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  • Writer's pictureHaydn Dickenson


I frequently find myself bracing, inwardly, for the question “What does it mean?”

“Haydn”, they ask, “what were you thinking about while you were painting it?”

An abstract artist colleague of mine used to respond to the first question with “Nothing, thank God”. I tend to be neither so blunt nor so unimaginative in my reactions, but the situation arises regularly enough that to offer a reasoned explanation on every occasion becomes wearisome, and impatience can intrude seems to be a fitting place to confront the elephant in this notional room, and to explore why an outright or defined meaning is undesirable, limiting and often downright lazy when applied to abstract art.

I am well known for the cryptic titles that I attach to paintings. I choose them carefully; not to be pretentious, but to encourage people to think. I want the painting and its title to instigate mental journeys. Art, whether painting, sculpture, film, music, drama or beyond, must never regress towards the anodyne, freefalling into a cul-de-sac of wordy flim-flam, musical tootling, or painterly 'wallpaper' (literally). Too often, these days, all these things happen.

In THE FRAILTY OF APPEARANCES, I invite you to ponder on perceived meaning, on organic and integrated matters as distinct from surface appearances; on whether articulated or absolute meanings are necessary at all. Putting subjective reactions to the picture aside, perhaps my title will ignite cogitations about the nature of what we see, against what exists, and how that which exists may change from day to day. Let us look beneath the surface, and deeply so. It is really not necessary to identify things or to give them labels. As I have often repeated, you either like a painting or you do not.


Let us consider for a moment our reaction to a well-known figurative painting; I choose, for no particular reason than that it is magnificent, Van Gogh's THE RED VINEYARD.

THE RED VINEYARD - Vincent Van Gogh 1888

Again, we either like Van Gogh or we do not – I know many who are in the second camp. Assuming that we do like the painting, I postulate that we are more likely to admire it for its mood, its atmosphere, its bold though supremely sensitive and sensual handling of paint and colour, and its exceptionally marvellous composition, than for its subject matter. The billionaires among us would, I suggest, be unlikely to fall for the painting in one of the great international auction houses because we 'just really dig paintings of vineyards', or we 'just totally collect pictures of country people at work in the fields'. We would buy it because we are moved by it in a far more comprehensively encompassing way. The painting speaks to us sensually, and spiritually, through the emotional tools that Van Gogh employs in presenting the painting's story, rather than the story itself.

Why then, do we search for handles on an abstract painting, for a story, when the sensual and the spiritual lie plainly before us, unencumbered by representation?

I can't get away from this idea that abstract art intimidates some observers; people think they need to understand it on an intellectual level or to know what it means, in order to appreciate it. We do not need to be intimately acquainted with Post-Impressionism and Fauvism in Art-History terms to love the Van Gogh above; nor are we required to be familiar with the development of Abstract Art through the past hundred years or so to enjoy, say, a Joan Mitchell, a De Kooning, or one of my own paintings, for that matter..

All we need to do is to love paintings for what they are. I do not mean to reduce things to a shallow 'nice or nasty; but to delight in essential truths that are, on occasion, indescribable.

I have been reading Harold C Schonberg's magnificent book THE GREAT PIANISTS (Simon and Schuster, 1963, 1987, 2006). From Mr Schonberg's erudite and fascinating writing, it appears that the addiction to attaching meaning to art is not an exclusively modern malaise.

As Romanticism flourished in the nineteenth century, so, it seems, did a desire to attach programmatic significance to music where it almost certainly had not been planted there by the composer.

I quote from Schonberg's book, chapter eight: “Music to the Romantics was not the not-to-be-tampered force it is today. It was part of the Mystery, and it had a Meaning or Meanings, an Idea or Ideas, that were bound up with Nature, the Soul, Life. Music expressed states of mind and feelings, and it had to have a programme, explicit or implicit...Carl Tausig, Liszt's favourite pupil, had a ready explanation for the Chopin Barcarolle. 'This tells of two persons, of a love-scene in a secret gondola' ”.

Tausig rattles pantingly on, to identify the C-sharp-major point at which he believes a kiss is tremblingly achieved. We can only speculate at the horror of Chopin (who blenched at Lisztian excesses in performances of his compositions, and was rooted in Baroque and Classical models for his points of reference) in the face of such perfumed nonsense, but horrified he certainly would have been. He would have been still more aghast at the asinine nicknames attached by modern piano amateurs to most of his Etudes – viz. 'Torrent', 'Waterfall', 'The Bees' and so on. Once again, we must ask, why?

The prize for arguably the most extravagant and unnecessary reading of a relatively lightweight, short piano piece must go to the romantically ardent Victorian, Rev. H.R Haweis in his book, MY MUSICAL LIFE. The excited priest embarks on a three-page analysis of of one of Felix Mendelssohn's 'Songs Without Words' for piano, squirming a little too orgiastically in that time-honoured manner of mingling the secular with the divine, lavishing the reader with verbiage such as “soul”, “spirit”, “Paradise”, “joy”, “triumph” and “glory”. What Mendelssohn would have thought of these whimsies in relation to his piano-miniature, we can only surmise. He may not have minded too much, being preoccupied with chopping-up and redacting bits of Bach's St Matthew Passion, to render it “more practical for the abilities of the performers” - yet another bygone example of 'dumbing-down'.

Piet Mondrian, one of the early abstractionists, espoused the Theosophical belief that what we see around us is only an illusion. By this token, he considered a purely abstract painting to be truer to the actual reality that lies behind everything than one that attempts to capture an illusion of something that is already illusory.

When we look at an abstract painting, the picture is reality itself. The 'meaning' is in what it presents to us, through colour, texture, tone, composition and so on. I must emphasise the word 'through'. These elements do not hold 'meaning' in themselves, but are the messengers; and the meaning need have no name.

Last night I was reading the sublime poetry of Sylvia Plath. Floating gloriously among imagery that is searingly lucid in its evocative lyrical truth, lie metaphors that make us wonder again and again, “what does she mean?” Precise meaning, though, does not matter here; what is crucial is the mood, the melody of the words in their intrinsic beauty, the elusive wafting scent of 'rightness', confirming to us that what we have just read is a transmission of something utterly authentic. It is good that it is so.

Copyright Haydn Dickenson 2023


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