Abstract art has its roots in the changing world of the early 20th century. The industrial revolution inspired new ways of thinking and artists were ready to embrace new ideas and techniques in response a more mechanised, faster-paced environment. Change was in the air everywhere.
Cezanne and his fellow Post-Impressionists paved the way. Picasso and his contemporary Georges Braque were quick to follow, turning the art of seeing and the use of perspective on its head and giving us a highly influential new movement known as Cubism.
It is Wassily Kandinsky, however, who gets the credit as the painter of the first truly abstract artwork in 1911. Inspired by a glimpse of one of his own paintings turned on its side in his studio, he quickly recognised the potential in this altered view of the world and the possibilities it opened up for him as an artist. He began to use shapes, lines and colour to paint the music he loved and interpret the world as he saw it. The result is an astounding body of vibrant abstract work that has endured in popularity across the decades.
Kandinsky’s book ‘Concerning the Spirituality in Art’ also reflected a growing need among artists to express something other than the received notion of ‘reality’. In Russia, Kasimir Malevich wanted to break loose from the constraints of this reality. He set out to simplify everything in his art and produced his most famous painting ‘Black Square’ in 1913. A simple black square, Malevich believed, would allow his work to communicate the pure emotion he wanted to convey, uncluttered by recognisable objects. Its impact was profound.
The Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian, also believed that what mattered most in painting was not a depiction of our everyday, tangible world but rather the representation of a world that lay beyond – the world of the spirit. He produced his famous grid paintings throughout the 1920s, using only primary colours against a white background, all brilliantly positioned with a series of black lines. There is nothing random about the placing of the colour in these, apparently simple, paintings – Mondrian’s deep understanding of what works is easily confirmed – if one colour is exchanged for another or one position altered, the impact of the original painting is lost.
The power of abstraction in art gathered momentum as the century progressed. Younger artists emerging during the inter-war years embraced it in their quest to make sense of their uncertain, war-threatened world. Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko among others found a freedom in abstract art that enabled them to make bold statements. They were highly individualistic in their approach to their art but all were united by a need to give voice to the strong emotions they were feeling. Theirs was the disturbing, unstable world of pre and post-war America.
Towards the end of the 1930s, for the first time, New York and not Paris, became the centre of the art world and these artists were at the forefront of that shift. There was a new energy at play – an influx of European artists, refugees from the turbulent events in Europe, brought new ideas and influences and created a potent new synergy. New York was the ideal platform for this clutch of new artists who were destined to create some of the most famous abstract art in history.
Jackson Pollock became famous for his drip paintings and was nicknamed ‘Jack the Dripper’ in a media article at the time. His distinctive style of drips, swirls and splashes of paint gives the impression of chaos and a completely random approach to the finished work but this belies a complex and spiritual process the painter engaged in. Far from being chaotic, Pollock’s paintings mirror mathematical patterns found in nature, a fact that has been established by recent scientific analysis of his work. Pollock may not have understood it himself, but his paintings tell us he was communicating with the natural world at the deepest level.
Mark Rothko, too, engaged in a deeply spiritual, soul-searching process during the creation of his work, in a quest to create space and depth through his use of colour. His success in achieving this is evident when you stand in front of one of his large canvases and find yourself being drawn into the painting.
In all of these famous abstract paintings, the artist communicates something that is almost intangible yet a potent message gets through. It might be that we instinctively recognise aspects of our shared human experience or a shared sense of connection to something deeper, something beyond our immediate reality.
Those of us who love abstract art take our place among generations of art lovers who have stood before these great paintings and been moved by them. Walking away feeling that powerful sense of connection is what it’s all about.