I’ve been thinking about my influences lately and I realized I may be stuck in that advent of modern art sweet spot, in which artists were enthralled by the idea of finding a subject’s essence.1
When we talk about an abstract of a long academic paper, we mean something that is composed of the main points of the actual paper. When Picasso deconstructed the image of a bull, he was leaving only the main points that without anything else could still represent the idea of a bull. When we think of abstract art today, I think we’ve gone beyond this; even though, at the same time, it is what we have always been doing when creating abstract art.
When we recreate what we see, it is in the fashion of what one sees. When an artist can acknowledge this, she can be guided by more than the idea of a given object. When she sees a vase, for example, she might not just see a vase but something about that vase, and it is that something that she can try to convey.
It could be a mood or an indefinable quality like charisma or elegance. It could be “pretty” without anyone being able to explain why.
While in school, I would love browsing the library and found myself returning to a specific aisle in the book stacks and introducing myself to Klee, Kandinsky, Picasso and Van Gogh. I knew that what I was looking for would not be found in The Impressionists and in hindsight I think I was looking for structure and good line work.
I would later find out that many of the artists from the 1920s were influenced by Japanese art prints.
When I look at Hiroshige’s abstractions of human figures, birds and flowers, I think Hiroshige was trying to convey not a mood or quality that stood outside the idea of an object. He looked instead at the lines themselves. When looking at a flower, for example, it is like looking at the design of that flower. The line work is very purposeful and neat. It is also meant to be seen. Each piece within an object is like a building block that helps compose an overall idea.
There’s a balance. It’s almost mathematical.
When I look at the flower above, I don’t imagine it toppling. It looks poised. It maintains what Klee might describe as a “balance of proportions,” which he discusses in the second section of his Pedagogical Sketchbook, II Dimension and Balance. There’s a great line from the next section2 and that is “To stand despite all possibilities to fall.”
I marvel at the flower because it is supported not just at the base but by the imagined weight of the leaves and the relative sizes of its parts. Each part, moreover, is outlined in black ink and highlighted as an individual piece with its own qualities of line and flow, which in turn follow a path that responds to and influences the disposition of its surrounding pieces.
In words this sounds complicated but in appearance it’s very simple. Or it’s very simple for an audience to see everything at play, all at once. It may not have been so simple to compose the flower to begin with.
When drawing this flower in my sketchbook, I was always tempted to draw the lines longer than they were so as to accentuate the flow of the line, but doing so disrupted the balance of proportions. So I had to redraw and shorten the line while maintaining the flow of the line.
I believe the art of Hiroshige’s drawings are in this balance: maintaining the qualities of multiple aspects — line, form, balance of proportions and color — while creating a scene a viewer can take in all at once.
1 I’ve written about this before and spent some time arguing how one may be inherently biased, the essence of a subject may not exist and therefore whatever we might believe is the essence of anything may only be something one imagines.
2 Section III Motion and gravitational curve
3 Melanie Trede, et al. One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. Taschen, 2015