Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Beginnings of Abstraction

Exploring Concepts

Assignment 4 - Abstract


Beginnings of Abstraction

The development of the cultural world from say the moment man discovered fire to the present day is nearly always seen as a progressive development  with any failures or bland ideas leading to stagnation or worse, regression. Such divergences are generally side-lined or rejected if they do not support the ideaology of progress.

There is nothing wrong in this except the danger of “throwing out the baby with the bath water”.  I wonder how many projects that may have stuttered or faltered and were eventually rejected had unrealized potential? Can the same be true of art?

In the art world there is no doubt that ‘representation’ as it was practised at the beginning of the twentieth century had reached its sell-by date.  The political social and technical upheavals of those times called for radical reforms in virtually all human endeavours.  None more evident than the revolutionary art world where the word avant-garde would ignite passions on both sides of the divide.

From the English perspective a romantic tradition for landscape hampered acceptance of new ideas.  Impressionist art from across the channel seemed alien and was slow to be accepted by the public and artists alike.  It was not until 1905 when Walter Sickert and the Camden Town painters started bring about change.  Artists like Gore, Gilman,  Grant, Lamb and Wymndon Lewis joined Sickert, and began to reject the dull colours of the Slade School. Both Ginner and Sickert had painted in France and knew people like Degas, Cezanne and van Gogh.  In terms of subject matter art moved away from Landscape and the refinement of the Drawing Room to the seedier side of life, and ordinary working people, as well as the theatre, possibly under the influence of Degas’ work, but also with the introduction of the Russian Ballet to Britain.

Roger Fry’s Manet and the Post Impressionist Exhibition of 1910/11, then Clive Bell’s 1912 Matisse and the Post Impressionists Exhibition acted as a catalyst for artists although the public were still sceptical of this new art which was so different from the style of art with which they were familiar.  Picasso’s work was also seen in 1912 as well as the Italian Futurists.

However, in Europe the early development of Abstraction was influenced by artists such as Van Gogh, Matisse and Gauguin, all of whom  moved away from Impressionism and the representational image.

There is no doubt that the work of Picasso brought about a profound change particularly with the work that he and Braque produced which became known as Cubism.  This was a significant breakthrough in the way of presenting the way the eye could perceive an object from several viewpoints at once. Cezanne’s work, which proceeded to break down the image into almost cube like spatial units, had been influential in this development.  At the same time Orphism developed in Paris with paintings by Robert Delaunay who explored the musical harmony of colour in his disk paintings. Franics Picabia, Jean Metzinger and Fernand Leger also participated for a short time. 

An analytical approach to art was developed in Germany by the Der Blaue Reiter school with artists such as Kandinsky, Marc, Macke, Klee.  Indeed Kandinsky is reputed to have produced the first abstract painting in 1913 but I believe this honour should go to either Kupka, a Chzech, who produced The first Step in 1909 and went on to produce many interesting abstract works, or indeed to Romolo Romani for Images in c1908.

The Brücke artists included Kirchner, Pechstein, Karl Scmidt-Rottluff

There was a cross fertilization of ideas between, France Germany and the Italian Futurists, where artists like Umberto Boccion and Carlo Carra pulled together ideas of Orphism and Cubism to produce paintings dealing with speed and movement.

During the 1910s Moscow had acquired a number of paintings by Cezanne and Picasso, Gauguin and Matisse and this influenced their own artists, notably Kasimir Malevich and his Suprematism painting including the Black Square, which he regarded as infinite space. Suprematism gave way to Constructivism with artists like Tatlin and Lissitzky. Under the tutelage  of Ilya Repin, the artists Von Werefkin and Jawlensky developed their individual style of painting.  During this period in Russia prior to the Revolution, there were avid collectors of modern art and this enabled artists to see works by avant garde artists.  Indeed they were exposed to many more post impressionist work much earlier than, for example, the UK despite being just across the channel.

This enthusiasm for progressive ideas moved to Holland with the development of De Stijl  and artists such as Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg and Bart van der Leck.

After the First World War artists in Germany wanted to signal their contempt for war and the Dada movement started in Hanover. The war also ended the lives of many promising artists including, Marc, Macke, Gaudier Brzeska, Lehmbruck the sculptor committed suicide in 1919.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic we see a gradual move from France as the pivotal art world to the United States.  The Second World War influenced this change in contemporary art.  Some Artists had their work exhibited in the Nazi Degenerative Art exhibition, and as a consequence many sought to flee Nazi terror and travelled to the USA to escape persecution, including Josef Albers, Max Ernst, Hans Hofmann, Marcel Duchamp and Piet Mondrian, Arshile Gorky, Joan Miro, Max Ernst, Andre Masson and Roberta Matta.

This had the effect of producing a fertile virtually International breeding ground for new ideas particularly in the area of Abstract Expressionism with artists such as Jackson Pollock with his field painting, Ashile Gorky developing a biomorphic style of abstraction similar to early Kandinsky.  Mark making and the free creation of work was practised by Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Willem de Kooning also.

Some of the work included figuration of sorts even if slightly hidden, for example Hans Hofmann’s Figure at the Seashore.  The move back to subject matter does not necessarily involve figuration as such and the work of John Hoyland – Black Something is a cosmic example of this.
So in a sense the early expectations or one might even say aspirations of artists to destroy art and start again has effectively happened, all possibilities of reality are explored without being bound by imitating the object in a three dimensional space.  This also opens the doors for the exploration of inner thoughts, dreams, ideas relating to man’s situation in an infinite world.

Britt, David: Modern Art, Thames and Hudson1974, 1975, 1989, reprinted 2007
Elger, Dietmar: Abstract Art, Taschen GmbH, 2008
Everitt, Anthony, Abstract Exressionism, Modern Art, edited by David Britt, Thames and Hudson1974, 1975, 1989, reprinted 2007
Gooding, Mel: Abstract Art, University Press, 2001
Hughes, Robert: The Shcok of The New, Thames and Hudson 1980 and 1991, repprinted 1993

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