RECOMMENDED FOR READING
A Dictionary of Modern Painting
Book by Carlton Lake, Robert Maillard; Tudor Publishing, 1956
The aim of this book is to give a simple and reliable account of modern painting from the Impressionists up to our own time. It is the joint work of a number of art critics, mostly French; but though it comes from Paris, the vital centre of most modern movements in art, the editors have been at pains to maintain a broad outlook and describe painting activities outside France. This is a dictionary in the sense that two hundred and fifty entries follow one another in alphabetical order; but they are not simply dry recitals of dates and facts. Each entry is a considered essay on its subject, a critical and sympathetic appraisal of the artist or movement in question. In this sense we believe the book to be unique, and we hope it will prove an illuminating guide to all interested in modern painting. The editors were faced with the problem of where to start and where to end. The Impressionists were chosen as a convenient starting-point, but what was to be the closing date? It was finally decided that the only living painters to be included should be those who had made their mark before the outbreak of the Second World War.
In addition to the names of painters and art movements, the reader will find accounts of men of letters such as Apollinaire and Andr Breton who influenced the development of painting in their time. There are also descriptions of places such as the Slade School and the Bateau-Lavoir, where painters assembled and worked. In this English version, which has been done by five translators in Paris working closely with the original publisher, a number of additional entries have been inserted in their appropriate places, and the number of illustrations has been increased.
ABSTRACT ART Discussion of abstract, non-representational art has generally led to controversy rather than to any real clarification of the subject. Fanatical opponents and supporters reach a deadlock, because it is as useless to deny the legitimacy of abstract art as to try and impose its principles as absolute dogma. No artistic formula can be justified or condemned in itself; it must be judged by reference to the quality of the works that exemplify it. After half a century of vicissitudes, and despite its present widespread acceptance, abstract art still presents difficulties of an historical and aesthetic nature which no article on the subject, no matter how brief and objective, can ignore. Architecture and music are naturally admitted to be abstract arts, not required to 'represent' something, and subject to their own laws, whereas poetry, painting and sculpture are considered arts of representation.
Ought this traditional distinction to be maintained or, aesthetics being universal, can all arts claim the same inherent autonomy as music and architecture? It does seem that abstract art was born from the very desire to emulate music and architecture, with a freedom and discipline of its own. Kandinsky, with his suggestions of music, and Mondrian, with his ideal of architecture, demonstrate the limitations and, at the same time, the achievement of abstract art. In the general process of abstraction that characterizes modern art, is there a line of demarcation between the domains of representational and non-representational art? And if so, where should it be drawn? Can one speak of relative and absolute abstraction, and where does absolute abstraction begin? Finally, is abstract art in its various manifestations a truly original creation of the twentieth century, the outcome of historical conditions, or is it a cyclic phase whose equivalent is to be found in the arts of the past?
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| The term 'abstract' itself is equivocal and invites discussion. For one could easily claim that all art is abstract, just as one might follow Picasso in declaring that there is no abstract art. Attempts to substitute other terms for it have failed. One interpreter of the movement, Michel Seuphor, has said: 'I call abstract art all art that does not recall or evoke reality, regardless of whether that reality be the point from which the artist started, or not'. Abstract art falls into two historically defined periods: an initial period ( 19101916) when abstraction was the result of an antinaturalist process, and a second period that began in 1917 with the De Stijl (*) movement and is still going on, in which abstraction for abstraction's sake is the absolute principle from which the artist starts. It might perhaps be clearer, as is becoming the accepted practice to do, to call the first 'abstract art' and the second 'non-representational art'.
Fauvism (*) and Cubism (*) certainly favoured the autonomous development of forms and colours, and every kind of artistic experiment was tried during the extraordinary outburst of activity that preceded the 1914-1918 war. The first deliberately abstract water-colour by Kandinsky (spots of colour in dynamic juxtaposition without any representational purpose) dates from 1910, the same year that he wrote his fundamental work Concerning the Spiritual in Art, one of the basic books on abstract art. What shocked him into this new technique was a brilliantly coloured dress and the sight of one of his pictures standing on its side. But it was in referring to music that he discovered his aesthetic principle. Significantly, he called his sketches 'Improvisations' and his finished works 'Compositions'. The value of his abstract imagination rests on his genius as a colourist and the quality of his lyricism (vide Kandinsky). In 1912 the Czech Kupka also exhibited some abstract canvases directly inspired by music: Fugue in Two Colours, Warm Chromatic, etc (vide Kupka). He was the forerunner of the Musicalists, who, about 1920, formed a group with Blanc-Gatti and Valensi. Picabia, whose Rubber ( 1909) was non-representational, joined the movement, while Delaunay, the founder of Orphism (*), exalted to abstraction the lyricism of pure colour, which, he said, was both 'form and subject' (vide Picabia, Delaunay). But it was in Russia that experimentation in abstract art was carried to its extreme limits, beginning in 1913: the Rayonism (*) of Larionov and Nathalie Gontcharova, the Constructivism of Tatlin (revived in 1920 by the Pevsner brothers and Gabo), the Nonobjectivism of Rodchenko, and the Suprematism (*) of Malevitch, which gave us the celebrated black square on a white ground. Most of the pioneers of abstract art are of Russian origin and the real precursor of it was the Lithuanian Tchurlianis, in 1906-1907. The Slav sensibility is haunted by the fascination of nonexistence, the anguished flight from reality (vide Larionov, Gontcharova, Malevitch).
Another country in which abstract art has thrived is Holland. There Mondrian and the De Stijl movement ( Van Doesburg, Van der Leck), in opposition to the lyrical tendencies which Kandinsky inherited from Fauvism and Expressionism, crystallized the intellectual and geometrical tendencies derived from Cubism and transformed abstraction into nonrepresentation. Before De Stijl Mondrian's method was to make successive abstractions of a given subject (a tree, or the faade of a cathedral), purging it bit by bit of all natural appearance until it became no more than a diagram. This experiment, conducted systematically with that austere and methodical application so characteristic of puritan Holland, reached the same impasse as did Malevitch's, although Mondrian's approach was from the opposite direction. With Neo-Plasticism (*), Mondrian started from abstraction, from absolute plastic relationships, in order to attain the purity and universality of mathematics. He has had an influence on modern contemporary architecture and, through the Bauhaus (*), has left his mark on the development of Kandinsky (vide Mondrian, Van Doesburg).
Between the two world wars, abstract art, opposed by Surrealism (*), went through a period of alternating eclipse and resurgence. Picabia and Delaunay went back to representational art. But new abstractionists kept appearing, among them (from 1920 on) the Germans Freundlich and Voremberge-Gildewart, the Hungarian Moholy-Nagy (vide this name), who taught at the Bauhaus, and the Dutchman Domela, who joined the De Stijl group. In 1930, some former Cubists, including Charchoune, Reth and Herbin, allied themselves with the movement and (in 1935) Magnelli (vide this name) and Hartung. The first international exhibition of abstract art was organized in Paris in 1930 by Seuphor and Torres-Garca (group and review called Circle and Square). From 1932 to 1936 the Abstraction-Creation group brought out an annual album, and counted some four hundred members.