Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology

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27 Abstraction and Mysticism

Sheldon Cheney

Continually in earlier chapters the implication has been that subject matter drawn from surface nature had, in Expressionism, receded in importance, as mastery of ordered plastic design increased and the 'hidden' elements of expression became intensified. It was even suggested that, where creative art is concerned, distortion of objective nature might be 'natural'; even to a point where the recognizable visual aspect disappears, in total abstraction.

If the values of photographic or selective imitation of nature of Naturalism and Realism are thus discounted, one may ask, what is it that enters as the primary value of painting? If depiction is dropped for expression, what is it that is expressed?

The answer 'Form' is not enough, if we continue to consider form merely as a capitalization of the instrumental means: as a plastic achievement, a mechanical—dynamic order fixed in the canvas. Where does the instinct come from that impels the artist to formal creation? What is the feeling inseparable from form‐ conception and image-fixing? Form is revelation of what?

It is revelation not merely of a plastic organism, but through the plastic of something that might be termed universal or cosmic truth, and, commonly, of human emotion.

Leaving out of consideration here the human or 'subject' aspect, we are seeking clues to the reality of the cosmic or universal value that lies between the mastered means of expression and the human-feeling content.

In truth there is no separating the values, in either creation or appreciation. When the Expressionist claims that the attainment of a structural order, a plastic unity, is basically important, he doubtless is thinking of the order or synthesis both in the mechanical, measurable aspect (which can to a certain extent be diagrammed mathematically) and in an abstract—mystical aspect. That is, he creates a little world with a living order and vitality of its own; and at the same time an image of the macrocosm, echoing the relatedness and order of all that is. We have explored the nature of the immediate pictorial order. Now we are asking to what extent the universal enters in.

There are those who see all abstraction as merely a mathematical and mechanical thing, explainable by its surface aspect of geometrical relationships. There are others the majority now, I think who link the abstract with the mystic: who consider it an expression at once of the mathematical and of the spiritual or cosmic. Whether the painter feels that he is, in 'turning abstract', instinctively expressing what is only a mechanical—physical order, or is proceeding in accord with a mystical aesthetic philosophy apperceiving a deeper meaning in objects and relations than those explainable mechanically through senses and intellect in either case, he is furthering a main advance of modern art: the march towards abstraction. Whether one grants

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Source: Sheldon Cheney, Expressionism in Art ( New York, 1934), pp. 313-335. Illustrations have been omitted. Reprinted by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York. Copyright 1934, 1948 by Liveright Publishing Corporation. Copyright renewed 1962 by Sheldon Cheney.

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