THE FUTURE OF PAINTING
THE KAHNWEILER — WORRINGER DEBATE
Any work of art requires an effort on the part of the viewer to read it. If the viewer has an instinctual grasp of shape and colour and makes the attempt he will gain an understanding of the work. In it he will discover an appearence of the outer world through the eyes of the artist.
D. H. Kahnweiler (1884-1978) believed in this aspect of visual art all his life. During his lifetime, for example, Kahnweiler rejected abstract painting. As far as he was concerned it offered the viewer no message or, conversely, the viewer could read any message in the work which, in Kahnweiler’s mind, amounted to the same thing.
But for adherents of abstract painting the fact that a single work can evoke anger, self-awareness, an autumn landscape, any given reality or simply nothing at all poses no problem. Faced with such a broad range of potential interpretation the work’s devotee will justify a particular interpretation with a supporting text. The viewer will be invited to see that “ this may be construed as that. ” Thus the text becomes the viewer’s point of reference with which he will examine the work and respond: “ So that’s what I saw ”. The work may elicit the intended written sentiment, another sentiment entirely or, possibly, no sentiment at all. This is the essential experience of modern art—a work can inspire myriad feelings in different viewers. Thus Kahnweiler’s viewpoint was adopted by champions of abstract art and used to strengthen their own position. In this way they freed art from its role of representing the outer world in favour of confining it to the world of ideas.
Kahnweiler disputed this his entire life. He didn’t believe that an artist strove to satisfy any purely intellectual need nor to meet any theoretical criteria. Rather he believed that an artist sought to convey emotion based on personal experience. He believed furthermore that great artists will succeed in this by using shapes of their own invention to depict the world and these descriptions would result in novel forms of expression, – their own language. An abstract painter on the other hand might develop an interesting theory, but based on the facts, his sole concern is the distribution of shapes and colour, – a playful activity more appropriate to decoration.
Whatever our thoughts on abstraction it is safe to say that irreconcilable views will continue to plague the art world. The argument is unavoidable. We either accept or reject that a work of art is a screen on which the viewer projects what he will. Otherwise we subscribe to the opposing view that a work of art is a representation of the outer world as depicted by a new language. Yet what if we accept neither viewpoint? Only one possibility remains, and that is to consider abstraction as intrinsic to the world of shapes, manifested at every major stage of art’s history, and whose presence in no way depends on literary corroboration.
This was the view on abstract art espoused by both Wilhelm Worringer (1881-1965) and Aloïs Riegl (1858-1905). In 1907, Worringer presented his ideas in a paper that would establish his reputation, entitled ABSTRAKTION UND EINFÜHLUNG. Worringer’s theory evolved from ideas expressed by Riegl in his work on ornamentation. In it Riegl examines forms throughout history from Egyptian Art to Byzantium and Islamic Art to reveal how art’s history throughout time has been a single evolution in which abstraction is ubiquitous.
Worringer not only accepted Riegl’s views on the presence of abstraction. He went on to show that this presence was crucial in the development of major art traditions throughout history. For Worringer, the Egyptian pyramid, the pediment of a Greek temple, and the Gothic cathedral, are all simply permutations that stem from a single source, – abstraction.
Worringer chose concrete examples rather than vague theories to defend his opinions. Even this did not placate Kahnweiler. Whenever the opportunity arose he attacked Worringer’s opinions. Notable among these attacks is the one in his most important work, his book on Juan Gris, which he wrote while hiding from the Nazis. It was published in 1946, nearly 40 years after publication of ABSTRAKTION UND EINFÜHLUNG. In it Kahnweiler, who was convinced he would not survive the war, continued to express his disfavour.
Surrounded by such an illustrious company of artists why was Kahnweiler determined to continue with his attacks? Quite simply because he was part of a vanguard of men who knew that the very future of art was at stake. He believed that art had to evolve through cubism or something whose very nature was related to the kinds of experiences that require artists to elaborate in their own language as they strive to immortalize their emotions in their representation of the outer world. This deeply held conviction was rooted in his having witnessed first hand, and for an extended period of time, the intimate world of artists and the artistic process.
Kahnweiler was present at the birth of every major art movement of the Twentieth Century. His keenness of vision made him impervious to the opinions of others. Any artist of his day would have welcomed his patronage, but Kahnweiler was sure that the future of painting did not lie in abstraction, in what was for him, foreign to art. And, he could have added, if painting had to evolve through abstraction the deviation would prove meaningless. It would only show the futility of a journey that led nowhere, – a situation the current state of the arts seems to confirm.
As antagonist Worringer proves that a great artistic tradition results when a movement begins in pure abstraction in which all occurs within abstract boundaries. He demonstrates this with a whirlwind tour of art history up to the moment he sees as art’s demise, – the Renaissance.
To grasp the nature of the dispute between these two opponents the essay examines Worringer’s theory and arguments and challenges them with Kahnweiler’s vision, using paintings by his most famous artist, Picasso, as well as his favorite, Juan Gris.
Is it important to know who is right? No. What is important is the future of art. And this future appears mired in confusion as it propagates multiple stylistic forms – which in essence is the antithesis of a grand tradition. But in the confusion we might borrow beacons from Worringer’s brilliant exposé on the Gothic Period. Using these, and guided by Kahnweiler’s doubts on abstraction, we might pierce the fog of uncertainty and induce a new unifying tradition, that, in the words of Kahnweiler, would support the weak, yet still find favour with the strong.