Curved art in the real world: A psychological look at the art of Guillaume Bottazzi
Before you continue reading this, please take a look at the space around you. You are most likely indoors. How did we guess this?
Colours, Passages and Time: Thoughts on the art of Guillaume Bottazzi
Those who have spent even a short time with Guillaume Bottazzi will have encountered his subtle medley of determination and sensitivity...
Guillaume Bottazzi illuminates the walls
Guillaume Bottazzi, a French visual artist born in 1971, has become well-known for his many monumental “wall paintings”...
About Guillaume Bottazzi - May 2009
In his abstract paintings, Guillaume Bottazzi refrains from representing anything or imposing any emotion...
Curved art in the real world: A psychological look at the art of Guillaume Bottazzi
Before you continue reading this, please take a look at the space around you.
You are most likely indoors. How did we guess this? Well, today most people spend close to 90% of their life inside buildings. Moreover, it is also likely that most of the objects that surround you, and the elements that constitute the room you are in, are human-made, designed by a human creator. Have you ever thought about how these surroundings affect the ways you feel, think, and behave?
The artist Guillaume Bottazzi has devoted much of his work to actively designing aspects of the environment. He has achieved this not only by producing objects—such as artworks or three dimensional artworks—that can become part of the environment, but also by interventions that change the visual appearance of large-scale environments themselves. Such interventions influence our perception and evaluation of those surroundings—and much more! For example, how we feel.
This is how Guillaume Bottazzi’s art looks through the lens of psychology. But why approach his art—or any art for that matter—from a psychological perspective? Psychology is the science of mind and behavior. As such, it seeks to understand what makes us who we are as individuals and communities, what moves us and what stops us, what drives us to achieve, what makes us want and feel, and where our joys and miseries come from. An important part of who we are, and of how we feel, has to do with our interactions with our environment; specifically with the way we shape and experience our immediate surroundings.
Today, psychology is mostly practiced as an empirical science; it is based on data that were collected in experiments aiming to test and prove psychological theories. In our daily business as researchers in Psychology, therefore, we often conduct laboratory and field experiments, systematic observations, and collect data that either support or contradict the hypotheses that guide our studies. More than 150 years of inquiry have revealed many things about how the human mind and brain work. If art has anything to do with human emotion and reason, or with how humans view themselves and their world—and we are convinced that it does—then Psychology can contribute to understanding the way art in general, and Bottazzi’s art in particular, is experienced.
When psychology was founded as an academic discipline in the late 19th century, most research was concerned with sensory perception. In the tradition of Hermann Helmholtz, and other great physiologists of that time, psychologists aimed to measure the intimate side of simple acts of perception: How does light arriving through the eyes get translated into a sensory experience? How does this feel? Is this subjective experience lawfully related to the amount and intensity of light? Pursuing this sorts of questions produced a greatly successful line of research. It revealed many of the feats and tricks the human mind uses to understand the world, but also many of its biases, constraints, and limitations that help it deal with the vast array of information and events taking place around us. Some of these feats and constraints combine to endow humans with a certain memory span, a limited focus of attention, or the perception of color constancy and visual grouping, among many other possible examples. However, a different tradition has aimed to understand much more complex perceptual experiences, such as apprehending images, artworks, or even the full complex scene of our environment as it appears to us. This approach was already called for by the founders of this "new science" of Psychology in the 19th century, but for many reasons its development was much slower. And, although a science of perception of art is now established in Psychology , the perception and appreciation of our environment has only recently gained a relevant place in Psychology.
What do we know about the perception of our environment? We know that people can identify images as depicting a seaside landscape, a forest scene, or a human-made environment with only a glimpse, even when these images are presented for as briefly as a 1/10th of a second . Regarding preferences for certain environments, we know that people like nature as seen from a safe and hidden vantage point, with some views and possibilities for further exploration , and that people consistently like images that show landscape scenes more than urban scenes .
This latter finding is particularly striking, because we spend a vast amount of our time in human-made environments. If you think of your daily routines, and those of the people you know, it is easy to see how only rarely do people in western countries encounter untouched nature. Why have so few studies been conducted to understand how environments designed and created by humans influence our lives and our feelings? This is one of the mysteries of our research field. It is difficult to understand, because even common sense suggests that the design and creation of living environments might benefit from knowledge about the way that people perceive and evaluate the different alternatives of how environments look.
One thing is very clear, though: people respond to the aspects of objects and places, and among these are basic visual features. Psychologists, and philosophers before them, have long searched for basic visual elements that guide our preferences, and affect our feelings and well-being.
So, are there any general laws that can predict what most people will like? One consistent finding is that curvature influences aesthetic responses. People prefer curved objects to sharp ones . This has been shown for car design, where curved design is often liked more , while apparently taste and fashion also affect such preferences. More systematically, it was demonstrated that when people were shown images of object such as watches, sofas, toys, and so on, on a computer screen for very brief times, then the curved-contour versions of the objects were liked much more . In a follow-up study, these researchers also found evidence that the preference for curved contours is related to lower activity in brain regions that can be associated with fear . So, curved contours could be preferred because they seem less harmful, or plain and simply because they are inherently attractive . The idea that curvature is an aesthetic primitive confirms philosophers’ claims since the 18th century. Burke , for instance, believed that beauty is smooth, without edges or sharp angles. In this respect, Guillaume Bottazzi’s work exemplifies the use of these basic features, which elicit pleasure automatically, probably unconsciously, and are attractive to the eye. Like many artists, he intuitively applies these principles and produces visual doses of sensory pleasure.
This picture of Bottazzi’s exhibition in Miyanomori International Museum of Art in 2011 also show a distinct contrast between the shapes in the art and major architectural elements, such as the frames, the ceiling, the different non-curved sharp angles. The presence of straight elements is not unusual—you may check again your current surroundings.
So the question arises whether architecture might be an exception of our preference for curvature. To find this out, together with a large network of colleagues from psychology, neuroscience and architecture, we conducted a study in which we asked participants to look at carefully selected images of modern interior architecture spaces. They were asked to evaluate each interior space, and while they did so we recorded their brain activity by means of functional magnetic resonance imaging. We examined “how systematic variation in contour impacts aesthetic judgments and approach-avoidance decisions, outcome measures of interest to both architects and users of spaces alike.” (p. 10446).
The people who took part in our experiment found the interior spaces with curved contours much more beautiful than those composed mostly of straight lines and corners, as in the other aforementioned aesthetic domains. The brain imaging results showed that viewing the curved contour rooms was associated with an increase in activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region known to respond to the emotional importance of objects and to their rewarding aspects. We were also able to show that participants’ beauty assessment and their concurrent brain activity were driven mainly by pleasantness. From these results we concluded that “the well-established effect of contour on aesthetic preference can be extended to architecture. Furthermore, the combination of our behavioral and neural evidence underscores the role of emotion in our preference for curvilinear objects in this domain.” (p. 10446)
Thus, even in architecture curvature elicits pleasant feelings, which lead to a stronger appreciation of beauty in architectural designs that contain such curved visual features. This is a crucial finding for two reasons. First, it was believed that such preference was primarily related to objects that could be handled and grasped. We now know it also applies to the spaces that envelope us. Second, most of the architectural spaces we inhabit are not curved. However, Art has the potential to bring this feature in. This is what Bottazzi’s work does. The examples in Figure 2 show how very straight shapes, cube-like buildings, are camouflaged by the wall paintings of Bottazzi—not only do they bathe the façades with color, they also resolve the shape towards a more pleasing, aesthetically preferred curvature and roundness.
In this respect, Bottazzi’s interventions are part of a long tradition of using wall paintings to create illusions that do not correspond to an underlying physical structure—as seen, for instance, in baroque architecture or the Spanish art-deco movements, most known through the works of Gaudi. However, the design of human-made environment could benefit from knowledge and research and insight about the factors that affect people in their living environment.
Thus, the perception of art and architecture from a psychological perspective reveals that both produce fascinating objects that bring pleasure through beauty and aesthetic qualities into our everyday life and surroundings. If our thoughts are correct, then you should also be able to receive small doses of pleasure by looking at pictures of—and surrounding yourself by—Guillaume Bottazzi’s art.
Helmut Leder et Marcos Nadal
Those who have spent even a short time with Guillaume Bottazzi will have encountered his subtle medley of determination and sensitivity. He does not talk about his art like a journey that can be summed up or like a career, but rather like a gesture, one that nourishes an emotional grammar of space. His art is receptive and unfamiliar with the formal divide between spectator and artwork since he has overcome that chasm and is able to make the forms and colours of bodies and sensations flow together in strategic parts of the city, inviting spectators to inhabit his paintings rather than simply observe them. Large painted walls look like steamers coming towards us, inviting us on a voyage; they brighten and uplift the tones and rhythms of urban space.
Guillaume Bottazzi is able to make formal metamorphosis materialize before us and is as such able to reunite and reconstruct things long separated – public and private life, body and mind; he relentlessly works on the enigma of the spectator’s presence within the paintings and surroundings observed, and yet never is his work, albeit very free, in any way immediate or strictly spontaneous. It is much more. It is solidly rooted in both a culture and a passion. That of Italian art, of Fra Angelico, studied early on, when the artist was barely in his twenties. Then came a passion for travel, trips and encounters. Next, things flourished and accelerated: a studio in Lyon, consecration in America and the Japanese adventure starting in 2004.
And then Asia. A world in which art conjures as much as it shows; a world in which deliberate obliqueness and fertile allusiveness demand different approaches to seeing and sensing. A foray into otherness, too. A constant, turbulent renewal. A modern and intense blending of speed and depth of perception. Museums where movement fuses with new creations to create events in city space and thus re-present, reclaim and reconstruct the body of monuments. This is the case at the Miyanomori International Museum of Art in Sapporo where the museum’s facades have become the backdrop for a Guillaume Bottazzi creation covering 900m². Another monumental mark left on Japan is an abstract work of 3.30 m by 33 m long in Tokyo which alludes to the traffic flows and haste which pulse through and shape space in a district that never rests, is always on the go, eventful and which finds in this masterpiece its glistening and moving reflection. A work that become part of the inheritage of the city, monumental and thus visible from numerous vantage points which are more or less errant or stationary, up close or distant, attentive or furtive; the presence of the surface in these variations of intensity creates a desire to look at the painting by moving with it and almost within it. Perception of Guillaume Bottazzi’s work is thus subordinate to the body of all those who encounter it. A body summoned, provoked and then finally invited to move beyond the banal acknowledgement of a lifeless or frozen gaze..
There is something very musical at work which stems from a perpetual swaying between the different possibilities of what is seen, the interlacing of its layers and dynamic. The work is not solitary, sentenced to the silence of seclusion; it becomes serial, calling for and at the same time creating a very large audience which is at once its inspiration, witness and protector.span>
An art of connections and metamorphosis. Creating, giving us much to see, but not trying to explain any more than necessary. Getting others equally involved. In Japan, France or elsewhere, the regorous generosity of Guillaume Bottazzi makes him present for all those who look at and inhabit his work.
Here too, and again, Japan – where cultural mediation is non-existent – serves as a telltale territory. Working with spectators, getting them involved in the time it takes and for the duration of the creation, talking to them, appearing as a body that is set up in a place while creating forms, rhythms and colours, all of this forms an event. If Guillaume Bottazzi’s art is able to upset fixedness with a stream of transformations, it is certainly because his presented and monumentalized art calls out much more so than would something that is finitely set. I see the source of an adventure that uses a backdrop and network of sensations to test of what the spectator is – deliberately or unwittingly – capable. The artist’s aesthetic adventures call on sensory components which ground the body in time and space. With their resounding and gleaming physique, vivid materiality, joyous yet controlled turmoil, and through the spaces in which they exist, the artist’s creations encourage transformation.
If, at each encounter, they seem to float, imbibed with lightness and scansion in the overly geometrical and cumbersome layout of flat and cubic space in our cities, time is nonetheless present. And, as such, the paintings are also slow, they require endurance and our relationship changes with each one. And then they become independent again. They once again become what those who look at, visit and feel inspired by them, wish them to be. The paintings journey on with each publicly commissioned piece.
I would really like to insist on the call to the body which is so strong in all of Guillaume Bottazzi’s work since it is also rooted beyond the strictly aesthetic realm, and point up its depth based on a totally incredible experience. The artist attempted and tackled an experiment in artistic mediation with blind people in France and deaf people in Japan. An experiment with obvious limitations, that required a great force of conversion and translation and which, by altering the way things are usually experienced, created a spectator in a borderline state, an impending witness. Art in this context was the root of a concrete gesture, one that is to the point and seeks out metamorphosis of feelings and experience, without allowing itself to be intimidated or stifled by a ready-made theory or psychology of sensations. The art of Guillaume Bottazzi intertwines similar and diverse forms and tenses. An exemplary case of this is when it rightly assumes a topos that is both mental and physical, in which the body’s senses and flows can invent new forms of time and types of glimmer, can experience ways of displaying things with which they were not yet familiar, that they had not even imagined. Like all innovative art, in doing so, Guillaume Bottazzi draws out the childhood (not childish) potential that all transformations require – a hidden and erotic potential to shift conventional sensory grammar.
Above and beyond injury – be it from so-called “disability” or catastrophe, the artist not only makes the world more attractive, he also makes it fit to live in and share, he dresses it up to bring out its enigmatic and playful side.
O. Douville (psychoanalyst and anthropologist)
Guillaume Bottazzi illuminates the walls
Guillaume Bottazzi, a French visual artist born in 1971, has become well-known for his many monumental “wall paintings”. Already greatly appreciated in Japan for a giant 900 m² painting produced in 2011 on the facade of the Sapporo museum (the Miyanomori International Museum of Art), the artist was approached in December 2014 to carry out a 216 metre work at the foot of the D2 Tower at La Défense in the Parisian business district.
With this work, he has just completed his 70th work in the legendary site of what may rightly be described as the largest body of modern and contemporary art in the open air in France.
Indeed, the business district is already filled with an impressive collection of artworks as diverse and varied (sculpture, painting, stained glass windows, frescoes, etc) as the artists themselves (from Calder to Richard Serra, including Miro, Bernar Venet, Takis and César). Now there will be an additional work of art at La Défense for people to admire as they walk past the foot of the building. The work will certainly attract and may even intrigue people
The most fascinating and intriguing aspect of this work is the surprising, even strange distortion that exists between the apparently cold and neutral material support and the warm, almost enchanting gentleness of the compositions.
The coldness of the walls encounters the gentleness of the painting
The artist usually works on uniform fibre cement surfaces that may sometimes even be mobile (a wall on top of a wall) or a support on a rail. This was the case with the 2013 work he produced on a building in La Ciotat (near Marseilles), more specifically in the district of L’Abeille.
In general, the walls that G. Bottazzi uses are always impressive due to their monumental scale and their coldness. Yet they are never amorphous. They always radiate an internal strength relating to their materiality. Hence they often appear grave and austere, even solemn, in their power.
They often form the envelope and the shell of prestigious buildings (museums) or Business Centres (La Défense) as well as more modest residential buildings (La Ciotat). On the other hand, they all have a frontal presence: the vertical, devoid of a centre, is the obvious sign of elevation to the sacred! As a material, the wall may also evoke something dull, mute and sombre. This is the mysterious medium on which this artist works. In addition, he almost always uses scaffolding, maintaining direct and effective contact with it.
This means that G.Bottazzi can contemplate the wall constantly, following the example of Bodhidharma, known as “the wall-gazing Brahmin”, who founded Chan, the Zen of Japan. The special attraction that Japan holds for this artist is easier to understand now! The same Brahmin spent 12 years meditating in front of a wall in order to attain enlightenment, in other words perfect insight into reality. Consequently the wall we come up against, that we Westerners think of as empty of meaning, is experienced differently in reality by the Zen practitioner.
For him, the importance lies elsewhere, in the transmutation of the wall into enlightenment. Indeed, for mystics, darkness and enlightenment are one and the same thing. And, in the end, isn’t this distortion or opposition that we thought we perceived between the coldness of the wall and the pictorial warmth of the work just as absolute?
Hence the other, not insignificant, question: in his own way, has the artist not also taken a path similar to that of the Brahmin?
Could this explain the clearly enlightened nature of his painting? But without the pretension of supplying a definitive, unequivocal answer, the debate will continue. In spite of this, we may say without any hesitation that this artist’s painting seems to be marked by an experience comparable to that of Zen.
All the more since such a statement has the benefit of making the work of G.Bottazzi, more recognizable, especially the work at the Sapporo Museum.
The latter resonates like a powerful, colourful hymn, full of hope and optimism, just like the bulbous shapes that are harmoniously entangled and intertwined. They surprise us, seeming to want to fly away, like Montgolfier balloons leaving the ground to soar up into the sky.
This invitation to a voyage reveals the phenomenon of transmutation that has been considered previously. A transmutation that leads to the profound transformation of one substance into another and to movement from one world to another. This confirms the statement by the psychoanalyst and anthropologist Olivier Douville, who has perceived an identical appeal, asserting that:
“Large painted walls look like steamers coming towards us, inviting us on a voyage; they brighten and uplift the tones and rhythms of urban space.”
In addition, as though to facilitate the same odyssey, G.Bottazzi uses his tried and tested glaze technique to soften a kind of pictorial severity and permit the voyage to be smooth.
In his own words, “It brings a great deal of gentleness to the painting”.
His painting really cannot be reduced solely to anecdotal detail.
By giving priority to movement, G.Bottazzi quite simply includes his work in a more vast and more prestigious artistic approach, since it follows the path first taken by a certain Kandinsky.
This marvellous painter in fact chose abstract painting transformed by change and movement instead of fixed geometric shapes.
Abstraction based on movement and change
Contemporary abstraction very quickly developed two opposing trends, one based on geometric shapes and the other on organic forms.
The two approaches corresponded to two very different views of the nature of reality. The geometric abstraction that is a part of Platonic philosophy should lead to more formalist painting, to “art for art’s sake”, in accordance with the concepts of purity formulated by the American art critic Clement Greenberg. Art that is free of all forms of narration, representation and subject matter. This was the direction taken by abstraction and freely developed by the De Stijl movement with Mondrian, but it is also expressed in more static geometric works such as those of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko
Although Kandinsky was just as fascinated by the mystic aura of geometry, in his view abstraction revealed quite a different reality. It was based principally on movement and change and related to living things. This great painter led the way to organic abstraction.
We discover the same vision of abstract art with G.Bottazzi too, first of all in his shapes with their softened and “natural” edges; and then in those that look like living organs. The artist loves life and has no hesitation in saying so in his painting. The body is often evoked even in shapes that are allusive or simplistic such as those resembling an embryo or a foetus. In reality the painter favours metamorphoses of all kinds. They stimulate his imagination and give meaning to his art.
Nevertheless movement and rhythm remain restrained with G.Bottazzi. He always tempers his emotions.
Unlike the incisive and intrepid gestures that we find in the work of Koning or Pollock, the work of G.Bottazzi is related more to the disciplined and rhythmic work of an Oriental calligrapher.
Sometimes, like many current painters, the artist blithely cross the borders between the organic and the geometric and rediscovers lost visual pleasure.
A return to Op Art and the idea of beauty
In the 1960s, following the lead of some American painters who rejected the puritan principles of the purity of geometric abstraction, many artists joined the figures of organic abstraction.
Their concern was to rediscover the joys of aestheticism.
In fact all these abstract painters, such as Brice Marden, often “mix together”.
Most of them go on to use organic abstraction to mark their return to Op Art.
Philip Taaffe and Roos Bleckner rehabilitate a type of art that tends towards beauty.
Similarly, we find an identical approach to Op Art with G.Bottazzi.
In some of his works, the artist uses vibrant surfaces with the obvious aim of cultivating the “spirit of the eye” (l’esprit de l’oeil).
He has no hesitation, either, in mixing the geometric with the organic for sheer pleasure!
The artist remains an ardent advocate of floating compositions that make use of all the techniques of perspective, not to mention spatial illusion, in the manner of Al Held.
Hence the various evanescent patterns that often seem to be suspended in a zone of weightlessness.
In the canvas in the photo above, the artist has created an area that is just as magical, still with floating organic shapes and a perspective of depth. This results from the arrangement of the motifs that pirouette and sometimes secretively appear to conceal themselves. This gives rise to an almost unreal beauty close to minimalist austerity. But there is still one question: isn’t this need to return to beauty anachronistic nowadays?
Art currently no longer claims to enchant, since, according to Jean Cocteau, “beauty limps”! Yet Dostoevsky’s statement that “beauty will save the world” has never been more true and justified than nowadays. This message is carried and idealised by artists especially who, like G.Bottazzi, enrich the world through this attraction to beauty.
Even though the nature of contemporary art is above all to question, even to shock, art will always fundamentally remain an expression of beauty related to passion.
In this respect it is useful to recall the words of Bernard Bro concerning the passion of artists:
“The passion of artists is not the same as that of saints. But it’s still “passion”. From one generation to another, it is stronger than they are and they remember that the search for beauty starts with terror, the dizziness of the solitude known to each person who enjoys their freedom. One day the person who sees that “life is worth nothing”, also discovers that “there’s nothing like life”.”
(Bernard Bro, La beauté sauvera le monde, ed. Cerf,1990, p.364).
Christian Schmitt- Le Nouveau Cénacle
About Guillaume Bottazzi – May 2009
In his abstract paintings, Guillaume Bottazzi refrains from representing anything or imposing any emotion. All his paintings are untitled. Unbound by meanings that might limit the imagination, we approach his paintings directly in the absence of clues. Your interpretation of the work depends on how open you are to it. Even the scale of the work corresponds to the vision of viewer, at times seeming infinitely wide or impossibly minute.
For the most part, humans have been making artworks, in the form of paintings and sculptures, to reflect the things they see in the world. Since prehistorical days, our creations have grown as countless as the stars. The impulse to create art may remain unchanged since Lascaux, but what about the need to see art? Some cognitive neuroscientists tells us that the brain, like the computer, is skilled at editing and organizing the data it accumulates, but less talented at creating data. Thus, when people look at an artwork, they see it through the filter of their knowledge and experiences. Odd, ungraspable forms that shape-shift from gases to liquids to solids inhabit Guillaume Bottazzi's paintings. Some of the new works in this exhibition evoke steam, fire, smoke, and molten material; others are reminiscent of swelling and floating balloons; still others look like dividing cells.
In his previous work, we saw strong contrasting colors applied in garrulous relief-like impastos. But recently, the lavish, thick-surfaced painting has given way to transparent washes of thinner pigments on unprimed canvas. He now achieves mass and density through purity of color. Compositions are simpler yet increasingly dense, a shift that generates tension. This change in style evolved after Bottazzi's first trip to Japan several years ago. The artist himself has admitted to being influenced by the stoic spirit of Japanese traditional arts such as Sumi painting.
Bottazzi, however, has consistently maintained his straightforward use of the layering and glazing techniques of classical oil painting. He has worked with other media and techniques, but feels painting with a brush suits him best. We witness similar brushwork in the murals that he creates in parallel to his other work, even if the "canvases" here are the four external walls of a twenty-meter tall building. Despite the strict conditions of working on site-specific murals, Guillaume Bottazzi enjoys painting the large-scale permanent projects, which are open to public view. Working at the tumultuous forefront of a creative field, he struggles to maintain his painterly course and push the boundaries of two-dimensional art.
Why do people make art? What is it about art that attracts them? In the midst of recent financial crisis and economic turmoil, some may think that questions like these are superfluous. Indeed, art may have no practical value, yet our interest in it shows no signs of abating. Perhaps it is because art awakens unfamiliar sensations, and leads our consciousness towards new ways of looking at things. And, in these times of economic and social uncertainty - when doubt reigns and the future is murky - we may need art more than ever.
Encountering an extraordinary artwork makes one realize how rare creative ability is; the artist's power to invent goes beyond that of the average person. Tracing over Bottazzi's paintings, we see multiple layers of expanding fields moving from the depths of the picture plane out into three dimensions, making us aware of the passage of time in the process. Although Bottazzi may be working unconsciously, with no specific intent, his painting has a catalysing effect. It is full of a strange charm that tempts us towards new adventures.