Abstract Art Didn’t Begin with Picasso
On the 19th-Century Art Historian Who Saw It All
Artists are storytellers. They have something to say. People often think of artists as illustrators of stories or ideas, and many of them are, but because artists are poets, their artworks are not literal tellings of those stories. As artists learn from the work of other artists, among the principal stories artists tell is that of the ongoing story of art.
Artists might explore an ancient myth, the experience of a kiss, the disasters of war, unrequited love, or the tension between two rectangles—but no matter what their subjects, they are all speaking with the same vocabulary and the same elements of art. Because the language of art evolves, art changes with time and comes to us through the voices of different artists. But art is a language not just of growth and change but of reinvention and recycling.
As artists learn their craft and explore their themes—whether they’re working in painting or bronze or with garbage or blood, and whether they’re working abstractly, representationally, or conceptually—they revitalize and extend art’s vocabulary. A painting or sculpture, or a performance or collage, tells the story not only of its subject, but of the artist and his or her era; it speaks to its genre and contributes to the larger story and language of art.
To grasp the breadth of that story, it’s necessary to comprehend that although art has taken on an almost infinite range of subjects, materials, and forms, the elements and language of art remain basically unchanged. A contemporary sculpture, say, of a shark floating in a glass tank of formaldehyde, by Damien Hirst, and an ancient one, say an Assyrian sculpture of a deity-king, both deal with the same elements—for example, scale, weight, form, color, mass, texture, movement, buoyancy, contrast, energy, power, and humor. They both communicate something to the viewer, although they might address and explore art’s language in varying ways, or to different purposes, and even with varying degrees of success. With some fluency in the language of art, the viewer can comprehend what each work is communicating, how it is communicating it, and even how well it is communicating it. It’s important to see how the language of art is the same. The art of the past can speak to us now, just as much as the art of the present, once we begin to understand that language, and the art of the present can speak to and help to illuminate the art of the past. Fluency in art’s language grants us access not only to one artwork and its story, but to the whole world and story of art.
Abstraction is often considered a Modern invention—and certainly, abstraction was reborn in the early 20th century—and yet abstract art existed alongside representational art in Paleolithic caves. Throughout history, representation and abstraction have generally alternated as modes of artistic expression, based on how a society felt toward the outside world. This is a point the art historian Wilhelm Worringer made in his groundbreaking book Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style, first published in 1908. Although Worringer’s book was the first serious assessment of what would become known as Modern art, it did not address Modern and abstract art per se. Worringer completed the text, as his doctoral dissertation, in 1906 (Picasso invented Cubism around 1907). Worringer was attempting to come to grips with why the artists of some cultures, such as ancient Greece and Rome, and some periods, such as the Renaissance, worked representationally, while others—the artists of ancient Sumer and Egypt, and of the Byzantine era and the Middle Ages, as well as of many primitive cultures—worked abstractly.Both Picasso and those Paleolithic artists convey the same writhing line, the same gait of the animal, the same paradoxical swelling between flatness and illusionistic volume.
Worringer realized, while studying the ethnographic objects in the collection of what is now Paris’s Musée de l’Homme, that those earlier pared-down and abstract primitive artworks must have been thought of as beautiful and functional by their societies, and that we were wrong to force our own post-Renaissance European preferences about what art should or shouldn’t look like on art from other cultures, just because their artworks differed from the representational art we valued and called beautiful. Worringer, alongside many Modern artists, was questioning long-held received beliefs about aesthetics, psychology, sociology, and what was and wasn’t beautiful—what was and wasn’t “art.”
In accepting and acknowledging the mastery of those primitive objects—as Picasso did while looking at the same artworks in the same museum—Worringer came to believe that they were admirable works of abstract art and expressed a worldview, just as the representational art of the Renaissance also expressed a worldview. Worringer classified these two stylistic polar opposite views as abstraction and empathy. He argued that when we are comfortable in the world and our surroundings—as people were in ancient Greece and Rome and during the Renaissance—we tend to want to empathize with the world: to idealize it, and to re‑create the look, and especially the three-dimensional space, of that world in our artworks; we want to make objects that objectify our delight in the self. And when we feel uncomfortable, uncertain, and anxious in the world—as people did in ancient Egypt, during the European Middle Ages, and during the Modernist era—we tend toward a will to abstract from that world: to create artworks that suppress the look and space of our surroundings, that honor our inner unrest; these eras produce a state of alienation that we might describe as “an immense spiritual dread of space.”
The ancient Egyptians focused their whole lives on building their tombs in preparation for the afterlife, and ancient Egyptian artists worked basically abstractly for over 3,000 years. Ancient Egypt was the epitome of a culture focused elsewhere, living in a state of unrest. The art historian Erwin Panofsky, discussing the Egyptians’ obsession with the afterlife, wrote: “If we were, God forbid, sociologists, we might say that the entire Egyptian civilization tended to be ‘death-oriented’ rather than ‘life-oriented’; Diodorus of Sicily expressed the same contrast much better in the sentence: ‘The Egyptians say that their houses are only hostelries, and their graves their houses.’” This existential feeling of discontent and unrest reared its head again during the Industrial Age, when Modern European artists didn’t actually invent, but rather reinvented, abstraction.
Artists consider all art from every period as living, relevant, and contemporary. They don’t think of art as progressing or as existing on a timeline. They think of art as a living museum. Museums are often criticized for putting objects behind glass and on pedestals, and for removing ritualistic objects and other artworks from their religious or everyday contexts, as used by people outside the museum: a family portrait, relocated, becomes anonymous; a magic totem, taken from its village, becomes a sculpture; and an altarpiece, removed from its church, becomes a painting. Ellsworth Kelly’s monumental masterpiece Sculpture for a Large Wall (1957), created for the lobby of Philadelphia’s Transportation Building, spends most of its life—dismantled, entombed—in New York’s Museum of Modern Art storage vault; and a tiny basket holding a handful of personal trinkets—amulets, toys, cheap jewelry—from about 1800 BC, meant to accompany a little Egyptian girl in a tomb on her eternal journey in the afterlife, arrives like lost luggage in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But museums also convert these objects into cultural emissaries, leveling the playing field and allowing us to experience artworks from distant places and times in the context of other works of art. They allow thousands of voices from various cultures and times to speak to one another and to us, enabling us to make visual connections among works that clamor for our attention and speak to us, and to the idea that all art is contemporary and relevant.
Think of the primitive art, in Paris’s Musée de l’Homme—where Worringer had his epiphany—that also influenced Picasso, inspiring him to reconsider the art of other cultures, and to create Cubism; and then, of Cubism’s influence on countless other artists, which led to abstraction. Think of the influence of Rembrandt’s expressive paint-handling on the Expressionism of Chaim Soutine; and of both Picasso’s and Soutine’s pictures on de Kooning’s expressionistic Women in the 1950s; and of de Kooning and African tribal art on the expressionistic and graffiti-laden paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s; and of Basquiat on contemporary graffiti art. All of it bringing us full circle.
Artists often discover that, in their personal engagement with the language of art, they arrive at similar places. Consider Picasso’s linear images of bulls, created in the early 20th century, and those Paleolithic bulls drawn and painted 40,000 years ago on the walls of the Lascaux and Altamira and Chauvet caves.
Both Picasso and those Paleolithic artists convey the same writhing line, the same gait of the animal, the same paradoxical swelling between flatness and illusionistic volume. Both prioritize not necessarily the look of the bull, but the animal’s energy, movement, and life. Picasso and those anonymous cave artists wanted us to know that we are looking at a bull, but, more importantly—using the expressive power of line—they sought to convey to viewers the animal’s motion, volume, weight, strength, and grace; the rhythm and speed of its running legs; the shifting of its massive body, like ballast, within its skin. They wanted to capture something of its power and quickness, something closer to the bull’s life-force and spirit.
It may very well be apocryphal, but Picasso is often said to have told his guide, upon exiting the Lascaux caves, in France, or the Altamira caves, in Spain: “We have invented nothing new.” Of course, Picasso, who was among the most inventive of Modern artists, knew he had invented something new. But he also realized that, through his own journey of discovery and invention, he had arrived exactly where other artists had arrived before him. These discoveries, I imagine, both reassured and humbled him.
Adapted from The Art of Looking: How to Read Modern and Contemporary Art, by Lance Esplund. Copyright © 2018 by Lance Esplund. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.