Abstraction be damned: how art loses its shock value


CULTURE SHOCK:In 1896, the young Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, who had just settled in Munich, happened to see one of his paintings lying on its side in the dim light of dusk. He couldn’t see what the painting represented but was nonetheless captivated by its forms and colours. The thought struck him that his paintings did not in fact need to represent anything at all, that pure form could be potent in itself. It is a notion so commonplace now it is hard to grasp how startling it was.

Just after New Year in 1911, Kandinsky went to a concert by the avant-garde composer Arnold Schoenberg. The atonal music hit him with such force that he went back to the idea that had struck him 15 years previously. He drew rough chalk sketches of the concert. They’re on display in the blockbuster exhibition Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925, at MoMA in New York.

In the first, it is entirely obvious what the image is “about”. We can see Schoenberg at a grand piano and a row of people sitting listening to him. The second sketch is cruder, a childlike scrawl of basic forms, but it is still a representation of the concert.

And then Kandinsky made a third image, a large oil painting called Impression III (Concert). If you had seen the sketches, you could tell what it is “about”. Otherwise, only the title gives a clue. The piano lid has become a big smudge of black paint; the listeners are elongated forms that could be anything – fingers? flowers? – but are actually just paint. Most importantly, all sense of the three-dimensional concert hall – and thus the entire European tradition of perspective – is eliminated. What we see are fields of colour – yellow, blue, red, green, grey, white – that draw attention to the brushstrokes with which they are applied. The painting no longer refers to anything except itself and the process by which it was created.


Because we’ve learned to see such work as art, it is fascinating to be reminded, in the MoMA show, just how revolutionary an idea it was – and of how rapidly it took hold. It took no more than three years for “abstraction” to become a commonplace marker of the western cultural avant-garde, not just in painting but also in music, dance, photography, architecture and theatre. By the outbreak of the first World War, abstract art was the international style.

In one sense, the very rapidity of the spread of abstraction might seem to suggest it was not quite as new as it appeared. After all, much pre-Renaissance art is abstract – look at the Irish tradition from the spiral patterns at Newgrange to the dazzling convolutions of the Book of Kells. Equally, 19th-century landscape painting had been evolving into images that seem to be almost pure form. You have only to look at some of the glorious Turner watercolours at the National Gallery of Ireland to see that the idea of the painting as a mirror held up to nature was already dying.

But what happened about a century ago really was something new. The Newgrange spirals may be abstract, but they still refer to something real, probably the sun. Equally, the 19th-century landscapes are still responses to visual or emotional sensations experienced by the artist in the natural world. The new abstraction didn’t just cut this link but denied it altogether. Its radical gesture was to say, “This is it, folks: there’s nothing beyond what you see.”

So disturbing

This notion is so disturbing that the greatest painter of the era, Pablo Picasso, had already discovered it – and discarded it. The year before Kandinsky painted Impression III, Picasso made a series of small, strange, almost diagrammatic images that are undoubtedly abstract in the new sense.

But he shied away from them. To later abstract paintings he deliberately added a figurative element: a body part, a musical instrument, a fragment of a newspaper headline. “There is no abstract art,” he declared in 1935. “You must always start with something.”

And yet, once it had been declared, abstraction took over extraordinarily fast. In a matter of months, it was established in Germany (through Kandinsky’s Blue Rider group), France (Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Leger and Francis Picabia), the US (through Joseph Stella, the Armory exhibition in New York in 1913 and Georgia O’Keeffe), Italy (Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurists) and Russia (the great Vladimir Tatlin, whose astonishing model for a Monument to the Third International is one of the stars of the MoMA show). Perhaps no radical cultural idea has ever been assimilated and spread so quickly.

Just as remarkably, abstraction appealed both to the radical right (Marinetti and the British painter Wyndham Lewis) and to the radical left (Tatlin, Kazimir Malevich and Alexander Rodchenko).

Here, though, may be the irony of abstraction. It was too successful to retain its power to disturb and, in many cases, to delight. A slight air of disappointment hangs over the MoMA show: for all its wonders, too many of the once-astounding works can now be damned with that most terrible term of approbation: interesting. In the end, even the most abstract work does need what Picasso called “something” – some reference to a real or imagined, physical or spiritual world beyond itself.

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