In “contemporary art” museums, where the avant-garde is said to be at home, good painting is ignored today; yet the greatest revolution in the arts began at the hands of some painters.
Well, yes, with shapes and colors skillfully distributed on a surface a revolution can be made. Yet, in this our time crowded with self-styled innovators, contemporary art museums neglect painting. I believe this is largely because so many of today’s “insiders” still do not really understand the transformation that began with the work of Paul Cézanne, brought to a first substantial completion fifty years later by Piet Mondrian, and is still ongoing today. The greater the depth of the change, the longer it will take for its full significance to be understood. It is a process aimed at building a plastic space through which to see the world in a new way. A space capable of evoking outer and inner reality in their dynamic and inseparable relationship. A Copernican revolution with respect to art that until the early twentieth century focused on the forms of the external world, that is, on the so-called realistic or vulgarly called figurative vision, that is, only that part of reality that we can perceive.
“Reality is not as it appears to us“ explains scientist and philosopher of science Carlo Rovelli in his book of the same name.
What we call reality is only a part of the real world. Our senses do not grasp the reality of the microcosm that generates and is the substance of everything we see. In his writings Paul Klee says that “art makes the invisible visible“.
By abstracting from appearances, that is, from a partial reality, painting can evoke in its own ways the visible and the invisible, that is, a truer reality. Abstraction, when it is not just a convenient shortcut, restores to painting a universal gaze. One can therefore understand why it cannot satisfy the convenient strategies of easy entertainment pursued by so many contemporary art museums. Even the distinction between fullness and emptiness no longer makes sense since “emptiness” is just a different concentration of the same energy that generates “fullness.” It is rather naive to call painting that imitates semblances realistic and to brand as incomprehensible that which, by widening the gaze, also evokes the part of reality not directly accessible to us.
“The purpose of art is not to represent the outward appearances of things but their inner meaning.” (Aristotle)
How to simultaneously evoke outer world and inner world, macro and microcosm, “fullness” and “emptiness” except by abstracting from the outward appearance of things? “As for details, the painter no longer has to worry about them. There is photography to render a hundred times better and faster the multitude of details.” (Henri Matisse)
“Abstractionism”, as some say, is not one of the “isms” (Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism..) that blossomed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The abstract vision of reality unites in itself all those “isms” restoring to painting an all-encompassing gaze.
Abstract painting is an effective tool for dialoguing with today’s complex reality.
Reality no longer understood as a static representation of some things, but rather as an evolving space between us and all things, that is, as a dynamic and unpredictable interaction between subject and object.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, painting was based on the perspective view developed in the early fifteenth century. The vanishing point of perspective space, toward which all the visible world converges ideally, is the projection on the painted surface of the fixed position from which man described a world that tended to be static. At that time one went at the pace of man and at that speed the world appears almost stationary. Societies were also changing much more slowly from a social, economic and political point of view than today.
In the early twentieth century, electric lighting and new means of transportation imparted accelerations never before experienced by humans. By virtue of the increasing speed, the relationships between the observer and the observed scene were constantly changing; a landscape, a building or a tree appeared in a rapid succession of various viewpoints.
In 1905, Albert Einstein argued that space and time are inextricably linked, and in the early cubist works of Braque and Picasso, an object takes on canvas all the forms that appear as one observes it from a moving position, that is, in a certain amount of time. Those strange faces with three, four eyes and that one bottle that seems to multiply under the gaze of an observer walking around it. Unlike perspective (vulgarly called figurative) space, Cubist space considers the visible world in its becoming rather than its static permanence. For Mondrian, cubism will be above all a way to focus on the intimate structure of things and to find a kind of common denominator among the most diverse of things. “Art must express the universal,” the Dutch painter will say.
A few years earlier, the Impressionist painters were emphasizing light that changes the appearance of objects, a way of saying that you can never permanently fix reality. In parallel, with an accentuation and free use of color, the Expressionist painters were placing emphasis on the inner world, that is, on how each of us sees things. It is no coincidence that psychoanalysis began to develop in those years.
From these premises began in the history of Western art and culture one of the most radical transformations of plastic space. Out of Cubism would develop Mondrian’s Neoplasticism, which, after fifty years of work, would find a completely new space that constituted the first substantial alternative to the perspective space undermined by the Impressionist, Expressionist and Cubist painters; a space capable of representing the far more complex and dynamic current reality. A space whose immense innovative scope is not yet well understood.
For those who want to learn more about Piet Mondrian.
What remains today after this revolution?
In my view, there remains, today more than ever, the need to create balance, harmony and beauty.
“For me, a painting must be a lovable, cheerful and beautiful thing, yes, beautiful. There are already enough dull things in life without setting out to make more of them.” (Auguste Renoir)
“I want an art of balance, of purity, that neither disturbs nor upsets; I want the fatigued, exhausted, exhausted man to taste calm and rest before my painting.” (Henri Matisse)
For so many of today’s aspiring artists beauty, harmony, balance are not values worth working for.
“It seems to me that the quest for harmony is the most beautiful of human passions.” (Le Corbusier)
Why are we today so far from the spirit of the masters? Perhaps because, contrary to what it seems, it is not so easy to create balance, harmony and beauty. The fable of the fox and the grapes comes to mind.
We cannot explain why certain relationships of form and color arouse in us a sense of harmony, and why harmony is even more believable when it is contrasted within the same composition. Heraclitus said that the greatest harmony is generated by a contrast between opposites. Great painting has always fulfilled this condition; from Giotto to Piero, from Raphael to Caravaggio, from Poussin to Cézanne to Mondrian. Nothing in the real world is given in and of itself; everything acquires value and meaning from the relationship between different and opposite things. However, it is no easy feat to express balance, harmony and dynamic unity from the contrast between the most diverse of things.
There remains the need to abstract from particular contingencies in order to evoke a view of the whole.
“There is a common design to all things, plants, trees, animals, humans, and it is with this design that one must be in consonance.” (Henri Matisse)
To the great variety of natural forms should be added the artificial ones that now crowd into our urban spaces, our homes and our mental space. Israeli research published in Nature has determined that by 2020 the weight of man-made artifacts has surpassed that of living things. Plastic with its eight billion tons overpowers animals, which are standing still at four. When we talk about the environment, we are now referring more to artifice than to nature.
Even art is, indeed, artifice. An artifice crafted by sensitive minds that invites one to find balance and harmony with nature and oneself. Words are not life but poets know how to make them fresher and more alive than a stream. The seven musical notes are meaningless sounds in themselves that, however, combined in a certain way can become more eloquent than a frank sunny day. With lines and colors, too, one can pay homage to life.
Painting means observing the world, becoming intoxicated with its colors and transforming its infinite variety into the most synthetic forms of thought. This means abstracting. Even the paintings of the past are abstractions with the difference that we to that level of abstraction have long become accustomed and therefore call realistic and comprehensible images where angels fly in the sky and an old man presides over a gathering of men sitting on clouds. So many people think they understand a painting only because they recognize in it things they have already seen, but this is not the same as understanding the art of painting.
“To paint is not to slavishly copy the object, it is to grasp the harmony between numerous relationships and to transfer them into a system of one’s own, developing them according to a new and original logic.” (Paul Cézanne)
“The novice painter thinks he paints from the heart. The artist at the end of his development also thinks he paints with the heart. But only the latter is right because the training and discipline he has imposed on himself enable him to accept the impulses.” (Henri Matisse)
“Artistic technique involves language and logic. An intelligence, with a great capacity for organization, is the most valuable collaborator of sensibility in the realization of the work of art.” (Paul Cézanne)
Harmony, relationships, logic, discipline; this is how the authentic revolutionaries of the plastic arts spoke. I think of all those who hide their inabilities behind easy slogans such as “in art there are no rules..” In art, as in life, freedom is not the absence of rules, as some fragile minds believe. To be free, Immanuel Kant said, is to be able to choose rules that are necessary anyway. “I love the rule that corrects the emotion” said George Braque. Of rules and logic speak true inventors in the presence of whom certain hyper-celebrated artists of our day become little thing.
One suspects that contempt for rules and discipline is a form of devious defense of the incapable also because destroying is far easier than building. Let us not be surprised, then, if the works of some masters of the early twentieth century still constitute valid and unsurpassed points of reference for those who prefer the substance of things. This is true not only because of the quality of their works, but also because of the volume of thoughts they developed in the form of writings. Thoughts that, in addition to dealing with specific aspects of their work, testify to their ideal, ethical and social commitment to the historical context in which they lived. Reflections of a universal nature on the human condition.
Try looking for something like that in the output of so many stars of the contemporary artistic firmament.
Cézanne again, “Everything in nature is modeled on the sphere, the cone and the cylinder. One must learn to paint in these simple figures. Afterwards one can do whatever one wishes.”
From this sentence we understand the beginning of the process that paved the way for an abstract representation of reality.
Guillaume Apollinaire interviews Matisse: “The eloquence of your works comes above all from the combination of colors and lines. This, and not the mere reproduction of the object (as certain superficial intelligences still believe), constitutes the painter’s art.”
What remains after that revolution but the essence of the art of painting, namely, relationships of colors, shapes and proportions that, while gladdening the eye, can at the same time evoke substance.
“Critics’ appreciations of art are formulated following more literary conventions than aesthetic criteria. And imagine if they know that marrying a shade of green to a red will sadden a mouth or make a cheek smile.” (Paul Cézanne)
I am sorry for professors accustomed to looking for the meanings of a painting in history and letters, but the real substance of the art of painting lies in the relations of form and color, or rather, relations of form-color being form a certain extension of color. Painting is first and foremost form-color which, through skilled eyes and hands, can become content. This is even more true in the case of abstract painting. There is so much self-styled abstract painting that instead is not abstract because it is not the result of a real process of introjection and expression, of sincere analysis and skillful synthesis.
Henri Matisse describing a canvas by Cézanne: “To arrive at the simplicity of these Baigneuses that you see on the edge of the Jardin, it takes a lot of analysis, a lot of invention and a lot of love. You have to be worthy of them, deserve them. I said once before, “When the synthesis is immediate, it is schematic, without density, and the expression becomes impoverished.” So much of today’s self-styled abstract painting is just the result of schematics lacking existential density, that is, content.
It is not enough to fill a canvas with color to make an abstract work of art.
It is not enough to fill a canvas with any shapes and colors to generate an abstract vision of reality just as any juxtaposition of words or notes is not enough for the purpose of creating a literary or musical text. The beauty of certain color combinations, the rightness of certain plays of form cannot be taught, cannot be learned, much less explained in words. They are there or they are not; they can be recognized or they cannot. Color has an expressive force in itself that one must know how to calibrate, like the notes in a musical composition.
Just as in verbal language with the same words one can say nonsense or express beautiful sentences full of meaning, so too with the language of shapes and colors. The vocabulary is the same, but the difference between an image with full meaning and one without meaning lies in one’s use of that vocabulary. In the absence of certain canons, we are surrounded today by tribes of illiterates who would have us believe that they know how to write poetry.
Abstracting means translating the infinite dimensions of the existing into the two dimensions of the pictorial surface.
There have always been few who are capable of such operations just as few are colors who know how to distinguish a work of art from a simple artifact; abilities not necessarily related to the studies they have completed. I know people who in this regard have an innate talent and others, well endowed with academic degrees, who look without seeing.
Abstraction is not just one of many styles as they superficially think in North America. In the face of a reality as complex as today’s, abstraction is indispensable in order to grasp the substance of things. To represent life in all its unpredictable beauty and tragedy, to capture being in becoming, to evoke the universal in the particular. All stuff that is not easily sold; especially on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
I believe that there is a relationship between the social life of a collectivity and the plastic space in which it identifies itself. It is no accident that Nazifascism and Stalinism fiercely hindered abstract art. Certain cultural regimes, emanations of obtuse economic and financial power, are today-more “democratically”-restricting themselves to ignoring the profound revolutionary charge of the abstract vision of reality.
It is difficult to find in contemporary art circles today works of painting worthy of the name: convincing compositions of form and color that cheer the eye and are able to evoke credible and substantial content. Bice Lazzari, Ermanno Leinardi, Giovanni Dore, Giovanni Carta… Have you ever seen any of their work exhibited in contemporary art museums?