Visual tension in art refers to the mental or physical straining and stretching that the audience experiences as it views a visually intensive artwork. Abstract artworks have the most intensive visual experiences because they offer only a small window into the artist’s internal emotional state or convey only a sliver of the idea the artist had in mind when making the abstract piece. Therefore, abstract artworks can create visual tension as the audience tries to understand the meaning behind the abstract shapes, lines, and color configurations. On the other hand, regular scenes from everyday experiences can elicit significant visual tension when the artist integrates colors and shapes in a peculiar manner. Luxury, Calm and Pleasure by Henri Matisse is an example of the latter while Kusama Yayoi’s Unlimited Net is an example of the former type of artwork. The visual tension in artworks can excite different types of psychological feelings in the viewer depending on the relationship that he or she forms with the artwork. In history, images have inspired people towards revolt, caused arousal of the sexual impulses, and sometimes, excited catharsis. Catharsis is one of the most powerful effects that artworks have had on the human being. It occurs when an individual intensely emotionally identifies with an artwork, causing a purging of the emotions. Artworks can be unnerving when they disturb the mind and the emotions by depicting unnatural haunting images. The research analyzes four artworks to understand why viewers like them. Viewers like the images because they leave room for the imagination using unnatural techniques that expand the human consciousness and sphere of psychological experiences, thinking, and imagination. Images are more likely to excite critical thinking and psychological feelings when they excite an emotional response rather than just an intellectual response.
Henri Matisse’s Luxury, Serenity and Pleasure is based on Invitation to a Voyage, which is a poem written in 1857 by Charles Baudelaire. True to its name, the artwork takes the viewer on a voyage of colors and shapes that should convey notions of luxury, serenity, and pleasure. Matisse used neoimpressionism as a pictorial technique, which involves using small dots of color to create images and lighting. Contrary to common practice in which an artist mixes colors on a palette, neoimpressionism involves separating color into small planes on the canvas. The neoimpressionism style Matisse adopted led to an artwork that is supposed to reflect a paradise, but it is unsettling because it does not use natural shapes and colors to depict luxury, serenity, and pleasure. Matisse noted the problems associated with neoimpressionism when he wrote, “Breaking up color leads to the breaking-up of form and outline.” Breaking up of color is unnatural; hence, it could be unnerving to the human psyche. However, it opens up the imagination of the audience to form their own interpretation of the artwork despite the inherent contraction of using unnatural neoimpressionism techniques.
There is a contradiction in using unnatural neoimpressionism techniques to convey a message about natural experiences such as luxury, pleasure, and serenity. On the other hand, neoimpressionism ensured that Matisse did not impose his view of paradise on the audience, which could account for his image’s popularity. In contrast, impressionism touted a scientific and empirical approach to the representation of natural phenomena, thereby locking it off to the possibilities in using abstractions and unnatural painting techniques to elicit psychological feelings in the viewer. Neoimpressionism is the direct opposite of impressionism. Impressionism contends that artists should follow strict formal compositions that do not deviate from natural principles of light and color. While this creates realistic and empirically accurate art, such art does not excite the human imagination and psychological feelings. Impressionism leaves little room for ambiguity, thereby diminishing the number of possible interpretations of an artwork. Impressionism is objective while neoimpressionism is subjective because of their opposing emphasis on accuracy and ambiguity. The importance of using abstractions rather than concrete natural objects in conveying meaning is most visibly apparent in the surrealist artworks of Kusama Yayoi.
Similar to neoimpressionism, surrealism diminishes the role of rationality in the creation of artworks. Consequently, it expands the sphere of imagination, traverses the bounds of logic to bring the audience expansive psychological experiences. Kusama Yayoi, one of the icons of the surrealism movement has fascinated audiences with her images. While the National Gallery of Singapore’s Russell Storer describes her work as uniquely “Kusama art” rather than surrealism proper, Yayoi has used surrealism elements to explore transcendental ideas. Yayoi’s Unlimited Net is a transcendental work. The image appears to foreshadow the emergence of the internet and the infinite possibilities that the World Wide Web enables. It shows a plethora of dots on a canvas. The artwork is transcendental because it explores the concept of infinity; a concept that the human rational mind cannot easily grasp. The dots appear interconnected but they are separated by white space. Therefore, they excite contradictory feelings of connectedness and isolation at the same time. While it is unclear what the image’s original message or idea was, in the postmodern world of social media and the internet, the image has a profound message for society. The profundity of the message could be the source of allure for audiences, who can perceive the relevance of the image to the postmodern human condition characterized by digital interconnectivity and personal isolation.
Kusama Yayoi’s Unlimited Net depicts the ephemeral and endless universe that we live in. The universe is populated by multiple entities but the internet and social media can make individuals feel isolated despite living in a highly interconnected social space. The relevance of the image in modern times attests to the versatility of abstract shapes in communicating timeless ideas. The postmodern audience can still identify with the image because it is ambiguous, thereby leaving room for interpretation. In comparison to realistic images, which have relevance only during limited periods, abstract art’s ambiguity makes it amenable to multiple interpretations over endless time. Currently, the image communicates to the audience “that there is no limit to man’s ability to project himself into endless space.” The internet and social media are symbols of the endless space into which human beings can project themselves. Human beings have created a digital space in which there are infinite possibilities for projection into an interconnected space. According to Frank, Kusama argued that images such as Unlimited Net and Pumpkin Mirror House are not just aesthetic but psychological. The psychological impacts of such images include eliciting critical reflection of the ephemerality of existence. Also, the images force the individual to contemplate their place in the endless whole, thereby acting as a basis for critical thought about human existence.Kusama suggested that her artwork forced the individual to break down the rigid boundaries that separate people from each other, thereby allowing the individual to transcend his or her ego and embrace the infinite self. The transcendentalism in Kusama’s images can produce altered states of mind such as catharsis and transcendence of the ego, thereby allowing the individual to enter altered states of consciousness similar to those excited by religious practice or psychedelic drug use. Jain refers to this type of tension as impermanence. Impermanence is a psychological state in which the individual departs from their current state of being from their belief, concept or form. The audience is able to transcend the restrictions of logical and rational thought and enter a blissful limitless state, which can produce positive and desirable psychological feelings. Victor Vasarely’s art produces similar psychedelic effects to Kusama’s artwork.
Vasarely was one of the foremost artists in the optical art movement or op art. Op art uses black and white colors and shapes to create illusions such as movement, warping, swelling, vibration, and flashing in images. The op art images fool the viewer’s eye into thinking that the static shapes and colors are dynamic, thereby inducing an altered state of consciousness. The most popular and iconic op art is the image of rotating circles used to hypnotize an individual. Vasarely’s Nora-Dell is an example of op art that consists of apparently vibrating black and white square, rectangular and distorting shapes. The image excites critical thinking in the audience by forcing them to question their perceptions of reality. The audience is aware that the shapes and colors are static but they perceive them as moving, which creates a contradiction between perception and reality. Similar to other images reviewed, the contradiction in abstract artwork creates room for critical thinking about the artwork, thereby creating an engaging experience with a high potential to excite multiple feelings. Jain reports an exposure to artwork that contradicts or challenges the audience’s existing knowledge of the world creates tension. Such artwork provides a safe space for individuals to be comfortable with contradictions despite the tensions they excite. The audience can question their existing view of the world in attempts to resolve the contradictions and the tension they experience, thereby engaging with the artwork at a deeper psychological and emotional level. Realistic impressionistic art does not excite such feelings because it depicts commonplace reality, which the audience is used to in their daily life. There is little mystery in realistic artwork, thereby little room for exciting imagination, critical thinking and altered states of consciousness.
The analysis has demonstrated that viewers like the four images discussed because they use unnatural techniques to depict scenes with unnatural phenomena, thereby exciting the audience’s imagination, critical thinking, and diverse psychological feelings. The artists reviewed rejected formalized compositions and empirical scientific representation of realistic images in favor of communicating their inner world to viewers using unnatural techniques. The images’ contradictions and openness to interpretation make them timeless. They produce subjective experiences in viewers by encouraging them to engage critically, emotionally and psychologically with the artwork and find their own meaning. Also, they allow the individual to transcend their individuality and experience reality from multiple perspectives. They expand the consciousness, thereby liberating the individual from the tethers of the ego. The transcendence the images excite can induce catharsis, religious, and/or psychedelic experiences in the audience.
Choo, Hannah. “Yayoi Kusama, More Than Just the “Dot Lady”.” Augustman.
https://www.augustman.com/sg/culture/art-design/yayoi-kusama-more-than-just-the-dot-lady/ (accessed July 3, 2019)
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 Hannah Choo, “Yayoi Kusama, More Than Just the “Dot Lady”,” Augustman, https://www.augustman.com/sg/culture/art-design/yayoi-kusama-more-than-just-the-dot-lady/ (accessed July 3, 2019)
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