There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all traces of reality.
 Pablo Picasso
Picasso’s words seem to not correspond with his drawing which, in this case, looks disconnected from reality. PP has used the lay-out of the newspaper as a background for a number of mathematical forms.
I have turned the image above upside-down so that we automatically focus on the printed words. Picasso originally made his drawing on the inverted newspaper to give the blocks of printed words an ‘abstract’ function and to remove their distracting effect. Below is the drawing as it was actually meant to be viewed… the head of a man with a moustache.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Head of a man with a moustache, 1913, 55,6 x 37,5 cm
mixed media on paper
In our efforts to visually make sense when viewing this drawing, our conditioning is such that once we are given a title the subject matter becomes recognisable.

Picasso touches on another aspect concerning ‘abstract art’: the start. The women and men we consider to be the masters of Abstract Art have developed their abstract forms based on a thorough knowledge and mastering of their craft. They did not start by creating abstract art. Their works are the result of schooling and lifelong study; working and wrestling with colour and form to create their envisaged results.

After abstract art became fashionable the term ‘abstract’ has been used as an excuse to camouflage a lack of craftsmanship and/or talent.

Eugene Dodeigne (1923-2015) Study,  c. 60 x 84 cm, charcoal.
During my training at the (original) Rijksacademie, in Amsterdam, drawing was considered the foundation of all visual art. The first years of study were spent with long days of drawing after nature, which we then naively considered as mastering the skills of copying nature. Later, I realised that apart from transforming eye and hand into a new tool, repeated drawing was also a training in abstraction, getting at the essence of forms.
It dawned on me what the total energy should be of a work of art. A portrait is not a remake of a head, a landscape not a picturesque copy of sky and land. Both are an interaction between all of the selected forms and colours, metamorphosed into a two-dimensional frame. In a sculpture it is the sum of the positive (touchable) and negative (untouchable) forms.
The abstract energy of a work of art, sometimes referred to in sculpture as the arabesque.
It is what makes a painting or sculpture ‘work’, or not ‘work’.

Antoni Tapies drawing

Abstract can be designated as unrecognisable, also as non-concrete or an idea. But when is something unrecognisable? Tapies work, as shown above, could be called ‘abstract’, non-realistic. However, for the trained eye it can be experienced as described by Picasso; removed reality, scrubbed down to it’s essence, the arabesque. Just as familiar and concrete as the monumental painting by Van der Weijden with it’s similar energies and composition.

Rogier van der Weijden (c. 1400-1464), Descent from the Cross, c. 1435,
oil on oak panel, 220 x 262 cm, Prado, Madrid.
Van der Weijdens composition is built upon the strong lines of an abstract, diagonal frame, on which he modelled the various characters needed to visualise the event. Turning the image upside down makes it easier to detect the basic structure, which I marked out on the image below.

Therefore, we can ask ourselves: what is abstract art? Is it removal of reality? or is it more a case of, for some onlookers, unrecognisable images and forms, like the prehistoric painting below?

This red earth rock painting from the mountains of Cantabria, Spain, was discovered in 1903. It is probably around 40,000 years old. It has been labelled an ‘abstract painting’ by modern western man, because we have no idea of it’s meaning. However, it does not follow that it was intended to be ‘abstract’. These images could have been quite clear and logical for it’s creators and their public, as easy to read for them as is a newspaper for us.

Perhaps we could be a little more aware, and cautious, when using  the term ‘abstract’ and better appreciate our sometimes limited mind-frame.

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