mimesis and abstraction

francesca misericordia

a dialectic between organic appearance en geometric essence
on the border between art and design

The problem may seem somewhat out-dated, but is still a topical subject:  the development of abstract art - one of the central manifestations of the anti-mimetic rage in the twentieth century - is responsible for the fact that it seems so evident to no longer regard art and mimesis as synonyms, but rather as irreconcilable opposites. In this essay we will place some question marks around this seemingly indisputable a priori.

Let us begin our story with a short run-up.


When man appears, he wants to appear in appropriate surroundings. This can be an organic environment, as when the cave-dweller appears in the opening of his cave, or when the Buddha meditates under his Bodhi tree. More often, man structures his surroundings geometrically, as when the king is seated against the background of a baldachin - or when the nude exhibits itself within the confines of the four-poster bed in Urbino. The human figure is framed not only in the vertical dimension, but in the horizontal dimension as well. The central actor is always posted in the middle of the space and the other are arranged in geometrical patterns around it: think of the seats in an amphitheatre or the choir stalls in cathedral. Also in the horizontal dimension can the frame be an organic, natural given, like a hill top or Heidegger's 'Lichtung' in the wood. But especially in this dimension does man geometrically organise surrounding space: paradigmatically in a central-dome building or a cross church, whose axes radiate into the environment as roads leading to the centre. Also roads can follow the natural properties of the terrain, but, if possible, they are structured according to a geometric logic - think of the axis from the Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre in Paris by Haussmann, or of Saint Peter's Square by Bernini. Architecture as such is nothing more or nothing less than the structuring of such a frame in three dimensions. Thus, architecture is the appropriate frame for the staging of important events in human life - not to mention Hitler's subordination of the masses on the Zeppelinfeld (Helene Riefenstahl).



The foregoing goes not only for real people in real space, but also for people represented in art: the border of the painted surface or of the sculpture niche function as a frame.


Since the advent of the production for the market, the frame is generalised to what we call the frame in a stricter sense: the frame around a generally rectangular painting. The frame is often prolonged into the picture itself as the hidden geometric grid in which the figures are arranged. Take Titian's Venus of Urbino. The projection of the half of the long side of the rectangleon the short side, is on the golden section of that short side. When you join the two golden sections with a line and trace a vertical line through the half of the upper side, you obtain a double square. Venus' vagina is precisely at the section between the vertical through the half of the upper side and the line joining the two golden section on the lateral sides.


In more sophisticated examples, space is also structured in the third dimension. On the central panel of Piero della Francesca's polyptych of the Misericordia, the figures are inscribed in a semicircle on top of a square, while in the horizontal dimension the body of Mary functions as the central axis around which the mantle is unfolded. On the periphery of the bottom circle of the cylinder are arranged the little figures - as if the Madonna were embodying a hidden dome church on her own... It would lead us too far to analyse more complex examples.

A further step towards a hidden organisation of the image is taken when also the figures of the canvas are structured internally, as is the case with da Vinci's 'Vitruvian man':

vitruvian man

Also more complex wholes can be structured according to a new internal logic, as with the whirling spiral on Rubens' 'Fall of the angels' (MŘnchen) Such hidden structuring comes down to a reduction of concrete figures to abstract givens: head, trunk, arms and legs are reduced to 'lengths'; the Madonna comes to circumscribe a dome upon a cube; the mass of the damned is dissolving into a spiral ...


Precisely because the figures on the canvas are inscribed into a geometrical grid can they begin to develop more freely. A dialectic between 'abstracting' uniformity and 'concretising' diversification is set up. Such dialectics lends the artwork a new dynamic Úlan. Thus, in his 'Last Supper', da Vinci is able to unfold the diversity of gesticulating apostles within the narrow frame of an arrangement of the apostles in four groups of three around the central figure Jesus.

Such heightened tension only strengthens the propensity to look for a hidden structure behind the apparently unstructured diversity. The obsession with the hidden essence behind the superficial appearance induces many to think that the artist is in fact only interested in such hidden geometry. Others go still further and want to free the image of its 'superficial envelope' around the 'true kernel' and bring the hidden geometrical structure of things, their abstract essence unmediated into the image - somewhat like Hermann Nitsch who wants to reduce every drama to the slaughtering of a lamb. That is the case with figures like Mondrian who wants to reduce the basic form of the visible to the opposition between horizontal and vertical, which perfectly fits into the rectangular frame of the canvas.

As soon as the artist restricts himself to the 'essence', the layered structure of the work disappears, and with it the dialectic between hidden geometrical unity and visible organic diversity. A one-dimensional image takes its place. It suffices to compare a Mondrian with the central panel from Piero della Francesca' Misericordia to become aware of how much the tension between hidden structure and superficial appearance is lost.


Until far in the 19th century, the whole pathos of art lay in making visible the very wealth of the visible world. Things changed as soon as photography brought this endeavour to its first apogee about the middle of the century. The painters reacted through walking new paths. The most fertile reaction consisted in no longer so perfectioning the technique of rendering things that it disappears behind the true-to-life rendering - like in oil painting, mezzotint and photography. Rather, artists were out at making visible the traces of painting itself. Thus, Paul Gauguin in his 'Yellow Christ' resorts to the most primitive technique of painting: filling in colour within an outline. No longer the logic of what is rendered, but rather the logic of rendering is put in the foreground: the natural movement of the hand becomes visible in the outline, and with painters like Vincent Van Gogh also in the way the surface is filled in with brush strokes. With Munch's 'The scream', it is the movement of the hand that lends an expression to the image that you would search in vain in real clouds or a real bridge.

It is obvious then, that a new kind of expressiveness can be gained through deviating of 'true-to life' - or photographic - rendering.

And that goes not only for the line, but also for colour. The artist no longer shades his colour in view of the rendering volume. Only unbroken colours are allowed to appear on the canvas, as if it were made of stained glass. The last tie to reality is severed when the painter makes eventually abstraction of true-to-life colour, as does Paul Gauguin when he paints the skin of Jesus yellow and the grass red as in the 'Jacob wrestlingwith the angel'.

An entirely new world is emerging, where different laws determine space and volume and where abstraction is made of the colours of our familiar world. Just like non-existing beings (centaurs, mermaids, angels, dragons...) can be created by combining different parts of existing beings, just so can new beings in new environments be conceived through lending them new forms and new colours and situating them in new kinds of spaces. And, let there be no doubt: although the beings that are staged here are by no means true to our familiar world, their depiction is no less 'true-to-life' than the depiction of non-existent centaurs and mermaids...

Under the influence of the mimetic taboo, this development is often interpreted as a break with a conception of art as a rendering of reality - a farewell to mimesis. 'Abstraction' was understood as a negation of mimesis, rather than a new variant. In fact, the canvas remained a window on the world, albeit on a world that came to differ increasingly from the familiar world.

There is a grain of truth, however, in this misconception. It seems as if the colour and the line begin to speak in their own right. But that is only half of the truth. For, in the examples above, line and colour borrow their expressiveness above all from the fact that they are not 'true-to-life' - or to be more precise: that the diverge from more familiar versions of reality. When the semicircle above Jesus' eye is no longer an eyebrow, it looses much of its expressiveness; and when the grass in 'Jacob wrestling with the angel' is no longer red, it loses all its transcendental flavour. We stumble here on a similar dialectic as that between hidden geometry and organic diversity.

That becomes apparent as soon as the artists cut the umbilical chord with the real world altogether and proceed to a pure play with forms and colours that do no longer represent anything, but wholly coincide with themselves. No doubt, such forms and colours are expressive. But the lack the additional tension created through the 'unnaturalness' of the colours.


Before the umbilical chord is severed altogether, the artists explore still other possibilities. Up to now, only more complex organisms were to be seen on paintings: plants, animals and men. More elementary forms appeared only in the world of design (think of ceramics, tapestry, architecture...). There, they were either geometric or of a rudimentary vegetative/organic character. From the beginning of the twentieth century onwards, similar elements are introduced in painting.

Initially, the new elements tended to be organic, because they were as it were born from the lines and the strokes of the drawing or painting hand. It is as if the painters began to zoom in on the elements with which a figure is built up: the attention shifted from the whole to the hand-made element: line and brush stroke. Already with Vincent Gogh does the effect of the image emanate more from the animated brush stroke than from the expression of the figure - be it face, cypress, landscape or starry night. With Wassily Kandinsky we witness the transition from whole to part before the First World War.

Such zooming in on the painterly elements is a second way of satisfying the anti-mimetic endeavour: it seemed as if the 'photographical tie' with the reality had been severed. But also here there is no way around it: the painting continues to be a window albeit a window that looks out onto new worlds, peopled with beings that up to now show up in the world of art. For, the new abstract, non-figurative forms are still experienced as animated beings - albeit being that are situated rather on the lower stages of an imaginary evolutionary tree: imaginary anemones or amoebas...


And, let there be no doubt: although the beings that are staged here are by no means true to our familiar world, their depiction is no less 'true-to-life' - or 'photographic"- than the depiction of non-existent centaurs and mermaids...

Not always did the movement give birth to unseen 'unidentified painted objects'. With figures like Jackson Pollock, the brush stroke threatens to become a sign that, just like handwriting, tells us something about the state of mind or the character of the maker. Pollock escapes such danger only in that his writing is organised in a figurative whole, that evokes imaginary textures in imaginary spaces.


This kind of 'organic' or 'lyric' abstraction was granted only a short life. Under the influence of the anti-mimetic trend all too suggestive figures were avoided. An obvious way out was the resort to purely geometric forms. Already the Cubists began to replace the complex organic structure of the human body with geometric shapes. Not only complex organic figuration was thus negated, but foremost the equally organic movement of the hand. In Russian Constructivism this move went hand in hand with a refusal of hand-made painting and the resort to 'mechanical' industrial techniques. This lead to the triumph of what came to be called 'geometric abstraction'.

Contrary to what the term suggests, there is no talk here of a break with mimesis - even when,in the eyes of many a philosopher of art the advent of geometric abstraction seals the end of mimesis. The mimetic devil is not so easily driven out of the image. Although the actors are no longer recognisable, they continue to be read as animated beings. To be sure, they no longer belong to the lower branches of an imaginary evolutionary tree, but rather to the higher spheres of an equally imaginary transcendental world. There, not unlike ghosts or angels, they glide weightlessly in immaculate, immaterial bodies. (see: Malevich). It suffices to have a look in Kandinsky's '▄ber das Geistige in der Kunst' to realise how much 'abstract' forms are read as animated beings with an expression of their own: a triangle has a totally different personality than a rectangle or a circle....

And that goes not only for the beings as such, but even more for their interaction - which is far more recognisable. With Lissitzky it still has a name: ''Beat the whites with the Red Wedge'. But in works like that of Frantisek Kupka, the interaction itself is 'abstracted' through a reference to the fugue in music - unjustifiably considered to be an abstract, non-mimetic art (which, by the way, is a contradiction in terms...).

No wonder that the iconoclastic rage finally turns itself against this kind of more complex geometric abstraction. Also the all too recognisable interaction between geometrical forms is banned from the image. No better way to achieve this goal than to replace the interacting forms with self-sufficient single entities - which, precisely through their self-sufficiency, embody the state of divine narcism.

The mimetic taboo can also resort to a more drastic measure: the negation of the image into a referring sign*. Only this step seals the final break with mimesis: only as a symbol does the dark square become the black whole wherein every figuration disappears.


The majority of the so-called 'geometric abstraction' escapes such symbolic pitfall and continues to belong to the realm of mimesis. But it must be granted that, compared with the dynamic that emanates from many a full-fledged figurative work, most abstract works are lacking in internal dynamic because there is no longer question of a dialectic between hidden geometric structure and superficial organic appearance. The works of Mondrian and Malevich make it clear, with hindsight, how much that is also the case with painters like Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin en Edvard Munch. Conversely, it now catches the eye how much geometric abstract works are one-dimensional with respect to colour. There is never an additional tension created by the 'unnaturalness' of the colours. Although there certainly is something like the most becoming colour for a given form, a yellow circle is never experienced as a deviation of a blue circle. More generally: the expressiveness of colours as such is always merely their own - one-dimensional - expressiveness: never is their expressiveness added to what the figures as such have to say. A faint echo of such addition can be heard on a more complex work as Lissitky's 'Beat the whites with the Red Wedge'.


A certain proportion between red, white and black has a strong aggressive freight. With Lissitzky, such colour chord adds to the equally aggressive interaction between the red triangle and the white circle. But the effect is the more stronger, the more the subject is more 'figurative'' - concrete. It suffices to compare with Goya's Kronos, even when many an art lover may meanwhile have lost the patience to wait until the colours light up from what, in comparison with the pure colours of geometric abstraction - is often sneezed at as 'museum brown'.

goya kronos

The emotional freight of Goya's Kronos is all the more strong since the subject stages precisely the situation to which the colour chord owes its expressiveness: the threatening mouth with the white of the teeth, the red of the flesh and the dark of the void in which everything disappears..


Artists walked still another path to escape the recognisablity of the world of appearances: they concentrated on light or colour as such. The problem here is that, unless you monochromically cover the entire surface with one and the same colour - there are always shapes to be discerned - even if they have no clear contours as in geometric abstraction. Precisely therefore, also these 'shapeless' paintings acquire an eminently mimetic freight. That is already apparent in the paintings of Mark Rothko. He replaces the black hole wherein Malevich annihilated the image as such through visual appearance as such, the emergence of the visible - the primeval gesture of mimesis.

And how much we are dealing with mimesis precisely here, becomes apparent as soon as we let the echo of geometric abstraction in these works die down. For it suffices to replace the rectangular shapes with more organic forms, and we find ourselves back in the familiar realm of fire, clouds, sunsets that fascinates man from way back. The theme flourished as a background in landscapes, or as the aura around saints and gods. Da Vinci regarded the rendering of such transparent phenomena - water, fire, mist, clouds - as the proper domain of painting (think of his drawings of the flood), while bodies confined within a surface rather pertain to the domain of sculpture. But is is foremost in photography that the theme - unhampered by the mimetic taboo - comes to full bloom. By zooming in on a sunset or by eliminating every reminder of the landscape with its confining surfaces, a new form of 'unrecognisablity' is obtained. Similar effects can be obtained through photographing transparency or superimposing various layers.

Also here does the loss of recognisability lead to the emergence of a new imaginary world: a world where the body is no longer confined within a skin and, as if it were a misty cloud or a lighting aura, submerges in a space that is no longer an outside world, but an all encompassing inner space - to which the aura of saints is gods is merely a prelude.


What you see is what you see
Frank Stella

The anti-mimetic 'abstracting' tendency is also at work on a different level. This time, not so much recognisability is at stake, but the appearance of things as such. In the beginning, the geometric forms shared their three-dimensional volume with the human figure. Lissitzky bans the shifts in colour or shade: his forms acquire an 'unreal' appearance. Because the perspectival interpretation of obliques continues to suggest a third dimension, Mondrian and Malevich proceed to eliminating perspective altogether. They restrict themselves to the rendering of two-dimensional figures moving along parallel planes in a layered space. In the wake of perspective, also gravity seems to have disappeared from such world: the new abstract beings move weightlessly in a space without bottom and without gravity.

Thus, the three-dimensional world filled with three-dimensional volumes is gradually replaced with a layered world wherein two-dimensional forms are moving in parallel planes. With Mondrian, the many-layered space of Malevich implodes to a two-dimensional space: through the frame of the canvas, we are looking out at a single-layered space. The presence of this second layer through which we look from within the real world upon a single-layered imaginary world behind the frame, is the fragile umbilical chord with which Mondrian's work is still attached to mimesis. That is perhaps why he likes to emphasize the frame through opposing it as a rhombus to the square.

The umbilical chord is eventually severed with painters like Albers and Herbin, Barnett Newman and Frank Stella. Concentric squares like those of Albers are no longer different from tapestry of a floor: mimesis is dissolved into (two-dimensional) design.The real anti-mimetic abstract forms preserve the same expressiveness and animation as their painted ('imitated') counterparts. But they are no longer represented forms in a represented space, but real objects in a real world. Not made by nature, but by man: design hence.


When volume and space implode into a one-dimensional world, mimesis is dissolved into design. That is equally the case when represented volumes and represented space are translated into real volumes in real space, as in the Lissitzky below. And from this exercise to Rietveld is merely one step. This stride from art to reality may be compared with the translation of a painting in a 'tableau vivant', or better still: with the reversal of the movement with which a real model or a real still-life had been transformed into paint on a canvas. The only difference is that we are not dealing here with recognisable persons or with fruit and vegetables, but with (combinations of) geometric forms.

And that reminds us of the fact that there is no parallelism between painting and sculpture in this respect. Whereas there is certainly something like abstract painting, there is no such thing as abstract sculpture. Precisely because a cube is a man-made, artificial form, it can exist either as a purely non-sensory idea or as the form of some concrete matter. Whereas a cube rendered in two-dimensions can be the imitation of a real three-dimensional cube in whatever matter, a three-dimensional cube is always real: there is no original of which it could possibly be the imitation, as a body in marble can be an imitation of a body in flesh and blood. A wooden cube is never interpreted as the imitation of a marble cube. All the cubes are on the same footing: they all coincide with themselves. That is why the cubes of Donald Judd - as opposed to the geometrical figures of Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich - belong to the world of design, not to the realm of art. And the same goes not only for geometric variants of three-dimensional art, but for the shapeless Rothko-variants as well: real clouds in light-shows have an appeal that is comparable with that of a sunset, but they are not imitations of something. We are dealing with forms of light-design: light-shows. (James Turrell).

Whereas in painting (or broader: on the two-dimensional plane) the stride form art to design is made when the geometric volumes and space implode in the surface, the transudation between sculpture and design takes place when three-dimensional forms remind of nothing but themselves. With Brancusi, the transition takes place between his cocks and his endless columns. Also here do we see how the mimetic taboo is out at banning even the last mimetic echos that still resound in the endless columns. That is realised through resorting to geometric forms that refer to nothing else but themselves. Thus is sealed the transition form sculpture to design. Donald Judd's boxes are a mere repeat performance of this stride. The mimetic taboo is out at eradicating also the last reminder of a body not only in painting, but in sculpture as well: Tatlin and Naum Gabo replace volumes confined within a skin with - preferably transparent - planes, if not mere lines. The repeat performance from this stride are Sol leWitt's cubes. From the human body to the immaterial geometric forms: we have gone a long way.....


The contrary movement with which painting sought to cleanse itself from even the last mimetic stain to eventually dissolve in design, is the very opposite of the far more obvious movement with which design has from way back been freighted with mimesis - a movement that is so strong, that it probably lays at the roots of art itself. Already on a purely figurative level is design freighted mimetically, as when the legs of a chair are shaped in the form of real legs, when a vase is formed in the shape of human or animal body, or when a sofa is transformed into the lips of a mouth, like with Dali's fauteuil. That is so much the case that it inspired artists like Picasso to a new form of art, as when combined parts of a bicycle to conjure up the head of a bull. But the mimeticising trend is also and foremost at work on the purely 'abstract' level of the composition of elements. Forms derived from a purely technical logic can take a mimetic dimension, as when a divided hexagon is read as a three-dimensional cube. The effect is strengthened when a contrast between black and white is added, that is immediately read as a shadow. Such effects are exploited by Albers and Op Art. Also differences in colour tend to be read as differences in depth, especially when the arrangement of the forms extend a helping hand, as in the squares of Josef Albers. That goes especially for more sophisticated forms of Op-art or kinetic art, where next to depth also movement is suggested.

Border-cases are works like those of Arp or Ben Nicholson where it is not clear whether we are dealing with bas-reliefs or with real three-dimensional forms. Thus originates a twilight zone between design and mimesis, where we are not always sure whether we are dealing with art that is on the verge of dissolving intp design, or with design that is on the verge of dissolving into art. But in all cases, we are dealing with a primitive level of mimesis, mimesis 'in statu nascendi' that is out at unfolding into full, completed mimesis. Nowhere is that more apparent than in tapestry, where geometric or organic motives are unfolded in the border that it has in common with the surrounding architecture, whereas in the centre, more developed organic figures tend to appear.

Meanwhile, it will have become clear that, on the three-dimensional level, the twilight-zone between design and artist lies not where the illusion of volume and space emerges, but where what is identical with itself begins to suggest something else. Thus, many of Andy Goldsworthy's creations are in the first place wholes of simple elements arranged in an elementary composition. But some of them remind of existing objects where different materials are composed according to similar rules (eye, nest...). But also such 'reminding of' is merely mimesis 'in statu nascendi'. It differs from completed mimesis in that we merely are reminded of something else instead of seeing it as if it were really there, as when we have the impression of seeing a living body when looking at a Michelangelo marble. Rather have we the impression of having stumbled on constructions belonging to parallel - but nonetheless real - worlds. And that goes equally for the creations of Anish Kapoor.

These both master designers may remind us of the fact that 'design' is a most respectable activity. But precisely therefore, it would be better that designers stop posing as artists, as if they wanted to partake in the aura of art...


No doubt, many a reader will merely shrug his shoulders after having read this text, however distinct and clear the ideas developed in it - shall we add maliciously: 'more geometrico'? They rather will prefer to lend their ears to more sophisticated spirits, whose labyrinthic constructions are merely the rather transparent ideology meant to legitimise the accompanying anti-mimetic practice.

No doubt either that I am the last to negate that the anti-mimetic Úlan has opened new perspectives in art and that has often yielded works of a high rank. But it might be the order of the day to make up a balance and to realise what has been lost - hopely not irrevocably.

Or: to think regretfully of what has remained unpainted in the past century...

ę Stefan Beyst, April 2005.

*Sign in the sense of the general category under which symbols are subsumed. See: 'On the differrence between art and philosophy or science'.


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