The Important Artists and Works of Formalism in Modern Art
This work depicts an evening firework display at London's Cremorne Gardens, as a rocket explodes, its sparks of color lighting up the darkness before falling into the river. The few figures on the shore in the foreground, and the shore itself, are almost ghostly, transparent. A product of Whistler's unique method of working with very liquid paint, this translucence of detail reflects his commitment to an art of evocative abstraction, departing from figurative accuracy. This painting was the last in a series of Whistler's nocturnes, landscapes that were important to both the Aesthetic movement and in launching Tonalism. Whistler described the works, exploring dark blue and green tonalities, as expressing "a dreamy, pensive mood." At the same time, the Nocturnes also reflect his view that emphasizing a painting's formal elements was more important than accurate representation.
Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket became the subject of a famous libel action after the critic John Ruskin accused Whistler of "throwing a pot of paint in the public's face" in 1877. Whistler's defense of the artwork became a de facto defense of modern art. As art critic James Jones writes, "Whistler performed brilliantly. In a Victorian court of law, he nonchalantly explained his idea of abstract art: 'Asked about the meaning of the word "Nocturne," reported the Times, "Mr. Whistler said that a picture was to him throughout a problem, which he attempted to solve ... "An Arrangement" was an arrangement of light, form and color'."
Clive Bell noted the importance of Whistler's stance and counted him among those "who made form a means to aesthetic emotion and not a means of stating facts and conveying ideas." As Whistler noted, "Nature contains the elements, in color and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful."
This landscape depicts Mont Sainte-Victoire in Provence, a subject that Cézanne returned to again and again, as he created some thirty paintings and watercolors depicting the towering mountain. The valley that stretches out below is vibrant with irregular shapes of cool colors - rich green and blue - contrasting with sun-drenched yellows and other warm tones. The landscape is suggested rather than depicted, conventional representation replaced by an emphasis on formal elements.
Art historian René Huyghe wrote that "[i]n works such as these, [Cézanne] chose to rediscover a more substantial reality of simple forms behind the glimmering veil of appearances...At the same time, such pictures present shimmering harmonies of color that can be seen as totally flat designs, without depth." As the artist himself put it: "I do not want to reproduce nature. I want to re-create it." For him that meant depicting "nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone."
Cezanne's work had an enormous influence on the development of Formalism, partly thanks to the reception of his work amongst early-20th-century artists and critics. When curating Manet and the Post-Impressionists, a London exhibition in 1910, art critic Roger Fry wrote that Cézanne "showed how it was possible to pass from the complexity of the appearance of things to the geometrical simplicity which design demands." Clive Bell saw Cézanne's artworks as exemplifying the search for "significant form," and Cezanne became the primary influence upon Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in their development of Cubism. As Braque said, "In Cezanne's work we should see not only a new pictorial construction but also - too often forgotten - a new moral suggestion of space."
This work depicts a vaudeville tightrope dancer, her small grey and white figure picked out at the top of the painting, while the abstract pattern of large color planes beneath indicates the shadows of her movements. Resembling a collage, the painting was informed both by a series of preliminary experiments and by Ray's accidental discovery of the patterns his cutouts made when he discarded them on the floor. Abstract representations of the dancer's movements come to dominate the pictorial plane; formal effects become the object of primary focus.
In 1916 Man Ray exhibited ten works in The Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters at the Anderson Galleries in New York. His statement included in the exhibition catalogue emphasized a Formalistic approach. He described painting as the process by which an artist realizes "his mind motives and physical sensations in a permanent and universal language of color, texture and form organization." That year he also published his Primer of the New Art of Two Dimension, described by art historian Francis M. Naumann as "a remarkably prescient Formalist theory."
As a native of the USA, Man Ray was significant in representing the interaction between European and North-American artists, by which the baton of Formalism was passed to US-based painters such as Jackson Pollock and critics such as Clement Greenberg during the mid-twentieth century. For Man Ray, "[t]he creative force and the expressiveness of painting reside materially in the color and texture of pigment, in the possibilities of form invention and organization, and in the flat plane on which these elements are brought to play."