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Art as Composition

By Eli Siegel


All substances, insofar as they can be perceived in space at the same time, exist in a state of complete reciprocity of action.
—Kant, Critique of Pure Reason   

Art is the composition of things seen as having a tendency not to be composed; that is, free or themselves. There is composition in the idea of eight birds in flight in a row, because one can feel the birds can go off on their own. There is more composition if the birds are seen as flying in a row of three, a row of two, and a last row of three (though one can feel a loss of the determined unity in the row of eight); the comprehending, wide sky has a part here. More composition still can be felt if the birds are of different color, of different size, and yet flying steadily as eight birds. Composition sometimes insists on unity; sometimes on freedom or diversity. There is always both: composition is the sameness felt among things that seem different, too.

       If you feel some sameness among nineteen nieces; eighty-four colonels; four articles of furniture; or a woman, a desk, light, a turtle, a cat—there is composition. The composition is good as much as the largest difference is seen as the largest sameness. Where difference seems sameness, there is tension—present in all composition. The tension managed, controlled, makes for repose. Composition, then, is the finding of tension, or emergency and repose or security, among a number of visual objects. The number is unlimited. The interrelation of objects never stops.

       Composition is the one thing bringing together all works of art, all periods of art, all critics of art. Works, periods, critics may disagree, have disagreed on other matters—but Classicism and Cubism, the Renaissance and the Twenties, Reynolds and Van Gogh, Rubens and Picasso, Ruskin and Roger Fry, Hazlitt and Barnes have agreed on this: composition is good: is necessary: it is something to go after. What composition is, how it is to be got at—that is controversial. But that it should be, is agreed upon—just as classicist, romanticist, impressionist, cubist can agree about the usefulness of water or floors.

       There are gradations of composition, vicissitudes in it. Composition goes from wildness to pattern; from tangent to routine. If things somehow get on one canvas, they, in a way, are composed. At least, these things have "valise composition" the presence of a number of things in one habitation. Put a hundred things in a store window, of any kind, from anywhere and because they all are in the store window, in a fashion they're composed. They have found a home. It is the idea of home and the idea of intensity, sharp rightness, that makes for good composition.

       Composition as sameness and difference among objects can be seen in this description by Thomas Munro (Great Pictures of Europe) of Seurat's Bathers:

There is a monumental quality, as of Egyptian sculpture, in these immense rigid figures placed immovably at definite intervals in space, welded together by insistent repetition of the short curves (in the boys' backs, heads, hats and shoes, and in the distant sail-boats).

The differences, then, of the various bathers are made the same through "definite intervals" and "the short curves."

       There is not a picture which has, as art, affected people or which can affect them—without the difference and sameness to be seen in Seurat's Bathers. The mind of man wants to see reality in two ways: as reassuringly continuous, and as delightfully surprising. If a person knew how much sameness he wanted to see in reality, he would be astonished; if he knew, too, how much difference he wanted to see in reality, he would be astonished. Man wants to see reality at once as the same and different: through art he can do this. Where art does present reality as the same and different, it has composition. To enjoy a picture is to feel that the artist has shown the things in the picture as the same and different. Composition gives pleasure because it satisfies an ontological, constant desire of man.

The Desire Has Remained

Taste has changed in the history of art; fashions fluctuated; attitudes wavered; but the desire for composition, the sense of different things making a whole, has remained. Joshua Reynolds, for example, as critic, is not Thomas Munro and Rubens is not Seurat; but Reynolds on Rubens, everything considered, is like Munro on Seurat. In Reynolds' notes to Dufresnoy's Art of Painting, he compares Titian and Rubens. Of Rubens, Reynolds writes:

The subject…is the Virgin and infant Christ, placed high in the picture on a pedestal, with many saints about them.... The composition of this picture is perfect in its kind; the artist has shown the greatest skill in disposing and contrasting more than twenty figures without confusion and without crowding; the whole appearing as much animated and in motion as it is possible, where nothing is to be done.

So Seurat "disposed and contrasted" bathers; and Rubens "disposed and contrasted" saints. Disposing and contrasting have always been in composition. Disposing accents the unity, the quietness-of-relation in a picture; contrasting accents the manyness, the discord-of-relation in a picture. Quietness of relation and discord of relation went through the centuries, whatever the academies, the critics, the timid painters, the innovating painters, the public were up to.

       It is true that in Reynolds, one may see a disposition to regard composition as concerned essentially with "figures." He used words like invention and the whole to complete the idea of composition. But composition, as such, even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was about everything in the picture, everything among which, as Kant might say, there could be "reciprocity of action."

       Reality composes everything. Time composes everything; space does. The miscellaneous quality of reality, or of what is in time or space, does not please us unless we see a definition, a unity. This unity must enhance the miscellaneous, free quality of things, not destroy it. The unity must be the multifariousness, the unceasing diversity. The branches of the freely spreading oak must be seen in the acorn, while, still, they are branches. We must make 77 into 1, without losing the 77 quality of 77. So painting tries to show that everything is everything, while you can see it as unperturbed totality or oneness.

       Pieter Brueghel's The Return of the Hunters is a picture that tells us, Everything can be composed. Lines can be composed. The general direction of the picture is at a slant, or diagonal; the trees are assertively vertical; there are horizontal lines with the snow. Varying white shapes differ and coalesce. Houses, as volumes, mingle with snow as weight, and with space. Birds are diagonal, vertical, horizontal. The immediate in the picture mingles with a various middle ground, and a spacious, rising, misty background. Here is reality's plenty, caught hold of by Brueghel and arranged. In Brueghel's composition, there are tenderness and mystery—corresponding somewhat to curved lines and straight lines. Composition and reality make for a pleasure from reality as the picture.

       In Poussin's Theseus Recovers the Sword of His Father, there is composition with tension, even comedy. Things broken complete whole things. Stone joins with and annuls space; space opposes stone. Curves become one with heavy weight. The hardworking, triumphant, robust Theseus is looked at by a bland mother and a somewhat sportive, lightsome, almost dancing girl. Sweetness and massiveness are opposed and mingled in various ways. There is a continuity of straight line, curved diagonal, straight line, curve. Breaks and dents are accented. But the whole thing makes for sweetness. The world is shown as rigid and gentle through people, objects, lines, lights and darks—but the predominant thing is gentleness. The oneness emerging from this picture is different from the oneness emerging from the Brueghel picture. Yet Brueghel and Poussin have both used discords, what one doesn't expect, to make for a rich, strange conclusion.

Some Principles of Composition

In composition, what one leaves out has the same purpose as what one includes. The omitted explains the included. Things oppose each other and beckon to each other. Both appearance and reality are coy and forbidding. Meantime, everything can help everything else; for things explain, bring out each other. Some of the principles of composition can be put this way:

       A boy is on the grass. A bird is flying high above him, in a diagonal line from the boy. There is a soft light in the background. Nearby is a door, with a vertical line.

       Composition has as its basis the fact that everything one can see means something. If it can be seen, it is significant. Well, a boy means something just as boy. The boy, however, has something permanent about him, even while he is a growing boy. There are lines in his face. His head has a vertical line as it goes to his neck. However, the door has a vertical line, too. Boy, then, is like door. The grass is a succession of vertical lines. The vertical line as succession can then mingle with the vertical line as simplicity, uniqueness—the line of the door. Meanwhile, the flying bird presents curve and straight line, and has a horizontal mingling with the horizontal and vertical of the grass. And the soft glow of the background adds something including of and different from all I have mentioned before.

       Were a situation like this to excite, instigate a painter, he would have to feel: How different all this is! How the same! How the things help each other! How they are just on their own!

       In recent criticism and art appreciation, the seeing of the permanent forms as that which make a picture one, that which effectively unite and distinguish elements, is notable. It is not opposed to the way pictures were seen in the past: it continues those ways. The idea of composition, however it is achieved, however it is thought to be achieved, goes on.

Difference and Sameness of Color

Color is seen as a permanence. The differences and samenesses of color and the differences and samenesses of the objects or parts of the picture having the color, make for drama and oneness. In the following sentences from Thomas Munro's comment on Courbet's Stone Breakers, a continuity with differences of color is part of the composition of the picture. (It should be pointed out that everything is part of the composition of a picture: the Composition is an assemblage of little compositions.)

There is a silvery, mossy sheen to these rocks, a deep juicy coolness to the grass, and a dark lustre of creamy brown and gold to these ragged garments....They combine to make a consistent color-harmony.

Here colors are realities, which act like other realities. They oppose and help each other. The "silvery, mossy sheen" meets, is different from and the same as the "deep juicy coolness"—the green coolness—of the grass; and silver and green, in turn, meet "creamy brown and gold."

       What is happening? Whatever it is, it is happening in reality all the while. All things help each other, mute each other, explain each other. Always there is that "complete reciprocity of action" of Kant, found in the motto of this paper. The painter takes a group of things, seen by him, attractive to him, insisting to him, and says: "Here I find and you can find things so related that they all make each other more of what they are. They clash with each other; they help each other. Always, as figures are, there are light, dark, color, line, plane, depth—the permanencies. People are here among the permanencies: they can be the permanencies. If I see all this, I am in a state favorable for composition." Perhaps he is.



NOTE: "Art as Composition," was published in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, number 936, March 13, 1991.

© 1971 by Definition Press