In defence of abstraction

philip-iv-of-spain-in-brown-and-silver-1632To be against modernism is not to be against abstraction – far from it. The point is that abstraction works at its best in the service of realism. It can serve as a way of calling the perceptual faculties of the viewer into play in the appreciation, or even construction, of the realist image.

The problem with abstraction in art came when modernism uncoupled it from the anchoring impulse and influence of realism, and it drifted into non-figurative self-absorption. This frequently resulted in an absence of meaning unless the viewer turned to the intermediary of the art critic or art historian. Pure abstraction was pushed by thinkers on the left and reflected the left’s own increasing separation from reality.

Art became something fewer people could really engage with, understand or enjoy. The idea of abstraction permeated our culture, eroding not only our painterly traditions and their visual languages but intruding on the wider spheres of culture that shape our lives – notably architecture.

It is easy to understand how someone with a passion for traditionalist art could consider abstraction to be a dirty word. But it is important to remember that it was not always so and need not continue to be so.

A good example of what I am talking about is found in the work of Spanish painter Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), who really did understand the benefits of abstraction. He arrived at this through a keen awareness of how both the eye and the brain see, and how different and seemingly opposed styles could work in harmony to achieve his end goal in representation.

Velazquez’s output was overwhelmingly portraiture and his early works sought a kind of photo-realism, featuring very precise brushwork in which he laboriously reproduced exactly what he saw, although usually with a muted palette of earthy tones. However, he later developed a far looser style. This was most evident in the way Velázquez rendered fabrics and their detailing, which set him apart from contemporaries.

If we consider his portrait of Philip IV of Spain (1632), which is in the National Gallery in London, we have a perfect example. The detailed brushwork that still defines key areas of the painting, like the face, gives way on his clothing to fluid, almost impressionistic strokes and dabs.


Viewed up close, as in the detail of the image to the left, we see blotches and squiggles, the varying depth and thickness of paint in the rough lines. We see a near-abstract quality as they become signifiers of the ornamentation rather than realistic representations of it. However, from the proper viewing distance we perceive it as an exquisitely detailed and realistic representation of the cloth’s embellishment.

Velazquez understood optics in terms of how the eye focuses and psychology in terms of how the brain processes information to prioritise elements in the visual field and also “fill in blanks”. This process of adding in the information that is missing in the loose rendering of the cloth’s embellishment is heightened by the way viewing attention focuses on the face. The brain again fills in blanks in the areas that sit beyond immediate attention but are still part of the perceived image in more peripheral vision.

This completion of expected and suggested detail results in the viewer, in a sense, completing the image itself in their mind’s eye, without the potential distraction of finely rendered detailing.

Velazquez, therefore, shows us that more abstract areas in a painting create a complementary interplay with the realistic sections, in which they do not vie for viewing attention and actually serve to direct focus – a valuable device in his portraiture.


The same is seen in his portraits ofPope Innocent X (1650) and Francesco d’Este (1638), both on the right, in which the lustre of Este’s sash and Innocent’s robes approach abstraction on close inspection but from a proper viewing distance are perceived as realistic renderings of sheer fabric, wet with light.

So while it is easy to see why Velazquez is often lauded as a forerunner of Impressionism it is vital to see that his move to an incorporation of abstraction was grounded in the service of realism. He also reminds us that there is a very literal sense in which in beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, artists interested in a revival of traditionalism should seek to wrest abstraction from the clutches of the left and make it, once again, a servant of realism deployed with an understanding of the nature of viewing.