Figure-Ground Reversal:
A Comparative Study of Gestalt Theory in the Work of Richard Hamilton and Lygia Clark around 1956

by Hadley Newton

On August 9, 1956, crowds streamed into This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, an exhibition featuring twelve pavilions, each designed by a collaborative team of architects and artists. A maze-like structure of slanting boards constituted the second pavilion, resembling, as its creators Richard Hamilton, John McHale, and John Voelker observed, a “fairground ‘crazy house.’”1 The entrance was marked by a photograph of Yugoslavia’s President Josip Broz Tito with commands collaged onto his forehead, eyes, nose, cheeks, and ears: “Think.THINK. THINK.” “LOOK!” “SMELL!” “FEEL!” “LISTEN!” (Figure 1).2 Inside the structure, visitors entered a small chamber, where they confronted an optical illusion selected by Hamilton from the research of Edgar Rubin, a foundational thinker of Gestalt psychology.3 It was a figure-ground reversal, scaled up to a mural, papered across abutting walls (Figure 2). From one point of view, a black field consumed the left wall with a claw-like protrusion extending over the corner onto the white ground of the adjoining wall. If, however, visitors refocused their gaze, the image flipped—the white field, with its two white fingers breaching the black wall, appeared as the “figure,” whereas the black field receded as “ground.” Figure and ground oscillated, causing the walls to shift, swerve, and bend.

Figure 1: The back cabinet of the Group 2 pavilion at the This is Tomorrow exhibition, 1956, featuring the figure-ground reversal.  

Figure 2: The figure-ground illustration from Edgar Rubin’s Synsoplevede Figurer (1915). Reproduced from the German edition: Edgar Rubin, Visuell wahrgenommene Figuren (Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Bogandel, 1921), Abb. 2.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, visitors attended the opening day of the Exposição nacional de arte concreta at the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo on December 4. The exhibition presented works of geometric abstraction by artists associated with Grupo Ruptura, based in São Paulo, alongside those of artists linked to Grupo Frente, based in Rio de Janeiro, introducing Concrete art as the Brazilian national style.4 Paintings by Luiz Sacilotto, Alfredo Volpi, and Lygia Clark featured figure-ground reversals inspired by Gestalt theory, though Clark’s Superfície modulada no. 5 (1955) departed from neighbouring artworks due to its nuanced composition, which integrated the surrounding architecture (Figure 3).5 Three horizontal triangles (two white, one black) and two vertical triangles (one white, one black) push and pull against a green ground. The even more remarkable figure-ground reversal, though, occurred across the painting’s surfaces and between the painting and the wall of the gallery. The triangles are shards of lacquered wood slotted between green panels and affixed to a backing board, visible through the seams between pieces, which Clark referred to as “organic lines.” As the viewer peered through these cracks, “ground” (the green field) became “figure” and the white wall, outside the unframed panel, became another “ground.” Clark’s figure-ground reversal functioned across surfaces, integrating the gallery’s architecture into its alternating operation.

Figure 3:  Lygia Clark, Superfície modulada no. 5, 1955. Lacquer on wood. 116 x 72 cm.

Some may interpret the simultaneity of figure-ground reversals in the work of Hamilton and Clark as an instance of what Erwin Panofsky called “pseudomorphosis,” the morphological similarity of two artworks that are the product of diverse artistic traditions and ideologies.6 These scholars would view the comparison of Hamilton and Clark as academically irresponsible, a misuse of formalist methodology that flattens out cultural, philosophical, and political differences. Refuting these potential accusations, this essay interrogates the coincidence between the work of the two artists, following the lead of Yve-Alan Bois, who, in his 2015 article “On the Uses and Abuses of Look-alikes,” made a case for the benefits of taking pseudomorphism seriously.7 Bois writes, “[i]f two objects look the same, it does not mean that they have much in common—much less that they have the same meaning. But if they have something in common, this might reside in their strategy, or at least in their conditions of possibility.”8 This essay illuminates the conditions in which Hamilton and Clark made use of Gestalt theory, comparing its adaptation from militaristic discourses into pedagogical ones in the United Kingdom to its activation in leftist political networks in Brazil.9 While both artists believed in the crucial role of perception in the formation of subjectivity and developed a strategy of producing immersive works to engage viewers’ perceptual faculties, this essay argues that Hamilton and Clark used figure-ground reversals for diverging projects of perceptual conditioning and emancipation. This comparison further offers the opportunity to reassess the role of Gestalt psychology in a larger shift in aesthetics on both sides of the Atlantic, as artists moved from creating objects to orchestrating experiences.10
Gestalt Theory and the Figure-Ground Reversal

In the second decade of the twentieth century, Gestalt psychology was established by Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Köhler in Germany. These psychologists rejected studies of perception based on an empiricist model of consciousness, which held that perception was based upon the accumulation of discrete sensations. Instead, they declared, as Mitchell G. Ash summarises, “the primacy of perception over sensations in the constitution of consciousness, and advanced a conception of the subject as in, rather than separated from the world.” The world, so goes the theory, has an inherent order, and the subject operates within that order, perceiving psychological phenomena as structured, organized wholes (Gestalten). This hypothesis also offered a new theory of epistemology, suggesting that the production of knowledge was determined by the act of perceiving order in the environment.11 Further, Gestalt psychology took a universalizing approach to perception, wherein everybody saw the same objective order and was thus capable of producing the same knowledge. These psychologists framed their work as a science of subjectivity, overcoming divisions between mind and nature, an especially compelling idea in Weimar Germany, where the fragmentation of culture in the aftermath of the first World War elicited, as Ash describes, a “hunger for wholeness.”12

The figure-ground reversal played a crucial part in the formulation of these theories. “Ambiguous” images offered Gestalt psychologists the opportunity to observe how subjects identify structures in the visual field. These experiments led Köhler to argue that figure and ground are “two very concrete and phenomenologically real modes of existence of the optical,” forming the basis of perception.13 Koffka further contended that the “shock” of a figure-ground reversal made the perceiver conscious of their own role in selecting a form as the figure.14 The figure-ground reversal thus became an instrument to reveal the processes through which perceptual order is established. When Gestalt theory was reanimated in the period after WWII, artists in the UK and Brazil retooled the figure-ground reversal to regionally specific political, ethical, and aesthetic exigencies.15

1956: Alignments across the Atlantic
The mid-1950s was a moment of political change in the UK and Brazil. Following World War II, the UK witnessed economic growth under the Conservative Party’s leadership. Initiatives for the redevelopment of housing and infrastructure gained momentum, especially in urban areas that had been affected by wartime bombing. As colonialism came to an end, national attention turned towards strengthening the country’s economic power within global markets. The decade is known as one of political reorientation: citizens adjusted to Britain’s augmented military-industrial complex, a booming, increasingly consumer-based economy, and the international Cold War order.16 In Brazil, 1956 marked the first year of Juscelino Kubitschek’s presidency, whose election signalled a widespread desire for modernization and capitalist democracy. He established a developmental plan, which included a diversification of the country’s economy and the expansion of infrastructure, including the founding of a new capital city, Brasília.17 These initiatives indicated a tide of nationalism, as Kubitschek promised to position Brazil as an autonomous economic actor on the world stage.

While Hamilton’s and Clark’s political environments were thus distinct, both operated in periods of national economic development. Art historians have identified 1956 as a moment of transition in both artists’ practices. According to Anne Massey, This is Tomorrow is often described as the culmination of the Independent Group, a gathering of artists, who convened at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London between 1952 and 1954 to hold lectures on perceptual psychology, information theory, and American advertising.18 Most accounts of the Group 2 pavilion focus on the film stills posted outside of the “crazy house,” identifying the use of images from popular culture as a harbinger of Pop art.19 By contrast, this essay attends closely to Hamilton’s interpretation of Gestalt theory, arguing for its importance in his production of immersive exhibitions, which were designed to train viewers’ perceptual faculties in the navigation of commercial and technological forces, which were reshaping the political, cultural, and physical landscape. Rather than characterizing the Group 2 pavilion as the end of one phase in the artist’s career, this article offers Gestalt theory as a through-line in Hamilton’s development during the 1950s.

Similarly, the Exposição nacional de arte concreta has been identified as a moment of transition in Clark’s practice and modern Brazilian art more broadly. Ronaldo Brito contends that Concrete art was brought to Brazil from Europe in the 1930s and gained popularity in the early 1950s, largely due to the Swiss artist Max Bill and the critic Mário Pedrosa, who is credited with introducing Gestalt theory to the nation.20 Gestalt psychology was central to Concrete art, providing explanations for perception and a repertoire of diagrams for abstract compositions. The Exposição nacional de arte concreta (which later travelled to Ministério da Educação e Cultura (MEC) in Rio) proclaimed Concrete art as a national movement, an extension of Kubitschek’s modernizing vision. However, the show revealed fissures between the Grupo Ruptura and the Grupo Frente, which revealed the complex social reality underlying the president’s idealist calls for development and unity. While the work of the Ruptura artists reproduced illustrations of Gestalt principles, the work of Frente artists, including Clark, transcended such models and thereby achieved, according to Brito, a “production of … expression.21 Clark’s Superfície modulada no. 5 modified Gestalt principles to involve the space beyond the painting. Three years later, Clark joined the short-lived Neo-Concrete Movement (1959–61), declared the “apex” of the Concrete Movement by Brito. At this stage, artists pivoted towards the creation of works that implicated the viewer’s experience in their means of production.22 Thus, in 1956, Clark, like Hamilton, experimented with the limits and potential of Gestalt theory, which proved to be integral to the evolution of their practices.

Richard Hamilton and Gestalt Theory

Hamilton began studying perceptual psychology at Slade School of Fine Art, where he enrolled in 1948.23 During this time, he read On Growth and Form (1917) by the biologist D’Arcy Wentworth, and became, as Kevin Lotery notes, preoccupied with the text’s “treatment of biological growth as a play of universal physical forces.”24 As a homage to the book, Lotery curated an exhibition at the ICA in 1951. On display were images captured with technologies like microscopic photography, which had been unavailable during Wentworth’s lifetime), and now demonstrated how recent inventions could reveal the world’s underlying structure.25 In preparation, Hamilton read texts that considered the impact of mechanization on perception, including those by Gyorgy Kepes, Rudolf Arnheim, and James J. Gibson.

In 1944, Hungarian-American artist Kepes published Language of Vision, which applied Gestalt rules of visual organisation to painting, photography, and graphic design.26 Kepes’s introduction laments the postwar “individual, torn by shattered fragments of his formless world” and outlines the challenges of navigating the increasingly technological world. In response to these circumstances, he offers Gestalt-informed “optical communication one of the strongest potential means both to reunite man and his knowledge and to re-form man into an integrated being.”27 In the first chapter, he introduces the figure-ground reversal as a tool of orientation, asserting that “every image is based upon this dynamic dualism, the unity of opposites—this organization of figures and backgrounds is repeated progressively until the whole visual field is perceived a formed, ordered unity”.28 John Blakinger, analyzing Kepes’s notebooks, argues that the figure-ground reversal became a visual analogue for Kepes’s dialectical philosophy, in which a reformed universal vision promised the reconciliation of broad social and philosophical oppositions.29 Reading Kepes, Hamilton came to understand the implications of Gestalt theory for training perception in a mechanised environment and its power to effect societal integration.30

German-American psychologist Rudolf Arnheim contributed an essay to Aspects of Form, a publication planned in accordance with Growth and Form, arguing that Gestalt theory necessitates a rethinking of artistic “form.” According to Arnheim, one needs to extend formal analysis beyond the material qualities of the object to the perceptual, psychological forces that govern its appearance.31 Further, he addresses the role of perception in the making of art, arguing that “visual form must be considered as a basic means of understanding the environment,” as an artist’s attempt to organise their experience of the world.32 Through Arnheim, Hamilton was exposed to the idea that perceiving and making art constitute educational activities through which subjects cultivate awareness of their place within larger environments.

Hamilton’s interest in perception was furthered by his reading of American perceptual psychologist James J. Gibson’s The Perception of the Visual World (1950). Gibson’s writing probably initially appealed to Hamilton because of their simultaneous involvement in the military-industrial complex. Gibson conducted his research during World War II at the U.S. Air Force Research Unit in Aviation Psychology, where he examined the perceptual faculties of airplane pilots.33 During this same period, Hamilton worked as an engineering draftsman at EMI (Electric and Musical Industries), where radar technology was developed for pilots to surveil the landscape.34 While working there, Hamilton became aware that the new military technologies necessitated a revised conceptual framework for the study of perception at unprecedented scale and speed. Later, during his research for Growth and Form and subsequent discussions with the Independent Group starting in 1952, Hamilton began to consider Gestalt principles in light of postwar systems theory.35 Gibson’s text became central to this reevaluation, as the psychologist sought to analyse perception as mobile and embedded in the environment. As Harry Heft summarises, Gibson “accepted Gestalt psychologists’ commitment to phenomenology as a starting point for psychological analysis [and] their emphasis on relations and structure in perceptual experience,” however, he moved away from analysing the perception of still images (“the visual field”) to the analysis of complete environments (“the visual world”). As Gibson writes, “[t]he spatial character of the visual world is given not by the objects in it but by the background of the objects.”36 Following Gibson, Hamilton began to question Gestalt theory’s claim that meaningful perception was based on the identification of figure and accepted the possibility that it was instead contingent on the ever-shifting context of perception.  

The research of Kepes, Arnheim, and Gibson had an immediate impact on Hamilton’s painting practice. In the early 1950s, he began to paint shallow grids with geometric shapes, like d’Orientation (1952). Following Arnheim, the grid might be an effort to diagram the “forces” shaping perceptual experience. Hamilton described the painting as an attempt “to plot perspectival schemes from four different locations: a plan view … two perspective views ... form[ing] a mesh of diagonals and an elevation in which a sinuous element hangs in the foreground.”37 This collapse of perspectives suggests a dynamic viewer, who moves rapidly from the aerial bird’s-eye view (perhaps a reference to Gibson’s research) to the ground and the close-up inspection of a particular object. Following Kepes, these dramatic shifts in scale and position represent how vision is shaped by new technologies, from the airplane to the microscope. Further, it is difficult to locate a single figure in this composition; the grid disperses the viewer’s gaze. Hamilton orients the viewer to the predominance of ground in contemporary perceptual experience, pace Gibson. In this exploratory painting, he juggles theories of Gestalt with Gibson’s revisionary thinking.

Hamilton continued to apply Gibson’s theories in his Trainsition series of paintings, which capture the view from a train between London and Newcastle. In particular, Hamilton was inspired by Gibson’s description of “the experience of moving in a given direction (on a train), and the sensation of changing rates of velocity between the foreground and the background.”38 Trainsition IIII resembles an illustration of the phenomenon in Gibson’s text. It is as if Hamilton laid the specificities of his perceptual experience over the schematic image (Figure 4 and 5). This series signaled the extent to which Hamilton had absorbed Gibson’s theories, but also underscored his continued effort to map perceptual forces as, to quote Arnheim, “a basic means of understanding the environment.”

Image 4: Richard Hamilton, Trainsition IIII, 1954. Oil paint on hardboard. 91.5 x 122 cm. Tate, Purchased 1970.  

Figure 5: Illustration of “The Gradient of Flow Looking to the Right when the Observer Fixates a Spot on the Terrain,” from James J. Gibson, The Perception of the Visual World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950). Reproduced from reprint (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1974), 125.

The stakes of Hamilton’s interest in perceptual psychology become clear in the context of the national cultural reconstruction in Britain at the time. Lotery contends that the Independent Group intentionally reckoned with the military-industrial complex: “Their goal was to invent forms of research and intervention, new aesthetic techniques that might reconstellate, even redesign postwar culture by integrating some of its sinister forces.”39 Hamilton’s appropriation of Gibson’s research signalled a desire for its transvaluation within the realm of cultural production. While the military instrumentalized Gestalt theory to train pilots for war, Hamilton recouped its theories for art, developing an aesthetic diagramming technique to schematize dynamic perception, thus conditioning the viewer’s perceptual faculties to identify order in the chaotic postwar landscape.

This is Tomorrow can now be seen as an extension of Hamilton’s didactic project of retraining perceptive abilities. The entire pavilion, with its amalgamation of Hollywood images, jukebox music, microphones, speakers, and optical illusions reproduces the blitz of sensory material confronted by the modern subject. By destabilizing figure and ground, he trained viewers to navigate a dynamic environment with a constantly changing background. One might pessimistically interpret the figure-ground training device as a tool of control, indoctrinating civilians into the ever more complicated and disciplined techniques of perception.  By contrast, Lotery argues that the pavilion constituted “a technology…for interfacing between sensations and affects emitted by different things, structures and bodies,” freeing sensation from the limitations of any individual apparatus or individual.40 These two interpretations place different judgements on the role of technology in British culture, characterizing it as a force of regimentation or liberation. Hamilton’s figure-ground reversal analogized this ambiguity, presenting the modern world as both overwhelming and stimulating. Further, his project of perceptual reformation critically reproduced the uncertainties of larger British reconstruction initiatives, which required citizens to develop new skills and behaviours. By making viewers conscious of their own active perceptual processes, he incited them to reflect on their own potential to shape (rather than be shaped by) their external environment.

Lygia Clark and Gestalt Theory

Clark was first introduced to Gestalt theory in 1948 by the Brazilian critic Mário Pedrosa. At the time, the artist was employed in the studio of landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, where Pedrosa participated in a workshop.41 He was in the midst of completing a paper, “On the Affective Nature of Form in the Work of Art,” which argues that perception is “the number one problem of human knowledge” and rehearses some of the key postulates of Gestalt, including the importance of distinguishing figure and ground (Figure 11).42 Further he argues, if the larger environment has an objective order, so too does the artwork. The significance of the artwork is not dictated by the artist’s intent nor the viewer’s projections, but rather by the recognition of that order in the formal structure of the work. Considering the viewer, he writes, “the emotional reaction is just not any contingent or automatic reaction; it is an intelligent result of the object's properties.”43 This perceptual dynamic between viewer and object allowed, as Pedrosa contends, “[t]hose things [to] speak for themselves,” illuminating the artwork’s potential affective power and the agency of the viewer in the production of its ultimate signification.44

Unlike Kepes and Arnheim, Pedrosa’s study of Gestalt theory was entwined with his Marxism.45 After World War II, Brazil adopted a new constitution re-establishing the nation as a democracy. While Marxist philosophies had been suppressed by previous dictatorships, in the new democratic state, thinkers like Pedrosa were now allowed to publicly discuss their ideas.46 Pedrosa sought a new artistic style which would align with and enhance his Marxist ideology. While realism had been the dominant painting style in 1930s Brazil, the 1940s witnessed an influx of geometric abstraction. If the political import of works could no longer be ascribed to their subject, Gestalt theory allowed Pedrosa to locate meaning in the experience of perceiving the work’s objective features.47 As Mónica Amor writes, Pedrosa’s insistence upon the objectivity of the art object “legitimized the autonomous artistic phenomenon as an essential, universal human activity independent of scientific, religious and political associations.”48 He asserted Brazilian artists’ freedom from the influence of other aesthetic traditions or ideological programs, championing them as nonconformist, progressive, and anti-imperial.49 Although Gestalt theory and geometric abstraction were foreign imports, Pedrosa underscored their potential for critical renewal by Brazilian artists and audiences.50 Specifically, in his interpretation of Gestalt theory, Pedrosa argued that any viewer, regardless of class or education, could engage with the artwork, which therefore functioned as a tool of mass communication and education. Pedrosa disseminated these ideas at gatherings in his home, where participants, including Lygia Clark, represented a wide spectrum of political orientations. His appeals for autonomous creativity and an accessible aesthetic may have been interpreted by some of these participants as an unqualified endorsement of Brazil’s newfound democracy, although Pedrosa intended to critique existing aesthetic and political regimes of power.51

In 1950, Clark left for Paris, producing her first semi-abstract paintings, such as Escada (1951), and experimenting with bright, mosaic-like compositions.52 Upon her return in 1952, she was welcomed with a show at the Saláo Nacional de Arte Moderna in Rio, accompanied by a catalogue for which Pedrosa wrote the introductory text.53 From early on, Pedrosa championed Clark’s art as aligning with his own aesthetic and ideological project. During Clark’s time abroad, geometric abstraction and Gestalt theory swept Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Pedrosa attributed the rise of abstraction to the Alexander Calder exhibition at the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro in 1948, a Max Bill exhibition at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in 1950, and the inaugural São Paulo Art Biennial in 1951.54 Within the context of national development, Concrete art came to embody advanced cultural production.55 Brito argues that middle class audiences were particularly drawn to Bill’s work, seeing the artist as a “superior designer, a researcher of forms…within a complex industrial society”.56 The artist used Gestalt principles as inspiration for compositions, deploying the term “Gestalt” broadly to describe “good form,” without critically engaging with its premises.57 As a result, cursory Gestalt theory spread amongst the Brazilian public, while Pedrosa’s nuanced interpretations remained more obscure.

Between 1949 and 1952, Pedrosa began to revise his understanding of Gestalt theory, taking, what Kaira Cabañas describes, a “physiognomic turn.” He engaged with psychiatric patients and considered the expressivity of faces and objects, for which Gestalt principles, particularly the concept of figure and ground, were insufficient. Cabañas contends that the critic began to examine how “abstract geometry could be perceived as expressive rather than rational.”58 This laid the groundwork for Pedrosa’s new approach to Brazilian abstraction, which came to fruition in the Grupo Frente.

Around 1952 in Rio, a collective of artists, Grupo Frente, began to coalesce, as artists including Ivan Serpa and Lygia Clark met to discuss Pedrosa’s ideas and their potential for revising current understandings of Gestalt theory and geometric abstraction. Meanwhile, in São Paulo, the group Ruptura, which counted Waldemar Cordeiro and Geraldo de Barros among its members, was simultaneously forming, equally invested in Gestalt theory. Ruptura’s adaptation of the theory tended to align more with Bill’s work, while Frente, more closely associated with Pedrosa, took a less literal approach.59 For Pedrosa, Frente’s “art is not an activity of parasites, nor is it at the service of the lazy rich or political causes or the paternalistic state. An autonomous and vital activity, it aspires to an exalted social mission, namely to give the age style and to transform men, teaching them to fully exercise their sense and to shape their emotions.”60 Here is an attempt to salvage the group and Gestalt theory from its cooptation by a rationalist, developmentalist program. Doubling down on Frente’s autonomous radicalism, Pedrosa proposed that his theories could teach audiences to reach their full perceptive abilities and thus to act independently of state-sponsored agendas, unlocking new expressive potentials.

In 1954, the same year that Clark first exhibited with Grupo Frente, she experienced a breakthrough in the “discovery of the organic line.”61 Quebra de moldura, versão 1 (1954), an almost monochromatic mauve canvas set in a wide frame, painted half in navy blue and half in the same shade of mauve (Figure 6), exemplifies this development. A small, black rectangle of paint is plotted at the center of the canvas’s lower edge, mirrored by a navy rectangle on the inner rim of the frame. The tension between figure and ground operates not only within the canvas but also between canvas and frame, separated by a narrow but apparent gap, which we can identify as the organic line. In a 1956 lecture, Clark described the “organic line” as the “functional lines of doors, fixing of materials and cloths, etc., in order to modulate a whole surface.”62 Inspired by architecture, the artist moved to a more nuanced exploration of surface that explored and pushed the traditional bounds of painting. While Clark was reticent to explicitly align her work with Gestalt theory, this painting demonstrates her interest in exercising the viewer’s senses, inciting audiences to question the conventional limits of aesthetic perception.63

Figure 6: Caption: Lygia Clark, Quebra da moldura, versão 1, 1954. Oil on canvas and wood. 84 x 93 cm. Private collection.

Clark described the paintings of her  Superfície modulada series, including those featured at the Exposição nacional de arte concreta in 1956, as further extensions of the figure-ground reversal onto the walls of the gallery.64 Looking around the exhibition, the viewer’s eyes must have vibrated as they struck Sacilotto’s fluctuating, blurred pattern of black and white triangles, Concretion 5629 (1956), or Volpi’s red and white checkerboard Composição concreta branca e vermelha (1955). Staying with these paintings for a few moments, the viewer might be able to “solve the puzzle,” resolve the ambiguity of the image and establish order, perhaps symbolizing Brazil’s development into a rational, democratic state. By contrast, Pedrosa interpreted Clark’s Superfície modulada paintings as part of Grupo Frente’s more radical project: “Lygia [Clark] takes a bold step toward integration because she abolishes the intrinsic difference between the painting in itself, the boxed panel, a façade, a wall, a door, a piece of furniture: everything in a building that is a living organism thus becomes part of the same creative thought, the same spirit of synthesis that aspires, simultaneously and insuperably, to functionality and to beauty.”65 Clark’s painting draws attention to the architecture of the white-walled gallery and subverts the detached mode of viewership it demands of its audiences. The act of looking does not promise the resolution of the figure-ground reversal or reinforce narratives of rational development; rather, through sensory exercise, the viewer is absorbed into the nexus between painting and wall, its pulsating surfaces no longer indicative of perceptual indecision but instead of liberated, creative vitality. In this reconfiguration of subject-object relations, the work of art, as Pedrosa would say, has been encouraged to “speak,” and the viewer is emboldened to continue the dialogue. Pace Pedrosa, Clark’s activation of the audience had revolutionary potential, but this remained deliberately implicit. It was up to the viewer to determine the work’s aesthetic and political significance.


Having traced the distinct ways Hamilton and Clark made use of Gestalt theory, it becomes clear that their figure-ground reversals gave form to divergent politics. Through Arnheim, Kepes, and Gibson, Hamilton encountered Gestalt theory framed by liberal centrist ideology, which transferred scientific, militaristic research into aesthetics. This is Tomorrow functioned as a tool of perceptual conditioning, preparing postwar citizens for Britain’s mechanized and technologized society. Through Pedrosa, Clark understood Gestalt theory as a radical leftist critique of existing aesthetic, political, and cultural regimes, and used it as the basis for an autonomous, liberatory artistic practice, which self-consciously distanced itself from nationalist narratives of cultural development imposed by the government. Further, Superfície modulada no. 5 materialized her efforts to reconfigure traditional subject-object relations by generating a direct, affective relationship between the artwork and the viewer, upsetting conventional concepts of passive aesthetic contemplation and revealing the viewer as an agential participant in the creation of meaning.

Testing the limits of Gestalt theory, both Hamilton and Clark chose the figure-ground reversal as their instrument of choice. This evinced a structural, rather than merely morphological, similarity. Suspending the figure-ground reversal in a state of perpetual oscillation, the artists literally and metaphorically opened Gestalt theory to interrogation. This continuous fluctuation was made possible by their respective integration of architecture into their work. Moving beyond the confines of a canvas, both artists simulated the dynamic quality of perception and the ever-shifting landscape of the modern world. However, the structures of Hamilton’s and Clark’s figure-ground reversals differ in one important way. By embedding his figure-ground reversal in a pavilion which collapsed the registers of fine art and popular culture, Hamilton explicitly aimed to train the audience’s perception for extra-aesthetic environments. The Group 2 pavilion had direct social and political consequences. Clark, on the other hand, maintained the autonomy of her artistic creation, even as its scope extended beyond the canvas. Thus her work’s capacity to strengthen the viewer’s political agency within Brazil’s political environment remained intentionally suggestive rather than prescriptive.

Hadley Newton is a PhD candidate in the Art History Department at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She received her BA from Princeton University in 2016. Hadley's research considers the adaptation of Gestalt theory into artistic practices from 1950 to 1975.

1 Phillip Spectre, Richard Hamilton: Introspection (Köln: Walther König, 2019), 81.
2 Spectre, Richard Hamilton, 84.
3 See: Edgar Rubin, Synsoplevede Figurer (Copenhagen: Glydendalske Boghandel Nordisk Forlag, 1915).
4 See: Lorenzo Mammì, “Concret ’56: The Root of Form,” in Concreta ’56: A Raiz Da Forma, ed. Lorenzo Mammì, João Bandeira, and André Stolarski (São Paulo: Museu de arte moderna de São Paulo, 2006), 22–51. The term “Concrete art,” was coined by Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg in 1930 to describe art which does not seek to represent the external world, but rather presents line, color and planes as “concrete” realities in and of themselves. It was later popularized by Swiss artist Max Bill. See “Concrete art,” Tate Art Terms,, last access 24.03.2024.
5 This is the only work by Clark in the exhibition of which there is an official record. See Mammì, "Concret '56: The Root of Form," 42.
6 Erwin Panofsky, Tomb Sculpture (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1964), 26–27.
7 Yve-Alain Bois, “On the Uses and Abuses of Look-Alikes,” October 154 (Fall 2015): 127–49.
8 Bois, "On the Uses and Abuses of Look-Alikes," 148–49.
9 I am not the first art historian to note Hamilton’s and Clark’s interest in Gestalt theory, see Kate Sloan, “Gestalt in Motion: Wholeness, Systems and Perception in Post-War British Art,” Visual Culture in Britain 17 (2): 200–224 & Ronaldo Brito, “Neo-concretism, Apex and Rupture of the Brazilian Constructive Project,” October 161 (Summer 2017): 89–142. This study is the first to bring these bodies of research into conversation.
10 See Dorothea von Hantelmann, “The Experiential Turn,” in On Performativity, ed. Elizabeth Carpenter (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2014.):, last access 24.03.2024.
11 Mitchell G. Ash, Gestalt Psychology in German Culture, 1890–1967: Holism and the Quest for Objectivity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 10.
12 Ash, Gestalt Psychology in German Culture, 1890–1967, 11–12, 284.
13 Quoted in Ash, 180.
14 Kurt Koffka, “Perception: An Introduction to the Gestalt-Theorie,” Psychological Bulletin 19, no. 10 (October 1922), 561–3.
15 During the 1920s and 1930s, Gestalt theory spread globally, along with its protagonists. Koffka, Köhler, and Wertheimer, for example, emigrated to the US.
16 See David Kynaston, Family Britain: 1951–57 (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009).
17 See Rafael R. Ioris, Transforming Brazil: A History of National Development in the Postwar Era (New York: Routledge, 2014).
18 Anne Massey, The Independent Group: Modernism and Mass Culture in Britain, 1945–59 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 97.
19 For example, see Thomas Crow, The Long March of Pop: Art, Music and Design 1930–1995 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 82–3.
20 Ronaldo Brito, “Neo-Concretism, Apex and Rupture of the Brazilian Constructive Project,” 111.
21 Brito, 128.
22 Brito, 120. The Neo-Concrete movement’s primary theoretician, Ferreira Gullar, reworked and revised Gestalt theory to increasingly embrace phenomenology. See Ferreira Gullar, “Neo-concrete Manifesto” Jornal do Brasil (March 23, 1959); Ferreira Gullar, “The Theory of the Non-Object,” Jornal do Brasil (December 19–20, 1959).
23 Spectre, Richard Hamilton, 30.
24 Kevin Lotery, The Long Front of Culture: The Independent Group and Exhibition Design (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2020), 21.
25 Spectre, Richard Hamilton, 47.
26 Judith Weschler, Gyorgy Kepes: The MIT Years: 1945–1977 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1978), 10.
27 Gyorgy Kepes, Language of Vision (Chicago: Paul Theobald and company, 1944), 12–13.
28 Kepes, Language of Vision, 31.
29 John Blakinger, Gyorgy Kepes: Undreaming the Bauhaus (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2019), 123.
30 Hamilton was aware of Kepes’s exhibition The New Landscape, which also displayed scientific images and opened at MIT’s Hayden Gallery a few months before Growth and Form. See Blakinger, “Patterns and Puzzles,” in Gyorgy Kepes, 79–163.
31 Rudolf Arnheim, “Gestalt Psychology and Artistic Form,” in Aspects of Form: A Symposium on Form in Nature and Art, ed. Lancelot Law Whyte (London: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, Inc., 1951), 197.
32 Arnheim, “Gestalt Psychology and Artistic Form,” 204.
33 Kate Sloan, “Gestalt in Motion,” 200.
34 Sloan, 209.
35 Sloan, 201.
36 James J. Gibson, The Perception of the Visual World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950), 6.
37 Spectre, Richard Hamilton, 58.
38 Richard R. Yeomans, “The Foundation Course of Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton 1954–1966” (Phd. diss, University of London Institute of Education, 1987), 155. See also: Sloan, “Gestalt in Motion,” 203–204; Spectre, Introspection, 62. Gibson discusses this phenomenon in Chapter 7 of the Perception of the Visual World.
39 Lotery, The Long Front of Culture, 2.
40 Lotery, 224.
41 Geaninne Gutiérrez-Guimarães, “Lygia Clark: The Early Years, 1948–1952,” in Lygia Clark: Painting as an Experimental Field (Bilbao: La Fabrica, 2020), 21.
42 Translation from Kaira M. Cabañas, “Learning from Madness: Mário Pedrosa and the Physiognomic Gestalt,” October 153 (Summer 2015): 54.
43 “[A] reação emocional não é uma reação qualquer, contingente, ou automática; ela é um resultado inteligente das propriedades do objeto.” Mário Pedrosa, “Da natureza afetiva da forma na obra de arte” in Arte, forma e personalidade: 3 estudos (São Paulo: Kairós, 1979), 61. Translations are author’s own. A full English translation of this text has never been published.
44 “Aquelas coisas falam por si mesmas.” Pedrosa, “Da natureza afetiva da forma na obra de arte,” 82.
45 Pedrosa first encountered Gestalt theory during his time as a student at the University of Berlin from 1927–1929, where he had moved after the Communist Party was outlawed in Brazil. See Catherine Bompuis, “A Revolution of Sensitivity,” in Mário Pedrosa: Primary Documents, ed. Glória Ferreira and Paulo Herkenhoff (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2015), 53.
46 Bompuis, “A Revolution of Sensitivity,” 53–55.
47 Mónica Amor, Theories of the Nonobject: Argentin, Brazil, Venezuela, 1944–1969 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016), 81.
48 Amor, Theories of the Nonobject, 82.
49 André Stolarksi, “The Concrete Project,” in  Concreta ’56, 192; Sérgio Bruno Martins, Constructing an Avant-Garde: Art in Brazil 1949–1979 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013), 25; Brito, “Neo-concretism, Apex and Rupture of the Brazilian Constructivist Project,” 120.
50 Cabañas, “Learning from Madness,” 44; Martins, Constructing an Avant-Garde, 23.
51 Adele Nelson, Forming Abstraction: Art Institutions in Postwar Brazil (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2022), 4; Martins, Constructing an Avant-Garde, 25.
52 Gutiérrez-Guimarães, “Lygia Clark: The Early Years, 1948–1952,” 25.
53 Beatriz Rabelo Olivetti, “Chronology,” in Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, ed. Cornelia H. Butler and Luis Pérez-Oramas (New York: MoMA, 2014), 311.
54 Adele Nelson, “Monumental and Ephemeral: The Early São Paulo Bienais,” in Constructive Spirit: Abstract Art in North and South America, 1920s–50s, ed. Mary Kate O’Hare (Petaluma, California: Pomegranate Communications, 2010), 129.
55 Brito, “Neo-Concretism, Apex and Rupture of the Brazilian Constructive Project,” 116.
56 Brito, 111.
57 Amor, Theories of the Nonobject, 70–75.
58 Cabañas, "Learning from Madness," 60.
59 Nelson, Forming Abstraction, 12.
60 Quoted in Nelson, 227.
61 Adele Nelson, “On Gender and Surface in Lygia Clark’s Early Abstraction,” in Painting as Experimental Field, 1948–1958 (Bilbao: La Fábrica, 2020), 63.
62 Lygia Clark, “Writings by Lygia Clark,” in Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, ed. Cornelia H. Butler and Luis Pérez-Oramas (New York: MoMA, 2014), 54.
63 Nelson, “On Gender and Surface in Lygia Clark’s Early Abstraction,” 63. Perhaps this reticence reflected a reluctance to be grouped with other Brazilian artists who were superficially engaging with Gestalt theory.
64 This extension of the work to the surrounding architecture is underlined by the fact that Clark was simultaneously designing architectural maquettes with her compositions painted directly on the wall.
65 Mário Pedrosa, “Grupo Frente (1955),” in Mário Pedrosa: Primary Documents, 270.

Image credits:

Figure 1: © R. Hamilton. All Rights Reserved, DACS and ARS 2024. Photo: © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections

Figure 3: Joâo Sattamini Collection on loan to the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói. Courtesy of “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association. Photo: Jaime Teixeira Acioli.

Figure 4: © R. Hamilton. All Rights Reserved, DACS and ARS 2024. Photo: Tate.

Figure 6: Courtesy of “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association. Photo: Romulo Fialdini. 

Journal der Freien Universität Berlin

Berlin, 2024