Visions of Nature: Introduction

Visions of Nature: Introduction. (February 19, 2020) This is the Introduction to the book, Visions of Nature, published in 2018. 

Apart from the pleasures of nature herself, the main inspiration for this collection of photographs is the work of Viktor Schklovsky (1893-1984), a founding member of the Russian Formalist School of criticism. Schklovsky suggested that our vision of nature is often limited by what he described as the automatism or habituation of perception. When we look at a mountain, we are seeing only that which we have become used to what we think a mountain looks like. When we look at a field of flowers, we see just what we think a field of flowers should look like. For Schklovsky, art exists to shake us from our unintentional failure to perceive as fully and deeply as we might.

Schklovsky described his thinking in “Art as Technique” (1917).

The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.

Schklovsky’s term for this process is “defamiliarization” (ostranenie, which also translates as “estrangement”). For Schklovsky, the aim of the artist, and for me in creating these images, is to render that which is familiar in nature as unfamiliar, in order to see nature anew. Thus my aim here is to generate new ways of seeing nature, with new patterns, shapes and textures, and - most of all - colors. Indeed, Schklovsky goes on to state: “Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.” Thus the “actual” natural object is unimportant with regard to the process of perception. It might be said that a more accurate title for this collection of images would be “Visions Generated By Nature,” or “Visions Derived from Nature,” or “Perceptions of Nature.”

Schklovsky became a major figure in Twentieth Century art, writing, and criticism. Connections have been developed among Schlovsky’s work and the work of leading Modernist figures such as Derrida and Freud. Schlovsky’s work developed at the same time and in parallel with other major Twentieth Century schools of art, including most significantly Abstract Expressionism.

Early in my work developing this collection, I recognized the affinity between Schlovsky’s thinking, my emerging images, and the work of the Abstract Expressionists. Most of all, I was influenced by Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944).

Schlovsky’s “Art and Technique” was published in 1917. The photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn was the first to use the term “abstract photography” as a description of a style of photography in 1916. The first publication of work by Kandinsky in America was by Stieglitz in 1912 in Camera Work. And the first work by Kandinsky sold in America was “Improvisation No 27,” which was exhibited in Stieglitz’s Armory Show.

Although “Abstract Expressionism” was not specifically defined as a school of art in America until the 1940’s and 1950’s (the term was coined by Robert Coates in 1946), Kandinsky is arguably the originator of abstract expressionism. Barr used abstract expressionism as early as 1929 to refer to Kandinsky’s paintings. 

Writing in The Nation, reviewing an exhibition in London in 1913, Roger Fry wrote:

 By far the best pictures there seemed to me to be the three works by Kandinsky. They are of peculiar interest, because one is a landscape in which the disposition of the forms is clearly prompted by a thing seen, while the other two are improvisations. In these the forms and colors have no possible justification, except the rightness of their relations. This, of course, is really true of all art, but where representation of natural form comes in, the senses are apt to be tricked into acquiescence by intelligence. In these improvisations, therefore, the form has to stand the test without any any adventitious aids. It seemed to me that they did this, and established their right to be what they were. In fact, these seemed to me the most complete pictures in the exhibition, to be those which had the most definite and expressive power. … The improvisations become more definite, more logical and more closely knit in their structure, more surprisingly beautiful in their color oppositions, more exact in their equilibrium. They are pure visual music. 

In thinking about Kandinsky’s relevance to this collection of images, I was moved by several elements of Kandinsky’s theories of art. (See, for instance, Kandinsky’s “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” 1911.) Two ideas stand out. One is Kandinsky’s view that in rendering nature, a central component of the artist’s process is the transformation from the concrete to the abstract. The other is Kandinsky’s powerful notion associating abstract art and music. I hope that on viewing the images in this collection they be perceived not as pictures of something to be decoded and disentangled, but as works of music that can stand alone and be listened to and appreciated as such at leisure. 

Kandinsky’s early work, when he was first struggling to create an expressionist approach, was most influential. But other members of the Abstract Expressionist movement also served as inspiration. The work of Paul Klee (1879-1940), who taught with Kandinsky at the Bauhaus school, and whose early work included nascent expressionistic explorations or landscapes, stands out. Klee’s mature work, beginning in 1920, featured the expression of pure color that seemed to me analogous to some of the images in this collection. 

Other expressionist artists I associate with Visions of Nature include Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). It is interesting that, “Although Kandinsky has not often been cited as one of the principle influences on Jackson Pollock, in fact Pollock studied Kandinsky’s work intensively and was deeply affected by it.” (Gail Levin) 

Consider the comparison between Pollock’s “Enchanted Forest” and “Spring” from the Visions of Nature collection. Both represent the spontaneity and randomness characteristic of much abstract expressionist art and much of Pollock’s work. The works are visually similar although produced by very different sets of techniques. In these two works, however, there is a fundamental difference. In “Spring,” the visual spontaneity is not so much produced by the composition or processing of the image. In this image nature herself manifests the characteristics of abstract expressionist art. Even so, the image encourages a fresh look at nature, rendering as new and unfamiliar that which is usually familiar.

Some of the works in the Visions of Nature collection are more impressionistic - or post-impressionistic - in appearance. Today, abstract and semi-abstract impressionist and expressionist styles are merging. A contemporary abstract artist whose work is influential here is Wolfgang Tillmans (1968- ), a contemporary German photographer. Tillmans has written “Abstraction today remains a hotbed of contradictions.” 

 Looking at abstract pictures is as much about looking at what is there as it is about contemplating what is not there. They encourage speculative thinking about the visible. … Rather than asking us to define something and be done with it,… The picture suggests experience as a process that a picture might attempt to grasp. …the idea of the image as the embodiment of a mental state… “

And, finally,

Abstract photography can encompass works that are simultaneously representational and abstract. Not only do we include images of things we can’t recognize, we include things we may recognize but where the thing is not the thing of the photograph. (Tillmans, in von Dominic Eichler, 2011)

Most of the images in Visions of Nature began as straightforward photographs. A few were subjected to focus and exposure variations. Then, the images were processed through a number of digital techniques that resulted in color variations that altered the basic color relationships in the image. Multiple exposure and similar techniques also rearranged elements in some images. 

I believe that all of the ideas and practices of abstract expressionist art manifest to varying degrees in most of the images in this collection. In creating these images, I tried to depend to a large degree on spontaneity, improvisation, trial and error, and a process of abstracting from a concrete natural scene to something more like pure color. No doubt the most extreme example of this abstraction is “Prelude in a Major Key.” For most of the images, biomorphic shapes and recognizable elements of the natural scene remain accessible. But in most, my aim is not to develop an image that simulates a visual frame closely corresponding with the original scene, but rather to produce - in the spirit of Kandinsky - an image that overlays nature and will be perceived as something more like visual music. 

Notes on Sources

Schlovsky’s “Art as Technique.” is in the public domain and available from various sources.. For example, see “Art as Technique,” in English translation in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, ed. by L.T. Lemon and M, J. Reis. U of Nebraska Press, 1965.

A good review of Schklovsky’s life and work is provided by Ben Ehrenreich, “Making Strange: On Victor Shklovsky.” The Nation, February 5, 2013. Ehrenreich reviews Serena Vitale’s book of interviews with Shklovsky. Schklovsky occupies a nearly unique position among Twentieth Century intellectuals. His life spans revolutions, civil war, and two world wars. The Russian Formalists advocated a rigorous scientific analysis of the forms of literature rather than a psychological interpretation of the content. They were very influential during the period 1910-1930. Subsequently, Formalism came to be associated with elitist views of literary criticism. Schlovsky’s aim was the “depoliticization” of literature and literary criticism. 

Barr’s reference to Kandinsky and Abstract Expressionism was Cited in “Theme and Improvisation: Kandinsky and the American Avant Garde 1912-1959.” Originally in Alfred Barr, The New American Painting. NY MOMA, 1959.

Roger Fry’s review is quoted in “The Aesthetic Theories of Wassily Kandinsky and Their Relationship to the Origin of Non-Objective Painting.” Peter Selz, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 2 (June, 1957). (Italics added.)

Gail Leven, “Wassily Kandinsky and the American Literary Avant-garde,” Criticism Vol. 21, No. 4 (Fall 1979), pp. 347-361.

Essay by von Dominic Eichler. In Wolfgang Tillmanns (with Karl Kolwitz), Abstract Pictures, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Germany, 2011

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