Romanticism – the roots of Existentialism?

There is a fascinating series of documentaries by Simon Schama on BBC about Romanticism and its relevance to the modern world.

The first episode was about the aspect of Romanticism which was concerned with freedom, the imagination, a sense of self and a sense of humanity as one facing an uncertain future and an indifferent universe. Its politics were anti-establishment, anti-elite with an emphasis on the power of the people and yet also the importance of individual freedom.

As I watched the programme I was increasingly struck by the echoes of existentialism and began to wonder how far back beyond Nietzsche and Kierkegaard those roots stretched?

When you read Shelley’s political poetry with its emphasis on action, or his defence of atheism; when you look at Delacroix’s liberty leading the people or Gericault’s raft of the medusa, you are seeing and reading the ancestors of existentialist writers such as Sartre and Camus with their philosophy of freedom, authenticity and political action to express the voices of the oppressed.

And in Coleridge and Wordsworth you read of their love or nature, their absolute immersion in life as if nothing else matters but what is around us here and now, again reflecting Sartre’s belief that this life is all there is and needs to be experienced and lived as authentically as possible.

So, it seems the modern world does contain echoes from the Romantics, and their influence is deeper and wider than we might have imagined.

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Abstract art and Existentialism

“Painting is a duality and abstract painting is an entirely aesthetic thing. It always remains on one level. It is only really interesting in the beauty of its patterns or its shapes.”
Francis Bacon

This quote from Francis Bacon reflects the tension between representational and non-representational art, both between artists and amongst audiences.

Bacon also said most abstract art was purely decoration.

Fundamentally, this comes down to a question of meaning and intention. Is the artist interested in telling a story, giving a sense of meaning to his/her image as well as a sense of composition and design, or is the artist looking at the painting as an object in its own right. That object being constructed of colour or shape or composition.

This is where Bacon has a point. Even abstract art needs to convey something if it is to avoid being just decorative.

One way to avoid this is to think about art from an existentialist perspective. Sartre talks about “contingency” which is the seeming randomness of things just existing in space. Man is desperate for meaning and order in this chaos, but the universe seems indifferent. Art, he believed provided contingency and necessity. It reflects back the objects around us (contingency), and makes an attempt to provide meaning from the artist’s perspective, whether in narrative form or through colour and shape (necessity).

Great abstract art does this.

It asks us to look at colour, shape, juxtaposition, texture in order to evoke a new perspective on the world around us. It questions our way of looking and, from a phenomenological point of view, asks us to experience the painting as a thing in itself and thereby become more deeply aware of our own existence.

Bacon was right. Abstract art is only really interesting in the beauty of its patterns or its shapes. But isn’t that true of the whole world?

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