The Story of Abstract Art
10 minute read. by Wouter Maas
Woman stands in front of Vertigo (2008) by Anish Kapoor stainless steel, 218.5 x 464 x 89 cm in Museum de Pont TIlburg, The Netherlands.
In a large factory hall, I look at a stainless steel surface that makes a slight arch, so it seems to want me to embrace it. Vertigo (2008) by Anish Kapoor at Museum De Pont in Tilburg does not attempt to depict a human, animal, plant or anything else in the discernible world. This kind of art is defined by the word "abstraction," or "abstract art," and is the opposite of figurative art. Abstraction is associated with modern times, but how justified is this? I use contemporary art to explain how this term is used and how artists sometimes create works that make definitions impossible. Hopefully, this article will allow you to look with new eyes at the paintings at Gallery Sorelle Sciarone.
Defining Abstract Art
The precise definition of abstraction in the arts is conveying that which is: unrelated to the visible reality. This definition is about total abstraction, and very few modern and contemporary art pieces truly fall under this criteria. So it might be more convenient to think of it as a scale of possibility- not a dichotomy. Besides, one abstract art is not the other. Compare two works by Piet Mondrian and Vasily Kandinsky who have little in common in terms of composition, use of colour and form, while the artists were contemporaries. If there is something general to say about abstraction in art history, it is that it developed rapidly after the invention of photography.
Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Grey and Blue (1921). Piet Mondriaan. Oil on canvas. 95.7 × 95.1 cm. Turner Collection, Margate, UK.
Painting with red spot (1914) Wassily Kandinsky. Oil on Canvas. 130cm x 130cm.
Georges Pompidou Center, Paris, France.
A certain degree of abstraction has always existed
Ceiling canopy with Christ as Salvator Mundi, Catalonia, last quarter of the 13th century. Vic, Museu Episcopal.
There are also previous periods in art history in which art, with a certain degree of abstraction, was the standard. This Catalan Jesus figure, painted in the late thirteenth century, is a compelling appearance that is primarily intended to convey a Christian message.
Almost 200 years later Piero della Francesca painted a Jesus in Borgo San Sepolcro. There is a movement towards figurative art.
Wall Fresco of the Resurrection (1463-65) . Piero della Francesca. San Sepolcro Pinacoteca Comunale.
How Abstract Art Came to Be
The Role of Photography and Realism
Coming back to the modern era; the precise relationships between photography and its development on the one hand, and the development of painting and sculpture on the other are complex and challenging to unravel. From about the middle of the nineteenth century, it becomes less and less critical for some artists to abide by the strict rules of the French Academy. Le Déjourner sur l'Herbe (1863) by Édouard Manet already shows the rejection of the academic rules. The brushwork is relatively sketchy; the perspective is challenging to estimate. The figures don't really seem to be in the landscape, but more stuck on it. Manet, therefore (for us) takes careful steps in the development of abstract art.
Le Déjourner sur l’Herb (1863). Édouard Manet. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Abstract Art is a child from the late 1800s
This development continued in the later nineteenth century. The art of the twentieth century owes much to the works of the post-impressionists. Paul Gaugin, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, and others created art that shows an ever higher abstraction. The Still-life of Cézanne is a striking example. The apples in the fruit bowl are painted with short, confident brush strokes, and no attempt is made to imitate the texture of the fruit. In doing so, several systems of perspective seem to have been applied, so it feels as if the scale tilts slightly forward, and the objects seem to deny depth.
Still Life with Apples and a glass of wine (1877-79). Paul Cezanne, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Abstraction of Art early 1900s
In the twentieth century, artists developed several abstract flows. Important are Cubism and Fauvism. Cubism can be seen as an evolution of the work of Paul Cézanne . The flat surfaces int he work of Cézanne are a forerunner of Cubism. An example is Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. The hard, angular shapes of the women can be seen as a development of the flat surfaces of Cézanne. Besides, there is the same sense of accumulation, and the perspective does not seem to exist at all. As a counterpart, there is Fauvism, a movement that uses colours for freedom of expression and emotion. Henri Matisse is the most famous is this movements most famous painter, and one critic described his work as 'art of pure colours.' In The Red Room, we see why. It seems as if Matisse has applied all the colours unmixed to the canvas. Also, we see flowing lines and a figure sunk away in her act or thoughts—two very different paintings with further development towards abstract art.
Red Room (Harmony in Red) (1908). Henri Matisse. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Copyrights: © Succession H. Matisse
Abstract Art has Arrived
Not much later in the twentieth century, we see the first truly abstract works being painted. In the works of Vasily Kandinsky cited above, we see free forms and vastly extensive use of different colours. In combination with each other, they seem to depict the rhythms and melodies of the music. They are works that play very well on the emotion. Opposite this sense of freedom is the carefully composed work of Kazimir Malevich, a member of the Russian avant-garde. The Self-Portrait in two dimensions shows a minimalist approach that contrasts sharply with Kandinsky's work. Kandinsky. Malevich abstracts his own facial features into some geometric figures that are rendered in a minimal palette. The work exudes a certain calmness, and with a limited number of shapes and colours, a delicate balance is achieved. The aim is to represent the abstract essence of the world in a similarly abstract language of forms.
Selfportrait in two dimensions (1915-16). Kazimir Malevich. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
After the Second World War, the centre of developments in art moved to New York. In any case, according to the dominant Western canon of the time. The war had left no hope in science and logic, and the very idea of progress was questioned. The art that was created in the first years after 1945 falls under the heading Abstract Expressionism. The use of this term is somewhat contradictory and controversial because artists were looking for an individual "signature," which had to express personal emotions. In other words, the appearance of the works of art covered by Abstract Expressionism is visually very different.
On the one side: Mark Rothko
One of the most famous artists of Abstract Expressionism is Mark Rothko and is known for his 'color-field' paintings. One of them: Untitled (umber, blue, umber, brown) can be seen in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The canvas is large, with several rectangles stacked in a limited number of colours. There is no central point that demands the attention of the viewer. The atmosphere of the work is meditative and slightly melancholic. Due to the large dimensions of his paintings, the viewer is embraced by this feeling.
Untitled (umber, blue, umber, brown) (1962). Mark Rothko. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
On the other side: Jackson Pollock
The famous Jackson Pollock makes an entirely different kind of artwork, painted around the same time. Instead of traditional materials of the painter, such as palette and brush, he used sticks, trowels, knives, sand, broken glass and other materials. The most famous being his 'dripping' technique, as seen in One: Number 31. He reworked the paint so that it became thicker or more liquid. And even though the paint appears to have been randomly applied to the canvas. Since the debut of his work, there is solid math that applies to his paintings. Physicists Richard Taylor has developed an algorithm based on a mathematical equation and the physical build of Pollock to recognise real Pollock's from fakes. Pollock is also is known for destroying many works that did not have the right result for him. In front of Rothko's composure, Pollock applies the whirlwind of colours in energetic movements. His technique is known as 'action painting.'
One: Number 31, (1950). Jackson Pollock. MoMA, New York.
Art in the 1960's
What characterises art from the 1960s onwards is a tremendous amount of art movements that followed each other at an ever-increasing pace. As a counter-movement to the personal and authentic of the Abstract Expressionists, the next generation of artists had a desire to demystify the process and content. Important to mention here is Formalist Abstraction which developed as a counter-movement as early as the 1950s. Artists were looking for a non-emotional art that showed nothing of the hand of the artist. Ellsworth Kelly's Blue, Green, Red I is almost the embodiment of this philosophy.
Blue, Green, Red I (1963). Elsworth Kelly. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © Estate of Ellsworth Kelly
Postmodernism and an end of an era
From the beginning of the 1980s, we enter an art era known as Postmodernism. The adherents of Modernism had always emphasised personal and new styles and believed in the development of successive methods. By the 1980s, this necessity had disappeared. Not only did the entire history of art become an inspiration, but some artists also jumped from style to style. Did this mean the end of abstract art?
Well no. The different movements of abstract art can also be used as a source of inspiration. From the 1980s onwards, artists have continued to make their own abstract art. "Vertigo" by Anish Kapoor, cited in the introduction, is an example of this. It is characteristic of Postmodernism that humour plays a role. Because although the shape of the work of art does not refer to any specific object. Yet in reality, the mirrored surface refers back to particular objects and subject around it. Anish Kapoor, gives us an alienated and distorted reality, that of our own reflection.
Wouter Maas is a classically schooled Art Historian who specialises in Early Modern and Classical Art. This means his focus is on art from a few hundred years ago. Abstract Art, on the other hand, is about a hundred years old. We asked him to write about Abstract Art. We hope you enjoyed and learned from this article written bij Wouter Maas as he took us on a journey to discover abstract art and its history through one immersing themselves in this genre for the first time.