Abstraction can be derived from the Latin abstract for “detach” or “take away”. Abstract art therefore means a form of expression that detaches itself from the reproduction of objects whose goal is no longer the depiction of tangible objects and figures, but is dedicated to the spiritual world, the visionary, the logical-rational combination of colour fields and/or self-reflexive analyses of the means by which art is made (colours, forms).

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In the first half of the 20th century, a handful of artists turned away from representationalism and explored the possibilities of abstract visual worlds.

In many cases, they were led to reject the mimetic art tradition by metaphysical, musical and scientific sources of inspiration. Protagonists of Classical Modernism such as Hilma af Klint, Wassily Kandinsky, Robert Delaunay, Kasimir Malewitsch and Piet Mondrian posed highly individual questions about a new painterly reality.

The “representation” of spiritual or theosophical concepts, the “inner world”, i.e. the invisible emotional world, of emotions, “visions” or fears, the comparison with immaterial music, but also a self-referential reflection on one’s own means gained in importance.

In European painting, two basic forms of abstract art can be defined: Abstract and non-representational art. Abstraction in this case means the absolute reduction of the visible world to colour and light impressions. This form of abstract art can be derived from Expressionism; in many early works the reference to nature or the organic is still present. Either it can be derived from the pictorial information or it is hinted at in the title of the picture. Works by Robert Delaunay, Hilma af Klint, František Kupka, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky belong to this group.

The second direction, non-objective art, emerged as the successor to Paul Cézanne. The Cubists already started from Cézanne’s characteristic colour spots and solidified them into cubes. In the painting and assemblage of the Russian Suprematists and Constructivists, in the German Bauhaus and in the Dutch De Stijl, artists completely detached themselves from any kind of reproduction (mimesis) in order to build their compositions from geometric forms.

Kandinsky and Malevich – Fathers of Abstraction?

Wassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich were regarded in the past decades as the fathers of abstraction – today the canon has been extended by several important achievements. Both knew how to skillfully use their literary talent as capital and also pre-dated works in order to emphasize their pioneering role. It was Kandinsky’s merit in particular to write down his thoughts on abstract painting and to publish them like a manifesto.

In his 1911 publication “Über das Geistige in der Kunst” (On the Spiritual in Art) he declared colours and forms to be the “actual means” of painting with which the artist should express his inner world. “When, in 1913, I made a desperate attempt to free art from the weight of things, I exhibited a painting that was nothing more than a black square on a white ground.

Orphism – abstinence in the service of “ideal beauty

The poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire distinguished four different currents within Cubism in a 1912 lecture. Inspired by the colourful paintings of the artist Robert Delaunay, he spoke of an “orphic” Cubism. Delaunay, on the other hand, firmly rejected the term for his paintings.

  • Apollinaire nevertheless developed his approach further towards the idea of Orphism. By this he understood a painting that detached itself from the reproduction of external reality and expressed an “ideal beauty”. He was one of the first to describe a completely abstract art in which cubist, futuristic and expressionist approaches were combined. The outbreak of the First World War ended the attempt to establish Orphism as a radical avant-garde movement.
  • Nevertheless, these abstract tendencies emanating from Paris were important for the development of 20th-century modern art in Europe. Thus the Blaue Reiter painters intensively studied the work of Robert Delaunay and received his facetted view of reality. Among them were Paul Klee, Franz Marc, August Macke and Heinrich Campendonck, who opened themselves to abstraction in different ways.

De Stijl: Non-Objective Abstraction in the Netherlands

Another important source of inspiration was the artists’ association De Stijl, founded in 1917, a group of like-minded people whose name was derived from the title of the Dutch magazine for fine arts (October 1917-1931). The founding members were Theo van Doesburg, Piet Mondrian (1917-1925), Georges Vantongerloo and the architects Robert van’t Hoff, J. J. P. Oud and Jan Wils, as well as the painters Vilmos Huszár and Bart van der Leck, and the poet Antony Kok. In 1918 the architect Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, in 1922 Cornelis van Eesteren and in 1924 the painter Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart were admitted.

De Stijl propagated geometric abstraction (non-objective art) and the reduction to the primary colors red, blue and yellow as well as the non-colors black, grey and white as perfect forms of representation for art, architecture and design. In addition, they dealt with the square as a format and as a basic form of composition. Art should not be depictive, illustrative or narrative, but completely self-understandable. Since De Stijl artists arranged geometric forms in seemingly technical compositions, movement can be classified in the art movement of Constructivism. This art based on rationality and objectivity was intended to help create a new, ideal world. The artists perceived their works as embodiments of an ideal state, as realizations of ideal harmony. Therefore De Stijl did not limit himself to one art genre (like painting), but included all forms of life reality: Fashion, architecture, design, arts and crafts.