Turner: Undefinable, uncontainable forms.

The tempest, 1508. Giorgione

The tempest, 1508. Giorgione

If there is something essential to art it’s form; art may, in fact, be the history of it’s shapes, says Gombrich. Frequently  forms appear to raise the ideas in art and reach their maturity instinctively before what it’s implied in them can be expressed verbally.

The tempest by Giorgione, in it’s apparent serenity, generated a seismic change in occidental painting that would leave it’s subtle echo bouncing in posterity. It pushes man from the center of the composition to the sides and snatches him from the foreground, integrating him into the landscape. No previous painting, discovered to this day, diminishes him so in respect to his surroundings[1]. The event is equatable to the thunderbolt at the background, announced much earlier than it’s sound is heard. This particular sound is heard in a landscape painted between 1526 and 1528 -attributed to Albretch Aldorfer- where the human element is further reduced to a castle far back, barely in front of the distant mountains, sunk amid the green crowns of the trees. Even the narrative element, present in Giorgione’s painting is dismissed here; an even bolder, more inconceivable  gesture for it’s time.

In Pond surrounded by trees (1665-1670) by Jacob van Ruisdel, any trace of human presence has disappeared. It is not that all future landscapes will lack it, of course, but that the possibility was not always perceived. In this absence of discourse is where Hegel’s idea of art -as a form of knowledge, less articulated than religion and philosophy[2]– fails most and Kant’s idea of the beautiful as something that causes pleasure without the need of concepts[3] resonates deeply. It’s very possible that this liberation permitted the artist to observe nature with more application, not as background anymore but worthy in itself. Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) excelled precisely by capturing the effects of nature with an indubitable perfection in his paintings, where humans are featured minuscule compared with their surroundings.

Sunset over lake, 1840. Joseph Mallord William Turner

Sunset over lake, 1840. Joseph Mallord William Turner

Impression (rising sun), 1874. Claude Monet
   Impression (rising sun), 1874. Claude Monet

William Turner (1775-1851) dedicated his life to the portrayal of such effects as well, aspiring to reach and overcome the tradition that Lorrain founded[4], but his nature was far more passionate. While Lorrain’s works are contained and sober in form even Turner’s most contained works transmit an unchained dramatism. He’s right in the middle of Giorgione’s tempest and even gives it a new direction: If man is no longer the necessary compositional center of the work of art, the objective reproduction of nature -for which man was displaced in the landscape tradition- might not be either; man may include himself again in nature through his subjective interpretation of it. Turner’s nebulous paintings are almost prophetic; at the very least they confirmed Monet’s convictions about the effects of light and air while he resided in London during the Franco-Prussian War[5]. It seemed that, after all, maintaining the strict limits of objects wasn’t essential either. Turner’s interest in sea and sky -of undefinable frontiers, uncontainable to the eye- might not have been a coincidence. Limiting themselves to the prewritten formulas for the representation of things -the right tones for the far away mountains, the right combinations for foliage and other pictorial principles- could lead to an insincerity and a lack of vitality far from desirable.

The industrialization of society caused a resurgence of geometrical shapes in art. The forms of the industrial environment influenced the forms of the artistic objects directly, as clearly seen in cubism and futurism. In this context Picasso conceived his own revolution of forms.

Guitar, 1913. Pablo Picasso

Guitar, 1913. Pablo Picasso

Movement I, 1935. Wassily Kandinsky
Movement I, 1935. Wassily Kandinsky

The road towards the subjective interpretation of objects was paved. These could be dismantled, represented from different angles in a single composition -as it was done in pharaonic Egypt, save the strict set of rules under which they worked- and could be ordered and reordered without attending to the impossibility of such arrangements in the space outside the work of art. It didn’t take much more for art to break away from real objects and occupy itself in objects somehow independent of the outside world. Kandinsky’s first steps into non-referential, abstract shapes reinvigorated Kant’s words: “In [dealing with] a product of fine art we must become conscious that it is art rather than nature, and yet the purposiveness in its form must seem as free from all constraint of chosen rules as if it were a product of mere nature.”[6] Saying that Kant anticipated works as Kandinsky’s would make a doubtful statement at best, but his rules are still incredibly applicable. After all, he also declares that providing knowledge of the object does not correspond to aesthetic judgement but to logical judgement[7]. This separation of the aesthetic experience from any obligation towards knowledge and moral lessons was, partly, what made Greenberg adopt Kant’s theories and use them to defend abstract expressionism. Once again, it didn’t take much to reach Pollock’s drippings, Guston’s infantile and rough paintings or Rothko’s color fields. Conquests of art are, over all, humble conquests of form and a single seed planted in the field may, in the long run, give birth to fruitful trees -along some poisoned fruits.

1 GOMBRICH, E. H. Josef; La historia del arte. 16a ed. – China: Phaidon Press Limited, 2011; p.251
2 HEGEL, G. W. Friedrich; The philosophy of art. – N.Y., U.S.A.: Barnes & Noble, 2006; pp.14-15
3 KANT, Immanuel; Crítica del juicio. 1a ed. – Buenos Aires, Argentina: Losada, 2005; p.53
4 GOMBRICH, E. H. Josef; Ibid. – p.374
5 Ibid. – p.379
6 KANT, Immanuel; Ibid. – p.156
7 Ibid. – p.71


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