I have begun recently to think that the terms ‘abstract’ and ‘visual’ are often transposable. This rather makes one or the other of either ‘abstract art’ or ‘visual art’ redundant. All other kinds of art, of which there is aplenty, I consider of a ‘literal’ nature, neither visual nor abstract; visible, but not visual. Personally, I support ‘abstract-ness’ as a requirement of all visual art. I will try to explain this, but first I want to distinguish my viewpoint from that which quite commonly suggests that ‘all art is abstract’; and worse, that all art, figurative or abstract, can be analysed and comprehended as consisting of ‘abstract’ constituents, which we are given to understand as being comprised of, for example: geometric divisions, orthogonal grids, pyramidal structures and suchlike compositional devices; or simple vertical, horizontal or diagonal partitions of colour, in some kind of scheme or pattern. The latter are often given as the structures of abstract art; the former are more often applied to, or superimposed upon, figurative art. They are often bunched together and blithely united as ‘colour, line and form’; if ever there was a meaningless trio, and not the least abstract in any element! But to justify that, I will need to explain my notion of ‘abstract-ness’ through some specific examples. Let’s face it, ‘abstract’ is a very big mess of a word; I may well make things worse.
The Columba Triptych by Rogier Van der Weyden, in the Pinakothek Museum, Munich, is a work of unambiguous expressive naturalism. It is a painting quite resistant to any kind of dry formal analysis, as exampled above. Nor has it an affinity with the flattened picture-plane or the two-dimensional design of much modern painting, particularly modern abstract painting, an aesthetic which has come to be such an integral and unconscious part of our contemporary acceptance and enjoyment of visual art.
This painting by Van der Weyden is something very different, and takes a little more effort to get to grips with. The revelation on offer in this work is that painting might be about something other than – more than! – aesthetics, and that a content-led painting such as this might have something to offer a truly post-modern and post-Post-modern take on abstract art. At the centre of the main panel of the triptych is a passage of interrelated figures or parts of figures. The child, supported but somehow alert and erect of its own volition, is cradled by an array of three hands, one of the mother and two from the first adoring King, all of which are varied and articulated, especially in terms of fingers coming in from different directions and angles. The child has its own hands pronated and its feet supinated, and all these separate elements combine to form a little lucid cluster of three-dimensional interaction. After which comes the attentive head of the King, then his shoulders, arms, and especially his eccentrically draped sleeves, which fall toward the strange pointed hat resting on the floor. This is a very specific and particular, not to say peculiar, ‘baby-hands-head-sleeves-hat-thing’; and prior to Van der Weyden’s imaginative invention of it, it had never ever before or elsewhere existed; certainly not in the real world. As an entity – which I believe it to be, in the sense of a linked visual passage of forms – it is entirely the most extraordinary creation of this artist alone. What’s more, It seems to me to be, in essence, an unnameable, abstract thing.
So this grouping in space of the ‘baby-hands-head-sleeves-hat-thing’ is not a construct of composition, design or geometry. Nor does it stand (in my consciousness) as any kind of metaphor, allegory or semiotic representation. Outside of the painting, this particular ‘thing’ has absolutely no actuality, no meaning; it is indeed completely unavailable for any kind of interpretation – what a relief! Existing as it does within the painting, however, it is not only a coherent and fluid article, but also, of itself, both significant and meaningful, independently of the subject-matter of the painting. It holds your attention, it gathers your gaze. It is just truly wonderful to look at. And whilst I concede that it is certainly a part of a picture of a Nativity scene, with a storyline and all that literary stuff – of course – then so what; there are many, many Nativity paintings, and more than a few that are very similar in lots of ways to the Colombo work; but only this one painting has this one particular passage of form with this very specific meaning.
This is to say nothing yet of this sequence of form being in full correspondence, spatially and plastically, with the poise of the Madonna’s left hand and head; and further, with the cow and the ass behind the Madonna, as they turn their heads for a look, in passing, right to left; and beyond, into the other parts of the painting; the queue of worshipers stacking up to the right, back through the architecture to the landscape seen through windows and doors. My point is this: what is consequential about this work is not to be gained from perusal of the generalities of either the formal composition or the subject matter, but only in the consideration of the particularities of the visual content.
Let’s try a harder one! The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck, in the National Gallery, London, is a work beloved of those seeking out symbols and metaphors as signifiers of extrinsic meaning in visual art, and comes loaded with a whole host of allegorical extras (many of them down to historian Erwin Panofsky, seemingly), every detail having a literary interpretation. The dog is construed as a representation of faithfulness and love (who knew?); the fruits on the window ledge stand for fertility; the discarded shoes signify the sanctity of marriage, and so on. This is charmingly interesting, but not anywhere remotely near to the real meaning of this work. What about the tender humanity of the loving couple (it is often said to be a wedding portrait)? Well, we are a little nearer, but even this subject matter is too generalised to pass as the meaningful content of a great painting. We are being asked to see things of far greater particularity than this in order to extract full measure from our freely-made act of looking. We’d be better off, for example, examining how the cornflower-blue patterned sleeve of the woman’s left arm slides out of from the fur-lined slit of the fabulously ruched, gathered and ornamentally moulded lush green dress. How does that feel? (And no, I don’t mean it necessarily as a sexual thing – look at the look of it, what it does, without reading anything in to it!) Or, more broadly but still specifically related, how about the association between this slight young woman’s innocent laced-bedecked head, as she glances up, and the sallow, cunning face-shape of the man, under that big furry hat? What about the relationship of those forms? If we start to look at these carefully and specifically, as we are invited to do by direction of the whole painting, we can begin to get in touch with Van Eyck’s unstinting act of communication. The meaningful interface here turns entirely upon the ‘look’ of the thing, and how it all very particularly fits together and feels and works. What Van Eyck has done, part by part, passage by passage, is create a whole rationale of feeling, a compelling and total visual argument. OK, those shoes might well be an allegory of ‘the bed chamber being holy ground’ (no, I don’t get that one!), but they are such specific shoes, of such specific form, in such a specific orientation. Don’t we have a feeling straight away for even the relational orientation of these shoes to Arnolfini’s feet, or to the dog, or to the whole space of the room, maybe even to just about everything else in the picture? (The allegory works on any old pair of shoes; the meaning comes just from this pair alone) How can we fail but to have some particular feelings towards them just by looking and taking in and wondering at their very particular shape and form and position? This again gets us closer still to the real meaning of the painting, but you see the problem; this is only one detail! A painting of this quality is both amazingly complex and astoundingly precise about what it means. Not only do we begin here to get a glimpse of what real intrinsic meaning in painting comprises of (and this nameless thing I will call ‘abstract-ness’), but we also begin to see the very particular greatness of great painting. Because the next time you look at it, it will have reinvented itself. The ability to reinvent its own meaning has much to do with its complexity and particularity, and gains nothing at all either from generalised subject-matter or from the ambiguity of geometry. To clarify that; the complexity here is not to be confused with ambiguity.
The human content and meaning in visual art, that which is always present in great art, regardless of the context of how and when it was made and how and when we might see it (though, of course, context can have a huge impact on our own ability to see it properly, through no fault of the painting), is in the woven minutiae of specific feelings that build into a complex web of significance; from the feel of that sleeve through the fur, to the angle of the pointed shoes; even to such things as the ‘verticality’ of the man’s costume, which again has such a particular/peculiar visual character. I’m not for one minute suggesting we look at this work, or any other figurative painting, as if it were abstract. But I am insisting that its meaning as a painting is fully embodied in this indescribable, and, from the point of view of trying to pin it down in words, frustratingly mutable, ‘abstract-ness’. This ‘visual art’ thing just will not stand still and take a hit!
And why should it? The truth about good painting and sculpture is that it is a moving target, and that is part and parcel of its value; a great freedom for ‘abstract-ness’, a freedom from interpretation and literalness. What’s more, to continue that centuries-long tradition of the genuinely visual in visual art, I would dare to suggest that we should now be inventing new abstract art that is absolutely on the limits and beyond of what we can currently talk about. Can we find a new abstract content for our new art?