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Since its inception, Abstract Art has pushed at and reconfigured the boundaries of what is acceptable as ‘Art’. However, the specific inception of Abstract Art is a tricky one to pin down, as the work of Wassily Kandinsky and his peers at the start of the 20th Century did not come about spontaneously.

Related articles: Abstract Art: Boundless Territory To Create - Which Abstract Painting is for you? - Colours in Abstract Art

Rather, the departure of artists’ subject matter from discernible reality can retrospectively be seen as a natural continuation of the Impressionist and Fauvist movements of the late 19th Century, as artists’ experimentations with colour and form began to take on a life of their own. Don't miss the opportunity to see all the latest developments in the contemporary abstract field!


Piet Mondrian, Red Tree, 1908. Oil on canvas.


The boundaries of the abstract art definition

“Abstract art is art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead use shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect” (

If we look back at the times of the birth of the definition of abstract art, we may find ourselves in a setting characterised by a saturation of figurative art, a time when pristine technique and ancient compositions were seen as elements of primary importance in the creation of beauty. Back in those days, a multitude of artists, first of which is said to be Vasilij Kandinsky, began to search for the unknown, diving into a world where shapes and symbols no longer had a strict relation with reality and figurativeness. 
To define abstract art, we must begin to understand its relation with its figurative counterpart. These two different worlds feed from one another through a dialectic relation, a dialogue that concerns both the immanent and transcendental truths surrounding a determined subject. If, for instance, we take Piet Mondrian as an example to define abstract art, we shall look into his figurative research regarding the famous “Red Tree” (1908) in order to understand the abstractness of his later works. We must look into the conceptualisations that the artist had to discover, in order both to escape form the subject’s manifest reality, and to find and express an abstract derivation of the subject’s appearance. 
After that being understood, us observers may have a better knowledge about the abstract art definition, and about some of the first elements of research that brought to its emancipation during the times of figurative dominance.
Piet Mondrian, Tree, 1912. Oil on canvas.


What is abstract art?

Keeping in mind what previously said, we can underline throughout History a variety of designs and geometric shapes, patterns and other motifs that can be considered abstract in style, yet due to their mostly decorative nature do not qualify as fine art. This still shows that humans have always had a connection with the abstract, imagining forms beyond what they are shown by reality, but never before the 20th Century had these abstractions been given such exalted status as to be accepted as legitimate Art.

Artists had even been hinting towards abstraction for many years prior to the start of the Impressionist movement and the events of the Salon des Refusés in 1863. JMW Turner’s studies in Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge, 1843, is seen to exhibit many of the qualities of abstract art, such as an indistinct subject and a blurring of space with colour, alluding to more than what the eye can see. Also Claude Monet, in the final stages of his life and career painted his Le Bassin aux Nymphéas, when his failing eyesight combined with his light, semi-transparent touch gave his final canvases an ethereal form closer to transcending the lines between visual form and its interpretation than any of his previous work.

Le Bassin aux Nymphéas, Claude Monet, 1917 - 1920. Courtesy Fondation Beyeler


With well-known artists within the canon like Turner and Monet beginning to paint in such technically abstract ways, even unintentionally this shaped public perception to accept these paintings into the mainstream, paving the way for future artists to more actively more iconoclastic means of abstraction.

Kandinsky is probably the most famous of abstract art, a Russian artist who saw abstraction as the path to spiritual enlightenment, rather than just a new technique to shake up the art world. He once said he was most interested in “what the spectator lives or feels while under the effect of the form and colour combinations of the picture”, with his primary aim to elicit a pure emotion in his audience, rather than fore-fatheran emotion in response to a real-world object or experience. Nonetheless, maybe contrary to expectations, Kandinsky didn’t see his work in opposition to realism, but rather explained that even those intangible, unseen phenomena such as love, awe and other emotions were just as real as the objects previously represented by art, and their essence could still be depicted in similar terms. Following in Kandinsky’s footsteps in pursuit of pure abstraction come other famous names such as Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich and František Kupka.

As abstraction is more of a way of seeing rather than a specific technique, it has managed to influence and be absorbed into many other genres and movements of the art world, most notably Abstract Expressionism born in New York, Dada, Minimalism and Conceptualism. From these genres come some of the most famed and well-known artists to us today, names such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Henri Matisse, Joan Miro and Willem de Kooning. Find out more about minimal and conceptual art here! 


Wassily Kandinsky, No Title, 1923


Abstract history rewritten...

The history above shows a canonised version of events, a stylised timeline showing how Abstraction throughout the 19th and 20th centuries evolved into its own life-form, and how artists like Kandinksy retrospectively hailed their achievements as history defining moments in the art world. It is Kandinsky’s name that stands out about the rest as the “fore-father” of Abstract Art, as he consistently and publically claimed he created the first truly abstract painting in 1911, once writing to his friend New York Gallerist Jerome Neumann:

“Indeed, it is the world’s first ever abstract picture, because back then not one single painter was painting in an abstract style.”

The painting itself was lost, so all Kandinsky could do was shout about it – loudly.

But his claim is not exactly true. As in all areas of Western society, historically the art world had failed to acknowledge or promote female artists, leaving their work unnoticed and underappreciated. Only recently is the ground-breaking work that many female artists created over the course of the 19th and 20th Centuries coming to light, none more so than Swedish painter Hilma af Klint. With her work currently showing in a blockbuster exhibition at the Guggenheim New York, finally her art is getting the rewards it deserves, especially when her vast, colourful and deeply spiritual abstract canvases predate Kandinsky’s 1911 claim by at least five years. Working outside the canonised oeuvre and disconnected from other so-called pioneers of the movement, af Klint’s originality is a breath of fresh air and stemmed from her early contact with both an artistic education (a rarity for girls) and Theosophy, one of the first and only religious movements to not discriminate against women. Even though she produced well over 200 abstract paintings from 1906 until her death in 1944, none were ever shown at exhibition, but have thankfully been preserved well enough for her talents to be recognised almost a century later.


Modern abstract art... 

Similarly, the Denver Art Museum held a 2016 exhibition, “Women of Abstract Expressionism”, to shift focus back into female key players in the 40s and 50s abstraction movement, including work from over 50 artists such as Mary Abbott, Jay DeFeo, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Sonia Gechtoff, Judith Godwin, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Deborah Remington, and Ethel Schwabacher. Now that these artists are being displayed with increasing frequency at the same level as the Rothkos and Pollocks of museum collections, the history of abstraction is being rewritten and enjoyably enlarged. Sonia Delaunay was one artist who with her husband Robert paved the way for many subsets of Abstraction, such as Orphism and Simultanism. Read more about Sonia Delaunay here... 


Hilma af Klint, Guggenheim Exhibition Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future 


The rules for creating an abstract piece seem non-existent, and indeed once recognisable aesthetic value or beauty is no longer a necessity for an artwork to function, the way lies open for boundless experimentation. Even the paint-brush, once the primary tool in an artist’s arsenal, is now cast aside in favour of throwing, dripping, constructing, scraping in whatever way an artist can conceive, straying far outside the lines of form and accuracy. Kazuo Shiraga, a Japanese artist very interested in and influenced by the American Abstract Expressionism movement, created vast, dynamic and passionate paintings using his feet, sliding and skating around “as though rushing around a battlefield, exerting myself to collapse from exhaustion.” 

Initially, however, Abstraction was born out of Fauvism and Cubism, collapsing space, time, form and colour in on one another until the result bore witness to the infinite nature of these concepts.

Perhaps more than any other form of art, Abstract Art has challenged the viewer to understand it. When the artist’s singular vision is translated into something so radically distinct from the usual visual clues or touchstones that we have learnt to interpret over our lives, we can become lost and do not understand what the art is saying. People more conditioned to understand traditional art often think their purpose when looking at abstract art is to work out what the subject is meant to be, or to interpret it into something relatable with phrases like “Oh, a face!” or “It looks a bit like the sea,” for example.

This is to miss the point.

Throughout the 20th century , many artistic figures focused on the newest pathways opened up by the advent of abstract painting. Painters of incredible mastery like Mark Rothko, Vassilij Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevic and many others, dove into their life experiences and focused on the thinness of abstraction, developing a variety of different researches all unraveling around the medium of painting. From the moment of the opening of this new interesting world, many artistic personas began to understand the intriguement that came along with being an abstract artist in the 20th century. Abstraction more than any other genre encapsulates art’s inner workings, and is often seen as art for art’s sake. The purity of emotional response that Kandinsky and Klint wanted to inspire within people is echoed in the purity of abstract art. It is self-inspiring, self-propelling, self-motivated. Purity here means unencumbered by anything that is not itself; by anything that is not the art of the artwork.

The visual language expressed by abstract painting and all of the artistic movements related to it, it is in dialogue with its own form, its own unique being, and is not tied to any other object through some oblique frame of reference, it is a form of objective abstraction. The elements of painting, are here used to break free from painting as a figuration. The elements of painting are turned against their commonly accepted usage and allowed to express an accurate depiction of thought and abstraction. The emotional response sparked by vague and intriguing subjects, such as the ones explored by abstract painting, allowed both the viewers and the painters to engange into an alternative pathway, aiming to activate the viewer's Meditational Response, and furthermore to implement the aforementioned emotional response, trying to connect the experience of the image to as many different life experiences possible. Aiming to break free to figuration and obtain what is defined as objective abstraction.

In this way, the early pursuit of abstract art away from representational art took music as a creative example, music being an art form considered autonomous and free from the limitations and expectations of reality. Also, some early inspirations for abstraction came from the world of science, where at the start of the 20th Century the extended range of the electromagnetic spectrum and other invisible forces had been recently discovered. The way in which the world was waking up to the presence of these invisible systems and forces acted as a clear stimulus for artists like af Klint and Kandinksy to start capturing what their eyes could not see but their imagination and soul could. As such, for a modern viewer to try to translate these paintings back into tangible objects, and to tether them back to reality just for their own comprehension is as futile as it is actively detrimental to the power of the art.


Movimento 9, Isabella Nazzarri, 2017


Abstract Art today...

Today, Abstraction is a standardised style for contemporary artists, and also more familiar to the general public as it increasingly permeates into the mainstream consciousness. The once shocking nature of abstract forms is no longer so confrontational, and has actually become one of the most popular styles of Modern and Contemporary Art. Its subjective nature has cemented it as a global style, with it requiring no specific cultural or localised knowledge to appreciate. Museums and galleries often find Abstract Expressionism as their more popular exhibitions, and it serves as a very stable component of the growing value of Modern and Contemporary art at auction. The rich history of the genre provides a solid base for contemporary artists to re-approach, re-evaluate and recycle the works and philosophies of their artistic ancestors, always in pursuit of something new and exciting.

Explore other contemporary abstract artists such as Isabella Nazzarri, Richard Caldicott, Tilman and many more on Kooness!


Cover image: Piet Mondrian, Blossiming Apple Tree (Flowering), 1912. Oil on canvas.

Written by Marcus Howard-Vyse and Mario Rodolfo Silva 

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