Scene and Will See

A painter should not paint what he sees, but what will be seen.

— Paul Valéry

Every painter—even realists—spends years training to “abstract” scenes; to cease to see only objects and begin to see only lines, shapes, contours, and shadows.

Ceasing to see only objects is not an innate skill. (The caveman who paused to admire the shape of the sabretooth’s cast shadow probably became dinner.)

The training pays off when the painter’s work allows viewers to see constructions, rather than things.

In 2006, University of Oslo psychologist Stine Vogt compared the eye-movements of nine artists to those of nine “artistically untrained” subjects after showing them 16 pictures.

She discovered “the artistically untrained participants showed preference for viewing human features and objects, while the artists spent more time scanning structural and abstract features.”

Vogt concluded that while people convert scenes into concepts, artists reduce them to their geometric elements. She called that acquired habit concept-blindness.

Some artists are more concept blind than others.

The Mid-Century Modernist Ralston Crawford was one, as an exhibition of Crawford’s work from the the 1940s now at the Brandywine River Museum, drives home.

Crawford had already established himself as an important Precisionist painter when World War II thrust him in a new direction. The destruction he witnessed—in person and through photos—inspired Crawford to see war’s wantonness through a Cubist’s eyes. His reductionist work found its way into small New York galleries, but it was none other than Fortune that gave Crawford his largest platform. The magazine featured his images on its cover throughout the ’40s, as it featured the work of many contemporary artists (note to woke  Millennials!).

Crawford abandoned rendered scenes—but not observed reality—for abstraction: hard-edged geometric shapes and spidery shadows that were at once both stark and serene, simple and complex. Crawford’s images were perfect for Fortune’s readers, no-nonsense businessmen used to assimilating charts and graphs, but unwilling to divorce themselves from real-world things.

Crawford’s gift for abstraction is the goal of most every painter: to paint not what he sees, but what will be seen.

The exhibition “Ralston Crawford: Air & Space & War” runs through September 19 at the Brandywine River Museum.

Above: Tulips by Robert Francis James (2021). Oil on fiberboard. 8 x 10 inches. Ships framed and ready to hang. Bomber by Ralston Crawford (1944). Oil on canvas. 28 x 40 inches. Still Life with Guitars by Pablo Picasso (1921). Oil on canvas. 32 x 40 inches.