A short history of abstract art Part 1 – The beginnings

One of the ways to truly appreciate abstract art is to understand where it came from so I’ve decided to write a short blog series on the history of the form. I’m going to start at the very beginning and follow the history all the way through to present day.

I’ll talk about the ground-breaking artists that constantly stood against convention from the late nineteenth century onwards and strove to find different ways of expressing existence.

Welcome to part 1, the beginnings.

Back in the mid-nineteenth century there was a firmly entrenched belief that artists should paint what they see in the most realistic way possible. This belief had been held by the art establishment and by general society for a very long time. Artists spent years perfecting their skills so that they could create realistic bodies and objects placed within a believable three-dimensional space. Those who could do so were lauded as the true artists of their time.

Anything less than realistic perfection was seen as tardy, unskilled and self-indulgent.

How impressionists art broke the art world open

That is until the year 1874. A bunch of Parisian renegade artists had been experimenting with painting subjects on the spot through quickly dabbing colour to capture the scene in the present moment. These blobs of colour combined exhibited more light, more movement and more feeling than many realistic paintings of the time.

That didn’t mean that the artists developing this technique were seen as bold pioneers. Instead, they were heavily mocked by the art establishment and constantly rejected by art exhibitions including the Salon, the most influential art exhibition in all of Europe.

The renegades decided that their only option was to set up shop themselves and in 1874, they rented a space and held an exhibition at the same time as the Salon. The exhibition lasted a month, was a great success and catapulted Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Pizzaro, Renoir, and Sisley and their ‘unfinished’ paintings into the history books. Thousands of people flocked to see the new way of seeing the world and this broke the hold of realism on art. Artists were allowed to experiment.

The theoretical and unrepentant Kandinsky

Many attribute the start of the abstract art movement to, Wassily Kandinksy (1866-1944), who was born in Moscow and trained in Germany.

His admiration for the abstract formed early on. When he was preparing for art school he saw Monet’s Haystacks and wrote:

“That it was a haystack the catalogue informed me. I could not recognise it. This non-recognition was painful to me. I considered the writer had no right to paint indistinctly. I duly felt that the object of the painting was missing. And I noticed with surprise and confusion that the picture no only gripped me, but impressed itself ineradicably on my memory. Painting took on a fairy-tale power and splendour.”

When Kandinsky viewed Haystacks he saw greater clarity in the indistinct than the realistic paintings of the time. This contradiction was fascinating. As he progressed as a painter he became passionate about finding music in colour and lines. He had synaesthesia and could hear colour as well as see it. He believed that an experience of music could be created through paint and called some of his paintings ‘improvisations’ and ‘compositions’.

His paintings were abstract and unrepentant; they no longer held to the conventions of realism but came directly from Kandinsky’s experience and vision.

Kandinsky’s contribution was theoretical as well. His treatise, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1910) presented the argument for the new art form he and others were exhibiting. He argued that art must be driven from the artist’s soul rather than the conventions of the time. He wrote:

“That is beautiful which is produced by the inner need, which springs from the soul.”

“The artist must be blind to distinction between ‘recognised’ or ‘unrecognised’ conventions of form, deaf to the transitory teaching and demands of this particular age.”

My method is similar to Kandinsky in that I paint from within – I paint what is in intrinsic to how I see the world – rather than deliberately seeking the influence of other artists.

Kandinsky’s search for inner meaning as expressed through paint and supported by a growing theoretical movement, burst open the doors for others who would choose not to capture exactly what they saw but instead, exactly how they felt and experienced the world.