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The Arts

Art As Sensation: Four Painters As Philosophers Of Art

Patricia Railing explains the philosophical ideas behind some of abstract art’s most famous abstractions.

There has been much philosophical speculation on the relationship between artistic materials and artistic experience down through the centuries. Christopher Perricone pointed this out in his article ‘Does the Philosophy of Art Have a Mind/Body Problem?’ back in Issue 46. Now it seems appropriate that several artists should be allowed to contribute to this debate. There were four early 20th century painters who wrote extensively on artistic materials, artistic experience and their relationship – the abstract and non-objective painters Vasily Kandinsky, Frank Kupka, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian.

In order to focus on the relationship between materials and the idea they embody, Kazimir Malevich wrote in 1915 that, in sculpting the David, Michelangelo had ruined a perfectly good piece of marble:

“The human form is not intrinsic in a block of marble. Michelangelo in sculpting David did violence to the marble, he mutilated a piece of beautiful stone… One must extract from marble those forms which could arise out from its own body, and a carved cube or other form is more valuable than any David. The same in painting, the word, music.” (From Cubism to Suprematism in Art. In Malevich on Suprematism: Six Essays 1915-1926, Museum of Art, University of Iowa, 1999, p.24.)

Hence, for this early 20th century painter, artistic materials determine artistic form – what we see as a sculpture or painting – which in turn determines the artistic experience. Materials and experience have become one, each reflecting the other. The work of art is an indissoluble whole in which the material gives rise to the experience.

Artistic Materials As Artistic Sensation

So what is it about artistic materials that allows them to give rise to the artistic experience?

The answer is a complex of factors but there are two salient ones: the early 20th century artists’ phenomenological view of the world generally, and the then-recent 19th and early 20th century experimental science called ‘psycho-physiology’ of Wilhelm Wundt, Charles Henry, Ernst Mach and many others. The artists’ world view won’t be discussed here but will become apparent, while a purely scientific discussion of psycho-physiology will also be left to the side. Psycho-physiology, however, was thoroughly engaged with by Kandinsky, Kupka, Malevich and Mondrian, first in practice and then in theory. They investigated the experience of the sensations of artists’ materials on their emotions and feelings in ways identified by Wundt, Mach and others – where ‘sensation’ refers to what is experienced by the physical body through the senses, giving rise to the wide range of ‘feelings’, which in turn give rise to perception and ‘idea’, all of them making up the ‘artistic experience’. The artists allowed their own nerve-sense systems to be stimulated by the various phenomena of artistic sensation and they used these sensations arising from materials, with their content, as the experience with which they created their works of art.

These phenomena of artistic sensation arise out of what is experienced in the world through the senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell, out of the sense of space and of objects in that space, and of the sense of direction, as uprightness or the horizontal for example. For artists generally these phenomena of sensation have always been the explicit material of the arts – tone for music; sound for language; colour, direction in space and form for painting and sculpture. For the four early 20th century abstract painters, the sensations arising from the world of sense phenomena became both subject and object of their creations. They identified these sensations as energy and its different manifestations as force, motion, and so on. In a parallel manner, they saw materials themselves as essentially energies that can be identified and distinguished. In the case of colours, for example, spectral red is light vibrating at a certain rate, slower than spectral blue. The German physicist Hermann Helmholtz, in his classic Physiological Optics, 1867, determined the response of optical nerves to rays of coloured light, and also found that these rays of coloured light stimulate, variously, the nerve-sense system that produces emotions. That is why the human being feels red and blue, and why he feels them differently. Thus, when Kandinsky used red he was expressing a different emotion than when he used blue; and he intended these colours to have different effects on the spectator, on the experience of the work. When any of these painters gave a smooth or a grainy texture to the surface of their colours, the intention was the same: to express a sensation, one that is felt. The feeling that results can range from an emotion like fear or anger, to the dynamics in the play of opposites, to an aesthetic experience of harmony, to the feeling of wonder. Feeling is a scale along which many different kinds of experience are registered and so produce different psychological states within the human being.

In their writings, these painters devoted significant place to their analyses of sensations and especially to the psycho-physiological experience of colour. In his 1912, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky writes, for example, that: “Light warm red… gives a feeling of strength, vigour, determination, triumph. In music, it is a sound of trumpets, strong, harsh and ringing.” (Dover Publications, p.40) Such analysis of colour sensation wasn’t new, for the great observer of the phenomena of light, Goethe, had described the effects of colour on human emotions as far back as 1810 in his Theory of Colour.

In his important Creation in the Plastic Arts of 1923, Frank Kupka also discusses the impact of colours on the emotions, drawing a parallel between wavelength vibration and emotional vibration:

“Colour is, both for the artist who uses it and for the spectator who perceives and assesses it, the vehicle of the impression… [Every colour] provokes different sensations. Though with identical functions, each colour makes itself known by a specific vibration.” (Liverpool University Press, p.91)

The artistic material of colour contains the very expressive meaning of the new art. As Kupka says,

“the painter’s palette emancipates itself from any descriptive function to become, above all, a means of heightening the expressive language, or at least of ensuring the cohesion of the impressions rendered.” (p.85)

The same psycho-physiological impact holds true for other sensations of the world which are simultaneously the very stuff of the painter’s art. Kupka wrote about the line and direction of line, as the mark or a broader band. It “vibrates with its own life. Whatever its existence may be, it is always endowed with meaning.” (p.116) Curves, for their part, “evoke forms taken from the organic realm. They engender life, each of their concave or convex segments making us think of an animate form.” (p.112) And the lines of the direction of space – the horizontal and the vertical – are especially meaningful because they correspond to our physical orientation in space itself. Kupka explains:

“The plastic arts are admirable in that they offer a concrete confirmation of these main lines of orientation which, followed from point to point, can initiate us into the reading of space.” (p.109)

Elsewhere he writes:

“A point, a line, an outline, any indicator of location in space is a deliberate statement which reflects what is taking place in the mind (or the ‘soul’) of the artist. But colour and shade are positive in themselves, imposing themselves as elements able to make an impression even before they have been given any intentional form.” (p.91)

For Mondrian, too, colours are sensation and through their ‘position and dimension’ and their ‘value’ (saturation), they lead to the sensation of relationship, an experience of an abstract and pure aesthetic. In his 1920 booklet, Neo-Plasticism, Mondrian writes about this in his new painting: it is

“a composition of rectangular color planes that expresses the most profound reality. It achieves this by plastic expression of relationships and not by natural appearance. It realizes what all painting has always sought but could express only in a veiled manner. The colored planes, as much by position and dimension as by the greater value given to color, plastically express only relationships and not forms.

The New Plastic [i.e., the New Painting] brings its relationships into aesthetic equilibrium and thereby expresses the new harmony.”

(The New Art – The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, Thames & Hudson, 1987, p.137.)

And in 1915 Malevich painted a Red Square, the pure sensation and feeling of red, a pure artistic experience.

Creating with Artistic Materials

The artistic materials of colour, line – or marble – stimulate artistic sensations because both materials and sensations are essentially energy: the materials have a vitality or vibration which affect the human energy system and produce sensations. These four abstract painters saw their task as being to bring together the energy in materials with the energy in their sensations in order to convey their perceptions of the world – which was also energy. Malevich perceived the world as motion, Kandinsky explored the realm of human emotion, Kupka was fascinated by growth, and Mondrian sought to express the energy of universal harmony itself. What is significant about their work is that they were uniting artistic material, artistic sensation, and the painting itself under one word and under one idea: energy.

As painters, their only means were in their materials of colour and line. These had to be chosen and organised according to principles that would convey the particular energy they wanted to express in the painting. Mondrian’s strict use of the horizontal and the vertical relationship convey a sensation of balance and harmony. Kandinsky employed a kind of all-over placement of colours and a vocabulary of lines which together stimulate kinds of emotions and feelings in the spectator. Kupka composed in vertical planes or in brightly coloured concentric circles, always on very large canvases that absorb the spectator’s whole visual field, engaging his entire being. And Malevich gave a spirited picture of what he saw in the world and the principle he used to convey his perception.

Having described a landscape of mountains, woods, a river and a meadow, he writes:

“But what does the painter see in the landscape described above? He sees the painterly masses in motion and at rest, he sees the composition of nature, the unity of diverse painterly forms; he sees the symmetry and harmony of contrasting elements in the unity of nature’s picture. He stands and rejoices in the flow of forces and their harmony… It is just such a creative surface that confronts the artist-creator – his canvas on which he builds the world of his intuitions and where in a similar way he regulates the flowing forces of colour and painterly energy in a multiplicity of forms, lines and planes; he also creates forms and the different elements of their signs and achieves a unity of contrasts on the surface of his picture. Thus the creation of contrasts between forms leads to a single harmony in the body of the construction without which creation would be inconceivable. (On New Systems in Art / Statics & Speed, 1919, in Malevich on Suprematism: Six Essays 1915-1926, p.55.)

What appeared on the picture plane, then, became parallel to the artist’s perceptions and sensations of energy through the vehicle of materials and their arrangements. According to Malevich, the new artists were creating with ‘aesthetic action’, which for himself meant with the consonance and dissonance of energies inherent in the materials and arising out of relationships, in order to create a harmony of kinds of energies and forces in the world. Aesthetic action was a new definition of artistic creation in which the energies in materials, sensations, perceptions, idea, and the creative act itself were all singing in harmony. The work of art was a whole united by something common to all the parts: energy.

Kupka was eloquent about the artist’s ability to bring together all his own forces and to reveal something of the world’s forces. In Creation in the Plastic Arts he said:

“The peculiar disposition which characterises and makes the artist seems to be based on the possibility of immediate activation of the totality of the intellectual and affective faculties.” (p.153)

It is the work of art that is the “means primarily for communicating feelings and thoughts”, he wrote. (p.164) These appear boldly for the spectator and appeal directly to his artistic experience of the work – which Kupka puts squarely in the spectator’s court. In closing his chapter on colour he reminds the reader/spectator: “You’ve forgotten that your sense of colour is within yourselves. That’s where you should look for it!” (p.88)

Artistic Materials Endowed with Meaning

So the artistic experience begins with the artistic material: in this case, colour, as pure sensation. Through the spectator’s nerve-sense system, this produces emotions and feelings out of which arise ideas because they originated in awakened perceptions. The artistic experience takes place there, in front of the work, stimulating the spectator’s ‘affective and intellectual faculties’ all at once. By revealing phenomena of the world through colours, forces, directions of line, and in relationships – all ‘endowed with meaning’ – the work of art activates the spectator’s understanding of the world. It also reveals the spectator to himself and makes possible the thrill of sensation and knowing all at once. The experience of the work of art is not memory, nor is it analysis. Although it can be subjected to analysis, this takes it out of the realm of experience – experience being the realm of all one’s ‘affective and intellectual’ faculties at work before the art object – and puts the work in the realm of the intellect alone. “Art is sensation”, Malevich always said, a sensation that stimulates all the faculties and fills one with being in the world, in the Now. If it awakens memory, that is a by-product of the sensation, not the primary sensation, hence not where the artistic, the aesthetic, experience is situated.

These four 20th century artists did not confine their theories to abstract art. Malevich said of Cézanne’s painting that he revealed the primary forms of nature and thus “developed weight in his textured and layered surfaces.” Van Gogh, for his part, “separated the textural waves from the object, the latter being for him only form saturated with a maximum of dynamic power.” (On New Systems in Art/Statics & Speed, in Malevich on Suprematism: Six Essays 1915-26, p.73.)

And of these four painters’ contemporaries, doesn’t Brancusi’s Endless Column, for example, reveal the intrinsic forms arising ‘out from its own body’, as Malevich had put it referring to the block of marble, to become pure artistic experience? Hewn from a solid oak trunk, its repeated primary form grows out of the earth like a tree. It is a unique experience of continuity and unending motion to an imaginary infinity. Here the content is rhythm, an energy of perpetual motion, like a heartbeat to the sky.

Thus does the work of art – the painting, the sculpture, the poem, the symphony – reveal the world to whoever experiences the full impact of it – as sensation of materials of the world, as emotion, as feeling, and as idea. Together these make a whole that is a new, perceptible reality. Now this wholeness has become an aesthetic source of sensation, of artistic experience, embodied in and by the materials. The work of art then becomes a bridge to the world because it awakens our consciousness of the world and of ourselves. As Goethe had seen, “Art is the manifestation of hidden laws of nature which, without art, could never come to expression.” In the new abstract art, the ‘manifestation of hidden laws of nature’ applies not only to revealing the world, but to revealing ourselves, both coming into being from out of the realm of forces where all creativity arises.

The work of art can only be an immediate object of perception because my experience of it is immediate, a sensation that activates my affective and intellectual faculties together. How can the work of art – abstract or figurative – be anything else? It exists so that I may exist: in the consciousness of all my faculties and of the world.

© Patricia Railing 2006

Patricia Railing has published widely on the Russian avant-garde and on early 20th century abstraction. She is Director of Artists.Bookworks, which publishes facsimile reprints of artists’ books and writings of the early 20th century.

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