ABSTRACTIONISM: origins and contemporary practice
At the end of this decade and the beginning of the next, it will be possible to celebrate the centenary of abstract art. However, despite the fact that this phenomenon has long been accepted by the public, its nature remains not quite clear, as well as the date of the first abstract painting.
We can only say with certainty that between 1910 and 1915 many European artists tried their hand at creating non-objective, non-figurative things (in painting, drawing, sculpture). Among them: Р. Delaunay, M. Larionov, F. Picabia, F. Kupka, P. Klee, F. Marc, A. Yavlensky, U. Bocioni, F. Marinetti and others. The most original, the most famous among them are W. Kandinsky, P. Mondrian, K. Malevich. Kandinsky is usually called the “inventor” of abstraction, meaning his watercolors of 1910-1912 and, of course, his theoretical works, which objectively testify to the self-sufficiency of art and point to the ability of art to create some new reality by its own means. In both practice and theory, Kandinsky was the most decisive and consistent of those who at this time approached the line separating figuration from abstraction. However, the unresolved question of who was the first to cross this line is of no historical significance, since at the very beginning of the 20th century the newest trends in European art came very close to this line, and the general trends of its development indicated that this line would be toppled.
The accelerating change in attitudes has its origins in the revolutionary transformations in culture, science and technology of the twentieth century and culminates in a real mutation. In art, these changes become visible in the first half of the nineteenth century. At that time in European painting, one can see simultaneously the perfection of naturalistic technique (J.Engres, J.L.David, T.Chassario) and the growing tendency to conventionality (C.Corot, E.Delacroix, F.Goya); the latter is especially acute in English painting, by R.Bonington and especially W.Turner, whose pictures “The Sun Rising in the Fog… (1806), A Musical Evening (1829-1839) and especially some sketches represent the boldest generalizations bordering on abstraction. Let’s pay attention to the form (but also to the subject!) of one of his last works, Rain, Steam, Speed, which depicts a steam locomotive rushing through fog and the veil of rain. This painting, painted in 1848, is the highest measure of conventionality in the art of the first half of the 19th century.
Since the middle of the 19th century, painting, graphics and sculpture turned to what is inaccessible to the direct image. More and more intensively the searches for new pictorial means, ways of typification, higher expression, universal symbols and concise plastic formulas are unfolding. On the one hand, this is aimed at reflecting the inner world of a person – his emotional and psychological states, on the other hand – at strengthening the corporeal, material informative, updating the vision of the objective world. In the 900s, the discovery, first in Spain and then in France, of primitive and then traditional art drastically changed the conception of the importance of conventional forms in art.
The state in which art is at this time can be called a permanent aesthetic revolution; the main events take place in France. The 1900 Universal International Exhibition in Paris was the first official exhibition to include works by artists scandalous at the time: E. Manet, C. Monet, O. Renoir and other Impressionists, as well as P. Gauguin and P. Cezanne. In 1904 the newest French paintings, shown in Germany, made a stunning impression on German artists and prompted the creation of the Youth Union, which included the future famous expressionists: E. Kirchner, K. Schmidt-Rottluff.
From 1905 to 1910, a consistent “deconstruction” of the classical visual system and a radical change of aesthetic attitudes took place in Western European art. After Impressionism – for the first time in the history of art – introduced structural (nestilistic) changes in painting, the French Fauvists and German Expressionists change their attitude to color and drawing, which finally withdraw from subordination to nature. Cubism then frees painting from narrative.
In the 1950s, fateful events for art took place in America, where leading European artists emigrated at the beginning of the war. The most striking phenomenon here is abstract painting. If painting, as well as other arts, is not so much a demonstration of skill, the creation of an object (work), as a way of self-expression, the creation of another (fiction), then abstract art should be recognized as the most advanced stage of visual activity. This “ascent” is vividly demonstrated in the creative evolution of Kandinsky, the pioneer of abstractionism, who, before organically entering the free space of color and line, goes through a series of stages, including academic drawing and realistic landscape painting. At the same time, it is that last, “molecular” level at which painting is still painting.
“The proof of my being,” says one contemporary artist, “is not my name, my body – they will disappear in the ocean of time – but fiction, the creation of appearances.
Creativity is the most intimate, authentic, if I may say so, way of self-affirmation that one desperately needs. This need can manifest itself directly, as evidenced by the manifold and increasingly violent ways in which the collective and individual assert their exclusivity.
Abstract art is the most accessible and noble way of capturing personal existence, and in a form perhaps most adequate – like a facsimile print. At the same time, it is the direct realization of freedom. It was not by chance that mention of abstract art was only permitted in a critical context during Soviet times. The regime was especially frightened of it. In the socialist camp, the exception was always Cuba, where the visual arts enjoyed greater freedom.
In the United States, the rise of abstractionism began as early as the mid-1940s. One of the first post-war French abstractionists who took the lessons of American painting was P. Soulages. His works are reminiscent of the expressive abstractions of F. Klin. H. Hartung’s work is closer to the original source of European abstraction – Kandinsky. Many European artists came to abstractionism on their own in the post-war years. Jacques Bazin and R. Bissière were particularly influential in France at the time. The painting of the French painter of Russian origin Nikolai de Stal, oscillating on the edge between full abstraction and a hint of figuration, has outlived all and continues to grow in value and popularity.
In 1950 in Paris appears the first workshop in which artists J. Devan and E. Pilet teach young people to get rid of the realistic vision, to create a picture exclusively by painterly means and to use in the composition no more than three tones, as “color determines the form”. In the early 50s, abstract compositions were created by A. Matisse. The abstract painting “Apotheosis of Marat” (1951) was met with great enthusiasm. Critics wrote that it was not only an intellectual portrait of a fiery tribune, but also “a celebration of pure color, a dynamic game of curves and straight lines,” “this piece is proof that abstraction expresses not only spiritual values, but just as figurative art can address historical and political events.
J. Mathieu’s “lyrical abstraction” is becoming popular in France. He was credited with a statement that reflects the new approach to art: “The laws of semantics operate according to the principle of inversion: as a thing is given, a sign is sought for it; the sign is given, and it asserts itself if it finds the embodiment. This means that the sign is created first, and then its meaning is sought. As we can see, it is just the other way around. In classical art, meaning seeks embodiment.
At the same time, at the New York gallery of Betty Parson, where in the late 40s works by Hans Hoffman and P. Mondrian’s pupil John Pollock were first exhibited, new names appeared – Barnett Newman and Robert Rauschenberg.
The stylistics of American abstraction of the 50s is characterized by straightforward geometricism; it is associated with the New York school, suddenly gaining international fame.
Art has always been in one way or another a means of self-expression. Personality, indirectly imprinted in the normative structures of great styles, in the New Age creates for itself such structures.
With the exit to abstraction, the creative personality was given freedom. Uncorrected by nature, line, color, texture become the author’s facsimile imprint. Tactically, nothing stands in the way of capturing personality in plastic, graphic, pictorial projections, in which how and what merge together. “My drawing is the direct and purest embodiment of my emotions,” Matisse says.
On the other hand, and the measure of alienation that abstraction allows, surpasses anything that has ever existed before. The pictorial designer of Suprematism, Malevich suggests an unprecedented degree of aesthetic satisfaction.
As a style-forming factor, abstraction infinitely expands the possibilities of embodying the two opposing essences – the unique and the universal. Texts, artworks of all times testify to the fact that in one way or another the author has always spoken about himself, but never so consciously thoroughly and frankly as in the twentieth century.
In the sum of factors (the invention of photography, scientific and quasi-scientific theories of color and light), which determined the main vector of change in art in New time – the movement from naturalism to abstraction – the first place is the individualization of creativity, transforming it into a direct projection of personality.
Projection of temperament – gestural painting is born in America. The victory of new art in America may seem unexpected if we remember the reaction of Americans who first saw the great exhibition of the European avant-garde (Armory Show) in 1913. During World War II and in the post-war years, Americans could see that investing in art was safe and profitable. Those who recognized the profitability of contemporary art in time had a chance to get fabulously rich (Peggy Guggenheim, Betty Parson, etc.). Almost all the classics of the European avant-garde found themselves emigrating to the United States during the war.
In the early ’60s, abstract art returns from America to Europe in an updated form. “It becomes a revelation to those who have not yet definitively developed their artistic credo,” writes C. Millet. More often than not, American art is studied through reproductions. Devad humorously notes that, having access to American painting only through Artforum magazine photographs, he has chosen to work in postage stamp format, whereas Vialla, in contrast, thinking that Jackson Pollock uses a large format, is increasingly increasing the format of his work as well.”
The first exhibitions of American painting in Paris are organized in the early 60s. The most representative, The Art of Reality (1968), held at the Grand Palais, was devoted entirely to abstract art. The American influence on European art falls during the years of the Cold War.
Due in no small part to its rejection in the Soviet Union, abstract anti-normative art becomes a symbol of free creativity that opposes the figurative, normative “socialist realism. During the Cold War, the intellectual associates any centralized cultural structure with the idea of the repression of the individual. On the state level, the embodiment of the hierarchical structure are perfectly organized giant military monsters that threaten the destruction of all living things. Perhaps here we should look for the subconscious origins of new trends in abstract art, which are embodied in American painting all over, which abolishes the composition of the picture frame and transforms painting into a colorful field or simply a painted surface.
The polycentric state of artistic space also implies the autonomous existence of a strong creative personality, which is able to assert its own individual style, method and direction (let us recall that in the 1950s the greatest masters of the first avant-garde – Matisse, Derain, Braque, Picasso and others) still worked.
In the second half of the 50s, abstract sculpture appears, equipped with an “electronic brain” – “Cysp I” by Nicolas Schoeffer. Alexander Calder, after the successful “mobiles”, creates his “stabilizations”. One of the separate strands of abstractionism – Op Art – emerges.
At the same time, almost simultaneously, the first collages appear in England and the United States, using the labels of mass-produced products, photographs, reproductions and similar items of the new pop-art style. Against this background, the success of the modest expressionist Bernard Buffet seems unexpected. His stylistics are comparable to such phenomena as Picasso’s “Fall of Icarus” in the UNESCO Palace by the certainty of form, the poise of composition – what can be defined as “the idea of order”.
One of the first attempts at structural analysis of postclassical artwork belongs to Umberto Eco. The Bologna University professor laid out his observations in “The Open Work. The focus is on abstract art, predominantly the gestural painting of J. Pollock, in which the gesture and the sign produced by it, according to Eco, leave the viewer with complete freedom of interpretation. Comparing such painting with the “mobiles,” the semantic games of poetry and musical compositions of the late 50s, Eco tries to identify a structure common to them, a “free explosion” in which, he believes, there is a fusion of elements, similar to that used by traditional poetry in its best manifestations, when sound and meaning, the conventional meaning of sound and emotional content merge into one. “This fusion is what Western culture considers a feature of art: the aesthetic fact,” Eco writes.
The art of the 60s was an explosion of innovation and the final recognition by museums of the various non-traditional phenomena that emerged in the 50s.
The famous New York school of painting, which became in the 1950s the highest authority in its field, began with the appeal to abstraction of its founders: J. Pollock, M. Rothko, W. Kuning. Until the second half of the 1940s, American painting remained unremarkable. Its provincialism and conservatism contained nothing specific, except a certain restraint, coldness and asceticism. Later, this legacy of puritanism found an outlet in the stylistics of abstract expressionism.
In addition to those named, American painting of the 50s is represented by the names of B. Diller, A. Reinhardt, R. Motherwell, M. Tobey, B. Tomlin, C. Steele, F. Klin, A. Gottlieb. B. Newman, G. Hoffman, J. Albers, R. Crawford. Among the works of these artists, selected by experts to characterize the American painting of the 50s, there is not one, which could be attributed to the category of soft style. Mixed forms are present in the works of Gottlieb and Motherwell. All the others are characterized by a rigid, straightforward style. With a distinct difference in trends and individual mannerisms, American painting of the 50s demonstrates clarity, certainty, unambiguity, confidence. Sometimes with some redundancy, taking an aggressive nature. Artists of this generation know what they want, confident in themselves, firmly asserting their right to self-expression.
In the painting of the 60s from this period remains the least aggressive static form of rigid style – minimalism. Barnett Newman, the founder of American geometric abstraction, and in an even more obvious form A. Lieberman, A. Held, K. Noland, as well as B. Diller somewhat earlier, successfully developed the ideas of neoplasticism and suprematism.
A new current of American painting, called “chromatic” or “post-painting” abstraction, comes from the horizon of Fauvism and post-impressionism. A pronounced harsh style, emphasizing sharp outlines (Hard Edge) gradually gives way to painting of a contemplative melancholic disposition. Geometric abstraction also moves to a register of rounded forms.
American painting of the 70s returns to figurativeness. The ’70s is considered to be a moment of truth for American painting, which is freeing itself from the European tradition that nurtured it and becoming purely American. What is happening looks like this, if only to consider that abstraction is alien to the American “national spirit.” It is indicative that speeches against abstract art, essentially cosmopolitan and belonging to a world civilization, have tended to emanate from collectivist nationalist chauvinist ideologies that suppress the individual.
However, in terms of the ongoing transformation of style (from rigid geometricism to “biomorphism”) the changes taking place should be interpreted, on the contrary, as a departure from the indigenous puritanical virtues: asceticism, determination, firmness, certainty.
American painting of this time is considered to be more “soulful” than “spiritual. And in the painting of the 80s is seen as almost a complete “return to the aesthetics of realist art. Indeed, as has been rightly noted, “the good taste of the eighties is what was the bad taste of the sixties. It is not abstraction that has been overcome, but its canonization, the bans on figurative art, on “low” genres, on the social functions of art.
At the same time the style of abstract and abstract-figurative painting acquires the softness that was absent before – streamlined volumes, blurred contours, the richness of halftones, subtle coloristic shades. Does not disappear completely and rigid style, it continues to exist in the works of geometric and expressionist artists.
Painting as a means of self-expression is not inferior to music in the embodiment of the “inexpressible”, and if necessary can be more concrete than the word. Possessing in its entirety the means of drawing and the plastic possibilities of sculpture, recreating the illusion of real and fantastic space, far surpassing sculpture in the possibilities of volume manipulation, painting has its own unique means – color.
The possibilities of color discovered by the French Impressionists were deployed even more widely with the entry of painting into abstraction. The opinion that painting today is an anachronism is common because our age is the age of music, and also because, when talking about painting, many imagine a primed canvas stretched on a stretcher, covered with a layer of paint and varnish – a kind of museum exhibit. But painting is a process, a world of open possibilities – stopped moments, adventures, confrontations, reflections, liberation from excess, replenishment of insufficiency, it is an act of self-affirmation and a direct projection of intuition, a demonstration of mastery and the possibility of discovery. This is especially well known by those who were lucky enough to enter the world of painting from the back door, with no professional knowledge, picking up a brush and realizing the possibility of interpreting and creating. Of course, we are not talking about achieving mastery, but about creating a world of images, figurative or abstract, which, as a rule, everyone is capable of. The author of the cave painting was not a professional artist.
Images are a natural and therefore universal language. If painting had been only a means of communication, accumulation and transmission of information, it would have disappeared with the advent of writing. If its only function had been to reflect or represent the world, it would not have survived the invention of photography and cinema.