The First Level of Meaning: Formal

When we see any object, we can immediately understand its form: the physical attributes of size, shape and mass, for instance. With art, this may at first appear to be simple: we can separate out each artistic element and discover how it is used in the work. You had practice doing this in the last two units. The importance of the formal level of meaning is that it allows us to look at any artwork from an objective viewpoint.

The invention of the photograph has greatly changed our ideas about what looks 'correct'. A good example of this idea can be seen by looking at a digital photo of a foggy landscape and a painting by the color field painter Mark Rothko.

Foggy Landscape

Foggy Landscape

When you compare the two, you see that formally they are similar; bands of color spread horizontally across the surface in layers. Yet Rothko's painting is much more reductive than the photo. The space is flat, sitting right on the surface of the canvas, whereas in the photo you get a feeling of receding space as areas of color overlap each other. This similarity is not coincidental. As a young man Rothko lived for in Portland, Oregon, and hiked the Cascade Mountains. On hikes to higher elevations, he saw the landscape and atmosphere around him and was especially moved by the colors in the sky near the horizon just before sunrise and just after sunset. This phenomenon is called the Veil of Venus: bands of pink, violet and blue near the horizon directly opposite the setting or rising sun. Below is a photograph showing this phenomenon.

Veil of Venus

Veil of Venus

Now you can imagine these memories reflected in Rothko's series of abstract 'color field' paintings. It's simplistic to say this was Rothko's only influence. As an artist he explored painting styles emerging out of Surrealism, including automatic drawing and more complex mythomorphic techniques. But it's hard to deny that to some extent his paintings are based on what he saw.

In another example of formal similarities, early photographs often used paintings as reference. We can see this in a comparison of a nineteenth century photo of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, and a painting from the series The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole titled The Consummation. Both show commanding views of landscape dominated by classic Greek architecture. The photo mimics Cole's painting in formal terms, emphasizing the grandeur of the architecture within a vast expanse of space.

Theodore Gericault's Raft of the Medusa

Conversely, realist paintings from the 19th century were sometimes ridiculed for being too lifelike and not 'ideal' enough. Theodore Gericault's Raft of the Medusa is an example. Nowadays people often proclaim that a painting is good because it looks 'just like a photograph'.

The rise of modern art produced artistic styles that challenge viewers in finding meaning in the works they see. The use of abstraction and gesture as subject matter runs counter to traditional avenues for finding meaning. It is in this formal, gesture-laden approach, however, that much of the grace and delicacy, as well as power, anger or other emotions can be conveyed. In other words, it is the application of the elements that can give us clues to a work's meaning. If we take the formal quality of application (what kind of lines or shapes are created, how the paint is applied, etc) and combine it with a specific subject (the act of painting itself), you can discover a new meaning from the combination of these visual effects.

When looked at from this perspective, the paintings of the Abstract Expressionists become more meaningful. In particular, the art of Joan Mitchell captures the exuberance and energy that the application of paint can achieve.

This bridge between formal quality and subject matter can be applied to meaning in works of art from many cultures. Gesture and pattern combine to enhance the meaning of more decorative works like the paintings from a Ceremonial House ceiling from the Sepik region of New Guinea. The ceremonial house was built as a place for spirits to dwell. The paintings themselves indicate abstracted images of faces making fierce gestures, suns and female genitalia, all in reference to the spirits surrounding the ceremony taking place inside.

Source: Christopher Gildow, Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

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Last modified: Tuesday, October 19, 2021, 9:29 AM