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Idea and Image: Plato and Modern Art

Aveek Sen
Senior Assistant Editor, The Telegraph

E.H. Gombrich: You cannot simply lie in your bed and imagine what you will want to paint?

Bridget Riley: That’s impossible!

EHG: It will turn out differently?

BR: You cannot plan like that.

EHG: No.

Bridget Riley, Dialogues on Art.[i]


Art is a special discerning exercise of intelligence in relation to the real…

Iris Murdoch, The Fire and the Sun.[ii]

This platonic person discovered a soul in the world

And studied it in his holiday hotel.

Wallace Stevens, “The Pure Good of Theory”.[iii]

What do people expect me to do with my eyes? What should I look at?

Giuliana (Monica Vitti), in Michelangelo Antonioni’s
The Red Desert (1964).

                         Monica Vitti in a still from Antonioni’s film, Red Desert (1964) 

In Plato – with whom it all began – Ideas and beds are intimately linked. In Book X of The Republic, a middle-aged Socrates explains to Glaucon, a little more than four hundred years before the birth of Christ, why the work that painters and poets do “have no serious value”.[iv] Socrates is talking, with his usual, devastating urbanity, about three kinds of beds. First, the unique Bed-in-Itself, created by God. This is the real thing, which exists in “nature”, the realm of eternal Forms or Ideas. Then there are the actual beds on which people sleep, made by carpenters. Finally, at the bottom of this chain of creation, is the painted bed – a useless copy of a copy, standing at third remove from reality. Moving downwards from the Idea of the bed to the painted bed, one moves from reality to illusion, from truth to lies, from God to the painter. The philosopher must move in the opposite direction, and while doing so should ignore the painted bed altogether. The knowledge of the Beautiful and of the Good – both embodied in the Ideas or eternal Forms ‑ is too serious a moral goal to be waylaid by art and its dubious representations. Of course, the whole conversation is, in a sense, also a deliberate artifice created by Plato. “Philosophy,” Iris Murdoch had written, “is essentially talk.”[v] And Plato was too acutely aware of the treacheries of language ‑ particularly of figurative language, of myths and metaphors ‑ not to have misgivings about the element of invention in his own philosophical system that gives to writing the illusion of brilliant talk.


The word, Idea, comes out of this sophisticated, ironic, yet morally serious philosophy of knowledge. It carries within it not only the internal hierarchies of this philosophy (the three levels of Bed-hood) and its original myths, metaphors and structures, but also the long history of how Western art and aesthetics have seized Plato’s philosophy to continually create new systems of values that turn on its head his original devaluation of the artist. From Plotinus, through Marsiglio Ficino and Philip Sidney, to Kant and Shelley, Plato’s philosophy of the Ideal, originally so dismissive of mimesis, became the basis of a series of lofty defenses of the verbal and visual arts. Plato was a great artist who feared, in Murdoch’s words, “the consolations of art”. The art and aesthetics that he sought to denigrate and exorcise from his pure system of philosophy took on an endlessly inspiring life of their own – in Neoplatonism, in Christianity, in Classical and Romantic, and finally, in Modern art and aesthetics – thus making Platonism its own elaborated critique. What is anti-Platonic in this critique is therefore, at another level, profoundly Platonic. This is why A.N. Whitehead’s description of all European philosophy – and, one might add, aesthetics – as footnotes to Plato does not sound reductive. So, when Joseph Kosuth, in One and Three Chairs (1965), placed a common folding chair on the floor, and hung from the wall behind this chair an actual-sized photograph of it, next to a blown-up dictionary definition of the word, “chair”, and called this arrangement Conceptual Art, it became an irreverent exploration of the Idea or Concept of “chairness”, parodying Plato’s progression from a real to the ideal chair. The ideal chair, in this case, is not an Idea in the realm of eternal Forms, but a dictionary definition. Theology or moral philosophy becomes structural linguistics in One and Three Chairs, as signifiers rub shoulders with signifieds, and Plato is reborn as Saussure in Sixties New York. God, the carpenter and the artist ‑ or use, manufacture and representation ‑ which Plato wanted to keep strictly separate, are conflated in Kosuth’s governing Idea of the work, by his deadpan, levelling wit.[vi]

 Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs (1965)


In 1999, Tracey Emin installed, at the Tate, the actual bed in which she “almost went out of her mind for four days”, complete with skid-marked sheets, used condoms, soiled knickers and all the detritus of a “lost” weekend. She called itMy Bed, and got two kinds of response from her viewers. She was shortlisted for the Turner Prize, but did not get it eventually. And, more interestingly, two Chinese artists “critically intervened” in what they saw as Emin’s unabashed “self-promotion”. They jumped onto the exhibit half-naked, had a brisk pillow fight, shouted in “unfathomable Mandarin” (as one reporter describes) and tried to take a swig from one of the empty bottles of vodka lying next to the bed. There was muted applause from the other viewers, until the security guards got over their bemusement and carried the Chinese artists off. It must have been difficult for the curators to restore My Bed to its ‘original’ form, the one that would correspond exactly to its creator’s Idea of it. There was no dearth of conceptualization behind the making, and then the viewing, of this work. It is significant how Emin succeeded in releasing detailed information about this bed and what it had meant to her, before and during the work was being viewed. She was, in turn, seen by her Turner-Prize judges as illustrating “graphically” in this work the “themes of loss, sickness, fertility, copulation, conception and death”. And the two Chinese artists also saw their “intervention” as some sort of Gilbert-and-George Performance Art, motivated by their own critical, but nevertheless aesthetic, agenda. Each artist, or pair of artists, started with her, or his, prior Idea of what she or he wanted to do, and their ‘work’ – the bed itself, and what was subsequently played out on it – was the creative realization of this Idea, although limited and transformed by the nature of the materials or circumstances with which, or in which, they were working.

Tracey Emin, My Bed

This “single, intellectual, largely random decision to name this or that object or activity ‘art’” has been seen as the hallmark of Conceptual Art.[vii] And our keywords, ‘concept’ and ‘idea’, are indispensable to how the artists themselves describe the nature of such decisions. “In Conceptual Art,” wrote Sol LeWitt, in a 1967 Artforum article, giving this kind of art its first theoretical exegesis, “the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work…all planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes the machine that makes the art…”[viii] Sometimes this “making” is simply a self-consciously peremptory act of naming. Something becomes an art object only because someone says that it is so. In this, the quintessential Conceptual artefact is, of course, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) – an ordinary urinal, signed “R. Mutt” and entered as a titled piece of sculpture in an exhibition Duchamp was helping to organize in New York. This “Readymade” piece by Duchamp – who claimed to be “more interested in the ideas than in the final product” – radically changed the notion of the art object as well as that of the artist’s role as ‘maker’. ‘Concept’ and ‘idea’, in lower case and used interchangeably, are used by Duchamp and LeWitt to elevate, with a provocative wilfulness, the active intellectual agency of the artist, even while depriving the art object of its traditional uniqueness and “aura” – in fact, making it infinitely reproducible. Not just Plato, but also Walter Benjamin is turned upside down.[ix] It is paradoxical how these artists and theorists use the Platonic baggage of ‘idea’ and ‘concept’ to idealize, and even sensationalize, the figure of the artist even as they subvert the idealization of Art itself. It is as if Plato’s dismissive trivializing of the artist has come full circle here, making trashiness itself a kind of value, an ideal. The maker of trash becomes, therefore, a challenging and charismatic figure who can claim for himself the right to trash traditionally ‘higher’ forms of Art.


The Conceptual Artists’ use of ‘idea’ and ‘concept’ as synonyms that transfigure mundane, readymade objects through the power of the intellect might be illuminated by the writings of a very different kind of early-16th-century artist. In his sonnet, “Non ha l’ottimo artista in se alcun concetto”, Michelangelo provides a rare insight into his technique of working with marble. His language is explicitly Neoplatonic in this poem, particularly in the use of the word, ‘concetto’, in the opening quatrain:


Not the best artist has in himself any concept

That a single marble does not enclose in itself

With its excess; and to this attains only

The hand that obeys the intellect.[x]


Dedicated to Vittoria Colonna ‑ the widowed Marchioness of Pescara and herself a prolific poet ‑ the sonnet invests the artist with a humility, which Michelangelo habitually adopted when addressing this austere and intellectual noblewoman. Michelangelo’s reverence towards Vittoria is therefore identified with the sculptor’s deference to his medium, the single piece of unworked marble. And this deference arises from the acknowledgment that the “concept” behind what the sculptor will make with this block of marble is located within the marble itself. This is the source of the artist’s humility, his solemn, but manual, obedience. His work is to chip away at the superfluities and bring out the form that is inherent in the stone. Hence, the reader remains uncertain about whether the “intellect”, at the end of the fourth line, is that of the artist or of his medium. Is the hand shaping the marble, or is the marble determining the action of the hand? To locate, as Michelangelo does, the work’s governing ‘concept’ within its medium itself immediately renders his depiction of art’s ‘making’ far more complex than the Conceptual Artist’s rather imperious celebration of artistic intention. In Michelangelo, the medium is imbued with its own intellect, and the ‘work’ of art – the process as well as the product ‑ exists in the interface of the medium’s intellect and the artist’s. Here, too, Plato’s Idea or eternal Form is radically humanized and materialized ‑ turned into stone, as it were, but without destroying the sense of the transcendent beauty of the Idea. The rest of Michelangelo’ sonnet is about art’s vital relationship with the Platonic Eros, experienced as a kind of ‘love’ for a particular human being. It is a profoundly Platonic poem because the hand that brings out the Form (hidden in the marble) is obedient to a force that is both aesthetic and moral. Where then does the “Concept” reside – in the medium, in the artist’s mind or in some transcendent realm outside and above both? To answer this question is also to think deeply, but lucidly and pragmatically (as the best artists do), about the relationships among the hand, the mind and the medium, and to blur the boundaries separating theory and practice, the technology, psychology and metaphysics of art.


The problem of trying to fathom in words the baffling relationships among the mind, the hand and the medium preoccupied Francis Bacon, working with paint in the 20th century as much as it did Michelangelo, working with marble in the 16th. With Bacon, too, the dynamic and unpredictable relationship between the “conscious will” of the painter and the physical nature of the “actual paint” – how the latter “moves” on the canvas with a will of its own – brings about the profound “accidents” of art:


You know in my case all painting – and the older I get the more it becomes so – is accident. So I foresee it in my mind, I foresee it, and yet I hardly ever carry it out as I foresee it. It transforms itself by the actual paint. I use very large brushes, and in the way I work I don’t in fact know very often what the paint will do, and it does many things which are very much better than I could make it do. Is that an accident? Perhaps one could say it’s not an accident, because it becomes a selective process which is part of this accident one chooses to preserve. One is attempting, of course, to keep the vitality of the accident and yet preserve a continuity….When I was trying in despair the other day to paint that head of a specific person, I used a very big brush and a great deal of paint and I put it on very, very freely, and I simply didn’t know in the end what I was doing, and suddenly this thing clicked, and became exactly like the image I was trying to record. But not out of any conscious will, nor was it anything to do with illustrational painting. What has never yet been analyzed is why this particular way of painting is more poignant than illustration. I suppose because it has a life completely of its own. It lives on its own, like the image one’s trying to trap; it lives on its own, and therefore transfers the essence of the image more poignantly. So that the artist may be able to open up or rather, should I say, unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently…there is a possibility that you get through this accidental thing something much more profound that what you really wanted.[xi]


For Bacon, the energy and the poignancy of ‘making’ reside in the shadows that fall between what one really wanted and what one gets at the end, between “the image one’s trying to trap”, “the essence of that image”, and what the paint finally allows one to produce. And this energy is vital in more than one sense. It violently returns one to life, and to a richness of feeling that is akin to the solemn ardour of Michelangelo’s sonnet.


In 1547, Benedetto Varchi, a member of the Florentine Academy, lectured on the rival merits of painting and sculpture to the Academy, using the same sonnet by Michelangelo. Varchi’s commentary brings together the various notions and images that we have been looking at so far, making him sound like a slightly more pedantic contemporary of the Conceptualist LeWitt:


…our Poet’s Concetto denotes that which, as we said above, is called in Greek idea, in Latin exemplar, us “model”; that is, that form or image, called by some people the intention, that we have within our imagination, of everything that we intend to will or to make or to say; which [form or image], although spiritual…is for that reason the efficient cause of everything that can be said or made. Wherefore the Philosopher [Aristotle] said in the Seventh Book of the First Philosophy [Metaphysics]: “The active form, as regards the bed, is in the soul of the artisan.”[xii]


It needed the audaciousness of an Aristotle to take Plato’s bed and place it right within the “soul of the “artisan” ‑ not “artist”, mind you, but the carpenter, the craftsman, as William Morris and the Bauhaus set would have understood. And it would perhaps not be too sensational to say that modern – that is Romantic and post-Romantic ‑ art theory was thus born out of Plato, but also ‘dialectically’ out of him. Rapahel’s monumental fresco in the Vatican’s Stanza della Segnatura, The School of Athens (1509-11), puts Plato and Aristotle at the centre of the entire composition. They stand side by side, overseeing the great assembly of ancient Greek sages, Plato (resembling Leonardo da Vinci) holding hisTimaeus and the index finger of his right hand pointing upwards towards the realm of the Ideal, while Aristotle, holding his Ethics, gestures downwards with his right hand, the palm facing the ground and parallel to it, symbolizing his investigation of the natural and human worlds. It is in the Timaeus that Plato presents his most famous celebration of the creative artist. But this artist is not a human being, but the Demiurge, creator of the Universe, and the cosmos is his aesthetic achievement, the only work of art worthy of Plato’s respect. Plato’s philosophy thus at once banishes the artist and apotheosizes him, which is perhaps why Raphael puts him, with Aristotle, at the centre of his “School”. In this school, Art is inseparable from Philosophy, Theology and Mathematics, from the highest and most abstract intellectual pursuits ‑ as the presence of Pythagoras and Euclid, among others, indicates ‑ while being just as integrally located within the human and natural worlds.

Raphael, The School of Athens (1509-11)

The essential story of Western art from Plato to the Moderns ‑ of which Raphael’s School of Athens is both a subject and an early telling ‑ can be traced, with all its problems and paradoxes, in an unusual place – the entries under ‘idea’ and ‘concept’ in the larger Oxford English Dictionary. The OED shows how ‘idea’ was first “adopted” by the modern languages, in the 16th century, in its “general Platonic sense”. In this sense, an Idea was “a supposed eternally existing pattern or archetype of any class of thing, of which the individual things in that class are imperfect copies, and from which they derive their existence”. The dictionary’s earliest English illustration of this sense is from Philemon Holland’s 1603 translation of Plutarch’s Moralia:


Idea is a bodilesse substance, which of itselfe hath no subsistence, but giveth figure and forme unto shapelesse matters, and becommeth the very cause that bringeth them into shew and evidence. Socrates and Plato suppose, that there Ideæ bee substances separate and distinct from Matter, howbeit, subsisting in the thoughts and imaginations of God – that is to say, of Mind and Understanding.


It is clear from Holland’s translation, and the other OED examples of usage, that by the second half of the 16th century, the definitive leap from the mind of God to the mind of man, as the realm in which Ideas reside, has already been made. Holland’s English moves seamlessly from a theological to a psychological vocabulary. And this is the movement that defines the shift of the word’s dominant usage in English henceforth. As a standard, principle or ideal to be aimed at or desired, an Idea is what the human mind or imagination holds and contemplates, and therefore even produces. If one is a Christian Platonist, then one is free to think that it is God who has planted the Idea in the human mind, since the mind itself, in its highest capacities, is what is divine in man. But the transition from this belief to its purely secular, indeed implicitly blasphemous, version has already taken place in the 16th century. By the time the Romantics take this up, the internalization of Ideas is complete. After running through the four stages in the evolution of the word, as laid out in theOED, from Plato to “modern philosophical developments” (Descartes, Locke, Kant and Hegel), one begins to see how ‘Idea’ not only becomes a keyword in philosophy, but also part of a much more practical vocabulary of human creativity ‑ artistic as well as less exalted forms of the ‘making’ of things from pre-existing forms, designs or plans. ‘Idea’ begins to align itself with words like ‘design’, ‘model’, ‘plan’, ‘pattern’ and ‘type’. The word descends from a timeless and transcendent sphere into a psychological, material or technological one, but without losing its intellectual and originary character. For Philip Sidney, in An Apology for Poetry (1595), “the skill of the artificer standeth in that Idea or fore-conceit of the work, and not in the work itself”.[xiii] To “ideate” – that is, to form an idea of, to imagine, conceive – comes into English a little later. The OED cites a sentence from John Donne’s prose, dated 1610.


‘Skill’, ‘work’ and ‘artifice’ are all words that straddle the intellectual and the manual, High Art and the relatively humbler crafts. Sidney’s “fore-conceit” is an important ancestor of the modern ‘Concept’ – a word that has always been more at home than ‘Idea’ has been in the realm of practical creativity, of materials and products and hands. Sidney’s compound also reveals the etymology of ‘concept’, which entered English much earlier than ‘idea’, in the late 14th century, and was almost always used in its earlier from, ‘conceit’, which survives today, interestingly, in the notion of ‘conceitedness’, personal vanity or pride. From the beginning, ‘concept’ was related to the purely human mind – meaning notion, understanding, opinion or estimation (in a neutral sense). But with the subsequent emergence of ‘Idea’, it got assimilated into the later word’s semantic field, without letting go of its original practical, less exalted character. In the 16th and 17th centuries, this proximity to ‘Idea’ also lent to ‘Conceit’ an added sense of the excessively and ingeniously fanciful. To use ‘conceits’ became a form of literary affectation, which came to be associated with the self-consciously learned sophistication or “wit” of “metaphysical poets” like John Donne, Andrew Marvell and Abraham Cowley. Such an affectation was perceived as having come from that land of exquisite corruption and Mannerist extravagance, Italy, and was associated with the Italian word, ‘concetto’ (used, although more austerely, in Varchi’s commentary on Michelangelo’s sonnet), and with the poet, Giambattista Marino, among others in Spain and Italy. Samuel Johnson ‑ in his 1779 essay on Cowley in the Prefaces…to the Works of the English Poets – finds the word, ‘conceit’, indispensable to his critical discussion of the English Metaphysical poets. His description of Metaphysical wit gives a broad, but accurate sense of what the use of conceits signified, philosophically and stylistically, and remains strikingly applicable to the work of modern Conceptualists like Duchamp, Kosuth and LeWitt, and generally to a great deal of Surrealist and post-Surrealist Art:


[Wit] may be more rigorously and philosophically considered as a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar things, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike…The most heterogenous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises…Their wish was only to say what they hoped had been never said before…And in the mass of materials, which ingenious absurdity has thrown together, genuine wit and useful knowledge may be sometimes found, buried perhaps in the grossness of expression, but useful to those who know their value…[xiv]


Duchamp’s Conceptualist urinal/fountain is informed by precisely this kind of verbal-visual wit. Fountain, and many of the works that it inspired, are “conceits” whose deliberate effect exploits the violent yoking of decorously separated notions and things, confounding the Platonic hierarchies that keep apart sacred and profane, mind and body, abstract and concrete, spiritual and material, physical and metaphysical. This is how they create the shock of the new, both for the eye and for the mind. The subversiveness of this avant-garde wit and its products is exclusive and intellectual, their outrageousness self-consciously snobbish, and their irreverence wilfully ‘conceited’ (in the modern sense). Donne and his urbane Inns-of-Court friends would have understood and delighted in the ingenious absurdities of Duchamp and Dali.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917)

The OED’s etymology of ‘idea’ takes us also to the heart of another defining conflict within Western Art, played out in the history of the word’s usage. The dictionary points out that the Greek ίδέα – which, in its everyday senses, could mean look, semblance, form, configuration, species, kind, class, sort or nature – is derived from the root ιδ, meaning “see”. Plato used ίδέα and its cognate εîδος indiscriminately, as did Aristotle, who did not discriminate clearly when summarizing Plato, although he tended to prefer εîδος (usually translated as “form”) as his own technical term. As the poet, Coleridge, points out in a very useful note on ‘Idea’ in his Biographia Literaria (1815), Plato’s ίδέα – “considered as mysterious powers, living, seminal, formative, and exempt from time” – existed as the antithesis to είδωλα, or “sensuous images; the transient and perishable emblems, or mental words, of ideas”.[xv] The root ιδ – akin to the Latin vid-, also meaning “see”, and making up English words like ‘visual’ and ‘evidence’ – is therefore like a dangerous kernel of visuality threatening to undermine the transcendence of the Platonic Idea. Idea, though notionally opposed to Image, is essentially, indeed seminally, linked to it. The visual – the actual physical activity of the human eye – is at the root of the metaphysical in Plato, and hence seeing becomes disturbingly inseparable from knowing in the epistemologies that come out of his philosophy and flow into modern theories of knowledge and modern aesthetics.


In Plato’s philosophical discourse, this is, at one level, the problem of metaphor. The language of vision informs our various languages of experiencing the world, and of processing that experience into consciousness and knowledge. How do we read, then, the blazingly visual and poetic myths and images in Plato’s philosophy – the Myth of the Cave inThe Republic, the chariot and horses in Phaedrus, the hemispheres and the winged soul in The Symposium, or the Demiurge in Timaeus? “‘Is it a metaphor?’ is of course a fundamental question to be asked about metaphysical explanation,” writes Iris Murdoch, “Our ability to use visual structures to understand non-visual structures…is fundamental to explanation to any field.”[xvi] Yet, this is not simply a technical problem of how philosophy or metaphysics explains its disembodied concepts. It is more crucially, and abidingly, a problem of how we actually come to know things and what constitutes this knowledge. It is a problem of how we trust the ‘evidence’ of our senses in building up a certain knowledge of the world and of ourselves, and how we then represent, communicate or reveal these ‘truths’ to ourselves and to other human beings through shared modes of expression. It is also a problem of how we reflect on, write and talk about these processes.


Do we have to see in order to believe and know? This central question in epistemology has a distinct relevance for each modern sphere of intellectual activity – the empirical sciences, medicine, law, theology, art and everyday life. How do we know that the earth is round? How do I find out if I am HIV+? How do we prove that Imrana Bibi was raped by her father-in-law? Why should we believe that God exists? Is my spouse committing adultery? These are, at one level, similar questions. What links them is the idea of visual evidence. Human knowing is helplessly dependant on sight, pleasured and compelled by it, yet deeply mistrustful of it too. Iris Murdoch reminds us that, for St. John of the Cross, “God is the abyss of faith into which we fall when we have discarded all images of him.” “This is the point,” she adds, “at which Plato starts making jokes.”[xvii] Coleridge, a little after his note on Idea in the Biographia, refers to this ambivalent dependence as “that despotism of the eye”, “the emancipation from which Pythagoras by his numerical, and Plato by hismusical, symbols, and both by geometric discipline, aimed at, as the first προπαιδεντικόν [preparatory education] of the mind”.[xviii] Numbers, music and geometry become, therefore, the symbols and guarantee of the mind’s capacity to free itself from its subjection to the eye – its capacity for intellectual abstraction. But even these abstractions are founded on reading, looking at lines, points and shapes, and on listening, and then processing these sensations in the brain. Plato’s mistrust of the senses, the basis of his epistemology, is rooted in an attitude to the body, particularly to sexuality – what Murdoch calls his sense of “human worthlessness”[xix] – which results in his privileging of the spiritual over the corporeal. This is carried forward into Christianity’s hierarchical division of body and soul (as a consequence of Original Sin), which, in turn, has been secularized by modern empiricism into the Cartesian polarities of body and mind, or matter and mind. Each of these modern polarities tends to privilege the mind as superior.


Philosophy and Art might be seen as located at opposite ends of this abstract-to-concrete spectrum. If Philosophy is Idea, then Art is Image; if the former deals with universals, then the latter gives us particulars (embodied in the aesthetic object). In this, Art may be seen as both a critique and a complement of Philosophy, in terms of both pleasure and knowledge. Yet, even while co-opting Plato to vindicate what he originally undermines, Art – particularly certain schools of Modern Art – often internalizes Plato’s misgivings with the image and the eye, with the physical and the material. It is impossible for the visual arts to be anything but visual, and for the plastic arts to be anything but material – and in this, Art is forever shackled to the eye (of the artist and of the viewer) and to matter. But, if Conceptual Art has vengefully brought the Platonic Idea or Concept down to the level of the most banal things (beds and chairs and urinals), then Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, in painting and in sculpture, have journeyed in the opposite direction, away from the transfigured junkyard of ‘things’, from the subversive towards the sublime, towards the realization of a more Platonic notion of Idea or Concept. With the paintings, it is as if the very fact of having shed sculpture’s third dimension, limiting themselves to the flat surfaces of pictorial space, has led to a reduction of their materiality, moving them closer to pure abstraction, towards a kind of secular spirituality, a modern mysticism. This journey towards abstraction is also a journey away from the human body towards a purely formal, and therefore intellectual, notion of subject matter – a state of non-depiction, beyond the figurative, the narrative and the representational. This is a kind of art that aspires to the condition of geometry or, better still, of music, and might derive its deepest inspiration from the contrapuntal music of J.S. Bach.[xx]


Early 20th-century abstraction – of Kandinsky, Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich ‑ spoke a recognizably Platonic, quasi-spiritual language when talking about itself. In “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (1911), Kandinsky spoke of a “coming era of great spirituality”.[xxi] And in 1913, Malevich placed a black square on a white ground, claiming that his art, like the Platonic Idea, “wants to have nothing further to do with the object as such”, for “it can exist, in and for itself, without things”.[xxii] Such a composition would gesture towards “an immediate, legible geometry”[xxiii] that can be conceived by the mind before its execution. Almost three decades later, in 1943, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb were still proclaiming their involvement with “eternal symbols”. Rothko described the transition, in his painting, from abstractions of human figures to those exploring non-figurative relationships between ‘colour-fields’. The latter becomes the painting of “shapes” created from the need “for everyday acts” to belong to “a ritual accepted as referring to a transcendent realm”.[xxiv] In his late dialogue, Philebus, Plato concedes to sensation the pleasurable experience of “pure beauty” through the contemplation of certain colours, simple geometrical figures or a single series of pure notes. This form of pure contemplation sorts out, emphasizes and attends to harmonious patterns which are already latent in the universe and in the cosmic mind.[xxv] In an earlier dialogue, Meno, by making a slave boy solve a geometrical problem, Socrates proves to Meno that these harmonious patterns in the cosmic mind had also once existed as notions in the human mind before it was born to its servitude to the body and to the material world. So all that Socrates did with the slave-boy was to make him remember what his soul had once known in its pure, disembodied state. In Philebus, philosophical truth, which is purely expressive of reality, is compared to a small piece of pure white colour.[xxvi]


It is this purity – the purity of the Idea in its original Platonic sense – that modern Minimalism invokes and realizes by literalizing Plato’s metaphors and similes for contemplation, thereby rendering contemplation itself inseparable from looking. In Laws, Plato seems to be tracing the shift from Cubism to Minimalism when he writes, “Can there be any more accurate vision or view of any object than through the ability to look from the dissimilar many to the single idea?”[xxvii]The mind’s eye in Plato becomes the eye’s mind with the Minimalist artists. The journey from Cubism to Abstract Expressionism (Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman) and Minimalism (Don Judd, Robert Morris, Frank Stella) was a passage from Europe to America across the Great Wars into the coldness of the Cold War. But aesthetically, it was a backward quest ‑ a tracing of Cubism “back down through its extensions to the point at which art ceased to be able to call upon a world of whole objects”.[xxviii] And this attempt to put Humpty together again, after his great fall, had to be essentially Platonic. A revival of the idea of wholeness ‑ achieved in pictorial space, but also grasped and held in the intellect of the artist and of the viewer – was also a revival of ‘idea’ and ‘concept’ as keywords. Barnett Newman’s great work of 1948 – an impasto cadmium-red light stripe, centred vertically upon a more thinly painted cadmium-red darker field – is called Onement I. Working in the late Forties and Fifties, and well into the Cold War, painters and sculptors (many of them Jews and Russians living in America) would have found it impossible to not see the relationship between figurative and abstract Art in terms of Art’s relationship with the human and the non-human, and by extension, the inhuman.

Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51)

How did abstract Art stand in relation to human form as well as human feelings? If the realm of Ideas in Plato – chief enemy of the open society, according to Karl Popper– had not been structured around the ideas of the Beautiful and the Good and, in some dialogues, around Love, there would have been something chillingly inhuman about its transcendence. Literary celebrations of the classical Ideal ‑ especially in Romantic poetry – also address its intimidating, but sublime coldness, “all breathing human passion far above”.[xxix] Yet, as Keats’s poem tells us, when a living viewer stands in front of or walks around a work of art, then even the coldest and most remotely abstract work becomes part of a human scene. It becomes part of a vital relationship, in space and time, between the mind and body of the viewer, and the form and the content of the work.


If one stands for a sufficiently long time in front of Newman’s Onement I (or any of his great “Stripe” paintings), and allows oneself to be worked upon by the painting’s meditativeness, then what begins to emerge – somewhere between the eye’s mind and the mind’s eye, that zone between perception and recognition – is an essential relationship between one’s own verticality as a body standing in space and the verticality of Newman’s vividly coloured stripe, and perhaps even that of the painting itself, hanging on the wall. Newman’s painting unites number, line, colour, mind, body and language. The numeral 1 is also a vertical line, which, in turn, is the simplest possible rendering of the upright human body, but rendered here not only as a line but also as a heightened strip of redness standing out within and against a red background. These make up a composition whose individual vertical elements (the stripe and its background, an upright column of red) are self-similar, and also resemble the verticality of the pictorial space itself and of its frame. And all this is “held” not only within the painting, but also, crucially, grasped in one’s eye and mind as viewer, constituting, within the space and time of viewing, one’s sense of being oneself. This is a vividly unified self, a perceiving subject who has just used his eyes and his reflective powers to get to the geometric essence of his bodily and figurative presence in space. Hence, the significance of Newman’s title, Onement I, which suggests the word, ‘wonderment’. Such multiple, yet unifying acts of recognition produce their own sense of wonder.


But this wonder is profoundly ambiguous. And the ambiguity is brought out by the relationship between the titles of two of Newman’s other great, and huge, stripe paintings – Euclidian Abyss (1946-7) and Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51). To render the human body as a vertical line within and against a single vast colour-field is to simplify as well as reduce the body to its linear, geometric essence; what Blake had called the “human form divine” is transfigured as well as annihilated in this process. Newman, therefore, repeatedly uses the language of the sublime, and of terror, when talking about his own work. The sublime makes us feel very big as well as very small, empowered as well as overpowered. This is why confronting a mountain, a great work of art, a tremendous piece of Fascist architecture, and God are all part of the human experience of the sublime, and herein lies, too, the ambiguity of the sublime. Newman’s “heroic and sublime” man is both an apotheosis of the human into Abstract Art, as well as a terrifying reduction of the human by pure geometric space or a radiant primary colour. This “Human Abstract” is placed in the Euclidian abyss, and becomes a helplessness before the void”[xxx], or a series of mysterious slits in the void. For Newman ‑ a Jew who knew his Aeschylus and Nietzsche ‑ terror before the unknowable and the incommunicable (“the eternal insecurities of life”[xxxi]) becomes a compelling creative force. He describes Euclidian Abyss as “my first painting where I got to the edge and didn’t fall off”.[xxxii]


Witnessing the gradual, but inevitable effacement of human feeling and form by (in? into?) stupendously simple shapes, colours and edges is what a chronological viewing of Mark Rothko’s paintings ultimately becomes. In a kind of gathering silence, bodies turn into blurred, huge squares and rectangles, luminous reds and oranges become the bleakest grey and black as we approach the last works done just before his suicide in 1970. What Rothko conveys to the viewer – visually, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually – is the oppressiveness of the simplest of forms, colours and textures, the terrible weight of simplicity or abstraction itself. This arose, as Rothko himself spelt out, from a “clear preoccupation with death”: “All art deals with intimations of mortality”.[xxxiii] And in Rothko, the gradual absenting of the human figure becomes a steady act of killing. “It was with the utmost reluctance that I found the figure could not serve my purposes,” Rothko had once said, “But a time came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it.”[xxxiv] Yet, in a sublime paradox, the very absence of the figure made it possible for the human to be a pervasive and informing presence in Rothko’s paintings. In his late and last paintings, pictorial space turns into a mysteriously frozen tragic theatre in which the human is affirmed, even reified, through extinction. In the ‘abstract’ Art of both Newman and Rothko, “the single human figure – alone in a moment of utter immobility” becomes the Idea instead of an Image.[xxxv]


This “single human figure”, brought into being while being obliterated in, and by, Art, is actually three beings in one – the artist, his subject and the viewer. It is, therefore, a “onement” in Barnett Newman’s sense of the word. Another such creature can be found in the third volume, La prisonnière (The Captive, 1923), of Proust’s novel, A la recherche du temps perdue (In Search of Lost Time). This is the writer, Bergotte, the description of whose death, in a Parisian art gallery, in front of Vermeer’s View of Delft, becomes one of those extended and magnificent reflections on Art and Life and Time that are arranged across Proust’s immense novel. One of the last things he wrote and inserted into the novel before his own death, the Death of Bergotte is both art history and art theory as fiction, but informed with Proust’s preoccupation with his own mortality. Proust himself had gone to see, in May 1921, an exhibition of Dutch paintings at the Jeu de Paume, where he had seen both the View of Delft (1660-61) and the Girl with the Pearl Earring (1665-67) by Vermeer. In Proust’s transformation of this experience into fiction, a Modernist writer’s confrontation with 17th-century Dutch Realism becomes a fatal catasrophe, narrated with a coldly ironic, yet beautifully elegiac sensationalism. Proust dramatizes, in Bergotte’s death, a moment of transition from classic figurative realism to something like Abstract Expressionism, several years before the latter’s time. This is a history of representation itself, almost comically enacted in the last few seconds of a man’s life. And it is a transition not only in artistic practice (how one paints or writes), but also in aesthetic perception (how one looks at pictures and writes about them).


Hearing of Bergotte’s death, Proust’s narrator recalls, in La prisonnière, how Bergotte had been dying slowly of an undiagnosed illness.[xxxvi] (This illness – because this is Proust writing, and writing largely about himself – must have been an acute and terminal form of hypochondria.) Bergotte had stopped going out of doors, and when he got out of bed, he remained swaddled in rugs and shawls, as if to protect himself from intense cold. When the few people who were allowed to see him wondered why he was wrapped up in travelling rugs, he would say merrily, “After all, my dear fellow, life, as Anaxagoras has said, is a journey.” “Thus,” the narrator reminisces, “he went on growing steadily colder, a tiny planet offering a prophetic image of the greater, when gradually heat will withdraw from the earth, then life itself.”[xxxvii] This metaphor leads, in the narrator, to thoughts on the extinction of the human species itself by the “invading cold”, and a vision of what would happen to Art, and to artistic fame, when there are no human beings left on earth, only animals who have managed to survive the cold. Suddenly, in the dwindling light of this final entropy, all Art, even the most ‘modern’, appears pathetically human to the narrator, beyond salvage or salvation in the face of human mortality. His saving grace is irony and its tonal achievements. “Irony: a modern ingredient,” Rothko had written in 1958, “A form of self-effacement and self-examination in which a man can for a moment escape his fate.”[xxxviii]

A late Rothko 

Then, he recounts how Bergotte had read that the View of Delft was being shown in Paris, a picture which Bergotte had adored and “imagined that he knew by heart”. Bergotte also read an art critic’s account of “a little patch of yellow wall” in the picture that was “so well painted that it was, if one looked at it by itself, like some priceless specimen of Chinese art, of a beauty that was sufficient in itself.” He had not been able to recall this detail, so after  eating a few potatoes and overcoming some initial spells of dizziness, he set out for the gallery and reached Vermeer’s great work:

Vermeer, View of Delft (1660-61)

He noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall. “That’s how I ought to have written,” he said. “My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.”…In a celestial pair of scales there appeared to him, weighing down one of the pans, his own life, while the other contained the little patch of wall so beautifully painted in yellow.[xxxix]


And then he had two more attacks of dizziness and died on the floor of the gallery in front of the picture. “He was dead,” remarks the narrator, “Dead forever? Who can say?”


Bergotte’s is a death by colour. In his last moments, his eye transforms Vermeer’s painting, first, into an Impressionist work, reducing the figures and the sand to their colour elements, blue and pink, and then, as the unity of the whole work begins to disintegrate in his eyes, he picks up a little detail, again for its vividness of colour, and in no time, this detail – “the tiny patch of yellow wall” – becomes the part which creates its own whole, a new painting “in itself” (a phrase that recurs in this passage). This new painting is what a more modern vocabulary would call a pure ‘colour-field’, a colour become shape (“patch”). Yet it never quite dissociates itself completely from its mimetic link with the wall. Its Truth and Beauty, as a work of art in itself, lie both in capturing the vital essence of yellowness, and in representing ‑ in colour, texture and shape ‑ what that particular, sunlit bit of wall in Delft was ‘really like’, its “precious substance”. But if one were to forget the original wall, and see the detail simply as a patch of colour and texture (“layers of colour”), enlarged independently of the rest of Vermeer’s painting, then one could be looking at an Abstract Expressionist work, a yellow rectangle, which an artist like Rothko could have painted. And, in effect, this is what Bergotte does with ‘his’ fragment of Vermeer. (Are abstract paintings, then, “little patches” taken out of some gigantic, prior figurative work, and given a life and value and truth of their own?)


Bergotte’s patch of yellow is also a subjective composite. Modern readers of Proust have tried to identify the exact detail in Vermeer’s painting that Bergotte fixes on, and have come up with three such patches. Bergotte’s patch is not only a merging, in the eye and in the mind, of these three (or possibly more) details, but it is also a telescoping of his last viewing of the picture with his vivid memories of it from previous viewings (he imagined that he knew the picture “by heart”). So the little patch of yellow wall is a mental image ‑ like the famous madeleine dipped in tea, in the Overture to the novel’s opening volume, Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way, 1913) – gathering into itself an entire history of private sensation, of looking, remembering and reviving.


From being something realized in Vermeer’s art, the patch of wall becomes, therefore, an Idea in Bergotte’s soul and memory, a fugitive Ideal that his own art, in another medium, wants to capture. Proust’s image for this is poignantly Classical: “he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall”. In the art and mythology of antiquity, Psyche is, at once, soul, butterfly and Cupid’s human lover who is made a goddess only after she knows suffering through love. In Classical Art, the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis stands for the soul leaving the body at death, and it later becomes an image for the resurrected soul in Christian iconography. Proust’s butterfly, so luminously mythological (like the “celestial pair of scales” later), gives Bergotte’s vision of Vermeer’s yellow wall a quality of inwardness, like an Idea in Bergotte’s soul, which is just about to be, but is never quite, fully bodied forth or ‘expressed’ as a realized Image in Bergotte’s Art. There is a delicately Platonic feel to this, heightened, a little later, by the “celestial” aura given to the pair of scales. Yet the lightness of the butterfly itself and the comic irony of the narrator never allow the image to lose its elusively psychological and modern character. But this most fleeting image of the artist’s soul ‑ the place where what he sees and longs to create, pleasure and desire, restlessly reside ‑ prepares the reader for the extended piece of Platonism that follows the account of Bergotte’s death.


Plato’s theory of anamnesis – in dialogues like the Phaedrus and the Phaedo – is yet another of his ‘myths’ that are poised uncertainly between the literal and the metaphorical. In it, Forms and Ideas become an argument for the immortality of the soul. We know of Ideas, and are able to enjoy and long for the Beautiful and the Good, because our souls were, before birth, in a place where these Ideas or Forms were clearly seen. The incarnated soul tends to forget this knowledge, but may be reminded of it by philosophy and dialectics, as the slave-boy in Meno is made to solve the geometric riddle by Socrates, who reminds the boy of what he already knew before he was born into slavery. Inanamnesis, the realm of Ideas is entirely separated from the sensible world in which human beings exist, and their journey from illusion to reality – in the Myth of the Cave, for instance – is actually a process of recovery through recollection. Proust’s narrator wonders ‑ with a hard, brilliant, disenchanted playfulness ‑ whether Bergotte’s soul would survive his death:


All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like a patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be forever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there – those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only – if then! – to fools.[xl]


Proust both humanizes the Platonic realm of Ideas and separates it from the ‘fallen’ human world. It becomes a lost, but glimmeringly remembered realm of human goodness, and also the place from where the laws that govern and are expressed in “every profound work of intellect” emanate – Vermeer’s as well as Plato’s. For Plato this world was far beyond the human. But for Proust, it is a realm that we have lost in human time, through an entirely mortal process of forgetting and loss. It can be recovered imperfectly only in the pleasures and rigours of Art and private memory. Yet its laws may be revealed to all but fools (of the non-Erasmian variety), and herein lies Proust’s sublime conceitedness.


But Proust’s account of the death of Bergotte and the birth of Modern Art is framed, and subjected to an almost brutal irony, by yet another Platonic idea. The narrator, when he hears of Bergotte’s death, is deep into his complicated and tormented love for Albertine. He reads in the papers of Bergotte’s death the day before, and is struck by the inaccuracy of this account, for Albertine had told him that she had met Bergotte the day before, when, according to the papers, he was already supposed to have been dead. It is only much later that he learns that the papers were correct, and that Albertine had the “charming skill” of “lying naturally” – her artless Art:


What she said, what she admitted, had to such a degree the same characteristics as the formal evidence of the case – what we see with our own eyes or learn from irrefutable sources – that she sowed thus in the gaps of her life episodes from another life the falsity of which I did not then suspect and began to perceive only at a much later date.[xli]


Albertine embodies all the reasons for which Plato banished the painter and the poet from his ideal republic. These men traffic not only in copies of copies, but also in “falsity” and lies; and the more realistic their art, the more dangerous they are. Albertine’s lies, as the narrator gradually realizes, are “animated, coloured with the very hues of life”. They are her own little patches of yellow wall. What inspires her is “verisimilitude alone”, and she is surpassed in her “story-telling” only by her friend, “blossoming” and “rose-pink” like her, in whose lies “one saw…in front of one the thing – albeit imaginary – which she was describing, through the eyes, as it were, of her words”.[xlii] Bergotte’s life-in-death was, therefore, quite literally, a lie. Proust is here juxtaposing two kinds of human creativity ‑ also two kinds of “verisimilitude” – and then letting one frame the other. Vermeer is seen through the eyes of Bergotte, who, in turn, is briefly (for the narrator) placed within Albertine’s lie.


Plato offers two explanations of the human imagination – a ‘good’ one, in his theory of Ideas, embodied in the philosopher, and a ‘bad’ one, in the figures of the deceiving painter and the lying poet. After Plato, art, literature and aesthetics have tried to co-opt the good theory in various ways, and defended the artist from the bad one, yet without entirely disavowing the latter’s trueness and perverse charm:


…given Man, by birth, by education,

Imago Dei who forgot his station,

The self-made creature who himself unmakes,

The only creature ever made who fakes,

With no more nature in his loving smile

Than in his theories of a natural style,

What but tall tales, the luck of verbal playing,

Can trick his lying nature into saying

That love, or truth in any serious sense,

Like orthodoxy, is a reticence?[xliii]


Proust’s account of Art, in the Death of Bergotte, seems to contrast Albertine’s art with Vermeer’s and Bergotte’s. But “contrast” seems to imply apartness and polarity, both of which are made impossible by Proust’s own art of story-telling, which interlaces these two distinct strands within Plato’s philosophy. Great Art – emphatically human and always modern – remains reticently (and sometimes volubly) poised between Bergotte’s patch of yellow wall and Albertine’s ‘story’ – between laws and lies, absence and presence, Idea and Image. But the word, “and”, is perhaps too simple for joining these words in pairs. What Plato himself feared, and his subsequent footnote-makers (philosophers as well as artists) affirmed with fewer misgivings, is that the Idea might more humanely reside in the Image, and – bad news for philosophy ‑ the Image in the Idea. The great and difficult work of Art is to keep that little preposition in place.




[i] Bridget Riley, Dialogues on Art, ed. by Robert Kudielka (Thames & Hudson, 2003), p.40.

[ii] Iris Murdoch, The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists (Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 78.

[iii] Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (Faber, 1984), p. 331.

[iv] Plato, The Republic, translated by Desmond Lee (Penguin, 1983), p. 431.

[v] The Fire and the Sun, p. 21.

[vi] Kosuth’s work is also a rather simplifying homage to Magritte’s two versions of “This is not a Pipe”, made in the late Twenties, which then became the subject of Foucault’s brilliant 1968 essay with the same title. In the second version, Magritte presents a carefully drawn pipe with the text, “This is not a pipe”, written underneath, in a frame that is placed on an easel standing on a clearly depicted floor. Above everything, in the picture-room’s realm of the Ideal, floats a pipe exactly like the one in the frame, but much larger. Would this picture have been possible without Plato?

[vii] Roberta Smith, “Conceptual Art”, in Concepts of Modern Art: From Fauvism to Postmodernism, ed. by Nikos Stangos (Thames & Hudson, 1997), p. 257.

[viii] Ibid., p. 261.

[ix] On ‘aura’, see Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, in Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn (Fontana, 1992), pp. 211-44.

[x] I have used here the text and its very literal translation provided in Erwin Panofsky, Idea: A Concept in Art Theory(Harper & Row, 1968), pp. 117-18. Here are Michelangelo’s lines: “Non ha l’ottimo artista in se alcun concetto,/ Ch’un marmo solo in se non circoscriva/ Col suo soverchio; e solo a quello arriva/ La man che ubbidisce all’intelletto.

[xi] David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon (Thames & Hudson, 1997), pp. 16-17. This interview was conducted in 1962.

[xii] Ibid., p. 120.

[xiii] Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, ed. by Geoffrey Shepherd (Manchester University Press, 1973), p. 101. (The OED also quotes this sentence.) Shepherd’s long note on this passage (p. 157-58) shows how Sidney’s Idea is not “pure Platonism”, but is a keyword in his poetics, which “runs parallel to Mannerist theory of painting”.

[xiv] Samuel Johnson, ed. by Donald Greene (OUP, 1984), pp. 678-79.

[xv] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. by James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 96-97.

[xvi] The Fire and the Sun, pp. 67-68.

[xvii] Ibid., p. 65.

[xviii] Biographia, p. 107.

[xix] Fire and the Sun, p. 20.

[xx] For a wonderfully readable exploration of the complex relations between Bach’s counterpoint, certain kinds of modern art and mathematics, see Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (Penguin, 2000).

[xxi] Quoted in Charles Harrison, “Abstract Expressionism”, in Concepts of Modern Art, p. 200.

[xxii] Quoted in Suzi Gablik, “Minimalism”, in Concepts of Modern Art, p. 244.

[xxiii] Ibid., p. 244.

[xxiv] Ibid., pp. 194-95.

[xxv] The Fire and the Sun, p. 12.

[xxvi] Ibid., p. 12.

[xxvii] Ibid., p. 26.

[xxviii] Concepts of Modern Art, p. 201.

[xxix] John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820).

[xxx] Newman’s own words, quoted in Concepts of Modern Art, p. 197.

[xxxi] Ibid., p. 191.

[xxxii] Ibid., p. 195.

[xxxiii] Ibid., p. 199.

[xxxiv] Ibid., p. 206.

[xxxv] Ibid., p. 197. These are Rothko’s own words, written in 1947.

[xxxvi] I have used the English translation of Proust’s novel by C.K. Scott Montcrieff, Terence Kilmartin and Andreas Mayor, 3 volumes (Penguin, 1989), entitled Remembrance of Things Past. The Death of Bergotte is in vol 3, pp. 180-191.

[xxxvii] Ibid., p. 182.

[xxxviii] Concepts of Modern Art, p. 210.

[xxxix] Remembrance, vol 3, p. 185.

[xl] Ibid., p. 186.

[xli] Ibid., p. 187.

[xlii] Ibid., p. 190.

[xliii] W.H. Auden, ‘“The Truest Poetry Is the Most Feigning”’ (1953).
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