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Sunday, February 13, 2011

On "Modernist Painting"

One of the "discoveries" of  "modernism"and perhaps fundamental to its practice is an understanding of how the human brain recognizes objects or "things" in a painting. Before modernism if painters wished to exploit/explore bold colour combinations they had to pick their subject. For example Turner's use of sunrise/sunsets or Delacroix's trip to North Africa where the intense light produced more intense colour.
It was only when colour began to be intensified as a device to heighten the expressive impact of painting, as in the works of painters like Van gogh and Gauguin that some of the principles underlying "modernist" painting began to be thought out and explored.
Two of the implications of intensifying colour were that paintings tended to become flatter and shapes simpler. Fewer tonal variations produced flattened surfaces and simplified shapes.( This flatness and simplification finally became a fetish)
It was soon realized that while shapes became simpler and flatter there was no real loss of recognition of what was being represented.The most important aspect of anything to our recognition (re-cognition) of it is its shape.This literally overpowers any other consideration in our recognition of any given thing we are looking at.
This is quite easily demonstrated by some simple drawings of silhouettes
Whoever can draw a simple silhouette can communicate through line to another what they wish their viewer to "see". Consider how much is left out of the drawing colour,texture any sense of roundness but still we recognize an apple ,a pear, a lemon. Even a "fish" can be rendered and recognized as a very simple shape.
A simple "still life" of two pears and two apples scribbled in with a more or less accepted local colour of green apples and olive green pears and brown table-top and we have a "scene" we can accept quite readily.
Similarly an unexpected local colour doesn't overpower our recognition of apples and pears but does set up a tension between the shape we recognize and the colour we don't
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    This "discovery" allowed painters to use the inherent colour of oil paint without the constraints imposed by the subject as exemplified by painters like Derain, and others in what was called the Fauvist Movement.This understanding that shape could be rendered very simply without loss of recognition also allowed simple distortion to be used expressively as the German Expressionists began to do.
As paintings became flatter and shapes simpler borrowing from Eastern and African art intensified.The simplified planes of African masks or the use of pattern to differentiate between one flat surface and another as Asian painters did began to appear.
Another result was European "primitive" painters began to be appreciated. "Primitive" work perhaps proceeds from the technical (and perhaps emotional/intellectual) limitations of its' producers but this was no longer felt to be a barrier to the production of art.
Finally it is perhaps due to early modernist ideas that our world is now filled with signs that use a flattened and simplified image to communicate messages to the public

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