There’s no doubt about it, Abstract art is here to stay.
It always makes me smile when people think of this misunderstood movement as something new and cutting edge, the reality is that its been around for about 113 years, (according to the latest research anyway). Finding its roots in Sweden and Russia, Abstract Art has been (tragically) one of the least loved of all the art movements, at least by the public. As an Art dealer I've had many an interesting conversation about the relevance and necessity of abstract art, indeed there's a fantastic book on the subject entitled 'Why your five year old couldn't have painted that'. When Picasso and Braque embarked on their cubist movement and caused ructions in the art world, they had no basis for understanding what exactly they were creating. They were explorers first and foremost, hacking their way through the thick undergrowth of conventional art and discovering something no one had seen before. Not even Picasso fully appreciated the depth of what he had created until he took his first trip in an aeroplane. Picasso was terrified of flying, he closed his eyes for most of the journey, but someone on the flight insisted he looked out of the window, and he was thankful they did. As Picasso looked down on the landscape of France, he saw a pattern in the fields that was very familiar to him. His eyes widened and he exclaimed “look, its just like a cubist painting. I got it right!”.
Abstraction is a general term for art that is none representational of what the artist wants us to experience. Within Abstraction there are many movements of art which fall into this category:
1. Abstract Expressionism
5. Op Art
6. Hard edge painting
7. Colour field painters
8. Post Painterly Abstraction
10. Action Painting
11. Neo Plasticism
It's quite a lot when you look at them laid out this way.
I won’t go into each one as that would be the basis for a book rather than a blog. For the purposes of brevity, we’ll just admit that they all fall under the expansive umbrella of Abstract art.
So, let’s dive into the title of this blog and discover ten things about Abstract Art:
1. It was long believed that Wassily Kandinsky created the first abstract painting in 1911 although this could never be substantially proven as the painting was lost, but detailed information and witness accounts backed up its creators claims. However, a Swedish artist by the name of Hilda Af Klint created what is now believed to be the first true abstract painting in 1906 in her studio in Sweden.
2. The word abstract means to separate or withdraw something from something else. The term can be applied to art that is based in an object, figure or landscape, where forms have been simplified or schematised, we ‘withdraw’ interpretation and feeling from the images the artists create.
3. Abstract art is often seen as carrying a moral dimension, in that it can be seen to stand for virtues such as order, purity, simplicity and spirituality.
4. Cubism and Fauvism were abstract movements founded in visually recognisable subject matters such as figures, portraits or landscapes. Other artists grew to reject this style of abstraction and called themselves ‘Pure’ abstract painters.
5. Some artists have proposed that art can, or should be like music, in that just as music is patterns of sound, art’s effects should be created by pure patterns of form, colour, and line. This is heavily prevalent in the works of Piet Mondrian and Sonia Delaunay.
6. Different artists site many varying influences in their work, but one that occurs frequently in abstraction is the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who said that “the highest form of beauty lies not in the forms of the real world, but in geometry”. This would be a mantra adopted by many of the movement’s proponents.
7. Four of the top ten most expensive paintings ever sold are by Picasso, De Kooning, Rothko, and Pollock; all of which are abstract paintings. More interestingly no’s 11-20 of the most expensive paintings ever sold are all by abstract artists, except for one Andy Warhol which comes in at number 19 and breaks what other wise would have been a clean sweep of 10 abstract artists. However, this shows the popularity of these paintings and how hotly contested they are by collectors.
8. Many consider Turner the first British Abstractionist, but he would have predated the very earliest known Abstract art by decades and thus be considered a pioneer of the movement, whilst I agree that Turner’s work was revolutionary, I don’t subscribe to this line of thought. I’ve always believed Turner to be a unique artist who cannot be pigeon holed into any movement, his work was so individual that it is said to have inspired many of the modern greats including Monet and the impressionists, and Van Gogh.
9. The father of modern British abstraction is widely considered to be Patrick Heron. His presence in St Ives pulled many of the modern abstractionists into that area to work along side him. Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon, Victor Pasmore, Roger Hilton, and many more all moved to St Ives in the 1950’s to ply their trade.
10. As far as British abstract art goes the 1950’s is seen as the height of the movement. Many of the artists were experimenting with their own styles of abstract art much earlier, indeed Barbara Hepworth revisited her 1930’s experimental work as inspiration to push on her abstract sculptures in the 1950’s.
Post war Britain was a difficult place to be, the country was all but bankrupt after the war, communication lines with America and other influential countries were none existent, food rationing was ongoing and we had thousands of men coming back from the war, many of whom were hoping to be rewarded with gainful employment, but sadly found the opposite and were struggling to make ends meet. Our artists in the 1950’s decided to express these feelings in paint and sculpture in a way that could be freely interpreted by feelings and emotions. Whilst the American artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning made paintings that would resonate for generations, our artists did the same, but with much less recognition. This doesn’t make their work any less important, beautiful, or coveted in the artworld. What it shows is that Britain is not fully recognised as a nation that has historically produced Abstract Art; Going back to that list of top 20 art prices, British artists only appear three times by two artists: David Hockney and Francis Bacon. This shows just how undervalued the British art market currently is. If that changes in the future, then collectors of these works could find themselves owning some very valuable pieces.