When we think of expression in art we think of something that is a refined interpretation of emotions and feelings. I want to examine the practicality of this notion in art, whether emotion is truly responsible and see whether there’s truly any merit to it. I don’t want to discredit this approach to art in any way, rather probe for weaknesses, and propose an alternative approach if need be. To begin with I want to briefly explain the foundations of expressionist art, its history and the psychological aspects, along with the philosophical principles that underline it.
Expression within art has existed since the Renaissance, when artisans were more free to develop styles and innovate, in contrast to the dark ages. A great example of expression within such work during these time is seen in the Dutch painter Rembrandt (1606-69). Famed for his self-portraits, he was able to imbue the canvas with his attitudes throughout his lifetime simply through his masterful use of colour and texture. From his early joyful years to his stoic downfall, it was as if Rembrandt had painted an emotional map of his life.
Early in the 20th century expression became a focal point in the work of certain artists, particularly in regards to the industrialisation, politics and the first world war. Germany produced two particular groups of artists who prioritised the emotive aspects of their work. They were Die Brücke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). Die Brücke’s art was an evolution of a figurative style, particularly in their woodcut prints, but in contrast to earlier work, they are distorted to convey the mood of the time. If we look at Emil Nolde’s (1867 – 1956) woodcut The Prophet (1912) or Kirchner Ernst Ludwig’s (1880 – 1938) Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915), we can see that both artists project their feelings into the expressions of their depicted characters, described through nervous and shaky styles and impactful colours. In Ludwig’s Self-Portrait there is decadence, loss and ruin, as Germany was recoiling from the first world war. The colour of the caricature’s skin, both Ludwig’s and the nude woman’s, are a sickly yellow.
Der Blaue Reiter on the other hand were more abstract in their work, they described their feelings in the same way Turner described the forces of nature. Wassily Kandinsky (1866 -1944) was one of these artists and he was responsible for some of the greatest innovations in abstract art in the early 20th century. He was interested in direct expression, rather than use figures, symbolism or the expressions in the faces of panted people, he wanted something akin to the experience of listening to music. Using his own theories, he interpreted musical performances through abstraction, using rhythmical lines, explosive forms and ecstatic glowing colours. According to Norbert Lynton, one of the writers of Concepts of Modern Art (1981), “Kandinsky sought to connect the visual matter of art directly to the inner life of man”, which further asserts his desire to communicate something completely detracted from a narrative.
Expressionism made its re-occurrence from the early-40s to the mid-60s in the form of Abstract Expressionism, where American artists, both native and emigrant, took the idea of expression to a whole new environment. This movement was inspired by the previous Expressionists and Cubism, while also embracing the psychological leanings of the Surrealists, in particular their interest in the psychologist Carl Jung’s theories of the unconscious. This theory separated from Sigmund Freud’s ideas of the unconscious into the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The first referring to forgotten or repressed memories of the individual, and the other to the instincts and characteristics, embodied by myths and archetypal symbols that everybody’s psyches seem to share.
Like the Surrealists before them, the American artists wanted to access both of these as creative drives for their work. Jackson Pollock (1912 – 56) for instance used the automatist techniques that they developed involving chance, where he dripped paint onto a large canvass, reminiscent of Hans Arp’s (1886 – 1966) chance arrangements with paper [link]. Pollock’s work referenced to his personal unconscious, with a cacophony of expressive lines and colours that often appealed to the artist’s nostalgic memories of times past, all generated from his unconscious expression through the dripping technique that only his own unconscious could create. An attempt to recreate his process would result in a work distinctly corresponding to the emulator’s unconscious instead. Mark Rothko (1903 – 70), another figure of the movement, was motivated to draw things out of the viewer, by acting on the collective unconscious archetypes that all potential viewers held, by making use of colours associated with them. In a letter to the New York Times, written by Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb (1983 – 74), another member of the movement, they referred to their art by saying that “There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We favour the simple expression of the complex thought.” Rothko’s large works, his colour fields, absorbed the viewer through their sheer size, dismissing the limitations of the canvasses’ edges, and by detracting away from any reference to narrative, history or culture, the viewer was left with only their thoughts and the colours before them. Viewers would often describe the encounter with his art as a religious experience.
The Abstract Expressionists were more analytic in their work by the intentional incorporation of psychology to explain emotion in their art in a purer way. But does this mean that it is superior to the previous attempts to express, surely a more logically structured painting would communicate with greater effect to a wider audience without complication.
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With all this in consideration, I want to take a look at what emotion actually is. By looking at psychology again, we’ll see behavioural psychology, and here’s the idea that emotion and feeling are very limiting to the reading of ourselves and of others. Feeling happy or sad is subjective to the individual’s perception of happiness and sadness. How we perceive things, in the general sense, is interpreted and understood through our experiences involving these concepts. In comparison to other sciences, like physics or biology, our understanding of our mind is limited to superficial descriptions, not too different from those conceived by Galen, the ancient Roman philosopher, who described emotions as four temperaments (those being Melancholic, Phlegmatic, Choleric and Sanguine).
Burrhus Frederic Skinner, a major proponent of the behaviourist theory, explained in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) that “The possessed man does not feel the possessing demon and may even deny that one exists. The juvenile delinquent does not feel his disturbed personality. The intelligent man does not feel his intelligence or the introvert his introversion”. He continues by pointing out that ‘emotion’ and ‘feeling’, are both the result of a person’s responses to their environment in association with their own personal experiences, and a certain degree of instinct, and that this is interpreted as ‘emotion’ or ‘feeling’. We are products of our environment and we respond to new environments as those products.
My concern is where expressionist art belongs in this, as artworks are also a product of their environment, the artist’s understanding of their supposed emotions and feelings. However, they may not translate effectively to the viewer, who is a compilation of different stuff and different interpretations of emotions and feelings. But maybe it’s not about whether the viewer and the artwork are compatible emotionally, or that the idea of emotion that the artist expresses could be read by no one other than the artist themselves, unless the artist’s background (environment/ experiences) is researched extensively.
Behavioural psychology posses an alternate perspective on how we evaluate ourselves, what we value and the reasons for the choices we make. Rather than use of vague terminology, like happiness and sadness, this type of introspection requires a more analytical observation of cause and effect, stimulus and conditioned response, or the causation of aversive behaviour. What I think is close to our idea of personal expression within this approach is the manner of how we respond to things, to stimulus, as it is evidence for our internal mind’s relationship to the offending environment. I think that if we look at the original Expressionists we’ll see something bearing this idea, how they responded to their subject, in many cases to the war and industrialisation, was a manifestation of internal frustration, particularly in Die Brücke’s work. It’s likely that we are able to interpret ‘emotions’ from such work easier because they seem more familiar, both because of the prevailing artistic tradition with painted people, and with our natural ability to recognise our own species, and thus ourselves, in what is otherwise a flat surface (or a collection of carefully arranged pixels). In contemporary artwork, if we look at those who interpret things like mental illness or inequality, we may recognise the intention through their references to things like social media or industry, things that a large audience will be able to recognise, an adequate stimulus.
I think that how an artist demonstrates their response to something, a question or other stimulus, with evident consideration, is able to produce work that communicates something more understandable, and potentially more relatable. Communication is the goal for an expressive artwork, ‘this is how I see, think of or interpret that’, although if the artist has no interest in communicating something about themselves, then the gestural brushstrokes, distinctive mark making or whatever defines their work for any other purpose means nothing expressive of the individual.
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To elaborate on this, I want to look at three examples of how expression is used, how it can be read, and other manifestations associating with the individual in some way. Firstly, Lucian Freud (1922 -2011) for his personal observations that revealed how he saw others rather than how they may traditionally be seen. Then we’ll look at the work of Dan McCaw (b. 1942), for his interpretation of memory, similar to Rothko’s references to the collective unconscious, projecting something that the viewer might think they know. And finally, Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), because his work demonstrates early manifestations that are recognisable with modern understandings of expression, such as the use of colour and form.
For Freud, his artwork was always an attempt to communicate who he was through his individual style. But I don’t see a jigsaw of emotions portrayed with aggressive or subtle strokes that somehow indicate this, instead, how he viewed things, demonstrated by the way he presented his subjects, it defined the person he was through the way he saw. Throughout his career he always tried to remain true to himself, favouring truth over fashion. His interpretation of the truth expresses itself best in his late works, described as painterly or kitchen sink style, where his models look morbid and uncomfortable. The lengths in which Freud went to demonstrate his dedication to his interpretation of truth were revealed in his stark representation of those close to him, in particular his own children. The moral implication around family and privacy are broken, as his often naked representations remained unflattering. I think that by doing this, Freud’s gaze does not favour anyone, and that the bleak condition of the human being is unfiltered, staying true to his personal observations. A quote from Freud embodies this superbly, “I paint people not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be”, and to Freud, each individual, including himself, were not above his scrutiny.
On his Saatchi art page, he refers his piece Conviction (2011) as an “Accumulation of emotion where the likeness of the subject is the least of my concerns”. I don’t think that it’s an abstraction of a particular person, although in an interview he refers to his portraits of this sort to ‘represent’ parts of himself. He does not paint literal representations of people’s likenesses, but instead visualises aspects of them as they ‘truly’ are. The philosophy behind his work shares an understanding of Jungian psychology, much like the Abstract Expressionists Rothko had, in particular with the Shadow and the Self, two major archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. The Self in Jungian psychology is the end goal for those hoping to master themselves (or how Jung would describe it, develop Personality) to establish individuality from the masses, something Pollock apparently attempted through his early work, and it’s something that McCaw also strives for. Among two other major components of our psyche, the Persona and the Anima/ Animus (male/ female), the Shadow is an important part of ourselves that we must encounter, consisting of everything that we would hide from others, things deemed taboo yet are nether the less part of our identity. McCaw references to these through abstractions of the human form. To me, they seem like memories that I can’t quite recall but I know exists. A part of ourselves that we imprint something of ourselves to, an apparent apparition of something on the edge of memory.
In The Meaning of Art (1931), Herbert Read quotes a Jungian psychologist, Roger Fry, in regards to emotion in art:
“the emotional tone is not due to any recognizable reminiscence or suggestion of emotional experiences of life; but I sometimes wonder if it nevertheless does not get its force from arousing some very deep, very vague, and immensely generalised reminiscences… Or it may be that art really calls up, as it were, the residual traces left on the spirit by the different emotions of life, without, however, recalling the actual experiences, so that we get an echo of the emotion without the limitation and particular direction which it had in experience.”
Vincent van Gogh
He is often credited as a proto-Expressionist, as his work is recognised as the expression of his mind, as a projection of his inner turmoil, much like those of the later Expressionist movements. But while I would agree that his late work projects his troubled state of mind, and that it was influential to artists who wanted to communicate their individuality and examine what emotion truly was, I don’t believe that it was ‘emotion’ that was being conveyed in his work. At least not the type I’ve been talking about. Although it would be silly of me to suggest that artists of this time period, and before, hadn’t tried to imbue their emotion into their work, be it their own or an expressive narrative. For instance, the work of Rembrandt that I referred to in the beginning demonstrates a pre-psychological interpretation of the individual through style, and he was one of van Gogh’s early inspirations. What I’m suggesting instead, is that van Gogh’s relationship with the emotions he describes, his interpretations of them, will differ from how we think of them. But with an analytical approach with regards to his history, the cause for his expressions become more readable. The intention may have been to describe feelings and emotions through gestures such as brush strokes and colour, but how he, and those before him, executed their intentions show us more than a universal dictionary definition of emotion.
Much like how language or concepts of beauty changes from generation to generation, how we interpret our individual idea of emotions will be different from person to person, dependent on culture, mental health and personal experiences. This sounds familiar to my previous assertion regarding Behavioural Psychology, and with good reason.
When looking at the work of van Gogh, we are looking at the embodiment of the identifying parts that constituted who he was, these being how he reacted to his subject matter. They begin to look like chemistry experiments, by way of mixing one substance with another and interpreting the reaction, and analysing the reason for this reaction. The glorification of artists, the art market and a desire to repay his brother were van Gogh’s environment, motivations coursing through his mind regularly, not necessarily physical, but throughout his career he failed them all, which lead to the faces we see in his self-portraits, portraits containing concoctions that we recognise as ‘despair’. For van Gogh, an adequate ‘expression’ of himself.
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The strange conclusion that I seem to be coming to is that despite my analytical view, the generalised interpretation of emotion remains more familiar and effective despite its somewhat over simplification, with ‘emotions’ being caused by one thing in association with another, the concept seems more graspable. I would consider it a vehicle for communication, much like art itself, however I would not glamorise it with superficial meaning. I would not say any type of work is just ‘emotional’, rather that it may elude to a response that is generally associated with commonly understood, although be it vague, terminology.
We’ve looked at three interpretations of the concept of emotion in art; narrative expression, a long-used method of communicating something using a story that demonstrates a certain type of response or notion; abstract personal expression, which expresses an individual’s identity through distinctive gestures; and abstract collective expression, where some individual tries to embody something that all people might reflect on.
The narrative expressive work is logically arranged to describe something specific. While the abstract expressionist work is somewhat more difficult, as it eludes the same logic. Pollock and Rothko demonstrated a separation in the types of abstract expression earlier, where Pollock expressed himself, using his personal unconscious, and exemplifies the work that embodies creator; while Rothko drew from aspects of the collective unconscious (like the archetypes) to invite the viewer to reflect on themselves. The lack of logic is useful here because it embodies something that has no body, as it is purely a metaphysical concept and thus has no relevant comparison in reality, beyond simple metaphors.
But what’s the best? What truly evaluates the inner workings of one’s mind? Like most things it is subjective, dependent on your outlook, the product that your environment has made of you. You might not like a narrative based work because the content expects a certain level knowledge from you in order to read, perhaps not relevant to your century, thus alienating you somewhat, or maybe the logic appeals to your human desire to understand something, and knowledge of its content may empower you in some way. Maybe abstract works appear to elude meaning to you entirely, confusing and annoying you with their irrationality, but maybe you find that the lack of structure creates a more fluid and calm environment, and you become relaxed, depending on the artwork.
I hope that I have introduced my interpretation of expressive art effectively. I am concerned about the direction of expression, and as to how individuals approach it. My concern is that a number of pieces of work seem to stem from the idea of one type of emotion or another, such as the idea of depression represented by the simple imagery of someone in the fetal position, or the idea of love represented with big red hearts. I’m worried that an over reliance on superficial interpretations of what distinguish us as individuals, might become too watered down to mean anything valuable. I want the complexities of ourselves to not be ignored.
Academy of Ideas. (29th of June 2017). Introduction to Carl Jung . Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLAYxecbGotUz1tjZlymlSc30aENg_S0Xp.
Skinner, B.F. (1973). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. United Kingdom: Penguin Books.
Lynton, N. (1981). concepts of modern art. In N. Stangos (Ed.), Expressionism (pp.30-49). London, United Kingdom: Thames and Hudson.
Harrison, C. (1981). concepts of modern art. In N. Stangos (Ed.), Abstract Expressionism (pp.169-211). London, United Kingdom: Thames and Hudson.
Collin, C., Benson, N., Ginsburg, J., Grand, V., Lazyan, M. & Weeks, M. (2015). The Psychology Book. United Kingdom: Dorling Kindersley Limited.
Read, H. (1931). The Meaning of Art. United Kingdom: Faber Modern Classics
Cumming, R. (2015). ART: a visual history. United Kingdom: Dorling Kindersley Limited.
And probably some other stuff I can’t remember