5.2 Abstraction
Before the days of photography the artist had to be employed to encapsulate nature. What was asked of him was at once simple and very difficult–he was required to show precisely what was in front of him, no more and no less. Yet these shells, these flowers, these insects–so painstakingly delineated–they carry with them an air not so much of reality but of super-reality (the distinction was to be recognized when someone invented the term "magic realism"). When we hold the real, the identical shell next to the shell in the drawing, the product of nature pales before the product of man. In order to make his drawing the artist has had to comprehend the shell fully. His whole intellect has been engaged. And inevitably such effort leaves its traces. When we look at the drawing, however dull we are, we grasp the structure, the colour, the pattern, more firmly than ever we could from the shell which we hold in our hands. It glitters before us in the cold light of intellectual analysis.
Then, as we look, the reality begins to diminish. It is the shell which we hold that is real, after all. The totality of intellectual commitment is as betraying, and as seductive, as the total commitment of the emotions which Palmer asks of us. The artificiality of this so- called "scientific" approach can be seen if we turn from a seventeenth-century drawing of shells to a bouquet of flowers as painted by Monet. Here the veil of the atmosphere shimmers between us and the intricate forms of petal and stamen. We are now on the brink of being convinced that all we apprehend, or need to apprehend, are the effects of atmosphere and light.
Even amidst the anti-naturalistic gestures of modern art the obsession with nature remains. We listen to the visionaries, who try to persuade us that nature at its most seductive is only a projection of our own thoughts and desires; we listen to the scientific analysts, who try to persuade us that we can penetrate the secrets of a firmly external reality. Since the discoveries of the Impressionists we have also had to lend an ear to those who want to replace one kind of scientific vision with another, more comprehensive one. But the one thing we can never see whole and complete is ourselves as we stand in nature. This may be one of the reasons for art; and the basic psychological dilemma that plagues the artist.