CLARA DRUMMOND has a think about Joseph Albers

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Herzog’s recent film “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams” showed that to understand the human desire to paint one had to go back to the first paintings known to be made by man, back to the paintings that were made inside the caves of Western Europe more that 13,000 years ago.

There have been many different theories about the meaning of these paintings and the people that made them, but as we cannot return to the time in which they were made, there is no conclusive answer. We can only look at some of the great contributions to this field and draw our own conclusions.

To understand the art of any time one must try to understand the society that produced it. The great 18th Century scholar and pioneer of social science, Giambattista Vico, controversially argued that the ‘primitive’ people of prehistoric times had minds that were not dissimilar to the ‘civilized’ people of his own time. He believed that their images were not intended to be read literally but were intended to be ‘poetic’ or ‘metaphoric’.

He suggested that the human mind gives shape to the material world, and it is this shape, that allows people to understand and relate to the world. It is this structuring something coherent out of the chaos of the world that is the essence of being human and, I believe, of painting.

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Much later the art historian Max Raphael, whose theories were also founded the study of the human society, believed that the Upper Paleolithic cave paintings should be seen as compositions, that the elements in each painting should be interpreted not in isolation but in relation to the whole. For example he suggested that in one painting horses and bison represent man and society and that in another a hind and a bison represents the feminine and the masculine, that these artists were confronting ‘the task of harmonizing oppositions’.

In the 1940- 50’s Jospeh Albers made a series of paintings called ‘Varients’, they experimented with colour relations and impossible structures, within one varying composition he placed pure colours next to each other with mesmerizing effect. He delighted in the juxtaposition of opposites and used planned compositions to contain opposing elements whose meaning lay in their relation to each other.

albers 4In this way both the paintings of Albers and the Upper Paleolithic artists suggest that painting is about relationships, between one colour and another, between Bison and horses, between life and death, light and dark, that meaning consists not so much in the things themselves but in the relationship between things.

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