It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Der Blaue Reiter Almanac : August Macke

Magdeburg Cathedral, 13th Century

Masks - by August Macke

A sunny day, a cloudy day, a Persian spear, a holy vessel, a pagan idol and a wreath of everlasting flowers, a Gothic cathedral and a Chinese junk, the bow of a pirate ship, the word “pirate” and the word “holy,” darkness, night, spring, the cymbals and their sound and the firing of armored vessels, the Egyptian Sphinx and the beauty spot stuck on the pretty cheek of a Parisian cocotte.

The lamplight in Ibsen and Maeterlinck, the paintings of village streets and ruins, the mystery plays in the Middle Ages and children frightening each other, a landscape by Van Gogh and a still life by Cezanne, the whirring of propellers and the neighing of horses, the cheers of a cavalry attack and the war paint of Indians, the cello and the bell, the shrill whistle of the steam engine, and the cathedral-like quality of a beech forest, masks and stages of the Japanese and the Greeks, and the mysterious, hollow drumming of the Indian fakir.

Is life not more precious than food and the body not more precious than clothing?

August Macke was 24 when he wrote this youthful celebration of life as he knew it. . Sadly, he would die three years later on a battlefield in France.

I share his relative disinterest in food --- he's obviously not a gourmet --- but  did he really feel that clothing was  more precious than the body that it covers ?

August Macke, (not in the Almanac)

He did paint nudes - apparently from life or from life drawings - though this one seems more contemplative than sensual.

Incomprehensible ideas express themselves in comprehensible forms. Comprehensible through our senses as star, thunder, flower, as form.

Form is a mystery to us for it is the expression of mysterious powers. Only through it do we sense the secret powers, the “invisible God.”

The senses are our bridge between the incomprehensible and the comprehensible. 

To behold plants and animals is: to perceive their secret.

To hear the thunder is: to perceive its secret. To understand the language of forms means: to be closer to the secret, to live.

To create forms means: to live. Are not children more creative in drawing directly from the secret of their sensations than the imitator of Greek forms? Are not savages artists who have forms of their own powerful as the form of thunder?

Thunder, flower, any force expresses itself as form. So does man. He, too, is driven by something to find words for conceptions, to find clearness in obscurity, consciousness in the unconscious. This is his life, his creation.

As man changes, so do his forms change.

The relations that numerous forms bear to one another enable us to recognize the individual form. Blue first becomes visible against red, the greatness of the tree against the smallness of the butterfly, the youth of the child against the age of the old man. One and two make three. The formless, the infinite, the zero remain incomprehensible. God remains incomprehensible.

Man expresses his life in forms. Each form of art is an expression of his inner life. The exterior of the form of art is its interior.

Each genuine form of art emerges from a living correlation of man to the real substance of the forms of nature, the forms of art. The scent of a flower, the joyful leaping of a dog, a dancer, the donning of jewelry, a temple, a painting, a style, the life of a nation, of an era.

The flower opens at sunrise. Seeing his prey, the panther crouches, and as a result of seeing it, his strength grows. And the tension of his strength shows in the length of his leap. The form of art, its style, is a result of tension. 

Styles, also, may perish from inbreeding. The crossbreeding of two styles results in a third, a new style. The renaissance of antiquity and of Durer, the disciple of Schongauer and Mantegna. Europe and the Orient.

In a world full of forms, he doesn't talk much about what kind of forms he prefers to others -- other than the notion of "power" - the form of a panther is more powerful when he is crouching to attack than when he is sleeping.


Easter Island

This essay is accompanied by the above images, taken from pieces in the Munich Museum of Folk Art.

Invariably, the pieces are mediocre - but that might reflect the limitations of what was available. Presumably they qualify for inclusion only because they are not naturalistic. .

In our time the impressionists found a direct connection with natural phenomena. Their rallying cry was to depict nature’s organic form bathed in light, enveloped in atmosphere. It changed under their hands.

Peasant, Italian primitive, Dutch, Japanese, and Tahitian art forms became as stimulating as nature’s own forms. Renoir, Signac, Toulouse-Lautrec, Beardsley, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin. They are all no more naturalists than El Greco or Giotto. Their works are the expressions of their inner lives; they are the forms of these artists’ interior world in the medium of painting. This does not necessarily indicate that there is a culture, a culture that would mean to us what the Gothic style meant to the Middle Ages, a culture in which everything has form, form born from our lives—only from our lives. Self-evident and strong as the scent of a flower. 

Perhaps it's the fault of the translation - but the above seems  so confusing.  What did the Gothic Style mean to the Middle Ages ?  What forms have not been  born from the lives of those who made them? But isn't it possible for artifacts to  express  social conventions more than someone's inner life?  Isn't it possible for some artifacts to be like street signs -- and be intended to communicate like a written text ?

In our complicated and confused era we have forms that absolutely enthrall everyone in exactly the same way as the fire dance enthralls the African or the mysterious drumming of the fakirs enthralls the Indian. As a soldier, the independent scholar stands beside the farmer’s son. They both march in review similarly through the ranks, whether they like it or not. At the movies the professor marvels alongside the servant girl. In the vaudeville theater the butterfly-colored dancer enchants the most amorous couples as intensely as the solemn sound of the organ in a Gothic cathedral seizes both believer and unbeliever.

"Enthralls exactly the same way" ?   I would doubt it -- though the  professor and the servant girl might be  enthralled just as intensely by the same performance  up on stage. I would be surprised if  even two servant girls would be enthralled exactly the same way.

Forms are powerful expressions of powerful life. Differences in expression come from the material, word, color, sound, stone, wood, metal. One need not understand each form. One also need not read each language.

What about forms - and lives - that are not so very powerful ? Macke does not allow for many kinds of differences.

Van Gogh, "Portrait of Dr. Gachet"

The contemptuous gesture with which connoisseurs and artists have to this day banished all artistic forms of primitive cultures to the fields of ethnology or applied art is amazing at the very least.
What we hang on the wall as a painting is basically similar to the carved and painted pillars in an African hut. The African considers his idol the comprehensible form for an incomprehensible idea, the personification of an abstract concept. For us the painting is the comprehensible form for the obscure, incomprehensible conception of a deceased person, of an animal, of a plant, of the whole magic of nature, of the rhythmical.
Does Van Gogh’s portrait of Dr. Gachet not originate from a spiritual life similar to the amazed grimace of a Japanese juggler cut in a wood block

Yashima Gakutei , "Monkey Juggler", c. 1812

I have no idea which grimacing Japanese juggler Macke had in mind -- above is the first one I found. Neither it, nor the Van Gogh, were reproduced in the Almanac.

If these two pieces exemplify a similar spiritual life -- I wonder where Macke would have  recognized spiritual lives that were dis-similar.

Ceylon, disease-demon mask
(not in Almanac)

 The mask of the disease demon from Ceylon is the gesture of horror of a primitive race  by which their priests conjure sickness. The grotesque embellishments found on a mask have their analogies in Gothic monuments and in the almost unknown buildings and inscriptions in the primeval forests of Mexico. What the withered flowers are for the portrait of the European doctor, so are the withered corpses for the mask of the conjurer of disease. The cast bronzes of the Negroes from Benin in West Africa , the idols from the Easter Islands in the remotest Pacific, the cape of a chieftain from Alaska, and the wooden masks from New Caledonia speak the same powerful language as the chimeras of Notre-Dame and the tombstones in Frankfurt Cathedral.

Everywhere, forms speak in a sublime language right in the face of European aesthetics. Even in the games of children, in the hat of a cocotte, in the joy of a sunny day, invisible ideas materialize quietly.
The joys, the sorrows of man, of nations, lie behind the inscriptions, paintings, temples, cathedrals, and masks, behind the musical compositions, stage spectacles, and dances. If they are not there, if form becomes empty and groundless, then there is no art. 

With this listing of things from around the world that have something very powerful in common, this concluding paragraph sounds a lot like Malraux in the La Psychologie de l'Art from 1947.  And like Malraux, he's not going to tell us much about that mysterious something that apparently defies European aesthetics - even if it can be found in celebrated European art as well. Nor does  Macke  offer any examples of form that is empty and groundless.

This writing is so empty-headed, one wonders why Kandinsky, or anyone, would wish to include it in a collection of essays.

But fortunately, the power and clarity that are absent from his writing can easily be found in his painting.




In these three paintings, Macke seemed to be moving away from whatever naturalism he had.

I wonder how he would painted had he survived the war.

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