Understanding Abstract ArtPP

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Understanding Abstract Art :

Understanding Abstract Art "Abstract Expressionism“ and the goals of abstract art

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Let’s differentiate between two types of paintings: - Representational and - Abstract

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We call a painting "representational" if it portrays specific, recognizable physical objects. In some cases, the representational paintings look true to life, almost like a photograph. For example, consider the following painting by Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669). This painting is called "The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp", and was painted in 1632.

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When you look at this painting, it is easy to recognize what you are looking at. There are eight men wearing funny-looking clothing (actually, the style of clothing worn in 17th century Holland), and on a table in front of the men lies a dead man, whose arm is being dissected. It is easy to identify all the objects in the painting, as well as the overall meaning of the painting. (You are looking at an anatomy demonstration.)

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Not all representational paintings are so realistic. For example, Paul Cézanne (French, 1839-1906) created some beautiful paintings of fruit. Take a look at this one, "Apples, Peaches, Pears, and Grapes", which Cézanne painted from 1879-1880 Obviously, this painting is more abstract than the previous one. Still, what you are looking at is representational. The objects in the Cézanne painting may not be as realistic as the ones in the Rembrandt — there is no way you would mistake the Cézanne painting for a photograph — but it is easy to recognize that you are looking at various types of fruit in a bowl.

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Abstract paintings are different. They have designs, shapes or colors that do not look like specific physical objects. As such, abstract paintings are a lot harder to understand than representational paintings. Indeed, when you look at an abstract painting, you often have no idea what it is you are actually seeing. Let's see if we can make sense out of this.

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In general, there are two types of abstract paintings : The first type of abstract painting portrays objects that have been "abstracted" (taken) from nature . Although what you see may not look realistic, it is close enough that you can, at least, get an idea of what you are looking at. If you have ever seen any of the paintings of Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926), you will know what I mean. In 1899, Monet began to paint a series of paintings called "Water Lilies". These paintings depict the garden at his house in Giverny, Normandy (in France). Although the objects in the paintings don't really look like lilies, or water, or clouds, they are close enough that you can get a feeling for what you are seeing.

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"Water Lilies (The Clouds)" [1903] by Claude Monet.

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A second type of abstract painting, sometimes referred to as "pure" abstract art , is even more obtuse. Such paintings do not reflect any form of conventional reality: all you see are shapes, colors, lines, patterns, and so on. Here, for example, is a painting of the Spanish painter Joan Miro: As you can see, nothing in this painting is recognizable. There are no people, fruit or even water lilies.

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When you look at such art, it is natural to wonder why anyone would bother to create such paintings in the first place. What could the artist possibly have in mind? In some cases, the design itself might be pleasing to the eye, and we might look upon the painting as nothing more than a decoration. Most of the time, however, this is not the case. Indeed, a great deal of abstract art is not particularly pleasing to the eye. Moreover, why would an artist spend so much time creating a mere decoration? There must be something more to it.

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The truth is, yes, there is a lot more to abstract art than what meets the eye, and to see why, we have to consider the basic purpose of art . To truly appreciate a work of art, you need to see it as more than a single, isolated creation: there must be context. This is because art is not timeless. Every painting is created within a particular environment, and if you do not understand that environment, you will never be able to appreciate what the artist has to offer you. This is why, when you study the work of a particular artist, it makes sense to learn something about his life and the culture in which he lived.

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Although the qualities of a painting depend on the skill and desires of the artist, a great deal of what you see on the canvas reflects the environment in which the art was created. As an example, take a look at the following two paintings:

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"Princess Diana" [1982] by Andy Warhol. "Mona Lisa" (1503-1508) by Leonardo da Vinci If you study the lives of da Vinci and Warhol, you will find that there were — as you might well imagine — significant personal differences between the two men. These differences, however, do not account for the vast dissimilarity in painting styles. When you compare these two paintings, what you are seeing, more than anything else, are cultural differences. When an artist creates, he is strongly influenced by the times in which he lives and, no matter how innovative he might be as a person, he cannot completely escape the boundaries of his culture.

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As you study the history of art, you see that, at any particular place and time, there is always a dominant "school" of art that defines the prevailing artistic culture. Most artists of the time work within the norms of that culture. A few artists, however — the visionaries and the experimenters — break new ground and, as they do, they encounter tremendous resistance from people who don't understand the "new" style of art. However, it is from the work of these innovators that art evolves.

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So how does this pertain to abstract art? Until the end of the 19th century, virtually all painting was representational . Artists painted pictures that were straightforward, and people looked at those paintings for one reason: to see the particular images that were depicted. At first, this idea sounds so obvious as to hardly be worth stating. Why else would you look at paintings, if not to see the images? However, there are other, more compelling reasons to look at a painting. Indeed, it is possible to experience a painting in such a way that you go beyond what you see, in order to find out what you might feel .

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In the early 1870s, a movement arose in France that began to introduce abstraction into serious art. This movement, called Impressionism , produced works of art that, for the first time, did not consist wholly of realistic images.

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The original goal of the Impressionists was conceptually simple: they wanted to depict nature as it really existed. In particular, they labored to capture the ever-changing effects of light , as it changed throughout the day and from season to season. For example, the French painter Monet, which was mentioned above, spent a lot of time creating series of paintings in which he painted the same subject at different times of the day. His goal was to show how the color and form of the subject changed from one hour to the next.

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Take a look at this painting of haystacks, created by Monet in 1890-1891. His goal was not to paint a simple image of a stack of hay, but rather to show the color and form of the haystacks at a particular time of day at the end of the summer. From Monet's point of view (I imagine), the painting was more of an exercise than a work of art. "Wheat-stacks (End of Summer)" 1890-1891] by Claude Monet.

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Around the same time, another school of art, Neo-Impressionism , arose from the influence of Impressionism. The Neo-Impressionists used many small side-by-side dots to build up various shapes and colors. You can see this technique — which is known as “Pointillism“ in this painting: by Georges Seurat (French, 1859-1891).

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"A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" [1884-1886] by Georges Seurat (French, 1859-1891).

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Finally, in the 1880s and 1890s, a disparate group of artists sought to move beyond Impressionism and its obsession with the changing effects of light. These artists, collectively known as the Post-Impressionists , created a wide range of striking and innovative paintings. Among the most important Post-Impressionists were: Paul Cézanne (French, 1839-1906) mentioned earlier Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903) and Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890).

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When you look at Impressionist paintings, you will notice that, although they are generally soothing to the eye and calming to the spirit, they are, as a whole, quite boring. This is not the case with the Post-Impressionsts, as you can see by looking at the following two paintings.

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Here is "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?", painted in 1897 by Paul Gauguin (French) .

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Next, take a look at "Irises", painted in 1889 by Vincent van Gogh (Dutch) :

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The last three decades of the 19th century were a time of two important — and distinct — transitions. First, there was a gradual change from representational art to abstract art. You can see this in the work of the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists. The second change was more subtle, but far more important. With the work of the Post- Impressionists, the purpose of art itself had begun to change.

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For most of history, the primary purpose of painting had been to portray images, rather than to evoke feelings and emotions. Starting with the Post-Impressionists, however, the emphasis began to shift. For the first time, unconscious feelings began to find their way into mainstream art. What allowed this to happen was that the Impressionists had loosened the bonds, giving permission for painters to stray from their representational roots and become more abstract.

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To be sure, the Post-Impressionists were still quite literal in their work: when you look at the work of Cézanne or Gauguin or van Gogh, you do know what you are looking at. We have looked at one of Cézanne's paintings ("Apples, Peaches, Pears, and Grapes") as an example of representational work. Still, the gradual shift to abstraction and the capturing of deep-seated emotion was real and far-reaching.

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Until the 20th century, artists had to be content with merely grazing the surface of consciousness. Try as they might, their ability to penetrate to the heart of what it means to be human was limited by their tools. When the brain processes a recognizable image, a mental barrier is erected that prevents significant entry into the processes of the unconscious . Thus, representational art, by its very nature, imposes limits on how deeply an artist is able to insinuate him- or herself into the unconscious processes of the observer.

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With the coming of abstraction, artists had, for the first time, a powerful tool that would allow them to reach into the world of unconscious emotion . In the hands of a skillful practitioner, abstract art can be an extremely powerful tool. However, such tools require more than the skill of the artist, they require the cooperation of the observer .

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By the beginning of the 20th century, the move towards abstraction had generated enormous possibility. Previously, painters — restricted by the conventions of representational art — had confined themselves to either imitating nature or telling stories. Now, for the first time, artists were able to enter a realm in which unbounded imagination was, not only possible, but desirable. Between 1910 and 1920, a new movement towards abstract art, both in painting and sculpture, arose in Europe and in North America.

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The first important abstract artist was Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866-1944). During the years 1910 to 1914, Kandinsky created a series of paintings which he called "Improvisations and Compositions". Even today, a century later, Kandinsky's work is striking in its ability to bypass our consciousness and stir our inner feelings.

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Take a look, for example, at "Improvisation 7", which Kandinsky painted in 1910. The work of Kandinsky was extremely influential, and helped to usher in an age in which a number of abstract movements were established, one after another: Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Pop Art, etc, - up to the defining point of 20th century art: Abstract Expressionism

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What we now call Abstract Expressionism emerged in New York in the early 1940s. It was not so much a well-defined school of art, as a way of thinking. The Abstract Expressionists made the final break from the rigid conventions of the past, by redefining what it meant to be an artist. In essence, they rebelled against what the rest of the art world judged to be acceptable.

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Although the idea of abstraction had been around for some time, the Abstract Expressionists went a lot further. They began to emphasize, not only the finished product, but the actual process of painting. They experimented in how they interacted with the paint, the canvas, and their tools; and they paid attention to the physical qualities of the paint itself, its texture, color and shape .

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This painting was created in 1950 by Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956), a pioneer of what came to be called “Action painting". The painting was originally called "Number 1, 1950", but at the suggestion of an art critic named Clement Greenberg, the painting was renamed "Lavender Mist" (although, there is actually no lavender in it).

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The name “Action painting" was coined to describe the techniques used by Pollock. He would fasten large canvases to the floor of his studio, and then drip, fling, and spill paint on them. He often used regular house paint, because he preferred the way it flowed. Now, the first time you look at a picture like "Lavender Mist" you may see nothing more than a confusing array of disorganized lines and spots. "What," I hear you say, "is this supposed to mean? How could anything so primitive and crude be considered to be great art? It looks like something a bored kid would do if he was left alone in an art studio with no supervision." To discuss this, we have to consider the question: Why do we create art?

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There are a number of straightforward reasons why human beings create art: to make a decoration, to tell a story, to capture or preserve an image, or to illustrate an idea. However, there is another, more subtle, but far more important reason why art is important to us. The need to reach inside ourselves and manipulate our unconscious feelings is universal. We all do it to some degree, although most of the time we are blind to what we are doing.

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In this sense, the role of the artist is to create something that, when viewed by an observer, evokes unconscious feelings and emotions . The reason abstract art has the potential to be so powerful is that it keeps the conscious distractions to a minimum. When you look at, say, the apples and pears of Cézanne, your mental energy mostly goes to processing the images: the fruit, the plate, the table, and the background. However, when you look at "Lavender Mist", you are not distracted by meaningful images, so virtually all of your brain power is devoted to feeling .

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Of course, this only works if you cooperate with the artist. His job is to create a painting that is rendered so skillfully that, when you look at it, what you see actually changes what you feel at an unconscious level. Your job is to clear your conscious mind of thoughts and preconceptions in order to allow yourself to be influenced by what you are seeing. If you are to truly appreciate a work of art, you must be willing to let yourself go, to put yourself in the hands of the artist, so to speak, and let him take you wherever he wants. Much of the time, this partnership fails, sometimes because the artist is simply not skillful enough; often because the person looking at the painting does not know how to truly appreciate it.

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Can you see why the advent of Abstract Expressionism was so important? For the first time in history, artists were creating abstract art so skillfully that it was able to penetrate quickly and powerfully into people's subconscious (at least some people, some of the time). We must view the history of painting as a long evolutionary process, starting with the slow, labored development of tools and techniques. Eventually, after centuries of representational painting , the Impressionists began to shake off the long- standing restrictions, which led to the development of various schools of abstract art, culminating, in the 1940s, with Abstract Expressionism, the beginning of a new age of creation and human achievement.

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Let me introduce to you a few of the Abstract Expressionists, painters whose work was important to the evolutionary process that redefined what it meant to be an artist. One thing that you will see is that work of these painters varies greatly. This is because Abstract Expressionism is not so much a school of painting as a way of approaching and experiencing the act of creation. Here is one of Pollock's earlier paintings, "The Key", which he created in 1946. This is a painting by Arshile Gorky (Armenian-American, 1904-1948), whose work had significant influence at the time that Abstract Expressionism was emerging. This painting, called "One Year the Milkweed", was created in 1944.

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When you are just getting used to abstract art, you might wonder, just how good are these artists anyway? It doesn't look all that hard to fill a canvas with lines, and smears, and splotches. In fact, it looks like ‘Child’s Pay”. I can assure you that the best abstract painters are all highly skilled artists in their own right. For example, here is a charcoal sketch done by Gorky in 1938, called "The Artist's Mother". (It is actually an idealization of his mother, inspired by an old photograph.)

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This painting was created in 1954 by Franz Kline (American, 1910-1962). It is called "Painting Number 2".

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Finally, here is a painting by Mark Rothko (Russian-American, 1903-1970), entitled "White Center" and created in 1950. This painting is an example of what is called "Color Field" painting: an abstract image with large areas of undiluted color. "White Center" [1950] by Mark Rothko.

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Now: it is up to YOU how you look at Abstract Art, and what you may think or feel about it! Most important thing, when looking at art, is to always keep an open mind ! (Remember the Learner Profile: We are “open minded” people, aren’t we? ) And one day, You yourself, might be the inventor of a total new art movement!

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