Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Man who created the black Square



Came across a 24 February 2002 Sunday Telegraph colour mag In the Picture by Andrew Graham Dixon dealing with Eight Red Rectangles (1915) by Kazimir Malevich. Dixon says:

In a brief tract published in 1916, he reviled the figurative artists of the past for their banal preoccupation with 'the reflection, as in a mirror, of nature. Like God, the true artist of the future would create forms 'from nothing'. His work would transcend all the art that had gone before by triumphantly achieving a state of 'objectlessness'.

This article is full of fascinating detail about art movements and philosophical underpinnings. There is Malevich's later disillusionment with the 'repressiveness (and aesthetic conservatism) of the Marxist-Leninist state', which echoes the sort of thing that Koestler wrote about post-Hungary. Having read an article or twenty on Lenin in recent months, following a casual re-reading of David Shub's Lenin - particularly the sections on the period leading up to the sealed train journey into Russia and those of his teen years - in an attempt to fill out some gaps in my understanding of the relationship between Trotsky and the others - I can guess Lenin was probably a complete philistine in matters artistic and literary, even if only through expediency and a dogged focus on what he saw to be vital. It does not surprise me the state he was responsible for founding ended up as it did, despite the general hope at the beginning. It is easy to see the common thread running through the early days of a democratic ethos slowly being subjugated to the greater needs of the revolution - namely total control to make sure there was no counter-revolution, which the leaders feared could come from outside or inside.

Lenin himself early on, well before he took control of the Party apparatus while to-ing and fro-ing between London and Zurich, decided violence and suppression was the optimum and necessary modus, when other more prominent intellectuals, who he later pushed aside, were more for the old-style democratic socialism.

Malevich painted Black Square in 1915, a time which corresponds pretty much to the turmoil in the ex-patriot proto-Bolshevik party. What Lenin or his cronies might have thought about such a painting, if they had had the time to check art, would be interesting to know: one can guess Lenin's position probably remained pretty much the same from youth. He was the sort of person who could devour books at a great pace, but he probably though art or art history secondary or tertiary. Some kind scholar of Lenin will put me right.

White on White (1918) and then there was White Square too.

::

And so to a general point about abstract art, debated endlessly over the best part of 100 years. The human brain evolved to create meaning out of sensory data which in itself has no 'meaning' - it is mere sense data till the brain turns it into something usable.

Alan W Watts in chapter 2 of Nature, Man and Woman (1958) devoted to its subtitled Science and Nature, discusses the idea of attention requiring selection:

..the simplified units of attention [..] selected from the total field of awareness are what we called things and events, or facts. This does not ordinarily occur to us because we naively suppose that things are what we see in the first place, prior to conscious attention.

He says:

....the eye does not see things [my emphasis], but rather 'the whole of the visual field in all its infinite detail. Things appear to the mind when, by conscious attention, the field is broken down into easily thinkable unities. Yet we consider this an act of discovery.

Eight Red Rectangles is no different in this regard from any other field of view. Any painting is, in any case, part of a greater field of view, though we happen to be able to concentrate enough to make the contents within the frame into a little world of its own, temporarily, before something else, the colour of the wall, movement, noise, or other details such an ambient lighting, removes that a bit like the flip flop in the perceptual illusion which is both two faces and a vase or jug, or the really fascinating concavities which become convexities when turned upside down by making the 'shadow' come from the other side!

In TV footage of someone standing in front of the Mona Lisa, say, one of the obvious things is how long the person stands still in front of it. This may be a mere convention in order to indicate one is serious about art, but that aside this Magic Eye image concentration seems how it has to be done to convince ourselves this artifact is a world of its own.

Watts:

.....the thing called the human body is divided from other things in its environment by the clearly discernable surface of the skin. The point, thoug, is that the skin divides the body from the the rest of the world as one thing from others in thought but not in nature. In nature the skin is as much a joiner as a divider, being, as it were, the bridge whereby the inner organs have contact with air, warth and light.

...
Just because concentrated attention is exclusive, selective and divisive, it is much easier for it to notice differences than unities. Visual attention notices things as figure against a contrasting background, and our thought about such things emphasises the difference between figure and ground. The outline of the figure or the “inline” of the ground divides the two from each other. Yet we do not so easily notice the union or inseparability of figure and ground, or solid and space. This is easily seen when we ask what would become of the figure or the surrounding ground or space. Conversely, we might ask what would become of the surrounding space if unoccupied by any soids. The answer is surely that it would no longer be space, for space is a “surrounding function” and there would be nothing to surround. It is imortant to note that this mutuality or inseparability of figure and ground is not only logical and grammatica; but also sensuous*


His foot note says:

The naïve idea that there is first of all empty space and then things filling it underlies the classical problem of how the world comes out of nothing. Now the problem had to be rephrased, “How did something-and-nothing come out of...what?”

There are other less than mystical aspects ( with a nod to the mumblo-jumbo surrounding Malevich) – it's perception stupid! - which come into abstract art which uses geometry. It is now well established that colour is relative. A square of red surrounded by green looks a different colur from when it surrounded by a darker shade of green or another colour.



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