In a recent post, I mused on the blurred boundaries between “representation” and “abstraction” when applied to the microscopic world (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition (2)”. These reflections sent me back to one of our earliest winners, Mario Sironi’s image of a Southern Right Whale swimming through an algal bloom (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition”), to test these thoughts. My reflections were mostly concerned with the microscopic world; that Mario’s image deals with one of the largest organisms on earth just helps to make the point. At the heart of representational art lies the ability of an independent viewer to relate a two dimensional image to a “sense impression” (or “schemata”) lodged in their mind. That means that if the viewer does not have the same schemata as the artist, then an image that was intended by the artist as representational will not be recognised as such. The artist usually assumes that viewers will possess a catalogue of such schemata that are broadly similar to his or her own.
Most people who depict the natural world – whether by photographs or other media – confine themselves to the macroscopic and the obvious. This means that there is a strong chance that the viewer will possess the appropriate schemata and both “recognise” the image and make appropriate mental connections that allow viewers to add layers of context in order to interpret a picture. A picture of a lamb, for example, should be recognisable as a juvenile stage of Ovis aries. This, in turn, may be used by the artist to suggest an interpretation. To a 16th or 17th century viewer, a lamb included in a portrait of a child suggests youthful innocence: an interpretation that may be lost on a modern viewer who sees, simply, a child with a lamb, but lacks the mental connections to read more deeply into the image.
When the microscopic world is used as subject matter, the distinctions begin to blur yet further – the images themselves might be “realistic” but still not be recognisable by the lay viewer, and the reduced number of mental connections will limit the ways in which the picture is interpreted yet further. One person’s “representation” can become someone else’s “abstract” image. The idea in the painting above is to take an image that is representational – most people would recognise that two whales formed the focal point – and then to “nudge” it over the border into abstraction. The interplay between the greens and the blues of the water brought to mind some of Mark Rothko’s juxtapositions of colour. The whales and their attendant foam could, in turn, be reduced to a few lines of black and white paint, providing a focal point for the canvas that sets it apart from Rothko’s signature style. In retrospect, I could probably push the image a little further towards abstraction than this experiment …
I see antecedents for this work in Piet Mondrian’s explorations of the boundary between realism and abstraction around 1912. He painted a whole series of images of trees that gradually, over time, were stripped back from recognisable Post-Impressionistic landscapes to a point where form was asserted over content, the palette was reduced and, eventually, the schemata of a “tree” disappeared altogether.
My point is that the boundary between “realism” and “abstraction” is not a fixed point, but depends upon our own sensory experiences. Those of us who portray the world of microscopic algae need to remember this. Perhaps the same argument can be posited for the boundary between “representation” and the “other worlds” theme that I mentioned in my earlier posts? Again, we need to consider our audience: my aim in my paintings and in these posts is to convey some of the wonders of the natural world that most people overlook. The question we need to ask is whether we are fulfilling this role as ambassadors for the hidden world of algae if most of our audiences are just seeing shapes and patterns?
Gombrich, E.H. (1960). Art and Illusion. A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. Phaidon Press, London.