Article / The Disappearing Picture


Over the last fifteen years, Western interior design has got Zen.

Has finally got ‘it’: Relishing the sense of geometric purity, reaching into the connections between spaces, sensitively contrasting material and texture.

It represents a shift in mindset. We are finally able to appreciate opulence represented by absence. It’s a huge change for a culture used to expressing the good life in the form of more and more things, ever greater quantities of ‘stuff’.

This aesthetic has been ripening in various guises for a century. It lives within the broad river of Modernism, but is not really owned by it. It is less a projection of geometry than an absence of materiality. One might regard what has become Minimalism as sort of guiding spirit whose values thread though Modernism generally, in the qualities of light and space, the feeling of freedom. You can see it in the Deco Moderne sunburst and the Barcelona Pavilion.

Those values have slowly been abraded by wars and revolutions, polished into highlights by shifts in the sand of social fabric, by the ebbs and flows of financial tides.

The shift in values is extraordinary. At one time, only the rich could afford opulence. By the early 20th century, opulence of a sort had become available to other social classes. Then, as with the Wiener Werkstatte, only the rich could afford minimalism.

Now it is available to all.

Impelled by vogue and fashion, by Deco Moderne, by Utility, ‘less is more’ has emerged as a simple, economical fact of design life, expressed in visual statements which are easy to make, but effective in affirming a lifestyle and a certain attitude.

From the mid-eighties of the last century, prefigured by many movements, declarations, and manifestos, architects such as John Pawson boldly developed the architecture of spaces, relationship and juxtaposition which has become known as Minimalism.

This architecture always looks beautiful in models, in photographs, in lush design magazines. It is a perfect world.


All our ‘stuff’ of course has not exactly gone away.

In real life we have found it challenging to find a design approach which reconciles this stuff with the sense of contemplative calm we would like to achieve. We are simply not that tidy.

Yet a sense of spaciousness, a life-affirming atmosphere is conditioned by the physical things which define it; limit it or enhance it.

The few, well chosen pieces of furniture. The rounded stones in the bathroom. A few elegant plants. The absence of too many things concentrates attention on the things which are there. Things which are delightful, or quirky, or grand are seen in sharp relief.

We can begin to see, in the first decade of the 21st century, an emergent style, a Post-Minimalist style: eclectic, agnostic, voracious. Humanistic, capable of great elegance and expression. Accommodating and reconciling the conflicts between Modernism, Minimalism, and the way we live by simple and direct means.

This approach to minimalism is not one defined style. Rather, it is reactive, responsive, twitching to stimulus and encounter like an amoeba.


This geometric purity is achieved at the expense of ‘ornament’.

Decoration used as a term of abuse!

Furniture, however stylised, still has justification within the functionalist aesthetic.

You cannot really argue with an Eames chair which, after all, you can sit on.

A recognisably post-minimalist interior might feature a beautiful carpet, an eccentric bookcase, stylish chairs.

There may not be any pictures on the walls.

We can discern a tendency for designers to eschew the use of overt visual imagery. Pictures seem to have somewhat faded away as a design move. Perhaps they have been consigned to the dustbin of ‘ornament’, functionless or fussy.

Perhaps they are seen as a distraction from the ideal of geometric purity.

Perhaps the ‘picture-on-the-wall’ is seen as an old-school solution.

Perhaps we think that something on a media screen will replace them.

So far, sadly, the answer to that one seems to be the DVDs of an aquarium, or the suspiciously cheerful fire in a hearth.

What visual art there might be is often small, subdued, generic; keeping its head down.

Perhaps there is a lack of suitable pictures; an obvious trend or style which is of the moment, or even better, the coming thing.

Perhaps pictures, as a species, have not really been keeping up.

The difficulty in being able to point to an art which is plainly of our times is seen in the yawning chasm between the often risible antics of current gallery art and desirable images which are usable within our living spaces.

What makes a piece of art desirable?

Enough to want to let it share the intimate spaces of our walls?

There is clearly a gap between what current art is ‘supposed to be’ and what we find sympathetic enough to want to live with.

This paradox has led for example to retrograde, backwards-looking tendencies: a certain flavour of Neo-Retro Beaux-Arts Socialist Realism, a taste satisfied by a generation of East European and Chinese artists who undeniably have the technique. You know where you stand, even if it looks like it had been painted in 1860 or 1940. With that dark twist, of course.

But to consider art which people want to actually live with leads us into murky waters, whether it is, heaven forbid, ‘popular’. Or, venturing even further into the Stygian depths of mass entertainment, ‘populist’. Or, dread word, bane of Public Art commissions, ‘accessible’.

Gallery art has got itself a bad name, as has popular art equally.


Pictures are curious things. Part window into another world, part object in this. Much of how we are used to viewing pictures is draped in cultural tradition, the sizes and shapes, how they are presented in their frames.

Visual art carries an enormous weight of baggage.

Pictures have after all, ‘always been there’, often more as ‘valuable objects’ than food for the soul, as family heirlooms or in the Old Master gallery trade.

Much of this is not very interesting to today’s taste, although the ancestral portrait has been used very successfully in modern interior schemes to impart a sense of gravitas, often with that ironic twist again or to contrast with a modern design move.

The whole idea of Contemporary Art is anomalous to say the least; the hype, the cynicism…perhaps inevitable given an art apparently regarding Shock/Horror/Controversy as a desirable goal.

A challenging and edgy response to our mad era, must be……

Much of its market value is based on the ‘autograph original’, on ideas of uniqueness, however notional. Merde D’Artiste. (by Piero Manzoni)

Although that, thankfully, isn’t a picture.

On the other hand the enormous advances in reproduction technology have led to explosive growth in prints; in the market for them and their availability. Technically, in paper stock and inks the product has achieved the status of being legitimately collectable, with claimed lifespans of over a hundred years, although we’ll have to check back with you on that one.

Whether this class of work represents the best modern art has to offer in emergent styles is another question.

The populist content is often stronger as a demonstration of print technique than the transcendent inspiration of the artist. Often a migration from graphic design or illustration; we have the generic people-with-huge-bodies-and-tiny-heads style, beautifully Giclee printed and magnificently framed, or the overt neo-retro with romantic, rather smug couples dancing on a beach. This genre was, for half a second, omnipresent, and then rapidly regressed from racy retro-kitch to embarrassing kitch to in the back of the wardrobe, in the blink of an eye.

There has been all sorts of fun with presentation since the rise of digital reproduction. Pictures on perspex or canvas, wall size or illuminated. All sorts of clever display mechanisms, tried with different degrees of success in expression and uptake.. The ‘boxed canvas’, which looked bold and rakish when it first appeared has by now ended up as a conveniently space-filling generic flower for £15.

Cheap, and ubiquitously available. That ubiquity is a fact of digital life, part of the background radiation.

Does all this devalue visual art?

Yes, well.

It has made it difficult-to-impossible for a designer to know how to place it in the modern context.

We are all officially in love with the functional aesthetic, which carries all the right credentials and the ‘tactile qualities’ found, as mentioned before, when actually sitting on it.

What can you actually do with a picture? What is it good for?

We have learned to love the beauty in a functional object.

What about those objects whose status has traditionally been unquestioned yet appear to serve no useful function?

We could look at what a picture, a work of 2D visual art actually is and does, how it functions.


Pictures have been on our walls in a recognisable form since Hellenistic times, let alone the cave paintings, and for several hundred years now as privately collectable domestic items. The graphic sense in our species runs very deep.

Interesting too how the high cultures of both East and West developed an evolved visual art; very different, yet easily ‘read’ and understood by either.

Pictures must serve some very important function to have survived in their form for so long, furnishings being as subject to Darwinian evolution as anything else. Genres have come and gone, the portrait has always been there- we like looking at ourselves- but it’s interesting to consider the overall cultural attitude to the use of these objects.

We like to have, as well as ‘usable’ objects, things which allow or enable us out of the present, out of everyday reality, give us access in our perception to an image or place of our choosing. The bigger picture.

The purpose of a piece of 2D visual art is to carry meaning, carry significance, in a condensed, visible form.

A repository of beauty. Of meaning. Of worth. Of value, intangible yet palpable and potent.

An undiluted, concentrated, distilled essence of our culture, of what we love


Traditionally, a picture would be a picture ‘of’ something, a representation.

Since photography of course we have been able to have as many images of ourselves, or of some place, as we would like.

Hence abstract art.

Abstract art was such a departure. A designed solution, akin to an experiment in physics or a work of engineering, appearing at the same time to look like a bright and bold new dawn. Something quite new in the evolution of art, whose shock to the mindset and to perception itself we may find difficult now to really appreciate.

It made the leap to an entirely new way of physically seeing visual art, a picture now to be considered more a discrete ‘object’ than a picture of a ‘subject’.

The Picture Plane was a matter of intensely heated debate (and more revolutionary manifestos) for the early abstractionists.

The picture would now plainly be more involved with the space it occupied as an object, more like a piece of sculpture, furniture, or architecture.

The revolution in seeing encompassed photography in its turn, now conditioned thoroughly by this conception of composition in planar space

However, pictures were still normally made without reference to the situation in which they might find themselves.

One romantically imagines the journey from freezing garret to satin-draped salon.

But there is an interesting paradox. A picture designed for a specific environment is considered to be a different thing than an easel painting, and this reflects on its perceived value as an object and as art.

In spite of being commissioned to a space, Klimt’s friezes for the Palais Stocklet are certainly more than decorative murals. There is an energy in the way space is filled.

Klimt’s approaches are notable in any case, going through a phase of integrating architectonic, highly aesthetic frames with the central image, and we see an example of the lurking cultural imperative to create the integrated or total art work.

Klimt, even if not normally considered one of the real moderns, was as aware of these massive perceptual shifts as anyone else, and in his work we can see the struggle of those times to digest the flat picture plane, in his case the highly wrought, ‘decorative’ textures of surface, and what is seen ‘inside’ the picture.

There is still an uneasy relationship between subject and object.

There may be one of those points of unspoken hauteur with which visual art is studded. It may not be quite the done thing for an artist to acknowledge the space wherein their work will feature; it might mean climbing down from some Parnassian height.

Acknowledging the space makes it site-specific: it is usually assumed that such work is stuck firmly where it belongs, where it becomes a fresco or a mural.


In that situation we are happy to consider it as a piece of furniture, as a discrete object, and even more as a component of the architecture.

Regarding pictures as a sort of furniture has been a de facto understanding for ages of course, but there is a sense that we’re not really supposed to admit to it.

Where is the noble aspiration of high art, or the arch quirkiness of sophisticated wit? This is definitely getting decorative!

Abstract art was created against the background of a traditional canon of categories: landscape, portraiture, history and genre painting, a static landscape of eternal, unchangeable, irreducible givens.

It created a new category for itself, simply that of ‘abstract art’.

Abstract art erupted into a slightly incongruous architectural setting

It proclaimed a vision of quick, slick modernity. Its natural habitat would have been the sleek geometries of Deco Moderne, but that came long after the great work of the 1900s-1920 had been done.

Inevitably these sparkling shards of the new quantum dimension would have been hung on the grave, substantial walls of massive, sluggish buildings. It often had to live with swags and cornices in civic galleries or private homes, and one sees Picassos in ornate, rather inconsequential picture frames. Such treatment seems to say that they valued the work, would have liked to set it in an appropriate context, but at the time that they didn’t quite know how.

Abstract art invoked the modern design ethos, the environment into which it grew. It was the ideal which bespoke and manifested our post-everything design sense.

The early abstract painters and their avant-garde patrons could see clearly in which direction the barricades lay and which flag to fly.

In our times all barriers/standards/criteria for judgment have been melted and washed away in the sea of digital soup in which we bathe.

We live in a relativistic universe based on relationships, and modern architecture and design reflect that.

Pictures can also, and it might be something of a leap.


Like abstract art, any Art of the Future will have to make its way in a new manner for which there are as yet no categories.

This art has to live in an architectural context of lighter and lighter structures with fewer and fewer architectural features, fewer self-conscious signs of meaning except in the design of the overall envelope.

The elegantly engineered shell is noteworthy in emergent practice in working with a rather more Zen attitude to the interaction between Inside and Outside, different from the rather fortress/bank vault psychology common in the West, literally and metaphorically a refreshing breath of fresh air!

However, the envelope on its own, the statement of the fact of our existence, however finely presented, is something of an intellectual construct, is not enough.

We are visceral beings and we crave sensory stimulus, we need the interface, things to sit on and other things to look at as well as the walls, however perfectly rendered.

Post-Minimalism finds the interface, the interaction attractive. The closeness of objects which become cherished and familiar is more than reassurance, it is a statement, we affirm ourselves. Pictures live at that point of interface. Visual art is a profound portal to OutThere or InHere, to our quantum existence, to our meanings.

At the same time, it will live as an integrated facet of the environment , as a sort of furniture. It will gain its power from being a design statement, living in the digital matrix, in the real virtual world.


The new aesthetics have really taken root and are beginning to mature in architecture, lighting, furniture, and certainly in modern Product Design.

There is a certain feel, roundedly organic and cuttingly sharp at the same time.. The exquisitely integrated function, styling, use of materials. Feather-light, nano-miniaturised. .

Could we imagine the same design criteria applied to pictures as to a mobile phone, an electric shaver?

Would they be Art?

It might work a little differently.

Fundamentally, this new function would ask that the picture work as a dynamic presence in the room, a design constituent.

We would be designing this new species of pictures to work with classes of spaces and relationships. Not one particular place, nor entirely without reference either.

This would mean the human-scale spaces in which most of us live, so that’s a start; yet at the same time would be expected to work happily with the jutting cantilevers and racy double-height atria of NeoModernism. With printed graphic wallpaper and 42inch plasma screens. With 24/7 multimedia delivery. They must swim in the same waters as fashion photography and the latest movie releases. All these media are transparent to each other, use the same tools and techniques, speak the same language.

For fine art to be effective it must both be fluent and have something interesting to say. That something must move us emotionally and mark our times. Historically, the fine arts were fine because that was where the ideas came from. Now, ideas flow in from many sources, but fine art, visual art in particular, has the capacity to be the dynamic crucible, distilling meaning from all these disparate inputs.

But what would it be ‘about’? What is it ‘of”?

An aesthetic. An emotional connectedness.

That touch of Zen of course.

© Written by Gregory Macmillan

atelier SUBLIME


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