Art Essay: On the Preservation of Painting and the Integrity of a Flat Surface
By Michael G. Tagliaferro
ART TIMES Winter 2013
We empower the search for the meaning of
Truth without an equivalent search for the
meaning of Beauty – when both ascribe to
a Higher Cause.
The two dimensional surface of a wall or canvas no longer stirs the high purpose of the artist who it seems fancies a ‘higher’ purpose; namely, to alter seven thousand years of culture-building to accommodate a culture of nihilistic exclaimers pronouncing the death of God, Aesthetics and Ethics. A “culture of death” denies basic human instincts and so, makes it necessary to reassert the humanity of a painter, a work of art, and, the spiritual bond uniting both to the flat surface of a wall or canvas.
The end of the Second World War saw artists of every creative persuasion turn to living in the present for what can only be described as an irrational contempt for the past; Beatle member John Lennon allegedly stated, for example, that there was no music before Elvis! The condescending chants aimed at art and society since the 1960’s have effectively persuaded a whole generation to pay homage to the mutation of art forms. Conceptual and Performance Art, for example, expressed the notion that only “concepts” and “ideas” are relevant in works of art – the concept of “shock” is universally utilized by artists today and has evolved into a “pop culture” offering its intended public no choice but to be intimately bonded to a performer and his particular use of shock: for the comedian, the use of obscenities in comedy routines; for the musician, the vociferous musical style and contrived physical presence; for the painter, the body of a painted nude rolled over a canvas…. Shock is a legitimate end- product when it can elevate the cultural level of a people and offer the best of one generation to succeeding generations. However, the use of shock when utilized as in the above examples forwards a sorrowful view of an inherently creative humanity. The disesteem for our cultural heritage and the universal skepticism it has spawned proposes the death of the aesthetic bond between a painter and a flat surface.
Significant Form: The Aesthetic Factor
The history of painting is essentially the recording of some sensitive soul’s emotional response to a blank wall or canvas. The flat surface has always been a spur for exciting the imagination. Cave artists may have painted their images on cave walls to ensure a successful hunt but it is necessary to postulate another purpose; namely, to secure an emotional bond between himself and the wall space of a cave. The emotion experienced from this union is of a particular nature and is what Clive Bell (“Art”) calls Significant Form and – depending upon the depth of the experience – the work created therewith might be a complete waste of time, have some quality of the painter’s sensibilities, or, might result in a masterpiece! Significant Form in a painting has no necessary relation to its subject matter. The subtle and measured space of a blank wall cries out to the painter demanding his undivided attention. A humorous story in this regard is told by the painter/musician/writer Helaire Hiler. In his book (“Why Abstract?”), Hiler tells of a time when very young a blank wall in his home had become wearisome. So, with the spark of youthful enthusiasm he proceeded to mark up the blank space with his initial masterpiece. He was, of course, properly spanked but, as he wrote (to paraphrase): in that moment (of pain), I knew I was destined to become an artist!
Works of art have chronicled the beliefs and aspirations of different cultures and civilizations. In Egypt, far from the nihilism dominating our culture today, the images decorating the walls of Egyptian tombs express a people’s love for the joyous life and hope for its continuation in the afterlife. The Egyptian submission to a stable life style is contrasted by the Greek passion for a physical and philosophical existence, an existence that would form the social, political, and cultural framework of Western Civilization. The best of Greek painting was lost for sixteen centuries and discovered only after the mid-eighteenth century excavations of the Greek colonies of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The highly developed realism of Greek painting was absent in Byzantine and Early Christian Art where the works were ethereal and primitive in style and execution – not that this art was inferior, on the contrary, much of the work was aesthetically superior!
Fresco painting dominated the walls of tombs, temples and churches, all symbolically speaking to a varied audience the languages of mysticism, religion and culture. The Fourteenth Century painter Giotto (di Bondone) was a single revolutionary force that changed painting from the simple, ethereal style of Early Christian Art to carefully calculated compositions of solid forms and colors His painting the “Lamentation” depicts the Madonna expressing a most prevalent emotion, that of a human Mother grieving the death of a human Son. The initial and continuing emotional thrust of the painter and the illusion of reality he created elevated painting from that of a craft to that of an “art” and the painter, from that of a craftsman to that of an “artist.” From the Greek philosopher Protagoras defining Man as “the measure of all things,” the Renaissance added, “universal man”. Within the confines of the Sistine Chapel we are witnesses to two masterpieces: Michelangelo’s ceiling painting depicts scenes and figures from the Old Testament – the three hundred forty-three figures sweep across the ceiling in a monumental expression of Renaissance humanism; the physical beauty of the ceiling painting is contrasted by Michelangelo’s other fresco, the massive Last Judgment painting on the end wall of the Chapel – a beardless unforgiving Christ with a condemnatory gesture of his arm reveals an underworld of pitiful souls, including a self-portrait of the painter! Universal man is suddenly humbled in the recognition that he is a sinner.
In the centuries following the Renaissance, painters continued the exploration of the flat surface but with one change — “wall” art (fresco painting) as the ultimate medium of expression was replaced in favor of “canvas” art (oil painting…). Oil painting provided the painter with fertile subject matter. El Greco created masterpieces in Spain where the religious fervor was at its peak while Rembrandt’s spiritually affective painting style of biblical narratives and vivid portraits reflected the solemn pronouncements of the Reformation.
The eighteenth century was exalted more for its music, literature, philosophy…than by any single or group of painters. The French Enlightenment was in full swing but the benefits gained by the intellectual elite offered little to stir the innermost sensibilities of the painter and even less for the indigent population. A profound response by some sensitive soul was inevitable. One, born of the same century but whose work is more a product of the nineteenth century is the Spanish painter, Francisco Goya. While his aesthetic temperament chronicled the pretentious absurdities of an “upper class,” the English painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner, reveled in the unrelenting powers of Nature. His style set him apart from those painters seeking to depict the new, hard Realism of a growing, industrialized society.
The most influential interpreter of the new Realism was the French painter, Gustave Courbet who stated, “… painting should consist only in the representation of objects which the artist can see and touch.” The social materialism that was part of the new Realism ignored the abstract and emotional experience required of the painter. Courbet’s photo-like paintings were contrasted by the work of two contemporaries – the painters Eugene Delacroix and Jean-Baptiste Corot. Both expressed a new awareness of color: Corot – with his emphasis on the effect of light on objects; and, Delacroix – with his emphasis on the effects of colors upon colors. With the contributions of Turner, Corot, and Delacroix nineteenth century painting exploded into many directions with color as its principle source of energy. The flat surface of a canvas became a laboratory for color experimentation – the purpose of which was to reconcile what we see with what we feel. But, before “seeing” and “feeling” could be reconciled, the painter needed to separate himself from the precepts that have defined Reality as merely the representation of the visible world.
Edouard Manet’s work was the impetus for the aesthetic revolution that was to follow; he flattened his colors and shapes bringing back into focus the always-enticing two-dimensional picture plane. The first to seize the creative vitality of the moment were the Impressionists. Fascinated by the effects of light upon objects they sought to duplicate the psycho-physiological process of optical mixtures. They accepted a canon of physics which, in essence, states: black surfaces do not reflect light and is, therefore, not a color! Thus, the Impressionists, following a precept of science, eliminated the color black from their palette. They acknowledged a scientific Truth of physics but ignored a basic Truth of our senses; namely, that black is very much a color – even more than most pigments because of its emotional power! This was reason enough for the early demise of Impressionism as a serious movement.
The nineteenth century was as rich in talent as in any period in the history of painting. The brightly flattened colors and expressive lines of Japanese prints imported into France created a revolution within a revolution! The cumulative aesthetic effort spawned the development of five Post–Impressionist painters. Perhaps the best known – but not understood — was the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. The emotional turbulence brought about by his supersensitive psyche created an explosive painting style expressing a desperate need to be understood; not since Michelangelo had a painter laid bare his soul for all to see and contemplate. Paul Gauguin’s flat shapes and colors gave a fresh and new meaning to pictorial and sensual forms of expression. Reconciliation between “seeing” and “feeling” advanced in an unexpected way by the work of Georges Seurat. He combined a cerebral approach to painting uniting the physical structure of color (similar to the Impressionists) with “laws” of harmonic relationships. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec wandered from his noble surroundings to frequenting Parisian nightlife sketching many facets of nocturnal life styles. His paintings and posters publicizing a popular cabaret – the Moulin Rouge – brought the nobility to mingling with the bourgeoisie – an unprecedented sociological break-through for its time and place. Paul Cezanne — the fifth Post-Impressionist — discarded the old definitions of ‘color’ and ‘form’ thereby creating a multi-dimensional color-form. The structural and plastic components of his compositions reaffirmed the bond between a painter and a flat surface. Cezanne is of the same historical rank as Giotto (in that) he has given to painting a new direction.
Passage into the Twentieth Century, however, was not smooth and was to have a catastrophic impact on aesthetics, religion, ethics and, therefore, painting. A spreading philosophy of materialism strengthened by the irreligious posture of science and its attending technologies created an atmosphere of uncertainty and confusion. The literature of the period included works claiming Life and Nature are dependent upon physical processes and that the existence of a “significant form” or an “aesthetic experience” would have been labeled a figment. The literary impact had not affected painting early on; instead, the blank surface of a canvas continued to stir the aesthetic impulse as evidenced in the works of perhaps the two greatest painters of the century, Pablo Picasso (Cubism) and Henri Matisse (Fauvism).
The uncertainty in the first two decades of the century developed into widespread pessimism in the1930’s. The human condition was seized upon by authors bent on furthering an anti-aesthetic agenda that would attempt to nullify seven thousand years of painting activity. The French Enlightenment was alive again but without its fearless hero, Voltaire. The German author and intellectual, Hugo Ball, founded the Cabaret Voltaire –a group of artists and writers depicting society as hopelessly clinging to decadent western values. The movement called Dada (“non-sense” or “no sense”) utilized materials in chance arrangements expressing a “now” world. While its life span as a movement was brief Dada’s influence into the future was vast and a main cause for the broken alliance between the painter and a flat surface. Another source of aesthetic disconnects followed World War II. The intellectual materialism of many art critics supported what was to be an art – not of feelings and emotions – but of “ideas” and “concepts.” Painting as a creative activity was literally taken out of the hands of artists and transformed into what can only be called “journalistic” art. The emotionally burdened Abstract Expressionist’s escape from this view was an exalted individualism and the unfettered expression of the inner life. But it, also, was plagued with the skepticism of a post-war intellect that shunned formal aesthetics.
There were many movements faulting Abstract Expressionism in the 1960’s and 1970’s but the two most derisive were Pop Art and Conceptual/Performance Art. The former, a kind of rebirth of Dada; instead of discarded materials the objects of their compositions were familiar everyday objects such as bottles of Coca-Cola, huge reproductions of comic strip characters, painted Campbell tomato soup cans…. The latter, advanced an element of shock in the form of outrageous visual statements; e.g., a photograph of a chair on a museum wall, the presence of the actual chair and an enlarged definition of the word “chair” with the illusory title one and three chairs. The nihilistic narrative promoting both movements had no small role in the corruptive art forms being created co-instantaneously throughout the culture – the spiritual stirring prior to, during, and completion of a work of art was deemed unessential in the secular world of “ideas” and “concepts." Critical art theory had succeeded in removing past perceptions of “high” art and, in so doing, effectuated an atmosphere of creative mediocrity that has redefined the Fine Arts as the art of “conceptual design” and the artist, a “concept designer.” The implication is that in today’s world human emotions impede progress; or, to put it another way, “spirituality” impedes “materiality.” The creative multitudes have forfeited the abundance of spiritual and emotional power in the zealous endorsement of and the participation in an intellectually conceived anti-art: e.g., a crucifix buried in urine…!
The materialist’s view that Nature is “out there” and that we should be in awe of its magnificence is a misnomer. The “magnificence” is the inward experience reserved for humanity alone to contemplate and enjoy! Philosopher/mathematician Alfred North Whitehead: “Thus nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for ourselves: the rose for its scent: the nightingale for his song: and the sun for its radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves….Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless, merely, the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.” The caretakers of the “scientific method” have been agonizingly noncommittal in the affairs of aesthetic, ethical and religious values. While not seeking the destruction of these science, nevertheless, gives aid and intellectual comfort to those who would. The Fine Arts, Ethics and Religion can better serve mankind since all three contemplate the development and quality of our sensibilities and, so, our survival.
The creative bond between painter and a flat surface has been the teacher of human history long before the written word but, today, many artist-types and art critics seek to re-write history in the political language of secularism: e.g., advancing a contempt for traditional and aesthetic values; promoting a socio-political philosophy favoring “commonality” over “individuality;” seeking of and involvement with the concept of shock as the aesthetic equivalent to the seeking of and involvement with Significant Form, and, espousing an unprecedented social climate assisting to a “culture of death.”
Epilogue: “seeing” and “feeling” are reconciled.
Significant Form is the indispensable factor in every creative act: sculptors, mathematicians, painters, architects, scientists, authors, poets, composers participants all in the time-binding effort to secure for humanity the benefits of a civilized world; e.g., as the painter struggles with a blank surface, arranging and rearranging forms and colors as required by the emotions of the moment, at some point he becomes aware of a general feeling of certainty, a verification of an ultimate Truth about to be revealed – that,
as one begins to understand [see] the Truth he, simultaneously, begins to experience [feel] the Beautiful. The “intolerant agnosticism” of the intellectual elite, however, has successfully veiled the spiritual nature of mankind and, therefore, significantly jeopardized the painter’s emotional link to a flat surface.
(Michael G. Tagliaferro lives in Stroudsburg, PA)