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.
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.