Shape and Texture

There’s two ways I can think of modern abstract painting. Before I go on, I have to say that these things become simplified after days of ambling through galleries and museums, and trying to think about them through fatigue and the pain in one’s feet makes one welcome simplifications. So, let’s bounce off from someone else’s writing. Specifically, Wylie Sypher’s Loss of the Self in Modern Literature and Art:

Romantic painting went on until the cubists, following Cézanne, attempted to think through the problem of man’s relation to the world in a new way. Cubism was theoretical, romantic painters were not. Systematically the cubists restudied how consciousness deals with the actualities outside consciousness; and in so doing they ended romanticism. And after cubism came new experiments. (57)

Sypher’s argument is tied to a whole historical development where the self as a concept and as an object of study was invented and then cut to pieces. But I did not get that from the actual paintings that started to veer off from Impressionism into Cubism and Abstract Expressionism and so on. Instead, reverting to old habits and looking for that spot where Impressionism seems to branch out, I began thinking about emphases on shapes and texture. I don’t like my self that much, anyway.

Walking through the Tate Modern looking at fashionable abstract art amidst fashionable people with no doubt fashionable and sophisticated thoughts about modern art, I felt a little out of place. But then I bumped into an old friend who was apparently visiting from the National Gallery.

Source: Wikipedia

It was a waterlily thing by Monet and it represents the other branch of this two-fold development that started to take shape in my head. It’s easy to see Cubism emerge from the sort of Impressionist and Post Impressionist paintings where the outlines of the paintings are given stress. It seems like a natural thing to move on to abstractions of the shapes you see in, say, some of van Gogh’s stuff. Or take Matisse‘s Portrait of Greta Moll:

Source: Wikipedia

There’s a definitive emphasis on outlines and the spaces between have a simple texture, but it’s not clear enough to become abstracted into geometrical shapes. These are more clearly visible in his Standing Nude, painted a year earlier in 1908:

Source: Wikipedia

The emphasis on shapes comes through pretty clearly when one walks through galleries, looks at different artists, and begins to feel their need for pure shapes. It’s not a huge stretch of imagination to see how Mondrian‘s famous rectangles came into being:

Source: Wikipedia

Emphasis on texture, however, where all these shapeless canvasses came from, did not become apparent to me before I saw the Monet among all those other shapeless canvasses. One could of course say that this was very much in Impressionism even before Impressionism. See for instance what Turner did in his Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway which hangs in the National Gallery:

Source: Wikipedia

The willingness to abstract texture can easily be taken to new excesses and this, at least for me, explains what the hell is going on in something like Barnett Newman‘s Eve:

Source: Wikipedia

Pictures of these pictures destroy them. Some of the originals are pretty great, but they demand time and effort from the viewer, because texture is about studying the canvas and the nuances of the paint. Lucky for me, they are also the best excuse to take a seat and rest one’s swollen feet. For art’s sake, of course.

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