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Abstract art: The meaning behind the madness

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

Composition VII by Wassily Kandinsky

Abstract art has been the subject of speculation, analysis, and ridicule since the introduction of its most basic concepts. Although we often think of abstract art as a wildly colorful arrangement of shapes, patterns, and unidentifiable splotches, it can take many forms. The only boundary that abstract art is beholden to is reality, and luckily, there’s a lot more that does not exist than does.

Abstract art has its origins in the late 19th century, but a shift towards art guided more by one’s subconscious rather than the world around one has been imminent since the advent of Romanticism in the late 18th century. Romanticism marked the end of popular belief set forward by Classicism, which emphasized imitation and idealization. Slowly but surely, many artists of the time began to accept the new freedoms and responsibilities that come with a wholehearted acceptance of the abstract.

Essentially, the founding principle of abstract art is that any depiction of anything familiar to us humans is simply an arrangement of color(s) in a recognizable manner. One of the most influential thinkers of the modern art movement at the turn of the 19th century was Maurice Denis, who summed this idea up by saying, “It should be remembered that a picture—before being a war-horse, a nude, or an anecdote of some sort—is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order”. This influenced many artists to abandon a recognizable form, and what they were left with is what we now know as abstract art.

In the years preceding WWI, abstract art reached new heights, with artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Robert Delauney, and Hilma af Klint making their first complete abstractions. Klint made her first, and what is now widely regarded as the first, work of abstract art in 1906, with “Chaos, Nr. 2”.

Chaos, Nr. 2 by Hilma af Klint

Wassily Kandinsky was another trailblazer in the field of abstract art. Although he was exposed to and had a love for art at a young age, he ended up studying law at the University of Moscow from 1886 to 1892. In 1896, his long-suppressed desire for the arts was reawakened when he heard Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin” at the Bolshoi Theater. He later recounted the life-altering experience: “I saw all my colors in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.”

Kandinsky’s experience may seem whimsical or perhaps drug-induced, but it is actually due to a psychological condition called synesthesia. Synesthesia is essentially the stimulation of one sense through another. In Kandinsky’s case, music is seen as color, and the color is heard as music. For example, one might hear trumpets and experience the color purple, or look at the color green and hear a flute. To someone who is not a synesthete, this may be difficult to comprehend, although Kandinsky's artwork is probably the greatest expression of this concept to date.

Composition VIII by Wassily Kandinsky

At around the same time that Kandinsky completed Composition VII, another influential figure involved with the abstract art movement was pushing the boundaries of art as the then world knew it. Piet Mondrian was a Dutch painter and art theoretician who is best known for his distinct asymmetric grids of red, yellow, and blue outlined in black. Like Kandinsky, Mondrian was introduced to art at a young age but did not immediately pursue a career as an artist, although he kept up with painting all throughout his life.

In 1911, Mondrian moved to Paris where he was heavily influenced by the cubist style of artists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques. While on a trip to the Netherlands in 1914, Mondrian met Bart van der Leck, whose striking use of only primary colors had a profound impact on him. The combination of guidance from both the Cubists and Van der Leck is what led to the development of his signature style.

Mondrian has attempted to express his artistic theory in writing, and in a letter to H. P. Bremmer in 1914, he stated: “I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness… I believe it is possible that, through horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm, these basic forms of beauty, supplemented if necessary by other direct lines or curves, can become a work of art, as strong as it is true.”

Composition II by Piet Mondrian

Jackson Pollock is perhaps one of the most recognizable artists of the abstract-expressionist movement during the mid 20th century. Yes, he is the one who flung, dripped, and splattered paint on a canvas and called it art. And yes, he is justified in doing so. His method of painting incorporated gravity, velocity, and a degree of randomness unlike anything seen before into the artistic process.

In 1930, Pollock moved from Los Angeles to New York where he was mentored by painter Thomas Hart Benton. It was then that he plunged into the world of surrealism, and began to harness the power of the subconscious. In 1943, he made “The She-Wolf”, the first painting of his to be acquired by a museum. The She-Wolf is not exactly the characteristically chaotic style that Pollock is renowned for, but it is still a prime example of the fluidity and abstraction that is present in his more subconsciously-guided paintings.

The She-Wolf by Jackson Pollock

Abstract art in the 21st century has undergone many evolutions since its genesis in the early 1900s. One major reason for this evolution is globalization. With the advent of the internet, interconnectivity between different cultures, ideas, and people has become much more accessible. Through the internet, the art world has become less elitist and more available to anyone who may be interested in it.

I am a firm believer that everyone should incorporate art into their life in some form or another, as not only is it simply relaxing and stimulating, but it is a gateway to unique and interesting ways of thinking. There’s no right or wrong, and it’s a refreshing escape from the harsh reality that we live in. Pick up a pen, pencil, paintbrush, spray can, or anything that sparks your interest, and let your spirit guide you.

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