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Imaginings: On the Scope of Visual Memory

Imaginings: On the Scope of Visual Memory
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The fragrance of things remains with us over the years, quite easily, aromas of homecooked meals from childhood, an old apartment--a former lover. All such remembrances can be olfactory. But what about visual memory and the objects of the past?

I pondered this subject the other day, as I approached the mountains of Flagstaff, Arizona, and remarked that they resemble the landscapes of my home. And there was a feeling I recall, as well, a sense of familiarity which remained tangible yet distant, vague and dreamlike. In this manner, visual memory gathers emotions and fragrances from the past, invoking the beauty of recollection.  

Writerly Depictions & Nighttime Journeys

I recall the astonishment I experienced upon first reading A. S. Byatt. I was captivated by the way she often describes things in terms of water and light, her visions emerging slowly from illuminated corners of thought--like perilous rising tides. W. G. Sebald uses language in much the same way. As I consider our topic, I use their work as a point of reference, Byatt's novel, Possession (and The Rings of Saturn by Sebald) offering brilliant commentaries on human experience. In the coming weeks, we will explore these writers at length. For the moment, however, our topic is of a general nature, a momentary reflection on the mind's eye.

In dreams, as in memories, we see things which are not present but strongly implied, and this allows us to appreciate their subtler aspects. That is to say, a memory of one's grandmother might possess few visual details while being rich in emotional content, recalling her aromatic kitchen, the sound of her voice and so forth. Indeed, the visual memory might be hazier than the original experience but far richer in feeling and insight.

Through this process of remembering, we can appreciate the sensation of old relationships more fully, the beautiful kindness of grandmothers or, perhaps, even the cruelty of those we once knew. The remembrance thus becomes a symbolic representation of a person's true qualities, the ineffable substance of heart and mind. However, we must proceed with caution; the process of viewing the past is complicated and fraught with risk.

Recollection helps us to appreciate deeper aspects of relationships and experiences. Yet, there is always the danger that emotional memory (and imagination) will establish a past which never really existed (1). In my opinion, however, if we are careful with the process of remembering, much can be gained. For example, although a vast segment of time may separate grandchild from grandmother, the former can appreciate the latter more fully through the gifts of memory. And what are we to make of this?  

Our thoughts--and dreams--are littered with images, amalgamations of memory and the residue of nighttime journeys, like a montage sequence that remains unresolved. The mind seems to function in this manner. Perhaps this is why our electronics operate and engage us in a certain way, like a watery expanse of ideas and snippets of conversation calling out for context. And now, we digress.

Into the Abstraction of Dreams

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The conceptual aspect of abstraction is telling; it implies that something far deeper than the appearance of things awaits us. We can lift the cloak of reality, the obvious shape and texture of life, and discover an intangible essence. With this in mind, I reference an insightful article, a case study of ideas entitled, "Abstraction, 1910-1925: Eight Statements." Now, we proceed into the realm of modernist thought. And what can we learn here? For starters, the promise of dreams offered artists of the twentieth century a break, a reprieve from suffering.

Modernism, the movement that gave rise to and codified abstract painting, witnessed the horrors of the twentieth century; new technologies transforming war into global genocide, political upheaval and the displacement of populations, questions about freedom and human dignity rising with urgency. With this in mind, it makes sense that artists turned from the harsh glare of realism to embrace the beauty of unseen realms, things softly implied but never fully realized.

For the critic Clement Greenberg, the development of abstraction grew out of modernism's effort to define "within each medium . . . effects exclusive to itself." A clear ethos is implied: "Realistic, naturalistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art," whereas modernism spoke truthfully at the level of medium, using "art to call attention to art" (2).

To my mind, this concern over artistic media, and the motivations of form, points to the realm of dreams. The changeable ways of content and form are similar to the fluid aspects of dreamlife. Moreover, artists are often inspired by nighttime montages and the secrets they reveal. The article continues by addressing the theme of purity and independence:

(. . .) defining the unique nature of each medium rendered it "pure," assuring both quality and independence from other art forms in which the potential for various forms of instrumentalization—commodification or political cooption—was rife (3).

Here, I find a rich cross-section of ideas, a mingling of imaginary elements with political realities, a realm where creative freedom is curtailed by manipulation. Indeed, when objects, ideas, and situations are removed from their familiar contexts--and translated into the painter's language--their true story unfolds. Along with independence, purity of expression characterizes the realm of imagination--to a high degree if not entirely.  

And, speaking of dream content in the visual arts, we must nod in appreciation to the work of Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. As members of a vibrant avant-garde community, their use of color and treatments of form inspired many. We will explore their brilliant innovations at a later time, so keep them in mind.

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Returning to Visual Memory

In the life of dreams, and in the shadow of waking remembrances, visual elements of the past arise with ease. They arrive in the form of symbols, realistic impressions, and abstractions, blending into a mutable set of visions. Have you experienced this fascinating exercise of the mind? If so, where did the journey lead you? Again, in my estimation, memory stands in close relation to artistic expression, and to the philosophies attending it, as well. The scope of visual memory encompasses personal and world history in equal measures.  


(1) True, it can be argued that no recollection is ever completely faithful to the event in question. However, strong approximations can be established, some memories being more accurate and factual than others.

(2)  "Abstraction, 1910—1925: Eight Statements" Author(s): Leah Dickerman, YVE- ALAIN BOIS, MASHA CHLENOVA, CHRISTOPH COX, HAL FOSTER, MARK FRANKO, PETER GALISON, PHILIPPE-ALAIN MICHAUD, Sam Cate Gumpert and R. H. QUAYTMAN Source: October, Winter 2013, Vol. 143, Abstraction (Winter 2013), pp. 3-51 Published by: The MIT Press Stable.

(3) Ibid.

Additional Thoughts on "Abstraction, 1910-1925: Eight Statements"

The substance of this article is vast and goes well beyond the boundaries of our reflection.

As the piece continues, Yve-Alain Bois goes on to discuss the rise of the avant-garde, citing the German Romanticism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He proceeds from the Greenbergian premise that abstraction is the ultimate destiny of art (p. 7). The article guides us as we examine deeper aspects of modernist art, not least the depiction of people.

As we continue with our study of Kandinsky and Klee, we will consider the question of the human form, where (and how) it emerges in the modernist tradition.  

Figurative Representations & Beyond (p. 4)

Beyond the abandonment of the figure--or various representations of figurative elements--there was the question of what, exactly, abstract artists sought to abandon, if not the human form itself. Did they wish to transform our overall impressions of the world, abandoning older conventions of thought and perception? Or were they mainly concerned with reinterpreting ordinary elements and offering new contexts for them? We will continue our exploration of these themes at a later date.

New Levels of Abstraction

Although color was a prominent aspect of their work, both Kandinsky and Klee articulated forms which, in stunning fashion, spoke to the content of dreams. The latter's treatment of the human figure carried abstraction to new levels, as he paired these elements with rich overlays of color and new inventions, the imaginative mechanical renderings for which he is known.