Abstract art (similar definitions: abstractionism, non-figurative art, non-narrative art) is a definition applied to a group of art movements in the art of the 20th cent. or to a type of visual language, which replaces the direct representing of material world with accent on pure visual means – color, line, texture. In our case we’ll talk about abstract art as a phenomenon in history of art.
Abstract works are meant to evoke free associations, stimulate emotions and spontaneous reactions, without effecting them with certain objects. It tries to depict human’s inner life, psychological states with artistic means.
Latin verb “abstraho” literary means to pull out, segregate. To some extent, all art is abstract, as it derives from sensually perceived reality – hence it’s distances from it. In archaic sculpture of Ancient Greece, Egypt, tribal art some simplified, often geometrized forms are used. Ornament was a constant source of such forms: the ornamental art of Islam and Far Eastern Calligraphy liberated from literal imitating of the substance as early as in the Middle Ages.
The origin of Abstract art was shaped up not only by peculiarity of certain aesthetical systems, but also with by general vector of art’s developments. Centuries-old tradition of anamorphosis (a distorted projection of image that required a special device to see it) and principle of non-finito principle (an effect of incompleteness), used in Renaissance to admire beauty of lines and material, were important premise of Abstract art.
Masters of Romanticism and Symbolism movements of the 19th cent. often (mainly in sketches, seldomly in completed pieces) referred to non-figurative visions: their samples we can see in the late works of William Turner or drafts of Gustave Moreau. But these were rather exceptions that hadn’t become a mainstream before 1910s.
Another step towards Abstractionism was made by Post-impressionists (like Paul Gauguin), whose coloristic theories alienated the depicted object from its real tints. Their ideas were elaborated by Fauvism, which could be called a true triumph of Pure Color. Around that time the structure of composition and forms began to be rethought as well. Paul Cezanne delivered everything haphazard – he was searching for geometric lucidness, which was fully embodied in Cubism. Cubistic rationalism transformed objects almost beyond recognition.
So, by 1910s form and color gain self-sufficiency in opposition to illusionism of three-dimensional space, which was the base of academic art since Renaissance. Overcoming of perspective led to gradual disintegration of figurative images that marked the beginning of Abstract Art. Two of three pioneers of this movement (Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich) come to it through Cubism. And its transformation of forms The third one, Wassily Kandinsky, was less enthusiastic about it and paid more attention to color that made his first abstract experiments more lyrical.
The beginning of Abstract art could be dated back to 1910, when Wassily Kandinsky created watercolor, which was absolutely disconnected from the objective world. Almost simultaneously the theory of Abstract art was formulated in treaties on aesthetics; in 1908 Wilhelm Worringer’s book “Abstraction and Empathy” (his doctoral thesis) was published in 1908. There the researcher described the development of culture going between two phases, two types of cultures: one, with anxious and full of alert and interest to spirituality (like in Egypt, Byzantine Middle Ages), inclined to abstraction, while the other’s materialistic, object-orientated, like Ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, favored realism. The latter group Worringer grouped under the definition of “empathy”, which had been earlier formulated in German philosophy as concept of spiritual integrity of human’s existence and outer world. Kandinsky also declared his artistic principles in his work “On the spiritual in art”.
During the next 12 years other significant for the development Abstraction language occurrences took place: in 1913 Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova switched from Futurism to abstract art and introduced one of its methods – Rayonism; analogic changes were in the art of Giacomo Balla. In 1913 – 1914 Robert Delaunay became one of the adherents of non-figurative Orphism. In 1915 – 1917 more austere and geometric variants of abstract art were invented by Kazimir Malevic (Suprematism) and Piet Mondrian (Neoplasticism). Three directions emerged in Abstract art: 1) geometric; 2) symbolical (with usage of pictograms); 3) organic, which followed natural lines. Anyway, that classification is based only on formal features, as all variants of early Abstractionism were more or less connected with symbols and inspired by “cosmic rhythms” of nature.
Behind those formal differences one can trace a deep kinship of inner content. Being affect by ideas of theosophy and mysticism (like occultist Helen Blavatskaya in Russia or Mario Schoenmaker in Netherlands), the painters were convinced in transcedentality of their pieces – they believed to represent the new evolving world. It was another wave of Romantic spirit, amplified by the outburst of revolution and World War I.
Some key notions of Abstract art are connected with the principle “art pour l’art” (art for art’s sake). Many abstractionist artists believed that music is the universal abstract language, as it address right to our emotions and (despite of being often deeply mathematically harmonic) avoids rationalism and replicating of any exact things. And many vanguard masters wanted to produce the analogical effect in visual art. Kandinsky wrote in his “On the Spiritual in Art”: “Generally speaking, colour is a power which directly influences the soul (i.e., the feelings). Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul”. That’s why some of the first abstract pieces were closely connected with music or were claimed to depict it. As an example of such work we can mention Frantisek Kupka’s “Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colors” (1912), which rhythmical structure was dictated exactly by musical connotations.
In 1920s Abstract art, not rejecting from its utopian (but now less apocalyptic), became more utilitarian and less mystical. Bauhaus in Germany actively engaged some of its achievements (first of all, its more geometrized variants) in design innovations and creating new living spaces. Abstractionism were integrated in fashion (for instance, Sonia Delaunay-Terk used motifs of her husband’s paintings in textile design, interiors and even automobiles). Developing initially in painting, its concepts extended to sculpture (both monumental and decorative – Hans Arp, Constantine Brancusi, Naum Cabo, Nikolaus Pevsner).
Activity of French group “Abstraction-creation” prompted development transition from philosophical utopias to more contemplative and lyrical images. Yet it was only in 1940s, when “lyrical abstractionism” arranged into the fourth vector of that art in New York. It was Abstract Expressionism (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and others), where dominated broad brush stokes, which looked as if they were applied spontaneously. Artists now made the accent not on the final result of the work, but on the process – the proves of painting was for them a kind of shamanistic practice and image was only its imprinting. Specialists call that branch of Abstract Expressionism “action painting”. In contrast to it there was a “color field painting” that explored expressive potentiality of large, almost smoothly colored spaces (Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko). In 1960s its variation – “hard-edge painting” appeared.
In Western Europe the tension of the post-war years embodied in the impulsive gestures of Art Informel (Jean Fautrier, Karel Appel, Antoni Tapies), whereas Tachisme (a European variant of “action-painting”) became more exuberant (Georges Mathieu, Jean Dubuffet, Hans Hartung). Initially Paris was the center of all those movements, yet it soon transferred to the USA.
West had officially recognized Abstract art in the mid 20th cent., when the governments (particularly in the end of 1930s) started cooperating with artists and commissioning them murals and sculptural decorations for public buildings: a lot of non-figurative compositions vivified the monotony of buildings of concrete and glass. In 1960s Pop-art became wide-spread in Anglo-Saxon countries. It (as well as new Figuration movement in France) was opposed to Abstractionism with its extreme subjectivity.
Although Abstract art was gradually losing its influence, its key ideas were continued by some other trends, like Minimalism, which appeared in 1965 in America (Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, Sol Le Witt ). Nevertheless, Minimalism was more ascetic in the means of expression comparing to Abstract Expressionism.
Non-figurative art became a quintessence of artistic searches of several previous centuries. Methods developed for Abstract art occurred to be very interesting and fruitful for contemporary culture and now they’re actively applied in decorative arts, design, photography. Anyway, “pure” Abstractionism could be seen not as often, as it was at least four decades ago.
Abstract art was the meeting point of discussions over relations between sense and image. Being one of the ways of depicting transcendental spheres, it was always close to religious images and joined picture and philosophical reflections. Abstractionism was an attempt to reveal specifics of artistic language; it’s a phenomenon, that radically changed our attitude towards visual art in general.
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