Language and Consumerism


This journal is in response to Gerald Deslandes lecture on Language and Consumerism.

Focusing on the elements of the lecture that resonated with me, I will be researching language both in terms of that presented by Gerald, but also in terms of the motifs and symbols that artists use.

Gerald referred to artists’ materials and processes as being analogous with musicians and writers.  Kandinsky in his essay (see below) draws a a similar conclusion.

Foucault stated ‘A ball only becomes a football within the rules of the game… a stone thrown in a fight is different from a stone displayed in a museum.’   Function determines meaning.

Daniel Buren French 1938

Daniel Buren: Photo Souvenir, Le Mur De PeinturesBuren’s individual paintings only make sense when seen together.

Monet, painting in 1908 developed a personal style through colour/form/shape/reflection.

Foucault again ‘Discourses are ways of referring to or constructing knowledge about a particular topic or practice, a cluster of ideas, images or practices.’

Edouard Manet French 1832-1883

Luncheon on the Grass 1863.

Foucault says that Manet is using language from earlier paintings, cultural traditions, pastoral, representing what the language of art is all about, colour, light.  There is also a deconstruction of how the image has been arrived at.

Kandinsky and Miro take the visible world and reduced to a series of codes.

Kandinsky – Composition IV  1911 (170 Kb); Oil on canvas, 159.5 x 250.5 cm (62 7/8 x 98 5/8 in)

Miro – House with Palm Tree 1918

Picasso and the spiritual Rothko investigate the materials and processes.

Rothko – Orange and Yellow 1956

Moore reveals his process and the truth in the material.

Henry Moore – Reclining Figure 1929

Both Naum Gabo and Barbara Hepworth articulate the language of material.


Linear Construction in Space No. 1, 1942

Dame Barbara Hepworth ‘Sculpture with Colour (Deep Blue and Red)’, 1940 © Bowness, Hepworth Estate

Dame Barbara Hepworth Sculpture with Colour (Deep Blue and Red) 1940

Symbolic language

Artwork by El Lissitzky 1919.jpg

El Lissitsky – Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge 1920

Pattern, colour, cultural connotations.

Jasper Johns. Flag. 1954-55  (dated on reverse 1954)

Jasper Johns – Flag 1956

Heroes, Coastman’s Park, Susan Hiller’s anthropological training is reflected in her work.

Susan Hiller ‘Monument’, 1980–1 © Susan Hiller

Susan Hiller – Monument 1980

Grayson Perry’s work is constructed in ceramics and textiles, using a visual language to reflect society.

Grayson Perry (2012)

Grayson Perry 2012

Grayson Perry’s Ceramics & Textiles

Art, Design and Gestalt Theory by Roy R. Behrens

Gestalt psychology began in Germany in 1910, when a Czech-born psychologist named Max Wertheimer was seized by an idea when he saw flashing lights at a railroad crossing that resembled lights encircling a theater marquee.’

Austrian philosopher named Christian von Ehrenfels, who had published a paper in 1890 entitled “On Gestalt Qualities” in which he pointed out that a melody is still recognizable when played in different keys, even though none of the notes are the same, and that abstract form attributes such as “squareness” or “angularity” can be conveyed by a wide range of specific elements. Clearly, argued Ehrenfels, if a melody and the notes that comprise it are so independent, then a whole is not simply the sum of its parts, but a synergistic “whole effect,” or gestalt. ‘ (1).

In 1927, for example, gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim visited the Dessau Bauhaus, then published an article in Die Weltbühne praising the honesty and clarity of its building design (2). Soon after, gestaltist Kurt Lewin commissioned Peter Behrens (teacher of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius) to design his home in Berlin, but, after a disagreement, Bauhaus furniture designer Marcel Breuer was asked to complete the interior (3).

In 1929, a student of Wolfgang Kohler, one of the founding gestalt psychologists, Karl Duncker, spoke at the Bauhaus.  In the audience was the painter Paul Klee, who had known about Wertheimer’s research as early as 1925 (4). But other Bauhaus artists were also interested, including Wassily Kandinsky and Josef Albers, both of whom attended a series of lectures about gestalt theory by Count Karlfried von Dürckheim, a visiting psychologist from the University of Leipzig, in the winter of 1930–1931 (5).


Paul Klee -Tänzerin oil on canvas 26 x 22 in. (66 x 56 cm.)
1932. (Recently sold for £4m.)

Albers’s curiosity about gestalt theory may be significant because he is now commonly credited with a resurgence of interest in “simultaneous contrast,”  which von Dürckheim discussed in his lectures. Recognized and used by artists for centuries, the effect was described scientifically in 1839 by a French chemist, Michel-Eugene Chevreul, who essentially found that a color may appear to change, often dramatically, when moved from one background to another. A swatch of red, for example, may exhibit one intensity on a green background, another on orange.

Example of simultaneous-contrast effect

An example of “simultaneous contrast,”

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, 1965

What may be gestalt psychology’s most enduring influence on art and design came from a paper by Max Wertheimer titled “Theory of Form,” published in 1923 (6). Nicknamed “the dot essay” because it was illustrated with abstract patterns of dots and lines, Wertheimer concluded in it that certain gestalts are enhanced by our innate tendencies to constellate, or to see as “belonging together” elements that look alike (called “similarity grouping”), are close together (“proximity grouping”) or have structural economy (“good continuation”).


Color is highly subjective, but has observable psychological effects, although these can differ from one culture to the next. Black is associated with mourning in the West, but in the East, white is. Some painters, theoreticians, writers and scientists, including Goethe, Kandinsky, and Newton, have written their own color theory.

Goethe‘s color wheel from his 1810Theory of Colours

According to Kandinsky certain colors (above) have an affinity for certain forms. A dull shape like a circle deserves a dull color like blue. A shape with intermediate interest like a square deserves an intermediate color like red. A dynamic, interesting shape like a triangle deserves an enegetic, luminous, psychotic color like yellow.

The same goes for angles. Drastic accute angles get drastic colors, more sedate obtuse angles get bland colors like blue.

For much of the 19th century artistic color theory either lagged behind scientific understanding or was augmented by science books written for the lay public, in particular Modern Chromatics (1879) by the American physicist Ogden Rood, and early color atlases developed by Albert Munsell (Munsell Book of Color, 1915) and Wilhelm Ostwald (Color Atlas, 1919). Major advances were made in the early 20th century by artists teaching or associated with the German Bauhaus, in particular Wassily Kandinsky,

Munsell‘s color system represented as a three-dimensional solid showing all three color making attributes:lightness, saturation and hue.

‘Psychological, symbolical meanings of color are not strictly speaking means of painting. Colors only add to the potential, derived context of meanings, and because of this the perception of a painting is highly subjective. The analogy with music is quite clear—sound in music (like “C”) is analogous to light in painting, “shades” to dynamics, and coloration is to painting as specifictimbre of musical instruments to music—though these do not necessarily form a melody, but can add different contexts to it.’


Aesthetics is the study of art and beauty.

It is believed that Plato maintained that painting cannot depict the truth—it is a copy of reality (a shadow of the world of ideas) and is nothing but a craft, similar to shoemaking or iron casting.

Kant the 18th century philosopher distinguished between Beauty and the Sublime, in terms that clearly gave priority to the former.

Hegel the 19th century philosopher recognized the failure of attaining a universal concept of beauty and in his aesthetic essay wrote that Painting is one of the three “romantic” arts, along with Poetry and Music for its symbolic, highly intellectual purpose. (8.9.) Painters who have written theoretical works on painting include Kandinsky and Paul Klee. (10.11.)

Kandinsky in his essay  ( maintains that painting has a spiritual value, and he attaches primary colors to essential feelings or concepts.

Michael T H Sadler writing in his introduction to Kandinsky’s Essay , written in 1910 and published in 1912, ‘Picasso and Kandinsky make an  interesting parallel, in that they have developed the art respectively  of Cezanne and Gauguin, in a similar direction. On the decision of Picasso’s failure or success rests the distinction between Cezanne and Gauguin, the realist and the symbolist, the painter of externals and the painter of religious feeling. Unless a spiritual value is accorded to Cezanne’s work, unless he is believed to be a religious painter (and religious painters need not paint Madonnas), unless in fact he is paralleled closely with Gauguin, his follower Picasso cannot claim to stand, with Kandinsky, as a prophet of an art of spiritual harmony.’

In his essay Kandinsky acknowledges the influence of the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck and the music of Wagner.   ‘His
method of using a definite motiv is a purely musical method. It
creates a spiritual atmosphere by means of a musical phrase
which precedes the hero, which he seems to radiate forth from
any distance.’ 7.  ‘The most modern musicians like Debussy create a spiritual impression, often taken from nature, but embodied in purely musical form. For this reason Debussy is often classed with the Impressionist painters on the ground that he resembles these painters in using natural phenomena for the purposes of his art. Whatever truth there may be in this comparison merely accentuates the fact that the various arts of today learn from each other and often resemble  each other.’

‘By personal inclination, because he is French and because he is
specially gifted as a colourist, Matisse is apt to lay too much
stress on the colour. Like Debussy, he cannot always refrain from
conventional beauty; Impressionism is in his blood. One sees
pictures of Matisse which are full of great inward vitality, produced
by the stress of the inner need, and also pictures which possess
only outer charm, because they were painted on an outer impulse.
(How often one is reminded of Manet in this.) His work seems to
be typical French painting, with its dainty sense of melody,  raised
from time to time to the summit of a great hill above the clouds.

But in the work of another great artist in Paris, the Spaniard
Pablo Picasso, there is never any suspicion of this conventional
beauty. Tossed hither and thither by the need for self-expression,
Picasso hurries from one manner to another. At times a great gulf
appears between consecutive manners, because  Picasso leaps
boldly and is found continually by his bewildered  crowd of
followers standing at a point very different from that  at which they
saw him last. No sooner do they think that they have reached him
again than he has changed once more.’

‘In their pursuit of the same supreme end Matisse and Picasso
stand side by side, Matisse representing colour and Picasso

Kandinsky  in summary ‘And the natural result of this striving is that the various arts are drawing together. They are finding in Music the best teacher. With few exceptions music has been for some centuries the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena, but rather to the expression of the artist’s soul, in musical sound.

A painter, who finds no satisfaction in mere representation,
however artistic, in his longing to express his inner life, cannot but
envy the ease with which music, the most non-material of the arts
today, achieves this end. He naturally seeks to apply the methods
of music to his own art. And from this results that modern desire
for rhythm in painting, for mathematical, abstract construction, for
repeated notes of colour, for setting colour in motion.

This borrowing of method by one art from another, can only be
truly successful when the application of the borrowed methods is
not superficial but fundamental. One art must learn first how
another uses its methods, so that the methods may afterwards be
applied to the borrower’s art from the beginning, and suitably.
The artist must not forget that in him lies the power of true
application of every method, but that that power must be

Painting today is almost exclusively concerned with the
reproduction  of natural forms and phenomena. Her business is
now to test her strength and methods, to know herself as music
has  done for a long time, and then to use her powers to a truly
artistic end.

And so the arts are encroaching one upon another, and from a
proper use of this encroachment will rise the art that is truly
monumental. Every man who steeps himself in the spiritual
possibilities of his art is a valuable helper in the building of
the spiritual pyramid which will some day reach to heaven.’

Kazimir Malevich  Russian 1879-1935

Gerald refers to Malevich’s suprematist painting as a fore runner to Mondrian.  Malevich was deeply spiritual, which is clearly reflected in this work.*files*wordpress*com%25257C2011%25257C12%25257C83*jpg%252F%3B1500%3B1830

Suprematist Composition

There is no better modern proponent of form than Machino Agano.  This work is Anniken Amundsen was produced for the Through the Surface exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich after a three month collaboration with Machino.


1. Regarding Ehrenfels, see Ash (Mitchell G. Ash, Gestalt Psychology in German Culture, 1890–1967) pp. 88ff; and Fritz Heider, “Gestalt Theory: Early History and Reminiscences,” in Mary Henle, Julian Jaynes and John J. Sullivan, eds., Historical Conceptions of Psychology (New York: Springer, 1973).

2. Rudolf Arnheim, “Das Bauhaus in Dessau,” Die Weltbühne (1927); translated by Arnheim as “The Bauhaus in Dessau,” Print 51, No. 6, 60–61 (1997). Arnheim was 23 years old in 1927 when he traveled to Dessau from Berlin to visit the Bauhaus, which had moved there from Weimar the previous year. Arnheim told me in a letter dated 16 June 1993 that during his visit he saw only the buildings, because “it was in the summer and nobody, either famous or infamous, was around that I remember.”

3. A photograph of Lewin’s home, designed by Behrens and Breuer, is found in Tilmann Buddenseig, ed., Berlin 1900–1933: Architecture and Design (New York and Berlin: Cooper-Hewitt Museum and Gebr. Mann Verlag, 1987) p. 30.

4. Regarding Duncker’s Bauhaus lecture and Wertheimer’s influence on Klee, see Marianne Teuber, “Blue Night by Paul Klee,” in Mary Henle, ed., Vision and Artifact (New York: Springer, 1976) pp. 131–151.

5. See Teuber [4] p. 144.

6. See Teuber [4]


8. Craig, Edward. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Genealogy to Iqbal, page 278. Routledge, 1998. Retrieved 2014-03-13.

9. Jump up^ “Painting and music are the specially romantic arts. Lastly, as a union of painting and music comes poetry, where the sensuous element is more than ever subordinate to the spirit.” Excerpted from Encyclopædia Britannica 191

10. Jump up^ Marcel Franciscono Paul Klee: His Work and Thought, part 6 ‘The Bauhaus and Düsseldorf’, chap. ‘Klee’s theory courses’, p. 246 and under ‘notes to pages 245–54’ p.365

  1. 1Jump up^ Moshe Barasch (2000) Theories of art – from impressionism to Kandinsky, part IV ‘Abstract art’, chap. ‘Color’ pp.332–3


Author: susanmilleruk

Watercolour painter living, working and loving Hastings and St Leonards on Sea. MA in Fine Art.

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