Let no one ignorant of geometry come under my roof.
Who is afraid of abstract art? For hundreds of years, painters worked diligently and often successfully to perfect their skills in reproducing reality: perspective, light and shadows, the tone of flesh, and the folds of a robe. The High Renaissance brought us paintings that appeared so lifelike that viewers could imagine stepping into a landscape or holding the hand of a mythological character. However, at the start of the 20th century, artists began seeking a new way to represent reality. The time was ripe to abandon mimesis, the imitation of life, and instead depict visual reality through its separate elements: lines, shapes, and colours. The ability to abstract, which means to separate or withdraw a part from the whole, distinguishes humans from other animals. It enables us to think in abstract ideas and use language, which are uniquely human skills, as stated by John Locke in his work "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" in 1689.
In visual art, abstraction enables artists to represent aspects of reality that lack physical forms, such as ideas, feelings, and emotions. Viewers can appreciate the colours and movement within a Kandinsky painting without needing to connect it to specific narratives like the Garden of Eden, the Flood, the Resurrection, or Judgement Day. Art historians often assume that viewers benefit from guidelines, explanations, or suggestions to understand abstract paintings, and they associate themes with them. However, this approach can both enhance and impede the viewer's enjoyment of art.
Paint it like music
Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings.
While there was a widespread expectation for paintings to depict fragments of visual reality, other art forms such as architecture and music were not limited by the same constraints. Artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, regarded as pioneers of abstract art, greatly benefited from their extensive education in music. Kandinsky's renowned watercolour painting, "Study for Composition VII," created in 1910 (according to the artist) or in 1912–13, as claimed by some critics, marked a new era in modern art. In Kandinsky's paintings, colours and lines harmonize to create chords, unveiling and portraying a parallel reality beyond the realm of mere visual representation.
The title of Frantisek Kupka's 1912 painting, "Amorpha, Fugue in Two Colors," explicitly alludes to music. The deformed flower with twisted petals and the interwoven red and blue spirals resemble a contrapuntal composition, where multiple melodies are introduced, developed, and interwoven.
Line, color, and geometric forms have been employed as artistic techniques long before the 20th century. Cross-hatched engravings adorned with red ochre pigment can be traced back 70,000 years, etched into stone. During the Middle Ages, illuminated book manuscripts showcased intricate designs, geometric patterns, and vibrant primary colors of exceptional beauty. Craftsmen working in textiles, mosaics, pottery, and furniture often adorned their creations with decorative geometric motifs.
Following the Impressionist movement, and particularly in the 20th century, the categorization of artistic movements became more fluid. Numerous "isms" emerged, such as post-impressionism, fauvism, and expressionism, often overlapping with one another. Painters themselves often defied labels or belonged to multiple categories. Cubist painters were touching the edge of abstraction.
The shape of things
Hypothetically, all art can be considered abstraction, as it involves observing and abstracting forms and colours from the natural world onto a canvas. No painting is entirely abstract or purely figurative. At the beginning of the 20th century, figurative painters sought new ways to express their spiritual lives through art. A painting might begin with a landscape or a single tree. The artist would perceive the reality of the tree but could also delve deeper into the intricacies of a blade of grass, a leaf, or the intricate network of veins that transport water and nutrients throughout the plant. The artist had the choice to depict these processes and details in their work.
Inspired by the spiritual and the occult, Hilma af Klint painted petals, organs, pastel loops, and triangle staircases to heaven. Her circles, spirals, and mandalas are meditative and decorative, offering a mindful relaxation akin to illuminations found in a young lady's country journal. Influenced by ideas about the cosmos and the relationship between religion and geometry, the paintings were, according to the artist, commissioned by spirits.
Frank Kupka's portrait of his wife began as a figurative painting but became covered in vibrant vertical strokes, causing Mme Kupka's face to all but disappear under shades of purple and green—a literal assault on figuration.
Despite the physical and ideological obstacles presented by war, two art movements emerged simultaneously in Western Europe and Russia, showcasing similar forms of geometric abstraction. In the Netherlands, Theo Van Doesburg and Mondrian advocated the theory of Neoplasticism and established De Stijl (The Style) to promote abstract art and the "new plastic."
Showing no inclination for false modesty, Russian painter Kazimir Malevich named the new abstract art movement he developed in 1913 “Suprematism” - the supremacy of geometric forms and the artists who paint them.
When, in the year 1913, in my desperate attempt to free art from the ballast of objectivity, I took refuge in the square form.
Malevich's intention was to liberate art from the confines of academic rules and traditional subject matter, such as "little corners of nature, madonnas, and shameless Venuses." His ground-breaking work, the iconic black square on a white background, marked a pivotal moment in the history of art.
Malevich's ideas and approach were enthusiastically embraced by his students, who went on to develop constructivism—a style of geometric abstractions aimed at reflecting the modern industrial society of the new Russia. The bold red and black geometric shapes in El Lissitsky's compositions made them ideal for reproduction, particularly in propaganda posters. One notable example is "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge" (1919), which transparently references the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War.
Like Neoplasticism, Suprematism favoured biomorphic forms, abstracted objects, and geometric shapes painted in a limited range of colours.
On the other side of the Atlantic, there was, for a couple of decades, critical opposition to abstract art, which was considered too European and therefore "un-American". In the 1940s and 1950s, American artists developed abstract expressionism. Painters such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Clyfford Still created abstract art that had an emotional effect.
Like any other art form, abstraction is a language. Abstract artists invite the viewer to look carefully at the forms (is the square just a square, is it framed, or has it morphed into a trapeze?) and the colours (which colours conflict, which complement, and which enrich each other) without distractions from the canvas, into another reality. Like figurative paintings, abstract art has the ability to attract and retain attention, captivate, and challenge. It was created as a modern language to reflect a different, purer reality and to communicate modern themes to a modern society.