The Spirituality of Abstraction (Edinburgh, 1996).

Paper: Interiority, Necessity and Communication in Art. Conference, University of Edinburgh 1996.

What I am drawing attention to in this paper is the direct conjunction between abstraction and spirituality. Anton Ehrenzweig (1908-66) has noted that periods of crisis, whether in phases of individual human development, or in a wider cultural context, are accompanied by a recourse to abstraction, with its implicit promise of a spiritual renewal.

The original genesis of such a spirituality is in creative structure and experience, which arguably underpins art, religion and also psychoanalysis. Put simply, this creative experience might generally be described as involving some sort of transcendental, therapeutic, transformative and ecstatic process, which can involve actual ek-stasis , an ‘out of body’ experience. As E.H.Gombrich explains in reference to Neo-Platonism: ‘The highest mode of knowledge is thus normally denied to man, for this is the process of intellectual intuition of ideas…For Plato…we can only hope to achieve this true knowledge in the rare moments when the soul leaves the body in a state of ek-stasis , such as may be granted us through divine frenzy’ (1).

This spiritual, creative structure turns up in various guises throughout human history; in mysticism; in ancient oracles; in African tribal dance and ritual; in all religious and spiritual experience; and throughout mythology. I think its most recent genuine or ‘authentic’ manifestation is in the advent of modern abstract art, as practised in its purest sense by artists such as Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, De Kooning, Guston and others. Today this transformative creative structure or position might be seen from a variety of perspectives. It could be described now in the context of a Kleinian omnipotence and mania; or of a regression to Donald Kuspit’s ‘pre-psychological flux’ and to a primal state before subject and object are differentiated; or in terms of the ‘pre-conceptual’ or ‘pre-verbal’, or in a Lacanian sense, the pre-symbolic. Julia Kristeva in Revolution in Poetic Language uses the term chora borrowed from Plato’s Timaeus . Anton Ehrenzweig refers to this creative position as the ‘manic-oceanic’ phase of creativity. In one sense or another, I believe that all these concepts have correspondences, whilst inevitably retaining their own specific characteristics and differences.

If this creative space, involving types of ek-stasis , has fuelled religion, mythology and ritual, as well as art, and has created much controversy along the way, one must ask the questions: what exactly is going on in it? What occurs psychically that is of such radical and fundamental human importance? Why can it be described as ‘spiritual’?

In order to give a brief outline of some tentative answers to these questions, I need to refer to the creative process of acheiropoiesis inherent in the church icon and its relation to the ‘nucleus’ of creativity in modern abstract painting. Modern abstraction is arguably the most revolutionary cultural phenomenon since the development of the ‘laws’ of perspective in the 15th. century. Ehrenzweig perceived in the nucleus of abstract creativity the artist’s transitory manic union, or communion with the artwork, involving a symbolic ‘death’, in the sense of a destruction of conscious rationality and of the ‘constructed self’, to be followed by a rebirth orresurrection . He discerns this basic creative structure in Neolithic art and ritual; in the very roots of culture; in religion and in the clinical format of psychoanalysis. Modern abstract art is the first art form since the Byzantine church icon to manifest a transcendental, therapeutic spirituality intrinsically within its own formal and material structures.

The central thread which connects 20th. century abstraction with the icon of the Early Christian and Byzantine eras, is that they both share a deep concern for the abstract form of art and art’s own implicit, intrinsic formal language. The formal language of art in relation to painting would involve line, shape, hue, tint, composition, colour, as well as texture, impasto, painterly striations and scratches; all comprising the materiality or factureof the painting, as opposed to elements of content such as narrative, symbol and figuration. The icon, of course, incorporates surface figuration and symbolism. However, I will argue that it is the abstract formal textural dimension of the icon which lends justification to and ultimately formulates the surface symbol. The surface symbol is a representative of unconscious and spiritual forces embedded within the textural materiality and general facture and acts as a ‘compromise formation’ to mediate with consciousness. A symbol dissociated from its unconscious matrix ceases to operate as a genuine symbol, becoming just a ‘counter’.

So abstraction is the important bond. In the icon this might also involve, for example, a firm linear framework with a geometric separation and flattening of the figures into a strict surface pattern denying both volume and perspectival space. The abstract painting also denies perspectival space in developing an abstract shallowpictorial space . The importance of abstraction in this context is its relation to spirituality . Wilhelm Worringer, who in 1908 published the seminal work Abstraction and Empathy , has noted that the Western concept of ‘naturalism’ in art, epitomised by Greek Classicism and involving an art which attempts to deal or ‘empathise’ with real organic natural ‘reality’ and ultimately with the perspectival space, is really only a minor blip on the horizon of many millenia of geometric abstraction in art. Such an art of ‘naturalism’ is a parallel development to the rational, Occidental scientific conceptualism, which arrogated to itself art’s spiritual function of mediating and negotiating an unknown, fearful, awe-full external reality and dread of space. Stripped of its spiritual role, art quickly degenerated into academic illustration and ‘mannerism’. 20th. century abstract art tried to win back the lost abstract spiritual pictorial space of the icon, which as Ehrenzweig recognised, is only possible through the intuitive, subliminal, ‘depth perceptions’ of unconscious creativity. The fundamental nexus between geometric abstraction and materiality and form with spirituality is recognised by Worringer when he says:

‘To transcendentalism of religion there always corresponds a transendentalism of art, for which we lack the organ of understanding only because we obstinately insist upon appraising the vast mass of factual material in the whole field of art from the narrow angle of vision of our European-Classical conception. We perceive the transcendental feeling in the content, to be sure; but we overlook it in the real core of the process of artistic creation, the activity of the form-determining will’ (2).

It is this abstract ‘core’ of creativity which generates the spirituality of both the icon and the abstract. It is this access through the materiality of form to a communion with the supernatural and an ek-stasis which invoked the wrath of the iconoclasts, and not, as is usually assumed, because the image of the deity is figuratively symbolised. That this connection was recognised by the iconoclasts is clear when they speak of the Eucharist in terms of art. Calvin, for instance, referred to the sacrament of the Lord’s supper as a peinture of the gift of Christ. Margaret Aston in England’s Iconoclasts – Laws against images says:

‘There was obviously a near relationship between the doctrine of transubstantiation, by which the substance of the bread was transformed into the substance of Christ, and the theory of images, in which the worship given to the image returned to its prototype. Believing in real contacts with saints through their images was analogous to believing in the real presence of Christ in the bread of the Eucharist’ (3).

Ehrenzweig analysed the core of creative structure in relation to modern abstraction. In the first phase, raw, fragmented, disjointed elements, which actually represent ‘split-off’ parts of the artist’s own personality are projected into the artwork. The second phase involves the creation of a ‘manic’ womb to contain and integrate these fragmented projections. The third phase is one of objective re-appraisal of earlier work carried out essentially unconsciously. He says:

‘The creative process can thus be divided into three stages: an initial (‘schizoid’) stage of projecting fragmented parts of the self into the work; unacknowledged split-off elements will then easily appear accidental, fragmented, unwanted and persecutory. The second (‘manic’) phase initiates unconscious scanning that integrates art’s substructure, but may not necessarily heal the fragmentation of the surface gestalt. In the third stage of re-introjection part of the work’s substructure is taken back into the artist’s ego on a higher mental level’; [of the second manic stage]: ‘Then creative dedifferentiation tends towards a ‘manic’ oceanic limit where all differentiation ceases. The inside and outside world begin to merge and even the differentiation between ego and super-ego becomes attenuated. In this manic stage all accidents seem to come right; all fragmentation is resolved’ (4).

This essential structure embodies a ‘manic’ communion with the artwork, involving a symbolic ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’ both for the artist and the receptive beholder. The conjunctions between this basic structure and theology and mysticism can be traced back through Plotinus to Plato and further. Thomas Taylor refers in The Theology of Plato to Plato’s definition of what a theologist actually is. He says:

‘And as in the most holy of mysteries, they say, that the mystics at first meet with the multiform, and many-shaped genera; (evil daemons) which are hurled forth before the gods, but on entering the interior parts of the temple, unmoved, and guarded by the mystic rites, they genuinely receive in their bosom divine illumination…’ (5).

I think that this description of the process undergone by the theologian has clear correspondences with the creative process experienced by the artist. In Ehrenzweig’s creative structure the artist first meets with the ‘schizoid’ fragmentary and persecutory projections of what he calls ‘inarticulate form’, which stimulate the formation of a ‘manic womb’ (or temple) to integrate and ‘process’ these threatening projections, which in Platonic terms, is by ‘divine illumination’. These inarticulate projections are so threatening because they are representatives of the deepest unconscious psyche and so carry a loading of primal and developmental anxiety which has to be couched in terms of pure form alone in order to totally negate any threat of a re-conceptualisation by the conscious psyche. This is also why the emotional power and spirituality of art resides in its form.

Parallels can also be drawn between this structure of creativity and the theological process, with the clinical format of psychoanalysis. The artist can be seen to indulge in a type of exorcism; symbolic fragments of hidden and repressed aspects of the self are expelled and projected into a painting which acts as a vehicle to integrate, unify and make sense of these elements. The painting becomes a framework within which such aspects can be re-presented to the painter in a manner suitable for conscious acceptance. In a bluntly simplified scenario, this process is basically parallel to a setting of a psychoanalysis in which the patient throws out fragments of dreams, fears, intense emotions, irrational hatreds and so on, and the therapist, in the position of the artwork, is expected to organise and rationalise or interpret these incomprehensible fragments and ideally return them to the patient in a recognisable and potentially cohesive and acceptable form in order that they can be come to terms with and integrated to consciousness.

Whether it is creativity, theology or psychoanalysis, there is a therapeutic yearning to transcend the self in a regeneration of new perspectives and meanings. Such a transformation implies the ‘death’ of the old self and the ‘resurrection’ of a new self, symbolised in all religion and most powerfully experienced in ek-stasis .

In the creative process, the installation of the creative structure and ‘manic womb’ in the intrinsic formal language of the artwork, in effect becomes an externalised plastic simulation of the structure of the unconscious psyche itself. This might also be described in terms of a mirrored ‘repressive mechanism’ in the sense that such a psychical mechanism is responsible for the organisation and development of symbolisation. The evolution and translation towards symbolisation forms the space which connects the unconscious psyche and the repressive mechanism with the pictorial space of the church icon and the modern abstract painting.

Elsewhere I have described how the shallow pictorial space of modern painting can be built up:

In formal terms the pictorial space involves a depth which is determined by the gradual evolution in shape and form and texture from vague, diffuse, unfocused and fragmented aspects in the deepest recesses of the painting, to clearer, more focused and sharper elements towards the surface. This evolution in shape and form results in a type of surface crystalisation, but a crystalisation behind which all the amorphous elements used in its realisation are still perceptible. In other words, clarified shapes become symbols of their earlier selves within the actual facture of the artwork. So this formal, symbolic externalisation of the workings of psychic repression echoes and mirrors the evolution of inarticulate material into something articulate and acceptable for conscious appreciation. The whole dynamic pictorial space is also structured much in the same way in which, as Freud recognised, particularly vivid parts of the dream indicate a complex substructure’ (6).

This simulation in the materiality of the artwork of transformation, opposes the censorship of repression. In the manic-oceanic phase of creativity a trance-like state and an ek-stasis can be experienced as rational conscious control is temporarily suspended. This is achieved psychoanalytically by the mirroring effect of the plastic repressive mechanism on its real psychic counterpart. The psychic, internal mechanism is induced, triggered, or stimulated by its external imitation in artistic form depicting transformation and regeneration, to activate and neutralise the forces of repression in either the mind of the artist or of the spectator. This manipulation of repression, or the achievement of a ‘flexibility of repression’, to use Freud’s phrase, is responsible for the ‘kick’ or ‘manic high’ that an artwork can briefly transmit as the energy tied up in the maintenance of repression is released.

The simulation is carried out in the plastic materiality of art’s formal process, which is the only direct vehicle through which the unconscious psyche can communicate. Inarticulate form and unconscious form processes comprise the language of the unconscious psyche and so there is a direct and immediate engagement, or communication, between the ‘model’ and its real counterpart, with the implicit potential for a fundamentalretranscription or realignment. Its as if the mind is temporarily removed from the brain, restructured and put back in place. In the meantime, in religious terms, the soul appears to leave the body in an ascension . It is this dialogue in unconscious form language which enables art to continually redefine its own intrinsic dynamic structures as well as those of the psyche. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, lacking the deepest unconscious connections, does not have this facility; hence its relatively unchanged clinical format. Ehrenzweig recognised this clearly in his assertion that what Freud called ‘primary process structures’ are merely ‘distortions of articulate surface imagery’ (7).

This sort of ‘verification’ of a spirituality, however, only rests ultimately on what can be perceived in the image of the icon or the modern painting. However, the psychology and physiology of perception processes – both conscious and unconscious – lends much support to these arguments. It can be shown that what we perceive is in actuality a superficial construct developed from a vast substructure of eliminated, discounted, or ‘repressed’ perceptions. In fact the tangibility, or ‘plasticity’ of our conscious perceptions is solely dependent on the degree of repression involved. Ultimately, the artist manipulates repressive responses to elicit the desired reaction and instinctive response from the viewer. Since the Renaissance, artists have initiated the lifting of repressions in the various ‘laws of constancy’ which represent the fixed conventions in our perceptions. The constancies of form, tone and colour have been undermined through art. 19th. century Introspectionist Psychologists were surprised to find that their discoveries of the true nature of form, for which they had required the use of scientific equipment, had already been analysed by Renaissance artists through the painting process. Ehrenzweig partly uses this as a justification for his argument that unconscious perception processes are far more complex and all-embracing than conscious perception, with its narrower focus isolated through repressive processes.

Modern abstract art was in part an analysis of how to manipulate these very repressive processes themselves. In creating an ambiguous, complex, unfocused surface, lacking in pregnant shape and gestalt, as in a Jackson Pollock, the surface perception processes are totally denied their physiological mode of functioning and a different, deeper and more complex mode of subliminal or unconscious, intuitive type of perception is compelled to take over. The development of the shallow pictorial space, both in the church icon, or in the modern painting, is solely dependent on these unconscious perception processes. Ehrenzweig stresses that the pictorial space is a ‘conscious signal of unconscious integration’ and represents the secret independent life of art utterly beyond conscious planning and control’ (8).

This is in part, I would argue, what is happening in the iconic acheiropoietic function which has been described as not made by human hand but created by causal emanation from the sacred personage whose image it then comes to bear (9). Because the artist’s whole constructed, coherent, logical, rational, surface conscious perceptual and organisational functions are immobilised through a type of ‘overload’, it can seem like some other force is directing events. The fact that the icon is worshipped as the actual sacred body of the person represented, is because in the unconscious process of creativity the conscious self is temporarily paralysed, during which time the unconscious psychical structure is actually materialised in the ‘body’ of the paint structure. This involves a complete psychical union with the artwork – or a communion – during which time more complex and subtle perceptions order the work, which appears ‘not made by human hand’.

In effect then, the modern abstract painting involves the same process of acheiropoiesis in its dynamic material structure, as does the icon. In both cases the essence of spirituality must reside in the fact that it can appear to the artist, involved in unconscious, or semi-conscious creative processes, that some other force is creating the work. The notion of a miraculous, spontaneous manifestation of an icon is really rooted in the intuitive, subliminal and unconscious processes of creativity. I have quoted Ehrenzweig’s description of the ‘manic-oceanic’ stage of creativity, where ‘the inside and outside world begin to merge’ and where ‘all accidents seem to come right; all fragmentation is resolved’. He goes on to say: ‘It is astonishing to see how artists after finishing their work may begin to study it in great detail as though it were the work of somebody else‘ (my italics, 10). The implicit deconstruction of rational conscious deliberation in the creative process is clearly evident in the fact stressed by Ehrenzweig, that what has been unconsciously created cannot be consciously copied. He says: ‘Automatic form control means that the depth mind has taken over form production which therefore now reflects the gestalt-free structure of the depth mind. Hence, the lack of pregnant eye-catching pattern, the superimposition, overlapping, and general ambiguity of forms which could never be achieved by conscious form control’ (11).

Icons were said to have appeared without human involvement in acheiropoiesis and they became connected with the achievement of miracle cures which enhanced the significance of the medium beyond the purely symbolic. The iconic link with spirituality is also through its abstraction. Irmgard Hutter, for example, talks of ‘the powerful spiritual abstractions of the Early Christian period’, (12) and of the ‘virtual negation of classical forms’ in the 5th. century in favour of the ‘otherworldly and transcendental’ involving a progressive ‘tendency to abstraction’ reaching its most pronounced form in the ‘ecstatic and visionary’ (13). She defines the icon as a ‘new type of image…executed in an abstract style that made visible form the transparent vehicle of the immaterial and numinous in such a way that the picture became icon (14). This confirms Worringer’s correspondence of transcendentalism and abstraction, as well as the fundamental conjunctions between the painterly creative process and structure with spirituality and also healing.

The whole description here of the pictorial space nows seems to have a strong correlation with descriptions of the icon as being form appearing from the formless, or as a visible thing which revealed images of invisible things. Icons are in their essence an incarnation of Christ as an image of an invisible god, not as is always commonly defined in terms of a surface figurative symbol, but in the very materiality of the paint, in the facture and creative structure. The icon is often described as bordering between the ‘material and immaterial’; between the ‘visible and invisible’; as ‘focused on the point where the boundary between the two worlds is transcended through the Incarnation’ (15). In effect it borders the material and the spiritual.

In a recently published letter written in 1930, a Russian icon painter laments the demise of the traditional icon and the loss of understanding of the iconic creative process of acheiropoiesis or simultaneous embodiment of the absence and presence of the divine. In it there is an uncanny comparison in its emphasis on materiality with terminology used to describe modern art. He says:

‘All the media available to artists for the creation of the plastic image are part and parcel of that image…The surface of the panel is the material datum, the limited space in which the image incises itself…with a certain wholly concrete, material substantiality…The action of the image…has a certain “shallow depth”…additional surfaces bring into the image those parts of the material body which the eye cannot see by the laws of visual perception…Reversed perspective serves the same purpose. It prevents the viewer imagining the figure in depth and, to give greater fullness of impression, moves the object round by a law contrary to optical perspective’ (16).

It is in this shallow depth of abstract pictorial space that the plastic simulation of unconscious processes occurs with their implicit promise of ek-stasis and a spiritual, transcendent and transformative experience. The abstracted stylised dynamic tension intrinsic to such form is typical of art which incorporates transendence and spirituality. Through the dynamic formal structure which mirrors internal psychical structures of repression an unconscious reciprocal resonance and new psychical configuration are induced within the spectator.

Ehrenzweig recognised that such dynamic abstract form represents the connection of the most surface layers of the psyche and concrete reality with the deepest layers of unconsciousness. He also predicted that such tension evident in radical early modern art and abstraction must inevitably snap leading to a sterile dissociation in mannerism (17). It is arguable that much postmodern art would appear to have fulfilled this prediction. For even if the postmodern artist of today claims that the use of mannerisitic devices is a legitimate strategy to parody formalism, the judgement of history may well still be that we are living through a period of vociferous mannerism, just as other periods of mannerism have inevitably followed radical and spiritual art. John Shearman defines mannerism as a preconceived conscious art devoid of emotion and where spiritual meaning resides only in surface symbol and not in the intrinsic formal dynamics (18). Mannerism is an art which involves collusion between the artist, theorist and critic to provide what is deemed appropriate for the culture; a collusion inevitably demanding a preconception. This is true of much postmodern art, where the intellectualisation of art through collusion between art and theory leads to a mannerism which is not by choice.

This is the type of development which the Russian iconographer of the 1930s is bemoaning – the loss of the true icon in which the symbolic figure of the saint evolves from the unconscious pictorial space as if by magic. In effect, he criticises his contemporary iconographers as nothing but mannerists. The icon had become divorced form its unconscious creative processes just as formalism in modern art dealt only with surface shape and forms representative only of conscious deliberation. Ignored were the inevitable scratches and striations of painterly gesture; the delicately interlocking films of superimposed paint layers in impasto; the depiction of process in terms of erasure, overpainting and the general struggle involved in the transformation from beginnings to resolutions, all embedded within the materiality and texture of the pictorial space. The artist is aware of this unconscious form on an oblique, intuitive and subliminal level and it is this form which lends justification to the surface shape and dynamic.

The iconographer laments the development of a mannered icon and argues for an image which is not just a superficial exercise, but which involves all the media in a material way to attain a ‘creative incarnation’ through deep contemplation. Deep creative contemplation differs from ‘surface-superficial-contemplation’ because ‘in it the creative energy penetrates beyond the surface and enters into the depth of the image…The very material from which the image is made, its material substantiality, gives its form to everything – to persons, to the earth, to architecture…the icon is ontological [i.e. not just symbolical]…’(19). He explains that the iconographic image evolves from within.

He then complains of the icon’s descent into mannerism: ‘Purely symbolic elements appear in it and these in the end were to deprive the icon of its essential character’ (20). All that remains he says is ‘iconographic craftsmanship’ and technical process, which, of course, depend upon conscious deliberation. No matter how gifted the copyist, one cannot create an icon or a ‘valid iconic structure’. He says: ‘An icon, even if painted with perfect knowledge of all the iconographic processes, with taste but without a creative appropriation of the laws of iconography, becomes counter-productive. Instead of gathering together the forces of the soul it dissipates them and is disturbing…A creative gift is necessary if an icon is to be a door opening on a prototype’ (21).

Stephen J. Newton 1996


1. E.H.Gombrich (1972) Symbolic Images – Studies in the Art of the Renaissance Phaidon. (p.157)

2. W.Worringer (1953) Abstraction and Empathy – A Contribution to the Psychology of Style International Universities Press, New York (p.132)

3. M.Aston (1988) England’s Iconoclasts – Laws Against Images Clarendon Press, Oxford. (p.7)

4. A.Ehrenzweig (1967) The Hidden Order of Art University of California Press, Oxford. (p.7)

5. T.Taylor (1995) The Theology of Plato Vol. VIII The Prometheus Trust (p.58)

6. S.J.Newton (1996) The Politics and Psychoanalysis of Primitivism Ziggurat, London (p.22)

7. A.Ehrenzweig op.cit. (p.263)

8. ibid. (P.58)

9. A.Michelson (1990) The Kinetic Icon in the Work of Mourning: Prolegomena to the Analysis of a Textual System‘October’, no.52 (pp.16-51)

10. A.Ehrenzweig op.cit. (P.103)

11. A.Ehrenzweig (1953) The Psychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing Routledge and Kegan Paul (p.33)

12. I.Hutter (1988) The Herbert History of Art and Architecture, Early Christian and Byzantine Herbert Press, London (p.68)

13. ibid. (p.53)

14. ibid. (p.89)

15. R.Grierson, ed. Gates of Mystery – The Art of Holy Russia Lutterworth Press, Cambridge (p.45f)

16. Icon: an Expression of Prayer and Sacrament in Icons: Windows on Eternity G.Limouris, ed. World Council of Churches Faith and Order Paper 147 (p.197)

17. A.Ehrenzweig (1967) op.cit (p.281)

18. J.Shearman (1987) Mannerism Penguin, Harmondsworth (p.67)

19. G.Limouris. Ed. op.cit. (P.198)

20. ibid. (p.199)

21. ibid. (P.200)