Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Chapter Six – Beauty and Modern Painting

by Jacques Maritain


New thresholds, new anatomies—Nonrepresentative Beauty—Natural appearances and Creative Intuition

Larger Work

Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry

Publisher & Date

Bollingen Foundation Inc., 1953

New Thresholds, New Anatomies

1. Painters as well as writers are exposed to suffer the inner division whose symptoms were a particular feature of the nineteenth century, and to be deceived by the myth of the artist as a hero; but less so, I think, than poets and writers: because they can less easily shift toward the spiritual glorification of the ego, being bound, willy-nilly, to the world of visible matter and corporeal existence, to Nature. Yet this very fact is for modern painting a source of unheard of difficulties in the very line of its own creative development. The obligation to recast the visible fabric of things in order to make them an expression of creative subjectivity entails now inevitable drawbacks, now accidental failures, and causes many victims.

The first victim was the human figure. The impotency of modern art to engender in beauty except at the expense of the beauty of the human figure is a disquieting symptom.1 If it is true that the human body is the most beautiful work in natural creation; and that the human face is naturally sacred, because it is the visible sign and the natural sacrament of human personality, and because in it an immortal soul shows through—then the impotency I just mentioned, and which can be found, to one degree or another, in all great contemporary painters, cannot be considered a slight defect. The fact was, no doubt, inevitable: precisely because the human figure carries the intrinsic exigencies of natural beauty to a supreme degree of integration, it is particularly difficult to recast its visible fabric except in deforming it. Will this difficulty be overcome some day? As long as it is not, that is, as long as the recasting in question has not become, as it was in El Greco, a change into something more human than the human appearance, modern painting will be in possession of every means to express spirituality, save the most normal one.

I just spoke of the great contemporary painters. In them the impotency not to impoverish or damage the form of man, either by blotting out its richness in significance, or by brutalizing or distorting it, is only a lack as a rule.

In the later manner of Picasso, it has become the expression of a positive aggressiveness, but always subordinate to the liberty of the creative line, and to that other kind of poetic freedom which is black humor, and to an inherent sense of beauty (not as to these disfigured human bodies, but as to the work as a whole). Yet we have also to do today with a particularly unfortunate, and illegitimate, progeny of great contemporary painters—the School of Degradation, I would say—and with the avid followers who mistook Picasso's cruel hieroglyphs for animal frenzy. They have found in his lesson a means of releasing the resentments of a boorish soul and of getting at little cost the admiration of an idiotic public. They cling furiously to the human figure, but to make it into a putrid foetus or a disintegrated lizard or kangaroo armed with pincers and topped by a stupid eye or a fiendish set of teeth. Where Heraclitus had said, "The most beautiful of the apes is hideous in comparison with the human race,"2 they offer us a human race hideous in comparison with the ugliest of the apes. These painters, without being Surrealists, enforce in practice, not only with regard to man's face and body, but with regard to the very work, the surrealist dismissal of beauty, and they probably believe they convey a prophetic message to mankind. They are of interest mainly to anthropologists, who may compare their mental processes with that through which, in Tantrist or in Aztec sculpture, the human countenance became a magical instrument for fright and terror, and contempt for man. (But then, at least, the work itself had sometimes its own beauty.)

2. What matters to us is that there are other painters, who really count in the movement of creative research, and who keep on being intent on doing a work, and being intent on beauty. These painters have been confronted with a growing difficulty inseparable from the advance of modern painting: namely the fact that, in proportion as the creativity of the spirit strives for greater and greater liberation in order for the Self to be revealed in the work, Nature discloses greater obstacles, or rather demands from poetic intuition a ceaselessly growing power, in order for things to be grasped, and expressed in the work, without hampering or thwarting the simultaneous expression of subjectivity and the freedom of the creative spirit. What was twenty years ago an invaluable conquest over naturalism will seem now still tainted with naturalism. Any representation whatever of natural appearances is seen as an obstacle to the free creativity of the spirit. And it is, in actual fact, as long as it has not yet been purified and transfigured in the pungent night of creative intuition. The road of creative intuition, however, is exacting and solitary, it is the road to the unknown, it passes through the sufferings of the spirit. Artists are always tempted to prefer the road of technical discoveries.

Cubism set out to transpose natural appearances by decomposing and reshaping them in reference to the free expansion of forms and volumes in a newly organized space, which depends on the construction requirements of painting-as-painting, and makes our vision less bound to the limitations and opacity of matter (may it be possible to have all the sides of an object simultaneously present to the eye!). It provided us in this way with a number of admirable paintings.

Futurism, less fortunate as a rule in its achievements, except for some remarkable pictures of Severini's,3 attempted a similar transposition in reference to the lively shiftings and mutual interpenetration of visual impressions produced by motion.

While dislocating natural appearances, neither Cubism nor Futurism did actually break with them. They tried to bring out from them a new visual significance—but by making this effort only with respect to external sensibility, and by relying finally on the discovery of a new technique, new tricks and means. It was possible for a Chagall or a Malevich to denounce Cubism's obdurate naturalism.

Then there was, for a few years, another school—a one-man school, to tell the truth—which I should like to call the School of Transmutation. I am alluding to Marcel Duchamp's4 radical experiment. I take it here as an instance of a possible theory which it is of philosophical interest to disengage in its generality. I imagine that, from this point of view, we might express this attempt at integral transmutation in the following way.

The painter looks at Things, at the universe of visible Being—intent to grasp in it some reality beyond appearances and some hidden meaning. He receives the poetic spark (even though charged perhaps with a somewhat sadistic electricity). Then he gets out to express what he has grasped, not by simply transposing the natural appearances of the objects involved, but by using the totally different appearances of other objects belonging in a totally separate sphere—without any flash of intuitive similarity springing forth between these distant objects: so that the secret reality grasped in Being will be expressed, enigmatically, through a totally new creation totally contrived by his own spirit. A bride will become an insidious machine whose anatomy displays an ironical and icy complication of cylinders, pipes, and bevel gears.

Natural appearances will be totally transmuted into forms which pertain to another world of objects. The painter is an alchemist. He transmutes lead into gold, or gold into lead, kings, queens, and nudes into the volumes and surfaces of imaginary engines in motion, through which the ambiguous reality intended by him and the successive moments of its manifestation in time and movement are spread out in space.

Such an attempt was logically conceivable. It had an exceptional theoretical interest. It was indeed an attempt at the impossible. For the entire process runs against the nature of our spiritual faculties.

Creative intuition and imagination do not proceed in an angelic or demonic manner. They are human, bound to the alertness of sense perception. They grasp a certain transapparent reality through the instrumentality of the eye and of certain natural appearances—they cannot express or manifest it except through the instrumentality of these same natural appearances, recreated, recast, transposed of course, not cast aside and totally replaced by other appearances proper to another realm of Things in the world of visible Being. It's as good as having the soul of a flower in an elephant. In genuine metaphor the illuminating image arrives from another world, as a bird through the window of your room, to quicken the transposition of natural appearances and their power of significance: it supersedes them only for an instant, it does not suppress them. Here, on the contrary, there is no illumination, nor illuminating image. The Thing within which creative intuition has caught its diamond is not illuminated, it is killed. The other Thing which has been conjured up does not suggest it, it absorbs it, and expresses it only in secret cipher. The process cuts off in human art the intellect from its inescapable connection with sense perception. It is unnatural in itself.

As a matter of fact, notwithstanding the homage paid by Neoromantic and Surrealist critics to Marcel Duchamp, we must observe that in his own work poetic intuition, strong as it may have been at the start, is in reality quickly superseded by pure intellectuality. Even at the initial moment, in the germinal grasping, there is more of an intellectual scheme or an idea (the craftsman idea) than of poetic knowledge. The spiritual spark was less revealing than contriving—contriving the ironical or cynical concept of a formula of transmutation. And what appears striking in the execution of the work is not attentiveness to the impalpable spirituality of creative emotion, but rather-together with a half sarcastic obsession with machinery and the devices of engineering—an extremely careful elaboration, a patient preparation of sketches and well-calculated essays, winding up in the production of some shady sophisticated myth, like that myth of the "celibate machine," doubtless highly typical of our time, which has captured the imagination of highbrowed gapers fond of hermetic marvels.

Be that as it may, an attempt at the impossible is apt to win admirers, not followers. Only Marcel Duchamp, with the enigmatic gifts of a searching mind, was able to instruct us about the significance of transmutation as a solution to the difficulties of modern painting. His experiment was bound to remain solitary. Even he himself stopped painting. After the few works which for some years impassioned Paris's esoteric circles, he gave up creative art4a for another art of calculation, in which he had always been interested. He is now playing chess in New York.

Nonrepresentative Beauty

3. It is still in a prolongation of Cubism that painting has continued to seek the seemingly unattainable way out of its present predicament. Is some other solution possible? Is there not a short cut? It is no longer a question of attempting the impossible, but rather of rejecting part of too heavy a burden. Let us turn away from Things, and from any concern for grasping in them any transapparent reality and hidden meaning. Let us by the same token give up completely, or as completely as possible, natural appearances as transposed and transfigured as they may be, and any representation of Things. Let us renounce the existential world of Nature completely, or as completely as possible. Will not art be revealed at last in its true essence, be freed at last from any trace of naturalism, express at last freely the free creativity of the spirit and the release of creative subjectivity?

It is in this way, I think, that the notion of nonrepresentative art imposed itself on the initiators of the School of Abstraction. And here we have what I would call the genuine concept of abstract art. Modern abstract art is subjective in intention, quite contrary to the objective abstract art of Islam. But modern abstract art, in so far as it is true to its original concept, implies in no way a repudiation of beauty. On the contrary, if it divorces itself from the Things of Nature, it is with a view to being more fully true to the free creativity of the spirit, that is, to poetry, and therefore to tend toward beauty, the end beyond the end of poetry, in a manner more faithful to the infinite amplitude of beauty. That's why I would say in this connection nonrepresentative or nonfigurative beauty as well as nonrepresentative or nonfigurative art.

"Suprematism"—another word for abstract art—"Suprematism," wrote Malevich, "is the rediscovery of that pure art which in the course of time, and by an accretion of 'things,' had been lost to sight. . . . The happy liberating touch of nonobjectivity drew me out into the 'desert' where only feeling is real. . . . From the suprematist point of view, the appearances of natural objects are in themselves meaningless; the essential thing is feeling-in itself and completely independent of the context in which it has been evoked.5

At least nonfigurative art delivers us radically from the ugliness and stupidity in the image of man which have invaded contemporary painting. It does so by getting clear of the human figure. And at least it has—I mean in its most genuine representatives-a sense of the beauty of rhythm and harmony, and of the pleasure of the intelligence-permeated eye. I know that abstract art presents itself in a multiplicity of contrasting forms, and that it is sometimes infected by the animal frenzy and the aggressive resentment of which I spoke a moment ago. Be that as it may, I remain grateful for the thoughtful effort of Mondrian and Kandinsky toward perfect and restful balance. Abstract art is able to provide us with an element of contemplation, and repose of the soul—only, it is true, by quitting the realm of the human, even of the living, even of the existential reality of being, and by offering to our eyes, along the lines of some Platonic ideal, the peace of geometrical surfaces, wire constructions, or wooden artifacts.

4. Yet in actual fact the theory rests on false premises, and this attempt at a new solution—so disinterested and earnest in its beginnings—involves a basic illusion. The short cut was a blind alley.

Abstract painters are right in telling us that they are not "opposed to nature"6 and do not break away from nature in the sense that they use and combine prime elements and various kinds of pure units or sensory determinants which they have extracted and singled out from nature and that they are essentially concerned with laws of dynamic equilibrium, laws of proportional correspondences, optical laws, psychophysical laws which are grounded on nature; and even that the spontaneous gushing forth of arbitrary forms on their paper or their canvas depends on a nature which is their own subjective nature.7 But all that is beside the point. The point is that nonrepresentative painting breaks away from Nature as an existential whole, turns away from Things and the grasping of Things, and renounces seeing into the inner depths of the world of Nature, of visible and corporeal Being.

Now if it is true that creative subjectivity awakens to itself only by simultaneously awakening to Things, in a single process which is poetic knowledge; and that the way by which the free creativity of the spirit enters into act is essentially poetic intuition, and that poetic intuition is nothing but the grasping of Things and the Self together through connaturality and intentional emotion—then it must be said that in breaking away from the existential world of Nature, from Things and the grasping of Things, nonrepresentative art, by this very fact, condemns itself to fall short of its own dearest purposes and the very ends for the sake of which it came to life. Cut off from the mystery of integral reality to be obscurely attained in some of its transapparent aspects—in other words, cut off from poetic intuition—any effort to express freely the free creativity of the spirit, and to reveal the depths of creative subjectivity is bound to slow extinction. In actual fact, instead of tending more faithfully to the infinite amplitude of beauty, all lunges and efforts of poetry cannot prevent nonrepresentative art from tending of itself to the most limited form of beauty, the mute beauty, with almost no echoing power, of the best balanced objects produced by mechanical arts. There is no exercise of the free creativity of the spirit without poetic intuition. Painting and sculpture cannot do without poetic intuition. The crucial mistake of abstract art has been to reject—unwittingly—poetic intuition, while rejecting systematically the existential world of Things.

There is a curious sentence in the passage from Malevich I quoted a moment ago. "The appearances of natural objects," he said, "are in themselves meaningless; the essential thing is feeling"—feeling "completely independent of the context in which it has been evoked." He did not perceive that through feeling the intellect obscurely grasps the meanings in which Things abound, and which are conveyed to an attentive eye through the appearances of natural objects. Feeling for him remained merely subjective feeling, was not raised to spiritual intentionality. He remained secluded from the infinite meaningfulness of the existential world of Nature.

I would hate to be too systematic myself. Poetry is capable of worming its way in anywhere. I do not deny that in the most strictly nonrepresentative painting there are still possibilities for poetry. Even when an artist closes his eyes to things, he has still seen them, his soul is unconsciously inhabited by the forms of the universe. And thus it is possible that, while turning away from the existential world of things, the unconscious presence of this very world in the secret recesses of the painter may be enough to load some subjective feeling, unrelated to any given thing, with the spiritual elan of poetic intuition. It is possible for a painter who obeys only his merely subjective feeling (merely subjective at least in appearance), or else a free impulse of the unconscious (both the automatic and the spiritual unconscious intermingled), to trace, in total freedom from any representation whatever, lines and forms which are instinct with beauty and poetry—melodic as it were, and apt to move the heart, just as music can. My point is that such possibilities remain exceptional —and, in the last analysis, very limited; and that one cannot try to develop there from a specific form of art without pushing painting farther and farther away from the very sources of poetic intuition and creative emotion.

All in all, abstract art, taken as a system, is in the same predicament as idealist philosophy. Both are walled in. Even all the psychophysical laws with which nonrepresentative painting is so much concerned, and which deal with the most complex and subtle and fluent effects produced on sensation by elementary sense stimuli in relation to one another and to the environment, cannot be known in a separate manner and applied in the aprioristic way for which abstract art is looking. Painters know them only in their concrete and factual results, and in the very Things to be manifested in the work, and through creative experience intent on the existential world of Nature.

Turning away from the difficult task of grasping more and more profoundly and expressing more and more revealingly the transapparent aspects of Things, it is not surprising that, in the course of time, abstract art should appear to the growing flock of its adepts a mere way to escape poetic intuition. As a matter of fact it was to wind up in a new sort of academicism. At last it becomes again possible to take painting easily. A new eagerness for recipe and formula spares people the self-abnegation and the ordeals imposed by poetic creativity. Thus it is that we are now offered in exhibitions, art magazines, and modern art museums—together with infrequent works whose genuine poetry recalls that of the originators, and with valuable achievements and inventions in the field of merely decorative painting—a gaudy multitude of convolutions, angles, or cobwebs and amoeboid or filiform mucosities, all of them meant to express the originality of the creative self, in pictures which lack personality to such a point that they can scarcely be distinguished one from another. Everyone joins in willy-nilly, spurred by the noble iron rod of imitation, fashion, and the art dealers.

5. Practicing scales is not giving a concert. As an exercise or an experiment, nonrepresentative painting has, I think, unquestionable value. It unbinds the imagination, discloses to the eye of the painter a world of unforeseen possibilities, relationships, correspondences, rhythms, and equilibria, enables him more perfectly to master the prime elements of his means of expression; and over and above all it teaches him himself, in complete freedom, through the release of his own singular inventive resources as a sensitive instrument. All that, nevertheless, has to do with technique, not with poetry, or at best with making technique more supple and tractable to poetry. In this particular order, practice in abstract art has perhaps been made by the very development of modern painting a necessary moment in the individual painter's self education. And with regard to the general evolution of painting, it was also, perhaps, and for the same reasons, an unavoidable moment. Yet in relation to art's real life, and to the progress in creativity and self-awareness achieved in the last hundred years, the irruption of nonrepresentative art can hardly be considered an advance in the process. Of itself it points rather at a period of stagnation or regression.

It must be noticed, furthermore, that in what is commonly labeled abstract art today, there are trends which already step in reality out of abstract art. When a painter happens—contrary to the theory—to be actually intent on the existential world of Nature and put in motion by poetic intuition, but uses abstract or nonrepresentative forms as means of expression, these forms are not in reality purely abstract or nonrepresentative. They make present on the canvas, they represent be it in the most bare and dematerialized manner—some vital element, a rhythm, a contrast, a contour which has been seen in Nature and which is just enough to suggest some natural appearance with the significance it is laden with, even if this meaningful appearance moves you without your being able to recognize or identify the Thing to which it belongs. Condensed and simplified as they may be, natural appearances are there. Through them the existential world of Nature is there. It is there with that particular inner depth and those particular meanings which knowledge through connaturality and intentional emotion have disclosed to the painter together with his own subjectivity. By way of forms still impoverished and half-mute, but derived from Nature in actual fact, the work expresses, not a merely subjective feeling symbolized according to the requirements of psychophysical laws, but, together with an intuitive feeling, some diffident aspect of the reality of the visible world. Such painting, which is, it seems to me, characteristic of the effort of some contemporary painters still designated as abstract painters,8 is in reality no more purely abstract art than cubism was.

May we believe that in this way a new development will come about, and finally set free contemporary painting from the academicism of the nonrepresentative system? No doubt a spontaneous process progressively reintegrating Nature in the inner movement of abstract research would be of greater interest than that kind of compromise, extrinsically mixing pieces of dull natural forms with nonfigurative formulas, which can also be observed today here and there.

Natural Appearances and Creative Intuition

6. In any case the truth of the matter is that creative intuition is today, and has always been, and will ever be, the primary power of authentic renewal. Salvation in art comes only through creative intuition.

The great mistake has been to put the instrumental and secondary before the principal and primary, and to search for an escape through the discovery of a new external approach and new technical revolutions, instead of passing first through the creative source, and thus taking a risk, but having a chance to find a real solution. Another mistake, connected with the first, has been to conceive of forward movement only in terms of a flight from Naturalism, as if it were enough to run farther and farther away from an error to get at the truth. The mistake has been to look for freedom from something—first from an error: servile imitation or copy of natural appearances, but then from the existential world of Nature itself, and from any kind of representation whatever of natural appearances —instead of looking for freedom to achieve in one's work a more and more genuine revelation both of Things and the Self, and to obey creative forces in a manner truer and truer to a deeper and deeper poetic intuition.

Everyone must in the end consent to be led into the desert. But we should not mistake the desert of emotion and feeling cut off from Nature for the desert of man's spirit in its struggle with the Angel.

To tell the truth, there is a need for a restatement of the old question of imitation (though the word itself is hopelessly wrong). It is perfectly clear that imitation in the sense of a sheer copy of natural appearances achieved in such a way that the image deceives the eye and is taken for the thing is a wrong notion, directly opposed to the nature of art.9 But Aristotle never had such a notion in mind. He meant that delight in seeing (or beauty) is all the greater as the object seen conveys a greater amount of intuitive knowledge: thus in art and poetry the object is also a sign—through which some transapparent reality is made intuitively known. Does not dance "imitate mores"?10 What is "imitated"—or made visibly known—is not natural appearances but secret or transapparent reality through natural appearances. Furthermore St. Thomas insisted that art imitates nature in her operation11—not in respect to natural appearances, but in respect to the ways in which nature herself operates. To create his work of lines and colors the painter imitates nature as he would imitate another painter. He does not copy nature as an object, he steals from nature, he extracts from his observation of, and connivance with her, the operative ways through which nature manages her own raw materials of form, color, and light to impress on our eye and mind an emotion of beauty. This is quite a peculiar type of imitation indeed, which consists in the act of making oneself instructed by a reluctant and jealous master: pilfering rather than imitation. Here we have such secrets as that of the flamelike form detected by Michelangelo,12 or that of inherent irregularity detected by Renoir,13 or that of the cylinder, sphere, and cone structure detected by Cezanne.14 One day, after a walk in the wintertime, Rouault told me he had just discovered, by looking at snow-clad fields in the sunshine, how to paint the white trees of spring. Such a genuine concept of "imitation" affords a ground and a justification for the boldest kinds of transposition, transfiguration, deformation, or recasting of natural appearances, in so far as they are a means to make the work manifest intuitively the transapparent reality which has been grasped by the artist.

Yet the fact remains that this genuine concept of imitation, correctly understood, expresses a necessity to which human art is bound: first, with regard to the transapparent reality to be "imitated" or intuitively manifested; second, with regard to natural- appearances themselves as to be used instrumentally (or as means mastered by art, and thus as transposed and recast with a view to the end): for without the instrumentality of natural appearances made present or "represented" in such a way, the intended manifestation cannot be intuitive, that is, the work falls short of the essence of art. As I have previously noticed,15 it is through the instrumentality of natural appearances that things reveal some of their secret meanings to the artist's intuition: it is also through the instrumentality of natural appearances—necessarily recast, and perhaps drastically so—that the same secret meaning can be intuitively revealed in and by the work. Taken in this correct philosophical sense, the law of "imitation" (misleading as this unhappy word may be), the law of transference or re-production is inescapable.

7. Modern art obeys an essential necessity of growth made more exacting by self-awareness, when it claims greater and greater freedom with respect to natural appearances: not, I say, freedom from any representation whatsoever of natural appearances, but freedom in this very representation, and freedom to transpose and recast natural appearances at its own pleasure, on the condition that the recasting in question causes the work to manifest intuitively, or reveal, a transapparent reality grasped in the existential world of Things. In abstract painting this condition is lacking, to one degree or another.

Contemporary painting will get out of its predicament when it understands that the only way to effective transposition, deformation, recasting, or transfiguration of natural appearances passes through poetic intuition. Poetic intuition does as it pleases with natural appearances. It catches them in its own inner music. In its expansion toward the work it takes them away from their material existence in nature, and makes them attuned to itself. Then it is not by any technical trick of decomposition of forms, it is by virtue of the inner pressure, in the natural forms thus quickened by creative emotion, toward going beyond themselves, and telling more than what they are, and becoming parts of a total song laden with meaning and significance, that natural forms are deformed and transposed, transfigured and recast.16

It is also by virtue of poetic intuition, embracing the total organization of the work and imposing on it its requirements for unitary objective expression, that each form is sensed and determined in relation to all others, and that the picture expands with harmonic plenitude in the total inner space which is proper to it as a self-sufficient unit.17

This internal number of the work answers a basic necessity which ancient masters were perfectly aware of—Cubism and abstract painting only put a new emphasis on it. I think that there is more real novelty in a particular element which contemporary research is bringing out, and which refers directly to the poetic sense. Modern art, it seems to me, has become exceptionally aware of the importance of the metaphorical interference that poetic intuition naturally releases, in other words of the impact of that "illuminating image"—a form, an object, a glimmer, a bit of a world, emerging from elsewhere into the center of the stage—by which the intuitive significance of the work is increased, as it were, boundlessly. I note the fact in passing—it is in relation to poetry that I shall try to analyze further18 the nature of the illuminating image. To have laid hands on this proper asset of poets is one of the authentic conquests of modern painting.

Painting, in reality, is not trapped today in a blind alley. Roads are open, there are signposts, precisely in relation to the points I just discussed. If I were asked to mention some names, I would say the Romanesque primitives, Hieronymus Bosch, Tintoretto, El Greco, Piranesi, Georges de Latour, Claude, Goya in the past; and, in our age, Cezanne, Rouault, Braque, Chagall, what is best and most durable in Picasso, and certain findings of the Surrealist painters.

In doing so I do not mean at all, of course, to point to any particular way out, but to point to a certain inspiration to find a way out—an inspiration to which, I believe, significant and liberating testimonies have been given. Every great painter blocks the way he himself has opened, and exhausts, as it were, the possibilities which this way might offer. The question, to be sure, has never been to walk in the footsteps of such masters; the question is to scrutinize them with such love as to become free from them, and to feed on their experiences and inner flame humbly and stubbornly enough to discover new directions without even thinking of it.

Despite the conditions of our present state of civilization, so hostile to creative freedom, there will always be artists who have fortitude enough to turn toward the inner sources, and trust in the power of the small translucid cloud of poetic intuition. They will be able to get out—by walking, rather than by reasoning—of the various entanglements I have tried to analyze in this chapter, and to be unselfish in the very awakening of creative subjectivity. For the painter as for the poet there is no other way to regain interior unity, being entirely turned toward the end beyond the end, and thus being perhaps also given, in addition, a new possibility of communion with his fellow men in this modern world of ours which is sick with a repressed, brutally frustrated longing for unity, beauty, and poetry.


1. "L'aboutissement de l’art, c'est la figure," Cezanne said. (Ambroise Vollard, Paul Cezanne, Paris: Crès, 1924, p. 135.)

"We must believe that it was impossible at once to preserve the beauty of forms, poetry and renewal. Was it not at the point where academicism had been the most insistent that the break would take place? 'Deformation' especially attacked the human shape, both of face and of body. As landscapes had not been subject to such strict canons, they escaped this doubtless temporary necessity, which would signalize an epoch. In any case, there are today no more beautiful landscapes than those of Rouault. . . ." Raissa Maritain, We Have Been Friends Together (New York: Longmans, Green, 1942), p. 162.

“The figures I do," van Gogh wrote, "almost always seem to me horrid, not to mention how they seem to others. . .." From a letter to Emile Bernard, last week of June, 1888. In Letters to Emile Bernard (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1938), p. 47.

2. Plato, Hipp. M. a89 A (Diels, Fragment 82).

3. Since this time Severini has come a long way, and learned a great deal in the course of a constantly progressing effort. He has become one of the most powerful renovators of sacred art, and our greatest master in mosaic and fresco. In an essay written on him in 193o ("Gino Severini," in Peintres Nouveaux, No 40, Paris: Gallimard, 1930; reprinted in Art and Poetry, New York: Philosophical Library, 1943), I observed, with respect to his decoration of the churches of Semsales and La Roche, in Switzerland, that "art is brought remarkably close to religious use by the most daring modern researches, requiring as they do much formal purification. It is not the newness of their means, but rather the spirit from which they seek inspiration that often keeps them apart from such usage. It would need an essential purification, an interior renovation of this spirit—which does not happen without a sort of agony, and which the majority refuses. Semsales and La Roche show us the victory of a painter who has lived out the modern anxieties and discoveries, and has never renounced them, and who has been rendered master of his soul at the same time by a great inner deepening." During long years of tenacious labor the authority of Severini did not cease growing. By his meditation on the laws of number and the logic of abstract proportions, and by his passionate attachment to all the concrete details of honest work, straightforward and rigorous, he affirmed more and more the natural kinship which relates him to the seekers of the early Italian Renaissance. While pursuing his research in pure painting, he decorated a number of churches in French-speaking Switzerland, and recently composed the great mosaic of St. Peter's Church in Fribourg, a masterwork of modern religious art, which was solemnly inaugurated on September 16, 1951.

Speaking of religious art, I would like to say how much we are indebted to Maurice Denis, who was an excellent artist and critic both, and to Alexandre Cingria. I would like also to point out the particular importance, in contemporary research, of Andre Girard's work, which unites to an exceptional degree science and inspiration, together with admirable imaginative richness and pictorial generosity.

4. Marcel Duchamp is the youngest of the three Villon brothers. The most recent notice on him was written by Katherine Kuh for the Catalog of the Exhibition of the Arenberg Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, in 1949.

4a. Except as regards his occasional collaboration with Hans Richter for some motion pictures.

5. Kazimir Malevich, Die gegenstandlose Welt (Munich: Bauhausbuecher, 1927); in Artists on Art ( New York: Pantheon Books, 1945), pp. 452-53. In 1913, Malevich had exhibited in Moscow a picture of a black square on a white field.

Cf. Mondrian: "The new art has continued and culminated the art of the past in such a way that the new painting, by employing 'neutral' or universal forms, expresses itself only through the relationships of line and color. While in the art of the past these relationships are veiled by the particular form, in the new art they are made clear through the use of neutral or universal forms. Because these forms become more and more neutral as they approach a state of universality, neoplasticism uses only a single neutral form: the rectangular area in varying dimensions. Since this form, when composed, completely annihilates itself for lack of contrasting forms, line and color are completely freed.' Ibid., p. 427.

In his essay "Introduction to Abstract," in Art News, November, 1950, Thomas B. Hess remarks that today some American painters, Rothko for instance, who "like Mondrian refuse to invite recollections of nature," are trying to attain "the 'experience of objectlessness' which the pioneer abstractionist Malevich considered the supreme sensation in art" by doing "for color what the Cubists did for form' and endeavoring in this way to "project their deepest emotions into the canvas" (p. 158).

In the views that Kandinsky, the greatest representative, I think, of nonobjective art, offered (and which related to some sort of Platonic idealism blended with Mrs. Blavatsky's peculiar spiritualism), abstract painting appears as starting a kind of angelistic attempt to act directly on human souls through forms that are to be produced in accordance only with the "principle of inner necessity." (That is why he "enviously" looked at "the nonmaterial art of music," hoping to "reciprocate it with his own medium.") "[The] choice of object (one of the elements in the harmony of form) must be decided only by the corresponding vibration of the human soul." "The freer the abstract form, the purer and more primitive is its appeal. In a composition, therefore, where the material side may be more or less superfluous, it can be accordingly more or less omitted and replaced by the nonobjective forms or through abstractions of dematerialized objects. In any case of translation into the abstract or the employment of nonobjective forms, the artist's sole judge, guide, and principal consideration should be his feeling." For Kandinsky feeling—though merely subjective in the sense that it was neither dependent on the visible world, nor made intentional so as to disclose the transapparent meanings of this visible world—had nevertheless an ideal objective value, as a way to penetrate into the spiritual world of "the eternal truth embraced by art." Consequently, though "the artist may employ any form to express himself," and though the "expression of personality" is one of the "three mystical elements" of art, the expression of personality is destined progressively to lose importance, and to fade away before the final aim, the attainment of "pure and eternal artistry," "the main element of art, irrespective of time and space." "The process of development in art consists, so to speak, of the separation of the pure and eternal art from the element of personality as well as from the element of an epoch." Vasili Kandinsky, On the Spiritual in Art (New York: Hilla Rebay, 1946), pp. 20, 25, 35, 51-52, 55-56.

6. Mondrian, 1937; in Artists on Art, p. 428.

7. Ozenfant likes to stress in this connection the presence, in the unconscious tendencies of our human nature, of "pre forms" which are the preexisting "form of a need" (and which are only, I think, another name for the connaturality with logos or proportion inherent in our mind and senses).

8. I might mention at this point Theodore Brenson, Clyfford Still, or Arthur Osver. But the production of contemporary American painting is so abundant and variegated that one hesitates to pick a few names among so many. While the strictly nonrepresentational current is still very strong, some artists are seeking their way in half abstraction. Many others—and this is of greater interest for our present considerations—have set themselves free from the nonrepresentative system but remain close to modern abstractionism and owe to it either a firm geometrical substructure (e.g., Randall Thompson or Lamar Dodd) or a particularly refined and airy poetry (e.g., William Palmer, Lyonel Feininger, or Howard Cook). In sharp contrast with abstract painting, the effort that Edwin Dickinson has pursued for many years along the lines of the American Romantic tradition points to a personal reinterpretation of nature which corresponds, it seems to me, to a significant trend of our times. This Romantic tradition is being revived, prodded somewhat by Surrealist influences, in a number of young painters whose work deserves particular attention.

9. And yet Leonardo was not ashamed to vindicate painting with such arguments: "A painting representing a father of a family happened to be caressed by his grandchildren, although they were still in long clothes: the dog and the cat of the household did likewise, and it was a wondrous sight to see. . . . I once saw a painting deceive a dog by its likeness to his master and the animal was overjoyed to see it. I have also seen dogs bark and try to bite other dogs in a picture; and a monkey frolic like anything before the painting of a monkey, and swallows flying about and alighting upon the painted railings depicted on the windows of buildings." In Péladan, Textes choisis de Leonard de Vinci (Paris: Mercure de France, 1907), pp. 175, 180.

10. Aristotle, Poetics, ch. 1, 1447 a 28: "By the rhythms of his attitudes," the dancer represents "the characters of men, their actions and passions together."

11. See Chapter III, p. 73, note 1. —Oriental thought is quite aware of the truth expressed in this maxim. "For the East, as for St. Thomas, ars imitatur naturam in sua operation." Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Transformation of Nature in Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1934), P. 15.

12. See supra, Chapter I, p. 23, note 13.

13. See Supra, Chapter III, p. 73, note 1.

14. See supra, Chapter IV, p. 133, note 38. — "To achieve progress," Cézanne also wrote, "nature alone counts, and the eye is trained through contact with her. It becomes concentric by looking and working. I mean to say that in an orange, an apple, a bowl, a head, there is a culminating point; and this point is always—in spite of the tremendous effect of light and shade and colorful sensations—the closest to our eye; the edges of the objects recede to a center on our horizon." Letter to Emile Bernard, July 25, 1904; in Artists on Art, p. 364.

15. See supra, p. 214.

16. An observation made on Marin by Jerome Mellquist in his book, The Emergence of an American Art (New York: Scribner, 1942), seems to me particularly relevant here. "Once more," he says, "as certain of the critics have noted, Marin exhibited that strange gift of his for drawing from the atmosphere the signs and symbols by which, though his own graphic shorthand, he can somehow summarize the essence of a place. He had learned this first, perhaps, from his etching. But here and throughout the works which have followed his first contact with the Cubists, it became a kind of calligraphic notation which put nature into the most compact and 'transportable' of forms. These are equivalents for its shapes and figures, with each hieroglyphic reminding us of the unchanging and ineluctable realities of nature." (pp. 400-401.)

17. On the number of harmonic expansion, see infra, pp. 363-65 and p. 395, note 33.

18. See infra, Chapter VIII, §12. In painting I think that Chagall is now the greatest master of the "illuminating image." Certain early canvases of Chirico should also be particularly mentioned in this connection.

Chapter V. Poetry and Beauty

Chapter VII. Poetic Experience and Poetic Sense

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