The Labrinth of Painting
[NOTE: We recommend keeping the list of plates open in a separate tab so you can switch tabs to consult the plates.]
There has always been a great deal of disagreement in matters of art appreciation. What seems to be proper to our own times is a much deeper kind of disagreement, no longer about certain works of art, but about the nature, object, and functions of art itself.
This is particularly manifest in the case of painting. While the vanguard of modern painters seems haunted by the ambition to create a new world of forms unrelated to the physical universe in which we live, many others keep faith with the traditional notion of painting conceived as an art of imitation. The public naturally feels bewildered by such a sight, the more so as, driven ahead by their creative instinct, some of the boldest among these artists seem to take a diabolical pleasure in baffling their public by unexpectedly returning to the most traditional forms of painting after trying the most daring experiments.
It is not the philosopher's business to arbitrate such conflicts, but they provide him with fruitful subjects for reflection. What is particularly remarkable, in the present divorce between these two main schools of painting, is that the supporters of the traditional conception of this art seem unable to understand for what reasons modern artists suddenly decided to do away with long-established and, on the whole, rather profitable traditions. Why, indeed, substitute incomprehensible daubings for the lovely landscapes, still lifes, and portraits bequeathed to us by the masters of past time? Most of those among our contemporaries who ask themselves this question would feel less surprised if they had examined the historical data of the problem. Nonrepresentational art certainly can be puzzling at times, but we seem to have forgotten how often the earlier painters themselves have been puzzled by the apparently simple notion of representational art.
1. The Labyrinth of Painting
The ideal of an essentially imitational and representational art of painting has come to us, largely through Leonardo, from the early Italian Renaissance. One cannot read the Vasari's Lives of the Painters without being constantly reminded of the fact. In Vasari's historical perspective, the starting point of the evolution that culminated in the art of the Renaissance was the clumsy and conventional rigidity of the Byzantine painters, and the progress achieved by the Italian masters consisted in rediscovering, equaling, and finally excelling what he himself calls "the good manner of ancient Greece."
What was the nature of this progress? As Vasari conceives it, the contribution of Cimabue was to make the draperies, garments, and other painted things somewhat more lifelike, natural, and softer than the style of his predecessors. But Giotto went much further than Cimabue on the same way, and the very description Vasari gives of his work clearly shows what the great art of the Renaissance finally came to mean to the witnesses of its decadence. Already in Giotto's mosaic known as the Navicella, Vasari says, "the apostles are admirably represented, toiling in different ways in the midst of the tempest, while the winds fill the sail, which bellies out exactly like a real one." And even the feelings and emotions of men, or at least their visible expressions, are expressed with admirable faithfulness: "There is a fisherman who is standing on a rock and fishing with a line, whose attitude is expressive of the extreme patience proper to that art, while his face betrays his hope and desire to catch something." To which Vasari simply remarks: "All artists unite in praise of this work."1
The nature of the problem raised by this passage is clear. Let us grant that Giotto deserves to be praised for this remarkable mosaic, and still more for the paintings in which he describes all the emotions undergone by the characters engaged in his painted dramas. The question nevertheless remains: is this the job of a painter? Is this what makes a painting a painting? If allowed to proceed along the same line, the next improvement will consist for the painter in showing a scroll with written words issuing from the mouth of one or several of these painted men or women and saying in plain language what they want us to know. For instance, the crucifix saying to Thomas Aquinas in prayer, "Bene scripsisti de me, Thoma,"2 plus, as Vasari says, "A companion who stands amazed at hearing the crucifix speak." And, indeed, the companion has good ground to stand amazed, but so have we to see words written on a painting, except that comic strips have so generalized this ancient practice that most people now consider it a normal one.
It does not help to say that a line should be drawn somewhere and that this line runs between the painted representation of human expressions and the painting of actual words borrowed from spoken language. For, indeed, there is such a line. It is the line that divides a painting from a book, but the painting of written words is not necessary in order to turn a painting into a sort of book. A painting begins to become a book at the very moment it uses lines and colors to relate a story, or to describe human emotions, human passions, human thoughts—in short, whatever could be as well expressed by means of words.
This literary conception of the art of painting is well illustrated by Vasari's description of the frescoes in which Giotto has painted the life of the Blessed Michelina. Vasari praises Giotto for having "expressed with great realism a man afflicted with sores, as all the women who are about him, disgusted by the stench, turn away with various contortions in the most graceful manners imaginable." Is not this to praise Giotto for having used lines and colors to the very same end to which writers are using written language? If this is true, our first conclusion should be that, ever since the early Italian Renaissance, men have been living under the spell of the doctrine according to which painting is an essentially representational art.
We are by no means criticizing or belittling the art of the Renaissance. It would be somewhat naïve to condemn a conception of the art of painting to which we are indebted for countless masterpieces contained in the most famous art galleries. We simply are suggesting that, to a large extent, the art of the Renaissance conceived painting as a sort of language. All the religious pictures, all the mythological pictures, all the allegorical pictures, all the historical pictures done by the masters of Venice, Florence, and Rome, as well as by their modern successors, are so many pictorial illustrations of printable stories. They say, by means of images, what a writer could say by means of words. The fact that such paintings were telling stories did not prevent them from being great masterpieces, indeed; but it was not what made them paintings. The text of the first chapter of Genesis, the printed images that illustrate this text in the picture books used for teaching religion to children, the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel (46, 47, 48), all tell identically the same story, but not all of them are paintings. In short, even if it were true to say that painting and representation are always given together, it would likewise remain true to say that representationality is not of the essence of painting.
Let us consider the same problem from a slightly different point of view. Here again Vasari can be of service as a witness to the meaning of events whose origin is now buried in so old a past that we mistake their consequences for permanent necessities. In describing the rise of modern art Vasari lays great stress on the discovery of the laws of perspective. He attaches so much importance to this progress that we see him tracing it to its earliest manifestations. For instance, once more with reference to Giotto, Vasari praises this great artist for having represented beggars so cleverly deformed that his work should be considered the origin from which foreshortening is derived.3 And, indeed, perspective, which is an application of certain optical laws, acquired a growing importance in the art of the Renaissance, so much so that, in relating the life of Paolo Uccello, Vasari himself could not help wondering if there was not something wrong with this passionate enthusiasm for the new technique. Paolo, Vasari says, "was always attracted by the most difficult things in art, and brought to perfection the methods of representing buildings, to the tops of their cornices and roofs, in perspective from their plans and elevations. This was done by intersecting lines, diminishing at the centre; the point of view, whether high or low, being first decided. He laboured so hard over these difficulties that he invented a method and rules for planting figures firmly on their feet and for their gradual foreshortening and diminution in proportion as they recede, a matter that was previously left to chance."4 When engaged upon those matters, Vasari goes on to say, "Paolo would remain alone, like a hermit, with hardly any intercourse, for weeks and months, not allowing himself to be seen." Now, here again, we are not questioning Paolo Uccello's right to study the laws of perspective and to apply them in his own paintings; nor are we denying that the use of perspective is compatible with the art of painting at its very best; our only problem is to know whether, even in imitational art, perspective as such is of the essence of painting. (65, 66, 67) There were painters and paintings for thousands of years before perspective was popularized by the men of the Renaissance. Since what has once been possible should always remain an open possibility, the correct answer to our own question probably is: geometrical perspective is not of the essence of the art of painting.
The same question can be asked in still different terms: is deception (trompe-l'oeil) (68) of the essence of the art of painting? By deception (trompe-l'oeil) we mean the art of deceiving sight to the point of making painted figures look like solid material objects existing in reality.5 To this question, practically all art critics and artists will answer that deception is an artifice unworthy of a true painter. (69) Thus to create optical illusions may be legitimate, or even necessary, in the painting of panoramas, dioramas, or stage settings; it also can be resorted to, occasionally, just for the fun of it; but it cannot be considered an essential part of the art of painting6 And this answer is undoubtedly correct. But if we reject deception as foreign to the essence of the art of painting, then perspective should be eliminated along with it.7 For what is perspective if not an optical deception practiced upon us by painters? But if perspective must go, then modeling should go too, and, by the same token, whatever, in both design and color, contributes to achieving a plausible appearance of reality. Nor can anybody say where artists should draw a line, because painting is visual deception to the very extent that it is imitation.8
We thus find ourselves at grips with a sort of antinomy. On the one hand, traditional painting has always been imitational, so much so that some masters did not hesitate to push imitation to a point where it became downright deception. Countless Italian villas, palaces, and churches, some of them decorated by Veronese or Tiepolo, pretend to make us see columns, cornices, doors, and even real men and women where there are only two-dimensional surfaces covered with a thin coat of paint.9 On the other hand, all painters feel insulted if they are told that deception is the end of their art. Yet, if its end is imitation, why should it not be deception, which, after all, is the perfection of imitation? At any rate, since there is no clearly defined boundary between imitation and deception, one should recognize at least the possibility of an art of painting that, in order completely to eliminate deception, would completely eliminate imitation!10
It is beyond doubt that for centuries such has been the doctrine of the most famous masters. In his praise of Leonardo's portrait of Mona Lisa, Vasari gives a description of the celebrated masterpiece that would befit a perfectly successful color snapshot. To Vasari, what makes this portrait seem rather divine that human is that it looks like a real being. Everything in it appears just as it is "seen in life"; it does not look like paint, but like living flesh; the pulse seems to be beating. And, finally, her smile, her divine smile, what is there in it that makes it truly divine? Simply this, that it is "an exact copy of nature."11 One fails to see why such a conception of the art of painting should exclude the notion of visual deception.12
It will probably be objected that this is Vasari, not Leonardo himself. After all, the masterpiece is there, and we all see at once how different from a color plate it is. Yes, but the problem precisely is to know how, given his own theories, Leonardo was ever able to paint his Mona Lisa. According to him, "The painter contends with and rivals nature." Again, "The mind of the painter should be like a mirror which always takes the color of the thing that it reflects and which is filled by as many images as there are things placed before it." The classical text on this point is the recipe given by Leonardo "to represent a scene correctly." You first take a piece of glass and place it between you and the object you intend to portray. You must then "fasten your head by means of an instrument in such a way as to prevent any movement of it whatsoever." Then you close one eye and exactly delineate on the glass what you see beyond it. When this is done, you simply copy it from the glass on a thin sheet of paper, then on paper of better quality, and, Leonardo triumphantly concludes, you "paint it if you so desire, paying careful attention to the aerial perspective." After all, when Leonardo says that "the mirror ought to be taken as a guide, the flat mirror,"13 one cannot help wondering how it is that we all are not as great a painter as he himself was. There must be something wrong with the theory. But what is it?
First, there is something wrong with the work of art itself. Among the instructions left by Leonardo to his successors, there is a particularly remarkable one—namely, that in painting their copy of nature, they should carefully observe aerial perspective. Naturally, Leonardo clearly saw thai the art of modeling, in order to show relief, is but a particular case of the art of perspective, itself indistinguishable from trompe-l'oeil, or deception. Generally speaking, since there is no intrinsic reason to stop short of deception in representational art, the conclusion follows that if, for any reason whatever, it is not desirable that painting should be integrally representational, then there is no necessity that it should be representational at all.14
Next, there is something wrong with the very notion of imitation in art. When asked if their object is to copy nature exactly as it is, painters unanimously protest that it is not so. On this point, there is such an abundant and even tedious literature that one hardly dares quote from it. The notion appeared, from the sixteenth century to the eighteenth, during the course of the endless discussions devoted by painters to the problem: is painting mere handwork? Or is it a liberal art?
A constant feature of these discussions is that the very same men who identify painting with the imitation of reality forcibly refuse to let it be called a "mechanical art." Leonardo is often quoted as having said that painting is "a business of the mind" (cosa mentale).15 At any rate, he certainly upheld the view that painters are serving a loftier art than that of the poets, since they can create fictions, as the poets do, and their fictions are more enduring than those of poetry. Painters are "grandsons unto God."16 More modest than Leonardo, Reynolds nevertheless maintained that, in its own way, painting is "poetry," and it is so precisely because the true object of the painter is not to achieve a servile copy of nature, but, so to speak, to create it anew in a state of higher perfection.17 The same conviction has been expressed anew in our own times by painters convinced that, if painting is mere imitation, then, by definition, it is not art.18
Hence an antinomy within the very notion of imitational art. If it is an art, painting must add something to its imitation of reality. In other words, it must create. Now, creation is the very reverse of imitation, and since art cannot be both, at one and the same time, painting is bound to follow this new road to its very end, once it enters it for any reason whatever. Just as trompe-l'oeil is the logical term for representational art, so abstraction, or nonrepresentation, is the logical term for the notion of the art of painting that identifies it with poetry.
The problem must have been confusedly present in the minds of all creative painters. To the best of our knowledge, however, the clear awareness of its nature was first achieved about the middle of the nineteenth century. Significantly enough, Delacroix's attention was caught by an article of the musical critic Scudo in the Revue des deux mondes, December 15, 1857. Scudo had developed the idea that from Scarlatti to Gluck, then to Mozart and to Rossini, operatic music had constantly tended to assert the properties of its own language, and more and more "to cover the modest libretto that is its theme with a poetry independent of both dramatic interest and expression." Delacroix at once copied the whole passage in his Journal without omitting the conclusion of the critic: "Does not a painting by Titian, or Rubens, or any other great master give to those who love painting a pleasure quite independent of the subject that it happens to represent? Does such a language as the one in which Polyeucte, Athalie, or Le Misanthrope are written need the theatrical illusion that connoisseurs may perceive its beauty?"
Let us dismiss the questions raised by music and poetry as not directly relevant to our own problem. In so far as painting itself is concerned, the significance of Scudo's statement could not be exaggerated. Taken literally, it entailed consequences that would have frightened Scudo if he had been bold enough to deduce them from his own remark. The whole evolution of European painting between 1857 and 1957 was virtually included in it. For, indeed, if it is true to say that the pleasure caused by the paintings of any great master is tout a fait inclependant of the subjects they represent, one fails to see why a painting should represent any subject at all.
A similar idea had already occurred to Delacroix. In his Journal, he had casually remarked that "it is not always necessary that a painting should have a subject," but the most interesting expression of his personal reflections on this point is a page now included in his (Eeuvres litteraires, which, significantly enough, Gauguin himself later transcribed for his own use.
"The pleasure caused by a painting," Delacroix says, "is quite other than the pleasure caused by a literary work. There is a genre of emotion that is entirely peculiar to painting; nothing else gives an idea of it. There is an impression resulting from such arrangement of colors, of lights, of shadows, etc. This is what one might call the music of the painting. Even before knowing what the painting represents, you enter a cathedral, and you find yourself placed at too great a distance to know what the painting represents; still you often are seized by this magical accord." What Delacroix is here describing is for all art lovers a most familiar experience. In visiting an exhibition of paintings or an art gallery, who has not often been instantaneously attracted from afar by paintings whose authors, dates, and subjects were entirely unknown to him? This love at first sight is aesthetic experience itself in its state of natural purity. If it is so, however, important consequences are bound to follow. Most assuredly, Delacroix himself far from realized all the implications of his own discovery. On the one hand, he felt convinced that, in painting, the first and greatest commandment is the necessity of making sacrifices; on the other hand, he had discovered that the aesthetic impression caused by paintings has little or nothing to do with their subjects. What really counts in a painting is, to use a word Delacroix finds misleading on account of its literary connotations, poetry; unless, of course, we prefer to call it its music, while, in point of fact, its true name is painting.18a
As soon as they became aware of the true nature of the problem, modern painters discovered the principle that commanded its solution—namely, to eliminate from paintings all the merely representational elements and exclusively to preserve the poetic elements. This rule, more or less clearly conceived by a succession of great artists, became the driving force behind the evolution of modern painting.
There was a great deal to be said in its favor. Even in imitational art, the poetic element had consisted in discovering, selecting, stressing, and integrating with a structured whole the elements of reality that effectively please the eye. In doing so, painters had to take along with plastic elements a large number of merely representational elements without any aesthetic significance. Obviously, the intensity of the effect produced by a painting should increase in proportion to the plastic purity of its structure. Why not, then, eliminate all that, being merely representational, has no plastic value, and constitute a new type of painting containing nothing else than pure plastic elements?
On the side of color, the problem was tackled by Gauguin and, after him, brought to its logical conclusion by the Fauves. If color is there because it pleases the eye, then it should be handled in such a way that its sight gives our eyes the maximum satisfaction. For instance, there are few pure and saturated colors in nature, but there is no reason painters should not substitute them, in their paintings, for the weaker colors of reality. On the strength of the same principle, there is no reason painters should not attribute to the objects they represent, not the colors that they have, but those they ought to have to please our eyes. There may be in nature no such thing as a really pink horse or a really red tree, but why should we paint a tree in its real color if its real color is dull, unpleasant, or merely indifferent? Let us rather paint everything in the colors it ought to have to please the eye. Hence a first kind of abstraction, which can be designated an effort to abstract colors from their objects and to distribute them according to the plastic exigencies of the painting rather than after the model of external reality.
But even before the Fauves, a deeper reformation had been undertaken by Cezanne. What is true of colors is also true of forms. Many elements of reality are not only nonplastic, but even antiplastic. Ingres already complained that heads and necks never dovetailed. Hence, in his own paintings, the remarkable proportion of necks afflicted with goiters or, on the contrary, heads reduced to the condition of extended necks. In one of his plates for Lysistrata, Picasso found another answer to the problem—namely, to behead the woman and put the head where, plastically speaking, it ought to be, on the left side of neck. Thus understood, the art of painting is dominated by the unique rule of the plasticity of the painted forms. It rests upon the presupposition that every form is plastic by itself and has a plastic "meaning" of its own. In the perfect words of one of our own contemporaries: "Every form has its specific mode of expression (the language of plastic), independent of its purely ideological significance (language of the sign)."19
The consequences of this principle, applied a long time before it found its final formula, cannot be calculated. The long evolution that leads from Ingres and Cezanne to the completely purified art of Piet Mondrian has consisted in an always stricter application of the fundamental rule that has just been defined. In geometry, a set of straight lines and curves means a geometrical object. In imitational art, the lines that constitute a figure mean the real object they represent. In painting conceived as a truly plastic art, the lines that constitute a figure "mean" the aesthetic experience they cause, and nothing else.
One should understand in this sense the famous pages in which such painters as Cezanne and Juan Gris have defined the relationship between geometrical figures and their own paintings. They were not turning painting into geometry, but, rather, they were putting geometry to a painterly use. An attentive reading of their words would be enough to prove it. Pythago-reanism is inborn in the human mind. The notebook of Villard de Honne-court shows that the game that consists in inscribing objects within geometrical figures was never forgotten during the Middle Ages. The so-called "egg" method for a time interested Delacroix,20 and it still is put to good use by some professors of painting. At any rate, Cezanne certainly rediscovered an old ideal when he announced his intention "to interpret nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, setting the whole in perspective so that each side of an object, of a plane, be directed toward a central point."21 This was to submit nature to a Pythagorean treatment similar to that employed by the Demiurge of Timaeus; only, this time, the undertaking was a particularly risky one, and Cezanne knew this much too well for his happiness. His ambition to construct a geometry of visual appearances without destroying them, or, rather, to obtain this geometry from the visual appearances themselves, became a constant source of anguish for him.22
Some of his successors, among the very few who attempted to promote not his style but his problem, perceived with clear insight that it was difficult to stop on such a road. One had either to retrace his steps or else to proceed toward a still more nearly perfect purification of painting as a plastic art. The greatest names after Cezanne are Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris. (70, 71, 88a) Because Cezanne had found it hard to reduce nature to its geometrical elements, Juan Gris attempted to deduce nature from such elements. Instead of starting from landscapes and men in order to join geometrical figures, he decided to start from cylinders, triangles, and from there to join the structured composition of a painting. In his own words: "It is not picture `X' which manages to correspond with my subject, but subject 'X' which manages to correspond with my picture."23
There would be no point in discussing the terms of a method that has given existence to so many glorious masterpieces, or, at least, has facilitated their creation. But Juan Gris himself had not reached the end of the road. Fortunately for him, as well as for us, he does not seem to have asked himself why a painter should worry about reaching, by any kind of method, either inductive or deductive, any kind of representational subject. This last step was taken, with admirable courage, by Piet Mondrian.
The thing had to be done, provided only there was someone bold enough to do it. Since, in any case, what matters in a painting is its plastic element, which we know to be geometrical in nature, why not present this plastic element in its perfect nudity?24 To this decision we are indebted for the series of paintings without any other titles than Painting 1, Painting 2, and so on, in which the only plastic element still permitted is the straight line, along with the figure whose plastic intensity is supreme—namely, the right angle, formed by two lines perpendicular to each other.25
No one having seen any of these paintings in the complete purity of their essence will ever forget them. That there have been faked Mondrians is one of the most extraordinary incidents in the history of painting. But Mondrian himself was not surprised. He did not consider his works abstract. On the contrary, he forcefully maintained that, since they themselves were concrete objects whose whole meaning was in themselves, and not in any aptitude to signify anything foreign to their own nature, his paintings were entirely concrete realities.
But the life of forms never stops, and since Mondrian had followed the road to its term, he was bound to verify the time-honored law that the end of a journey also is the beginning of the return trip. The last, unfinished production of Mondrian—namely, his Victory Boogie Woogie (72, 73)—adds to the static works that had preceded it a feeling for rhythm, almost for movement, that invites us to think that he himself felt that he had reached the term of an experiment. At any rate, and however we may feel about the results, it is beyond doubt that there is a positive meaning behind the enigma of modern painting. Far from resulting from an unexplainable aberration of the human mind, nonrepresentational art offers itself to our study as rooted in the very nature of representational art.
Seen in the light of its latest developments, the art of painting does not seem to have wandered aimlessly through its own labyrinth. When Delacroix laid down, as the first of all principles, the necessity for the painter to make sacrifices, painting was entering the way leading to pure plastic art. Where should one stop in making sacrifices? The answer is now known. Piet Mondrian seems to have gone the whole way, in this sense, that, if everything must be sacrificed to pure plastic form, the sacrifice at least has now been made. By the same token, since to sacrifice the rest to preserve a certain element in its purity is to abstract this element from the rest, the art of Mondrian marks the terminus ad quern of the long pilgrimage of painting on the road to total abstraction.
This is also the reason, after Mondrian, the situation becomes different from what it used to be. First, another kind of abstraction then becomes possible. Instead of sacrificing everything to the intelligibility of geometrical forms, especially the right angle, why not totally sacrifice this intelligibility to the ideal of absolute formlessness? The thing is now being done in the countless paintings that look like so many plastic symbolizations of what the philosophers used to call "prime matter": something that is ceaselessly striving to be but never quite makes the grade; a "near nothingness," or, in Augustine's own words, an "It is and it isn't." The only objection to prime matter is that it is rather monotonous. To distinguish one piece of it from another, a painter has no other choice than to resort to a minimum of form. By doing so, the artist renounces the pure abstract condition of total formlessness; he is making the first step on the way back to the pre-Mondrian situation in art.
A second consequence of Mondrian's heroic experiment is that, after him, painters can no longer engage in an always open competition as to who is to go one better in the way of abstraction. As a consequence, modern painting finds itself in the well-known situation of the revolutionist who, after struggling for years to conquer his complete freedom from certain oppressions, finds himself suddenly confronted, by his very victory, with the much harder problem of knowing what to do with it. If there is a drama of contemporary painting, it is this. The victory of abstractionism has been so complete that it now takes much more courage and independence for a painter to be more or less representational than to follow the crowd of those who find it more profitable to exploit, at their own profit, the facilities of shapelessness. There is no denying the fact: painting now is free. There no longer remains any career to be made by fighting for its complete liberation.
To the question, What use should painters make of their liberty? the painters themselves must find an answer. A philosopher can contribute nothing to the debate beyond the clarification of notions whose obscurity adds to the natural difficulty of the problem.
All true painters have always agreed on the necessity of making sacrifices, but they seem also to have been in the dark as to the precise nature of what they had to sacrifice. Their first notion of it, as is visible in Delacroix, was that a painter should sacrifice all the elements of reality that do not contribute to the plastic structure of his work. And, indeed, if they do not contribute to it, they harm it. Expressed in our own technical language (which should be read not for what it is, but for what it means), this signifies that "abstraction" essentially consists in the elimination of whatever is not required for the actual realization, under the form of a painting, of the germinal form present in the mind of the painter.
Taken in itself, this problem is much more general than that of representational versus nonrepresentational art. The degree and nature of abstraction cannot be determined a priori, on the strength of any universal principles; it is up to the painter to say what these principles should be from the problem he is trying to solve. This problem, of course, is the very painting he is now doing. A painting is not good because it is representational, but not to be representational does not suffice to make it good. If it is beautiful, an "abstract" painting is so for the very same reason that the most totally representational of the paintings left to us by Botticelli and Carpaccio are beautiful. Representational or not, a painting is a true work of art to the extent that it "abstracts" from all the elements that are not compatible with, or required for, the embodiment in matter of the germinal form conceived by the painter. In a word, because it is identical with the germinal form itself, abstraction is creation.
This more comprehensive notion of abstraction, which has recently been defined in different terms by the painter Jean Bazaine, essentially rests upon the decision to dissociate, once and for all, the two notions of "abstract" and "nonrepresentational." He himself should be allowed to express his own view in his own words.26 What matters is the light it throws on the whole problem, and one could not have expressed it better than by calling Jan van Eyck, as Jean Bazaine does, the most abstract of all painters. This bold statement assumes its full meaning if one remembers his portrait of himself and his wife Margaret, now commonly called the "Arnolfini portrait." (74) Dominated as it is by the round convex mirror around which everything seems to revolve, there is not a single line or shape in this painting, including the gloriously absurd headgear of the man, that is not, at one and the same time, both integrally plastic and integrally representational. It is the perfect reduction of the representational elements to the plastic requirements of the form. If the "representational" is not that which represents, but, rather, that which fulfills no other function in a picture than to represent, then the masterpiece of van Eyck is a perfect example of a painting that totally abstracts from the representational elements of reality.
It would be an illusion to imagine that, since it is so, there is nothing to prevent painters from once more indulging in the easy pleasures of imitational or representational art. In the new situation created by the art of Piet Mondrian, no particular type of art enjoys any privilege. If, as we think, what Jean Bazaine says is true, the correct conclusion to infer is that creative painting has never been representational. Even while it was representing, creative painting was doing something else than to represent. There is therefore at least one impossibility following from what precedes; it is, for any painter, to return to something that has never existed. And what would this be? It would be to return to a style of representational painting that is painting qua representational. This simply would be a contradiction in terms. If this is not the end of the road, it certainly is the end of one of the roads. There is now no future for the "stories without words" that hope to be mistaken for so many paintings.
2. Pictures and Paintings
In virtue of its own nature, painting is inextricably enmeshed in another art for which there is no name, and for which it is hard to find a name because, so far, it has called itself "painting." Let us tentatively call this second art the art of "picturing"—that is, the art of doing pictures.27 Why, and how, should it be distinguished from the art of painting?
If there is such an art, its very essence is to represent, or imitate, and whatever can make imitation more nearly perfect can be considered as serving the very end and purpose of this art. Deception is not necessarily its most perfect expression, but there is no ground on which it could be rejected as foreign to the essence of picturing.
Moreover, picturing is an art because it includes all the techniques that are conducive to its own end—namely, to turn out images that represent their models as faithfully as possible. The relationship, in the commonly received interpretation of Plato, between natural beings and their Ideas correctly applies to this conception of picturing as an art.
Picturing even is a "fine art," because it is beyond doubt that skillfully done images are extremely pleasant to see. Children delight in looking at picture books, and grown-up people remain pretty much like children in this respect. But pictures are at least as pleasant to do as they are to see. There is a specific pleasure in hitting the likeness of any given object, especially of human faces, as well as in seeing it. Contrariwise to what is true of the art of painting, comparatively young people, some of them hardly out of childhood, have an innate gift of drawing strikingly successful caricatures, usually profiles, of people around them. They do this not by chance, or in a haphazard way, but deliberately, intelligently, and consistently. Portrait painters without pretensions to genius, landscape painters, still-life painters, and even such recognized geniuses as Giotto, Botticelli, and Veronese—in short, all the masters of classical art—have left us a vast number of painted works, most of which are, at one and the same time, both pictures and paintings. And there is an invidious question that it probably is wiser not to ask. Among the countless visitors to art galleries, how many enjoy the works of Raphael as pictures, how many enjoy them as paintings? Is there any contradiction in imagining a visitor constantly delighted with the lovely images of men, women, landscapes, and still lifes that he sees in an art gallery, and returning home in a state of complete satisfaction, without even suspecting that he has been enjoying paintings as pictures much more than as paintings?
We do not intend to minimize the importance of pictures, or images. On the contrary, if one succeeded in introducing a distinction between pictures and paintings that looks so well founded, pictures would benefit by it as much as paintings. We need a history and an aesthetics of the art of picturing conceived in a spirit of sympathetic objectivity suitable to the importance of the subject.
Images are among the oldest products of the fabricative activity of man. They are inseparable from the magic rituals and from most of the religious cults: image makers have always helped men in imagining deities in which they believed but which they could not see.28 Images are inseparable from the political life of nations: image makers have always helped human groups in maintaining in their midst the memory of national heroes and their deeds.29 Images are inseparable from domestic life: image makers have been doing portraits for centuries, and photographers are simply helping painters keep the common memories of family life alive for the members of this primitive social cell. Images are inseparable from sexual life: quite a few of the greatest painters have relied upon the attraction exercised by natural beauty to give at least this pleasure to those who derive little or none at all from the art of painting. But sex appeal naturally leads to advertisement, which, although it makes use of everything that can elicit a response from imagination, feelings, and desires, seldom neglects to enlist the services of this fundamental instinct.
The list could be extended endlessly, the more so as one and the same image can serve, at one and the same time, several different purposes. The most resolutely imitational form of art considers it its duty to embellish reality, and this is so true that the sacred images of national heroes or saints have not always drawn their models from the purest sources. The simplicity of those whom such images help in their piety is so perfect, and certainly so pure, that one probably would do more harm than good by quoting facts in support of these remarks.30
This is no place to attempt an aesthetics of imitation, or mimicry, which is one of the most fundamental among the natural instincts of man. Our only point is that, were it to be attempted at all, such a study should be carefully kept apart from that of the art of painting. Their confusion, which is everywhere apparent, never fails to provoke hopeless misunderstandings.
When Captain Cocq commissioned Rembrandt to commemorate his company of guards by means of a large canvas, he could have meant either one of two entirely different things. If what he wanted was a real painting to perpetuate the memory of his company, he should have left Rembrandt free to paint what he well pleased. This is what, in fact, Rembrandt did, but Captain Cocq did not like it. What he really had in mind, when he commissioned Rembrandt, was a group of portraits of himself surrounded with his men, more or less like the groups of portraits painted by Frans Hals for the companies of civic guards or for the boards of hospital trustees that wanted to perpetuate the memory of their faces. Captain Cocq could not guess that his name would survive the course of centuries precisely because The Night Watch did not seriously attempt to portray him or his guards. Yet this is exactly what did happen, and there would be fewer controversies about public monuments if, before commissioning artists, civic authorities made up their minds on the subject. Let us add that artists, too, should be quite explicit as to the spirit in which they accept a commission.
If an image is at stake, then imitation and likeness in representing are of the essence of the work to be done. This imposes such limitations upon the freedom of creative artists, and it grants such facilities to the others, that practically all commemorative monuments and pictures are bound to be, at best, indifferent works of art. But there is nothing to complain about in this fact. If we want a picture accurately to represent Joan of Arc liberating Orleans, George Washington crossing the Delaware, or, simply, one of the unknown soldiers of World War No. X, then we can demand a good picture, but we should not expect too good a painting. The reason is that too many details that must be included or excluded in order to obtain a good picture have to be excluded or included in order to do a good painting.
The alternative is to invite the painter to do as beautiful a painting as he possibly can, and to dedicate his work, after the manner of a commemorative stone, to the memory of a great man, a national hero, or some historical event. This time, imitation or representation should be, if not necessarily excluded, at least subordinated to the artistic end the painter aims to achieve. This is what Aristide Maillol rightly did when, as a monument to a great musician, he simply made one more of his beautiful statues and inscribed on the pedestal the simple words "To Claude Debussy." It was that, or else a statue representing Debussy himself, all complete from beard to shoelaces. There may be reasons in favor of either choice, but that a choice has to be made seems to be beyond discussion.
Two additional remarks can be made in favor of this distinction. The first one is that it disposes of the vexing problem recently created by the development of art photography. There is a great deal of truth in the famous saying of Jean Cocteau that "photography has liberated painting." It has liberated painting from the duty it had so long assumed, to imitate the visible appearance of things. But at the same time it was becoming itself, painting has liberated photography from its unsound ambition to be an inferior kind of painting.
To the often-asked question, Is photography an art? the answer to give is, Yes, it can be an art, hut because it is an art whose end is to imitate, photography is not a variety of the art of painting. Photography should . rather be considered a mechanical variety of the art of picturing. Its immense popularity and the veritable passion sometimes put at the service of its pursuit bear witness to the natural love of man for the making of images. Photography is the draftsmanship of those whom nature has not blessed with the gift of picturing.31
The second remark is that, because they are specifically distinct, it is just as wrong to judge paintings from the point of view of pictures as it is to judge pictures from the point of view of painting.
A painting has its own rule, its own justification within itself. A picture has its criterion outside itself, in the external reality it imitates. (75a, b) Several critics have recently made the remark that nonrepresentational art has this major defect, that, being unrelated to any external reality, it has no criterion by which it can be judged. The argument would be valid if the art of painting were the art of picturing. As it is, all judgments and appreciations of paintings founded upon their relation to an external model are irrelevant to painting.32
A painting is the embodiment of a form in a matter; the whole being of a picture is determined by the relationship that obtains between the image itself and some external reality. And since their aim and purpose is to represent things as they are, images have a right to be appreciated from the point of view of their success, or failure, in achieving their own end. As compared with a painting, whose ultimate end is to achieve a fitting object of contemplation, images are characterized by their ambition to represent all the objects they include, and to represent these objects with all the details that are compatible with their pictorial representation.
This remark applies not only to the number of the objects represented, but also to their visual appearance from the two points of view of shape and color. (76, 77) In short, a good image represents whatever is supposed to be visible in its object and represents it as exactly as possible as it would be seen if it were an externally given reality. In this sense, art critics are fully justified in judging images by the degree of their success in conveying an impression of reality. It is likewise understandable that, in judging paintings as if these were images, some art critics should condemn in them all deformation of what we take to be the real shape of external objects, all modifications of what we take to be their natural colors. What is justifiable in a painting, taken precisely qua painting, cannot be condoned in an image, whose proper function is to imitate reality.
These superficial differences are the signs of a deeper one. Since its proper end is to represent things, beings, scenes of human life, (78a, b) and, in short, the whole of visible reality, the art of imaging is a particular case of the general function of language. It is a branch of literature. In Odilon Redon's words, "There is a literary idea every time there is no plastic invention."32a Images always have a meaning, and they are rightly judged by the degree of their success, or failure, in conveying it. Consequently, the choice of the subjects to be represented by an image is of primary importance. Particularly the natural beauty, or charm, or power of suggestion proper to the objects, beings, or scenes represented by an image is lawfully taken into account in appreciating its artistic value precisely qua image. Images so obviously participate in the nature of their objects that to religious images, for instance, is often attributed a sort of inherent sacredness that really belongs to that which they represent, that is, to their meaning.
Innumerable consequences follow from this simple fact. To sum them up generally, let us say that, whereas images are likely to become more or less faithful historical documents, paintings very seldom serve the same purpose, and, when they do, the result is purely incidental to their nature. Good image makers have rightly been praised for having bequeathed to posterity a faithful picture of their country, its way of life, its people, and even the history of their own generation.33 All the loves of a nation, all its hatreds, all its ambitions, all the successive images under which it depicts itself to itself can be represented by means of pictures, and when the image maker happens to be, at the same time, an authentic painter, as was the case of Honore Daumier, it is often difficult to sort out, from among their immense daily production, what belongs to the art of picturing, what belongs to the art of painting, and what, as often happens, belongs to both. With a painter who is nothing hut a painter, no such problems arise. From the whole production of Paul Cezanne, what can we infer concerning the history of his country? Derain, Matisse, and many other painters have left us countless paintings among which it would not be easy to find anything of historical significance. Their apples, their landscapes, and their odalisques are just as indifferent to the tragic events that shook their country, in 1870, 1914, and 1939, as the allegories of Botticelli are unconcerned with the local history of Florence during the second half of the fifteenth century. This is but the external symptom of the radical difference between a painting, whose meaning is in itself, and a picture, whose function is to point out something else, as do the words of spoken language and all the systems of written signs used by various nations ever since the beginning of civilization.
The distinction is particularly visible in the case of religious painting. As artists, Christians find themselves confronted with the same problems as other painters. The present situation itself is common to all. Like those of their contemporaries who have understood what this situation means for their art, the creative Christian painters are attempting to achieve plastic purification. In the case of religious painting, however, the additional difficulty arises that, inasmuch as it may be called upon to teach, or to recall religious realities to the mind and to the heart, representational elements are necessarily included in a large number of its works.
Two answers have been found to the problem. The first one is to substitute for the subject to be represented certain plastic equivalents of its meaning. The difficulty then is for the painter to remain readable without becoming invitational. The usual way to meet this difficulty is to insert, in the plastic form, at least some fragments of representational elements that direct the mind of the onlooker toward the intelligible meaning of the plastic forms at stake. A still more satisfactory compromise is simply to resort to the genre of painting in which art is less hampered by the nonplastic elements of the reality it has to express—namely, still life. Leger has left us, in his stained glasses of the Audincourt church (24), a remarkable collection of what can be called "religious still lifes." Crown of Thorns (79), by Alfred Manessier, is another religious still life. The formula is excellent, especially from the point of view of the painter.
For, indeed, this does not solve the whole problem. There are cases in which the direct representation of scenes including human figures may be required from the painter. Are we to say that no religious picture can possibly be conceived as a painting? There is no general answer to the problem, but the painting itself, in each particular case, is the answer. If he is asked to do a Pieta (80a, b), it is up to the painter to invent some plastic form in which such a scene can be inscribed. His sketch of it will remain his constant guide during the whole execution. Still, what he has been asked to paint is not a plastic form; it has to be a Pieta. His problem then is to work in the plastic form so that, even while imitating a recognizable reality, everything in the work, from its fundamental color scheme to the natural forms it includes, be constantly supported, ordered, and bound together by the unity of the germinal form from which it originates. There is no general recipe for solving such problems. If there is such a recipe, painters, not philosophers, should be consulted about it.
3. A Qualitative Universe
No perfectly fitting name can be found to signify the essential tendency that, at various degrees and under various forms, seems to be common to modern painters. All of them are in rebellion against something, but sometimes also against themselves, so much so that one of their groups, at least—namely, Dada—could almost be defined as the very embodiment of the spirit of rebellion. There is another tendency, however, so general that several different names have been suggested to designate both itself and its opposition to older styles of painting. Here are some of these designations: objective—nonobjective; imitational or representational—nonimitational or nonrepresentational; figurative art—abstract art, etc.
It is easy to criticize any one of these names,34 but it would be difficult to suggest a unanimously approved one. The main point is for us to understand that all these appellations point out one and the same tendency: to simplify the complexity of visual images, to reduce them to a small number of constitutive elements, and to substitute for the stylized representation of natural objects, or beings, certain structured wholes, made up of plastic equivalents, whose signification lies in themselves rather than in their relation to things. Let us call this tendency by its commonly given name, "abstract art" or "abstractionism." Names are a matter of usage, and there is no peril in keeping these, provided we give them a sufficiently definite meaning.
From a certain point of view, this tendency is an invasion of the field of art, particularly painting, by the Pythagorean spirit introduced in the field of science in the fifth century before Christ. According to the testimony of Aristotle, Pythagoras and his disciples believed that the first principles of numbers were the first principles of all things (Metaphysics, I, 5, 985b, 23-986b, 8) . This extremely surprised Aristotle, who found it strange that one could resort to principles not taken from the sphere of sense to account for things belonging to the sphere of sense (Metaphysics, I, 8, 989b, 29-990a, 32). Naturally, the fundamental numbers found themselves associated with the corresponding geometric figures, of which some still bear the names, such as square, cube, etc. An ancient doxograph, Aetius, in his De placitis philosophorum (II, 6), summarizes as follows the cosmology of Pythagoras: "The universe is made from five solid figures, which are called also mathematical; of these he says that earth has arisen, from the cube, fire from the pyramid, air from the octahedron, and water from the icosahedron, and the sphere of the all from the dodecahedron.35 It goes without saying that modern painters did not deduce from Pythagoras their own notion of what a painting should be. Pythagoreanism is inborn in the human mind. No wonder, then, that some of Cezanne's successors progressively liberated themselves from enslavement to visual appearances. Cubism, under its various forms, then the different attempts either to eliminate all traces of objective resemblance or, at least, to make it entirely subservient to the plastic intentions of the painter, have achieved a sort of plastic purification of painting.
The attempt was too paradoxical not to provoke resistance, and yet it did not result in a failure. This fact is one of the most fruitful subjects of reflection among all those which contemporary history offers to our observation. In the case of painting, the problem was successfully to overcome the visual appearances that are the very stuff pictures are made of. It certainly took modern scientists great courage to free themselves from imagination in order to conquer intelligibility, but scientists can speak the language of numbers, whereas, however he may conceive his own works, a painter has ultimately nothing else at his disposal but surfaces, lines, dots, and colors—that is to say, objects of sense perception to be apprehended as such rather than to be intellectually understood. The scientist may well decide to transcend sensible appearances to reach an intelligible Beyond, but how could a painter transcend sensible appearances? Even if he could do so, what could he hope to reach, by means of the senses, beyond the order of sensibility?
It is a commonly received view, in the history of ideas, that modern science first achieved full awareness of its nature about the first half of the seventeenth century, when physicists decided to account for all phenomena by submitting them to mathematical formulation. At the center of this scientific revolution, and as its philosophical spokesman, was Rene Descartes, whose physics, biology, and projected medicine entirely rested upon the two notions of extension in space and movement in time. The old qualitative physics of Aristotle was thereby eliminated, and not without good reason. To account for physical or biological phenomena by means of the four elementary qualities (cold, hot, dry, and moist) was tantamount to explaining natural events by means of human sensations. On this point, Descartes and his contemporaries carried the day. All the major steps of progress achieved by the sciences of nature from the seventeenth century to our own day have been made possible by a consistent substitution of quantity for quality and, therefore, by a systematic application of the language of mathematics to the interpretation of physical phenomena.
Still, there was a price to pay for this success. Thus eliminated from science, quality was not thereby eliminated from nature, for, indeed, man is in nature and he certainly does perceive qualities. What Descartes exploded once and for all is the illusion, common to so many people, that colors, for instance, such as red or yellow, are found in material objects under the form of unperceived perceptions. Aristotle never made this mistake. According to him, sense perception was the common act of the perceiving subject and of the perceived object. Both subject and object are necessary for a perception. Even so, however, there still are qualities in nature. There are sensible qualities as long as there are sense perceptions. Moreover, although science no longer accounts for anything by means of qualities, the language of the scientists remains as full of qualities as it ever was. As long as they continue to talk about light, sounds, weight, etc., scientists are still living in a qualitative world. This fact has been keenly felt by excellent minds, and even by at least one great artist—namely, Goethe—who never reconciled himself to the quantitative theory of colors proposed by Newton. Other attempts have been made to reintroduce quality into the very texture of science, but none of them has ever met with any success.
The upshot of this situation is that a vast area of reality is being left outside the order of scientific explanation and, consequently, is being abandoned to the arbitrariness of private judgments and opinions. There is no accounting for tastes, yet tastes are often necessary to life, and there seem to be very different kinds of tastes, some of which are better, while others are not supposed to be quite so good. Above all, these qualities about which personal tastes exert themselves constitute an important part of nature. An exceedingly small proportion of men could present a coherent physical explanation of the theory of colors, but practically all of them can tell red from blue and yellow from green. This is precisely the point at which painters have something to say. The qualitative world of perceived colors belongs to the art of the painter, as the world of light waves belongs to optics. Art is always about quality, even in the many cases when it is about the quality of quantity.
The notion of quality has been oversimplified by common sense no less than by science. Once more, certitudes that had been acquired by philosophers many centuries ago have been progressively forgotten. It may simplify things to speak of a world of qualities as distinct from a world of quantities, but such words should not be understood as meaning that, disstinct as they are, quantity and quality are separate. There never is quantity without quality or quality without quantity. More generally speaking, there never is being without quality.
Taken in itself, quality simply is the particular kind of difference between any two beings in consequence of the primitive fact that every being is what it is. Whence the universal applicability of this notion. It applies to essences: to be a man is to exhibit the quality of that which exists after the manner of a man. It also applies to numbers: to be 6 is to be the number that enjoys the properties of number 6. It applies to the modifications of physical substances, including their changes in colors: whiteness, blackness, redness, and similar differences are rightly said to "qualify" beings and things. This is so true that in describing any object we are looking for, its color is likely to be the first indication we shall give as to its identity. Aristotle knew all these things.36 His only error, and it was a serious one, was not to see that if the quality that is in numbers is a part of the quality (or difference) that is in essences, then the qualities that we call colors are likewise differences in essence, and the reason for this is that they themselves are qualities of numbers and, generally speaking, of quantity.
"Quantity" is defined, in a loose way, as "any amount capable of increase or decrease in kind" (W ebster's). When applied to quantities either of space or in space, this notion leads to numerical expressions that point out the amount, or the ratio of certain increases or decreases, but all such calculations presuppose the notion of the line conceived as a unit and a whole. This notion itself reveals properties of the line not accountable for by the nature of any one of its points or even by the fact that such points are distributed in space so as to make up such a line. This means that, even in the order of pure quantity, wholes have properties transcending the nature of their parts. Any such property is a quality.
Let us consider a line drawn on a sheet of paper by the hand of an Artist. It would be easy to show that it exhibits qualities due to the hand by which it has been. drawn. There is a deep truth hidden in the old Greek anecdote about the painter who, not finding another one at home, left him, as a visiting card, a simple hand-drawn straight line. No painter has anything more personal than the touch of his hand.
But this is not the point. The kinds of qualities we now have in mind belong to quantitative wholes as such, and they are being actually perceived when such wholes are being actually apprehended by sight. Nature is abundantly provided with such wholes. What child has not found himself unconsciously fascinated by the perfect geometrical beauty of certain pebbles, sea shells, crystals, tree leaves, etc.? Why are most people so fond of flowers, not always for their colors, but often enough for the amazing perfection of their forms? The only reason for their admiration is that they are apprehending by sight the presence of a certain order among parts within a whole. Certain sea shells are so perfectly regular that their shape could be expressed by the algebraic formulas applicable to similar curves, but even such formulas do not make us see the curve; they only let us know why each one of the points of a curve, or of the lines of a surface, has to be found where it is. And just as the law of a geometrical curve is intelligible only to a mind, so also the order of its parts within their whole is perceptible only to such a sense as human sight. The order proper to each quantitative whole apprehended by sense perception is its quality.
Modern painters have been the explorers of this universe of visible qualities, just as modern musicians have been, and still are, the explorers of the universe of audible qualities. True enough, painters and musicians have always been engaged in the same pioneering work. In the beginning, both arts contented themselves with ascertaining the simplest and most elementary patterns of order in their respective fields. They now are far beyond these early experiments. Modern music, for instance, is as far ahead of that of the Greeks as our science is ahead of their science. Modern painting, too, is a striking advance in the field of sensible qualities falling under its jurisdiction. Modern painters have taught us to perceive by the organ of sight—that is, immediately to apprehend or see—a practically infinite number of intelligible relations in space, either colors, or forms, or structures, which our own intellect could know if it applied itself to a quantitative analysis of them.
This kind of exploration had to be a creation. After exploring the forms whose beauty is given to man in nature, or, rather, while continuing their exploration, modern painters have asked us to follow them in their effort to create quantitative structures exclusively made qualitatively to please human eyes. In this new undertaking, all the lovable beauties of nature, which so many painters cunningly offer for our enjoyment instead of their art, have to be dismissed by the artist. He cannot cheat any longer. There is then nothing left except the painter, the creature of his mind and his hand, and ourselves. For him, the quest of beauty has come to an end; for us, it is just beginning. Is there going to be any public to follow such guides in their creative exploration of the new qualitative universe? All the probabilities are against it, but man is constantly working against the general trend of natural probabilities.
The main condition required for the success of such an adventure is an absolute freedom of creative initiative on the part of artists and a no less absolute freedom of art appreciation on the part of the public. Both conditions have been happily fulfilled in the Western civilizations of our own times. No one would venture to pretend that the spirit of commercial speculation, greed, or gambling has played no part in the success of modern art, but there is nothing sordid in the substance of the story. When all is said and done, the fact remains that something almost unbelievable happens when some unknown man, as often as not of very moderate means, signs his first check to buy the work of some hitherto unknown painter simply because he likes it. All the sociological theories in the world will not make this simple gesture less mysterious than it really is. Caillebotte, de Bellio, Chocquet—let these three names stand for hundreds of others—can be said to have shared in the revolution that took place in the art of painting about sixty years ago no less actively than Cezanne and Manet themselves ever did.
Behind such forerunners, and sometimes close on their heels, came the first art critics to cast their lot with the pioneers of modern painting, then the growing crowd of the anonymous supporters of the new art, so much so that the very same works that were ridiculed fifty years ago are now hanging in art galleries especially created to keep these masterpieces under the eyes of the public.
The idea that this is all a big hoax or, at most, a comical misunderstanding simply does not meet the data of the problem. It particularly does not account for the experience, so common among art lovers of good will, that anyone with an open mind and an open taste has progressively graduated to the understanding and enjoyment of works of art that first were so many closed books to him. It still less meets the fact that, already in our own day, the most hermetic styles of painting are being aped by commercial artists, spread through a wide public by posters and advertisements, and put to the most practical uses by businessmen of all description. Fifty years ago, Seurat, Juan Gris, Gleizes, and Soutine would not have been able to sell one of their works at the price that people now are willing to pay for an illustrated volume devoted to their art. This conquest of the public by even the boldest among the creators of modern painting can hardly be without significance.
Why have so many art lovers agreed to follow modern artists in their ascetic effort toward an art stripped of the allurements on which it had traditionally relied to win the favor of the public? If he asks himself the question in the light of his own experience, every one of us will probably be conscious of having yielded to the confused urge of sharing in a bold adventure whose ultimate meaning was not clear to him or, perhaps, to his guides. On the whole, however, the very fact that we have thus been taken further and further away from visual appearances, and introduced to a new world of qualitative realities, has forcibly suggested the modest but real way in which man partakes of the creative energy in virtue of which the world of nature both is and operates. Here again the perspicacity of Delacroix has discerned the obscure aspiration latent in the hearts of all creative painters. There is no point in adding to reality images of natural beings, which, precisely because they are but its images, add nothing to reality. What really matters is to turn out, not an image, but a thing; not to add an image to reality, but a reality to reality. An obscure but inspiring note, to be found in the supplement to the original text of Delacroix's Journals, suggests that he himself had already experienced this ambition. We beg leave to render it, as it is found in the French original, under the form of an unfinished development: ". . . At the moment when his painting was still lacking that last breath which animates it; that breath whose effect is that a painting ceases to be a painting in order to become a being, an object, nay, an object that occupies its own place in the Creation, nevermore to perish; that breath which has got a name; which is called the transfiguration, etc. . . ." No wonder that Delacroix stopped short before finishing his sentence. There was something frightening in his Promethean thought, the more so as, when he formulated it, Delacroix was thinking nearly one hundred years ahead of his own art.
In our own lifetime the man-made artifacts inspired by the creative imagination of artists have progressively assumed more and more unfamiliar appearances, and still, on more protracted and closer acquaintance, they have finally succeeded in revealing their meaning to us. Since their apprehension was becoming a source of pleasure for us, their authors had certainly discovered the structure of possible objects, unknown to nature, but whose ultimate justification was to provide man with perfect objects of apprehension. No wonder that so many modern painters feel tempted to use anything rather than oils in their compositions. Oils are a perfect medium for a maker of images, but if the artist is ambitious to produce a real being, then his best chance is to attempt what A. Reth aptly calls a Harmonie de matieres (82)—that is, not an image made of colors, but a thing made of things.
Thus, at the very same time that man's scientific imagination was giving up being imitational in order to reach the deepest layers of physical reality, man's art was achieving an obscure but vivid awareness of the creative power whose fecundity has provided his knowledge with something to know. There certainly were perils in this experience. Some artists, especially among poets, misled by the spiritual nature of the concepts and images of which their own works are made, have aspired to exercise the creative power of God. What a temptation! Starting from nothing else but one's own creative power and the nonbeing of the work to be done, to confer upon it, at one fell sweep, existence, intelligibility, and beauty!37 Because they cannot forget the presence of matter and its exigencies, painters usually are more careful. They do not imagine themselves creating their works from nothing; still, they feel somehow associated with the work of creation and initiated into its mysteries.
Very modest artists have been aware of the nature of the problem, including its spiritual implications. "Art, then," says Jules Breton, "has not for its end the simple imitation of nature. But in what measure should one imitate? Up to what point must the artist create? How must he create? Is there no pride in believing that one can create?"38 One could hardly wish for a more candid confession of the misplaced modesty that probably accounts for the failure of Breton to reach the highest level of creative art. He felt a strange moral duty to imitate, and any resolute attempt to create appeared to him as something little short of impiety.
Not so with Paul Cezanne, who, having broken loose—not, indeed, from nature, but from its servile imitation—could write to Vollard: "I am working doggedly. I am in sight of the Promised Land. Will it be with me as with the great chief of the Hebrews, or shall I be able to enter it? . . . I have made some progress. Why so late and so painfully? Were it perhaps because Art is, indeed, a priestly function, requiring men both pure and wholly dedicated to it?"39
At any rate, this is what art was more and more tending to become as years were going by. In our own day, Paul Klee achieved full awareness of the true nature of the man-made things we call paintings as well as of the source from which they spring. No other modern artist has been so clear as Klee on the essential transcendency of the true work of art over nature: "In earlier times, artists liked to show what was actually visible, either the things they liked to look at or things they would like to have seen. Nowadays, we are concerned with reality rather than with the merely visible; we thereby express our belief that the visible realm is no more than a 'special case' in relation to the cosmos, and that other truths have potentially greater weight. In our pictures, the visible appearances of things have a wider and more complex meaning, which often seems to contradict the rational experience of yesterday. We are striving for the essence that hides behind the fortuitous."40 Such is indeed the intimate conviction more or less confusedly expressed in so many modern works of art. This visible world of ours is only one particular instance of what was, to its Creator, the inexhaustible realm of possible reality. There still remains more reality, either real for us to discover or possible for art to actualize. And to do so is the proper function of creative art. If he desires to attain this lofty end, an artist cannot submit his art to superficial appearances.41 His place is not in the world of man, things, and images. It is "somewhat nearer to the heart of all creation than is usual. But still far from being near enough."42
1. Lives, I, 74. Cf. I, 77.
2. "Thou hast well written about me, Thomas." See the life of Filippo Lippi in Vasari, Lives, II, 111. The same device has been abundantly used in Annunciations. For instance: Simone Martini's Annunciation with Two Saints, in the Uffizi; Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Annunciation, in the Siena Gallery; van Eyck's Annunciation on the Ghent Altarpiece; the Angel says, "Ave Maria," and Mary answers, "Ecce ancilla Domini," but the letters of the answer are inverted, precisely because this is an answer.
3. Lives, I, 77. The fact that the works thus praised by Vasari do not seem attributable to Giotto is irrelevant to the point under consideration. — Generalizing the problem, Lhote (La Peinture, pp. 16-17) interprets the same facts as a conversion from the primacy of sense (painting things such as they appear to sight). Yet the perspective of the Italians was very simplified, mainly concerned with horizontal perspective and careful not to lose contact with what we know about things. Nothing is more easily "readable," or intelligible, than Renaissance Italian painting: "The Italian prespective can be defined: a convention based upon visual sensations, but whose aim and scope it still is to generalize" (p. 17).
4. Lives, I, 232. Inversely, Vasari reproaches Paolo Uccello with having sometimes sinned against the laws of perspective in a manner incomprehensible in the case of such a learned painter (I, 236). His objections become quite amusing when he says that Paolo should not have "represented a horse as moving his legs on one side only, a thing horses cannot do without falling." Of which fact he presently offers this explanation: "The error probably was due to the fact that he could not ride, and had no practical knowledge of horses as of other animals" (pp. 236-37). — The problem is more general in scope. If it is true to say that to suggest depth by means of two-dimensional pictures is the eternal preoccupation of painters and their forbidden fruit (Lhote, Treatise on Landscape Painting, p. 6) , then the eternal preoccupation of painters is to create an optical illusion. Cf.: "What is perspective? It is the art of substituting a sensory illusion for a moral certitude." (Lhote, La Peinture, p. 210.) Unless it totally renounces all representational elements, painting is indeed make-believe; it essentially is deception: trompe-l'oeil.
5. We shall often use "deception" as an English equivalent for the French trompe-l'oeil. Our authority for this use of the term is Sir Joshua Reynolds, A Journey to Flanders and Holland (in Works, II, 355) : "A Freize over one of the doors in chiaro oscuro, by De Witt, is not only one of the best deceptions I have seen, but the boys are well drawn."
6. Even academicism (because it advocates the gusto grande, or the beau ideal, or the grand style) is against trompe-l'oeil, which is considered the wrong kind of imitation of nature (wrong because mechanical) : Reynolds, Discourses, pp. 36-38. Cf. p. 48: "If deceiving the eye were the only business of the Art, there is no doubt indeed, but the minute painter would be more apt to succeed; but it is not the eye, it is the mind which the painter of genius desires to address."
7. Fabrizio Clerici, "The Grand Illusion: Some Considerations of Perspective, Illusionism and Trompe-l'oeil," Art News Annual, XXIII (1954), 98-178. The author of this remarkable article does not deny that trompe-l'oeil shares in the nature of "divertissement, artfulness, elegance," but his conclusion is that those who see in it "simply a concession to virtuosity, and nothing more" should remember the names of the great painters who have indulged in that "game" (p. 121). — This is quite right—with this reservation, however, that, from the point of view of art, the question is not to know what trompe-l'oeil is, but, rather, what use a certain painter has made of it in a certain work.
8. Paul Gauguin was consistent with himself when he said that he wanted to suppress shadows because a shadow is the trompe-l'oeil of the sun.
9. Clerici, p. 121. See, in the same article (p. 120), the description of the achievements of the Fleming Domenick Remps in the field of pictorial illusionism (quoted from Father Orlandi, Abecedario Pittorico [A B C of Painting], 1719). — For The Horse Room (c. 1532) , by Benedetto Pagni and Rinaldo Mantovano, in the Palazzo del Te, Mantua, art. cit., p. 136. For the little girl of the Barbaro family, by Paolo Veronese (1566/68), in the Villa Barbaro, Maser, p. 135. — Since virtuosity has practically no limits, the seventeenth century pushed illusionism much further than the preceding period; compare, in the same article, the plate representing Andrea Mantegna's ceiling in the Ducal Palace, Mantua (1461-74) , p. 133, with the plate, p. 132, Apotheosis of Alexander the Great, by Angelo Michele Colonna and Agostino Mitelli (1638), in the Pitti Palace, Florence; and with the plate, pp. 130-31, Apotheosis of St. Ignatius, by Fra Andrea Pozzo, church of St. Ignatius, Rome (1676/78). This article on "the grand illusion"—that is, on illusionism in art, or on art as counterfeiting reality (p. 125)—is abundantly illustrated with well-chosen plates (pp. 123-78).
10. The techniques of Trompe-l'oeil were unexpectedly revived, at least for a time, by the cubists (c. 1912-14). False wood, false marble, concert programs, imitations of newspapers, and finally real newspapers, bits of glass, of leather, etc., were either painted or pasted by cubist painters on their abstract constructions. See above, p. 55. Various interpretations of this technique have been suggested. Kahnweiler thinks that the cubists wanted to demonstrate the solidity of a colored structure capable of assimilating real objects (Juan Gris, p. 172). Gertrude Stein thinks that, in using real objects in their pictures, or in painting these objects (a newspaper, a pipe) with intense realism, they hoped that the rest of the picture would "oppose itself to them" (Picasso, p. 23). In fact, as has been said above (p. 59), once integrated with a painting, these various objects cease to be natural things.
11. Vasari, Lives, 11, 164.
12. From this point of view, the surrealism of Hieronymus Bosch and his modern successors is essentially different from trompe-l'oeil. Surrealism does not intend to make painted things look like real ones, hut, rather, to make imaginary beings represented in improbable settings please the eyes of the spectator. To the extent that it is "a process of liberation from conceptual, logical, discursive reason," and even "from reason, absolutely speaking" (Maritain, p. 80), surrealism is more interested in unsettling our perceptional habits than in giving them deceptive satisfaction. To transcend reality, even by visual means, is very different from resorting to visual means in order to achieve a fusion of the world of dreams with the world of realities. Lhote has humorously called surrealism a trompe-l'esprit. Cf. Maurice Nadeau, Histoire du surrealisme, p. 211: surrealist painting is "the handmade photography, in full color, of concrete irrationality."
13. Notebooks, II, 235, 254, 281, 286.
14. Cezanne once told Emile Bernard: "There must be a measure of imitation and even a little bit of trompe-l'oeil; it does no harm, if art is there" (Bernard, Souvenirs, p. 92). Kahnweiler (Juan Gris, p. 148) says that the main object of the cubist experiment was to represent three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface. Is not this optical deception again?
15. "La peinture est chose mentale"; this formula is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci by Ravaisson, in Henri Bergson, La Pensee et le mouvant, p. 265.
16. Notebooks, II, 227-28.
17. The object of Reynolds' "Third Discourse" precisely is to convince students that, because deceiving the eye is not the only business of painting, the painter's ambition should be to address the mind and to speak to the heart. This is "the great idea which gives to painting its true dignity, which entitles it to the name of a Liberal Art, and ranks it as a sister to poetry" (Discourses, p. 48). And, indeed, since the painter must express "the exact form which every part of Nature ought to have," he himself has to invent what he does not find ready-made in reality.
18. "Every painter who is not in some way a poet is a bad painter" (Denis, "L'Ascetisme de Carriere," Theories, p. 209).
18a. Scudo's article excerpted by Delacroix in his Journal (French text only), III, 51-53. Incidentally, there must be something wrong with the date of this entry (Jan. 25, 1857). The publication date of Scudo's article is given as Dec. 15, 1857; the same date concludes this development on Execution (III, 54) ; this is probably the correct date of the entry. — The following development is to be found in (Euvres litteraires, I, 63. —Cf. the Kantian idealism of Delacroix in matters of art, ibid., I, 65-67. In this passage, note (p. 66) the striking formula: "The impression caused by the fine arts has no relation whatever with the pleasure that is caused by any kind of imitation" (L'impression qu'on recoit par les beaux-arts n'a pas le moindre rapport avec le plaisir que fait eprouver une imitation quelconque).
19. Amedee Ozenfant, Foundations of Modern Art, p. 249. Cf. the penetrating remarks on the different uses made of geometry in Euclid and in modern painting (pp. 245-48).
20. On what Delacroix used to call the "egg system"—that is, the use of ovoid forms in determining the structure of a painted object—see Planet, Souvenirs, pp. 33-34.
21. Letter to Emile Bernard, April 15, 1904 (Correspondance, p. 259).
22. "The writer expresses himself by means of abstractions, whereas the painter concretes his sensations, his perceptions, by means of design and color" (letter to Bernard, May 26, 1904 [Correspondance, p. 262] ). This is why we heard him say that he preferred to discuss paintings "while on the spot [sur le motif] rather than talk about purely speculative theories" (Correspondence, p. 245; see above, ch. 8, n. 6). He wants to paint from nature in order to avoid academicism (pp. 261, 262, 265, etc.). On the other hand, he did not want nature to provide him with ready-made compositions (pp. 225-26). His ambition therefore was to develop and to apply theories "in contact with nature" (p. 253). More exactly, he wanted to achieve "la realisation sur nature" (p. 258) —that is, to paint "constructions from nature" (p. 297) or "to realize from nature" (ibid.). But, precisely, this sounds a little like the squaring of the circle by means of ruler and compass.
23. See Appendix III, p. 318.
24. The plastic impurity of natural forms is due to the fact that their proper functions are not to confer plastic existence, but life, growth, and operation to the beings they determine. In this sense, natural forms necessarily limit, or restrict, what would be the liberty of a pure plastic rhythm or of a pure plastic form. Hence Mondrian's formula: plastic expression "is the clear realization of liberated and universal rhythm distorted and hidden in the individual rhythm of the limiting form" ("Pure Plastic Art," Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art, p. 31). The fact that natural forms are functional by nature entails the consequence that they signify the beings they determine. The visual form of man says at once all that man is, or, at least, what we know about it. This is what Mondrian expresses when he says (p. 31) : "Limiting form [that is, the form that determines what a certain being is] always tells us something: it is descriptive." The painters who remarked that their art did not "talk" were entering the road to abstract art.
25. Mondrian, pp. 31, 50-53. — An incidental but visible consequence of the cure of abstractionism that painting has had to undergo ever since the beginning of the movement has been its liberation from sexuality. In Ozenfant's perfect words: "Cezanne gave us pears and apples that owed nothing to Eve: it was a brutal interruption to a flesh diet" ("Art Minus Erotics," Foundations of Modern Art, p. 82).
26. "If we wish to clear up the difficulty, it seems therefore necessary that we should once and for all dissociate the 'abstract' from the 'nonfigurative.' The power of interiority, and of getting beyond the visible, which creation implies, does not depend upon the greater or smaller degree of resemblance between the work and external reality, but, rather, upon its degree of resemblance with an internal world that entirely envelops the external one and that expands itself up to the pure rythmical motives of being. Zola is less resembling (less abstract) than Mallarme. Cormon is less resembling (less abstract) than Klee, but Klee is less resembling (less abstract) than the Douanier Rousseau. And Kandinsky is much less abstract than Brueghel, Vermeer, or van Eyck. Van Eyck might well represent the most extreme point ever reached by abstraction in the whole history of painting." (Notes sur la peinture, pp. 56-57.) This entirely confirms the conviction that, in the last analysis, beauty is one and the same for both imitational and nonimitational art. Of course, here, the meaning of "abstraction" is: the resemblance of the painting to the internal reality present in the mind of the painter.
27. If the principle of this distinction is accepted, usage will find the proper words to express it. To illustrate, or illustrating, mainly applies to the kinds of images that accompany, as visual aids, the text of certain books. Image making had for a while detained our attention, but Lionel Trilling, whose advice we sought on this question, dissuaded us from using it, for the same reason that one would avoid imagery; these two words "too much suggest the poetic process, the process of metaphor." Another noun, imaging (from the verb "to image") , also had to be eliminated because it "carries some overtones of the discussion of poetry." As far as we can see, picturing then remains the only possible candidate. A picture is a graphic representation of something. Trilling: "Picturing has to me the great advantage of a certain childish connotation: Ticturebook,' `See the pretty picture.' And picturing is exactly what a child does."
28. Religious art is imagery to the extent that iconography has something to say about it. Thus understood, art, like nature, is the Bible (i.e., the Book) in which believers see, or read, the object of their religious beliefs. This is important to some religions; for instance, not to Judaism or to Islamism, but very much to Christianity. As subservient to religious instruction, painting has produced unsurpassed masterpieces (the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) ; it has also produced countless charming pictures, including all the Madonnas that are more rightly accounted lovely rather than beautiful, because they portray "that kind of woman who is lovable to those who love that kind of woman and in the attitude which is charming to those who are charmed by it" (Eric Gill, Art-Nonsense, p. 74) ; in fine, it has produced, and is still producing, a colossal number of artistically insignificant images, plus quite a few downright ugly ones, whose only justification, if there is one, is to serve the ends of religious instruction. On the contrary, if we forget about iconography, all true works of art are essentially religious, whereas all the works that present themselves as works of art but are not can be said to be (whatever they may represent) areligious. Eric Gill goes further still (pp. 72-73) : "The most irreligious modern work is to be found in churches and, on the other hand, the most religious is that of the men of the so-called post-impressionist schools; for these men have dared to proclaim in their work that worship is properly given to that which is beautiful in itself and not to those things which please merely by entertaining us." As an example of "godly" art, Gill quotes that of Matisse (p. 173)—a statement that, made in 1929, was an astounding prophecy.
29. So-called "history painting," in all countries without exception, is largely dedicated to the exploitation of nationalistic passions. As it is now developing in Russia or in Mexico, art is frankly at the service of a class propaganda that in no way differs from the czarist, monarchist, or patriotic propagandas of the recent past. See the pronouncement attributed to Orozco: "A painting is a poem, and nothing else. A poem is made of relationships between forms as other kinds of poems are made of the relationships between words, sounds or ideas." ("Orozco 'Explains,' " Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art 4, VII (Aug., 1940), and Masters of Modern Art, p. 156.) Those who look at his Zapatistas, or, for that matter, at the paintings of Diego Rivera, will not find their "poems" very different, in inspiration, from those dedicated by Louis David first to the French Revolution, then to Napoleon I.
30. A few indications should suffice for those who are not familiar with the facts in question. Since so-called religious art is still largely derived from the Italian Renaissance, see, in Vasari, how Fra Filippo Lippi selected his model for a picture of Our Lady (Lives, IL 4). This model became the unwed mother of Filippino Lippi. Even if the anecdote happened not to be true, Vasari's remark would still be worth meditating: "He was so highly esteemed for his abilities that many blameworthy things in his life were covered over by his excellencies" (II, 6; cf. p. 7). There is something humorous in the simplicity with which religious books or magazines (we beg to be excused from quoting titles, years, and pages) hope to feed the piety of religious souls with "reproductions" of the Blessed Virgin by . . . Sodoma. They would certainly not dare to print the name of this painter, as they do, if the purity of their intentions did not keep them miles away from realizing its meaning. See Vasari, III, 289, 292; especially III, 141: "Giovannantonio was a brutal, licentious man whose vices had won him the name of Sodoma, of which he was rather proud."
31. Baudelaire, "The Modern Public and Photography," The Mirror of Art, pp. 225-31.
32. See Charles-Pierre Bru, Esthetique de l'abstraction, pp. 217-18. — Cf., on this Problem, the remarks made by Lionel Trilling (The Opposing Self, pp. 97-98). The nature of the difficulty appears in full view in the essay of Raoul Ergmann, "The Chances of a Dialogue; Berenson and Malraux," Diogenes, VII (1954), 73-74. Incidentally, the chances of such a dialogue are nil: Berenson would have a great deal of listening to do. Still, the question itself is good (p. 73) : "If art may not be subjected to the discipline of representation, what measure of its value can be proposed?" And again (pp. 73-74) : In the compositions of Klee and Mini, even if pleasure is felt by the eye, we cannot judge of the "conformity [of the work] to a law which is as strict as it is secret." It is a hopeless undertaking to make a critic—who is a writer—understand that what he has to judge is the relationship between his own sensible pleasure and the painting, not the relationship between the painting and some externally given reality. To be sure, there is a secret there, but it is the critic's own secret as much as it is the painter's.
32a. A soi-meme, p. 78.
33. This social function performed by the maker of images, so foreign to the activity of the painter, is well expressed in the "Letters to the Editors" in The Saturday Evening Post for April 16, 1955. For instance: "Re Norman Rockwell Album (March 12), I doubt if history has or will again portray a complete cycle of a generation of Americans with equal nostalgic emotional power." Again: "The Rockwell covers on your magazine seem as typically American as apple pie and the Dodgers." Again: "Surely no artist of any period has ever bettered Mr. Rockwell in delineating a given subject." However great they are, these merits are entirely foreign to the art of painting. — On the need of an aesthetics of picturing, see the penetrating views of Baudelaire, "On the Essence of Laughter, and, in General, on the Comic in Plastic Arts," The Mirror of Art, pp. 133-34. In 1855, Baudelaire was writing: "The task still remains to be done." The sentence remains largely true in 1956.
34. "It is comprehensible that some abstract artists have objected to the name Abstract Art. Abstract Art is concrete and, by its determined means of expression, even more concrete than naturalistic art. In spite of the fact that the denomination 'Abstract Art' is right (abstraction means reducing particularities to their essential aspect), both names are equivocal; naturalistic art is also concrete. 'Non-figurative Art'—another de-nomination—is equivocal because abstract forms are figures as well as naturalistic forms. The intention of indicating the destruction of the particularity of forms, which this name expresses clearly, may not be understood. It is the same with the name `Non-objective Art' which indicates that objects are not the means of expression, while Abstract Art strives for objective, that is, universal expression. `Constructivism' might also be misunderstood, since Abstract Art requires destruction of particular form. Evidently every denomination is relative. However, it can be stated that all art is more or less realism. Men are conscious of life by the manifestation of reality. Reality here is understood to be the plastic manifestation of forms and not of the events of life." (Mondrian, "A New Realism," Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art, p. 17).
35. Milton C. Nahm, Selections from Early Greek Philosophy, p. 81. See pp. 7477, Aristotle's texts concerning Pythagoras. Plato's cosmogony, in Tinzaeus, clearly bears the mark of the Pythagorean movement. — Concerning the remarks that follow in our own text, note that Ozenfant has called painting "a geometry of sensation" (Foundations of Modern Art, p. 260, n. 1) . Cf. p. 256: "a mathematics of sensation." What Ozenfant intends to express is the notion that paintings are apprehended as "sensed structures"—that is to say, mathematical relations, not understood by the intellect, but perceived by sense.
36. Technically speaking, "quality" is one of the ten primitive notions called "categories" by Aristotle's disciples. Like other primitive notions, quality can be described, but it cannot be defined. Generally speaking, quality is that which makes a thing to be such and such. It is the cause of "suchness." On the many classes of qualities, see Aristotle, Categories, ch. 8 (The Basic Forks of Aristotle, pp. 23-28). For a study of the problems raised by this category, see The Material Logic of John of St. Thomas, tr. Y. R. Simon, J. J. Glanville, and G. D. Hollenhorst, pp. 367-87. The few remarks made by Aristotle about colors are irrelevant to our own purpose. What he says about the "fourth sort of quality"—namely, figure and shape—is more to the point. His remark that some qualities admit of variations of degree (a white thing can become whiter), while some others do not (all triangles are equally triangular, all circles are equally circular) , gives an idea of the state of confusion in which his doctrine of quality remains. All forms of "suchness" are included in it, but no effort is made to carry the description of any particular class of quality beyond the level of elementary empirical observation. The remarks made in Metaphysics (bk. V, ch. 14) are shorter but more elaborate. Aristotle distinguishes two meanings of "quality": (1) that which differentiates an essence (including qualities in number and qualities in figures) ; (2) all the modifications in virtue of which, "when they change, bodies are said to alter" (including colors, virtues and vices, etc.). All these problems arise in Aristotle:s mind in connection with science rather than with art.
37. Description of the feelings of an artist toward the work he has made (Gill, Autobiography, p. 159) : "Lord, how exciting!—and not merely touching and seeing but actually making her [a carved young woman]. I was responsible for her very existence and her every form came straight out of my heart. A new world opened before me." The myth of Pygmalion has not ceased to be true. This proud joy of the creator is perfectly normal as long as he does not mistake himself for the Creator. On this point, see the famous letter of Mallarme to Henri Cazalis, May 14, 1867 (in Maritain, p. 178, n. 29).
38. La Vie d'un artiste, p. 281. Remarkably enough, the same feeling of humility has led other artists to the contrary conclusion. They have refused to imitate, and therefore they have created nonimitational objects in order not to enter in competition with the Creator. This curious development is perceptible in Hans Arp, On My Way. For instance (p. 36) : "Man became a childish creator. In his megalomania, he wanted to create God and the world a second time. . . . Every painter, every sculptor wanted to be the most astonishing of creators. Anonymity and humility were replaced by fame and artifice." At the same time, this leads Arp to consider art as "of natural origin" and, consequently, destined to produce things, or beings, which are in themselves and by themselves: "in my opinion a picture or a sculpture without any object for model is just as concrete and sensual as a leaf or a stone" (p. 50). Against Mondrian, he refuses to distinguish between nature and art (ibid.). "We do not want to copy nature, we do not want to reproduce, we want to produce like a plant that produces a fruit and not to reproduce. We want to produce directly and not through interpretation. As there is not the slightest trace of abstraction in this art, we call it: concrete art." (p. 70.) Note (ibid.) that such works should remain anonymous; they should remain unsigned in "the great studio of nature like clouds, mountains, seas, animals, men." Throughout the essays the same notion is reaffirmed: "Man behaves as if he had created the world and could play with it" (p. 35). Man "has broken away from nature. He thinks that he dominates nature. He thinks he is the measure of all things. Engendering in opposition to the laws of nature, man creates monstrosities." (p. 49.) In short, Arp wants art to be rooted in the productivity of nature in order to kill its ambition of being a creator, or re-creator, of nature. "Art is a fruit that grows in man, like a fruit on a plant, or a child in its mother's womb. But whereas the fruit of the plant, the fruit of the animal, the fruit in the mother's womb, assume autonomous and natural forms, art, the spiritual fruit of man, usually shows an absurd resemblance to the aspect of something else. . . . I love nature, but not its substitutes. Naturalist, illusionist art is a substitute for nature." (Pp. 50-51.)
39. Letter to Vollard, January 9, 1903 (Correspondance, p. 252). — Yet the same Cezanne had a photograph of Thomas Couture's Roman Orgy hanging on the wall of his studio (probably as an example of composition). He admired the craftsmanship of Meissonier (Bernard, Souvenirs, p. 29) and of Dore: "The great Dore has a stunning picture at the Salon" (Correspondance, p. 80). Precisely—Dore is an excellent example of a great maker of images, or of pictures, who was far from at his best when it came to painting.
40. "Creative Credo" (quoted in Grohmann, Paul Klee, p. 99).
41. The formula "abstract art" is so commonly accepted that there would be no point in opposing its use. Let us observe, however, that the abstract character of a large section of modern painting does not come from any preconceived intention of achieving abstraction. Its abstractiveness is a consequence, not a principle. What we call abstract art is the kind of art that "has attained to an act of creation set free by its very decision to renounce, in both spirit and will, the representation or interpretation of the forms of nature" (R. V. Gindertael, "L'Art `abstrait': Nouvelle situation," in Robert Lebel, ed., Premier Bilan de l'art actuel, p. 35.) Gindertael's essay establishes with unsurpassable clarity of thought that to define the new style of painting by its "abstract" character is to mistake the effect for the cause. "The order between cause and effect has been inverted," so that what was but a consequence of a revolution in the exercise of artistic creation has been mistaken for this revolution itself. Gindertael has no less clearly warned of the peril that threatens "abstract art" if what has been the affirmation of the pure pictorial act is reduced to its first manifestation, the fact "abstractionism." Such an error would simply sterilize an artistic revolution whose consequences must not be arbitrarily limited.
42. Borrowed from the fragment of Paul Klee's Journal that was engraved on his tombstone: "I cannot be understood in purely earthly terms. For I can live as happily with the dead as with the unborn. Somewhat nearer to the heart of all creation than is usual. But still far from being near enough." (Grohmann, p. 95.) Cf. Klee, Ober die moderne Kunst, p. 47: "Im Schosse der Natur . . ."—The spirit of renunciation implied in this notion of art clearly expresses itself in the following lines, also quoted by Grohmann (p. 95) : "My light burns so white-hot that to most people it seems to lack warmth. So I shall not be loved by them; no sensuous link, however subtle, exists between them and me. I do not belong to the species but am a cosmic point of reference."
This item 10862 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org