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Learn to Draw > Trying to understand abstract art

We may read in the catalogue of an exhibition the titles Solitary Walk or Sorrow and wonder where the walk took place, what kind of sorrow it was, or whether it was just sorrowing in itself. We cannot know, but sometimes there is someone who can feel himself into it and find a related experience. Or the picture may simply be called No. 76. We are left to find something in it that speaks to us, or not, and it is no matter whether what we feel is at all related to the experience or feelings of the painter.

A true abstraction can come only from meditation, from a state of deep sinking into oneself. It is rather a listening inwards or, better, looking inwards to the color or formal reflection of an experience which was once linked with a person, a landscape, or the exterior and function of an object. All these things, it is often said, have a soul; at least we use this same metaphysical concept for what we cannot explain in "dead" things.

If someone wishes to represent pictorially the individualities of things or the soul of something living the method is always the same: he must immerse himself in it until he feels something special about it, and then try to reproduce this feeling pictorially for others. The germ of it is in each one of us, but our training and upbringing does not direct most of us to function in this way. Two forms of art, music and dance, have always existed to prove that there are spiritual feelings in us to be expressed.



We do not, of course, refer here to the infrequent naturalistic forms of these arts which imitate natural sounds or daily activities. Even with these it has never been attempted to identify specific emotions with definite scales or gestures and movements, except in the teaching of eurythmics, which has the admirable idea of expressing in dance emotions and musical sensations, words and sounds. In actual practice, however, this gets reduced to a sort of representational dumb language which can be understood perfectly objectively and is over-intellectualized.

Rain at nightThe longer one considers the nature of abstraction and of abstract art the more one becomes convinced that it is the highest form of art. On the other hand, it offers every charlatan unimaginable prospects of success. There is the story of the unsuccessful painter who framed the portion of his friend's skirt where she had sat on his palette and called it Chance; he won first prize at an exhibition with his "painting." This story is far from abstract. Even today it can be successfully realized. The disadvantage of abstract art is that no one can recognize whether an inner necessity and a genuine experience led to the abstract picture, or an intentional or playful invention. Judgment is rendered more difficult because there is no need of any technical, professional proficiency to produce an abstract paintillg or drawing. Even a child can make curves, hooks, stripes, and geometric figures.

We have not yet developed an eye for sifting the wheat from the chaff in abstract art. This situation is not new in the arts. For centuries the art of primitive peoples was a closed book, an art that, in fact, has many abstract features. Today it is appreciated even by the man in the street, who has no interest in artistic problems. He may not be able to say clever things about it (thank goodness, one may say), but he may have a genuine love of these things. This may one day be true with abstract art.

Efforts to come to grips with abstract art are often hopelessly misdirected, however, and have created great confusion in art schools. It even happens that very "modern" teachers categorically forbid any tackling of objective form. These teachers, who may well be thoroughly serious artists, might as well ask someone to describe the atmosphere inside a great building while forbidding him to enter it. Starting from objective reality, we can only get inside it from the outside, or, more concretely, no one can interpret the spiritual content of a form and its color unless he has really studied it. Perhaps Goethe spoke the most tellingly about penetrating into the nature of things: "Nothing is inside, nothing is outside, for what is within is without."

Of course, it is not necessary to plague students until they are unconscious (in the truest sense) from exercises in copying flower pots or muscles to a photographic accuracy. What is at first just play with colors and invented shapes is equally important and can lead to new and great visual ideas, but these ideas can be fulfilled only with concrete formal structure. Teaching which includes this freedom leaves the field open to the most complete abstraction but does not lose its firm basis, which must always be in the external forms of things, about which no misunderstandings are possible.

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