GEOMETRIC ABSTRACT PAINTING AND PARIS IN THE THIRTIES, PART II
John Elderfield, Artforum.com
. . a controllable structure, a solid structure without chance or individual caprice. Without imagination? Yes. Without feeling? Yes, but not without spirit, not without universality and, as I think, not empty.
—Van Doesburg, 1930
We are Quakers, whose severely cut clothes are made of damask and cloth of silver.
—Aldous Huxley, 1930
IN THE YEARS AROUND 1930 when Mondrian was painting his most minimal works, Van Doesburg had “totally finished with any arrangement or composition guided with sentiment.”17 Art concret of 1930 was the last theoretical manifestation of Van Doesburg’s ever eloquent demands for an objective method, or at least a utilitarian universalism, and, though his last writings approach a “scientific” character, this “science” still held a spiritual and esthetic content revealing but a tougher kind of what was nevertheless akin to the machine-romanticism of twenties abstractionist theory: “If one does not succeed in tracing a straight line by hand, one takes a ruler. Typewriting is clearer, more legible, and more beautiful than handwriting. We do not want an artistic handwriting.” (my italics).18 Nevertheless, Van Doesburg’s propagandist activities had been an important force for the partisan geometric style and his death at Davos in 1931 must surely count as a factor relevant to the relaxation of extreme positions and the compromise of geometric and non-geometric currents which characterizes Parisian art of the thirties. In this sense Van Doesburg’s last “simultaneous” and “mathematical” compositions mark the end of an era. But some did, of course, extend the premises of art conceived in the mind before achieving its realization in “a technical perfection equal to the perfection of its composition.”19 The long-standing anti-individualist principles were continued by artists like Vordemberge and Vantongerloo, the one in a precise but surfacely sensual manner and the other in an anonymous and intellectually oriented “functional” system which yet developed beyond the geometric basis of Art concret. Thus, Alfred Barr’s 1936 suggestion that “the geometric tradition in abstract art . . . is in the decline” and “non-geometric biomorphic forms . . . are definitely in the ascendant” is generally confirmed.20
“I might have known,” Mondrian is reported to have said, when hearing in 1938 that Vantongerloo was using curved lines, for even Vantongerloo’s “severely cut” art appeared a sell-out of pure neo-Plastic principles. But Vantongerloo’s work, though sometimes close in appearance to Mondrian’s, had so consistently been concerned with “expanding” tensions irreconcilable (ultimately) with a rectilinear format that it was perhaps predictable that he would eventually sacrifice the plane for the image. “Space is not geometrical,” he had written in 1925,21 and indeed much of his work while giving the appearance of rectilinear or planar structure was based upon principles of spherical volume (in sculpture) and radiating con-centric form (in painting). For Vantongerloo, mathematical analysis had shown that the straight line, the square and the rectangle were but aspects of a truly reasonable vocabulary and had, moreover, been used “by the majority of artists, including some of the most famed” as “emblems of vanity,” the straight line being “just as bourgeois and anti-universal as a portrait of Lenin, a prosperous businessman, a monarch, or anyone else”—words heretical to neo-Plasticism.22 And so, “while his horizontal-vertical compositions had often been conceived as the function of an ovoid or a curve, these curved forms now became directly visible in his work.”23 Several of Vantongerloo’s early thirties compositions seem to have used the horizontal-vertical schema to support an impression of concentric movement around a centrally placed element; and this is still visible in Courbes of 1937, except that now discrete curves are placed within the divided field (in a manner, incidentally, close to that of Kandinsky’s contemporary work) even though these curves are “geometrically” tense (in some works they look like straight lines in disguise). By 1938, however, the linear elements are far freer and there is no longer any attempt to reinforce these elements with an imposed geometric surface structure; the comparison with Surrealist abstraction becomes more and more manifest. But the modifications which Vantongerloo made to the “high art” formulae of the twenties are far less extreme than those of many other members of the Abstraction-Création group, which Vantongerloo helped found in 1931.
Art d’aujourd’hui of 1925 had represented a pretty catholic selection of modern art, including work from some half a dozen groups and countries as well as from France. Only about half of the exhibited work was abstract. In contrast, Cercle et Carré of 1929–30 took far more of a stand for abstraction itself, and, though admitting some hardly abstract painters, its core consisted of artists like Mondrian, Kandinsky, Arp, Schwitters, Vantongerloo, Vordemberge-Gildewart, Tauber, Pevsner and Huszar. The name of Van Doesburg is absent: he, seeming to dislike groups run by others, was busy preparing Art concret with Hélion and Carlslund, Tutundjian and Wantz. But after Van Doesburg’s death, Abstraction-Création alone carried the torch of pure abstract art. Abstraction-Création-Art non-figuratif was officially established in Paris on February 15, 1931, dedicated to “non-figuration, c’est a dire culture de la plastique pure, a l’exclusion, de tout element explicatif, anecdotique, litteraire, naturaliste, etc.,” and (in the 1935 issue of its magazine) claimed 416 members, half of whom lived outside of Paris. In this 1935 memorandum, “Cubists, Futurists, Surrealists or other tendencies are not indicated”; and, although by 1935, and indeed earlier, non-purist tendencies had infiltrated the group, the basic shared premises were of a “culture de la plastique pure” and an “art non-figuratif.” Typical members ranged from the well-established abstractionists (Mondrian, Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy, Arp, Gabo, etc.) to late De Stijl members (Domela and Vordemberge) to emerging Paris artists (Gorin and Hélion) and included important contingents from England (Nicholson and Hepworth) and Poland (Strzeminski and Stazewski) as well as from Switzerland, America and elsewhere. With all these to account for (and over 400 others) it would be foolish to attempt a comprehensive catalog of styles; but certain general features may be noted from the character of work produced: as a group, the interrelation of (1) French (post-Cubist) abstracting systems and foreign (De Stijl, Elementarist, Constructivist, etc.) non-objective ones; (2) the overall premise of “art non-figuratif” to associative ones (the subject is the image or the image implies the subject), i.e. the connection with Surrealist trends; (3) a general (almost philosophical) idea of “freedom” as against that of formal restraint. And in terms of internal organization the interplay of (a) surface and illusionistic space; (b) geometric and biomorphic or zoomorphic forms; (c) an anonymous and “expressive” technique.
Although these features are most apparent in the work of younger artists, the character of Kandinsky’s Paris work is usefully illuminated in this context. Kandinsky’s arrival in Paris in 1933 coincided with the modification of the dogmatic “constructive” geometrical forms of his Bauhaus years in favor of a more complex and expressive manner. Striped of 1934 shows Kandinsky organizing the new biomorphic forms across clearly separated positive-negative strips, playing the fixed against the free in terms of both form and space, creating tensions calculated to effect a dramatic pictorial impact. That Kandinsky was essentially involved with tensions and relationships as emotive principles is suggested by the incidence of such words as “contrasts,” “actions,” “accents,” etc., in the titles of the Paris paintings. The contrast of fixed and free appears also in such devices as entirely containing amoeboid forms within a divided surface field, anchoring elements to an edge, then disturbing their equilibrium with spatial ambiguities, manipulating figure-ground relationships across symmetrically divided compositions, and so on. Dominant Curve of 1936 introduces the distinctly illusionistic set of “steps” which leads up to emphasize the top-heaviness of the composition and graphically illustrates the suggestion that Kandinsky equated illusionistic and cosmic space and related the upper section of his canvas to the heavens and the lower part to the earth.24 The variety of forms in this work and their frequent transparent spatial interpenetration does not, however, completely disguise the overall impression of elements somehow being released forward from the plane of the canvas, something Kandinsky had discussed a year earlier in his essay, “Toile Vide”25 And this sense of movement outside the canvas area, toward the spectator, is what links this work with the seemingly more rational Striped of 1934. In his Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky mentioned “some ideal plane” which existed “in front of the material plane of the canvas”;26 and in Point, Line and Plane that “the recession and advance of the form elements draw the basic plane forward (toward the observer) and backwards in depth (away from the observer) in such a manner that the basic plane, like an accordion, is pulled apart in both directions.”27 Thus the “material” or “basic” plane (i.e. the picture plane) is conceived as an elastic surface which might extend forward, toward the observer, and create, between the observer and the work itself, an imaginary “ideal plane,” an effect supported in the Paris works by textural variation.28 This may occur in both works which assert their relationship to the rectangular frame (like Striped) and in those which tend to disregard literal shape (like Dominant Curve): both are illusionistic, though different in nature—the one a kind of quadri riportati where the frame contains a potential spatial release; the other a quadratura of confusion between the real and imagined. It must, however, be admitted that by isolating elements from the periphery of the pictorial surface the likelihood of extra-pictorial extension, in the associative sense, is enhanced; and this is an important characteristic of Kandinsky’s Paris works, whose revaluation of Bauhaus constructional principles subsume structural analogies to dynamist ones, the biomorphic and zoomorphic shapes (appearing from about 1934) suggesting a real universe of baroque energy. It seems certain that the introduction of such shapes owed much to the influence of Paris artists like Miró and Arp, but it would nevertheless not be amiss to think of Kandinsky’s late work, like Mondrian’s, as a kind of release within which a deeply-rooted structural basis is allied to a new freedom of application (of which the radically liberated color range is not the least in significance). That these works reflect the spirit of thirties Paris appears not only in their quasi-Surrealist connections, but also, in the opposite direction, in Kandinsky’s involvement with the idea of a “concrete” art. After suggesting “reale Kunst” in 1935 as an alternative to “abstract” he finally decided on Van Doesburg’s “concrete” (Abstract and Concrete, 1938); but Kandinsky’s use of this word was without the utilitarian emphasis Van Doesburg gave it: it rather referred to a real “world of art” which does not depict the “world of nature” but, like the latter, is subject to “the general laws of the ‘cosmic world,’” from which Kandinsky’s work had always been informed.
Kandinsky’s concern for the “ideal” (forward) plane finds curious, if less spiritual, parallels in the relief constructions of artists like Domela and Vordemberge. For both of these artists the tableau-objet appeared as the logical extension of an Elementarist vocabulary towards more personalized “expression.” An awareness of surface properties carried into relief is a significant hallmark of thirties abstraction (visible also in such different artists as Delaunay, Reth and Nicholson); and although it can be traced back to the Constructivist “culture of materials,” in the thirties a new consciously esthetic culture of materials (for) themselves appeared. While Vordemberge’s Composition No. 7 of 1924 expresses that clarity of basic form evidencing an elementary vocabulary translated into the materials of mass-production which places it securely in the era of the neue Sachlichkeit, Domela’s thirties reliefs reveal a sense of luxurious and sensual pictorial values (closer to Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion than to the Dessau Bauhaus): his Tableau-relief of 1932 is a superb example of how the “dynamic” characteristics of a counter-composition format achieved equivalence in three dimensions, and how the polemical asceticism and reductivism of the twenties began to give way to sensitivity, and to individuality. Domela’s first reliefs date from around 1929; and once the break had been made with the purely painted surface his reliefs became more complex and their materials more varied—brass, copper, perspex, various woods (and later marble, ivory and sealskin). From 1932 the curved line appeared which, as with Vantongerloo, expressed a rejection of De Stijl principles. Two Ovals of 1934 belongs so certainly to the thirties, not only in its overall precious look but even in such details as the clustered rods which recall Mondrian’s multiple line structure.
But if complexity and sensuality do appear as a general characteristic of thirties abstraction, some do not fit this pattern. Less typical of the thirties is the seven-strong Polish contingent of Abstraction-Création of which the most renowned members are Wladyslaw Strzeminski and Henryk Stazewski. Perhaps their continued “utilitarian” approach was because neither of them played any active role in Paris itself, but their work should be mentioned here if only because the Polish contribution to abstract art is still insufficiently appreciated or documented.29
Stimulated by Russian abstract art, Strzeminski and Stazewski concerned themselves with “newness” and “utilitarian beauty,” using universalist elements for an art of “collectivist construction.” What links these two is the wish to avoid a hierarchy of formal elements; instead the kind of homogenous equivalence which produced works like Stazewski’s White on White of 1932 (Galerie Denise-René, Paris) and Strzeminski’s “unistic” paintings. But their paintings were not always as entirely reductive as their tough theories: Stazewski, for example, worked also in both an actively optical manner and a controlled surface one (cf. his Abstract Composition of about 1929). Strzeminski, however, when not painting his unistic works, seems to have often limited his means to two interlocking shapes in a series of “architectonic” compositions (cf. his Composition Architectonique of 1926). Strzeminski had originally been very much impressed by Suprematism but came to oppose its “dynamism” and its dramatic form and color contrasts, as well as its “cosmic” metaphysics which “causes form to be neglected, and literature to overgrow.” For him, the desire for dynamism was an extra-pictorial concern, both philosophically and formally. This alone separates the Pole from his Parisian contemporaries. In 1928 Strzeminski published his Unism in Painting which rejected all “dramatic baroque” for “uniform” pictorial characteristics: “. . . be it late Cubism, Suprematism, or Mondrian’s Neoplasticism, the planes are flat, yet the whole is not flat”; “. . . the dynamism of planes throws the plane of color outside the plane of the picture”; rather, “. . . a picture should be uniform and flat.” In the unistic works, formed by a regular pattern of dabs or furrows of paint, Strzeminski came close to his theoretical ambitions: “The purpose ought not to be the division of the picture, but its unity, presented in a direct way: optically. So one must renounce the line, one must renounce rhythm . . . one must renounce oppositions and contrasts . . . one must renounce division,” for a totally reductive and monochromatic unistic art.
If this essay was intended to establish a total picture of abstract art in Paris in the thirties far more should be concerned with non-geometric currents. Since, however, the state of thirties geometric art in relation to its twenties past is the main theme, such important figures for this period as Arp, Delaunay or Magnelli are here neglected.30 It should yet be stressed that at the Paris core of Abstraction-Création there was felt to be no real division between geometric and non-geometric abstract painting (nor, indeed, between the painters and sculptors, though the latter are also excluded here) although the identity of abstraction itself was sacrosanct. That such different artists as Arp, Delaunay, Domela, Gabo, Gleizes, Herbin, Magnelli and Vantongerloo could work together indicates the broad-minded give and take that occurred in the merging of the abstract schools. What we need to remember, however, is that in the thirties abstract artists were still conscious of being an unpopular minority of the École de Paris, and that (as Haftmann has suggested) to the Paris art world, shaped by Impressionism, purely non-figurative painting with a machine-like impersonality and using new materials had a look of anti-art about it. Nevertheless, some young French artists were attracted to pure geometry, Gorin and Hélion for example. But, as Hélion’s development shows, this was most often an intermediary stage toward a freer kind of abstract painting. Hélion, a student of architecture and engineering, was drawn to De Stijl ideas and at 26 collaborated with Van Doesburg in Art Concret—his Composition Orthogonale of 1929–30 very much reveals the formulistic and anonymous premises of Van Doesburg’s side of the De Stijl tradition. By 1932, however, when Hélion had joined Abstraction-Création,31 his work was using elements in a less rigid manner (cf. his Equilibre of that year), and by 1935 his Bande Verte shows volumistic forms floating in a space which, although obviously deriving from a Cubist box-space, is yet comparable to the more emotional “space” in Paule Vézelay’s Worlds in Space (also 1935); a far cry from the older utilitarian geometric style. This relaxation of established geometric currents is what typifies Paris thirties art, and distinguishes it from similar collaborations of geometric and non-geometric art in other countries.32 The perhaps inevitable tendency of an elementary vocabulary to proliferate was, as has been suggested, one reason for this development. Others were the “fine art” atmosphere of Paris where, unlike further east, the idea of a “modern” metropolis never really existed; and the contemporary strengths of Realism and Surrealism. But it is worth also considering that, despite the modifications the geometric style underwent in this period, abstraction continued to hold, for some, a special kind of “democratic” social content and that the contemporary totalitarian opposition to this art tended to renew its original universalist implications.33
Certainly there is evidence for this view in the pages of the Abstraction-Création journals. In the fourth number, for example, Gorin reasserted that abstraction was directed “Vers un Art Social et Collectif Universel” and Evie Hone wrote that by tending to destroy individualist principles abstraction became concerned with communist ones. But one of the clearest statements of this kind, and one which does tend to support the suggestion that the principle of “freedom” is the significant common factor of the art and ideology of the thirties in other than totalitarian states,34 appears as an editorial statement: “Le Cahier ‘Abstraction-Création’ No. 2 parait au moment où, sous toutes les formes, sur tous les plans, dans quelques pays d’avantage qu’ailleurs, mais partout, la pensée libre est férocement combattue . . . Nous placons ce cahier No. 2 sous le signe d’une opposition totale à toute oppression, de quelqu’ordre qu’elle soit.” (And we remember that a similar sentiment is to be found in Alfred Barr’s 1936 dedication of Cubism and Abstract Art.)
But this is only one side of the picture: the decline of pure abstraction might well be explained, in avant-garde terms, by the fact that artist and public had now a common enemy—that the threat of totalitarianism dissolved the validity of a belligerent avant-garde—and the new popularity of realist styles in “democratic” countries understood as the wish to assert a common “humanism” and as part of the post-depression revaluation of the metropolitan ideal which had in the twenties informed the geometric style. Likewise, the “social ideal” of the twenties had so obviously failed, not only in Germany but as importantly in Soviet Russia where, though modernist fine art idioms had ended in 1922, advanced architecture and design seemed, to many western observers, to have been given the go-ahead. But the fiasco of the Palace of the Soviets competition in 1932 finally ended that ideal of a possible revolutionary art; and Gide was “. . . forced to admit in so many words: that is not what we wanted. One step more and we should even say: it is exactly what we did not want.” (Retour de l’U.R.S.S., 1936.) By 1936, optimism was hard to come by in France: in social, economic and fiscal terms the country was in confusion. In that year the last number of Abstraction-Création appeared. (An attempt to continue its work was made by the Arps and Domela who founded the review Plastique in the spring of 1937. It began by confirming the sources of the geometric style—the first number was devoted to Malevich, but the following issues seem to confirm that the avant-garde had in fact united—with features on not only abstract art but Surrealism.) Butif Russia was the big disappointment, America was the big opportunity. (The third number of Plastique was dedicated to the development of abstract art in America.) In the same year as Abstraction-Création ended, Alfred Barr put on his big Cubism and Abstract Art show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Association of American Abstract Artists was founded. In the 1935 memorandum of Abstraction-Création, “interest” in abstract art in America had been noted (the American contingent of Abstraction-Création was second in size of the foreign countries represented),35 although it was surely affirmed that “. . . Paris is the center of the movement . . . We sincerely hope she will keep this position and prerogative.” However, the increase in emigration of important artists throughout the thirties and the coming of World War II saw the pendulum swing again; for many, America offered a rediscovery of the metropolis in the new world.
17. Letter to Kok, Jan. 23, 1930. Quoted in the catalog, De Stijl, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1951, 46.
18. Manifeste de l’art concret, 1930.
19. Manileste de l’art concret 1930. Of the younger artists Vordemberge was most obsessed with technical perfection.
20. Cubism and Abstract Art, New York, 1936, a book by now part of the history of abstraction. But Barr’s strict division of “non-geometrical abstract art” and “geometrical abstract art” into separate currents which had emerged as such by the mid-thirties (on the jacket diagram) falsifies the true thirties merging of styles.
21. Vantongerloo, Paintings, Sculptures, Reflections, New York, 1948, 12.
22. Vantongerloo, 42. The. reference to “some of the most famed” artists is obviously directed at Mondrian. Vantongerloo later writes that, “The concept of the vertical as an absolute value, impersonal, semi-religious, directly social, anti-theosophical has not been understood.”
23. Max Bill in the catalog, Georges Vantongerloo, Marlborough Fine Art, London, 1962, 5.
24. Rose-Carol Washton, “Kandinsky. A space odyssey,” Art News, LXVIII, 6, October 1969, 49 .
25. Cahiers d’Art, X, 5–6, 1935, 117.
26. Wittenborn edn., New York, 1947, 67 (which, however, gives “prior to” for vor der).
27. Guggenheim edn., New York, 1947, 124.
28. This is also suggested by Paul Overy (Kandinsky: the Language of the Eye, London, 1969, 119) who writes that Kandinsky arranged his forms in “such a way that (the picture plane) appears to expand beyond the physical limits of the canvas. The forms seem to be related to unseen elements beyond the frame.” But Overy considers this effect irreconcilable with the division of picture plane into separate rectangular compartments (which are supposed to contract not expand it). Striped shows, however, that Kandinsky did in fact effect expansion from a divided field, since the expansion at question is not lateral but forward. But Overy’s suggestion (p. 120) that Kandinsky’s more frequent disregard for the edges of the picture plane in the Paris works is akin to Mannerist or Baroque spatial principles is relevant here.
29. The following quotations come mainly from a special Polish number of Typographica (No. 9, June 1964). Other references to Stazewski and Strzeminski are in Bernard Karpel’s bibliography to George Rickey, Constructivism, Origins and Evolution, London, 1967. A pamphlet on Stazewski by Hanna Ptaszkowska was produced in 1965 by Wydawmctwo Artystyczno-Graficzne, Warsaw in the series “Wspolczesne malarstwo polskie.”
30. Paris in the thirties saw also the beginnings of geometric art by artists like Max Bill and Ben Nicholson, but since their work of this period less directly informs my thesis than that of those who had before the thirties found a geometric style and henceforward modified it, they too are excluded.
31. Hélion was an important and active member of Abstraction-Création, especially in his contacts with young English artists. He invited Nicholson and Hepworth to join the association and it was on his suggestion that Myfanwy Piper started Axis.
32. For example, the proto-Surrealist and abstract membership of Unit 1 in England in 1933–35. Cf. Charles Harrison, “Abstract Painting in Britain in the early 1930s,” Studio International, CLXXIII, 888, April 1967, 180–191.
33. For the relationship of the ideologies of the twenties and the thirties in Germany see my “Total and totalitarian art,” Studio International, April, 1970.
34. Harrison, 185; who quotes the following passage.
35. The higher figures are: Paris—209, Switzerland—68, France (except Paris)—43, America—33, Holland—12, Great Britain—11, Germany—11.