Essay On The Unmistakable Signs Of Art


by Amy H. Winter


The Course of the Rivers III (2010) 69 x 46 inches

 




What we call nature... is a poem hidden behind a wonderful secret writing; if we could decipher the puzzle, we should recognize in it the odyssey of the human spirit, which in astonishing delusion flees from itself while seeking itself.

- Ernst Cassirer

 

 

 

 







H.A. Sigg’s art is a poetic art—spare, concentrated, acutely observant and intellectual in its search for an other reality than that of everyday life. Paring nature and matter down to their essences, Sigg developed an abstract language for landscape, the primary subject of his career. In separate painting series he explored given sets of structures that rotate and interchange signs of the natural elements—earth, air, water, and fire; and a fifth element, once metaphysically called the aether but actually the phenomenological effects of color and light.

Beginning in the late 1960s, and continuing in ongoing, open-ended series, Sigg’s abstract handling of form, light and color stood in for the aesthetics of nature itself (subsequently developing into abstract signs of nature, culture, and the self). Sigg’s early abstractions are equivalents to the sky’s gradations of light and color, clouds and mists hanging over mountains and horizons. These effects of light and color, called atmospheric perspective and observable in the far distance in nature and in illusionistic landscapes, reveal Sigg’s careful observation and transcription of subtle events of the natural world.

But there are no mountains, and there are no clouds or overlapping near-, middle- or far-distances in Sigg’s landscapes, no mathematical perspective to fix or focus our gaze. Instead, at first sight, there is a beautiful minimal image, a hallmark of modern abstract painting that stresses and experiments with the flatness of the picture plane to create a new ethos of “painting for painting’s sake.” Favoring beauty of form and color over realism of any sort, it formulates a new concept of space in painting, a new perspective, both literally and figuratively.


H.A. Sigg in his studio

This ethos—articulated in the l960s in the “Formalist” essays of the American art critic Clement Greenberg, and later in post-war “Color Field” art—became the dominant, mode-of-choice painting style for many decades. Aspects of Siggs’ work are related to aspects of the work of the Abstract Expressionists, championed by Greenberg, such as the calligraphy of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline. This is also true in relation to the ‘gestural’ nature of their work, coined “action painting” by American art critic Harold Rosenberg, who emphasized the experiential quality and process of making a picture.

In Sigg’s paintings, calligraphy and gesture are captured, distilled, and quieted, changing the terms of encounter with the object from contemplative to meditative, and adding the new term of the sign. In works like The Course of the River V (1985), uninterrupted cursive lines, as if seen from above and straight ahead at once, wind through and float on a field of modulated brown tones. These are surrogates for the river and the land. This gesture is just one step away from the sign for the river that changes course and appearance, here a flowing gesture, later a rapidly and repeatedly executed character. Both are similar to Asian calligraphy, practiced day by day to perfect the artist’s control and expression. But whereas the character is fluid in this series, like a river it will take on different forms, contexts, and roles in other series.

Sigg’s art has also been likened to the “Lyrical Abstraction” and the Color Field painting of Rothko, Motherwell, and Newman; and the “Art Informel,” “Abstraction Lyrique,” and “Tachisme” of post-war European painters like Tapié, Soulages and others, in which the gesture, the hand, the touch and individual style of “marking” the canvas are expressed intuitively The lineage of this practice can be traced back to the long-standing European “belle peinture” tradition—beautiful paint handling, elegant brush strokes and a lively paint surface. Sigg has brought together various facets of all these associations and gone one step further. His work is both cerebral and intuitive in its fusion of visual art and language, use of series and sets, and involvement with non-Western art and culture, all of which are related to contemporary and post-modern art. Somehow it seems more akin to the music of, for instance, Morton Feldman, “characterized by notational innovations that... create rhythms that seem to be free and floating; pitch shadings that seem softly unfocused; a generally quiet and slowly evolving music; recurring asymmetric patterns... .”

Notably, Sigg’s structures are largely symmetrical although at times asymmetry also appears. He is much more straightforward than the Americans about his inspiration in nature (as we can see in many of his titles) and in Asian art and culture. In virtually all of his series he more thoroughly investigates the possibilities of abstract landscape and the aesthetics and philosophy of the East, testing boundaries with interplays of language and image, symbol and sign, physics and metaphysics, while intimately experimenting with color, light, space, and optical and tactile qualities.

In Sea and Sky II (1979), as in other works of this structure, Sigg fuses the realms of earth, air and water in an ethereal, somewhat mystical, image, created by nuanced brushwork, color, and light. Soft blue and grey zones are rendered atmospherically. Downy white bands and lines, analogous with clouds and mists, stretch across the image’s horizontal axis, implying their continuation beyond the space of the canvas and emphasizing the object’s surface. At the same time, the zones move up and down the picture plane’s vertical axis in registers that seem to continue and expand beyond the image’s top and bottom edges. There is movement in all directions: on the surface of the image and in the depth of the atmospheric color that absorbs and reflects light. The image, no longer a “picture” in the traditional sense of the word, has a delicacy, simplicity, and peacefulness about it that encompasses and embraces every direction and dimension.

In this series, a sense of the “sublime” emerges, a hallmark of the German Romantic movement and a theme that has occupied Northern painters for centuries—from Friedrich’s lonely sweeping vistas of sky and sea or seas of clouds encircling vast Alpine peaks, to the crashing waves of Nolde’s North Sea in the vivid blaze of a setting sun. No less so in the Northern light of the Nordic Luminists, Munch the outsider, but even so, like them, correlating the power of light and color to inner emotional or spiritual states.

Like the art of those painters, Sigg’s art radiates an inner light that transcends the light and boundaries of the natural world, even though it is distinctly different in form and content. Narrative, drama, and literal representation of nature are absent, reduced, both literally and figuratively, to only a few elements. The theme of the “sublime” and a rejection of literalism were also espoused by the New York painters—particularly Newman and Rothko, who spoke about their work in terms of the “tragic and the timeless,” relating it to the terror and ecstasy of the sublime. Sigg, both an observer and a thinker, crossed the boundary of the symbolic order into the world of the sign.

Born in 1924, Sigg must have found an early training ground in symbolism’s expressive color, content, and form—from Matisse to Kirchner’s Bridge, from the Blue Rider paintings of Kandinsky and Klee to their semiotic inventions of form and color at the Bauhaus. In the years following World War II, Sigg studied in the Paris studio of André Lhote. Lhote was a member of the Section d’Or (The Golden Section)—a collective of painters, sculptors and critics associated with Cubism and Orphism—and a respected teacher and theorist. Notably, Lhote had written a treatise on landscape painting in 1939.

From the start, Sigg focused on the themes of land, sea, and sky. But in 1968, after an unusual arrangement with Swiss Air in payment for his art, he flew to China, India, and Southeast Asia, and viewed the Asian subcontinent from the plane’s cockpit. This experience changed his perspective, shifting it from a terrestrial to an aerial view and altering his interior vision as well. Views of rivers and cultivated fields seen from above at times recall the themes and devices, if not the traditional representations and idioms, of classical Chinese and Japanese landscape scrolls: the omniscient eye looks down through clouds upon a scene below that shows a diminutive figure, almost imperceptible, the artist-scholar or the poet merged with the landscape, on a path leading to a mountain retreat, to contemplate nature, practice calligraphy, write poetry, and cultivate enlightenment.

Sigg’s images in this series are global views of gold, green, rust, and red patchworks. River Meanders III (1976/84) Sometimes they morph into shimmering aqueous mosaics, molecular-looking and reminiscent of the refraction of light underwater. Mural, University of Zurich (1981) In The Green River in the Ripening Fields (1976) we gaze down upon the artist’s shorthand for rotated fields. Like reflected sunlight, the empty white spaces of the canvas break through the edges of the irregular rhythmic pattern of tinted shapes of color. Rivers meandering or winding, snakelike, along the picture’s surface are signs of art and memory, symbols of life’s flow and flux.

In The Course of the River V (1985) and other works of that series, the sinuous image of the river becomes a calligraphic sign. Seen as if from a distance, it is a signifier of the past; or the future, the path that winds ahead. Brought up close to the bottom edge or on the surface of the picture plane, it may signify the present or presence. In the Land of the River V (1993) Always there is a suggestion of the space outside of and beyond the edge of the frame.

On the ground in Asia in the first and in subsequent journeys, Sigg’s attention was drawn to architectural elements and artifacts of monuments he visited—temples and sites—in Cambodia, China, India. Simultaneously, he began developing the motifs of the glyph and the cipher, like inscriptions seen on plaques and dedications.

A new architectonic structure arose, initiating a new theme for his paintings—the theme of the door. The view through the door, an alternative to the traditional interior-exterior trope of the “window” in painting, is also a powerful symbol. Stripped of its reality by Sigg, the door became a sign that functioned on multiple levels of form and meaning. Beyond the teasing question of what lies inside, behind or beyond this passageway Meditative XIX (2008), sometimes a form between the ‘doors’—the “middle realm” in his titles—evokes an altar or a stele with a secret visual code. Mystery (2003); In the Middle Realm XX (1999) At other times, forms situated between panels, like curtains opening onto a stage, reveal a form that recalls an artifact, distinctly Asian in quality. Untitled I (1989) Simultaneously compressed and expanding, the doors or panels push inward and away from the center, advancing or retreating with warm or cool hues as if in an other, mobile dimension. Within the Red III (2004)

Fire, now more than the heat of the sun, appears in characters made with angular black strokes—a variation on the sign of the river—a lightning bolt that reverses the tonal polarity of nature’s own calligraphy. Sometimes it is a lone gesture unanchored on a field of color. In the Middle Realm XVI (1997/98) Sometimes it is contained within a cartouche or plaque. Under the Sign of the River III (1990/91) Sometimes it adds other characters, developing a pseudo-calligraphy of further significance—the ineffable code of the artist. Magic of the Signs II (2008) Nature was its beginning but not its end.

As noted by the modern art theorist Wolfgang Paalen:

…the symbolic value of the sign…does not depend upon its possibility of being identified with any concrete reality. For even the sign—an intermediate abstraction between the image and the letter—does not necessarily refer to existing objects. The sign operates as a visual symbol...

Sigg’s work ventured into the field of form as visual symbol, beyond concrete referents or words,developing a vocabulary of elementary forms as abstract surrogates for things he saw in his journeys. Monumental forms—temple doors, pillars, altars—are reduced to simple shapes–the rectangle, the square, the cylinder—operate on the surface of the picture plane, and lose their lithic mass but gain iconic weight and singularity.

Face to face with these icons, we are drawn in by the color—blue somehow the most mesmerizing—often ranging through hues of brown, black, purple, and green. Elsewhere, red, orange and yellow strike a major chord, accented by the sign The Sign III (2000); Small Sign II (2007) or by not-too-precise dividing lines. This recalls Asian scrolls, or the spatial exercises of Newman’s Stations of the Cross, but takes the edge off the latter’s canvases, to render an emotive and sensual imbrication of formal elements that warps or otherwise modifies given sets of geometries at will. Magic of the Signs II (2008); Meditative II (2004); Encounter IV (2010)

These are meditative images that thrive on the resonance of color’s magnetism and emanation. Mass dissolves under the pressure of light’s distillation and condensation, the center holds but expands, loses its angles to exceed the boundaries of the frame, creates an un-square version of Mondrian’s neo-Platonic designs, and opens up an energy in which we are implicated by the undivided totality of nature. The only weight is the encounter at the doors of perception, a line over which we are invited to step. Symbols are signs, referents feelings and vestigial inscriptions of consciousness. Green Room (2004)

Sigg’s attraction to the East is not coincidental. His evocative landscapes of the mind and spirit were born of longing—an “astonishing delusion that flees from itself while seeking itself”; a journey rooted in the encompassing power of nature, free-falling into an other sort of time and space. The call of Asia is unmistakable, with its mysterious caves and temples that open onto Taoism’s mystical vision of the unity of nature, the secrets of the I Ching, Buddhism’s quest for simplicity and essence, the eight-fold path that strips the ego of desire to find a perfect balance in Nirvana, the heavens above heavens, the embrace of complements. Symbols of ideas present in glyphs are simultaneously visual and lexical, with resonant equilibrium and vibrant serenity.

Imagine you are an artist, like Sigg, who grew up in the High Alps, dominated by nature, searching for a way to express your mixture of awe, revelation, epiphany in the face of the extraordinary. It’s no wonder Sigg wished to fly, to look down upon the earth from a point higher than the iconic Jungfrau itself. He was predisposed to that vantage point from the start. And yet, as an abstract painter, he abandoned all reference to literal reality and created structures that might be likened to the abstractions of Hindu religious belief and practice, for instance, in Angkor Wat.

From above, Angkor Wat’s plan, a “yantra,” could be creatively extrapolated to a modern or contemporary icon. Yantra, the Sanskrit word for ‘instrument’:

… can stand for symbols, processes… that have structure and organization. One usage popular in the west is as symbols or geometric figures. In Eastern mysticism such symbols are used to balance or focus the mind on spiritual concepts…for instance, a symbol which 'holds' the essence of a concept, or helps the mind to 'fasten' onto a particular idea.14

A yantra depicts “both macrocosmic and microcosmic forces acting together—the movement towards and away from the center—‘control’ and ‘liberation’ within the one device. It is sometimes believed to be a mystical or astronomical diagram (usually a symbol, often inscribed on an amulet).” Not to imply that this was Sigg’s method or something about which he was thinking. The structures, the scaffolding of his paintings, the primary forms with which he develops his art—the ‘river’, the ‘door,’ the ‘plaque’—do not bear any visual resemblance to these Hindu geometries.

In the most minimal way, Sigg’s rectangular ‘doors’ emphasize the vertical axis of the painting. But are the doors opening, or partly open; closing, or partly closed? Are we standing outside looking in or inside looking out? Green Room (2004) Forms mirror and overlap in ambivalent figure and ground relationships and invert expectations about the behavior of color and orientation of the natural order.

Viewing In the Middle Realm IX (1994/95), a midnight blue shaft hangs from the top of the image, projecting then receding as we focus on a small dark ‘door’ within its frame. A feathery white band at the bottom contains a shadowed encasement in and on which another shaft sits, mirroring the one above in reverse. While abruptly cut off at the edge, it also suggests that it is the beginning of a new shaft, like the reiterating frames of photographic negatives. Continuing beyond the edge, it suggests a circular return—perhaps the eternal return about which philosophers speak—while also doubling as an epigraphic plaque inscribed with—or here empty of—signs of nature, culture, or memory. The painter has become a scribe, writing his own language in form and color.

At other times our eye is redirected to the horizontal axis. Downy white lines drift on textured fields of blue, anchored below by a brown plaque inscribed with the sign of the river, equating with earth’s gravity yet paradoxically weightless. Under the Sign of the River III (1990/91) The painter leads us along a path of visual experience in synchrony with his own experience and personal code. What is striking, however, is the empathy of Sigg’s work with the concept of the yantra, arrived at in his own way—from the “movement towards and away from the center,” to the nesting of signs inscribed inside slate-like plaques or tablets, to the image that ‘holds’ the essence of a concept and helps the mind to ‘fasten’ onto a particular idea, to the inner light that illuminates the image.

Beyond the elegant simplicity of Sigg’s canvases lies a world of significance. His paintings can be taken at face value for their design and sheer beauty. They can be enjoyed for their inventive and seemingly endless permutations of chosen structures and themes. We can delve deeper and puzzle out their semantic, syntactic and semiotic rotations of content and form. Or we can join the artist in contemplation of an other, more satisfying, reality, and like Cassirer ponder “the dynamic of the enigmatic, ever elusive, concept of totality—a state without boundaries or frames—that comprises all [the] knowledge, expression, and insight that always elicits admiration and wonder.”




Endnotes

 


Bibliography

Georges Seurat, (born December 2, 1859, Paris, France—died March 29, 1891, Paris), painter, founder of the 19th-century French school of Neo-Impressionism whose technique for portraying the play of light using tiny brushstrokes of contrasting colours became known as Pointillism. Using this technique, he created huge compositions with tiny, detached strokes of pure colour too small to be distinguished when looking at the entire work but making his paintings shimmer with brilliance. Works in this style include Une Baignade, Asnières (1883–84) and A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 (1884–86).

Georges was the son of Antoine-Chrisostôme Seurat, a 44-year-old property owner, originally from Champagne, and Ernestine Faivre, a Parisienne. His father, a singular personality who had been a bailiff, spent most of his time in Le Raincy, where he owned a cottage with a garden (in which Seurat often painted). The young Seurat lived primarily in Paris with his mother, his brother Émile, and his sister Marie-Berthe. At the time of the Paris Commune, in 1871, when Paris rebelled against the French state and set up its own government, the prudent family temporarily withdrew to Fontainebleau.

While attending school, Georges began to draw, and, beginning in 1875, he took a course from a sculptor, Justin Lequien. He officially entered the École des Beaux-Arts in 1878, in the class of Henri Lehmann, a disciple of Ingres, who painted portraits and conventional nudes. In the school library Seurat discovered a book that was to inspire him for the rest of his life: the Essai sur les signes inconditionnels de l’art (1827; “Essay on the Unmistakable Signs of Art”), by Humbert de Superville, a painter-engraver from Geneva; it dealt with the future course of aesthetics and with the relationship between lines and images. Seurat was also impressed with the work of another Genevan aesthetician, David Sutter, who combined mathematics and musicology. Throughout his brief career, Seurat manifested an unusually strong interest in the intellectual and scientific bases of art.

In November 1879, at the age of 20, Seurat went to Brest to do his military service. There he drew the sea, beaches, and boats. When he returned to Paris the following autumn, he shared a studio with another painter, Édmond-François Aman-Jean, who then joined him in Lehmann’s class. But Seurat and Aman-Jean departed from the policies of the École des Beaux-Arts in admiring the warm landscapes of Jean-Baptiste Millet at the Louvre. The two friends often frequented dance halls and cabarets in the evening, and in spring they took the passenger steamer to the island of La Grande Jatte, the setting of Seurat’s future paintings. Seurat exhibited at the official Salon—the state-sponsored annual exhibition—for the first time in 1883. He displayed portraits of his mother and of his friend Aman-Jean, and in that same year he began his studies, sketches, and panels for Une Baignade, Asnières. When the picture was refused by the jury of the Salon in 1884, Seurat decided to participate in the foundation of the Groupe des Artistes Indépendants, an association “with neither jury nor prizes,” where he showed his Baignade in June.

During this period, he had seen and been strongly influenced by the monumental symbolic paintings of Puvis de Chavannes. He also met the 100-year-old chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul and experimented with Chevreul’s theories of the chromatic circle of light and studied the effects that could be achieved with the three primary colours (yellow, red, and blue) and their complements. Seurat fell in with Paul Signac, who was to become his chief disciple, and painted many rough sketches on small boards in preparation for his masterpiece, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884. In December 1884 he exhibited the Baignade again, with the Société des Artistes Indépendents, which was to be of immense influence in the development of modern art.

Seurat spent the winter of 1885 working on the island of La Grande Jatte and the summer at Grandcamp, in Normandy. The Impressionist master Camille Pissarro, who was temporarily converted to the technique of Pointillism, was introduced to Seurat by Signac during this period. Seurat finished the paintingLa Grande Jatte and exhibited it from May 15 to June 15, 1886, at an Impressionist group show. This picture demonstration of his technique aroused great interest. Seurat’s chief artistic associates at this time, painters also concerned with the effects of light on colour, were Signac and Pissarro. The unexpectedness of his art and the novelty of his conception excited the Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren. The critic Félix Fénéon praised Seurat’s method in an avant-garde review. And Seurat’s work was exhibited by the eminent dealer Durand-Ruel in Paris and in New York City.

In 1887, while he was temporarily living in a garret studio, Seurat began work on Les Poseuses. This painting was to be the last of his compositions on the grand scale of the Baignade and La Grande Jatte; he thought about adding a Place Clichy to this number but abandoned the idea. In the following year he completed Les Poseuses and also La Parade. In February 1888 he went to Brussels with Signac for a private viewing of the exposition of the Twenty (XX), a small group of independent artists, in which he showed seven canvases, including La Grande Jatte.

Seurat participated in the 1889 Salon des Indépendants, exhibiting landscapes. He painted Signac’s portrait at this time. His residence at this point was in the Pigalle district, where he lived with his 21-year-old mistress, Madeleine Knobloch. On February 16, 1890, Madeleine presented him with a son, whom he officially acknowledged and entered in the register of births under the name of Pierre-Georges Seurat. During that year Seurat completed the painting Le Chahut, which he sent to the exhibition of the Twenty (XX) in Brussels. During that period he also painted the Jeune Femme se poudrant, a portrait of his mistress, though he continued to conceal his liaison with her even from his most intimate friends. He spent that summer at Gravelines, near Dunkirk, where he painted several landscapes and planned what was to be his last painting, Le Cirque.

As if from some sort of premonition of his impending death, Seurat showed the uncompleted Cirque at the eighth Salon des Indépendants. As an organizer of the exhibition, he exhausted himself in the presentation and hanging of the works. He caught a chill, developed infectious angina, and, before the exhibition was ended, he died on Easter Sunday 1891. On the following day Madeleine Knobloch presented herself at the town hall of her district to identify herself as the mother of Pierre-Georges Seurat. The child, who had contracted his father’s contagious illness, died April 13, 1891. Seurat was buried in the family vault at Père Lachaise cemetery. In addition to his seven monumental paintings, he left 40 smaller paintings and sketches, about 500 drawings, and several sketchbooks. Though a modest output in terms of quantity, they show him to have been among the foremost painters of one of the greatest periods in the history of art.

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