Modern Theories of Art, 2: From Impressionism to Kandinsky

By Moshe Barasch | Go to book overview

24
The Subject Matter
of Abstract Painting

Having briefly outlined some of the major sources that nourished abstract painting and shaped the direction of its development, we can now turn to the actual theory behind it. Here again Kandinsky offers the student the major clues in his search, and provides some of the answers to the questions that arise. In turning to the theory of abstract painting, our first question is obvious: what is its subject matter? What does the painting that has no “object” (Gegenstand) represent? To what did the term “abstract” apply in the minds of the founders of abstract painting? Or quite simply: what did they mean when they spoke about “abstract” painting?

These questions are commonly asked. Listening to spectators at exhibitions of abstract art and in museums displaying works of this school, one often hears: what does this picture really represent? Frequently the tone of the question is one of bewilderment and confusion. Rather than discuss abstract painting in general, my aim here is more modest, namely, to understand how the founders of abstract painting formulated the doctrine of their movement. To a critical reader, some of the theses so ardently defended by the painters in their books explaining the aims of their work seem to contain profound logical contradictions. However, what interests us in the original theory of abstract painting is not so much its consistency as a philosophical statement or as a doctrine of aesthetics; rather, we value it for what it can tell us about the problems that concerned the founders of abstract painting and the direction of their thought. In such a context, even the contradictions may be indicative and revealing.

For decades the view has been widely accepted that so-called “abstract painting” aims primarily—some would say, exclusively—at creating about an aesthetic experience. Many admirers see it as “pure art.” They understand such art as a creation that is fully exhausted in mere sensual experience. According to the artists and critics who hold to this view, the ques

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Modern Theories of Art, 2: From Impressionism to Kandinsky
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - Impressionism 9
  • 1: Introduction the Crisis of Realism 11
  • 2: Aesthetic Culture in the Literature of the Time 13
  • 3: Impressionism and the Philosophical Culture of the Time 24
  • 4: Science and Painting 34
  • 5: Impressionism Reflections on Style 45
  • 6: The Fragment as Art Form 69
  • Part II - Empathy 79
  • 7: Introduction an Empathy Tradition in the Theory of Art 81
  • 8: Gustav Fechner 84
  • 9: Charles Darwin the Science of Expression 93
  • 10: Robert Vischer 99
  • 11: Empathy Toward a Definition 109
  • 12: Wilhelm Dilthey 116
  • 13: Conrad Fiedler 122
  • 14: Adolf Hildebrand 133
  • 15: Alois Riegl 143
  • 16: Wilhelm Worringer Abstraction and Empathy 171
  • Part III - Discovering the Primitive 189
  • 17: Introduction Conditions of Modern Primitivism 191
  • 18: The Beginnings of Scholarly Study Gottfried Semper 199
  • 19: Discovering Prehistoric Art Early Questions and Explanations 210
  • 20: Understanding Distant Cultures the Case of Egypt 243
  • 21: Gauguin 262
  • 22: African Art 272
  • Part IV - Abstract Art 291
  • 23: Abstract Art Origins and Sources 293
  • 24: The Subject Matte of Abstract Painting 309
  • 25: Color 320
  • 26: Line 341
  • 27: Composition and Harmony 352
  • Bibliographical Essay 371
  • Name Index 383
  • Subject Index 386
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