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For many people, the terrain of art
is emotion and feeling. Much has been written that says that the whole and only
point of art is to stimulate emotion and subjective feeling. Polakoff points
out, surprisingly, that Modernist art took this point of view to an extreme.
This is surprising, because Modernist art is often thought to be cold and
rational, but as Polakoff points out, Modernist works offer nothing to the
intellect - they are all about pure experience, and how that experience
stimulates the emotions.
The idea that Polakoff offers is
that art can carry more than just emotion, it can carry ideas too. It's hard to
disagree with that. Using the work of symbolists masters, and also his own
work, he attempts in Symbols in Art to flesh out this idea. The result is a
beautiful, interesting, and paradoxical book.
The main charm of the book is found
in the many excellent reproductions of symbolist paintings from a century ago.
These works demonstrate vividly how a symbolic level, when added to works that
are visually appealling, results in art that is uniquely compelling. Many of
these works are marred however by being printed on adjoining pages across the
spine of the book. This lack of visual sensitivity to the work is a hint of
deeper flaws in the thesis.
Sixty-two pictures are presented
and analyzed in Symbols in Art. Thirty of these works are by well-known
artists. The list ranges from William Blake through Gustav Klimt to René
Magritte to Titian. Thirty-two of the works are by Polakoff himself. The
contrast between Polakoff's work and that of the masters is striking - Polakoff
is obviously no master.
That contrast is striking and
instructive. Polakoff's argument is that Modernist art closed too many doors by
rejecting both representation and narrative in favor of emotional responses to
pure form and color. One agrees with this. And then Polakoff, in his own work,
closes all the doors except symbolism. His pictures are flat and textureless.
They are pretty because he works with a palette limited to highly saturated
hues. The formal composition has all the charm of blueprints or flowcharts.
Polakoff's works are presented alternately
with the works of the many other artists that he discusses. These other artists
are good - their work still stands in spite of the tests of time and changing
taste. They display the full range of artistic ability - we see compelling
composition allied with sensitivity to contrasts of light and dark, warm and
cool colors. The masters use the full gamut of effects available to the artist.
We see rich textures. We see wonderfully realistic representation allied with
fantastic situations. The works of the masters are alive with texture. And yet
all Polakoff takes away from them is a decoding of symbols. For his own pictures
he provides schematic diagrams that specify the meanings of the various
elements in the work. He doesn't go quite so far with the works of the masters,
but his analysis of the works is similarly shallow. Each is decoded: various
elements are identified and their meaning is explained. Here's an example from
his analysis of Klimpt's "The Kiss": "The background is flecked
with tinted gold droplets on a sierra brown base, symbolizing the sun and the
night, or yin and yang, the two primordial elements associated with masculine
and the feminine principles." Just how, or why, gold on brown symbolizes
day and night, or yin and yang, or masculine or feminine is left as an exercise
for the reader.
If the reader is skeptical though,
the whole argument falls apart. And this is the deep problem with Polakoff's
book. It is a long series of unsubstantiated assertions. There isn't even the
barest attempt to support the argument with evidence. And given the shallowness
of his own pictures, the reader has good reason to wonder about the competence
of the assertions.
© 2004 Martin Hunt
Martin Hunt is an artist living
and working in Vancouver, Canada. His work is inspired by math and science.
Lately he's been indulging an interest in evolutionary theory and its relation