FIGURATION VS. ABSTRACTION:
This draft was found in an exercise book in Vaughan’s studio after his death, labelled ‘Notes on Painting’ along with other random jottings and drafts of letters.
To Patrick Heron 21/10/54
I’ve just read your article Space in Painting and Architecture which you give me some months ago. Allow me the pleasure of noting some points of disagreement.
You maintain that space is the subject of certain non-figurative painting: ‘the mystic contemplation of what is, after all, a prime element of the Universe’. If this were true, then continuing your analogy with music, time would become the prime concern of modern music, since melody and harmony (corresponding to form and colour) only detract from the ‘mystic contemplation’ and should be repressed. Pure time in music is expressed by the rest. Therefore at its ultimate point, a composition could consist of a drumbeat to mark the beginning and end and, in between, an unbroken series of breve rests.
Space, like time, is not a positive entity of any significance in itself. There are mental areas in which things happen (form and melody). Form is, and always has been, the prime concern in painting. Space is important only in so far as it allows an articulation of forms to take place. It is the forms which ‘give out’ something, not the space itself.
I think you are wrong in suggesting that the old painters were not conscious of the space elements in painting. The profound geometrical organisation of the space, which preceded most Renaissance painting, surely disproves this. It was a very exacting and conscious concern. They knew better than to think space organisation was a significant experience in itself. I do not think for a moment they were ‘under the illusion they were pushing about real people, furniture, buildings’ etc…They abstracted symbols of these things, and they knew this. Necessity for illusionistic representation limited, to some extent, the possible modifications of the forms, and this was partly their strength. One must have limits, otherwise no tension is set up. The difficulty today is that no limits are imposed by tradition. The artist is helplessly free.
The problem today is between the comparative values of figurative and non-figurative form. We shy at the figurative because it seems to bring in arbitrary illusionistic references all the time. But this is because of our weakness in seeing and handling the form. Cézanne purged figurative form of all extraneous literary reference – who cares who or what his objects or people actually were? It is important only that they should be recognised as part of our visual environment. Without this recognition the magnificence of his organisational form in space would lose much of its impact.
Once we let go of the figurative and launch into abstraction everything is possible and everything is uncertain. The circle, square and crescent have no precise emotional equivalents. Subjective organic forms even less. You lose the first round straight away because the forms themselves are insignificant. However all is not lost because the organisation of forms sets up rhythms, tensions and patterns in space which are pleasing or not pleasing – but that’s as far as it can go. You are back into the confines of a purely decorative art. This is not entirely unworthwhile of course, but it is less than half what the old boys had to work with.
[William] Scott’s painting is a chaste and elegant piece of decoration; a pattern of black shapes on the white, garnished with the sensuous quality of pigment sensitively applied and enlivened with the lyricism of the personal handmark of the artist. If it is a ‘living entity’ it is of a very elementary order indeed. Living entities are the concern of God. Art is a personal comment on living entities – or should be; a plastic image paraphrasing life or rather the artist’s experience of living. There is nothing ‘momentary’ about it’s resemblance to a spiky piece of furniture. It is bound to resemble something or other, and whatever it resembles is bound to be irrelevant. So by fleeing from the irrelevance of literary representation you only land yourself in even more limiting and inhibiting references to geometrical or other arbitrary forms. There is really no such thing as a ‘non-representational form’. I do not believe the eye is capable of perceiving a profound experience from the contemplation of a square with a circle in the same way that you can receive parallel abstract experiences from music. Hence the falseness of the superficially logical justification for non-representationalism and the analogy with music. It ignores the different sensory mechanisms of the two organs.
And if to escape again from the limits of geometrical form we fall back onto subjective forms – free forms – smears of the brush – what then? A gain in sensuousness, certainly – a more exciting impact – the richness of the thick paint – but even greater imprecision. Do we make ourselves clearer by shouting louder? It is significant that the ‘thick abstractionists’ are more attractive the more the pigment is left alone. A [painting] by Scott is more attractive than [one by] Lanyon because the Lanyon ultimately defeats resolution and leaves one frustrated and dissatisfied. Everything is blurred – a muddle. The paint is exciting, the rhythms lively, the colour enhancing – all the secondary values of that – but the form – ?