The great artistic problem of our time is to come to terms with abstract drawing, painting, and sculpture. The experience of the abstract presupposes in the artist a particular mental or spiritual attitude which is fundamentally the same for all branches of the visual arts. Only the means of expression differ, and the nature of the experience is of a particular kind, often expressible equally well in drawing, painting, or sculpture, though in some cases limited to one of the three modes of expression. In this respect abstract art has not altered the traditional situation.
What in fact is meant by "abstract"? There is hardly a satisfactory answer to be found from anyone. The etymological meaning of this word of Latin derivation is, more or less, "drawn out or extracted (from objective reality), unreal, conceptual, only thought." One can also say only felt, as against really seen; yet this is not quite accurate, insofar as we, when we set out to look for them, also "see" abstract forms and colors in the imagination. Painters and draftsmen must indeed do this, if they wish to reproduce abstract sensations.
This "seeing" is no more a deliberate thought process than the painter's poetic creative vision of impressions of real things. Part abstractions have always been associated with artistic vision. Medieval chimaeras and fabulous beasts which were never seen in reality in form or color express imaginary concepts, however naturalistically they are represented. They were the result of a desire to express some intangible, spiritual content of an imagined, or even of the visible, world. These attempts, which kept recurring, are the smallest and most remote rootlets of what has now become a rampant growth, spreading its tendrils over the whole of the objective world of the artist as "abstract art."
Bocklin represents the zenith of naturalistic representation of the imagined, and perhaps by self-suggestion, seen, world. He was about contemporary with Van Gogh, whose work represents what are basically the same natural forces; but while Bocklin was spinning out a mythological interpretation, Van Gogh saw more directly, more crudely, and his work speaks more forcefully: the dissolution of colors and forms into a seething blind mass of restless power.
If we consider the work of Marc, we see that it is still concerned with realistic forms, but the color is not derived from the natural object, even though it may be thought and felt symbolically: blue horses' heads, and red horses. The colors here are by no means used with superficial decorative intent.
Thus we see that there have always been the means and the desire to represent in pictures feelings which are not a part of the object, and to see in the things of the real world a second appearance which has no similarity to any recognizable object.
The intention of abstract art is to give pictorial form to feelings or sensations whether they arise from a mental con
cept or from an object. A program, one may say a dogmatic program, has been evolved which aims at drawing a clear division between objective and abstract representation.
Michel Seuphor, one of the most outstanding interpreters of abstract art, defines the program in the following words: "I call abstract art every art that does not desire the memory or evocation of reality, in relevant whether reality of the creative process."
There is also the common opinion that pure sensations independent of any known real object can be expressed only if the forms and colors of a picture are no longer associated with any recognizable object. If we hear the words "sorrow" or "joy" we many imagine situations from the past, but we do not undergo a direct experience of any definite shape or color, as we do if we say "spoon" or "house." A contradiction arises immediately in the pictorial reproduction of abstract visions: there are no abstract forms or colors in themselves.
If we analyze an abstract picture we can always say that here we see a red triangle, this part looks like a blue rhododendron leaf, there the picture is reminiscent of a spiral nebula. It is only the combination of the forms which is unreal. We must also remember that there are no colors which we can imagine but cannot really see. What the human eye cannot perceive, like infra-red or ultra-violet, cannot be imagined either.