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Third Letter of Zeuxis to Arte

My dear Arte,

It remains a truism that harmony of forms is generally the rule in paintings. Deviations from harmony surprise, arouse interest in the viewer, but may not always please. The surprise means not that the viewer rejects all loss of balance in the picture, however. Also, having all paintings of for instance one and the same exhibition in this style, would not necessarily please most viewers.
Harmonies of forms and balanced compositions have therefore been taught in painter’s academies for centuries as design of compositions that would please spectators.

Harmony of forms or harmony in composition can be designed in various ways. Forms can be repeated, multiplied and set next to each other. The repetition can be in any direction, but the usual way is by a lateral translation. In any other translation but the horizontal direction translation conveys a special feeling, such as of elation when the repetition is upwards. The repetition can also be along curved directions, and the forms can be rotated.
In the preceding lessons we supposed that the forms did not change shape and dimensions, but when the modifications of these remain gradual, harmony is conserved.
A special way of repetition is by applying symmetry around an axis or point. This generates mirror images of the forms.
In harmony, forms are repeated or balanced and repetition is agreeable, as is balance. The repetition of forms is allowed to change and to evolve, but only gradually. Balance always needs to be preserved for harmony. Thus a large shape on one side may be repeated by a mass of smaller shapes, as long as this conglomerate has approximately the same dimensions.

These are the basic concepts of balanced composition or design of a painting with shapes only. Dominance, unity and closed structures add specific qualities to compositions that help to concentrate interest, whereas lack of dominance, lack of unity and open structures invite to discovery, and hence also to dispersion of attention.

We look at a picture of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) made in 1930, called "Ernst-Spass" or "Seriousness and Pleasure". This painting illustrates many of the concepts we analysed in the previous chapters, as well as some of the next chapter.
In the picture we can see many symmetries, for instance like in the two thin, long vertical lines that are on both sides of the middle orange, small rectangle. Simple geometric shapes are repeated in dimensions that are similar. The colours of the shapes are similar and repeated also. The shapes are balanced on all sides. The vertical lines give a stern, strict and fixed impression at first.
When we look at the shapes in detail, however, we see that they form groups, and the groups are mostly not in equilibrium, so that the groups build the playfulness of the image.
In the central group for instance, an orange rectangle and a lighter trapezium hold a thin line on which stands a triangle on its top. On the border of the dark triangle sits a half circle, ready to fall away. Here is an oblique line and shape, which as we will see in the next chapter, indicates movement. Various other triangles are in this way painted out of equilibrium, or in a very unstable position. Often positions are stabilised by a round point object above the triangles. And on the right the viewer sees a long triangle on its top, but Kandinsky drew short oblique and repeated lines that give the impression of being ropes that tend to keep the triangle in its place, like the ropes of a tent pole. The long and thin vertical line of the left side holds horizontal lines that bring stability, whereas on the other side more organic curved lines are the symmetrical view, and these balance the horizontal set of lines.

The whole picture would be very light in its small shapes, fixed in its overall vertical directions and playful in the way mostly triangle shapes are set in unstable positions. A more solid balance was needed in the picture, and Kandinsky therefore painted a dark and large circle on the upper left side, with its symmetrical form – again a circle – on the right. Now, placing a full hard circle on the right would be too much of a repetition, and would too solidly fix the image, whereas the acrobatic, light playfulness of a circus act needed to be shown. Kandinsky therefore only placed a half circle on the right in a brighter colour and he placed the circle somewhat lower, to ease the repetition and not to disturb the impression of playfulness too much. Thereby, Kandinsky avoided dullness in the repetition.

Many other examples of balance, repetition, symmetries, use of vertical and horizontal lines, etc. can be found in this painting, so that it is really an intended, scholarly example of composition.

-> Ernst-Spass (Seriousness-Pleasure). Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Pinakothek der Moderne. Munich. 1930.

I told you that harmony mainly lies in the gradual progression of forms, in the symmetry of forms and in the repetition of forms. We will talk later on harmony of colours. Yes, Arte, we will ultimately come to colours, of course.

Harmony seems to touch particularly sensitive people in special ways.

Wassily Kandinsky once wrote that no painting could be rightly explained in words. Just how much we are touched by a harmonious composition, and what is meant by harmony, depends on the sensitivities of every person in particular. There are indeed persons more tuned to the natural harmony in pictures, whether by its balance in lines or shapes or in colour areas, whether in figurative or abstract pictures. These people have a special inner symbiosis with compositions. I hope, Arte, that you have this talent or intuition, or will develop it by looking more at pictures.

Kandinsky wrote that he had no hang at all for mathematical formulas at school. But when he had seen a written page, he could remember all the details of the forms of that page, and write down the mathematical formulas as they appeared as rhythms of lines on the page. We call that having an eidetic memory, but I am not too sure that this really exists. Still, people with finely tuned visual memories have enough with form only, even and certainly enough with abstract shapes, to have strong inner rhythms induced by the balance of composition and by the juxtapositions of elementary shapes such as squares and rectangles.

Ordinary people need something more besides forms and colours to be deeply touched, and that usually is the content, the subject matter of the picture, or a basic understanding of the idea that lay at the basis of the work of art.

Yours truly and dedicated,


Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: May 2010
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