Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The rise of the 'novel' and 'abstract art'.

The ‘novel’ in the form we know it now, and defined as an “extended fictional prose narrative with emphasis on character development” came into being only in early 19th century and gained popularity towards the middle of that century. Why or how did it suddenly become popular? One explanation is that the industrial revolution saved people a few hours of work a week and provided them more time for reading and entertainment.  A different perspective is provided by Orhan Pamuk in his essay, “ Who do you write for?” (part of his book, “Other Colours”)

We must remember that the rise of the novel coincided with the emergence of the nation-state. When the great novels of the nineteenth century were being written, the art of the novel was in every sense a national art. Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy wrote for an emerging middle class, who could in the books of its respective national author recognize every city, street, house, room and chair; it could indulge in the same pleasures as it did in the real world and discuss the same ideas. In the nineteenth century, novels by important authors appeared first in the art and culture supplements of national newspapers, for the authors were speaking to the nation. In their narrative voices we can sense the disquiet of the concerned patriot whose deepest wish is for his country to prosper. By the end of the nineteenth century, to read and write novels was to join a national discussion on matters of national importance. 

Today the writing of the novel carries an entirely different meaning, says Pamuk. But the origin of the novel was linked to a set of circumstances in the nineteenth century.

What about impressionist art? How did art mutate from being literary portraits into a more abstract form?  Jonah Lehrer provides this explanation in his brilliant chapter on “Paul Cezanne” in his book,” Proust was a neuroscientist”. 

The story of abstract painting begins with the photograph, which literally means “light writing”. That’s what a photograph is: an image written in frozen light. Ever since the Renaissance, artists have used camera obscuras (“dark rooms”) to condense the three planes of reality into two dimensions. In the nineteenth century, with the discovery of photosensitive chemicals, painting lost its monopoly on representation. Light had been captured.

Painters , still in the business of copying reality, saw the new technique as a dire threat. How could the human hand compete with the photon? J.M.W.Turner is said to have remarked after seeing a photograph that he was glad he’d already had his day, since the era of painting was over. But not all artists believed in the inevitable triumph of the camera. The symbolic poet Charles Baudelaire, a natural skeptic of science, reviewed a photographic exhibition in 1859 by proclaiming the limits of the new medium. Its accuracy, he said, is deceptive and nothing more than phony simulacra of what was really out there. Inspired by his writings, a motley group of young French painters decided to rebel. The camera, they believed, was a liar. Its precision was false. Why? Because reality did not consist of static images. Because the camera stopped time, which cannot be stopped;  because it renders everything in focus when everything is never in focus. Because the eye is not a lens and the brain is not a machine. 

These rebels called themselves the impressionists. Like the film in a camera, their idiom was light. But the impressionists realized that light was both a dot and a blur. If the camera captured the dot, the impressionists represented the blur. They wanted to capture time in their paintings, showing how a bale of hay changes in the afternoon shadows, or how the smoke of a train leaving Gare Saint-Lazare slowly fades into thin air. They painted what the camera left out. 

Thus the ‘novel’ and “abstract art” both rose in response to specific developments in the nineteenth century, and gained acceptance gradually. Writers and artists had to change with the times and adapt their skills to fit into a new context, if they had to survive and flourish.

No comments: