The Problems of Applying Theories of Depiction to Non-Figurative Art
Generally speaking depictive theories attempt to explain the experience of looking at paintings and drawings, in particular they describe the process by which a viewer makes sense of a surface that has been intentionally marked in such a way as to describe some thing in the world. Depictive theories have generally been developed with reference to figurative work where the viewer is able to recognize the depicted object(s). The aim of this thesis is to determine the extent to which they apply to non-figurative work, what is commonly referred to as abstract art, and to identify what factors can influence the understanding and interpretation of such work. The method used is a combination of theory and practice. An analysis of theories of depiction and of contemporary scholarship on the subject is undertaken. Using the results of this work and by reference to the key concepts of these theories an analysis of specific artworks is carried out in a series of case studies. The purpose of the case studies is to identify, in the first instance, how certain theories of depiction can be seen to apply. In other words how they explain the experience of looking at a figurative artwork. The case study approach is an essential element of the methodology of the project. It is used, initially, to interrogate a work by Titian that is, arguably, readily explained by ‘traditional’ depictive theories. The procedure evolved for this analysis is then applied to the less figurative works of Auerbach and Twombly and from this process a non-iconographic approach to depiction is developed which is tested by application to my own work and to that of two contemporary artists. The thesis concludes that a comprehensive theory of depiction must allow for such factors as material and facture and that, as a result of this research, the meaning of the term ‘depiction’ can, under certain conditions, be extended to include for non-figurative work. It suggests that some theories may usefully be modified to accommodate the findings of this research. Dominic Lopes argues that ‘a complete account of pictures should explain abstract pictures as well as figurative ones.’ This thesis is seen as making a contribution to the development of any such account.