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Arts Essays – Abstraction Realism Debate

Consider the legacy of the Abstraction Realism debate for artistic practice in the 1950s in either France or Italy.

Both culturally and politically post-war France found itself in a period of transition; as Findling,Scott-Haine and Thackeray (2000) state, the euphoria of 1944 soon gave way to agrim realisation of the socio-political consequences of the Vichy Government’scollaboration with the Nazis and the challenges of reconstruction. The Fourth Republic,instigated in 1946 and continuing until the late 1950s, attempted to instil anotion of tabula rasathat would be mirrored in its art and culture.

The abstraction-realism debate that had begun before the war and had, perhaps, found its ultimate expression in theModernist oeuvre through such painters as Mondrian, Miro and others was, ironically,questioned at this time, for instance, in essays such as Jean-Michel Atlan’s ‘Abstractionand Adventure in Contemporary Art’ (1950, 1997):

Contemporarypainting, being essential adventure and creation, is threatened by two forms ofconformity which we absolutely oppose:

  • Banal realism, vulgar imitation of reality;
  • Orthodox abstract art, new academicism which tries to substitute forliving painting an interplay of solely decorative forms.
  • (Atlan, 1950; published in Harrison and Wood, 1997: 612)

Atlan here makes an interesting point and one that has an enormous bearing on the place of theabstraction-realism debate in 1950s France; for the post-war French artist thequestion became not how one should situation oneself in a polarity but is thatpolarity itself outdated and archaic. The tabula rasa of thesocio-political sphere could be seen as a reflection of inter-war regressionwhen translated to the aesthetic; the questionable politics of many of theModernist writers, thinkers and artists making their work unattractive to thesons and daughters of the Fourth Republic.

It was this psycho-social zeitgeist that, perhaps, ensured the twinning of art with prevailing theories ofexistentialism as John Macquarrie describes in his book of the same name(1972). For Macquarrie, post-war art (and particular those movements instigatedin France) mirrors existentialism in its desire to negate the failures of pastontological systems and place the artist or philosopher at the centre of areconstructive effort; an attempt to find meaning after the horrors of the warwithout recourse to external teleological notions like truth and beauty. Thissituation appears, to an extent, in Breton’s ‘Prolegomena to a Third SurrealistManifesto’:

All present systems can reasonably be considered to be nothing on the carpenter’sworkbench. This carpenter is you. (Breton, 1990: 287)

In terms of the debate, then, between abstraction and realism both Atlan and Breton say essentially the same thingthat what was needed culturally by post-war France was neither the consolationof realism nor the negation of abstraction but a synthesis of the two; anaesthetic that could both look forward into the future and signal a break withthe past.

We can see some of this in the work of Yves Klein. Both in terms of his painting and his photography, Kleinconstantly strove to achieve the kind of Hegelian synthesis we have beenhitherto looking at. Klein’s work in the mid to late 1950s represented twoparadoxical elements: on the one hand producing monochrome canvasses of ascintillatingly blue pigment (Monochrome blue sans titre, 1956; Monochromeblue sans titre, 1957) that all but obliterated any sense of the artist asproducer of work and, on the other, laying the groundwork for the creation ofaction pictures whereby nude models would be used as brushes on huge canvasses(Monique, 1960; La Grand Anthropometrie bleue, 1960)that, literally, places the human being at the centre of artistic creation.

In Klein we can clearly the manifestation of the legacy of the realism-abstraction debate in the France ofthe 1950s and, as we suggested, it lay in the synthesis of the two – a similarnotion to the philosophical ideas of Sartre and Camus who sought an ontologicalmeaning without teleology. In fact it was some of this sense that culminated inthe creation of neo-realism, of which Klein was a leading figure and about whomPierre Restany wrote:

We (the neo-realists) are thus bathed in direct expressivity up to our necks, at fortydegrees above the Dada zero, without aggressiveness, without a downrightpolemical intent, without any other justificatory itch than our realism. Andthat works positively. Man, if he shares in reintegrating himself in reality,identifies it with positively. (Restany, 1960, published in Harrison and Wood,1997: 711)

What were neo-realists like Klein, Arman, Daniel Sporerri and Jean Tinguely but artists who attempted a fusion,and thereby a transcendence, of the archaic debate that Altman spoke of?

We can see how such a view could beseen to lay the foundations for not only the postmodern movement in France thatsought to find meaning in a post-Enlightenment world whose ‘metadiscourses’ inthe words of Jean Francois Lyotard (2002: xxiii) were beginning to fail, butalso the socio-political events of 1968 and the student uprising. Both of thesecan be seen to arise out of, or at least reflect, the aesthetic and culturalmovements of the 1950s that sought to not only destroy the memories of theVichy Government and the long years of Nazi occupation but also signal aprogression away from the nihilism of Dada that left a void in the place ofthat which it negated.

The legacy of the realism-abstractiondebate, then, is one of Hegelian synthesis, arising out of the thesis and theantithesis. This situation was, perhaps, felt more strongly in countries suchas France, Italy and Spain where the political situation prompted a desperatelyneeded change in aesthetic and ontological environment and where the need for ahumanist consolation was as great as the need for an expression of the madnessof the modern age.


Breton, Andre, (1990), Manifestoesof Surrealism, (Michigan: University of Michigan)

Causey, Andrew (1998), OxfordHistory of Art: Sculpture Since 1945, (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Findling, John, Scott Haine, W andThackeray, Frank (2000), The History of France, (London: GreenwoodPress)

Harrison, Charles and Wood, Paul(1997), Art in Theory: 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas,(London: Blackwell)

Kostelanetz, Richard (ed) (1989), Esthetics[sic] Contemporary, (London: Prometheus)

Lyotard, Jean Francois (2004), ThePostmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, (Manchester: ManchesterUniversity)

Macquarrie, John (1972), Existentialism,(London: Pelican)

Roskill, Mark and Carrier, David(1983), Truth and Falsehood in Visual Images, (Amherst: The Universityof Massachusetts)


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