Sunday, March 9, 2014

Jannis Spyropoulos and Arthur Schopenhauer’s aesthetic theory

Jannis Spyropoulos (1912-1990) was a Greek painter who became known as “the classicist of abstraction” (Jannis Spyropoulos, Retrospective Exhibition Catalogue, 1994). His abstract paintings of “luminous darkness” -as Marina Lambraki-Plaka once called them (Jannis Spyropoulos: A Classicist of Abstraction 1912-1990)- combine technical discipline with emotional and intuitive expression.
By incorporating various elements in his images (paper collage, colour nuances which contrast against dark/monochromatic backgrounds, melted wax, signs, letters, arrows, dots, incisions, scratchings, geometric shapes, symbolic patterns), Spyropoulos attempted to create abstract “inner landscapes” which portray the “essence” of things. The individual components of his paintings seem to lose their material character, reminding one of old master paintings in which the painter endeavored to remove the marks of his brush. Spyropoulos aimed to imbue his paintings with an aura of classicism and timelessness; his “poetic and yet vigorous images…(combined) the skill of the old craftsman with the verve of the pioneer.” ( Jannis Spyropoulos: A Classicist of Abstraction 1912-1990)

                                                 Spyropoulos, J. (1965) Page No. 5

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was a German idealist philosopher whose thinking integrated elements from eastern and western philosophies/religions, and among other topics dealt with art/aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, death and the meaning of life. Schopenhauer’s work had a big impact on other philosophers (such as Friedrich Nietzche who appropriated Schopenhauer’s idea of the “will”) and helped pave the path for psychoanalytic theories (Freud’s notion of the subconscious is present in Schopenhauer’s concept of the “will”). His metaphysical aesthetic theory -which appears in the book "The World as Will and Representation"- had a significant impact on art (especially classical music and abstract painting) and is crucial in understanding the work of Spyropoulos- and the aesthetic work of art in general.
Schopenhauer (The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I, 1969) presents the world as having two basic aspects: that of representation (the way we individually perceive things as being external to the mind) and that of will (an equivalent of the Kantian “thing-in-itself”, the way the world is in itself). The world is the representation of a single Will (the ultimate cosmic force), of which our individual wills are phenomena; because of our individual wills we can never see things as they really are -we “represent” phenomena to ourselves according to our own immediate self-interest.
Schopenhauer suggests (Vol I, Book III) that one way to free ourselves from our distorting will is through art/aesthetic contemplation: in his opinion art can suspend the viewer’s ordinary “will-ful” perception of the world and transport him/her to the higher realm of eternal “Ideas” (Schopenhauer adopts the Platonic concept of the “Idea” as the unchanging archetypal reality which exists beneath the world of phenomena and the confines of time/space/causality). Thus, the viewer is transformed from a “willing” subject into a “purely knowing” subject. Through aesthetic contemplation (Vol. I, p.178-9):

We no longer consider the where, the when, the why, and the whither of things, but simply and solely the what…(Through contemplation we) exist only as pure subject, as clear mirror of the object, so that it is as though the object alone existed without anyone to perceive it, and thus we are no longer able to separate the perceiver from the perception…What is thus known is no longer the individual thing as such, but the Idea…

As described, by “Idea” Schopenhauer means the timeless/eternal truths of our world, the undistorted/enduring elements in all change, the “innermost nature” of things which transcends phenomenal reality. The communication of this “Idea”, Schopenhauer says, is the aim of the aesthetic work of art. In his own words (Vol. I, Book III), “the object of aesthetical contemplation is not the individual thing, but the Idea in it which is striving to reveal itself.” Manos Stefanidis (Concerning Painters, 1988) argues that it is extremely difficult to clearly articulate this world of “Ideas”, since the observer inevitably interposes himself/herself and “contaminates” the purity of the “Idea”. In his opinion (p.135), the only way of participating in “things in themselves” is to be silent, to break off the “discourse”. He acknowledges such an attempt in the “silent” pictorial language of Spyropoulos (p.135):

The interpolation and participation of the observer can produce a personal vision of “things in themselves” in abstract art…The wealth of (the imagination of Spyropoulos) in morphology and colour, the power of his brush, lay close siege to the “things in themselves” as they lie enveloped in ontological silence…

Schopenhauer argues (The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II) that art requires the co-operation of the beholder as it can only act through the medium of the imagination:

Not everything can be given directly to the senses through the work of art, but only as much as is required to lead the imagination on to the right path… the very best in art is too spiritual to be given directly to the senses; it must be born in the beholder’s imagination…

In "The World as Will and Representation" he also analyzes the concept of genius, which for him consists of the capacity for aesthetic experience. He describes genius as (Vol.I, p.185-6):

The ability to leave entirely out of sight our own interest, our willing, and our aims, and consequently to discard entirely our own personality for a time, in order to remain pure knowing subject, the clear eye of the world.

He suggests that it is possible for the artistic genius to reach states of heightened perception wherein (Schopenhauer: Parerga and Paralipomena Vol 2, 2000) “the most ordinary objects appear completely new and unfamiliar”; he argues that the artist-genius is able to remain in such a state for a prolonged period of time -thereby making it possible to transmit this state of “pure perception” by “reproducing” it in his/her art.
In Schopenhauer’s view (The Essential Schopenhauer, p.29-31), art which depicts objects with excessive fidelity to nature (he mentions examples of figurative art such as still-lifes of food/drink and paintings of the nude body) cannot adequately represent the most important element of the work (the underlying “Idea”) - it is more likely to reinforce our usual will-ful/distorted way of perceiving things, rather than transport us to the realm of pure contemplation. He also suggests (Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms, p. 162) that music is the superior artform: since it has no specific “subject” (which is also a characteristic of abstract painting) it can most easily transport the viewer to the realm of imagination and pure, will-less knowing.
Schopenhauer’s theories influenced many abstract painters who attempted to portray “things in themselves” (non-objective representation of things) and the “Ideas” that underlie our world of phenomena. Spyropoulos submerged himself in his work in an attempt to discover and portray the “imaginary reality” beyond the confines of time and space, cause and effect. He once declared that he “arrived at abstraction while seeking the quintessence of certain things” (Jannis Spyropoulos, Retrospective Exhibition Catalogue, 1994, p.38), and that he “spread out darkness in search of light” (Jannis Spyropoulos: A Classicist of Abstraction 1912-1990”, 1995).
One could describe the art of Jannis Spyropoulos as visual music because of the effect it has on our consciousness: through harmonies, rhythm, colour-tones and composition it aims to transport the viewer to the realm of pure speculation. Perhaps his paintings could be described as “works of genius” as they convey a sense of heightened aesthetic awareness- they most certainly are a testimony of his search for “interiority” and “reality” beneath mere surface/form.

                                                 Spyropoulos, J. (1963) Triptychon A


Danilopoulou, O. (ed.) (1994) Jannis Spyropoulos (1912-1990) Retrospective Exhibition. Thessaloniki : Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art.
Hollingdale, R.J. transl. (1970) Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms. Penguin Classics.
Payne, E.F.J. (2000) Schopenhauer: Parerga and Paralipomena Volume 2. Clarendon Press.
Schopenhauer, A. (1962) The Essential Schopenhauer. London: Unwin Books.
Schopenhauer, A. (1969) The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I. New York: Dover Publications.
Schopenhauer, A. (1966) The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II. New York: Dover Publications.
Stefanidis, M. ‘Spyropoulos and Tsarouchis: An unforeseen dialogue on the form of the invisible’ in (1995) Jannis Spyropoulos: A Classicist of Abstraction 1912-1990. Athens: National Gallery and Alexandros Soutzos Museum.
Stefanidis, M. (ed.) (1988) Concerning Painters. Titanium


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