not as I see them.” Picasso
The 20th century departure from the traditional outward referencing of the world of objective reality as a source upon which visual artists could engage their internal inter-subjectivity in the production of their art, echoed the prevailing malaise, the loss of certainty, the nihilism, and the vacuum that accompanied the larger shift from one cultural epoch to the advent of a new beginning.
The nihilist movement (Dada) came to the conclusion that art was dead, and civilization was bankrupt. They offered nothing but noise, irony, and cynicism in its place. However, other artists explored a number of different directions arising out of the ashes of former traditional cultural conventions in their search for something to say.
“Only at rare intervals, when the clouds part in a dark sky of the crumbling canon do a few individuals discern a new constellation, which already belongs to a new canon of transpersonal values and foreshadows its configuration.” Art and the Creative Unconscious, Erich Neumann, page 110.
The vacuum that Kandinsky refers to occurred in the interval between the dissolution of the former cultural canon and the point of ignition of a new cultural epoch. This vacuum provided for an undifferentiated free-fall from an adherence to previous conventions and prepared the way for an unfettered access to the Collective Unconscious with its images, symbols, and archetypes. Evidence for this can be found in the work of Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, Miro, Klee, Chagall, Magritte, Arp, Brancusi, and Moore, to name but a few.
While some readers of these blog postings may be familiar with the history of the radical turning points in the visual arts in the early pivotal years of the 20th century, others may not be so informed. The attempt here is to provide a context within which I have been able to find something to say in my own work. I am gradually filling out that objective and plan to arrive at the point where I can write about my drawings, paintings, and sculptures within a condensed contemporary visual art overview.
Blog #2 mentions WW1, 1914 – 18, as a major change agent in the events of the first quarter of the 20th century. The appalling ferocity, brutality, the carnage, death and destruction, and the untold individual suffering of millions amidst the reenactment of archaic tribal instincts of aggression, left despair and dissolution in its wake. A European juggernaut of hegemony was once again equipped, uniformed, decorated and let loose come hell, high water, or the mud of torn up landscapes.
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction while the worst
Are full of a passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand.” W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919.
Dada, 1916 – 22
A group of like-minded artists, writers, and intellectuals came together in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1916 in reaction to the grotesque horrors of WW1 in their home countries. They felt that the name Dada (hobbyhorse), chosen at random from a French/German dictionary, was a suitable response to the collapse of modern world views that, in their opinion, had become bankrupt. They held that progress was an illusion, and civilization a poor joke.
Hans Richter, Dada artist and historian, describes how and why a group of talented artists and writers, suffering from the nightmare that was WW1 came to regard art as superfluous and worthy of disdain.: “Art has reached its end; it has dissolved into nothing. We are left with nihil alone (nihilism: the belief that there is no meaning or purpose in existence). Illusion has been removed with the help of logic. And what replaces illusion? A vacuum of all moral and ethical elements. We live within a declaration of nothing which is neither cynical nor regretful. It is a statement of fact, and one has to acknowledge it.”
“The important thing about Dada, (Jean Arp wrote) is that Dadaists despised what is commonly regarded as art, …. we declared that everything that comes into existence or is made by man is art.”
Fountain, Mr. Mutt, 1917.
Dadaist Marcel Duchamp wrote: “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain (urinal) or not has no importance. He chose it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under a new title and point of view – he created a new thought for that object.” Duchamp took special delight in the use of paradox, sardonic irony, cynicism, and wry humour in taking down the social and cultural values of the modern era in his work. In 2004, five hundred leaders in the world of art voted Duchamp’s Fountain the most influential work of modern art, beating out Picassos’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Dada as a movement came to an end in 1922, six years after its inception. With the advent of Surrealism in 1924, and all the rest of the 20th century visual art in the historical record, it is quite obvious that painting did not die out with the Dadaists. However, the legacy of Dada continues to live on in one form or another in much of what we see in our public and commercial galleries today.
In the sciences, the certainty provided by some 200 years of Newton’s Theories of Mechanistic Materialism was superseded by Einstein’s Special and General theories of relativity, 1907 -15. And further, the advent of the New Physics included Quantum Mechanics and in 1927, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The world of creative thought had radically shifted.
The following references provide some specific examples of the radical shift in Western visual art away from an outward directed cultural world view, centuries in the making, that formed so much of the character of image making over that time. In his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky wrote: “The Renaissance …. derived its inspiration solely from those periods of Greek and Roman art which were preoccupied with the expression of external reality.” And further: “The relationships in art are not necessarily ones of outward form, but are founded on an inner sympathy of meaning.”
By 1910, following the ground breaking work of Cezanne, Picasso, and Braque, Kandinsky was able to formulate a new definition of subject matter for art, one that removed the last vestiges of natural representation from it. He writes: “The artist’s eye should always be turned in upon his inner life, and his ear should be always alert for the voice of inward necessity. This is the only way of giving expression to what the mystic vision commands.” Kandinsky reduced the three dimensional world of natural appearances to flat shape, line, and chromatic relationships in accordance with his internal promptings. The products of this way of working came to be called abstract or non-objective art.
Another radical departure from traditional aesthetic values occurred in 1913 when Malevich wrote: “… in the year 1913, in my desperate attempt to free art from the burden of the object, I took refuge in the square form and exhibited a picture which consisted of nothing more than a black square on a white field.” Malevich is reverting to primary forms as part of his search for something fundamental on which to rely after the dissolution of former criteria in producing visual art became subject to question. While we rely on the five senses to navigate the world of objective reality, the inputs we receive from the sensorium is subjectively interpreted. In turning away from the practice of rendering the external appearance of things in visual art, artists began to explore the interior domain of subjectivity itself.
We will give the last word today to Paul Klee who writes: “It is the artist’s mission to penetrate as far as may be toward that secret ground where primal law feeds growth. Which artist would not wish to dwell at the central organ of all motion in space-time (be it the brain or heart of creation) from which all functions derive their life? In the womb of nature, in the primal ground of creation where the secret key to all things lies hidden? … Our beating heart drives us downward, far down to the primal ground.” What is encountered on this journey – “must be taken most seriously when it is perfectly fused with the appropriate artistic means in visible form. It is not a question of merely reproducing what is seen, the secretly perceived is made visible.”
The above references provide some examples supporting the Richard Tarnas quote in Context 2 of this blog that says: “… the outward moving ascent and construction of the modern self that began in the Renaissance … to the inward-moving descent and deconstruction of the self that commenced at the end of the 19th century and brought forth the postmodern era.”
And so, the essence contained in the invisible forces that form the substratum of our personal and collective lives, and by extension the social, cultural, and spiritual climate out of which our art forms arise, ever dynamic and ever in flux – begins to be revealed.
Two more important change agents not mentioned in Context 1 are Psychology and Photography. They made their appearance on the world stage in the 19th century and were part of the dynamic cultural mix leading to a radical upheaval in world views and values on the move into the 20th century that continues in an ever evolving process today.
In this particular addition to my blog, I propose to go beyond the facade of referring to names, anecdotes, and dates in a sequential, detailed accounting of visual art historical events. This in order to try to identify at least one aspect of the root cause, the essence, of the process that these change agents represent.
If a clue that affords us insight into the essence of cultural change can be found, we will have a better chance in coming to some understanding of the human condition underlying the changes in the visual arts in our recent history. These changes have posed an understandable challenge to those who rely on the rich historical tapestry of Western art for criteria in deciding what is and what is not art.
I found the following highly compressed clue embedded in the history of Western cultural change dating from the 16th century to the present day in the book Cosmos and Psyche, page 45, by Cultural Historian, Professor of Philosophy and Depth Psychology, Richard Tarnas:
“While the Copernican revolution (1508-12) impelled and symbolized the outward-moving ascent and construction of the modern self that began in the Renaissance and brought forth the Enlightenment, the depth psychology revolution reflected the inward-turning descent and deconstruction on the self that commenced at the end of the 19th century and brought forth the postmodern era.”
While this clue may seem obscure, the essence of something is not always obvious is it. More on this later.
In order to provide a context for the direction that I have taken in my work, I propose to include my views on some aspects of the 19th and 20th visual arts and their cultural milieu as I see them today. I have done that to some extent in very broad strokes in this website already, and I do not intend to go into a lot of detail here as so much has been written on this subject in one form or another by others. Having said that, here are some further thoughts along these lines.
There seems to be at least three more obvious ways ( we will explore a fourth subtle way later) of giving expression to our experience of the world we live in by means of the visual arts. One way is on a superficial level, another is on a deeper level, and a third can be somewhere in between. The artist of merit who has access to the deeper currents that animate the events of the day, has an intrinsic link to the forces that give impetus to these events be they religious, scientific, technological, the clash of world views, or the riot of armies.
It is interesting to note in this regard that Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and his subsequent collaboration with Georges Braque in the development of Cubism (1908 – 14) coincided with the outbreak of the First World War (1914 – 18, over 11 million killed). While these two historical events are distinctly different in form and scale, they nevertheless can be seen as two concrete examples of the invisible underlying forces on the move at that time. There is a long list of other change agents in the sciences (the new physics etc.), technologies (flying machines, motor cars etc.), and the humanities (world view changes etc.) that contributed to an assault on traditional modern values going forward into the 20th and 21st centuries.
This process of cultural and social upheaval received another massive blow with the eruption of World War Two (1939 – 45, over 59 million killed) that, while its original centre of gravity was in Europe, ultimately pulled the rest of the world into its black hole. The combined pressures of the above called into question all former Western cultural constructs under the rubric of Postmodernism.
More threads to string together next time.
I am looking forward to writing about my ideas, views on the contemporary visual art scene, and the creative process in general. If my current planning works out, I am hoping to be able to do this on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. It all depends on how this business of stringing words together becomes available to me.
It is my experience that painting a picture or writing about whatever it is that motivated such an action are two different forms of expression. While the motivating content that is seeking expression might be the same in each case, it’s the form that the expression takes that is different.
I find that reaching for what I want to say in the form of writing does not have the same facility that I feel I have when it comes to painting. In any case, they both can start with a feeling or an idea that emerges from within an interior motivating source and rise to awareness where they can be given form if the intention and the means are in place to do so.
A world of ideas, observations, and reflections await delivery into, in this case, a written form. They need ordering, clarification, alignment, if they are to provide coherence in giving them expression. Let’s see what takes form in writing and new paintings in the coming weeks.
In Quest of a Countenance: A Search for Meaning in a World in Transition. It contains 100 pages of drawings, paintings, sculpture, poetry, and text, with 61 plates of the images.