Essay About Abstract Art Techniques


Understanding Abstract Art


I am sure that, sometime in your life, you have seen abstract art. Indeed, you may have seen such paintings on my Web site, as I have an online gallery of my own work:

Gallery of Harley Hahn's paintings

If you take a look at the paintings, you will see that they are abstract. In fact, they are painted in a style that is sometimes referred to as "Abstract Expressionism".

Many people have trouble understanding and appreciating this type of art. The purpose of this essay is to explain how, over time, art has evolved to become more and more abstract, and why this is important. My intention is to explain the goals of abstract art, and to help you learn how to enjoy it.

To begin, I'd like to introduce you to the idea that, broadly speaking, there are two types of paintings: representational and abstract.

We call a painting "representational" if it portrays specific, recognizable physical objects. In some cases, the representational paintings look true to life, almost like a photograph.

For example, consider the following painting by Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669). This painting is called "The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp", and was painted in 1632.

"The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp" [1632] by Rembrandt van Rijn.
Display a larger picture of this painting.

When you look at this painting, it is easy to recognize what you are looking at. There are eight men wearing funny-looking clothing (actually, the style of clothing worn in 17th century Holland), and on a table in front of the men lies a dead man, whose arm is being dissected. It is easy to identify all the objects in the painting, as well as the overall meaning of the painting. (You are looking at an anatomy demonstration.)

Not all representational paintings are so realistic. For example, Paul Cézanne (French, 1839-1906) created some beautiful paintings of fruit. Take a look at this one, "Apples, Peaches, Pears, and Grapes", which Cézanne painted from 1879-1880

"Apples, Peaches, Pears and Grapes" [1879-1880] by Paul Cézanne.
Display a larger picture of this painting.

Obviously, this painting is more abstract than the previous one. Still, what you are looking at is representational. The objects in the Cézanne painting may not be as realistic as the ones in the Rembrandt — there is no way you would mistake the Cézanne painting for a photograph — but it is easy to recognize that you are looking at various types of fruit in a bowl.

When you look at a representational painting, you get an immediate feeling as to whether or not you like the painting. For example, take another look at the previous two paintings and compare what you feel when you look at the anatomy lesson with what you feel when you look at the bowl of fruit.

Abstract paintings are different. They have designs, shapes or colors that do not look like specific physical objects. As such, abstract paintings are a lot harder to understand than representational paintings. Indeed, when you look at an abstract painting, you often have no idea what it is you are actually seeing. Let's see if we can make sense out of this.

In general, there are two types of abstract paintings. The first type of abstract painting portrays objects that have been "abstracted" (taken) from nature. Although what you see may not look realistic, it is close enough that you can, at least, get an idea of what you are looking at.

If you have ever seen any of the paintings of Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926), you will know what I mean. In 1899, Monet began to paint a series of paintings called "Water Lilies". These paintings depict the garden at his house in Giverny, Normandy (in France). Although the objects in the paintings don't really look like lilies, or water, or clouds, they are close enough that you can get a feeling for what you are seeing.

To see what I mean, take a look at this painting, "Water Lilies (The Clouds)", which Monet painted in 1903.

"Water Lilies (The Clouds)" [1903] by Claude Monet.
Display a larger picture of this painting.

A second type of abstract painting, sometimes referred to as "pure" abstract art, is even more obtuse. Such paintings do not reflect any form of conventional reality: all you see are shapes, colors, lines, patterns, and so on. Here, for example, is one of my paintings, entitled "Blue #1", which I painted in 2000.

"Blue #1" [2000] by Harley Hahn.
Display a larger picture of this painting.

As you can see, nothing in this painting is recognizable. There are no people, fruit or even water lilies.

When you look at such art, it is natural to wonder why anyone would bother to create such paintings in the first place. What could the artist possibly have in mind?

In some cases, the design itself might be pleasing to the eye, and we might look upon the painting as nothing more than a decoration. Most of the time, however, this is not the case. Indeed, a great deal of abstract art is not particularly pleasing to the eye. Moreover, why would an artist spend so much time creating a mere decoration? There must be something more to it.

The truth is, yes, there is a lot more to abstract art than what meets the eye, and to see why, we have to consider the basic purpose of art.

To truly appreciate a work of art, you need to see it as more than a single, isolated creation: there must be context. This is because art is not timeless. Every painting is created within a particular environment, and if you do not understand that environment, you will never be able to appreciate what the artist has to offer you. This is why, when you study the work of a particular artist, it makes sense to learn something about his life and the culture in which he lived.

Although the qualities of a painting depend on the skill and desires of the artist, a great deal of what you see on the canvas reflects the environment in which the art was created. As an example, take a look at the following two paintings.

The painting on the right, the well-known Mona Lisa, was painted from 1503-1506 by Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519). The painting on the left, a picture of Princess Diana, was painted in 1982 by Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987). Both are portraits of a woman, and both were produced by highly skilled artists who used similar poses — but notice the striking differences in style.

If you study the lives of da Vinci and Warhol, you will find that there were — as you might well imagine — significant personal differences between the two men. These differences, however, do not account for the vast dissimilarity in painting styles. When you compare these two paintings, what you are seeing, more than anything else, are cultural differences. When an artist creates, he is strongly influenced by the times in which he lives and, no matter how innovative he might be as a person, he cannot completely escape the boundaries of his culture.

As you study the history of art, you see that, at any particular place and time, there is always a dominant "school" of art that defines the prevailing artistic culture. Most artists of the time work within the norms of that culture. A few artists, however — the visionaries and the experimenters — break new ground and, as they do, they encounter tremendous resistance from people who don't understand the "new" style of art. However, it is from the work of these innovators that art evolves.

So how does this pertain to abstract art?

Until the end of the 19th century, virtually all painting was representational. Artists painted pictures that were straightforward, and people looked at those paintings for one reason: to see the particular images that were depicted.

At first, this idea sounds so obvious as to hardly be worth stating. Why else would you look at paintings, if not to see the images? However, as I will explain, there are other, more compelling reasons to look at a painting. Indeed, it is possible to experience a painting in such a way that you go beyond what you see, in order to find out what you might feel.

In the early 1870s, a movement arose in France that began to introduce abstraction into serious art. This movement, called Impressionism, produced works of art that, for the first time, did not consist wholly of realistic images.

The original goal of the Impressionists was conceptually simple: they wanted to depict nature as it really existed. In particular, they labored to capture the ever-changing effects of light, as it changed throughout the day and from season to season.

For example, the French painter Monet, whom I mentioned above, spent a lot of time creating series of paintings in which he painted the same subject at different times of the day. His goal was to show how the color and form of the subject changed from one hour to the next.

Take a look at this painting of haystacks, created by Monet in 1890-1891. His goal was not to paint a simple image of a stack of hay, but rather to show the color and form of the haystacks at a particular time of day at the end of the summer. From Monet's point of view (I imagine), the painting was more of an exercise than a work of art.

"Wheatstacks (End of Summer)" [1890-1891] by Claude Monet.
Display a larger picture of this painting.

Around the same time, another school of art, Neo-Impressionism, arose from the influence of Impressionism. The Neo-Impressionists used many small side-by-side dots to build up various shapes and colors. You can see this technique — which is known as "pointillism" — in the following painting, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte", created in 1884-1886 by Georges Seurat (French, 1859-1891).

"A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" [1884-1886] by Georges Seurat.
Display a larger picture of this painting.

Finally, in the 1880s and 1890s, a disparate group of artists sought to move beyond Impressionism and its obsession with the changing effects of light. These artists, collectively known as the Post-Impressionists, created a wide range of striking and innovative paintings. Among the most important Post-Impressionists were Paul Cézanne (French, 1839-1906), whom I mentioned earlier, Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903) and Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890).

When you look at Impressionist paintings, you will notice that, although they are generally soothing to the eye and calming to the spirit, they are, as a whole, quite boring. This is not the case with the Post-Impressionsts, as you can see by looking at the following two paintings.

First, here is "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?", painted in 1897 by Gauguin.

"Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" [1897] by Paul Gauguin.
Display a larger picture of this painting.

Next, take a look at "Irises", painted in 1889 by van Gogh.

"Irises" [1889] by Vincent van Gogh.
Display a larger picture of this painting.

The last three decades of the 19th century were a time of two important — and distinct — transitions. First, as I have mentioned, there was a gradual change from representational art to abstract art. You can see this in the work of the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists.

The second change was more subtle, but far more important. With the work of the Post-Impressionists, the purpose of art itself had begun to change.

For most of history, the primary purpose of painting had been to portray images, rather than to evoke feelings and emotions. Starting with the Post-Impressionists, however, the emphasis began to shift. For the first time, unconscious feelings began to find their way into mainstream art. What allowed this to happen was that the Impressionists had loosened the bonds, giving permission for painters to stray from their representational roots and become more abstract.

To be sure, the Post-Impressionists were still quite literal in their work: when you look at the work of Cézanne or Gauguin or van Gogh, you do know what you are looking at. Indeed, at the beginning of this essay, I used one of Cézanne's paintings ("Apples, Peaches, Pears, and Grapes") as an example of representational work. Still, the gradual shift to abstraction and the capturing of deep-seated emotion was real and far-reaching.

The reason that this is so important is that most of human life exists unconsciously, below the surface of perception and beyond the reach of voluntary, purposeful thinking. Within this netherworld, lies the strong, untamed and irrational forces that give life to our being and definition to what it means to be human.

Until the 20th century, artists had to be content with merely grazing the surface of consciousness. Try as they might, their ability to penetrate to the heart of what it means to be human was limited by their tools. When the brain processes a recognizable image, a mental barrier is erected that prevents significant entry into the processes of the unconscious. Thus, representational art, by its very nature, imposes limits on how deeply an artist is able to insinuate him- or herself into the unconscious processes of the observer.

However, with the coming of abstraction, artists had, for the first time, a powerful tool that would allow them to bypass literal perception and reach into this otherwise impenetrable world of unconscious emotion. This was possible because, the more abstract a work of art, the less preconceptions it evokes in the mind of the beholder.

In the hands of a skillful practitioner, abstract art can be an extremely powerful tool. However, as I will explain in a moment, such tools require more than the skill of the artist, they require the cooperation of the observer. Before I get to this point, however, I'd like to continue with a bit of history.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the move towards abstraction had generated enormous possibility. Previously, painters — restricted by the conventions of representational art — had confined themselves to either imitating nature or telling stories. Now, for the first time, artists were able to enter a realm in which unbounded imagination was, not only possible, but desirable. Between 1910 and 1920, a new movement towards abstract art, both in painting and sculpture, arose in Europe and in North America.

The first important abstract artist was Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866-1944). During the years 1910 to 1914, Kandinsky created a series of paintings which he called "Improvisations and Compositions". Even today, almost a century later, Kandinsky's work is striking in its ability to bypass our consciousness and stir our inner feelings. Take a look, for example, at one of my favorites, "Improvisation 7", which Kandinsky painted in 1910.

"Improvisation 7" [1910] by Wassily Kandinsky.
Display a larger picture of this painting.

The work of Kandinsky was extremely influential, and helped to usher in an age in which a number of abstract movements were established, one after another: Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism, Neoplasticism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and so on.

Rather than describe each of these movements in detail, I'd like to jump to what I consider to be the defining point of 20th century art: Abstract Expressionism.

What we now call Abstract Expressionism emerged in New York in the early 1940s. It was not so much a well-defined school of art, as a way of thinking. The Abstract Expressionists made the final break from the rigid conventions of the past, by redefining what it meant to be an artist. In essence, they rebelled against what the rest of the art world judged to be acceptable.

Although the idea of abstraction had been around for some time, the Abstract Expressionists went a lot further. They began to emphasize, not only the finished product, but the actual process of painting. They experimented in how they interacted with the paint, the canvas, and their tools; and they paid attention to the physical qualities of the paint itself, its texture, color and shape.

I realize this sounds vague and pretentious, so I will explain to you what it all means. Before I do, though, let's take a look at an Abstract Expressionist painting, so you can at least get a feeling for what I am talking about.

The following painting was created in 1950 by Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956), a pioneer of what came to be called "action painting". The painting was originally called "Number 1, 1950", but at the suggestion of an art critic named Clement Greenberg, the painting was renamed "Lavender Mist" (although, there is actually no lavender in it).

"Lavender Mist" [1950] by Jackson Pollock.
Display a larger picture of this painting.

The name "action painting" was coined to describe the techniques used by Pollock. He would fasten large canvases to the floor of his studio, and then drip, fling, and spill paint on them. He often used regular house paint, because he preferred the way it flowed.

Now, I understand that the first time you look at a picture like "Lavender Mist" you may see nothing more than a confusing array of disorganized lines and spots. "What," I hear you say, "is this supposed to mean? How could anything so primitive and crude be considered to be great art? It looks like something a bored kid would do if he was left alone in an art studio with no supervision."

Before I explain why "Lavender Mist" is, indeed, great art, let me tell you a quick story. A few years ago, I decided to visit Washington, D.C. by myself. It was the middle of winter, and the city had been hit by a huge snowstorm. I was all alone, so I decided to walk to the National Gallery of Art. The streets were lonely and empty, and as I entered the museum, I could see that it too was empty.

I asked the information person if they had anything by Jackson Pollock. She said yes, and gave me directions to the room in which his paintings and drawings were hung. I had heard of Pollock and seen photographs of his work, but I had never seen any of the paintings in person.

I still remember the feeling I had when I descended the stairs, turned the corner, and looked at the wall. I was alone in a large room and, there on the far wall, was "Lavender Mist". The effect it had on me was completely unexpected. It was the only time in my life when I can remember a painting, literally, taking my breath away. I know this will sound a bit sappy, but seeing that painting changed me forever.

Looking at a Jackson Pollock painting
for the first time.

How could this be the case? You just looked at a picture of the same painting, and I doubt you felt as if you had been changed forever.

First, I should explain that the actual canvas is large, nearly 10 feet (3 meters) long. It is quite imposing when you see it in person, especially in a large empty room, where the painting seems to reach out, grab you and pull you towards it.

Second, what you see in the picture above is nothing like the real thing. Not only is the picture on your screen much smaller than the actual painting, but the colors you see on a computer monitor are muted and inexact. Moreover, on a computer screen, you do not get a sense of the texture of the paint and the canvas.

All of this you understand, I am sure. Everyone knows that viewing a real painting is a lot different from looking at a picture of the painting on a computer monitor (or on a projection screen in an art history class, for that matter).

However, there is another reason why I was so moved by "Lavender Mist", and it has to do with the very purpose of art. To discuss this, we have to consider the question, Why do we create art?

There are a number of straightforward reasons why human beings create art: to make a decoration, to tell a story, to capture or preserve an image, or to illustrate an idea. However, there is another, more subtle, but far more important reason why art is important to us.

The need to reach inside ourselves and manipulate our unconscious feelings is universal. We all do it to some degree, although most of the time we are blind to what we are doing.

That is where art comes in. As I explained earlier, one of the purposes of art is to allow us indirect access to our inner psyche. Great art affords a way to get in touch with the unconscious part of our existence, even if we don't realize what we are doing. In this sense, the role of the artist is to create something that, when viewed by an observer, evokes unconscious feelings and emotions.

The reason abstract art has the potential to be so powerful is that it keeps the conscious distractions to a minimum. When you look at, say, the apples and pears of Cézanne, your mental energy mostly goes to processing the images: the fruit, the plate, the table, and the background. However, when you look at "Lavender Mist", you are not distracted by meaningful images, so virtually all of your brain power is devoted to feeling. You can open yourself, let in the energy and spirit of the painting, and allow it to dance with your psyche.

Of course, this only works if you cooperate with the artist. His job is to create a painting that is rendered so skillfully that, when you look at it, what you see actually changes what you feel at an unconscious level. Your job is to clear your conscious mind of thoughts and preconceptions in order to allow yourself to be influenced by what you are seeing. This means that, if you are to truly appreciate a work of art, you must be willing to let yourself go, to put yourself in the hands of the artist, so to speak, and let him take you wherever he or she wants.

Much of the time, this partnership fails, sometimes because the artist is simply not skillful enough; often because the person looking at the painting does not know how to truly appreciate it.

Now you can see why the advent of Abstract Expressionism was so important. For the first time in history, artists were creating abstract art so skillfully that it was able to penetrate quickly and powerfully into people's subconscious (at least some people, some of the time).

Thus, it is possible to view the history of painting as a long evolutionary process, starting with the slow, labored development of tools and techniques. Eventually, after centuries of representationalism, the Impressionists began to shake off the long- standing restrictions, which led to the development of various schools of abstract art, culminating, in the 1940s, with Abstract Expressionism, the beginning of a new age of creation and human achievement.

I'd like to introduce to you a few of the Abstract Expressionists, painters whose work was important to the evolutionary process that redefined what it meant to be an artist. One thing that you will see is that work of these painters varies greatly. This is because, as I have mentioned, Abstract Expressionism is not so much a school of painting as a way of approaching and experiencing the act of creation.

I have already shown you "Lavender Mist" (1950) by Jackson Pollock. Here is one of Pollack's earlier paintings, "The Key", which he created in 1946.

"The Key" [1946] by Jackson Pollock.
Display a larger picture of this painting.

Next, I'd like to show you a painting by Arshile Gorky (Armenian-American, 1904-1948), whose work had significant influence at the time that Abstract Expressionism was emerging. This painting, called "One Year the Milkweed", was created in 1944.

"One Year the Milkweed" [1944] by Arshile Gorky.
Display a larger picture of this painting.

When you are just getting used to abstract art, you might wonder, just how good are these artists anyway? It doesn't look all that hard to fill a canvas with lines, and smears, and splotches.

I can assure you that the best abstract painters are all highly skilled artists in their own right. For example, here is a charcoal sketch done by Gorky in 1938, called "The Artist's Mother". (It is actually an idealization of his mother, inspired by an old photograph.)

"The Artist's Mother" [1938] by Arshile Gorky.

The next painting is by Franz Kline (American, 1910-1962). It is called "Painting Number 2", and was created in 1954.

"Painting Number 2" [1954] by Franz Kline.
Display a larger picture of this painting.

Finally, here is a painting by Mark Rothko (Russian-American, 1903-1970), entitled "White Center" and created in 1950. This painting is an example of what is called "Color Field" painting: an abstract image with large areas of undiluted color.

"White Center" [1950] by Mark Rothko.
Display a larger picture of this painting.

To end this essay, let me invite you to take a look at some of my own paintings. Now that we have spent some time discussing abstract art, pretend that you are looking at the paintings in person, and imagine what they might make you feel:

Visit the online gallery of my paintings
See the "Art Factory" mural I painted

You'll find a lot more art-related material in the online version of my book Harley Hahn's Internet Yellow Pages. Just click on the links below:

Art
Art Galleries and Exhibits

Below is a list of the topics that I cover in these two sections of the book.

Art

  • 3D Art
  • African Art
  • Art Activism
  • Art Conservation
  • Art Criticism
  • Art History
  • Art News
  • Art Nouveau
  • Art Resources
  • Art Talk and General Discussion
  • Art Terminology
  • Artist Encyclopedia
  • Arts and Crafts Movement
  • Ascii Art
  • Body Art
  • Ceramic Arts
  • Collage
  • Drawing
  • Gargoyles and Grotesques
  • Impressionism
  • Installation Art
  • Mail Art
  • Native American Art
  • Painting: Oil and Acrylic
  • Painting: Watercolor
  • Pop Art
  • Printmaking
  • Sculpture
  • Surrealism

Art Galleries and Exhibits

  • Alphonse Mucha Museum
  • Art Crimes
  • Art Gallery Talk and General Discussion
  • Art in Context
  • Asian Art Gallery
  • Baroque Art
  • Carlos Museum of Art
  • Digital Photography
  • Erté-- Harley Museum
  • Imagebase
  • Leonardo da Vinci Museum
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • Louvre Museum
  • M.C. Escher Gallery
  • Museum of Web Art
  • National Museum of American Art
  • Pinup Art
  • Sistine Chapel
  • Treasures of the Czars
  • Van Gogh Gallery
  • Vatican Exhibit
  • World Art Treasures
  • World Wide Art Resources

Jump to top of page


HARLEY HAHN ART CENTER — Main Page • Donation?
Understanding Abstract Art • The Abstract Art Interview
Paintings by Harley Hahn • Very Large Painting #2 • Art Factory Mural
(Editorial) Unfair Distribution of Talent: The Surrogate Cartoonist Act
Writing+Art • Letter to Architecture Students • Artist from Iran
• How Much Is My Painting Worth?


© All contents Copyright 2018, Harley Hahn
Full trademark and copyright information

Abstract art uses a visual language of shape, form, color and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world.[1]Western art had been, from the Renaissance up to the middle of the 19th century, underpinned by the logic of perspective and an attempt to reproduce an illusion of visible reality. The arts of cultures other than the European had become accessible and showed alternative ways of describing visual experience to the artist. By the end of the 19th century many artists felt a need to create a new kind of art which would encompass the fundamental changes taking place in technology, science and philosophy. The sources from which individual artists drew their theoretical arguments were diverse, and reflected the social and intellectual preoccupations in all areas of Western culture at that time.[2]

Abstract art, non-figurative art, non-objective art, and nonrepresentational art are loosely related terms. They are similar, but perhaps not of identical meaning.

Abstraction indicates a departure from reality in depiction of imagery in art. This departure from accurate representation can be slight, partial, or complete. Abstraction exists along a continuum. Even art that aims for verisimilitude of the highest degree can be said to be abstract, at least theoretically, since perfect representation is likely to be exceedingly elusive. Artwork which takes liberties, altering for instance color and form in ways that are conspicuous, can be said to be partially abstract. Total abstraction bears no trace of any reference to anything recognizable. In geometric abstraction, for instance, one is unlikely to find references to naturalistic entities. Figurative art and total abstraction are almost mutually exclusive. But figurative and representational (or realistic) art often contains partial abstraction.

Both geometric abstraction and lyrical abstraction are often totally abstract. Among the very numerous art movements that embody partial abstraction would be for instance fauvism in which color is conspicuously and deliberately altered vis-a-vis reality, and cubism, which blatantly alters the forms of the real life entities depicted.[3][4]

History[edit]

Main articles: History of painting and Western painting

Abstraction in early art and many cultures[edit]

Main articles: Prehistoric art and Eastern art history

Much of the art of earlier cultures – signs and marks on pottery, textiles, and inscriptions and paintings on rock – used simple, geometric and linear forms which might have had a symbolic or decorative purpose.[5] It is at this level of visual meaning that abstract art communicates.[6] One can enjoy the beauty of Chinese calligraphy or Islamic calligraphy without being able to read it.[7]

In Chinese painting, abstraction can be traced to the Tang dynasty painter Wang Mo (王墨), who is credited to have invented the splashed-ink painting style.[8] While none of his paintings remain, this style is clearly seen in some Song Dynasty Paintings. The Chan buddhist painter Liang Kai (梁楷, c.1140–1210) applied the style to figure painting in his "Immortal in splashed ink" in which accurate representation is sacrificed to enhance spontaneity linked to the non-rational mind of the enlightened. A late Song painter named Yu Jian, adept to Tiantai buddhism, created a series of splashed ink landscapes that eventually inspired many Japanese zen painters. His paintings show heavily misty mountains in which the shapes of the objects are barely visible and extremely simplified. This type of painting was continued by Sesshu Toyo in his later years.

Another instance of abstraction in Chinese painting is seen in Zhu Derun's "Cosmic Circle". On the left side of this painting is a pine tree in rocky soil, its branches laced with vines that extend in a disorderly manner to the right side of the painting in which a perfect circle (probably made with help of a compass[9]) floats in the void. The painting is a reflection of the Daoist metaphysics in which chaos and reality are complementary stages of the regular course of nature. In Tokugawa Japan some zen monk-painters created Enso, a circle who represents the absolute enlightenment. Usually made in one spontaneous brush stroke, it became the paradigm of the minimalist aesthetic that guided part of the zen painting.

19th century[edit]

Main articles: Romanticism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Expressionism

Patronage from the church diminished and private patronage from the public became more capable of providing a livelihood for artists.[10][11]

Three art movements which contributed to the development of abstract art were Romanticism, Impressionism and Expressionism. Artistic independence for artists was advanced during the 19th century. An objective interest in what is seen, can be discerned from the paintings of John Constable, J M W Turner, Camille Corot and from them to the Impressionists who continued the plein air painting of the Barbizon school.

Early intimations of a new art had been made by James McNeill Whistler who, in his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The falling Rocket, (1872), placed greater emphasis on visual sensation than the depiction of objects.

Expressionist painters explored the bold use of paint surface, drawing distortions and exaggerations, and intense color. Expressionists produced emotionally charged paintings that were reactions to and perceptions of contemporary experience; and reactions to Impressionism and other more conservative directions of late 19th-century painting. The Expressionists drastically changed the emphasis on subject matter in favor of the portrayal of psychological states of being. Although artists like Edvard Munch and James Ensor drew influences principally from the work of the Post-Impressionists they were instrumental to the advent of abstraction in the 20th century. Paul Cézanne had begun as an Impressionist but his aim – to make a logical construction of reality based on a view from a single point,[14] with modulated color in flat areas – became the basis of a new visual art, later to be developed into Cubism by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso.

Additionally in the late 19th century in Eastern Europe mysticism and early modernist religious philosophy as expressed by theosophistMme. Blavatsky had a profound impact on pioneer geometric artists like Hilma af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky. The mystical teaching of Georges Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky also had an important influence on the early formations of the geometric abstract styles of Piet Mondrian and his colleagues in the early 20th century.[15]

20th century[edit]

Main articles: Western painting, Fauvism, and Cubism

Post Impressionism as practiced by Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne had an enormous impact on 20th-century art and led to the advent of 20th-century abstraction. The heritage of painters like Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Seurat was essential for the development of modern art. At the beginning of the 20th century Henri Matisse and several other young artists including the pre-cubist Georges Braque, André Derain, Raoul Dufy and Maurice de Vlaminck revolutionized the Paris art world with "wild", multi-colored, expressive landscapes and figure paintings that the critics called Fauvism. With his expressive use of color and his free and imaginative drawing Henri Matisse comes very close to pure abstraction in French Window at Collioure (1914), View of Notre-Dame (1914), and The Yellow Curtain from 1915. The raw language of color as developed by the Fauves directly influenced another pioneer of abstraction, Wassily Kandinsky (see illustration).

Although Cubism ultimately depends upon subject matter, it became, along with Fauvism, the art movement that directly opened the door to abstraction in the 20th century. Pablo Picasso made his first cubist paintings based on Cézanne's idea that all depiction of nature can be reduced to three solids: cube, sphere and cone. With the painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), Picasso dramatically created a new and radical picture depicting a raw and primitive brothel scene with five prostitutes, violently painted women, reminiscent of African tribal masks and his own new Cubist inventions. Analytic cubism was jointly developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, from about 1908 through 1912. Analytic cubism, the first clear manifestation of cubism, was followed by Synthetic cubism, practiced by Braque, Picasso, Fernand Léger, Juan Gris, Albert Gleizes, Marcel Duchamp and others into the 1920s. Synthetic cubism is characterized by the introduction of different textures, surfaces, collage elements, papier collé and a large variety of merged subject matter. The collage artists like Kurt Schwitters and Man Ray and others taking the clue from Cubism were instrumental to the development of the movement called Dada.

The Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published the Manifesto of Futurism in 1909, which later inspired artists such as Carlo Carra in Painting of Sounds, Noises and Smells and Umberto BoccioniTrain in Motion, 1911, to a further stage of abstraction that would, along with Cubism, profoundly influenced art movements throughout Europe.[16]

During the 1912 Salon de la Section d'Or the poet Guillaume Apollinaire named the work of several artists including Robert, Orphism.[17] He defined it as, the art of painting new structures out of elements that have not been borrowed from the visual sphere, but had been created entirely by the artist...it is a pure art.[18]

Since the turn of the century, cultural connections between artists of the major European cities had become extremely active as they strove to create an art form equal to the high aspirations of modernism. Ideas were able to cross-fertilize by means of artist's books, exhibitions and manifestos so that many sources were open to experimentation and discussion, and formed a basis for a diversity of modes of abstraction. The following extract from 'The World Backwards' gives some impression of the inter-connectedness of culture at the time: "David Burliuk's knowledge of modern art movements must have been extremely up-to-date, for the second Knave of Diamonds exhibition, held in January 1912 (in Moscow) included not only paintings sent from Munich, but some members of the German Die Brücke group, while from Paris came work by Robert Delaunay, Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger, as well as Picasso. During the Spring David Burliuk gave two lectures on cubism and planned a polemical publication, which the Knave of Diamonds was to finance. He went abroad in May and came back determined to rival the almanac Der Blaue Reiter which had emerged from the printers while he was in Germany".[19]

From 1909 to 1913 many experimental works in the search for this 'pure art' had been created: by Hilma af Klint; Francis Picabia painted Caoutchouc, 1909,[20]The Spring, 1912,[21]Dances at the Spring[22] and The Procession, Seville, 1912;[23]Wassily Kandinsky painted Untitled (First Abstract Watercolor), 1910,[24]Improvisation 21A, the Impression series, and Picture with a Circle (1911);[25]František Kupka had painted the Orphist works, Discs of Newton (Study for Fugue in Two Colors), 1912[26] and Amorpha, Fugue en deux couleurs (Fugue in Two Colors), 1912; Robert Delaunay painted a series entitled Simultaneous Windows and Formes Circulaires, Soleil n°2 (1912–13);[27]Léopold Survage created Colored Rhythm (Study for the film), 1913;[28]Piet Mondrian, painted Tableau No. 1 and Composition No. 11, 1913.[29]

And the search continued: The Rayist (Luchizm) drawings of Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, used lines like rays of light to make a construction. Kasimir Malevich completed his first entirely abstract work, the Suprematist, 'Black Square', in 1915. Another of the Suprematist group' Liubov Popova, created the Architectonic Constructions and Spatial Force Constructions between 1916 and 1921. Piet Mondrian was evolving his abstract language, of horizontal and vertical lines with rectangles of color, between 1915 and 1919, Neo-Plasticism was the aesthetic which Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg and other in the group De Stijl intended to reshape the environment of the future.

Music[edit]

As visual art becomes more abstract, it develops some characteristics of music: an art form which uses the abstract elements of sound and divisions of time. Wassily Kandinsky, himself a musician, was inspired by the possibility of marks and associative color resounding in the soul. The idea had been put forward by Charles Baudelaire, that all our senses respond to various stimuli but the senses are connected at a deeper aesthetic level.

Closely related to this, is the idea that art has The spiritual dimension and can transcend 'every-day' experience, reaching a spiritual plane. The Theosophical Society popularized the ancient wisdom of the sacred books of India and China in the early years of the century. It was in this context that Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Hilma af Klint and other artists working towards an 'objectless state' became interested in the occult as a way of creating an 'inner' object. The universal and timeless shapes found in geometry: the circle, square and triangle become the spatial elements in abstract art; they are, like color, fundamental systems underlying visible reality.

Russian avant-garde[edit]

Main articles: Russian avant-garde and Futurism (art)

Many of the abstract artists in Russia became Constructivists believing that art was no longer something remote, but life itself. The artist must become a technician, learning to use the tools and materials of modern production. Art into life! was Vladimir Tatlin's slogan, and that of all the future Constructivists. Varvara Stepanova and Alexandre Exter and others abandoned easel painting and diverted their energies to theatre design and graphic works. On the other side stood Kazimir Malevich, Anton Pevsner and Naum Gabo. They argued that art was essentially a spiritual activity; to create the individual's place in the world, not to organize life in a practical, materialistic sense. Many of those who were hostile to the materialist production idea of art left Russia. Anton Pevsner went to France, Gabo went first to Berlin, then to England and finally to America. Kandinsky studied in Moscow then left for the Bauhaus. By the mid-1920s the revolutionary period (1917 to 1921) when artists had been free to experiment was over; and by the 1930s only socialist realism was allowed.[30]

The Bauhaus[edit]

The Bauhaus at Weimar, Germany was founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius.[31] The philosophy underlying the teaching program was unity of all the visual and plastic arts from architecture and painting to weaving and stained glass. This philosophy had grown from the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement in England and the Deutscher Werkbund. Among the teachers were Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Johannes Itten, Josef Albers, Anni Albers, and László Moholy-Nagy. In 1925 the school was moved to Dessau and, as the Nazi party gained control in 1932, The Bauhaus was closed. In 1937 an exhibition of degenerate art, 'Entartete Kunst' contained all types of avant-garde art disapproved of by the Nazi party. Then the exodus began: not just from the Bauhaus but from Europe in general; to Paris, London and America. Paul Klee went to Switzerland but many of the artists at the Bauhaus went to America.

Abstraction in Paris and London[edit]

During the 1930s Paris became the host to artists from Russia, Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries affected by the rise of totalitarianism. Sophie Tauber and Jean Arp collaborated on paintings and sculpture using organic/geometric forms. The Polish Katarzyna Kobro applied mathematically based ideas to sculpture. The many types of abstraction now in close proximity led to attempts by artists to analyse the various conceptual and aesthetic groupings. An exhibition by forty-six members of the Cercle et Carré group organized by Joaquin Torres-Garcia[32] assisted by Michel Seuphor[33] contained work by the Neo-Plasticists as well as abstractionists as varied as Kandinsky, Anton Pevsner and Kurt Schwitters. Criticized by Theo van Doesburg to be too indefinite a collection he published the journal Art Concret setting out a manifesto defining an abstract art in which the line, color and surface only, are the concrete reality.[34] Abstraction-Création founded in 1931 as a more open group, provided a point of reference for abstract artists, as the political situation worsened in 1935, and artists again regrouped, many in London. The first exhibition of British abstract art was held in England in 1935. The following year the more international Abstract and Concrete exhibition was organized by Nicolete Gray including work by Piet Mondrian, Joan Miró, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. Hepworth, Nicholson and Gabo moved to the St. Ives group in Cornwall to continue their 'constructivist' work.[35]

America: mid-century[edit]

Main articles: Modernism, Late modernism, American Modernism, and Surrealism

During the Nazi rise to power in the 1930s many artists fled Europe to the United States. By the early 1940s the main movements in modern art, expressionism, cubism, abstraction, surrealism, and dada were represented in New York: Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, Jacques Lipchitz, André Masson, Max Ernst, André Breton, were just a few of the exiled Europeans who arrived in New York.[37] The rich cultural influences brought by the European artists were distilled and built upon by local New York painters. The climate of freedom in New York allowed all of these influences to flourish. The art galleries that primarily had focused on European art began to notice the local art community and the work of younger American artists who had begun to mature. Certain artists at this time became distinctly abstract in their mature work. During this period Piet Mondrian's painting Composition No. 10, 1939–1942, characterized by primary colors, white ground and black grid lines clearly defined his radical but classical approach to the rectangle and abstract art in general. Some artists of the period defied categorization, such as Georgia O'Keeffe who, while a modernist abstractionist, was a pure maverick in that she painted highly abstract forms while not joining any specific group of the period.

Eventually American artists who were working in a great diversity of styles began to coalesce into cohesive stylistic groups. The best known group of American artists became known as the Abstract expressionists and the New York School. In New York City there was an atmosphere which encouraged discussion and there was new opportunity for learning and growing. Artists and teachers John D. Graham and Hans Hofmann became important bridge figures between the newly arrived European Modernists and the younger American artists coming of age. Mark Rothko, born in Russia, began with strongly surrealist imagery which later dissolved into his powerful color compositions of the early 1950s. The expressionistic gesture and the act of painting itself, became of primary importance to Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline. While during the 1940s Arshile Gorky's and Willem de Kooning's figurative work evolved into abstraction by the end of the decade. New York City became the center, and artists worldwide gravitated towards it; from other places in America as well.[38]

Later developments[edit]

Main articles: Abstract expressionism, Color field, Lyrical abstraction, Post-painterly abstraction, Sculpture, and Minimal art

Digital art, hard-edge painting, geometric abstraction, minimalism, lyrical abstraction, op art, abstract expressionism, color field painting, monochrome painting, assemblage, neo-Dada, shaped canvas painting, are a few directions relating to abstraction in the second half of the 20th century.

In the United States, Art as Object as seen in the Minimalist sculpture of Donald Judd and the paintings of Frank Stella are seen today as newer permutations. Other examples include Lyrical Abstraction and the sensuous use of color seen in the work of painters as diverse as Robert Motherwell, Patrick Heron, Kenneth Noland, Sam Francis, Cy Twombly, Richard Diebenkorn, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell.

Causation[edit]

One socio-historical explanation that has been offered for the growing prevalence of the abstract in modern art – an explanation linked to the name of Theodor W. Adorno – is that such abstraction is a response to, and a reflection of, the growing abstraction of social relations in industrial society.[39]

Frederic Jameson similarly sees modernist abstraction as a function of the abstract power of money, equating all things equally as exchange-values.[40] The social content of abstract art is then precisely the abstract nature of social existence – legal formalities, bureaucratic impersonalization, information/power – in the world of late modernity.[41]

Post-Jungians by contrast would see the quantum theories with their disintegration of conventional ideas of form and matter as underlying the divorce of the concrete and the abstract in modern art.[42]

Gallery[edit]

  • Arthur Dove, 1911–12, Based on Leaf Forms and Spaces, pastel on unidentified support. Now lost

  • Hilma af Klint, Svanen (The Swan), No. 17, Group IX, Series SUW, October 1914-March 1915. This abstract work was never exhibited during af Klint's lifetime.

  • Albert Gleizes, 1921, Composition bleu et jaune (Composition jaune), oil on canvas, 200.5 x 110 cm

See also[edit]

In other media

References[edit]

  1. ^Rudolph Arnheim, Visual Thinking, University of California Press, 1969, ISBN 0520018710
  2. ^Mel Gooding, Abstract Art, Tate Publishing, London, 2000
  3. ^"Abstract Art – What Is Abstract Art or Abstract Painting, retrieved January 7, 2009". Painting.about.com. 2011-06-07. Archived from the original on 7 July 2011. Retrieved 2011-06-11. 
  4. ^"Themes in American Art – Abstraction, retrieved January 7, 2009". Nga.gov. 2000-07-27. Archived from the original on 8 June 2011. Retrieved 2011-06-11. 
  5. ^György Kepes, Sign, Image and Symbol, Studio Vista, London, 1966
  6. ^Derek Hyatt,"Meeting on the Moor", Modern Painters, Autumn 1995
  7. ^Simon Leys, 2013. The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays. New York: New York Review Books. p. 304. ISBN 9781590176207.
  8. ^Lippit, Y. (2012). "Of Modes and Manners in Japanese Ink Painting: Sesshū's Splashed Ink Landscape of 1495". The Art Bulletin, 94(1), p. 56.
  9. ^Watt, J. C. (2010). The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty. Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 224
  10. ^Ernst Gombrich, "The Early Medici as Patrons of Art" in Norm and Form, pp 35–57, London, 1966
  11. ^Judith Balfe, ed. Paying the Piper: Causes and Consequences of Art Patronage, Univ. of Illinois Press
  12. ^Whistler versus Ruskin, Princeton edu.Archived June 16, 2010, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved June 13, 2010
  13. ^From the Tate, retrieved April 12, 2009
  14. ^Herbert Read, A Concise History of Modern Art, Thames and Hudson
  15. ^"Hilton Kramer, "Mondrian & mysticism: My long search is over", ''New Criterion'', September 1995". Newcriterion.com. Retrieved 2012-02-26. 
  16. ^Caroline Tisdall and Angelo Bozzolla, Futurism, Thames and Hudson, 1977
  17. ^La Section d'or, 1912-1920-1925, Cécile Debray, Françoise Lucbert, Musées de Châteauroux, Musée Fabre, exhibition catalogue, Éditions Cercle d'art, Paris, 2000
  18. ^Harrison and Wood, Art in theory, 1900–2000, Wiley-Blackwell, 2003, p. 189. ISBN 978-0-631-22708-3.books.google.com"
  19. ^Susan P Compton, The World Backwards, British museum Publications, London, 1978
  20. ^"Francis Picabia, Caoutchouc, 1909, MNAM, Paris". Francispicabia.org. Retrieved 2013-09-29. 
  21. ^"Museum of Modern Art, New York, Francis Picabia, ''The Spring'', 1912". Moma.org. Retrieved 2013-09-29. 
  22. ^"MoMA, New York, Francis Picabia, ''Dances at the Spring'', 1912". Moma.org. Retrieved 2013-09-29. 
  23. ^"National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC., Francis Picabia, The Procession, Seville, 1912". Nga.gov. Retrieved 2013-09-29. 
  24. ^Stan Rummel (2007-12-13). "Wassily Kandinsky, ''Untitled'' (First Abstract Watercolor), 1910". Faculty.txwes.edu. Archived from the original on 2012-07-19. Retrieved 2013-09-29. 
  25. ^"The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Guggenheim Museum, Kandinsky Retrospective, Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2009"(PDF). Archived from the original(PDF) on 2012-07-18. Retrieved 2013-09-29. 
  26. ^"Philadelphia Museum of Art, Disks of Newton (Study for "Fugue in Two Colors") 1912". Philamuseum.org. Retrieved 2013-09-29.
Robert Delaunay, 1912–13, Le Premier Disque, 134 cm (52.7 in.), Private collection.
"Immortal in splashed ink", Liang Kai, China, 12th century
"Mountain market, clearing Mist", Yu Jian, China
František Kupka, Amorpha, Fugue en deux couleurs (Fugue in Two Colors), 1912, oil on canvas, 210 x 200 cm, Narodni Galerie, Prague. Published in Au Salon d'Automne "Les Indépendants" 1912, Exhibited at the 1912 Salon d'Automne, Paris.
Robert Delaunay, 1912, Windows Open Simultaneously (First Part, Third Motif), oil on canvas, 45.7 x 37.5 cm, Tate Modern
The above is a 1939–42 oil on canvas painting by Mondrian titled "Composition No. 10". Responding to it, fellow De Stijl artist Theo van Doesburg suggested a link between non-representational works of art and ideals of peace and spirituality.[36]

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *