5/6 The Supercharged Spirit of Expressionism and Abstract Photography

On the previous post we looked at the development of what Modern Photographers called the New Vision. This attitude, along with the idea of discarding old artistic styles, opened fertile fields for all kinds of visual experimentation with a wide variety techniques, styles, and approaches – all displaying unusual vigour. Photo-collages, photomontages and photograms became a way of moving away of the pictorialist soft focus and painterly ideas of photography of the late 1800s, and early 1900s. Artists such as Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy appeared as the leading figures.  Continuing with the modernist ideas of photography, on this blog post we will look at Expressionism and its relationship to abstract photography.

 

 

Moholy Nagy, The Dream of a Girls Boarding, 1925.
Moholy Nagy, The Dream of a Girls Boarding, 1925.

 

 

At the turn of the twentieth century, the rejection of archaic ideas of representation and expression had been an idea apt in the growing number of art movements such as cubism and dadaism sprouting in Europe. Capitalism, and the rapid industrialisation of Europe and America, created a growing middle-class with an increased access to money. Many of the newly rich turned into art patrons and avid art collectors, a title previously held for the few wealthy elite. As the numbers of patrons grew, so too did the number the decorative works created by artists in the realist style of the day serving the growing demand. This did not sit well with some artists and this gave birth to expressionism.

 

Expressionism and the Resurgence of Spirit 

 

Late twentieth century Germany was a fertile field for ideas of Expressionism to flourish. Germany had seen its fair share of wars, capitalism and rapid industrialisation. Its artists, seeing the breakdown of society and their world, sort to express this turmoil along with their inner-most feelings and discomforts. Realism and its highly scientific representation and scholarly aesthetic had piqued the exploration of painting; but had served the arts continuum with nothing but a painterly if not an exact representation of reality and the poor. Expressionist artists and groups such as Die Bruecke in the North and Der Blaue Reiter in the South, felt that art as they knew it, was dead.

 

 

Jean François_Millet, Gleaners, 1957.
Jean François Millet, The Gleaners, 1957.

 

 

Wassily Kandisnky was the Expressionism’s brightest star, ever vocal with his discomforts, he writes in his the ‘Spiritual in Art Manifesto’ in 1911/2:

 

“At such a time art ministers to lower needs, and is used for material ends. She seeks her substance in hard realities because she knows of nothing nobler. Objects, the reproduction of which is considered her sole aim, remain monotonously the same. The question “what?” disappears from art; only the question “how?” remains. By what method are these material objects to be reproduced with? The word becomes a creed. Art has lost her soul.

 

He adds:

 

“For since the artist in such times has no need to say much, but only to be notorious for some small originality and consequently lauded by a small group of patrons and connoisseurs (which incidentally is also a very profitable business for him), there arises a crowd of gifted and skilful painters, so easy does the conquest of art appear. In each artistic circle are thousands of such artists, of whom the majority seek only for some new technical manner, and who produce millions of works of art without enthusiasm, with cold hearts and souls asleep”

 

In regard to aesthetic, expressionists employed, at first, still lives and low subject content works such as landscapes. However, as the movement grew, a deeper discomfort of archaic ideas of representation also grew, and they would employ instead, biomorphic shapes (shapes that are not available in nature), line and colour, in order to express their inner-most feelings and ideas.

 

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913, Oil on canvas.
Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913, Oil on canvas.

 

 

These ideas influenced American Abstract painters of the 1950s such as Mark Rothko, William de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Georgia O’keeffe. These artists born in the early 1900s had witnessed both World Wars and the Great American Depression of the 1930s. The world and its structures of society had shifted right under their feet. This shift left many of them asking questions about the human condition.

 

Psychologists and philosophers such as Sigmund Freud and Karl Young provided answers. Their answers put into context an understanding about personal psychological battles, the struggle between man and nature, and the pursuit of spiritual comfort. Their beliefs of universal emotions such as joy, rage, and sorrow is aptly articulated through their art. To articulate these ideas they would employ colour field painting – an exploitation of expressive power of colour by using it in large fields that might envelope the viewer when seen at close quarters – and action painting – a technique and style which paint is randomly splashed, thrown, or poured on the canvas –  to express their inner most feelings and emotions.

 

 

Mark Rothko, White Centre, 1950.
Mark Rothko, White Centre, 1950.

 

Willem de Kooning. Abstraction, 1949-50.
Willem de Kooning. Abstraction, 1949-50.

 

Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles, 1952.
Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles, 1952.

 

 

These revolutionary ideas of thinking would move New York to the Centre of the art world, a title previously held by Paris. Although critics have shunned American abstraction as nothing more than an ability to show that abstract images could effectively transmit messages and emotions.

 

 

Photographing the Emotional and Transcendental through Abstractions

 

While painters were recreating their world through expressive brush strokes and canvas, photographers sought to discover what else their images could mean or meant to them at the time of the photograph. Several American photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Minor White and Ansel Adams began a focus on their inner-feelings and how to convey them on the final print. This led to a focus on the tones of gradation in highly sharp images and in unusually sharp depths of fields such as F64. The F64 name was also adopted by American West Coast photography club made up of Ansel Adams and ten other photographers such as Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston.

 

 

Imogen Cunnigham, Magnolia Blossom, 1925
Imogen Cunnigham, Magnolia Blossom, 1925

 

 

Edward Weston, Pepper no. 30, 1930
Edward Weston, Pepper no. 30, 1930

 

With regard to aesthetic, Otto Steinert emerged as Europe’s leading figure, founding the group, FotoForm in 1949. As part of the groups subjective photography manifesto, he echoed a need for “a new photographic style that served the demands of our time”. Using purely straight photographic techniques, he found inspiration from yesteryear photographers such as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray, using multiple exposures, the manipulation of light, radical cropping and strong b&w contrasts.

 

 

Otto Steinert, Lamps of the Place de la Concorde III, 1952.
Otto Steinert, Lamps of the Place de la Concorde III, 1952.

 

 

Alfred Stieglitz who had played a pivotal role in establishing a credibility for photography as an art in a time when it was considered a lazy painters technique and fascination, would later on in his life start his most abstract and emotionally charged work; the Equivalents. The Equivalents was a direct response to Waldo Frank who had accused Stieglitz of hypnosis. Frank said the secret power of the Stieglitz’s earlier works was due to the power of hypnosis which the photographer had over his sitters.

 

 

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe hands, 1918.
Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe hands, 1918.

 

 

With great amazement and in response he, Stieglitz, wanted to show that his work was not due to subject matter. He said clouds are available for everyone, and would fill the images with the sadness and sorrow of his dying mother. These images would go on to be one of the most emotionally charged works of his life. He went on to say, speaking about the Equivalents:

 

“what is important is to hold a moment or record something so completely that those who see it will relive an ‘equivalent’of what is being expressed”.

 

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1926.
Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1926.

 

 

This body of work was to be his greatest exploration of abstractions in photography, something which he had been influenced by since his early days with Camera Work and the early European abstract painters such as Picasso. These images featured greatly in the Intimate Gallery or the ROOM as it was called, a gallery which he opened in his later life dedicated to the devotion of art and its ability for transcendentalism. The gallery became a sort of an art shrine with hours of silence held at 10 – 11am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

 

 

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1929.
Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1929.

 

 

Transcendentalism, as articulated by Immanuel Kant, is based on the idea that; in order to understand the nature of reality, one must first examine and analyse the reasoning process which governs the nature of experience or inner-experience. This way of thinking was central to American philosophy influencing philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau. These ideas also influenced photographers such as Minor White and Ansel Adams. Minor, a closet homosexual, dealt with a lot of unknown questions about his sexual preference and would seek answers from transcendentalists, Buddhist teachings, and the exploration of his inner-feelings, which isolated him greatly in the early and mid-1900s. Articulated in his images is his wish to convey photography’s ability to carry different meanings and messages. Messages about his own sexual preferences and ideas about the world.

 

 

Minor White, Self-Portrait (West Bloomfield, New York), 1957.
Minor White, Self-Portrait (West Bloomfield, New York), 1957.

 

 

Ansel Adams articulated photography’s ability to convey his own inner-feelings and its ability for a transcendental experience on a summer morning in 1923. He writes in a letter to his father:

 

“… it was one of those mornings where the sunlight was burnished with the keen wind. The long feathers of cloud moved in a lofty sky. The silver light turned every blade of grass and every particle of sand into a luminous metallic splendour. There is nothing, however small, that did not crash in the wind or send arrows of light into the glassy air. I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching path of the ridge and by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light. The moment I paused, the full impact of the mood was upon me. I saw more clearly, ever before than ever since, the minute details of the grasses, the small thoughts in the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming across the peaks. I dreamed for a moment, time stood quietly, and a vision became but a shadow of the infinitely grater world, and I had within the grasp of consciousness, a transcendental experience.”

 

Ansel Adam, Cathedral Peak and Lake, 1938.
Ansel Adam, Cathedral Peak and Lake, 1938.

 

 

Other Photographers of note include American West Coats photographer Aaron Siskin and Hungarian Born, Josef Sudek. Siskin’s work consists of surfaces abstracted from their normal context or meaning, focusing rather, on chipped paints or posters on walls with different tonality, shapes and forms.

 

 

Aaron Siskind, Jerome, Arizona, 1949.
Aaron Siskind, Jerome, Arizona, 1949.

 

 

Josef Sudek’s Windows From My Studio work from the city of Prague in the Czech Republic is the widely considered as the most poetic. Sudek, who took up photography after he lost his arm during the First World War, became heavily reclusive. The images from the series are distinct and unique with the aid of atmospheric conditions such as dew, ice, or rain drops to echo his reclusive nature. By making light the subject of his photographs, his work borrowed largely from the surrealist style of the day with a heavily impressionistic vision.

 

 

Jose Sudek, La Dernière Rose 1956.
Jose Sudek, La Dernière Rose 1956.

 

 

Photography has a long and extensive heritage. Although it may not be as old as painting or sculpture, it has surely shaped and changed the way we view the world. It has also opened up ideas on the power of images and the emotions they can transmit. Some of these photographers and ideas still remain a prominent feature in our aesthetic. I think what history continues to show, is that there is no right or wrong way of taking a photograph, however, great work has a way of standing the test of time. The work that stands out continues shaping our ideas as we constantly use it as reference for what photography could or should look like in the future.

 

 

On the next and final post, we will look my own conclusion of what I think of modern photography and its sentiments. Stick around…

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