Publié le 16/05/2020
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Art, abstract The use of the term 'abstract' as a category of visual art dates from the second decade of the twentieth century, when painters and sculptors had turned away from verisimilitude and launched such modes ofabstraction as Cubism, Orphism, Futurism, Rayonism and Suprematism.
Two subcategories may be distinguished:first, varieties of figurative representation that strongly schematize, and second, completely nonfigurative ornonobjective modes of design (in the widest sense of that term).
Both stand opposed to classicrepresentationalism (realism, naturalism, illusionism, mimeticism) understood as the commitment to a relativelyfull depiction of the subject matter and construed broadly enough to cover the traditional 'high art' canon throughto Post-Impressionism.
Analytic and Synthetic Cubism are model cases of the first subcategory while Mondrian'sneoplasticism and Pollock's classic drip works are paradigms of the second.
Though the effect was revolutionary,the positive motivations for this degree of abstraction in visual art were not wholly new.
What was new was theelevation of previously subordinate aims to the front rank and the pursuit of certain principal aims in isolation fromthe full pictorial package.
Thus abstract art variously celebrates structural and colour properties of objects,scenes and patterns; effects of motion, light and atmosphere; aspects of perceptual process, whether normal orexpressively loaded; and forms expressing cosmic conceptions, visionary states or utopian ambitions.
With a fewexceptions (for example, the Futurists) the founders of abstract art were far from lucid or forthcoming about thesignificance of their work, and viewers have found successive waves of abstraction initially baffling and evenoffensive.
But abstract art now forms a secure part of the 'high art' canon, though generally its appeal is less wellunderstood than that of the classic modes of representation.
Criticisms of abstract art have also become morelucid.
The chief philosophical issues affecting abstract art concern the definition of the term and the delineation ofsubordinate types; the relation between abstraction and other modes of avant-garde art that superficiallyresemble it; the magnitude of the artistic values so far achieved by the various forms; and finally the theoreticallimits of significance attainable by abstraction as compared with the limits encountered in figurative art.
1 The history of the category The nearest precedent of the category and its label is the use, from about 1870, of the term 'abstract music' for music without lyrics or programme.
Until late in the nineteenth century, use of thevocabulary of abstraction in relation to the visual arts was rare and predominantly pejorative.
For example, GustaveCourbet in 1861 claimed that abstraction, by which he meant undue emphasis on any partial aspect of art, puts the true end of art beyond reach.
Purity was a more common metaphor in early writings about the new art, as it hadbeen in relation to music.
The positive implications of 'abstraction' were first exploited in a major way by WillhelmWorringer ( 1908 ) and Wassily Kandinsky ( 1911 ), though the two had quite different art in mind.
They argued persuasively that the 'urge to abstraction' is a 'primal artistic impulse' (Worringer's phrases).
The term gainedadditional currency from the proclamation by Apollinaire and other champions of the new trends in France of a newart of 'pure painting' which drew more on 'conceived reality' than on the data of everyday vision (and notcoincidentally evaded rivalry with photography).
The category and label remained problematic for decades.
Someartists (Braque and Mirò, for example) objected to any of their works being called abstract although the presentconsensus favours taking many of them that way.
2 Basic distinctions 'Schematizing abstraction' covers here certain forms of depiction which severely curtail the extent to which the visible properties of their subjects aremade manifest.
The outcome might have been produced by beginning from a natural motif seen from a single pointof view and then, for ends quite removed from verisimilitude, reducing its descriptive content as well as addingpattern that is either not descriptive or deviantly so, relative to traditional standards.
In contrast, nonfigurative ornonobjective abstraction eliminates all literally descriptive referenc es in order to free expressive or intellectualcontent from all encumbrance.
The work might be produced by beginning from lines, forms, textures, and colours,which are then worked up into aesthetically self-sufficient totalities.
Neither category has a sharp boundary, andclaims for the superiority of one over the other are doubtful.
But the distinction deserves respect since it denotes asignificant difference of interest of both the artist and the appropriately responsive viewer.
3 Schematizing abstraction The schematic rendering of figures, appearances and space of an appropriate sort, carried to the required degree, allows seemingly endless variations, for which no systematic classification has yet been devised.Analytic Cubism, a prime instance, geometricizes contours, evacuates or etherealizes solids, and expunges muchother detail.
On the constructive side, it repeats edges at different eye-levels, imports contours from quite differentpoints of view, and fractures objects and regions of empty space into overlapping facets or shards, as if aneccentric crystalline structure were being revealed.
Since many of the interpolations and displacements aredepictively cryptic or altogether nonfunctional, the perceptible nature of the motif tends to be obscured orconfused.
In classic cases (for example, Picasso's Portrait of Kahnweiler , 1911) the central motif (a man dressed in a neat wool suit over a ribbed shirt, embellished by necktie and watch chain, with his hands folded, and a bottle ona table to his right, light coming in from his left, and so on) emerges against the odds from a farrago of translucentangular clutter.
Carried to an extreme the process renders the motif unidentifiable.
The appeal of this sort ofabstraction has been explained in terms of its power to convey the intricacy, instability or illusoriness of perceptionor of the material world, or alternatively the inner vitality of objects - a power deemed beyond the range of anytraditional mode of representation.
Synthetic Cubism revises the schematizing process in two directions.
Aspectsthat are curtailed further include atmosphere and depth.
Compositions are dominated by template-like forms, oftenclosely stacked, blocking recession, and with it, atmosphere.
Media motifs, printed materials and other inherentlyflat elements are deployed to similar effect.
Suggestions of ambient lighting and perceptual process, typical ofAnalytic Cubism, are also generally reduced or entirely banished.
All this, together with the evident arbitrariness ofmany of the forms, creates the impression of the composition having been built up (synthesized) from inventedcomponents rather than derived by analytic decomposition of a natural motif.
Contrarily, descriptive content is incertain respects enhanced compared with the norm in Analytic Cubism.
Some forms signify sizeable sections ofrecognizable objects (a guitar, a table, for instance).
Synthetic Cubist figures may be invested with an uncannypresence, as they are in Picasso's Three Musicians , 1921 (The Museum of Modern Art version).
Having assumed some of the properties of the flattened planes of which they are composed, yet being represented in full view. »
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