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Resisting Abstraction: Robert Delaunay and Vision in the Face of Modernism

by Gordon Hughes
University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2014-12-29
184 pp. illus. 92 col., 46 b/w. Trade, $45.00
ISBN: 97802261559232.

Reviewed by Michael Punt


Resisting Abstraction: Robert Delaunay and Vision in the Face of Modernism

In the fifth of Edgar Wind’s famous series of Reith lectures published in 1963 as “Art and Anarchy” he addresses the consequences of the mechanization of Art. In the course of this discussion he suggests that ‘our vision of art is transformed by reproductions... Our eyes have been sharpened to those aspects of painting and sculpture that are brought out effectively by the camera’ (p.69). It seems to him obvious that the artist’s own vision is attuned to this effect in parallel to a realisation that art can be mobilised more effectively in books than museums and galleries and this situation shapes the understanding of what art is. He suggests Picasso, Van Gogh, and the Douanier Rousseau fare better than say Titian because schematic plain colours are more suited to the colour process. Later, and perhaps more contentiously, he argues that the restricted palette of the colour printing process superimposed itself on the artist––or at least those artists for whom public recognition is in some way important––and affected style and taste. What Wind falls short of is the assumption that mechanical colour printing changed human perception, and in this regard he is in accord with cognitive science.

Wind does not include Robert Delaunay in his examples of artists who responded to the influence of colour print processes but could well have done so if one buys into the argument of Gordon Hughes’ recent monograph Resisting Abstraction. The publisher claims this to be the first English language study of Delaunay in more than 30 years, and some explanation for this is offered early on with Alfred H. Barr’s famous diagram from 1936 which shows, as Hughes points out, that Orphism was the only movement in the twentieth century that for Barr seems to come to a dead end. The project behind Resisting Abstraction is to challenge this idea by showing Delaunay as an important intellect behind modernism whose contribution may only just beginning to become clear as we begin to look at science and art through the same lens.

Hughes’ approach is to spend little time on biographical detail and to concentrate on looking at the paintings slowly in order to see them better. He does this against the backdrop of some influential ideas in cognitive science about visual perception; the sudden proliferation of coloured posters in Paris; and the obsession with movement in philosophy, art and science at the turn of the century. Through this triangulation he offers a particular reading of Delaunay’s Disk painting from 1913; a painting that Hughes argues was important but misunderstood at the time and continued to be something of an enigma for historians. That is until now. The book is divided into three substantive sections; the first, Break (windows) outlines cognitive aspects of visual perception as a temporal process, for which the experience of the aerial view and the view through a glazed window act as vivid reminders of (a) the work involved in seeing and (b) the repression of the memory of that work necessary for perception.  This forms the bedrock for his analysis of Delaunay’s paintings as interventions in the various strands of cubism in which the viewer and the painting are implicated in the same cognitive enterprise.

The second section, Punch (painting) hinges on the perceptual impact of highly coloured advertising posters affixed to public walls in Paris during the first decades of the twentieth century and the ways in which these allowed colour to transform the perception of architectural structure. Hughes argues that this is crucial to the understanding of Delaunay’s approach to colour as a confrontation with the very problem of modernism. The third section, Movement (into abstraction) makes that problem more explicit in a discussion of movement, and the dichotomy between instant and flow as the mirror image of modernism’s struggle between tableau and morceaux: a struggle he sees as constitutive of modernist painting from its inception.

Resisting Abstraction is a richly illustrated book with a short text that weaves its story through unexpected paths, all of which are fascinating even if some feel rather forced. This approach may be necessary for Hughes to make his point given that the vision of art today has been transformed by the proliferation of inchoate images that cohere through economically driven discourses of nostalgia and narcissism. In this book he has deployed a rhetorical style that will capture new audiences for an important discussion of what art and painting can mean if they are given the time. There are, of course, dangers with such broad sweeps and it is possible that a longer and more nuanced monograph is called for.

There are many strands of the argument that are passed over hastily and leave the reader a little suspicious that some rather important assumptions are smuggled into the book that, if made more explicit, may prove inconvenient. Most especially, considering the title Resisting Abstraction, there is something unresolved about why Delaunay rejected the abstractions of Neo-plasticism or Suprematism (for example) but seems perfectly comfortable embracing the abstractions (and spiritual motivations and idealism) of cognitive science. A fuller recognition of this paradox would have helped.

There are other missed opportunities, too, in the glossing over of Munsterberg’s laboratory at Harvard where, among others, Gertrude Stein studied and decided to reject cognitive science, and where Munsterberg himself laid the foundations for much contemporary thinking about the cognitive effects of the temporal image. Most of all these could offer a fuller articulation of the debates concerning the relationship between technology and perception that seems crucial to much of what is presented. Here I think Wind might have been helpful since he is very clear that technology does not change perception so much as impact on the way we understand art, taste, and style in ways that may introduce aesthetic changes. Such a nuanced approach would enrich and strengthen Hughes’ fascinating argument. An interwoven biographical account of Delaunay that dealt with this would have made for a more difficult and demanding project, but without it, the changing circumstances of his life and times are a competitive narrative that threatens to undo the progress of Hughes’ argument.

This is a well-produced book with good quality illustration of Delaunay’s work that allows Hughes to make meaningful formal analysis of the paintings. He has constructed a parallel visual essay that encourages the reader to take the necessary time to look at the images and offers a great opportunity to a new generation to revisit a period of astonishing creativity (and destruction) that is a little too demanding to be fashionable. While there is much fascinating material in the footnotes, a bibliography would have been a valuable asset to the interested reader to understand more clearly where this argument stands in relation to important questions about visual perception and painting that are pressing today.

Last Updated 4th January 2015

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