Figurative vs. Imaginative – Why Modern Art has Meaning.

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Artists are a strange bunch and nowhere is that more obvious than the huge disparity between figurative and imaginative art.

Most try their hardest to capture nature in all its glory, whether it is human beings and their varied emotional states or clouds, trees and lakes to project beauty and serenity. Sombre landscapes could also emote darkness and foreboding; in other words, there s no limits to figurative art. It may and does encompass all that the universe has to offer.

On the other hand, there is imaginative art and derived, not from the exterior world, but an internal one… the landscapes of dreams and the main source of inspiration for much of my work.

Aniela Jaffé, in the C. G. Jung book ‘Man and His Symbols’ (pg. 255) devotes a short chapter to the resurgence of ‘Modern Art’ in the 20th century.

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Here it is verbatim:

Modern painting as a symbol

The terms “modern art” and “modern painting are used in this chapter as the layman uses them. What I will be dealing with, to use (Herbert) Kühn, is modern imaginative painting. Pictures of this kind can be “abstract” (or rather non-figurative) but they need not always be so. There will be no attempt to distinguish among such various forms as fauvism, cubism, expressionism, futurism, suprematism, constructivism, orphism and so on. Any specific allusion to one or the other of these groups will be quite exceptional.

And I am not concerned with an aesthetic differentiation of modern paintings; nor, above all, with artistic evaluations. Modern imaginative is here taken simply as a phenomenon of our time. That is the only way in which the question of its symbolic content can be justified and answered. In this brief chapter it is possible to mention only a very few artists, and to select a few of their works more or less at random. I must content myself with discussing modern painting in terms of a small number of its representatives.

My starting point is the psychological fact that the artist has at all times been the instrument and spokesman of the spirit of the age. His work can only be partly understood in terms of personal psychology. Consciously or unconsciously, the artist gives form to the nature and values of his time, which in their turn form him.

The modern artist himself often recognizes the interrelation of the work and its time. Thus the French critic and painter Jean Bazaine writes in his Notes on Contemporary Painting: “Nobody paints as he likes. All a painter can do is to will with all his might the painting his age is capable of.” The German artist Franz Marc, who died in the First World War, said: “The great artists do not seek their forms in the mists of the past, but take the deepest soundings they can of the genuine, profoundest center of gravity of their age.” And, as far back as 1911, Kandinsky wrote in his famous essay “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”: “Every epoch is given its own measure of artistic freedom, and even the most creative genius may not leap over the boundary of that freedom.”

For the last 50 years, “modern art” has been a general bone of contention, and the discussion has lost none of its heat. The “yeas” are as passionate as the “nays”; yet the reiterated prophecy that “modern” art is finished has never come true. The new way of expression has been triumphant to an unimagined degree. If it is threatened at all, it will be because it has degenerated into mannerism and modishness. (In the Soviet Union, where non-figurative art has often been officially discouraged and produced only in private, figurative art is threatened by a similar degeneration.)

The general public, in Europe at any rate, is still in the heat of the battle. The violence of the discussion shows that feeling runs high in both camps. Even those who are hostile to modern art cannot avoid being impressed by the works they reject; they are irritated or repelled, but (as the violence of feeling shows) they are moved. As a rule, the negative fascination is no less strong than the positive. The stream of visitors to exhibitions of modern art, wherever and whenever they take place, testifies to something more than curiosity. Curiosity would be satisfied sooner. And the fantastic prices that are paid for works of modern art are a measure of the status conferred upon them by society.

Fascination arises when the unconscious has been moved. The effect produced by works of modern art cannot be explained entirely by their visible form. To the eye trained in “classic” or “sensory” art, they are new and alien. Nothing in works of non-figurative art reminds the spectator of his own world – no objects in their own everyday surroundings, no human being or animal that speaks a familiar language. There is no welcome, no visible accord in the cosmos created by the artist. And yet, without any question, there is a human bond. It may be even more intense than in works of sensory art, which make a direct appeal to feeling and empathy.

Itis the aim of the modern artist to give expression to his inner vision of man, to the spiritual background of life and the world. The modern work of art has abandoned not only the realm of the concrete, “natural,” sensuous world, but also that of the individual. It has become highly collective and therefore (even in the abbreviation of the pictorial heiroglyph) touches not only the few but the many. What remains individual is the manner of representation., the style and quality of the modern work of art. It is often difficult for the layman to reconize whether the artist’s intentions are genuine and his expressions spontaneous, neither imitated nor aimed at effect. In many cases he must accustom himself to new lines of of line and colour. He must learn them, as he would learn a foreign language before he can judge their expressiveness and quality.

The pioneers of modern art have apparently understood how much they were asking of the public. Never have artists published so many “manifestoes” and explanations of their aims in the 20th century. It is, however, not only to others they are trying to explain and justify what they are doing; it is also to themselves. For the most part, these manifestoes are artistic confessions of faith- poetic and often confused or self-contradictory attempts to give clarity to the strange outcome of todays artistic activities.

What really matters, of course, is (and always has been) the direct encounter with the work of art. Yet, for the psychologist who is concerned with the symbolic content of modern art, the study of these writings is most instructive. For that reason the artists, wherever possible, will be allowed in the following discussion to speak for themselves.

The beginnings of modern art appeared in the early 1900’s. One f the most impressive personalities of that initiatory phase was Kandinsky, whose influence is still clearly traceable in the paintings of the second half of the century. Many of his ideas have proven prophetic. In his essay “Concerning Form,” he writes: “The art of today embodies the spiritual matured to the point of revelation. The forms of this embodiment may be arranged between two poles: (1) great abstraction; (2) great realism. These two poles open two paths, which both lead to one goal in the end. These two elements have always been present in art; the first was expressed in the second. Today it looks as if they were about to carry on separate existences. Art seems to have put an end to the pleasant completion of the abstract by the concrete, and vice versa.”

To illustrate Kandinsky’s point that the two elements of art, the abstract and the concrete, have parted company: In 1913, the Russian painter Kasimir Malevich painted a picture that consisted of a black square on a white ground. It is perhaps the first purely “abstract” picture ever painted. He wrote of it: “In my desperate struggle to liberate art from the ballast of the world of objects, I took refuge in the form of a square.”

A Year later, the French painter Marcel Duchamp set up an object chosen at random (a bottle rack) on a pedestal and exhibited it. Jean Bazaine wrote of it: “This bottle rack, torn from its utilitarian context and washed up on the beach, has been invested with the lonely dignity of the derelict. Good for nothing, there to be used, ready for anything,it is alive. It lives on the fringe of existence its own disturbing life. The disturbing object- that is the first sep to art.”

In its weird dignity and abandonment, the object was immeasurably exalted and given significance that can only be called magical. Hence its “disturbing, absurd life.” It became an idol and at the same time an object of mockery. Its intrinsic reality was annihilated.

Both Malovich’s square and Duchamp’s bottle rack were symbolic gestures that had nothing to do with art in the strict sense of the word. Yet they mark the two extremes (“great abstraction” and “great realism”) between which the imaginative art of the succeeding decades may be aligned and understood.

From the psychological standpoint, the two gestures toward the naked object (matter) and the naked non-object (spirit) point to a collective psychic rift its symbolic expression in the years before the catastrophe of the First World War. This rift had first appeared in the Renaissance, when it became manifest as a conflict between knowledge and faith. Meanwhile, civilization was moving man further from his instinctual foundation, so that a gulf opened between nature and mind, between the unconscious and consciousness. These opposites characterize the psychic situation that is seeking expression in modern art.

There are a few things which stood out within the above chapter, not least of which is the complete and utter disregard of the female artist. No mention is made of any woman anywhere. The artist is ever a male, it seems, and that irked me as if, even when this was published as recently as 1964, the women who created art were not considered as viable. Has it always been so? Is it only in recent decades and a new century that the role of the feminine in creative works is to be recognized?

I say no. The suppression of the feminine is the awful result of an age… a very long age stemming out of the destruction of what is considered ‘pagan’ and dates back to the decline of the Roman Empire, laying paternalism at the feet of a burgeoning monotheism. The shamanism which predates that sea-change in thinking had no bias in regards to a superior ability of men over women when it comes to spiritual matters.

And that brings me to a second point; even a simple study of prehistoric cave paintings, petroglyphs, mounds, menhirs, dolmens and a multitude of prehistoric carved objects reveal the truth that ‘non-objects’ such as squares, circles and lozenges were commonly represented among many other forms. It did not suddenly appear in the Renaissance as a result of a conflict between religion and science or, more recently, the foreboding angst over a century filled with a new kind of mechanized war.

Conflict has always been with us and, whether widespread slaughter is aided by steel sword blades over copper, muskets over spears, aircraft over tanks or nuclear weaponry over sanity. Even the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten learned the hard way that an age was against his notion to change the world.

The one thing which has changed from the ancient world to now is that the human race has an unprecedented ability to make known their feelings about what is generally conceived as modern art. There are those who would prefer to laud a black velvet painting of Elvis Presley to a Rothko and that, to me, is just fine. As long as everyone is talking about art as a personal topic, the ‘art world’ is better off for it in that even bad publicity is still publicity. Far worse would be if no-one gave a tinker’s damn.

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13 Responses to Figurative vs. Imaginative – Why Modern Art has Meaning.

  1. ileneonwords says:

    Hi Antonie: I love your site and your art work. Antonie, how do you protect your artwork from being downloaded? My husband is an artist and I would love to help him develop a site. Any feedback would be much appreciated.Thanks, Ilene

    • masqua says:

      The mere action of presenting anything online, regardless of any attempt to place copyright restrictions on the work, is like putting a chicken inside a cage of foxes. I understand that completely.

      While it is possible to copyright images and subsequently find their illegal use in other places online, the truth is that anyone is able to capture and print a copy of a photo for their own use, such as framing that image and hanging it on a wall. What copyright protects is the illegal use of an image for publication and distribution for profit. That is very easy to find just through web search engines and, if warranted, a lawsuit could ensue if worth the legal action.

      In my case, I am only interested in the original paintings and which I very much resist selling. If someone were to ‘steal’ the image of a painting to sell prints of it, they would be faced with a number of serious setbacks, the most important being the low quality (less than 1 Mb) of the images. A print made from anything I’ve posted would look ‘weak’ and not worth the cost of colour printing.

      Secondly would be the difficulty of staying ‘off the radar’ online. It is just far too easy to locate other persons using an image of mine elsewhere (Google Images is great for that). There are two instances which immediately come to mind: A medical website in Germany which features ‘Migraine Art’ used one of my paintings and had not given credit as to where they found it. A short email to them asserting that I was the artist soon had them adding the source to the image and that’s just fine with me.

      A second instance was a Coptic Church magazine in Moscow which wanted to print a copy of a painting as an addition for a story. They contacted me prior to the printing and, as a result, I sent them a much better quality image of what I had posted online.

      In neither case was a penny exchanged. The painting is still in my possession and I consider such international interest to be a positive effect on the actual work itself.

      Think of how many websites have images of van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night”. I doubt very much that the descendants of old Vincent are getting royalties out of that, but, were someone to print copies and try to sell them on the open market, there might be some legal friction. 🙂

      So… basically, I’m suggesting that your husband use a good camera (with a proper lens) to take his own photos and post them reduced to less than 1 Mb (which WP insists on anyways).

      Hope to see his work someday 😀 and thank you for checking out mine.

      • ileneonwords says:

        Wow, Antonie, that was so very generous of you to share your knowledge and experience. I’ll pass the info to my hubby. Have a great weekend!

  2. Very well-written and thought-out post, my friend. I agree with you about art thriving in a more personal arena. While not technically part of the ‘modern art’ realm, I believe the French realist painter Gustave Courbet championed art for the artist’s sake. Comparatively, Renaissance Masters like Michelangelo were interested in art for posterity’s sake while heavily referencing and relying on Classical Antiquity. Courbet brought about a shift from Man to the Artist as the measure of all things. His avant-guarde, gritty style nurtured the independent artist who was free to express their own visions on canvas. Without the Realist Movement, I believe modern art would have been robbed of its personal pathos. However, this is just my humble opinion. Keep up the excellent work on your blog and have a wonderful weekend 🙂
    Cheers,
    Tyler

  3. masqua says:

    One cannot exist without the other, Tyler. Just as the individual human psyche has both feminine and masculine sides (Syzygy) , so it will follow that creative arts, which mirror the complete personality of the artist, drive attempts towards both figurative realism and imaginative spirituality. To be ‘pidgeonholed’ as either one or the other is like saying there is only black and white and denying all shades in between.

    I suppose I fall into the imaginative slot more than figurative, but a simple look at my paintings will show that both are present in the work.

  4. I recently went to an exhibit of Gainsborough’s work. Though I loved the feeling of light and spaciousness of it (compared to the stiff academicians around him) I felt oppressed by representational baggage of nobility and property. The upper floors of the museum opened upon the vast spaciousness of modern art. It was like a breath of fresh are after being in a dingy vault.
    Barnet Newman said content is not what most think. He says most confuse Cezanne’s apples with the artwork’s content-they think the objects in the painting is the subject. He says the only way to achieve transcendence is through content. But his content means something ineffable, a kind of sublimity the work radiates.
    Good modern goes beyond the precious object as end in itself, to work that invites us into poetic spaciousness.

    • masqua says:

      Well said, Old Hand. Viewings of old masters in the Art Gallery of Ontario long held my attention for the rich colours of the oils and the expert brushwork on immense panels hanging in room after room, but where the crowds really gathered was to the Modegliani Exhibition. One could feel the excitement as the groups wandered through.

      The former felt distant… difficult, while the latter easy, warm and infinitely more human, even with those alien goose-like necks and blank eyes.

  5. A fascinating piece – and yes, the artwork of women has long been ignored, written out of history which was written by males anyway.

  6. I’ve enjoyed the comments almost as much as the post. May I reblog this while you are working out the I-thingy kinks? I should like the discussion to continue while I lurk about the fringes. I have plenty of thoughts but insufficient vocabulary.—- I hope your new status as Grandfather Masqua is approaching without complications. —- I have found there are many aspects of Maskqua. but also that the word has been co-opted for lots of mascot and promotional uses. Bothersome.—- is there a term for imaginatively realized representational art?— Bear

    • masqua says:

      Mid-August is the august time, so we have a little time to go yet. My daughter-in-law is doing very well indeed and had visited with us just this past weekend. I know about the other uses of ‘masqua’ as they are very prominent in Google returns. While I don’t mind the girl’s camp or the jazz band, the cosmetics company goes a bit far afield considering what the word means.

      Anyways… about the terms for imaginative art; there are many indeed. Any art that either plays with or ignores natural objects (in this world) has within it features based on the internal instincts of the artists themselves. They will paint what they ‘feel’ is the right concept of whatever is going on in their minds or even their unconscious (as in Jackson Pollock’s wild splatterings). The artist, in the most extreme cases, endeavours to ‘lose their self’ in the process of applying paints, or’ in other words, become a conduit for pure instinct rather than have their ego working itself into the painting. If you’ve ever heard of ‘automatic writing’, then you’d have an idea of what they are attempting to do.

      The early 20th century range of imaginative art entails cubism, abstract, futurism, fauvism, expressionism, orphism, suprematism and constructivism. New ones are always evolving and two of the most recognizable online today would be ‘steampunk’ and ‘manga’. They too, imho, are forms of imaginative art as much as Batman comics.

      • Do you also teach? Post secondary? —- Thank you so much for this overview. It is so complete and non-condescending that I feel honored you wrote. Thank you.
        — Perhaps re: Masqua, I should have said manifestations. All that commercial garbage is just in the way and disrespectful. I meant something more like ASPECTS as in Kali has ASPECTS. But manifestation might be closer. Probably a good non-English word somewhere.
        —- So what is the word for self-transcending method? I don’t think Pollock was quite that mature, actually. He was too sloppy. The power isn’t there. Interesting, but fall short. Just my op.
        — To transcend Self requires discipline. All good art requires discipline. Madness or no. I think the madness needs to be present, but many do not. Art is too broad a term. For me, I divide expression into that which embodies discipline, power, madness, and beauty. This I call ART. And all the other stuff gets divided up into sub categories under the general heading of CRAFTS. Though there are works that some call crafts which I find fit my criteria for art.
        — I think you might understand me, even though I been somewhat removed from the “art” community. I haven’t talked about this for about 40 years. The few artists, I know, do have those four qualities as part of their basic personality. Discipline, power, madness and beauty. Bit of a hermit, I am. — Bear

  7. masqua says:

    I’ve never been a teacher, Bear, and most of what l’ve learned is from reading over the past 50 years. My interests lie in all things mysterious and little discussed; like philosophy, theology and psychology. Because much of that entails the study of human behaviour, it’s always good practice to find out as much as one can of cultures that have been around the longest, unlike our modern and very confused societies today. Contemporary ‘civilizations’ have become extremely materialistic, which removes a great deal of what it means to be ‘human’ as inefficient by-products.

    By ‘inefficient by-products’, I mean things like empathy, social cohesion (or being neighbourly), interaction with the natural world, spirituality and true friendships. We move around too much and never get to know our communities in depth. We don’t care about dreams nor do we trust our instincts any more. Today, it’s all about work, eating and sleeping and grabbing a few comments on FB or Twitter. The last vestiges of true interaction are on sites like WP and a few other good user-generated websites.

    I know I’m rambling, but the point I’m making is that we in the ‘First World’ are losing our soul and the new mojo is a fat bank accounts.

    The word for a ‘self-transcending method’ is INDIVIDUATION. This is a process developed by C.G. Jung where contact is once again established with all those bits we’ve begun to ignore as inefficient by-products. It does not mean squashing our ego completely, but instead giving our inner selves a bit more play. As an example, taking note of our dreams and giving credence to instincts rather than ignoring them, finding out who we truly are rather than wearing a mask of what we want others to see us as.

    I too am a hermit of sorts, preferring to keep extended family close and a bit slow to make friends out of acquaintances. I do like people, but my 67 years have taught me that true friends are a rather rare wonder to find.

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