Edge: Geometry in Art 1910-1965
Until June 17; Dean Gallery, Edinburgh
Geometry has played a key role in art at least as far back as Plato,
who considered it central to the pursuit of truth. Though Plato himself
was dismissive of representational art (the worthless mistress
of a worthless friend, and the parent of a worthless progeny"),
Greek art and architecture were built on the sacred principles of
By the opening of the 20th century, new technologies were transforming
the world of art. Photography had divested painting of its imitative
role, and a fast-paced world of motors and machines heralded excitement
and liberation for all. As representational art began to recede, geometry
slowly recovered its status as a route to a purer, higher truth.
In 1908, influential German art historian Wilhelm Worringer wrote
that The original artistic impulse has nothing to do with imitation
of nature. This impulse is in search of pure abstraction as the sole
possibility of finding rest amidst the confusion and obscurity of
the image of the world, and it creates a geometric abstraction starting
with itself, in a purely instinctive manner.
Worringer had hit the nail on the head. He would not only directly
influence artists such as Paul Klee, but by the 1960s, with the advent
of Minimalism, his words would sound truly prophetic.
Its precisely this period from Worringers time
in 1910, to the climax of abstract expressionism in 1965 that
is surveyed in Cutting Edge at the Dean Gallery. The show, taken largely
from the gallerys permanent collection, is built around the
theme of geometry in art, and includes some rare British Constructivist
works on loan from a private collection.
Reflecting its status as a permanent collection display, Cutting Edge
is more of a loosely-themed hang than an in-depth examination of the
subject. More or less any art from the period which contains straight
lines has made it into the draw, and the captions dont go far
in explaining the genesis of the geometrical story in art.
Even as a loosely themed hang, the paintings do have a story to tell,
but its not the one youd expect. Every time I see a Mondrian
painting up close, Im hit by a fresh sense of revelation that
here is an object beyond the flat, crisp lines of reproductions. Despite
the painters careful masking, the hand-made stripes of paint
still have that unique textural quality of oil. Their edges have tiny
burrs and ruffles, and the once brilliant colours are crackled and
faded with age.
This is true of almost every work in the show even of Laszlo
Moholy-Nagy, who famously issued instructions for two of his paintings
by telephone, in order to eliminate the mark of his own hand. Hard-edged
shapes are painted with oil on a new type of aluminium in Sil I, but
what was once shiny and evocative of all things new, is now tarnished
and dull. The texture of his paint is rough, and though you still
understand Nagys urge to create floating planes of light, you
can also appreciate the object as a fragile experiment of a past era.
Wherever you look in this show, despite the drive towards a machinist
aesthetic, there are chunky brush marks and leaning, hand-made angles
and edges. Ben Nicholsons reliefs are squint and textured. Victor
Pasmores poster combines the brave new world of abstract shapes
with the homely grain of pencil and chalk. Eventually this drive would
lead to a flawless world of machine-made cubes and pristine emulsion
squares, but for half a century, the search for geometric perfection
contained an exquisite human frailty which for me, will always outclass
Black, Sunday Herald 01.04.07