“Why abstraction in art took its course”


“Art” is in a bad way. Reading The arts journal confirms it. In the last issue, there is a book review called “Beyond Abstraction” (September 2021, p59). What the hell can that be?

Giacometti described abstraction as “the art of the handkerchief”. And that’s what the illustration looked like, nothing more… Why was abstraction necessary? I think it was. His job was to eliminate the shadows that had dominated European art for centuries. It was only European art that used them.

I’ve always been interested in the story of what I’ve done with my life. I know there are people called art historians, but unlike science or even music historians, they don’t seem to be interested in the practice of art today. They don’t care how the art was made. Even Erwin Panofsky in his book Early Dutch painting is more interested in the biographies of artists than in their workshops. It’s like they’re Cézanne or Van Gogh, heroically working alone. They were not. We know that they had workshops employing many assistants. Grinding colors and neat costumes. If you think about it a bit, it had to be like this. They made the only known images of their time, there were no others.

The Second Commandment says that there should be no pictures. Judaism and Islam still prohibit images. In the King James version of the Bible, this is very clear. Yet in the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries there were debates about them by Christian scholars. The main argument seemed to be that they were needed because most people couldn’t read, and it was the only way people could learn more about the sufferings of Christ and the saints. They knew it was necessary for social control.

The arts of China, Japan, India and Persia never use shadows or reflections. They also never used vanishing points to show perspective. Why was that?

In 2000, we went to Florence to find out how Brunelleschi had made his painting of the Baptistery, which even art historians say was the first painting in perspective. I had them open the doors of the Duomo at 7:30 am, while the sun was shining on the Baptistery (the Duomo is right in front). We had a panel the size of Brunelleschi’s (it no longer exists, but the reports do exist). We were seven braccia inside the Duomo (about two meters), left the panel in the doorway and then projected the baptistery onto the panel with a 7cm concave mirror. This automatically makes a perspective image, because a concave mirror has all the qualities of a lens. Remember: in Bruges, the mirror-makers belonged to the guild of Saint Luke, just like the painters.

Lenses and light

The main problem with lens images is that they need a lot of light, very strong light, and that means sunlight. And the strongest light casts the deepest shadows. This was the case with photography until very recently. Now with digital photography you can almost take pictures in the dark. It is very different from chemical photography.

Cameras were made in the 17th century, but the invention of photography was not the invention of the camera. Even Susan Sontag in her book Concerning the pain of others writes: “When the camera was invented in 1839…”. She got out of it. Why didn’t a publisher ask him who made it up? She couldn’t have named the inventor – who can? Anybody. Because the camera is a natural phenomenon; a small pinhole in one room will project the exterior image onto its opposite wall. All cameras today take perspective images because they are all viewed from a mathematical point in the center of a lens.

Lentils needed a glass industry to make them. Windows were needed in Europe; they weren’t in China and Japan. China developed a porcelain industry, and that was great. This was the basis of the European porcelain industry, Delftware being a classic example.

It was all in the 2005 edition of my book Secret knowledge, whose original title was Knowledge lost. It was Thames and Hudson who changed it because they thought “secret knowledge” would sell better and I just followed it.

So let’s come back to abstraction and why it was necessary. If you think about it seriously, all marks on a flat surface are abstractions, they cannot be real.

Shadows and reflections

At the Musée d’Orsay, a 19th century museum, when it starts it’s all chiaroscuro, shadows and lights, and when it ends – with Cézanne, Bonnard, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso – all the shadows have faded away. There is no explanation for this. Of course, that was the profound effect of the Japanese print. Again, if you think about it, Japanese prints have no shadows or reflections. The bridges in Japanese prints never have a reflection, yet if you photograph a Japanese bridge, it will. Why is it? Because the camera never knows what it is looking at and only captures surfaces. The humans watching him saw the object of the bridge and ignored the shadows and reflections. The shadow was only the absence of light and the reflection just on the surface of the water. Nothing important.

I have just received the very beautiful catalog of the MoMA on the drawings of Cézanne. It’s a great book that I can recommend to anyone. All of the pencil drawings of the small sculptures he made and owned have a great mastery of chiaroscuro, but I notice that in all the watercolors of still lifes, landscapes and skulls he removes shadows. They are ravishingly beautiful. I know that I am the only one saying all of this, but I firmly believe that my observations are true. My friend Charlie in New York sent me the catalog and saw the show. I then told him about the shadows and what I had observed, and it made him come back to see him.

Beauty and madness

What is the world really like? I know it doesn’t look like photographs. The camera sees geometrically, and we have to see psychologically. So what does it really look like? I think you have to draw it. The world is very beautiful, but human beings are pretty crazy. I’ve always thought the human world was crazy, and that’s unlikely to change no matter how hard we try. Cézanne looked at the world, found it beautiful and knew that the photograph was not very realistic, the same with Van Gogh.

The abstraction, I think, is now complete. It has run its course, taking away the shadows of European art. It was necessary at one point; many critics said that Piet Mondrian was the last of them. It may have lasted a little longer in the United States. Frank Stella in his exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art (2015-16) seemed to say so. He started with a few scratches and then took them out that way and that, and then he started out some reliefs and pulled them that way and that. Finally, he made smoke sculptures using the computer, and then the show ended. A great show, really, for me. But that’s how I saw it.


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