"The formation of a painting reveals fundamental structures, which are schemes of seeing and representing reality gradually, and they constitute a march towards realism".
Igal Vardi, Mimesis: The Psychology of Modern Painting
In his book, Mimesis: The Psychology of Modern Painting, Igal Vardi puts forth an intriguing claim concerning the nature of artistic styles. The claim is composed of two simpler ones, which, when combined, touch at the very heart of Vardi's concern , a matter which he calls: "Formative Realism". The first component is that artistic styles are reflections of world-views. If you wish to understand the history of a culture, look at its art. The second component is that artistic styles are key players in the very construction of a world-view. They are "ways of world-making", to borrow the late Nelson Goodman's phrase. Neither component is new. Rather, the novelty of Vardi's idea is in combining the two, thus resulting in somewhat an odd claim to the effect that artistic styles both reflect and construct world-views together. It is an odd idea, since, at first sight, constructing and reflecting seem to be at odds themselves, as in a "before and after" sort of affair, source and copy.
In a Kantian view, one of Vardi's premises is that a defining feature of the modem world-view of the West, is the distressing awareness of our ultimate inability to grasp the true nature of reality, of any "Ding an sich". For Vardi, as for Kant and many others, the world we see is just that: the world we see. On all levels of the human existence – the personal, the social, and the cultural – we put forth our hypothetical constructs of what the world is really like, and put them to the test.(Often, we put forth our constructs of what we want the world to be like, avoiding testing them. But that's a different opera…). As Ernst Gombrich put it, art progresses through a series of schemas and corrections, making and matching. Vardi concurs with Gombrich that art, historically, has always functioned in such a fashion.
Yet, the relationship between art and the world, so heavily debated since Plato until now, yet remains unclear. However, following through the logic of Vardi's thesis, the relationship between art and a world-view becomes significantly clearer. It is, properly designated, a relation of inflection. Generally speaking, two elements are in an inflected relation, when the first participates in the definition of the second, whilst being defined by it. An artistic style is indeed a reflection of the world-view in which it thrives, while, at the same time, that very style participates in the creation and propagation of that very world-view. Returning to Gombrich, the artistic style of a period puts forth a schema, up against perceived reality. However, the stylistic schema is matched up against perceived reality, a reality that is inherently formed by the cultural spirit of the times. The stylistic schema itself is a fundamental constituent of that "spirit of the times", of the very world-view against which the style is then "corrected". Thus, the artistic schema both constructs and reflects its world-view. For instance, Cubism's cool rationalist vision of geometric analysis and multi-perspective synthesis is mapped out against the exciting developments of a new century, seething with cutting-edge technological breakthroughs and a growing awareness of cultural pluralism. And yet, that peculiar cool, rationalist vision of a multi-faceted gem of a world would not have been possible, had the Cubists not shown it to us.
Thus, world-views are not the static, objective pictures one might naively think they are. Rather, a world-view is dynamic, in a constant state of fluctuation, between determining what will transpire in the realm of those humans who embrace it, and between being determined by those very humans. As Vardi puts it, world-views are "formative". He contends that the formation of world-views follow certain developmental principles, which are essentially similar to the psychological principles of the development of perception. The eye, in seeking out comprehensible structure, traverses the swing of a pendulum between chaos and order, between the random seeking out of focal points and the purposive structuring of patterns. Thus he discerns a possible analogy to artistic styles, where some wander and wonder, like Kandinsky's "Improvisations" and Pollock's murals, and other styles design and define, like David's Neo-classicism and Braque's Analytical Cubism. Thus, says Vardi, just as the eye contends with its inner dialectic of roaming and framing, so the hand contends with an analogous dialectic of scribbling and fixing, and, ultimately, so artistic styles contend with their own inner dialectic of seeking out reality and defining what it is.
Realism in art is, in essence, a dialectical process. Akin to Wölfflin's theme of art as pendulating between the Baroque and the Classical, Vardi suggests that artistic styles are comprised of varying degrees of randomly seeking out reality and purposively ordering it. Having become aware of this historical perspective, however, Vardi suggests appropriating that history so as to put it to new use. The idea is to formulate the basic principles of a new style of artistic realism, dubbed "Formative Realism". Each painting is a sort of "mini-history" of art, progressing through a series of dialectical moves comprised of various artistic styles. Typically, one of Vardi's paintings can start out with a Cezannean type of compositional blocking in large, quasi-geometric patches of color, determining a basic structure. Then, a wandering, roaming line will appear, seeking out incidental points of interest across the structured plane, according, of course, to the specific theme of the painting – landscape, head, still life. Next, Impressionist brush strokes of pure color will start to flash out certain masses, relating them to a more scientifically minded optic realism, reminiscent of Monet. Finally, a sometimes rude superimposition of Cubo-futurist frames and planes cuts through the picture's top layer, countered by a Surrealist scribbling pencil line of automatic writing. The result is a picture of a dynamic and fluctuating reality, halted somewhere in mid formation. Sometimes, a sense of order is dominant, sometimes chaos wins the day. In some paintings they complement each other, in others they simply compete. One of the truly fascinating aspects of Vardi's idea is that it is never quite clear just what the balance of powers should be in any given painting. Vardi goes to great lengths to avoid answering that question, refusing to find solace neither in a clear composed structure, nor in a well improvised quest. For Vardi, artistic realism is both chaos and order, both reflection and construction, both definiendum and definies. His approach has all the makings of a first rate artistic adventure.
Dr. David Graves