Arts Essays Abstraction Realism Debate

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Arts Essays Abstraction Realism Debate

Consider the legacy of the Abstraction Realism debate for artistic practice in the 1950s in either France or Italy

Both culturally and politically postwar France found itself in a period of transition as FindlingScottHaine and Thackeray 2000 state the euphoria of 1944 soon gave way to agrim realisation of the sociopolitical consequences of the Vichy Governmentscollaboration with the Nazis and the challenges of reconstruction The Fourth Republicinstigated in 1946 and continuing until the late 1950s attempted to instil anotion of tabula rasa that would be mirrored in its art and culture

The abstractionrealism debate that had begun before the war and had perhaps found its ultimate expression in theModernist oeuvre through such painters as Mondrian Miro and others was ironicallyquestioned at this time for instance in essays such as JeanMichel Atlans Abstractionand Adventure in Contemporary Art 1950 1997

Contemporarypainting being essential adventure and creation is threatened by two forms ofconformity which we absolutely oppose
Banal realism vulgar imitation of reality
Orthodox abstract art new academicism which tries to substitute forliving painting an interplay of solely decorative forms
Atlan 1950 published in Harrison and Wood 1997 612

Atlan here makes an interesting point and one that has an enormous bearing on the place of theabstractionrealism debate in 1950s France for the postwar French artist thequestion became not how one should situation oneself in a polarity but is thatpolarity itself outdated and archaic The tabula rasa of thesociopolitical sphere could be seen as a reflection of interwar regressionwhen translated to the aesthetic the questionable politics of many of theModernist writers thinkers and artists making their work unattractive to thesons and daughters of the Fourth Republic

It was this psychosocial zeitgeist that perhaps ensured the twinning of art with prevailing theories ofexistentialism as John Macquarrie describes in his book of the same name1972 For Macquarrie postwar art and particular those movements instigatedin France mirrors existentialism in its desire to negate the failures of pastontological systems and place the artist or philosopher at the centre of areconstructive effort an attempt to find meaning after the horrors of the warwithout recourse to external teleological notions like truth and beauty Thissituation appears to an extent in Bretons Prolegomena to a Third SurrealistManifesto

All present systems can reasonably be considered to be nothing on the carpentersworkbench This carpenter is you Breton 1990 287

In terms of the debate then between abstraction and realism both Atlan and Breton say essentially the same thingthat what was needed culturally by postwar France was neither the consolationof realism nor the negation of abstraction but a synthesis of the two anaesthetic that could both look forward into the future and signal a break withthe past

We can see some of this in the work of Yves Klein Both in terms of his painting and his photography Kleinconstantly strove to achieve the kind of Hegelian synthesis we have beenhitherto looking at Kleins work in the mid to late 1950s represented twoparadoxical elements on the one hand producing monochrome canvasses of ascintillatingly blue pigment Monochrome blue sans titre 1956 Monochromeblue sans titre 1957 that all but obliterated any sense of the artist asproducer of work and on the other laying the groundwork for the creation ofaction pictures whereby nude models would be used as brushes on huge canvassesMonique 1960 La Grand Anthropometrie bleue 1960that literally places the human being at the centre of artistic creation

In Klein we can clearly the manifestation of the legacy of the realismabstraction debate in the France ofthe 1950s and as we suggested it lay in the synthesis of the two a similarnotion to the philosophical ideas of Sartre and Camus who sought an ontologicalmeaning without teleology In fact

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