abstract art

abstract art

abstract art: see abstract expressionism; modern art.
Abstract art uses a visual language of form, color and line to create a composition which exists independently of visual references to the world. 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 to the artist, of describing visual experience (see:Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh). 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 turmoil in all areas of Western culture at that time.

History

Abstraction in early art and many cultures

Much of the art of earliest peoples: signs and marks on pottery, textiles and inscriptions and paintings on rock ; were simple, geometric and linear forms which might reveal a symbolic or decorative purpose. It is at this level of visual rather than literary meaning that abstract art communicates. One can enjoy the beauty of an Chinese calligraphy or Islamic script, for example, without being able to read it.

19th century

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. Patronage from the church diminished and private patronage from the public became more capable of providing a livlihood for artists.

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. 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. Paul Cezanne had begun as an Impressionist but his aim: to make a logical construction of reality based on a view from a single point , with modulated colour in flat areas, became the basis of a new visual art, later to be developed into Cubism by George Braque, Pablo Picasso.

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 also 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.

20th century

Post Impressionism as practiced by Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cezanne 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. 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, practised by Braque, Picasso, Fernand Léger, Juan Gris, Albert Gleizes, Marcel Duchamp and countless other artists 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.

In 1913 the poet Guillaume Appollinaire named the work of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Orphism (art). 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.

Since the turn of the century cultural connections between artists of the major European and American 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 artists 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 Brucke group, while from Paris came work by Robert Delaunay, Henri Matisse and Fernand Leger, 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'.

By 1911 many experimental works in the search for this 'pure art' had been created. Frantisek Kupka had painted the Orphist work,'Discs of Newton'.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 colour, 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. In Italy the futurism, mixed with Bauhaus influence, led the way to an abstract art with a distinct warm colour palette such as in the works of Manlio Rho and Mario Radice.

Music

Some approaches towards abstract art drew connections to music. Music provides an example of an art form which uses the abstract elements of sound and divisions of time Wassili 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 popularised the ancient wisdom of the sacred books of India, 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 spacial elements in abstract art; they are, like color, fundamental systems underlying visible reality.

Russian avant-garde

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 organise 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 social realist art was allowed.

The Bauhaus

The Bauhaus at Weimar, Germany was founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius. 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 Deutsche Werkbund. Among the teachers were Paul Klee, Johannes Itten, Joseph Albers, Anni Albers, Theo van Doesburg and Laszlo 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

During the 1930s Paris became the host to artists from Russia, Germany, Holland 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 organised by Michel Seuphor contained work by the Neo-Plasticists as well as abstractionists as varied as Kandinsky, Anton Pevsner and Kurt Schwitters. Criticised by Theo van Doesburg to be too indefinite a collection he publish the journal Art Concret setting out a manifesto defining an abstract art in which the line, color and surface only, are the concrete reality. 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 organised by Nicolete Gray including work by Mondrian, Miro, Nicholson and Hepworth. Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Gabo moved to the St. Ives group in Cornwall to continue their 'constructivist' work.

America: Mid-Century

During the Nazi rise to power in the 1930s many artists fled Europe and came 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 Leger, Piet Mondrian, Jacques Lipchitz, Max Ernst, Andre Breton, were just a few of the exiled Europeans who arrived in New York.. 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 of these artists became distinctly abstract in their mature work.

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 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.

Abstraction in the 21st century

During the final decades of the 20th century and into the 21st century abstraction remains very much in view, its main themes: the transcendental, the contemplative and the timeless are exempified by Barnett Newman and Agnes Martin. Art as Object as seen in the Minimalist sculpture of Donald Judd and the paintings of Frank Stella and the poetic, 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 and dozens of others.

There was a resurgence after the war and into the 1950s of the figurative, as Neo-Dada, Fluxus, Conceptual Art, Neo-expressionism, Installation art, Performance Art, Video Art and Pop art have come to signify the age of consumerism. The distinction between abstract and figurative art has, over the last twenty years, become less defined leaving a wider range of ideas for all artists .

Gallery

References

Sources

  1. Compton, Susan (1978). The World Backwards: Russian Futurist Books 1912-16. The British Library. ISBN 0714103969.
  2. Stangos, Nikos (editor) (revised 1981). Concepts of Modern Art. Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0500201962.
  3. Gooding, Mel (2001). Abstract Art (Movements in Modern Art series). Tate Publishing. ISBN 1854373021.

See also

External links

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