Tag Archives: 19th century

On absolute music and abstract art

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Absolute Music: The History of an Idea (2014,Mark Evan Bonds) appears to be an interesting read.

I found it while researching the origins of abstract art (in the modern sense of non-figuration, as starting with Whistler[1], Turner[2], some Constables[3], and later on De Stijl[4]).

During my research, I finally stumbled upon my own archives at Jahsonic.com, where, on the abstract art page, I re-read the famous August Endell quote:

“We stand at the threshold of an altogether new art – an art with forms which mean or represent nothing, recall nothing, yet which can stimulate our souls as deeply as only the tones of music have been able to.”

This in turn, led me to the Bonds book where the origins of abstract art (or thinking about abstract art) is described as:

“The sense of painting as an art primarily of form rather than of representation won growing acceptance toward the end of the nineteenth century. The French painter and writer Maurice Denis (1870–1943) pointed out in 1890 that “it is well to remember that a picture — before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote—is essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” In lectures delivered at Harvard in the 1890s, Santayana speculated on the possibility of a “new abstract art” that would “deal with colors as music does with sound.” Along similar lines, the German architect August Endell (1871–1925) spoke in 1898 about “the beginning of a totally new art, an art with forms that mean nothing and represent nothing and remind one of nothing; yet that will be able to move our souls so deeply, as before only music has been able to do with tones.” The writings of the German art historian Wilhelm Worringer (1881–1965) lent further prestige to the aesthetics of abstraction. In his influential Abstraktion und Einfühlung: Ein Beitrag zur Stilpsychologie (1908), he asserted that throughout history nonrepresentational art […] reflected a society’s distrust of materiality and a correspondingly greater attraction the world of the spirit.”

That about sums up what I expected to find.

See absolute music and abstract art, and the famous dictum by Walter Pater: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music

I took a playing card on the back of which I drew

Stendhal’s depiction of the process of falling in love, ending in crystallization from On Love[1].

What a likable drawing. And in this particular case it may even be true that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Stendhal describes or compares the “birth of love” in a new relationship as being a process similar or analogous to a trip to Rome. In the analogy the city of Bologna represents indifference and Rome represents perfect love. In the words of the narrator who writes the words of Madame Gherardi on the back of a playing card:

“While Signora Gherardi was speaking, I took a playing card on the back of which I drew Rome on one side, Bologna on the other and between Bologna and Rome, the four stages which Signora Gherardi had listed.” –tr. Isidor Schneider

Why are the towers in Bologna falling?

Mind the process of it all. The narrator (or is the narrator Stendhal himself?) hears someone speaking, takes a card and makes a drawing of what is said. Stendhal puts the words in the mouth of the narrator and reproduces the drawing. Depiction – ekphrasis – depiction.

Book illustrations are always somewhat of a pleasant surprise in works of literature. It is the only drawing in On Love, which sadly is not available in a public domain English edition.

Bohemianism and ‘artistism’

Paris street – set design for Act II of Puccini’s La bohème by Adolfo Hohenstein.

One of the funniest episodes in the historiography of bohemianism is the first appearance of the term bohemian in relation to artistic endeavor. The year is 1834 and Félix Pyat, a French journalist of communard persuasion, publishes a well-written article called “Les Artistes” in which he derogatorily describes wannabe artists as “alien and bizarre … outside the law, beyond the reaches of society … they are the Bohemians of today” (tr. Levi Asher).

Félix Pyat connects ‘one who lives like a Bohemian’, meaning like a vagabond, with artists and he calls the latter “les Bohémiens d’aujourd’hui” (the Bohemians of today).

The funniest bit is when he condemns artistry itself, comparing it to a disease which he calls “artistism”:

“That which should be the exception of privileged natures has become a general rule; what am I saying, a fashion, a rage, a furor, a contagious, epidemic, endemic malady, a scourge worse than cholera, a veritable plague from the Orient, artistism.” (tr. Geerinck, Daniel Cottom, 2013)

The term Bohemianism, meant as a slur by Pyat, was later reappropriated by the artistic community.

The illustration above by Adolfo Hohenstein is extremely picturesque and immediately recognizable as a French or Parisian street.

Goya: gruesome and grotesque

Look how solemn they are![1] from Los Caprichos by Francisco de Goya

Once again I am reminded of “To Every Man His Chimera,” one of the darkest prose poems of Charles Baudelaire.

The previous time Baudelaire’s unlucky men came to my recollection, trudging through the dust carrying upon their backs an enormous chimera as heavy as a sack of flour or coal, was while reading Joko’s Anniversary[2] (perhaps my finest reading experience of 2013, along with the many Cortázar‘s short stories I’ve had the pleasure to read).

This time the occasion is my recent acquisition of Goya : Caprichos, Desastres, Tauromaquia, Disparates (1982, Fundación Juan March), a complete set of all the engravings by Goya.

“Look how serious they are!” is number 63 from 80 prints of the Caprichos and it depicts “two demons taking a little exercise, and riding on grotesque beasts. One demon has the head of a bird, the other of a donkey.” (source) The pack animals, the grotesque beasts, look like bipedal donkeys with faces half human, half donkey.

Creatures with the head of a bird are frightening. The wattle!, the comb!

The reverse motif, creatures with the feet of birds, has been employed in Un priape marchant sur des pattes de coq, with a far less frightening — yes, even ludicrous — effect.