Article 4

The Origins of Abstract Art

Chinese clay sculpture

Chinese clay sculpture,
ca. 1000

Hans Holbein, German painting

Hans Holbein, German painting,

New Zealand Maori carving

New Zealand Maori carving,
ca. 1800

Polynesian War God Oro, Tahiti

War God
Oro, Tahiti,
ca. 1800

Matisse 1954: The Blue Nude

Matisse 1954, representing the human form in a new way.

Cézanne 1896: distorting the table and tilting the plate

Cézanne 1896, distorting the table and tilting the plate

Picasso 1907: Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon

Picasso 1907, his "Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon" are still challenging and bewildering today.

Picasso 1912: Violin and Grapes

Picasso 1912, "Violin and Grapes" in cubist style: showing the forms of objects from different perspectives.

Kandinsky 1910: Colour-music

Kandinsky 1910, color-music and no need for a recognizable subject.

By definition, to abstract means to summarize, to edit, to simplify in order to make an image stronger, to show the essence of either a natural thing, a spiritual subject or an idea.

Realistic and conceptual art

Before there was realistic painting, there was no need to define works as abstract. No visual artist in any culture has jumped straight into realistic painting or sculpting, instead they all started out with geometric ornaments, linear forms and symbols, and the way their work developed, depended not only on their imagination, talent and social circumstances, but also on the materials and tools available.

Sophisticated materials like paper, textiles, metal, good clay, brushes and pigments, allowed the artists in China, Japan, India or Europe to develop elaborate techniques to create illusions of natural things or spiritual subjects. This style is labeled realistic or representative art.

In Africa and Oceania, the limitation of materials and destructive climatic conditions demanded a different approach. To communicate and give form to spiritual themes, the artists created symbols and idols that represented the ideas rather than describing the looks of things. Today, this approach is called conceptual art.

There is often no clear distinction between realism and conceptual art, and artists in different cultures and ages have used a mix of both approaches.

Artistic freedom

Although abstraction has always been an essential process in the creation of art, it was not until 100 years ago that the term “Abstract Art” was born.

At the turn of the last century, French artist Cézanne had come to the conclusion, that the way we see nature, reality, is in the mind of the beholder, possibly different for everyone, and as a result, seeing is a creative process.

With this seemingly simple theory he opened up a whole new approach for artists: works of art ought to reveal the artist’s personal vision, his/her interpretation of nature or ideas, which can be very different from established conventions and traditions. Cézanne broke with the established theories of perspective, tilted his plates and tables, mixed foreground with background, and in his last works, he almost dissolved his subjects into patches of vivid color.

Fired up by this new freedom, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso followed his example of experimentation, but also looked at the art of other cultures for new ways of expressing their ideas. 100 years ago, Picasso shocked the Western world with “Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon”, a painting that broke all accepted rules, and which was clearly inspired by African masks.

Together with fellow artist Braque, he then developed the style of cubism, which demonstrated how independent art was from nature: on canvas, the form of things could be shown from many different angles at the same time. In a cubist painting, a well-known object like a violin was broken up into bits and pieces, and arranged into a fascinating and complex decorative composition.

Also inspired by Cézanne, Russian artist Kandinsky declared in 1910 that the real nature of painting was dynamic brush strokes of expressive colors on a flat surface, and did the first fully abstract painting. He published books about how colors can change our mood: the effect of forceful reds, uplifting yellows or soothing cool blues, and compared their influence on our soul with the effect of music.

One way or many?

Ever since, new styles have been invented in rapid succession, and each one of them gave rise to new attitudes about art, societies and our human condition.

Art history shows us the sequence of the many methods and approaches that have been conceived since humans started creating images. This evolution will continue, but not just on one front - each one of these styles presents a point of departure. They are more than just records of their time, they show the diversity and individuality of the human mind and soul.

For artists, each style is an open road and an invitation to continue the journey of discovery, to search and find a way to make thoughts, ideas and feelings visible.

Judith Kunzlé

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