Composition and Harmony

So far we have discussed the concepts and doctrines of color and line, and the particular problems they pose, separately. In this we were, in fact, following Kandinsky and Mondrian. But the founders of abstract painting and of its theory were profoundly aware that the work of art, quite particularly as they envisaged it, was not an accumulation of colors and lines; it was a unified whole. Adding color to line, even if both were expressive, was not sufficient to create a painting. As we have seen, the wholeness or totality of a picture is not defined and often not even clearly spelled out in the theoretical notes of the abstract painters. But the observations scattered in their writings enable us to reconstruct their main line of thought on this central subject.

But what do we mean when we say that the painting is a whole? A picture's wholeness obviously does not reside in its material integrity. We know of pictures by such masters as Rembrandt and Titian parts of which, in the course of time, have been crudely cut off (mainly at the margins), perhaps to make them fit the empty stretches of some late owner's crowded wall. Museum catalogs often tell us the sad story of how much and occasionally even when the original pictures were trimmed. Yet these pictures remain great works of art; the damage caused to their material completeness has obviously not destroyed their eminently artistic character. What, then, is it that makes the picture a whole, and how do we explain this wholeness?

Kandinsky and Mondrian did not concern themselves with questions that interest the art historian, such as when and where some great paintings were mutilated. Nor did they explicitly and systematically formulate the question when and under what conditions a picture could be described as “whole” or complete. But implicitly the problem of the painting's wholeness was always present in their deliberations; it formed the background to their reflections on art.

That this was so is perhaps best seen in their assertion that the individual shape and color are not perceived in isolation; they form part of a com


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Modern Theories of Art


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