REVIEW: Paths to Abstraction 1867-1917 @ AGNSW

Exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 26 June – 19 September 2010

The AGNSW’s showcase exhibition for 2010 is into its final week. Featuring over 150 paintings, prints, drawings and texts from the turn of the 20th century, “Paths to Abstraction” claims to reveal ‘how abstract art emerged around the world.’ I’m not sure how the curator of the show Terence Maloon understand the word “world”, but the last time I checked it surely meant something beyond a western European solipsism.

In what could be considered a companion piece to record-breaking (in Australian standards anyway) “Masterpieces from Paris” exhibition earlier this year at the National Gallery of Art, Canberra, this show continues on a refined historical trajectory of artistic development. From J. A. M. Whistler’s musically-inspired nocturnes with their impetuous flecks of light, Monet’s (not so) luminous haystacks, to Vuillard’s interiors, the colour experiments of the Fauves, Les Nabis, to Gauguin’s Tahitian themed primitivist woodblock prints, Picasso, der Blaue Reiter group and so on, these sometimes disparate voices are seemingly easily harmonized into a common trajectory and goal.

One of these trajectories is an obvious turn against pictorial representation and realist subject matter towards, you guessed it, abstract non-figural work: wild, bold colours and lines, the lifting of illusion in art, art for art’s sake. Yet Kasimir Malevich in 1915, one of the artists represented, wrote in regards to his style of Suprematism that ‘[p]ainting is paint and colour…such forms will not be repetitions of living things in life but will themselves be a living thing. A painted surface is a real, living form’. Whether you agree with this statement or not, it reveals that it may not be so easy to delineate a common path and purpose for so many artists over such an expansive reach of geography and time. That Malevich considered his monochromatic canvases as “real” as any naturalist painter is at odds with the pared-down story that this exhibition tells.

The final room of the show titled “The Limits of Abstraction” poses some intriguing questions as well. If Whistler, whose work opens the exhibition, had lived past 1903 would his work encroach upon some by Kandinsky? The implicit message is that the artistic experimentation of earlier artists and groups were converging into a common trend: forget independence and individual practice. This also effaces the influence of other cultures on some of the artists: the Japonisme of Vuillard and Cézanne; Moroccan textiles on Matisse; African ceremonial objects for Picasso and Braque; German folk art on Der Blaue Reiter. It’s easy to forget the complex alternative pathways of transnational influence and exchange, and fast-track it down the cultural highway. Sure it’s bound to get you places faster, but you miss out on so much on the way. Oh, and it seems that they’ve thrown in Duchamp’s ready-made Bicycle Wheel just for good measure.

But all this isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy some of the works brought out for the show – I mean it’s not all bad. But perhaps the following picture I took sums it up: at the bottom of one of Gauguin’s prints, I’m certain he’s signed it……yeh, that’s right. “Paul Gauguin fail”.

“Paths to Abstraction” continues at the AGNSW until Sunday 19 September. Tickets available at the front desk. $20 Adult; $15 Member/Concession. For more info see the AGNSW website.



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