Art talk



Reflections on changing ideas

If all meanings could be adequately expressed by words,
the arts of painting and music would not exist

Cézanne's opinion

Cézanne was of the opinion that the 'intentions' and 'abstractions' of writers contravene with those of painters: in 1904 he writes to Bernard:

... Conversations about art are almost always useless. ... The writer expresses himself in abstractions while the painter renders his sensations and his perceptions by means of drawings and colour. ...

He disagreed with Emile Zola, who championed naturalistic literature and painting and who had a preference for (large) narrative canvasses, on which simple life was depicted as lifelike (naturalistic) as possible. This naturalism often describes the hard life and disillusion of farmers and working men together with the negative impact on their environment.

The Impressionists intentionally neglected lifelike imagery; for them nature consists of light and colour. The contours of the subject often were faded and also dissolved into a colourful atmosphere.

Unlike the Impressionists Cézanne has tried to modernise classic art; throughout his life he has searched for visual relations, which form the basis of each painting. His statement to redo Poussin after nature relates to a tradition of organizing, in which form and colour relations are of importance.

Maurice Denis argues that Cézanne recreates Impressionism from within, his paintings represent more than just a fleeting moment, they get spontaneously the qualities of classic art. A classicism that is not dependent on historical reference but defined as:

....the power of finding in things themselves the actual material of poetry and the fullest gratification for the demands of the imagination. ...

Some eighty years later Lyotard confirms Cézanne's distinction between a literary and a visual viewpoint:

.. To each of the various areas (science, politics, ethics, etc. etc.) a particular regime can be distinguished, each with his own genre de discourse. Each of these areas is distinguished by its own teleology (in philosophy the search for the purpose behind things) and by the relationship between the person that articulates the sentence and the one that is at the passive side of that speech. Not only the sentences, but also the different sub-areas (discourses) are fundamentally heterogeneous. With each of these regimes a way to (re)present the universe corresponds, and one way cannot be translated into another one. ...

Cézanne is one of the few who consequently realized the incompatibility of the various genres de discourse. Many, painters too, expressed themselves in a mixture of genres. On the one hand this had to do with the fact that painters from before World War II, in their attempt to explain the rapid developments of painting, turned to argumentations from philosophy, outside their own genre the discourse, on the other hand with the fact that they themselves were not yet sure how to cope with the new ways of painting and its role in the fast changing developing society.

Flow of Experiments

The early 20th century shows a large number of experiments in painting, which ultimately results in a separation between::

- The visually oriented artists, who critically examine the visual basis of painting.

- The theoretically oriented artists, who searched for the boundaries of the art of painting (the dominion of the eye), crossed the borders, and began to answer the question: 'what is art?' This caused a gradual shift from 'visual to conceptual' art, a process that took until mid century.

This separation is not at all clear in the beginning of the century; for the time being most painters continued working on canvas, were politically and socially engaged or active member of an avant-garde movement.

The Visual Experiment

Around 1912 a flow of experiments starts: a sequence of form and colour experiments in search for basic principles of visual art, resulting in an extensive visual vocabulary. These investigations led to a movement towards abstraction. The extent to which a painting could become non-figurative plays an important role. Some theoretically oriented painters proclaimed this to be the end of the art of painting. Some examples:

- In a search for universal visual values Mondrian reduces the subject to horizontals, verticals, primary colours and black and white. He calls it Neo-plasticism and he publishes his ideas about this new plastic art and dynamic equilibrium, in magazines such as "De Stijl". He succeeds in making the (white) background an integral and active part of the composition and in doing so he achieves a dynamic whole. He concentrated on the visual aspects, which, according to him, are present in many masterpieces. In classic art, however, a veil conceals the visual aspects.

- The Bauhaus was founded in 1919. Artists like Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Johannes Itten and others had much influence. Klee is a very poetic painter. He was working on basic art principles and wanted to combine the logic of science with music, poetry and painting. He tried to show the dynamics of movement and countermovement by simultaneous colour contrasts, dancing figures, tightrope walkers, etc.

Johannes Itten published his influential theory of colours in his book 'Kunst der farben&apos. The National Socialists closed the 'Bauhaus' in 1933. This kind of approach was not continued after World War II.

- In 1913 Malevich paints 'Black Square on white background', a completely abstract painting, and formulates the principles of, what he calls, 'Suprematism'. He was convinced that he could give the art of painting a scientific base. In order to achieve that he did research in a systematic way at the State Institute for artistic culture in Leningrad, assisted by an extensive staff and many students. The Institute was closed after a change in the official Soviet politics in 1928 and his work was classified as 'decadent' .
Malevich made the effects of colour, line and composition visible in his abstract (non-objective) paintings. Geometrical forms seem to float in front of a white background. These forms interact energetically.
Malevich distinguished non-objective and object-exploiting art (the subject is still depicted in a recognizable way, but the model merely serves as a cause for the creative act). Both have an autonomous language and content, which remain in both cases independent from the painted subject or narrative. This visual effect, the own language and contents of the painter’s discipline, has been the main subject of the experiments of the modern painters.
Though he was very much aware of the importance and meaning of non-objective art, a pure abstract art was never his final aim. It was rather a step forwards in the process of awareness towards the existence of an autonomous shape and content of the visual. He allows a painter to work either non-objective or object-exploiting, as long as the visual requirements of ‘painting as such’ (‘die Kunst als Solche’) are complied with. In his later figurative work he tries to apply the results of his research.

The Theoretical Experiment

filosoof de trap opgaand

Philosopher descending a staircase

In 1912 Marcel Duchamp works on a series of paintings called: 'Nude descending a staircase'.
Following the examples of the Cubists and Futurists he divides the figure into fragments and by simultaneous rendering the fragments he tries to visualize the movement of the descending woman. In fact, movement is expressed in the classical way, or, as Mondrian would say: i'n the manner of the Old Plastic'.
Presumably the results of this research were not satisfactory and in 1913 he switches from two-dimensional to three-dimensional (physical) movement by putting a bicycle wheel on a stool: the first 'ready-made'. After that he concentrated on intellectual art. With this action he crossed the borders of what until then was considered as being art.
The question 'What is Art' became the main concern of the intellectually focussed artists.
In 1934 Duchamp's ideas about a completely new Art Theory were published in 'der Grünen Schachtel'. In this article he proclaims a way of thinking in favour of intellectual art. Since 1916 Dada worked in accordance with this concept.
It was mainly a literary movement and in the sixties, when postmodernism begins, the implications of this movement became clear. Statements like 'Art as idea as idea' and 'Art after philosophy' became the dominant thoughts of 'What Art should be'.

Manifests and magazines

Many painters have explained their pioneering and cross-border experiments in writings and magazines. Some examples:

- The original Futurist Manifesto (Marinetti, writer, 1909) had a mostly political angle: by struggle, anarchy and revolution the labour movement should be striving for a better future. Boccioni, Carrà, Severini, Luigi Russolo and Balla joined the movement and wrote Manifestos in which their fascination for the new technique of the machine, speed and dynamic sensation of movement was published.
The painter Giorgio Morandi was an exception. The Futurist's ideas and choice of subjects did not appeal to him, although he studied the form experiments of both cubism and futurism. He admired the work of Cézanne and gives a very personal painterly response to his work.

- Surrealism, originated by a combination of collage, aspects of cubism and Dada nihilism, was defined by André Breton as: 'pure psychic automatism, by which it is intended to express verbally, in writing or in any other way, the true process of thought'. The aim was to free the artists from the normal association of pictorial ideas and of all accepted means of expression. Breton published the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. The movement found his way in literature as well as in visual arts and had a liberating influence.

- 'De Stijl' (after 1917) believed in a radical change of society in which the arts, in addition to science, should play a leading role. Their ideas had a considerable influence on architecture and design.
Mondrian takes an in-between position. He had unrealistic expectations of what his new vision would do for society, but also made accurate and precise statements about the visual aspects of painting and his own work.

Roger Fry and his doubts

De invloed van de criticus en schilder Roger Fry The influence of the critic and painter Roger Fry was considerable. He is also known as 'the champion of Postimpressionism' because he made modern art accessible to a large audience in England and America, especially Cubism and the art of Cézanne (as art historian and curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts, 1906-1910).

Fry was never an admirer of complete abstract art. But because of his earlier preference for the formalistic aspects in painting he is often referred to as the father of abstract art. The flow of experiments (beginning 20th century) in art has generally been explained as an evolution towards abstraction and Fry is often mentioned as its critical stimulator. His initial ideas (1910) are often, unjustified, linked with the 1940-1960 formalism of Clement Greenberg.

Fry's complicated way of thinking, the expression of his doubts, his early preference for formalism and human expression, make his writings fascinating. His admiration for both modern and classic art and his long study of art did convince him that the great names in art history justify their claims. He tried to see relations with the work of the old masters e.g. Raphael and Titian. Titian is full of emptiness, no relation of volumes.
A painter like Rembrandt unites everything. His paintings evoke admiration by their psychological imagination and plastic constructions.

At the end of his life he has his doubts about all the formalistic principles of modern art, which he initially promoted so enthusiastically. He was afraid that pure formalism would separate art from other experiences of life

Barr's CHART: evolution model to pure abstraction

The Barr Chart

The development of Abstract Art.
Alfred H. Barr, 1936

In 1936 Barr's famous CHART is published by the MOMA (New York). The various experiments in art were arranged as an evolutionary process towards abstraction, from Cézanne, father of modern art (1890), to Cubism and finally abstraction.
With this chart the formalistic repertoire of the art of painting seemed to have been defined once and for all, and one wonders whether still anything of interest could be added.
Because of World War II artistic development in Europe lost momentum and the centre of 'Modern Art' moved to America.

Clement Greenberg

Greenberg (in the period 1940 – 1960) is of the opinion that art, in compliance with an evolutionary process, can only lead to full abstraction and he formulates a compelling theory for these thoughts:
.... Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself.... .

The subject (story, narrative) became the enemy of this kind of formalism. Any kind of representation or naturalism had to be avoided, each accidental suggestion of space was forbidden: a painting had to be absolutely flat. Greenberg claimed that the development to pure abstraction was the fulfillment of an inexorable historical tendency.
Partly as a result of Greenberg's doctrine, painting of the 1960s develops into pure abstraction. Rigorous non-figuration became a major criterion.

American Artist of those days were eager to develop an original American Art form. For example in 1948 Barnett Newman declared that American painters, free from the weight of European culture and its 'outmoded images', were creating a new art for a new age: Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or life, we are making them out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.

Some painters made abstraction the core of their work, but gave it a totally new meaning. Their method was to have no method: They would sit for hours, even days, in front of a canvas, in order to find out things about themselves and the way in which their abstractions develop. Their abstract forms were as it were a mirror of the essence of the 'modern' man, who, just like an archaic man, does not differentiate between the surrounding world and his inner life. The term abstraction became autonomous, conceptual, even when real paint was applied.
Others revolted against the strict rules of Greenberg's flat art, and moved towards minimalism and three-dimensional work The emphasis is no longer on the work itself, but on the space it occupies, and thus for the gallery in which it is placed. This paves the way for land-art, art-povera, pop art, conceptual art, body art, action painting, and much more.
One is above all artist (and no longer painter, musician, sculptor or dancer), in short, a whole range of new art forms is formed. At the end of Duchamp's live (1887 – 1986) this group goes back on his work and gives it a central place in art history. Just like Duchamp, they feel no need to devote their entire life to painterly problems.

Art came more and more in the grip of philosophy and theory, and when Greenberg's influence faded away a shift from a visually oriented to a philosophical way of Art thinking took place.
With Joseph Kusuth's publications 'The Idea of Art as Idea' and 'Art after Philosophy' that shift became reality. Thereafter visually oriented painting hardly plays a role any more.
Art is increasingly considered to be the expression of the intentions of a group, the avant-garde. The question: 'What is art?', is approached from all possible angles. The given answers, together with the associated art forms, are multiform and numerous.

Focus on Language and Theory

Structuralism and Conceptual Art

Saussure, founder of structuralism,

... perceives the meaning of signs in terms of value: the value of a word is, just like that of a coin or banknote, determined by human conventions, and by their function in larger institutes or systems. He does not consider language as a naturally growing organism, but he describes the l anguage system as a social reality, which exists outside the individual consciousness. Therefore it is impossible to convert linguistic facts into nature-facts. ...

In 1967 Jacques Derida, who continues building on structuralism, makes his famous comment: 'There is no outside-text'.
According to Derida the presented (signified) and not the presenter (signifier), the expressed and not the sign, is the essential in art. Under the influence of structuralism visual form and artefacts are increasingly used and understood as words in a spoken language. It's all about meaning, represented with signs, which is understood by a particular cultural group. The senses and the painting merely operate as a medium, the meaning is conveyed, but no one is interested in how that happens or how it looks like.

A work of art is only sign (signifier): The appearance of the sign remains irrelevant as long as the group understands what the meaning is. In this way the significance of modern art is determined by human conventions, much like the connotation of a word (Dutch: boom; English: tree) or the value of a coin. Works of art that are conceived in this linguistic-analogue way cannot be reduced to nature-facts, but tend to theory and signification: artefacts are more and more used as arguments in a discourse or essay.

Because works of art are theoretically generated, every meaning could be given to any artefact, form or object, as long as the insiders understand the intention. Conceptual Art evolved in the sixties as a consequence of this linguistic-analogical way of applying images. It has developed a great variety of appearances.
An early example is the work of Lucio Fontana (spatialisme), which was important for the development of postmodern art. His ' spatial concepts (Concetto spaziale)' consist of monochrome coloured canvases with a few knife cuts. It took him one hour of concentration before he could strike. 'Performance' is the crux of this work, but that cannot be experienced in the museum.
Lucio Fontana is no longer called painter but conceptual artist.

Merleau-Ponty on Cézanne

Merleau-Ponty philosophizes about the painting in order to develop his influential opinions on phenomenology (perception and sensation), and for that purpose he takes the work and quotations of painters.

He claims that the space of the linear perspective is the product of 'reflected' perception, which is directed by the mind. This is, according to him, not what Cézanne does.

M-P: Cézanne shows us the world as it really appears to us in the 'unreflected' perception, that is based on a certain movement of the eyes and hence a movement of the body. The painting realises nature as it is shown to the moving eye and the moving body. The painter paints the canvas according to the requirements of the painting, without involvement of his intellect.

As the making of a painting comprises of much more than mere observation this kind of reasoning does not explain how an 'unreflected' perception actually can be transferred into a convincing painting.

It is a process of observing and searching for structure, at the same time choosing lines, forms, colours, etc. and for that the painter needs experience, knowledge and understanding. This is what Cézanne calls 'an optic and a logic'. The subject is transferred into a visual construction, while at the same time controlling the process and remaining faithful to the subject. A very complicated activity and Cézanne's painting lessons are not easy to learn.

Matisse, who admired Cézanne, was of the opinion that Merleau-Ponty had no understanding for the art of painting.


Inspired by the rapid succession of art forms in the 20th century Lyotard writes:   
... What then is the postmodern? What place, if any, does it occupy in that vertiginous work of questioning the rules that govern images and narratives? It is undoubtedly part of the modern. Everything that is established must be suspected, even if it is only one day old. ... What space does Cézanne challenge? The Impressionists. What object Picasso and Braque? Cézanne's. What prejudice does Duchamp break with in 1912? The bias that one has to make a painting, be it cubist. And Buren challenges another prejudice that he believes emerged intact from Duchamp' work: the place of the work's presentation.
In an amazing acceleration the 'generations' stumble over each other. A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Thus understood, postmodernism is not modernism at its end, but in its cradle, which it will not leave. ...

Everything is questioned, each judgement is rejected as being biased or outdated. By the dominance of language and theory, the aims of the artist and the rules of painting are predominantly considered in philosophical terms: 'Questioning the ways of being'.
... What is called art in the late twentieth century ... might be characterised as a branch of philosophy practised with materials and objects. ...
The artist, who no longer may call himself a painter or a musician, aims for the sublime: a permanent birth of new artistic expressions, in which rules are replaced continuously.

Theory and Multiformity

Art became more and more involved with subjects like: semiotics, structures of social power, politics, feminism, psychoanalysis and Western-oriented attitudes to race in references to orientalism and colonialism . As a result many new Art Formulae were invented. Surfing the Internet for 'twentieth or twenty-first century art' will give dozens of hits.

Hans Belting complained in 1990:
...Art history therefore simply declared everything to be art in order to bring everything within its domain, thereby effacing the very difference that might have thrown light on our subject. ....
Debating art became multiform with a large number of specialisms. In the twenty-first century pluralism grows further with the adoption of the concept hybrid, crisscrossing the boundaries between the various disciplines: everything may (or should?) participate!

As no one can be an expert in all areas, nobody is able to comprehend all diverse art practices. Some are of the opinion that all (Post-)Modern Art could be considered as a form of representation:

... One significant feature of Modernism is that it is considered as a form of representation. Representations are always built on pre-existing cultural resources, and hence have always to be explained as developments within an on-going cultural tradition. The functions of a representation are not to be explained in terms of the intentions of an individual author, rather they can only properly be understood in terms of the objectives of some social group. Whether or not it is always appropriate or rewarding, it is clearly possible to view any and all works of art as representations in this sense. ....
Art thus becomes a statement that requires authorisation from a discourse, or, in terms of Foucault's analyses:
... a painting or a building can be seen as the nodal point of an infinite number of discourses, social, artistic, psychological and so on, and used as a means of identifying hidden agendas of power and control. ...

Basically this view could be associated with the proclamation of the 'death of the author' by writers like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault .
These opinions are at odds with the position and work of many classic or modern painters who created art works with
... the power of finding in things themselves the actual material of poetry and the fullest gratification for the demands of the imagination. ,,,

And now?

Eric Fernie states that the subject [Art] may now appear to present a rather fractured image, partly because art historians (and artists) disagree. He distinguishes two groups: - Classic art historians, who still rely on aesthetics and iconography, and - the 'new art historians' or 'revolutionaries', who strive for a whole new way of art appreciation, or even proclaim the end of art history or art theory.

Fernie believes in the potential of the (Art) subject, which has as its:
'first defining asset the 'expertise of the eye', and as its second 'the concrete character of its subject matter'. ....

The search for answers to the question 'what is art' of the twentieth century, has led to many new Art Practises and a large diversity in thinking about art. Because of the competiveness of the many new Art Formulae one would expect that the art of painting would have been pushed away towards a remote area of the art landscape, yet anywhere in the world more paintings are shown than ever before: in more museums, in more galleries, at more auctions, via the internet and in many other ways.
Considering the success of the many publications and international expositions of “Classical” and ‘Modern” painters the interest in the art of painting is still very much alive.