Abstract, Abstraction

On July 24, 2012 by admin

Swapan Chakravorty

The primary problem with the adjective ‘abstract’ stems from its etymology. It derives from the Latin ab, meaning ‘from’, and trahere, ‘drawn away’. In other words, it carries a sense of being withdrawn, separated, extracted. When Locke spoke of ‘abstract general ideas’, he meant a process of detaching, or abstracting properties from something until one arrived at its concept. A more recent philosopher such as Frege would think of abstraction partly in Lockean terms: when characteristics are withdrawn, one arrives at ‘abstract concepts’:

Suppose there are a black and a white cat sitting side by side before us.
We stop attending to their colour, and they become colourless…We stop
attending to position; they cease to have place, but still remain different.
In this way, perhaps, we obtain from each of them a general concept of
Cat. By continuous application of this procedure, we obtain a more and
more bloodless phantom. (1)

The phrase ‘bloodless phantom’ suggests a diminution of life, a loss of that sanguine vigour which supposedly characterizes art. It is in this way, for instance, that one uses the phrase ‘abstract thinking’ as one that is at odds with the aesthetic way of perception. Yet, extracting properties from an object may also be interpreted as leading toward an object that stands on its own, which is conferred being without the need for extraneous significance, likeness or expression. That is, ‘abstract art’ may be seen as non-figurative, ‘not a depiction, not having a significance outside itself.’(2)

Andrew Harrison has drawn attention to the second sense in which one might use the word ‘abstract’ when discussing art. While the first idea of pure abstraction eliminates process and becoming, the second interprets abstraction as leading from one point to another: ‘this second concept has essentially to do with process, normally that marks a stage within, towards the end of, a mental, or interpretative, process.’ Abstraction in the latter sense is ‘bound up with the idea of meaning and with the matter of making meaning.’ (3)

The usual sense in which the word ‘abstract’ is made to qualify art is seldom Lockean. Rather, it is most often used simply to mean non-representational, that ‘which is not a picture of anything at all’. (4). However, if we stick to the Lockean roots, the abstraction is not wholly separable from the object of which it is an abstract. This is the reason some painters object to the term as ambiguous, if not useless. The painter Paul Ziff writes:

An abstract is a summary, an abstracted person is one which is withdrawn or separated, while an abstracted watch is one that has been purloined. An abstract of a document is supposed to convey the substance, the gist, of the document; in consequence, an abstract is not wholly independent of that which it is an abstract of: the character of the abstract is dependent on and determined by that of its original. But if I abstract myself from company, I turn from this company: it need no longer enter the purlieus of my concern.

Ziff points to the Janus-like quality of the adjective when applied to art: it leads one to and away from something. In some ways, this is similar to (though not the same thing as) the ambivalence discussed by Harrison: abstraction as being, and abstraction as becoming.

I am an abstract artist…Yet my works are not abstracted from anything; they are not derived from anything; they stand in no relation to anything that I have turned away from. The term is wrong, or if not wrong, it will not do…I find it implausible to suppose that an Alber’s ‘Square’ is abstracted from, or derived from, or related in any significant way to anything other than the work itself and its own creation. (5)

Yet, this for major artists could be more ‘concrete’ or ‘real’ than depiction. The word ‘abstract’ applied to his art would irritate Constantin Brancusi. He considered his art ‘real’, for the real is not his likeness but in the idea: ce qui est réel n’est pas l’apparence mais l’idée, l’essence des choses. Brancusi was in some ways a Platonist, and influenced by the ideas of the Rumanian Orthodox Church and Tibetan Buddhism. (6) However, the co-incidence of the ‘real’ or ‘concrete’ with art that strikes one as non-representational (or ‘abstract’) needs no recourse to the ideal forms of Plato or the enlightenment of Brancusi’s other major source of inspiration, the eleventh-century Buddhist
poet Milarepa. In 1930, Van Doesburg suggested the word ‘concrete’ for art that abjured
figuration, and Hans Arp and Wassily Kandinsky backed the term later in the decade. (7)
To ‘abstract’ may be seen to be a move from figuration to ‘pure’ object. Hence, Hilla Rebay’s misleading term ‘nonobjectivism’ caused some confusion in Europe and America in the 1930s.(8)

The best instance of the focal co-incidence of the abstract and the concrete are the sparse writings of
Piet Mondrian on his own work.9 In 1942, Mondrian wrote of his discovery that science has shown that ‘time and subjective vision veil the true reality’ (p. 15), and that the visual arts may redeem that truth through ‘pure plastics’ (p. 10). The previous year, he had written in essay ‘Abstract Art’:

In the course of centuries, the culture of plastic art has taught us that this transformation is actually the beginning of the abstraction of natural vision, which in modern times manifests itself as Abstract art. Although Abstract art has developed through the abstraction of the natural aspect, nevertheless in its present evolution is more concrete because it makes use of pure form and pure colour. (p. 28)

Mondrian moves close to Harrison’s sense of abstraction in art as involved in the process of making
meaning, and at the same time tries to remove the stigma of the ‘bloodless phantom’ by arguing on behalf of the concrete vitality of pure plastics. In an astute move, he transports the word ‘objective’ to a different ontological plane. Abstract is objective in trying to capture the reality veiled by subjective vision, but is non-objective in Rebay’s loose sense of the non-figurative:

We come to see that the principal problem in plastic art is not to avoid the representation of objects, but to be as objective as possible. The name ‘Non-Objective Art’ must have been created with a view to the object, [but] that is in another order of ideas. (p. 28)

The antonym ‘objective-abstract’ is as misleading, wrote Mondrian in another 1941 essay, as the
paired opposites ‘realistic-abstract’. In the essay titled ‘Liberation from Oppression in Art and Life’, he wrote that realistic art is taken to spring from aesthetic feelings aroused by appearance of objects, while abstract art is seen as abstract expressions in colour, form and space. This distinction Mondrian finds incomplete:

Even the most abstract art does not arise from an inner source alone. As in all art, its origin is in the reciprocal action of the individual and environment and it is inconceivable without feeling. Realistic art as well as abstract art is an expression of form and space: the difference results from different conceptions and the use of different expressive means. (p. 43)

By the 1940s, the polemical animus that ran alongside Picasso and Braque’s Cubist paintings of 1908-11 had all but subsided, allowing one to think of ‘abstract art’ with the reflective poise shown by Mondrian. But the questions do not melt away. In 1987, Roger Taylor was still wrestling with the terms ‘realist’, ‘abstract’ and ‘representational’, and suggesting that these do not exclude each other.(10) The debates are still relevant, if not in aesthetics, then most certainly in the history of the visual arts.

At this point, it may be useful to explore if there was an abstract turn in Indian painting around the
late 1920s and early 1930s—abstract, that is, in the Western sense. And it may be well worth considering if that turn was self-conscious, with an aesthetic discourse evolving alongside. My suggestion at the end of this short discussion is that there was, and the key figure in the turn, both in theory and practice was Rabindranath Tagore. The beautiful is not useful, it has no significance apart from being itself—comments of this sort are strewn across Tagore’s large corpus of aesthetic essays and  in his letters. Leela is at the root of creation. The rainbow is a brief play of rain and sun, the creator is pleased with the exquisite magic of this fragile moment—there is no other meaning to its beauty.(11)

Tagore was willing to grant the human artist something parallel to this autonomy. In a letter to Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis written in 1927, he wrote that the lotus is for its own sake: there is no other cause for its being. Genuine literature is something similar.(12) Lest we think that Tagore was a pure aesthete of the nineteenth-century variety or that he was close to the Symbolists, one has to read the essay Chhabir Anga published in Sabuj Patra in 1915, in which he talks of two forms of likeness or sadryshya (one of the six features of art listed by Vatsyayana) in a picture: of form and idea, of rupa and bhava.(13).

However, by the late twenties, when he wrote the letter to Mahalanobis, Tagore was painting pictures. By the time the Paris exhibition of his paintings was held in 1930, Tagore had very probably familiarized himself with the trends in Western art, and heard Austrian art scholar Stella Kramrisch’s lectures in Santiniketan in 1922-23 entitled Up to Dadaism. (14)

I am not suggesting that Tagore was the sole figure in the turn: there were surely others. But I am most certainly proposing that the evolution of his aesthetic views ought to be seen in the context of
his experiments in the visual arts, what it brought to him in terms of insights into the relationship of
the figurative and the abstract. It would probably explain the ‘oddities’ of his late poetry and prose, and his occasional unease with the style of the leading Bengal artists of the time, his nephew Abanindranath and his disciple Nandalal Bose among them.


1 Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege, trans. P. Geach and M. Black (Oxford: Blackwell, 1952), p. 84; quoted in Andrew Harrison, ‘Dimensions of Meaning’, in Philosophy and the Visual Arts: Seeing andAbstracting, ed. Andrew Harrison (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1987), p. 55.

2 Harrison, ‘Dimensions of Meaning’, p. 54.

3 Ibid.

4 Dieter Peetz, ‘Defining Abstract Art’, in Harrison (ed.), Philosophy and the Visual Arts, p. 141. See also Harold Osborne, Art and Artifice in Twentieth Century Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), p. 26.

5 Paul Ziff, ‘On Being an Abstract Artist’, in Harrison (ed.), Philosophy and the Visual Arts, pp. 156-7.

6 See Eric Shanes, ‘Ideal Forms: Brancusi the Platonist’, Apollo, March 2010, <http://www.faqs.
org/201003/1984819181.html>, accessed 5 December 2010. See also Catalogue of Brancusi Exhibition (Brummer Gallery: New York, 1926).

7 See Michel Seuphor, A Dictionary of Abstract Painting preceded by a History of Abstract Painting (London: Methuen, 1958), p. 85. (Translated from the French Dictionnaire de la Peinture Abstraite, Paris, Fernand Hazan Éditeur, by Lionel, Izod, John Montague and Francis Scarfe).

8 Ibid. Rebay was among the founders of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in New York in 1937 (now the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum).

9 Piet Mondrian, Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art 1937 and Other Essays, 1941-1943 (1945; 3rd edition, New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1951). Page references to the work are given in brackets in the body of the text.

10Roger L. Taylor, ‘Cubism – Abstract or Realist?’, in Harrison (ed.), Philosophy and the Visual Arts, pp.77-95.

11Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Pashchimjatrir diary’, Jatri, Rabindra-rachanabali, volume 19 (Kolkata: Visvabharati, 1352 BS; repr. 1363), p. 402.

12 Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Javajatrir patra’, ibid., p. 458.

13 Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Chhabir anga’, Parichay, Rabindra-rachanabali, volume 18.

14See Tapan Bhattacharya, Rabindranather chhabir katha’, in Rabindranath: shilparup, pathrup, grantharup, ed. Swapan Chakravorty (Kolkata: Ababhas, forthcoming).


Swapan Chakravorty is  Director General, National Library, Kolkata, and Secretary and Curator, Victoria Memorial Hall (Additional Charge). This article first appeared at artVarta . Issue 2 . 2011

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