21 November 2006


Abstract Composition
Marina Warner's non-fiction books are an ideal combination of fascinating subject-matter (contemporary mythology) and diverse sources (drawing references from across the spectrum of culture). The themes she discusses are often ecclectic. For instance, her history of ogres and monsters, No Go The Bogeyman, includes an appendix titled Going Bananas, discussing the cultural history of the banana.

Her examples are equally wide-ranging, as she cites classical references alongside fine art and contemporary popular culture. For me, it is this inclusivity that makes her such an interesting writer. She demonstrates a scholarly understanding of ancient historical sources, yet is also at ease when discussing 21st century media.

Warner's latest book, Phantasmagoria, is a study of visual representation of supernatural, ephemeral phenomena. She examines historical representations of the soul and spirit, from wax death masks to psychic photographers and zombie cinema. Again, the most impressive feature is the sheer range of both subject-matter (including ghosts, mirrors, ectoplasm, and the apocalypse) and references (from Ovid to MMORPGs).

Phantasmagoria's chapter on the Rorschach inkblot test is especially fascinating because it suggests several progenitors of abstract art. Herrmann Rorschach's inkblots were purely abstract shapes, though they were designed not as art but as psychological tools, as patients were asked to discern form and meaning from the symmetrical patterns. Rorschach's research [try saying that as a tongue-twister] began in 1921 (after abstract art had established itself), though more interesting are the earlier, similar experiments of Justinus Kerner.

Kerner also produced abstract, symmetrical inkblots (much earlier than Rorschach, from circa 1853 onwards), though he then added eyes, limbs, and other recognisable features, transforming them from abstract blobs to figurative images. These designs were known collectively as 'klecksographien'.

The real revelation, though (at least to me), is the work of Victor Hugo, who painted abstract images in ink circa 1850-1870. Hugo's 'tache' stain-paintings were created from random splashes of ink, prefiguring Abstract Expressionism by 100 years.

The birth of abstraction in art is generally dated to the first decade of the 20th century. In 1908, Wilhelm Worringer published Abstraction & Empathy, and there was an explosion of geometric abstraction in painting circa 1913, including works by Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrain, Frantisek Kupka, Fernand Leger, Robert Delaunay, and Kazimir Malevich. Of these artists, Kandinsky is most often singled out as the father of abstraction.

Kupka's Amorpha: Fugue In Two Colours (1912) is regularly cited as the earliest abstract painting, though in fact it is a depiction of movement, thus not strictly abstract (though perhaps Futurist?). Arnaldo Ginna's 1908 painting Nevrastenia has been described as "probably the first abstract painting in the history of Western art" (in Cartoons, by Giannalberto Bendazzi).

However, the random tache paintings of Victor Hugo predate all these examples of abstract art. Hugo even titled one such painting Abstract Composition, and, while it is undated, it was probably produced in the early 1870s. The origin of abstraction is one of the most fascinating aspects of modern art, and perhaps Victor Hugo's Abstract Composition is the earliest candidate?