READING: ‘The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art – Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the present”

READING: ‘The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art – Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the present’   by Charlene Spretnak, New York:Palgrave Macmillan 2014

 The history of Modern Art has generally considered the issue of religion or spirituality in its many forms as being very separate from artists or their art, resulting in decidedly secular art. Yet, as this book shows, the majority of the most prominent artists in every period showed strong interests in the spiritual dimension of life and expressed this in their art. This book draws on direct statements from many of the artists to show how spirituality was prominent in their thinking and purpose and was far from inconsequential. This interest in the spiritual found expression in a radical new form of art.

This is a subject which has been of interest to me for some time and this interest has become more focused as I have begun to explore abstraction in my own work. It is unfortunate that the word ‘spirituality’ is closely associated with religion in people’s minds and I think as a consequence it is perhaps not given enough serious thought. The spiritual dimension is often ignored, denied, downplayed or dismissed. Spretnak describes the difficulties she had in writing a book on this subject because of the prejudice from art historians, quoting “spirituality is something of a dirty word in art history and art criticism.” In 2005 in the New York Times, Ken Johnson observed: “Academic art historians and critics still tend to discourage talking seriously about the spiritual in art. But considering how many artists continue to be motivated by spiritual urges, however the word spiritual is defined- this is something worth discussing. Discussing behind closed doors perhaps. Many of the younger artists I have met who are trying to become established told me they speak about the spiritual dimension of their work only with other artists. If the critic, curators or gallerists were to get wind of this interest, they assured me, the artist would be written off as “not serious” and having “collapsed into sentimentality”. (page 9)

I enjoyed this book up to a point and it certainly was enlightening in my exploration of abstract art. Once the object is taken out of the painting and artists made a break with subject matter, there needed to something in its place and that is what I was looking for. It was particularly interesting to be able to read the artists’ own words in describing what was the driving force behind the abstract works. I felt there were significant omissions in the artists included, namely many British artists.

Ideas from the book that were significant for me in my own understanding of this subject–

  • Kandinsky wrote in “On the Question of Form” in 1912 that it did not matter a bit if a painting was abstract or figurative as long as the artist had been able to commune with the “inner necessity” (by which forms manifest themselves in the physical realm from the spiritual, immaterial realm). ‘The Blaue Reiter Almanac’ 147-187

This is a subject I may pursue in the critical essay.

  •  A comment from Richard Tuttle on the definition of ‘spirituality’:

What I want more than anything is a definition of spirituality that is trustworthy.” From telephone call with the author.

  • Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) – “A painter should paint not only what he sees in front of him but what he sees within. If he sees nothing within himself, he should desist from painting what he sees in front of him.” (Caspar David Friedrich in Briefen, 128)
  • Paul Gauguin 1848-1903 – ‘Art is an abstraction; derive this abstraction from nature while dreaming before it, but think more of creating than of the actual result. The only way to rise towards God is by doing as our divine Master does, create.” (Gauguin, letter to Emile Schnuffenecker, August 14, 1888)
  • Emile Bernard 1868-1941 – “The first means that I use is to simplify nature to an extreme point. I reduce the lines only to the main contrasts and I reduce the colours to the seven fundamental colours of the prism. To see a style and not an item. To highlight the abstract sense and not the objective…”
  • Kandinsky never lost the perception from early childhood that all objects and beings have an inner reality as well as an external form. (page 82) “My secret is purely and simply that I have over the years acquired…the happy ability to rid myself (and therefore my painting) of ‘background noise’.” (Kandinsky, in Jelena Hahl-Koch ed., Arnold Schoenberg- Wassily Kandinsky Letters, pictures and documents, 323)
  • Malevich’s geometric, ‘object free paintings allude to the realm of ‘supreme consciousness” of the “pure Absolute” where one witnesses and is continuous with the source of all forms. His Suprematist paintings are intended to help the viewer approach that state of mind. In a poem entitled “The Artist”, he wrote, “ I imagine a world of inexhaustible forms. From that which I do not see – an endless world arises.” Page 90
  • Richard Tuttle – …his art aspires, he explains, “to account for the invisible’. (Tuttle, in Julie Salamon, “Artist or Guru, He Aims Deep, NY Times, Dec 3, 2004) Page 158 description of experiences which Tuttle had a s a child.

The subject of his art, he emphasizes, is the perfection he witnessed during his primary metaphysical experience in childhood.

  • One of the problems that block us from perceiving reality in its fullness, Tuttle feels, is Western culture’s adoption from Renaissance easel painting of the flat and unified picture plane as our frame of reference for all types of seeing and thinking. Hence he strives to create works that confound and disrupt such limiting habits. Page 160. (Tuttle, in Grynsztejn, Ibid, 60)
  • Regarding his method..”When I surrender my intellect, when I give up its special child, then I proceed to step into a kind of unknown situation which I find is creative, as opposed to the intellectual.”

“If you create the space between appearance and reality, you can do anything.” (Tuttle, in Tara McDowell, “Framed Drawings, The Art of Richard Tuttle, 227)

  • Andrew Goldsworthy – “Although it is often a practical and physical art, it is also an intensely spiritual affair that I have with nature: a relationship.” (Goldsworthy, in Hand to Earth, 164)

“Everything has the energy of its making inside it. There is no doubt that the internal space of a rock or a tree is important to me. But when I get beneath the surface of things, these are not moments of mystery – they are moments of extraordinary clarity.” (Goldsworthy, in Tim Adams, ‘Natural Talent’, The Observer, March 10, 2007)


This has certainly been a book worth reading.



About pbfarrar

I am an Australian living permanently in England. I have recently retired from the position of Principal of an independent school and have taken up the study of Fine Art with the OCA.
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