Paths to Abstraction

Nicola Moir

I confess when I decided to visit the Gallery of New South Wales recent exhibition I was sceptical of its purpose. My general feeling is that any show that features the Impressionists has the overriding but unsung purpose of raising revenue for the gallery. Paths to Abstraction has all the hallmarks of a good revenue raiser with those familiar names such as Whistler, Picasso and Cezanne, a hefty 20 dollar entry fee, a large corporate sponsor, and an exit through the gift shop. Despite this the curator, Terence Maloon, has assembled an interesting and relevant show that is subtly grounded in post-modernist rhetoric.  It is an exhibition that plays into the public thirst for the blockbuster artists but does so in an innovative way by analysing their parallel but independent move to more abstract work between 1867 and 1917. The exhibition brings together over 150 pieces from Impressionism, Nabis, Fauvism, Cubism and Dada, to name a few. The basic premise challenges the idea of a hegemonic narrative and suggests is that there was no single movement to abstraction but rather there were several currents and influences. The proposal is that abstraction was never a movement rather the paths to abstraction in European art were varied and unpredictable. Abstract art or art that maintains its independence from visual references in the world has always been around. However, European art from the Renaissance up to the middle of the 19th century was underpinned by an attempt to reproduce an illusion of reality. This exhibition considers artists from this European art context who moved towards abstraction.  It makes clear there was no unifying movement but rather an independent story of each of the artists featured. The exhibition begins with two Nocturne paintings by James Abbott McNeill Whistler which are deliberately anti-picturesque using a dull palette with the intention of creating a particular mood. Whistler: Nocturne, Black and Gold, The Fire Wheel Whistler: Nocturne, In Grey and Silver, The Thames

The subtle flat tonal differences create an illusive treatment of the subject-matter. Whistler painted these at the height of the Japanese vogue in Europe. Many of Whistlers Nocturne paintings were influenced by his interest in Japanese art and particularly the Japanese artist, Hiroshige. This Japanese influence on European art and the move towards abstracting the subject-matter is indicated in several pieces through the exhibition. The most notable example of this is in Pierre Bonnard’s Nannies’ Promenade: Frieze of Carriages (1895-96). The four vertical scroll compositions with large areas of emptiness is a distinctly eastern character.

Bonnard: Nannies’ Promenade: Frieze of Carriages

Though there is an eastern influence in several of the pieces this is one of complex multitude of influences on European art at this time. The most unifying aspect for all the artists of this period is the increasing move towards openness and intuitiveness. From Primitivism, to Fauvism, to Cubism, the breath of work show in this exhibition gives a sense of the free exchange and development of ideas. All the boundaries and assumptions made about European art during the previous centuries had been called into question and the resulting art explored. The period of art has given artists the complete freedom to define the boundaries of their trade as there no longer is a hegemonic doctrine to dictate this.

Paths to Abstraction is showing at the Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, between 26 June to 19 September 2010.

Nicola Moir is a Hong Kong born Scottish artist, currently based in Sydney, Australia. In addition to her training at Edinburgh College of Art, Nicola has accrued degrees in Geography from the Universities of Edinburgh and Sydney. She has exhibited her painting widely in two hemispheres.

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