Abstract art angers people. It is weird, it is about nothing, it doesn’t take any skill. Fittingly, the first abstract artist was an eccentric Russian mystic, who thought painting was musical. But before him, a little history.
Until around 1850, visual art had one job; to mirror, as accurately as possible, the real world around us.
With some notable exceptions, artistic proficiency could be measured with precision; how accurately did the artist render a face, or a building, or a landscape.
But as the world modernised rapidly in the second half of the 1800’s, a new generation of artists began to test this idea. Rather than simply produce a detailed copy of what we could already see, these artists now wanted to provoke a more emotional response in their audience.
The most well known of these artists, are the Impressionists.
Even if you don’t have much interest in art, chances are you have seen something painted by Claude Monet.
The French Impressionist painter, best known for his pictures of water lilies and gardens, has achieved a level of fame that transcends his medium. His pictures are bold, colourful, eye catching, and remain very popular.
Monet was at the forefront of a movement, beginning in the 1860s, that sought to layer additional meaning into artistic expression. Rather than just paint what a garden looked like, say, he wanted you to see what it looked like at different times of day, and under different lighting conditions.
And he wanted you to experience what he felt, while he was looking at it.
His exciting colour choices, and style – utilising thousands of ‘dabs’ of paint, rather than straight, clean lines – was his method.
Other leading Impressionists – including Paul Cezannes, Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas, and Pierre Auguste Renoir – formulated a similar approach; developing new techniques to imbue their works with an emotional element.
The artists listed above were friends as well as artistic rivals. Based in Paris, then the centre of the art world, they met regularly, hung out, and encouraged each other to push the boundaries.
In April 1874, they collaborated on an exhibition which would change the history of art.
Opening on April 15, 1874, in the studio of avant garde photographer Nadar, the untitled exhibition featured works from Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cezannes, Camille Pissarro, and Alfred Sisley.
Hard as it is to imagine today, these works were on sale, for a few hundred Francs each.
Even harder to imagine, is the hostile reception the exhibition received:
‘I enter and my horrified eyes behold something terrible. Five or six lunatics have joined together and exhibited their works.
I have seen people rock with laughter in front of these pictures, but my heart bled when I saw them.
They take a piece of canvas, daub a few patches of paint on it at random, and sign the whole thing with their name.’
- Contemporary critic, reviewing the exhibition.
The critics were almost universally hostile.
The name that would eventually be given to this style of art, ‘Impressionism’, stemmed from one of Monet’s paintings (one of five in the show); ‘Impression: Sunrise', which depicted the docks at Le Havre, in the south of France.
Prominent local critic Louis Leroy, shocked by the artworks he had seen, titled his hostile review ‘The Exhibition of the Impressionists’, and the name stuck.
But while the exhibition created waves, it was not a success and most of the paintings on display went unsold. Nevertheless, it was seen by other artists.
One of these was Vincent van Gogh.
Van Gogh was a self taught Dutch painter who also wanted you to experience what he was feeling.
But what he was feeling was much more extreme than the refined gentleman in the Impressionist school. A passionate man, prone to mood swings, Van Gogh lived his life in a turbulent squall of emtions, up and down.
To put this across, his stylistic choices were even wilder; large slabs of very bright colour, and surrealistic touches that further removed the images from the everyday.
His 1888 painting, ‘Bedroom at Arles’, shows his simple lodgings in the town of Arles, in the south of France.
The colours used are deliberately bright, much brighter than the room in real life. This is a basic example of what Van Gogh was aiming for; he felt happy in this room, his sanctuary, and so chose an upbeat palette to convey his sense of wellbeing.
In ‘The Starry Night’, painted the following year, Van Gogh took the view of the night sky from his bedroom window, and deliberately distorted it.
The black of the sky suddenly comes alive with swirls, and reflected light, while the object at front left, which at first glance appears to be a tower from ‘Lord of the Rings’, is actually a cypress tree.
Van Gogh was excited by the moon and stars, and how everyday things appeared at night. His sense of wonder is reflected in his choices in this painting, which is perhaps his most famous. Again, the idea is not to show the view as it actually appeared, but to convey how Van Gogh was feeling as he made this work; excited, awestruck, giddy.
Tragically, he would commit suicide the following year, at only 47 years of age. Now one of the most highly valued artists, he sold only two paintings in his lifetime.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Cubism continued the progression of art from a depiction of real things, to something more emotive and cerebral.
Founded by Pablo Picasso and George Braque in 1907, the Cubist school expanded on the Impressionists and van Gogh by adding symbolism, and references to African and Japanese folk art.
They complemented this with an even more radical visual style; effectively trying to render in two dimensions, in one image, how objects looked from different angles.
Picasso’s famous painting, ‘Le Damoiselles d’Avignon’ (painted in 1907) showcased these new ideas.
The picture shows a series of naked women, prostitutes, staring directly at the audience. Only these are not like any female forms that have been drawn or painted previously. The bodies are angular, irregularly shaped, and defiantly asexual.
One is wearing a sinister looking mask. The one in the bottom right looks barely human at all. The whole thing is also, it has to be said, not afraid to be ugly.
So what is going on?
With this painting, Picasso was again challenging the idea of what a painting could be. Instead of just emotions, he was now layering intellectual ideas of how woman were depicted in art, or viewed in society, or in his own mind.
His prostitutes show no shame, as would be expected at the time. They appear strong and powerful, even menacing. The picture also, in many interpretations, highlights Picasso’s own repressed fear of female sexuality. This is complex stuff.
But as art advanced and became more complex, one thing connected these new styles to earlier, more traditional approaches; artworks still had a subject.
That is, they still showed a face, or a building, or a landscape, however exotically depicted.
Enter the Abstractionists.
Russian born Wasily Kandinsky is often thought of the first Abstract artist.
As a young man, he had seen both the works of Monet and Van Gogh and been enormously impressed by both. His earliest paintings were an attempt to imitate the style of these artists.
But from around 1909, he began to experiment with paintings that dispensed with a subject, and replaced this with exotic patterns; circles, zig zags, chevrons.
Or, sometimes he dispensed with these as well, and simply splashed large blobs of free form colour about.
Kandinsky’s goal with this unusual approach was, again, to provoke an emotional response.
And he finally decided that having a subject was an obstacle to this goal; if you paint a picture of a bowl of fruit, say, the observer will bring with them all of their preconceived ideas of fruit, and bowls, and so will not be able to fully experience what the artist is trying to convey.
But, if you show someone a purely abstract image, they have no frame of reference to view it through. It is unexpected, and surprising, and makes the audience engage just with the picture.
In 1911, Kandinsky exhibited his first fully abstract work, ‘Picture with a Circle’.
Displayed in Munich, then the location of a thriving radical art scene, Kandinsky’s painting was met with bafflement, but also excitement.
An eccentric figure, to put it mildly, Kandinsky was happy to explain to his audience that his abstract works had a ‘musical’ element, and that they were designed to facilitate a communion between the mind and the spirit.
A self proclaimed mystic, and 'truth seeker', Kandinsky would expand on these ideas in in a book, 'Concerning the Spiritual in Art', he wrote and self published the following year, :
‘Colour is a power that directly influences the soul.
Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings.
Bright red can affect us like the call of a trumpet.’
- Wasily Kandinsky, 'Concerning the Spiritual in Art' (1912)
Visual arts would never be the same again.