How artists have developed their work

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Discuss how artists have developed their work to convey a specific spiritual or religious meaning.

"To send light into the darkness of men's hearts- such is the duty of the artist" - Schumann

Throughout this essay I will discuss four major artists that worked during the twentieth century and analyse the ways in which depicting the spiritual has progressed throughout this period. I will begin by looking at the theoretical side of Wassily Kandinsky's work that he developed during the early part of the century the work that was produced from these ideas. Then moving on to artwork produced in the mid-century in that of Marc Rothko and Jackson Pollock that was created during a turbulent time when the world was consumed by violence. From this point I will look at the consequent death of art in a post-modern world as spiritual/religious meaning gave way to a materialistic culture. I will then conduct a post-mortem of the religious and spiritual art and the product of this depression in relatively recent works by Damien Hirst.

"Kandinsky's abstract works followed a long period of development based on his personal artistic experiences. Fascination and unusual stimulation by colour in his childhood, than his study of the folk art in the region, in particular the use of bright colours on a dark background; he used later in his paintings and reflected in much his early work. It was not until 1896, at the age of 30, that Kandinsky gave up a promising career teaching law and economics to enrol in art school in Munich. He was not immediately granted admission in Munich and began learning art on his own. Also in 1896, prior to leaving Moscow, he saw an exhibit of paintings by Monet and was particularly taken with the famous impressionistic Haystacks which, to him, had a powerful sense of colour almost independent of the objects themselves. On writing about this experience later he said:"

"That it was a haystack the catalogue informed me. I could not recognize it. This non-recognition was painful to me. I considered that the painter had no right to paint indistinctly. I dully felt that the object of the painting was missing. And I noticed with surprise and confusion that the picture not only gripped me, but impressed itself ineradicably on my memory. Painting took on a fairy-tale power and splendour."

Kandinsky held the view that artists could not look to the past to solve the mysteries of the present. Any regurgitation of past methods would at best produce a 'still-born', a lifeless husk that possessed a similarity only in visual form. It was therefore impossible for the work to communicate in the way to properly without having experienced the age that it was created in. He knew that the concept of the spiritual changes with time, fluctuating, therefore the religious art that is produced throughout the ages changes to reflect this. The work produced during the Renaissance is no longer relevant or has the same spiritual effect on an audience as it once had. Kandinsky sought a fundamental truth in his work. He conveyed this by using brilliant colours in compositions of geometric shapes and lines. He sought to communicate experiences and emotions through a purely visual language whilst leaving out all symbolic or narrative content. In doing so, Kandinsky redefined the traditional concepts of the picture plane and provided ground work for much of modern art to follow."

Kandinsky was fascinated by the power of music and so he strived to give his paintings the emotional force of a Beethoven symphony. Music being a language in itself it goes much further than any spoken language can in expressing the inexpressible. When speaking of the spiritual in art Kandinsky asserts that "Musical sound acts directly on the soul and finds an echo there because, though to a varying extent music is innate in man". Music permits an emotional response in the listener that is not based on the literal or the descriptive, but rather on the abstract quality that painting, still dependent on representing the visible world, cannot provide. Kandinsky took music as the highest ideal for the visual arts. He theorized and wrote about the flowing together of colour and music and painting, and began naming his paintings the way musicians name their musical pieces: contrasting sounds, improvisation, composition, etc.

His shapes which resemble microscopic organisms are a fanfare of variation. His colours harmoniously contrast, explode and crash together like the cymbals of an orchestra. Kandinsky would hear chords and tones as he worked, he theorized that; "yellow is the colour of middle-C on a piano, a brassy trumpet blast; black is the colour of closure and the ends of things" and that combinations and associations of colours produce vibration frequencies akin to chords played on a piano. Kandinsky also developed an intricate theory of geometric figures and their relationships, claiming, for example, that the circle is the most peaceful shape and represents the human soul. What began as synaesthesiaa condition in which the senses are unusually cross-wired and interlinkedbecame in Kandinsky a fully developed aesthetic theory.

In the early stages when Rothko was trying to develop a style that could transmit a simplicity and humanity to his time he looked to works Dada and by Picasso but this only made Rothko feel like he was floundering. He took an early interest in surrealism but by 1946 had completely steered his work towards abstraction. He saw the way Matisse liberated colour from specific objects in his red studio and this inspired Rothko's multiforms, multi-layered, varying shapes and sizes of colour. Rothko was greatly influenced by Greek tragedy, Shakespearean tragedy and by reading Nietzsche and Freud; he commented on this saying "The tragic is also with me when I paint". During the war Rothko sees the tragedy in the real world and this has a tremendous effect on the work he produced.

With the end of World War II and the atom bomb awakening humanity to the knowledge that mankind had developed the ability to annihilate itself. The resulting mood was one of introspection and reflection. Although most abstract expressionists at the time were trained in traditional forms of art making, they saw representational art as incapable of expressing emotion. Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock both developed their painting styles in New York during the 1940s and 1950s. They were a part of the group of artists known as the abstract expressionists. Although each of the artists associated with this movement worked in a very individual style, they were linked by the desire to find a new means of artistic expression. Rather than including recognizable objects in their work, they used the elements of painting such as colour, line, shape, brushstrokes, texture, and light, to express emotions. Their influences included Native American, pre-Columbian, Mexican, and African art, along with the modern European movement and surrealism, which looked to dreams and the unconscious for subject matter.

Rothko developed his paintings around artists such as Willem De Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. Newman was very outspoken on his interest in the spiritual side of his artwork. In 1943 he wrote;

"The painter is concerned . . . with the presentation into the world mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into metaphysical secrets. To that extent, his art is concerned with the sublime."

It was artists such as Marc Rothko and Jackson Pollock who carried Kandinsky's torch into this dark post war world. The traditional god seemed dead or irrelevant when sense in the world was desperately sought. The old masters and their religious paintings had nothing to offer this zeitgeist. The cruelty and brutality of the world called for some new kind of artistic concept that science could not erode or disprove. Even in the face of appalling inhumanity of the Second World War, Rothko remained optimistic on the spiritual power of primitive art to put man in touch with a fundamental energy. The war had an effect on the way Rothko thought and how his work developed since the tragic he felt previously becomes more profound as he reflects on the tragic happenings in the real world. From then on his work became totally nonrepresentational, no more paintings of subways or figures, Rothko commented on this time he says "You couldn't paint figures after the war without mutilating them".

As with Kandinsky, Rothko acknowledged the achievements of arts past masters and also agreed that any duplication of past methods would fail to convey the spiritual to the modern viewer. So, Rothko developed his paintings to contain the emotional, spiritual resonance of Renaissance Italy but chose a more basic, primitive style using colours and shapes to move the audience, as Michelangelo had.

'"After I had been at work for some time," he said, "I realized that I was much influenced subconsciously by Michelangelo's walls in the staircase room of the Medicean Library in Florence. He achieved just the kind of feeling I'm after - he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall.

He wanted his work to transcend specific history and culture. Using fields of colour, Rothko, as with Kandinsky, believed the power of colour could communicate the spiritual and express basic, subtle human emotions. When commenting on painting, he said "don't mind the rules, it should be as natural as singing, it should be like music" Again following from Kandinsky's idea that painted vibrations have a direct effect on the soul.

Jackson Pollock developed the automatic art, his work gradually becoming more abstract. By the late 1940s he had developed a process for which he became famous, dripping paint onto flat canvasses to form abstract expressions of "unconscious imagery." This method placed Pollock as the construction vehicle of the work but gave credit to an unseen force that was present in the mind of the artist.

Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)

Rothko did not share Pollock's lack of control. He had to be closely involved in every aspect of his work would appear, controlling the whole experience. The light in the gallery where the painting would be viewed was kept low, expectation in the gloom, a sense of the dramatic. The atmosphere manipulated to give an intimate and personal connection. This intimacy was furthered by his instruction that his work should be viewed from a close distance, the idea being that the painting can then overwhelm the viewer's whole vision. His sombre, borderless canvases suggest deep silence and invite a meditation into an infinite void, yet somehow, too, evoke a sense of mystery and presence. Rothko, behaving more as a mystic than artist hoped his work would help heal humanity as the world plummeted further into self annihilation. Rothko was completely against the "Verbiage, activity and consumption" of the age, his work was developed to communicate with the subconscious of the human audience.

The meaning Rothko instils into his work is ambiguous and left open for the viewer, even the edges of his shapes flutter and shift. His colour fields could deny our way or invite us in; the colours subtly shift in hue and seem to pulse with life. The only thing certain in Rothko's paintings is that there are no certainties, no platforms that can offer us any comfort. The high emotional intensity of his colours speaks to everyone differently but the common message has to be one that hints at something indefinable by any language. Rothko once asserted "The progression of a painter's work, as it travels through time, will be towards clarity."

Untitled 1947

"I'm not an abstractionist. I'm not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on ... The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions ... the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them."

This religious experience Rothko spoke of is something he left up to the viewer to find in them. Giving no hints or symbolic distractions within the pictures; this is a religious art that speaks universally. The renaissance artists tried to depict what the Church declared as a certain idea of what reality was. However, the power in Rothko's work lies in its ambiguity. Not wanting to be labelled an abstractionist he has developed an art that transcends time and association. Rothko's work is of the eternal now and the human spirit.

The existential crisis the world has undergone since the beginning of the twentieth century and had fuelled part of Rothko's work has caused artists such as Damien Hirst to respond. On speaking of his ambition in art Hirst said;

"I wanted to make art everyone could believe in, even people who hate art - even my mother, who tries to like art but thinks it's above her."

When dealing with the religious subjects Hirst covers in his sculptures, controversy is almost impossible to avoid. He says he is not just an artist who wishes to shock people but rather make them think. Hirst sees himself as an outsider in the art world; this feeling is something he developed at an early age. He never knew who his father was and only discovered his stepfather wasn't his real father when he was twelve years old. Hirst rejected his religious upbringing the iconography was something that interested him, "the gory pictures in the Bible". He rebelled, finding refuge in medical text books and illustrating corpses in medical school, posing for a photo with a severed head, some call this his greatest work.

"After more than a decade working under the Young British Artist label, Hirst in his later thirties is still a controversial showman. It is this dramatic urge of a showman that pushes him to installations such as suspending a seventeen foot shark in a tank of formaldehyde and sawing and pickling corpses of cows, sheep and pigs. He uses beasts' cadavers to explore human ethics, mortality and the everyday alienation in a world that is changing at great pace. It is also created to force viewers to consider their own and society's attitudes to death. His works are explicitly concerned with the fundamental dilemmas of human existence; his constant themes have included the fragility of life, society's reluctance to confront death, and the nature of love and desire. Hirst is both a sacrilegious lapsed Catholic and obsessed with religious forms;" he once said all his formaldehyde animals represented the crucifixion. The animals are preserved as in life, but at the same time are emphatically dead, with their entrails and flesh exposed. "

His work 'Romance in an age of uncertainty' continues the religious trend in his provocative and profitable career. It was the first solo exhibition of new work by Damien Hirst in London since he exhibited Still at White Cube, Duke Street, in 1995. This extensive exhibition of new sculptures and paintings collectively examined, dissected and recast the story of Jesus and the Disciples. Through these new religious works Hirst explored the uncertainty at the heart of human experience; the confusing relations between love, life and death; communion and isolation; loyalty and betrayal. And in so doing Hirst brings into play religion, art and science, layering these categories together, in works that tell new and different stories.

Romance in an age of uncertainty 2003

The Apostles were represented in the show by a collection of cabinets that told the story of the gruesome deaths of the disciples and the Ascension of Jesus. Each cabinet is made from steel and glass, with a mirror on the back surface, containing various objects arranged seemingly at random on several glass shelves. The majority of the glassware are objects that would be found in a laboratory: measuring tubes transparent flasks, bell jars and broken crucibles. In previous installations Hirst used cabinets to convey a scientific taxonomy of one kind of object; this Apostle cabinet shows a deviation from the sterile, sealed case and is instead displays a complex layering of objects and meaning. In these cases crosses and rosaries mix together with forceps, glassware and specimen dishes. Adding to all this chaos are hammers, clubs and swords and many of the cabinets glass panels have themselves been violated and traumatised with bloodstained stigmata-like holes.

Each cabinet is an abstract portrait dedicated to a specific disciple that displays objects and wounds to represent a particular form of martyrdom. Through various traumas inflicted on the cabinets the viewer must investigate the scene backwards from the point of death to reconstruct the identity of the victim. At the foot of each cabinet is a cow's head representing the corresponding disciple that has been skinned, divided or inverted and preserved in formaldehyde in a glass tank. Relief comes with the tank dedicated to the Ascension of Jesus, where the cow's head appears to have disappeared, leaving only a clear tank of formaldehyde.

In conclusion, it would seem that artists working in times of

Carrie O'Grady, "Hirst, winner 1995" [accessed 18 December 2009].

Robert A. Schumann, "Quotes" < [accessed 18 December 2009].

Bernard Reis, "Rothko Article" < [accessed 18 December 2009].

Hajo Duchting, "Notes on Kandinsky 2007"[accessed 18 December 2009].

Wassily Kandinsky, "Concerning the spiritual in art" (Dover Publications) (p. 1).

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