This is a letter to a friend who asked me for a crash course on the movement of Modern Art, Abstract painting and the like. I firmly believe that my friend’s trust in my knowledge of this lofty thing called art is misplaced, but it is said that, “if you are called to be the hero, then go be the hero.”
So you are all welcome to partake of my scraps of knowledge on the matter. I insist that everything written here, should be taken with a sizeable grain of Magadi salt.
I do not know who drizzled over your brain the idea that I am a connoisseur on Art but having agreed to write the primer without first investing thought in the possibility of exposing myself. I guess it’s too late for me too. I will tell you all I know, which I will warn you, is not much.
I would like to come off as sophisticated and say that I enjoy modern art but there are very countable paintings I can say I have liked. And even then I do not like them enough to want them on my walls. I think that Art is one of those things in life that is accommodating of everyone and modern Art is the fortress for those who are batshit crazy (to your altar I will bring a one Cy Twombley. Google him please.)
Painting by Cy Twombley…. (I know)
But even if I harbour those sentiments towards the genre, I will dare to say that there is form to the madness.
Some clarifications first; Modern art is a movement of Art that began from the 1860’s to 1970s. Abstract Art or (Abstraction of reality) is a style of art under the movement of Modern Art, where a subject is reduced to the basics of its structure. There are some other examples of genres under the modern art movement and these are; Cubism, Futurism, Pop Art, Dada, Conceptual and Installation art et cetera.
To understand any abstract painting, I think it’s important to know a little about the history of art and European Art in this context, which is the progression of art through time. How art came from the cave paintings of stone age chaps who just wanted to say, “Never 4get Gipiir.” Then the crisp photo realistic portrayals of life by early artists like Rafaello, Donatello, Michelangelo etc. Up to the point of classifying Wassily Kadinsky’s thin soup of floating geometric symbols, Rothko’s thick horizontal bars and Cy Twombley’s goonish smudges as art.
Our chap Cy Twombley strikes again…
Well friend, the world was fascinated by those who had the ability to replicate life and all the parts of life until the birth of a movement called impressionism. Impressionism in the visual art context means the impression that a subject makes on the artist. Artists ceased to be concerned with the accurateness of form or the objective of replicating an object and instead labored to present a subject from the perception they had about it. Their focus was on the way that a subject was affected factors like light, mood, movement and the artist’s feelings about it. It so happened that the birth of impressionism in the 1840’s happened shortly after the invention of the camera in the 1830’s. So it could have been that artists in that time felt that their work as imitators was obsolete, now that a machine could reproduce a subject so succinctly, and therefore shied away from competing with photography or they simply felt relieved of the burden of replicating life and instead took to painting with other intentions other than imitation. I don’t quite know why but impressionism became the rage where form and rigid structure were ditched for how a subject was perceived by an artist. As a result the brush strokes became wild and blurry to capture fleeting moments.
A painting by Henri Matisse- A pioneer of Fauvism which is a style in the impressionist movement.
The era of impressionism is when Monet came up with his famous lilies. Of course as life goes, there was resistance by the traditionalists who were not impressed by this impressionism business. There was an attempt to tame art by those who felt that art had gone to the dogs if principles like form had been given up. This move to redeem art gave way to the reactive post impressionists who gave lee way to madness, only as long as there was form to it. And so the spirit of perception of a subject over its exactness kept up, the experimentation with brush work and colour continued but emphasis was put on form, this resulted into painters of that time using black outlines to aid them in defining a subject. You know the saying that, you could be the juiciest mango out there and you will still meet someone who loathes mangoes? Well, there were some chaps who couldn’t stomach the nebulous productions of the impressionists. These chaps later became post impressionists but they did not do much to deter art from the course it had taken and this was the course of free thought. The art movements that followed like symbolism, fauvism and expressionism were gasoline to the fire of liberation from old principles.
I have said much about impressionism, I wish I had reserved that phalange juice to tell you about Expressionism because it was the movement that preceded modern art and all its progeny like, cubism, surrealism, Dada, conceptual art, futurism plus all the other wacky ones that elude me now. Expressionism in an accurate portrayal of its name as its name was emphatic on self-expression through art. It was the artist’s mind turned inside out. It was all about the artist’s emotion or feelings. And I think because of the difficulty in giving structure to feelings, colour became one of the greatest tools of expressionists to express and to communicate their feelings to the viewer.
We all know that the sky is blue but because Edvard Munch was feeling terrified, the sky becomes the colour of a wound bleeding any minute in his painting “The scream.”
The scream by Edvard Munch
Looking at the years in which expressionism came into being, they were years that preceded the world war; these were times when people were pregnant with trepidation about politics, the economy and all those things that people lose sleep over and because of this, the artist’s canvas became a kind of gargoyle from which people’s feelings came forth. So with expressionism, there was a disregard for imitation or replication of the world and a new found respect for the articulation of an individual’s feelings through art.
As the art became intent on expressing the intangible and complex, like feelings and emotions it mutated into abstract art, so it is through this trap door that we will lower ourselves into the dungeon of Modern art.
I hope that at this point, you realise how fast you can lose your marbles if modern art is approached with the mind-set, with which one approaches the works of renaissance; a fun and easy quiz on religious or political iconography. You know that Venus rose from the sea after Zeus’s phallic bits plopped into the sea and so when you see a hot wench rising from an ocean, you say Aah! Venus! And smile smugly to yourself because your vast knowledge on Greek mythology has finally been of some use.
My point here is that the first tip to understanding modern art is to know that it is an inward expression of an individual and not likely to be a visual replication of anything in life. So instead of looking at Rothko’s “greys” and asking, what is this or what did he draw? The question should be how do I feel about this painting?
A painting by Mark Rothko. (Do not worry, the meaning of this one flew at a higher altitude than my intellectual antennas.)
It’s very possible that you will feel indifferent towards a painting without a compass to help you navigate it. Even with things like feelings, one needs a sense of direction to at least know that they are on the right path or close enough. So below are the tools you can use to navigate an abstract painting.
Colour. I wrote earlier in the paragraph about expressionism that colour is used in a symbolic way to communicate mood in art. Colours in abstract art, often retains the classical meaning attached to them. So red, will be passion, anger or heat. And blue could mean peace or melancholy. White could mean purity, insanity or loss. Deliberateness. So you remember that time I sent you a quiz from buzzfeed about modern art, well I ended up wrong about a painting belonging to modern art on basis of the deliberateness of the brush strokes. Now I am sure this example does not aid your confidence as my student in abstract art but I will still say that, it is another factor. Quick short brush strokes may portray vibrancy or disturbia and long swirly strokes (characteristic of expressionism era) may mean reflection, sorrow or peace.(Please know that Art is the beautiful mistress of relativism.) There are other things like rhythm and speed that can be reflected in art pieces too.
Textures & Materials; You can read an art piece from its textures or the materials used. These will help you gauge themes of the subject for instance plastic materials in use may be about urbanization. There are other things about a painting like rhythm and speed. With the help of Lines and shapes, one may get a clue as to what the artist was portraying. There was a time I saw a huge abstract painting in the conference room of Fairway Hotel. Now, I am not even a fan of abstract art, I usually give a piece five minutes of attention and if it doesn’t make sense, I don’t get hung up on it but this piece at Fairway hotel in the midst of all its abstract clutter, I recognized in the background running through the whole piece; The Golden spiral, that pattern which is repeated in every living thing. I looked at the general colour scheme which was a composition of brown earthy tones with greens and blues and I concluded that the artist meant to display the “finger print of God” in every piece of creation. But you can see that it took some knowledge of something like the Fibonacci principle, golden ratio and all that blah blah to have this piece open itself up to me. Which brings me to my next tip.
Context. Time and place. Zeitgeist. Germans who championed the expressionist movement which eventually sired things like futurism, Dada art, deconstructivism etc (all though don’t go shouting about this because there are racial wars over who pioneered the movement especially with the French. I just made up my mind and gave it to the Deutch peeps, because they are only known for alcoholism and genocide.) I was saying that Germans, who pioneered this movement, seemed to be troubled and taking shit going on everywhere so personally. Early painters of modern art were bent on expressing the turbulence within, critiquing and mocking society. So looking at a painting’s year of production, name and nationality and rummaging through the dusty library of history or current affairs inside your skull will be of great help.
Name of the painting. I will not insult your intelligence my dear friend by explaining the significance of nomenclature in art or for anything. But let me say that it may not always help you especially when you see that Rothko, names his paintings by colours, as if it’s not already obvious. As if when we stand before his huge columns of colour we are there to confirm whether it really is “Orange, Red and Yellow” as he named it. As if we will stand and exclaim that, “Truly! That is the exact likeness of Orange, Red and Yellow like I have never seen before!”
Ouvre. An artist’s body of work through a life time. Yup. So some artsy chaps like to break down their paintings into series. Whereby one artist intent on documenting, let us say the Maji Maji Rebellion, will have the intention of painting the full rebellion but will break it down to minute occurrences, then break it down to parts of objects…you get my drift?
So this artist, will paint only a tiny water droplet on an expanse of canvas and name the painting, “Rebellion; Sacred 1.” So until this little prick paints all his things and assembles them before you, you will never be able to understand that he was talking about the Maji Maji rebellion.
I don’t know if I have left any useful tips out but from what I have written so far, you can clearly see that when it comes to abstract art, most people are simply winging it. I mean it is an abstraction of reality. It’s already enough that our realities are not monolithic. And so because it is subjective; you mostly bring your feelings and project them onto the art. And one should have no fear of being wrong or be intimidated by the prospect of being wrong thinking that others have a better understanding of this genre than they do. Most red blooded people at this point would say, fuck a duck and I can’t even protest that. If we pursue this logic of subjectivity, projection, and disregard for whether a common understanding, then we the viewers become the artist and we do all his work. Everything becomes art and if that is the case, then why pay an artist? For what are paying him?
Needless to say this genre is at the high table of Esoterism. It’s an exclusive club and writers of art review magazines do not help matters in breaking it down for us. A certain essayist called it “art bollocks.” Politely called art speak in other places, art speak is some bamboozling assemblage of colossal academic words that hint on lofty concepts like metaphysics or high level thinking planes. I can’t describe art speak without speaking like them even. Anyway, so Modern art is being kept afloat by writers like these who raise the value of an art piece with what they write about it and that way they attract rich white people and other spineless chaps who are too afraid to say that the emperor has no clothes. I think modern art is being sustained by the magical power of the human need to identify with the majority, people are afraid of being the ones who don’t get it; otherwise most of these these people would be out of work.
Just to let you know about my personal favourites I am into impressionism, fauvism, expressionism and just a wee bit of surrealism. I stick with the classics mostly, neo surrealism is just so nihilistic and there isn’t a place in my soul so dark that it can contain it.
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali, the father of surrealism. (This is the only surrealist painting I like in the world.)
This response has taken unnecessarily long that I dread your depth of disappointment when you finish this document and realise how unwarranted the wait was. Aside from the other limping excuses of electricity, slumber and so forth which I have been doling out to you, part of my delay was because I thought that I was writing this as a serious academic essay and the prospect of an audience threw me into a panic which saw me deleting paragraphs as soon as they were conceived in quest for an impressive piece. But the moment I knew that it’s just an old buddy behind the screen, I felt that I can afford to be reckless. I mean I take you seriously but it’s much easier writing to an acquaintance than it is to total strangers. So Friend, that is what I can tell you about the subject, basically there is no manual to it.
I come to the end of this letter earnestly hoping that there is something that you did not already know.
Ann Lindah Namuddu.