Orsay Museum

Aux origines de l'Abstraction (1800-1914)
5th November 2003 to 22nd February 2004

Metro: Musée d'Orsay or Solferino
Open: 10:00 to 18:00
Thursdays until 21:45 and Sundays from 9:00 to 18:00
Closed: Mondays
Price: 8.50 Euros (Museum + temporary exhibitions).
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Formes Circulaires - Soleil No. 3
Formes Circulaires - Soleil No. 3
Delaunay, Robert
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The Origins of Abstraction
5th November 2003 to 22nd February 2004

The developments throughout the XIXth and early XXth centuries that gave rise to
abstraction in art are the subject of a vast logical study from its roots in figures such as Turner, Friedrich or Monet, to its pioneers such as Kandinsky, Delaunay, and Kupka. The exhibition suggests two paths that led to the abstract form of expression in line with the artist's own inclination: those who had a 'solar eye' reaching abstraction through the interpretation of light via color and the thresholds of visibility, and those with a 'musical eye' who treated each color as a musical note, transforming the music model of the period into images.

The Origins of Abstraction

This very stimulating exhibition, based on research into the origins and development of abstract art, has the ambition to take you beyond the previous studies and exhibitions on the subject. As a starting point, the visitor gets a literal light-bathing by Ann Janssens on stepping into the exhibition. It’s like getting baptized in a pink-purple light: even when you close your eyes you feel that you are surrounded by light.
The proposed theme of the exhibition is that one of the major roots of abstract art was the interest of artists for the results of scientific studies and their relationship to color. As the similarities that existed in the nature of light and sound were the subject of studies by scientists in the 19th century, light and sound—or their artistic manifestation through color and music—became the bipolar universe of many artists, a universe at the limit of immateriality, at the verge of abstraction. The theme of the exhibition branches into two sub-themes, suggesting that there are two groups of abstract artists: those with sensitivity to color as light, who thus have a ‘solar eye’, and those with sensitivity to color as harmony, who thus have a ‘musical eye’.
To illustrate this thesis, an introductory section is dedicated to the scientific research on light and color in the 19th century, since it was then that the wavelike nature of light was thought to be analogous to the wavelike nature of sound. Some exceptional pieces of 'evidence' are on display such as Goethe’s treatise on color (1810) and the many objects he used to experiment his theory. A telling citation from Goethe’s conclusion introduces the theme of the exhibition: "the perception of forms is not an apriority but a process inscribed in time, where color appears in the contrast between light and dark" ("la perception des formes n’est pas un a priori mais un processus, inscrit dans le temps, où la couleur fait son apparition dans le contraste entre le clair et l’obscur"). Goethe, the scientist, admits the effect of color on the psyche and divides the color spectrum into hot or cold, capable of "producing joy or melancholy".
The scientific section includes another viewpoint, that of Newton and his Disk, and evidence of scientific research by other scientists such as Chevreul.
In prelude to this dual research into light and color in art and science, Turner’s ‘Regulus’ (1828-37) is exhibited as a metaphor: the blinding light that devours the shadows perceived by a disfigured Regulus (whose eyelids had been removed), seems to show the way in predicting abstract art.
In fact art and science have always maintained a dialogue: artists since the Renaissance have frequented anatomy classes, they have used perspective and researched into the effects of light and color. But whereas Paolo Ucello used perspective to better adhere to the ‘imitation’ of nature, the abstract painters renounced representational painting altogether, breaking off from centuries of painting as an ‘image’ of reality (image: from Latin imago meaning ‘imitation’). Could this moving away from ‘imitation’ be thanks to scientific research on light and sound, when the credo was to not imitate, but to build and create?
Perhaps Monet’s Waterloo Bridge of 1902, whose cathedrals are a translation of light into color at noon, in the morning and afternoon, shows the objective eye of a scientist. And this gives us a clue to how science and scientific method influenced art and pushed it towards abstraction. Without Monet an essential link would have been missing in the chain of evolution towards abstraction of the first Impressionists, as well as in their influence on later generations.
As science suggested during the 19th century, light is translated into color, the hue and intensity of which being in direct relation to the absorption or reflection of it by material objects (Thomas Young). The spectator’s retina perceives the wavelength and the brain 'sees' the corresponding color. The artists who up to then reproduced light as a source or a reflection (c.f. Caspar Friedrich’s 'Woman in the dawn light' of 1810), jumped the process by producing brilliant touches of complementary colors on the canvas, colors that combined in the eye of the spectator, producing everything that was expected of a three-dimensional colored image (e.g. Signac: 'Concarneau, Calme du soir, allegro maestoso' of 1891). Here we are still in the figurative representation of nature but have delegated the act of mixing colors to the spectator; we have abstracted the effects of light and shade and have retained pure color.
Did the work of Monet, Signac and Seurat, as well as the Divisionists' preocupation with the scientific truth of a painting as regards color, lead Delaunay to go a step further? In Robert Delaunay’s work it is the relationship of the ‘eye’ and ‘color’ that becomes the subject matter and not the relationship of humans to life or the imitation of nature (the 1912 ‘Forme circulaire, Soleil No.2.’ is both a sun and an eye). Delaunay was not representing the sun as it appears to the eye, but as a testimony to Chevreul and the scientist’s theory of the simultaneous contrast of colors. Circular color contrasts are synthesized into a sun or the symbol of existence.
Between 1913 and 1914, from Gino Severini (Dynamism of forms in light), Morgan Russell (Cosmic Synchromy) and Stanton MacDonald (Synchromic conception), the artist’s subject matter shifted from portraits, landscapes or seascapes to the cosmos, the sun, light and the eye of the beholder. In 1912 Apollinaire managed to sum up with incredible precision what had started to become a new movement: defending his friend Delaunay, he called it ‘Orphism’, linking it already with the mystic and melodious. As with the ancient Greek Orphists that protested against the Olympian Gods by integrating the human factor into the divine, the new Orphists and Delaunay were this ‘power that integrated contrasting color values’.
Turner, Monet, Balla, Klee and the Delaunays are considered to have been influenced by science, and classified in this exhibition as possessing ‘the solar eye’.
The influence of science is, therefore, undeniable but it was only one of the major factors. Another factor was the credibility of art as a source of knowledge. Science didn’t ‘imitate’ nature, and its findings were believed to be ‘truthful and respectable’. Art could likewise stop imitating nature as it could only be worse than a camera at it. But all this rested on assumptions of the epoch about science ‘not imitating nature’ and being a more serious source of knowledge than art, since it was deemed infallible. However, the scientific method, as defined by Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, involves observation, measurement and inductive or empirical reasoning, but largely ignores the degree of uncertainty implicit in the conclusions (in epistemology, unlike a priori propositions, empirical propositions are 'contingent').
From this revolutionary leap to non-figurative, we can sense that visual art did not exist at this epoch just as a matter of fact, but that it had to justify its existence and analyze its ‘raison d’être’ in a rational scientific manner. However, the same did not apply to music; that being a distinct art form, it did not have to justify its existence or importance vis-a-vis science.
If music can exist, so can paintings—even science tells us that they are similar. If music is an art, painting is its equivalent in color, since light and sound both travel in waves; both can produce form and color, and the similarities do not stop there. Music’s connection with sound and the human ability to capture, reproduce and communicate it is similar to the relationship of the visual arts with light. Is it not astounding that two almost immaterial and abstract phenomena, sound and light, are at the origin of human knowledge of the Universe, a knowledge that can exist and grow only through human communication for which the same duo of sound and light is used? It is no wonder that from the earliest times in history, philosophers and artists were interested so intensely in these two phenomena that scientists studied and compared in great depth.
So, the exhibition underlines very convincingly the relation of scientific research in light and sound at that epoch, to the two sub-groups among abstract painters, recognizing those with a ‘music eye’ and those with a ‘solar eye’, each descending from the Romantic period, taking their source from both Turner and Friedrich. But, while this has a pedagogic value it also could at times lead to confusion; it is always hazardous to fit artists into an 'a posteriori' classification.
Most of the works exhibited show harmony of color, as you would find in well-composed music, and sensitivity to light manifested through colors. In fact it is possible to turn musical notes into color, or to turn colored shapes into notes of music through calculation. Nevertheless these are two distinct palpable physical phenomena in the real world, and humans—including artists—possess sensitivity to both of them. Moreover, it was only up to the early 20th century that scientists—and therefore artists too—believed that light was so similar to sound that it traveled in a medium (called the ether). But Einstein put a cap on that idea, showing that light could travel in empty space—indeed in four-dimensional space. And since sound only propagates in three-dimensional media (but not in a vacuum) it now appears that the differences between the two types of propagation are greater than their similarities.
Apart from this, the idea is interesting and gives insight by association through confrontation of artists of different epochs chosen to illustrate the theory. Nowhere else would you see Turner’s interpretation of sunrise (Regulus) and that of Monet side by side; how different yet close they are in their interpretation of light as a source that forces the rest of existence into shades. These two paintings are precursors to that of Derain’s 'Effet du soleil sur l'eau' (1905) but already show the artist’s preoccupation with going back to the source of any painting, which is light, and abandoning representational drawing in favor of construction with color.
Is Turner to be classified as a ‘musical eye’ or a ‘solar eye’? I still see him as a Romantic with a ‘passionate eye’ of a mystic. Yet there is an unromantic side in his tendency to getting to the essential and to the source, his tendency of abandoning the prosaic for the poetic. Color and form are reduced to a minimum and virtually abstracted from his work. Which is more abstract, Turner or Delaunay? I would say Turner tends to abstract form and color in favor of light while imitating natural phenomena, while Delaunay abstracts light and shade in favor of color and geometrical shapes as a parody of the physical sciences. We are still in the domain of the ‘image’, meaning imitation.
Does Caspar Friedrich possess a more musical eye because he paints allegories of music? And is Kandinsky’s work more musical than that of Klee because he tried to reproduce musical notes through color as a conscious ‘mathematical’ act? In Kandinsky’s view "Painting starts at the limit of silence, of language and of music". In other words painting is in the domain of silence. Where we come to the end of language and music through sound, we enter in the vast domain of language and music by color. What Kandinsky searched for was the threshold of silence, painting the ‘inexpressible’, the ‘inaudible’, the ‘unimaginable’, ‘the inimitable’. So, in this exhibition we find Kandinsky, Mondrian, Kupka, Picabia and Leger classified as representing the other branch of abstract art, those with a ‘musical eye’.
Without attempting to cover all the origins of abstraction, this wonderful exhibition nevertheless stimulates your mind as well as your senses. But the question remains open: why such a great number of artists of the 20th century followed this path of simplification to abstraction. Was it the advent of photography, or the general tendency to bring art nearer science? Was it an attempt to musicalize painting, or to search for more spirituality in a materially inclined world? Was it to justify the place of art in relation to science that challenged even the existence of God, or as a result of the logical trajectory from Cezanne through the Cubists? Or was it more a quest for another dimension in art, free from imitation, where artists intuited and preceded even the greatest of scientists? It may be said that Einstein had many qualities of an artist as well as being a scientist, since his point of departure for Relativity was imagining how the world would look sitting on a photon (traveling at the speed of light). It is no coincidence that his theory, perhaps the greatest contribution to science in centuries, was generated more like the work of a conceptual artist with creative imagination, as an a priori proposition that was later verified by observation, rather than using the usual scientific method.
In the past, art tended to abstraction and stylization during the periods of decadence, when artists preferred to live in a ‘virtual’ world rather than face the crude reality of life, or during the periods of religious domination, where representational images were banned. But although one has the cocktail of decadence, war and the idealist’s quasi-religious dogma, this time when all the doors were closed on artists they opened the ‘Fenêtre’ of Apollinaire to realms never imagined, never explored—painting pictures of their mind.

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