Abstract artArt that does not attempt to represent external, recognizable reality but seeks to achieve its effect using shapes,forms, colors etc.
IntroductionAbstract art uses a visual language of form, color and line to create a compositionwhich may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in theworld. Western art had been, from the Renaissance up to the middle of the 19thcentury, underpinned by the logic of perspective and an attempt to reproduce anillusion of visible reality. The arts of cultures other than the European had becomeaccessible and showed alternative ways of describing visual experience to the artist. Bythe end of the 19th century many artists felt a need to create a new kind of art whichwould encompass the fundamental changes taking place in technology, science andphilosophy. The sources from which individual artists drew their theoretical argumentswere diverse, and reflected the social and intellectual preoccupations in all areas ofWestern culture at that time.Abstract art, nonfigurative art, nonobjective art, and nonrepresentational art areloosely related terms. They are similar, but perhaps not of identical meaning.
Abstraction in early art and many culturesMuch of the art of earlier cultures – signs and marks on pottery, textiles, andinscriptions and paintings on rock – were simple, geometric and linear forms whichmight have had a symbolic or decorative purpose. It is at this level of visual meaningthat abstract art communicates. One can enjoy the beauty of Chinesecalligraphy or Islamic calligraphy without being able to read it.
19th centuryThree art movements which contributed to the development of abstract artwere Romanticism, Impressionism and ExpressionismEarly intimations of a new art had been made by James McNeill Whistler who, in his painting Nocturne in Black andGold: The falling Rocket, (1872), placed greater emphasis on visual sensation than the depiction of objectsExpressionist painters explored the bold use of paint surface, drawing distortions and exaggerations, and intensecolor. Expressionists produced emotionally charged paintings that were reactions to and perceptions of contemporaryexperience; and reactions to Impressionism and other more conservative directions of late 19th century paintingAdditionally in the late 19th century in Eastern Europe mysticism and early modernist religious philosophy asexpressed by theosophist Mme. Blavatsky had a profound impact on pioneer geometric artists likeWassily Kandinsky,and Hilma af Klint. The mystical teaching of Georges Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky also had an important influence onthe early formations of the geometric abstract styles of Piet Mondrian and his colleagues in the early 20th century.
MusicVisual art, as it becomes more abstract becomes more like music: an art form which uses theabstract elements of sound and divisions of time. Wassily Kandinsky, himself a musician, wasinspired by the possibility of marks and associative color resounding in the soul. The idea hadbeen put forward by Charles Baudelaire, that all our senses respond to various stimuli but thesenses 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 popularised the ancientwisdom of the sacred books of India and China in the early years of the century. It was in thiscontext that Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Hilma af Klint and other artists working towardsan objectless state became interested in the occult as a way of creating an inner object. Theuniversal and timeless shapes found in geometry: the circle, square and triangle become thespacial elements in abstract art; they are, like color, fundamental systems underlying visiblereality.
Russian avant-gardeMany of the abstract artists in Russia became Constructivists believing that art was no longersomething remote, but life itself. The artist must become a technician, learning to use the toolsand materials of modern production. Art into life! was Vladimir Tatlins slogan, and that of allthe future Constructivists. Varvara Stepanova and Alexandre Exter and others abandoned easelpainting and diverted their energies to theatre design and graphic works. On the other sidestood Kazimir Malevich, Anton Pevsner and Naum Gabo. They argued that art was essentially aspiritual activity; to create the individuals place in the world, not to organise life in a practical,materialistic sense. Many of those who were hostile to the materialist production idea of artleft Russia. Anton Pevsner went to France, Gabo went first to Berlin, then to England and finallyto America. Kandinsky studied in Moscow then left for the Bauhaus. By the mid-1920s therevolutionary period (1917 to 1921) when artists had been free to experiment was over; and bythe 1930s only socialist realism was allowed.
The BauhausThe Bauhaus at Weimar, Germany was founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius. The philosophyunderlying the teaching program was unity of all the visual and plastic arts from architectureand painting to weaving and stained glass. This philosophy had grown from the ideas ofthe Arts and Crafts movement in England and the Deutscher Werkbund. Among the teacherswere Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Johannes Itten, Josef Albers,Anni Albers, Theo vanDoesburg and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. In 1925 the school was moved to Dessau and, as the Naziparty 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. Thenthe exodus began: not just from the Bauhaus but from Europe in general; to Paris, London andAmerica. Paul Klee went to Switzerland but many of the artists at the Bauhaus went toAmerica.
Abstraction in Paris and London
America: mid-centuryDuring the Nazi rise to power in the 1930s many artists fled Europe to theUnited States. By the early 1940s the main movements in modern art,expressionism, cubism, abstraction, surrealism, and dada were represented inNew York: Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, Jacques Lipchitz, MaxErnst, André Breton, were just a few of the exiled Europeans who arrived inNew York. The rich cultural influences brought by the European artistswere distilled and built upon by local New York painters. The climate offreedom in New York allowed all of these influences to flourish. The artgalleries that primarily had focused on European art began to notice thelocal art community and the work of younger American artists who had begun tomature. Certain of these artists became distinctly abstract in their maturework.