Martin Heidegger: Finding the Essence of an Expressionist Artwork

Generous slashes of rich yellow and crimson red arouse memories of warm spring afternoons in the Mediterranean. Sunlight floods our vision as paint overflows, continuously dribbling down the pre-primed cream canvas, concealing fragments of hand-scrawled poetry, whispering truths of overwhelming emotions of happiness. The vibrant red smudges of paint dominate the canvas depicting the traditional Egyptian rowing boats, which “symbolise the journey through the underworld in the Egyptian 'Book of the Dead’”, a returning feature of Twombly’s work noting his months spent living in Egypt in the mid 1980s. Scribbled at the bottom of the work, Quattro Stagioni: Primavera 1993–5, are the artist initials, written in red crayon, a nod to the celebratory child within him as spring comes, promising adventures running in the sun and climbing trees until sunset.

For this essay, I will be exploring how we seek out the essence of an expressionist abstract artwork to find the essence of the piece. I will be using Heidegger’s theories of ‘Being and Truth’, using his tools ‘Earth and World’ to help find the essence of a work of art. Heidegger uses Van Gogh’s painting, A pair of shoes, 1886, to help illustrate his theories, showing how they can be applied to representational art. I will be applying the theories to Cy Twombly’s works, Quattro Stagioni: Primavera, 1993–5, and Untitled, 1970, to prove the flexibility of Heidegger’s theories and how they can be used to find the essence and truth of an expressionist abstract artwork.

In ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ Heidegger aims to figure out which comes first; the art, or the artist, in order to find the origin of the work of art. He expresses that neither can exist without the other, that art cannot be made without an artist, but questions that surely an artist does not become an artist until they have made their first piece of art. The two are interrelated causing a never-ending circular motion around the subject. This is in fact how Heidegger often comes to his conclusions; he circulates an idea, or an issue, slowly unfolding it bit by bit, often without logic, but from a more intuitive place, eventually revealing what he defines as ‘the truth’.

Heidegger begins to unfold this question of which comes first by deciding that we must start by seeking out the essence of the artwork. He explains that out of the artwork and the artist, the artwork is more solid and unchanging, therefore more easily understandable.

Heidegger defines works of art as a ‘thing’, as they have a ‘thingness’ about them. Generally, we think of anything solid, or even existing as a thing and therefore Heidegger goes on to describe ‘mere things’ to differentiate from the mundane, day to day things we use and see. He explains that even within this Mere Thing there is not only the physicality of the object, but a truth which can be revealed by it. From this we can understand that there are two parts to any object. There is the physical aspect of the Thing, its material and colour for instance. However, there is also the history of the object, it’s purpose, who it belongs to and how this changes the way the Thing is seen.

To demonstrate his theory Heidegger uses Van Gogh’s painting, A pair of shoes, 1886. He explains that we can describe the physicality of the shoes, the materiality, the leather, laces, colour, but to understand the true nature of the peasant’s shoes we must look beyond the physicality of the Thing. We must ask questions about its purpose, where they have come from, who exactly they belong to. While the painting simply shoes a pair of worn boots, Heidegger says:

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. Extending through this tool are the uncomplaining fear as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of once again having withstood need, the trembling before the arrival of birth, and the shaking at the surrounding threat of death.

It is Heidegger’s understanding that it is not the physical presence of a Thing that brings its essence, but how it is used, the story behind the object, where it has been, who it belongs to. This is what holds the essence of a Mere Thing. He describes that by serving the peasant woman, being an integral support and allowing her to complete the harsh work of being out in the fields all day, the shoes actually help the woman to survive. These same boots would be entirely different if they were worn by a rich man walking his 20 acres of land, shooting clay pigeons. Clearly, one must spend a certain amount of time with an artwork, or thing, to come to this realisation of the thing’s past. “It takes a certain amount of time to make (the artworks). And it also takes time to look at them”. Heidegger says that if we do not understand the essence of a painting then “we have experienced too little in the nearness of the work and have said this experience too crudely and too immediately.” He explains that this is how we understand the truth of an artwork or a thing. He states:

The artwork opens up in its own way the being of beings. In the work happens this opening, i.e. the unconcealing, i.e. the truth of beings. In the artwork, the truth of beings has set itself to work.

From this we can understand that artwork allows the revilement of truth through the Things painted. While the artwork itself does not reveal the truth of a Thing, it does supply a platform for the Thing painted to reveal its own essence.

To continue this, Heidegger moves forward to describe the physicality and materiality of a work of art as ‘Earth’, that which makes an object a thing, while the ‘world’ of an artwork ‘is the being of existing reality of the work of art’. This ‘existing reality’ is the World of the Thing, the belonging and place that we described earlier for Van Gogh’s peasants’ shoe. Heidegger explains that “World and Earth are each in itself, in accordance with its essence, in strife and strife-like. Only as such do they step into the strife of clearing and concealment.” He is suggesting that the truth of an artwork is only revealed when these two pieces, Earth and World, are in battle against one another. As they each try to conceal, or reveal (World), they slowly show glimpses of what is true and what makes something a Thing. He explains how World can only exist if Earth is present and vice versa. For instance, the World of Van Gogh’s painting of a peasant’s shoes can only exist if the shoe itself exists. The shoe also can only become a peasant’s shoe when the World of the shoe makes it so. Heidegger concludes that this struggle is what eventually shows the essence of a work of art. However, these ideas have only been applied to the analysis of representational art, a term for art that embodies some aspect of reality. So, what about abstract and expressionist art?

In Van Gogh’s painting of a peasant’s shoes Heidegger explains the pair of shoes as being the Thing from which we can derive the essence of the work. However, as the abstract work of Cy Twombly is not representative, we must search for a physical object which is recognisable as a Thing. Richard Wollheim states in his paper, The Work of Art as an Object, 1970, that ‘A work of art is importantly or significantly, and not just peripherally, a physical object.’. This is reinforced in Ways of Seeing, by John Berger, as he states, ‘What are paintings? Before anything else, they are themselves an object which can be bought and owned.’

With this in mind, we can describe the artwork itself is an object and therefore can name the whole structure of the painting, the canvas, paint and other materials of the work, as the Thing. From this we can understand the Earth of the artwork. We can describe the colour of the paint, the texture as it is scrawled, splattered and dripping from the canvas. We can see the text, the body of writing, identify that it is handwritten and not typed, in graphite and not ink. We can see that the canvas is bare and not primed, rectangular and in portrait rather than circular or landscape. These are all parts of the artwork which make up the Earth of the artwork.

Moving forward to find the World of the work Primavera, we firstly need a definition of abstract expressionism to understand where a piece of abstract expressionist art comes from. Collins English Dictionary defines abstract expressionism as “painting characterised by emphasis on the artist's spontaneous and self-expressive application of paint in creating a nonrepresentational composition”. By noting “the artist’s spontaneous and self-expressive application of paint” we can understand that the emotion comes from the artist, based upon their experience, and is translated through their application of paint and mark making, into the work of art. Therefore, the existing reality and World of the work is the emotions of the artist.

Marlene Dumas states in her book Sweet Nothings, 1998, “I know that neither images nor words can escape the drunkenness and longing caused by the turning of the world. Words and images drink the same wine.” The text of Cy Twombly’s work is can be read in the same way as the paint of the piece. We can still denote the mark and material of the writing as the Earth of the piece, with the meaning of the poetry as signifying the World. The text is so important for the work as it narrow’s down the limitless interpretations of the work. The simple title of ‘Primavera’ tells us plainly that the painting depicts the season of spring‘. Can also be a decisive marker of how a painting has been received, and the contexts in which it has been interpreted in any period. Titles are part of the intellectual content of the work’. This shows the importance of titles of abstract works in helping navigate us through the work of art. They help limit the World aspect of the piece.

For Cy Twombly and his Quattro Stagioni paintings, we are looking at the World of the artist, his emotions, thoughts and feeling toward the seasons. His understanding of this four-part cycle, which he expresses to us through his Earth; paint, crayon, graphite and canvas, gradually building up expressive marks and text, telling us of Twombly’s existing reality, his experience of Spring; the World of the work of art. While Van Gogh’s A Pair of Shoes acts as a portal into the World of the peasant woman, the frame of the canvas of Primavera acts as a window to look into Twombly’s World. “The frames lend the photos the character of a window. I wanted to underline the theory that a painting is like a window.”

Heidegger believes that the essence of an artwork is found through the struggle between the Earth and World of a piece of artwork. Elizabeth Manchester, who writes for the Tate, explains that in Twombly’s work “the tension between the graphic qualities of linear inscription and the sensual materiality of paint is central to the impact of the work.”. From this tension between the graphic line and the sensual materiality of Twombly’s work, we can further draw comparisons between the abstract expressionist artwork and the theories of Earth and World by Martin Heidegger. A sense of struggle and battle is found in both, which ultimately ‘unconceals’ the Truth. “The essence of art (found through Earth and World), in which the artwork and the artist at once rest, is the setting-itself-to-work of truth.”

Later in Heidegger’s theory he explains that this understanding of Being and Truth through Earth and World, is only half of the essence of the work of art. Stulberg summarises this:

The fact of creation is not the sole source of the art work. The art work, says, must not only be fashioned, it must also be “preserved.” The work is preserved when the work is observed and absorbed as a work, when those outside the artwork respond to the work as a new and unusual thing.

This explains that a work of art needs a viewer, or audience, to be fully made as a Work of Art. The viewer must not only look at the of the work of art, but they must place themselves within it, involve themselves with the artwork to understand the World, to find the Truth of the artwork. Without the viewer, the reality of the piece of work does not step forth.

However, a problem with this theory is that surely the World of the artwork changes as the viewer changes, due to the fact each person has different and unique experiences. To explore this, we can look at Cy Twombly’s Untitled, 1970.

Untitled, 1970 is a piece form Cy Twombly’s series of Blackboard paintings made between 1966 and 1971. The painting is 6 by 5 feet and consists of dark grey oil paint layered in gestural strokes, building up a deep grey background for the work. The minimalist painting shows continuous looping and spiralling lines, drawn in wax crayon, layered of the dark background. The dark background provides suggestions of a blackboard, the white crayon mimicking the lines of white chalk. This is the Earth of the artwork. The World of the artwork is dependant on our experience. For instance, one might think of the looping chalk as replicating the tedious lines written in detention, “I will not whisper in class anymore”, while another viewer may think to the looping of a skipping rope in the playground, or their spiralling out of control, the grey fog setting in around them as they do not understand their class topic; the possibilities of the World aspect of a work of art are endless as the interpretation is entirely down to experience and memory.

We see with memory, so if I know someone well, I see them differently from the way I might if I’ve just met them. And my memory is different from yours; even if we are both standing in the same place, we’re not quite seeing the same thing. Other elements are playing a part; whether you have been in a place before will affect you, and how well you know it.

This shows how Heidegger theories of World and Earth are very mouldable, and therefore can be stretched around works of art other than representation art. However, the tools Heidegger uses to find the Truth and Being of the work of art are unconfined, then does that make the Truth and being of the artwork unstable also? Can Truth be unstable? In Van Gogh’s painting the shoes obviously look rough and battered, much more suggestive of a definite World which Van Gogh was aiming to un-conceal. However, with abstract art being so much more down to interpretation, without representation imagery to guide our understanding, the World of the artwork is also down to interpretation, altering the Truth of the painting.

Heidegger explains the Truth of the Work of Art as an ‘existing reality’ of the Thing. I would like to conclude that there are multiple existing realities within a piece of abstract expressionist art as there are multiple viewers, with multiple experiences, each guiding the unique individual towards a different Truth. The tools of Earth and World can still be successfully applied to abstract art to find the essence of the work of art, however as we all see abstract art differently, without the guidance of a representational image, the World and therefore Truth and essence of the work of art alters between viewers. The path to finding the Truth of the artwork can be narrowed by the artist, through mark making, text, or even titles for artworks, but cannot be fully pinned down. This is what makes expressionist art so successful in encouraging the viewers to reflect upon their own experiences and feelings, derived from their own truths, mirrored by the essence of the artwork.


  1. • Figure 1: Figure 1: Van Gogh, A pair of shoes, 1886. Taken from:,-A.html
  2. • Figure 2: Cy Twombly, Quattro Stagioni: Primavera, 1993–5. Taken from:
  3. • Figure 3: Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1970. Taken from:
  4. Bibliography:
  5. • Berger, J., 1972. Ways Of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corp. and Penguin Books, p.85.
  6. • 2020. Gallery Talk: Cy Twombly’s Untitled, 1970 | Christie's. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 April 2020].
  7. • 2020. Abstract Expressionism Definition And Meaning | Collins English Dictionary. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 April 2020].
  8. • Dumas, M., Berg, M. and Gatehouse, N., 1998. Sweet Nothings. Amsterdam: De Balie.
  9. • Förg, G., 1989. Günther Förg In His Own Words.
  10. • Heidegger, M., n.d. The Origin Of The Work Of Art. 2008: Translated by Roger Berkowitz and Philippe Nonet., pp.38, 40.
  11. • Hockney, D. and Gayford, M., 2016. A History Of Pictures. From The Cave To The Computer Screen. Farnborough: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
  12. • Marks, T., 2016. Titles of artworks can obstruct how we interpret artistic meaning. Apolo - The International Art Magazine, [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 May 2020].
  13. • Pincus-Witten, R., 2002. Robert Pincus-Witten, 'Learning To Write,' 1968, In: Nicola Del Roscio, Ed., Writings On Cy Twombly. Munich, p. 56.
  14. • Tate. 2020. ‘Quattro Stagioni: Primavera’, Cy Twombly, 1993–5 | Tate. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 April 2020].
  15. • Twombly, C., 1993. Quattro Stagioni: Primavera, 1993–5. [Acrylic paint, oil paint, crayon and graphite on canvas].
  16. • Wollheim, R., 1970. The Work of Art as an Object. Studio International, vol. 180, (928) 
07 July 2022
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