Viewpoint/Abstraction

By Fuller, Kerri G. | School Arts, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Viewpoint/Abstraction


Fuller, Kerri G., School Arts


Teaching the concept of a good composition to middle school students can be challenging. Most tend to focus on the one object they are drawing and forget about how it fits into the rest of the page. One technique I have used to teach good composition skills involves the common concept of a viewfinder and the aesthetic theory of formalism.

Motivation

I began the lesson by showing the students Georgia O'Keeffe's Red Canna, Joseph Stella's The Brooklyn Bridge, and Ferdinand Leger's The City. As we viewed each work, we discussed the following questions: "Are the paintings abstract or realistic?"; "How did the artist use formal elements to create a `good' composition?"; "Was the artist trying to express an emotion?"

Aesthetic Theory

At this point, we began discussing the formalist aesthetic theory. The concept of formalism came about in reaction to negative criticism of modern abstract art. The formalist theory, largely formulated by Clive Bell and Roger Fry, asserts that composition is more important than subject matter in a work of art.

According to Bell, the goal of the Formalists was to identify those characteristics that are common to all works of art--"significant form" is the name Bell gave to that one particular quality. When looking at a piece of art, the viewer should have an aesthetic experience based solely on the formal elements of the composition, not on the expression or subject matter of the artwork.

Critics of the formalist theory believe that both form and content are necessary to create a successful work of art and a meaningful aesthetic experience; Bell and Fry believe the two can be separated.

In light of the formalist theory, we then took a second look at the paintings by O'Keeffe, Stella, and Leger, considering what comprised a "good" composition. We discussed compositional ideas such as: filling the space of the paper with repeating shapes, lines, and colors in order to create visual unity; distributing visual weight so that the composition is balanced; and using texture, value, rhythm, variety, and focal points to create and maintain interest in the work. …

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