patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

There’s a wasteland to confront

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I keep coming across statements about abstraction and spirituality. Sean Scully seems to like the connection, and I have been re-reading Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky.

I also found an old copy of Art & Design from 1987, inspired by the exhibition The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890 – 1985 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

 

The Art and Design special is entitled Abstract Art & the Rediscovery of the Spiritual. It has a good article by Catherine Cooke about Kandinsky, an interview with Maurice Tuchman (the curator of the L.A. exhibition) by Charles Jencks and an article by Sixten Ringbom. They are all going on about Theosophy, occultism and mysticism, and suddenly there is this brilliant article by Peter Fuller, who unsurprisingly is rather scathing about it all. It’s not the spiritual as such that he is scathing about, but rather its trivialisation and the exhibition’s uncritical and unhistorical treatment of its theme: “Tuchman’s concept of the spiritual seems so elastic that it could be extended to include any artist he chose – even that vandal Marcel Duchamp, beatified in this show because of his interest in auras and alchemy”. I love Fuller’s polemical style, I can hear him almost spitting as he says

Tuchman… plunges us immediately into the sterile world of tarot cards, Ouija boards, Dr Who, seances and every kind of mixed-up media. Predictably, neither the catalogue nor the exhibition itself contains any hint of the fact that modern physics and mathematics are generating ‘cosmic imagery’ of a beauty and power never before seen. Rather the exhibition seems to want to root its credibility in the fact that Kandinsky and Mondrian were interested in Theosophy and Anthroposophy. And sadly, neither Tuchman nor his panel of spiritualistic scholars attempt to understand these artists’ involvement with such sects in terms of the state of spiritual life in Europe soon after the turn of the century

In other parts of his essay, Fuller puts the label ‘scholar’ in inverted commas!

The sentence quoted forms a fulcrum in Fullers article, as he now goes on to analyse the state of spiritual life in Europe soon after the turn of the century, positioning Kandinsky’s desire to penetrate beyond the veil of material things in relation to Kandinsky’s Christian beliefs. Beginning his survey with the natural theology of P.T. Forsyth who insisted that “A distant God, an external God, who from time to time interferes in Nature or the soul, is not a God compatible with Art, nor one very good for piety” he observes that by the time Forsyth was writing, this belief in the immanence of God within his world had already been eroded by the advance of science, secularism and industrialisation.  Nature had already become a wasteland, a wilderness divorced from spiritual and aesthetic life. Whilst Kandinsky, brought up in the Eastern, Orthodox tradition with its icons that expressed ‘transfigured’ rather than visible realities, hoped to  see through the physical world to the spirit, earlier Western theologians like John Henry Newman, had already highlighted the gulf that divided the material from the spiritual. What Newman and Kandinsky shared, however, was a ‘longing after that which we do not see’, a longing that was not shared by the prevailing liberal Protestantism of the Christian churches in pre-war Germany. It is against this backdrop that Kandinsky was attracted to the ‘new Christianity’ of Theosophy.

Fuller sees patterns that connect Kandinsky’s rejection of the worldliness and reasonableness of nineteenth century faith to Rudolf Otto, the Austrian theologian who wrote The Idea of the Holy, and who drew a comparison between the religious experience of ‘the numinous’ and the aesthetic experience of the beautiful.   He probably had Chinese painting in mind when he praised pictures “connected with contemplation – which impress the observer with the feeling that the void itself is depicted as a subject”, the void of negation “that does away with every ‘this’ and ‘here’ in order that the ‘wholly other’ may become actual”.

Continuing his survey of the spiritual in art against the theological background of the early twentieth century, Fuller observes that the aesthetic rooted in natural theology ended in the obsessively detailed materiality of the Pre-Raphaelites and the hope that abstraction might reveal transcendent reality, ended with the emptiness of the void. In other words we arrive at the impossibility of the spiritual in art.

This impossibility was voiced by the twentieth century’s greatest theologian Karl Barth, in his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. In Barth’s theology God is the subject, not the object of experience,  and religion is the very antithesis of the (partial) revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Otto’s idea of the holy as the wholly other within human experience was the opposite of Barth’s ‘Wholly Other’ as utterly transcendent “the pure and absolute boundary… distinguished qualitatively from men and from everything human, and must never be identified with anything which we name, or conceive, or worship, as God.” The most that art (or theology) can ever hope to do is perhaps to point to the revelation of God in Christ, like John the Baptist in Grunwald’s Isenheim altarpiece. For Barth, Kandinsky’s desire to give expression to the Wholly Other in a plastic way would have been absurd, vain and presumptuous.

Doesn’t Barthian theology lead so easily to atheism? It is a very small step from the almost impossibility of experiencing God, to Death of God Theology: we do not live in a garden made by God for people, but in a god-forsaken wasteland, already attested to by many poets and painters of the mid nineteenth century. Fuller puts it this way:

The importance of Barth lies in the fact that his is the only possible theology for the twentieth century: and it proves to be impossible.

He criticises the exhibition for its shallowness and ignorance arguing that the spiritual insights of Tuchman and friends are so thin, and the trance sessions and cosmic vibrations such a distraction, “that they appear not to realise that there is a wasteland to confront.” He goes on to list British and Australian artists of the twentieth century of whom this cannot be said (even though they do not feature in the exhibition): Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Bryan Winter, John Craxton,William Scott, Ivon Hitchens, Alan Davie, David Bomberg,Petter Lanyon, Patrick Heron and Mary Potter. And he closes with an appreciation of “the greatest American painter of the twentieth century” who was “intimately concerned with the bleakness of our spirituality in the absence of God” namely, Mark Rothko.

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