Off the Cuff: The Origins of Abstraction

Charles Shepard, FWMoA President & CEO

Not to over simplify, but if you want to understand art’s historical role in society then pause just a minute to mentally travel back 36,000 years to the Paleolithic era and focus on the drawings applied to the walls of the caves of Altamira in northern Spain. Those drawings were a critical part of the communication system in those ancient days, letting people know where the good hunting was and how to find it. It’s a pretty safe bet that no one at the time thought of these sketches as “art” as we think of it, but as a reliable source of information that could be used to make decisions. Today, however, we categorize those early drawings as visual art and, to a considerable degree, we take some measure of comfort in the idea that art began as a truly functional part of society; that art had a role in life. Nonetheless, it is telling that one of the first written languages of our species was one of image and, perhaps, beauty.

For generations to come around the world, this functional but visual language flourished.  Art conveyed information, told stories, shored up societal truths and norms–all this in addition to its being decorative, visually interesting, and, on occasion, stimulating or inspiring. Obviously, art had its highs and lows throughout these times. The Renaissance, for example, comes to virtually everyone’s mind as perhaps the first and most spectacular period of art ever known or imagined. Highly compelling, imaginatively realistic images of key Biblical themes commanded everyone’s attention then and now. This period arguably established art’s new role as both the conveyer of content and, at the same time, the provider of a glorious visual experience that captured everyone’s heart. The masters of the various stages and phases of Renaissance art defined the very concept of art for the next four hundred years. 

This abstract panel painting features a multi-colored background that appears spray-painted. Over top this cool colors are thick, resin painted lines of different colors. The lines drip, extending past the canvas, creating a shadow against the wall.
Abstract art today. Francisco Valverde, Mexican, b. 1972. Gobemouche. Pigmented resin on panel, 2019. Courtesy of the Evan Lurie Gallery. Photo by Lauren Wolfer.

Over the course of those four centuries, the subjects and styles in art shifted in response to changes in society in general and in the art buying public more specifically. As the wealth and influence of the merchant class grew, and their appetite for luxurious and beautiful trappings rivaled that of the ruling class, churches and royal families were no longer the only patrons of lucrative commissions. Regal clothes, a splendid house, and fine art sent as strong a message of power and success as a noble title. The subjects of art, not surprisingly, became increasingly secular as the buying public sought to celebrate their worldly success and possessions. Stylistically, realism continued to reign both because it accurately depicted the “things in the world” that potential buyers wanted recorded and because it was, basically, the universally understood language of art.

Art and artists, in the twilight of the 1700s, were in an extremely strong position by a number of measures: the market for art was more robust than ever and the national art academies in each European country ensured a uniform skill level of artists around the world; and, thus, the quality and value of art. Yet one artist, a rare talent, ranks in 1844 with the stable and lucrative order of the art world by seeing and depicting things in the world in a more dynamic and dramatic way. The artist I speak of, Joseph Mallord William Turner, was an entirely unlikely rebel in the world of art. A natural talent trained in the Royal Academy, and successful and wealthy before the age of 25, Turner emerged as a model artist of the system. That said, he began to chafe at the constraints of the realist style which, in his mind, depicted things accurately but bereft of any sense of their true essence.  Representational art strove to depict real things, but failed to address reality.

To understand Turner’s emerging perspective, think of a scene such as a ship at sea in a perilous storm with almost zero visibility due to wind, rain, and darkness.  Turner, a frequent voyager, had first-hand knowledge of such scenes and understood that, in those moments, nothing – the ship, the storm, the ocean, the sky – appeared real. His quest as an artist became to attempt to convey to the viewer through his art what those “unreal” moments looked and felt like. Storm scenes didn’t dominate his work, but they certainly inspired him to “see” the visual impact that light, weather, visibility, and other natural factors had on things in the world in a way that other artists did not. Turner’s 1844 tour de force, Rain, Steam, and Speed: The Great Western Railway, is an atmospheric marvel in which the railway is only barely distinguishable. Many would think it to be impressionist, but Impressionism wouldn’t be an artistic “style” for another 18 years. Turner likely considered his work realistic, although it bore little resemblance to the kind of realism favored by every other painter in the academy. The artists devoted to Academic Realism were highly-skilled illusionists, whereas Turner sought to paint truth itself.

His realism was based on how things in the world appear to the senses rather than the intellect. That seemingly subtle difference is what led to Claude Monet’s haystack series almost two decades later, as Monet found that one of his favorite subjects, the massive mounds of golden hay in his neighbor’s field, changed in appearance throughout the day as the sun and atmospheric conditions shifted with time and weather conditions. The importance of all this is that Turner, the originator of the style that would become Impressionism, paved the way for Monet, Renoir, Manet, Cassatt, and all the painters whose works graced the walls of the infamous 1863 exhibition, the Salon Des Refuses. The Salon established a new and very clear line between Realism and a whole new style of painting that, yet, had no name. Even Emperor Napoleon III understood that the art world would never be the same again after he decided to “let the people judge!”

Artist Heather Day is shot from above in her studio, providing a birds-eye view of her work. Paints and canvases litter the floor, as she works on multiple paintings at once.
Contemporary abstract artist Heather Day in her studio. What do you think of abstract art and its process? Photo courtesy of Heather Day.

In breaking free of Academic Realism, Turner and the Impressionists enthusiastically but naively cracked open the door to a level of artistic freedom of expression never before imagined. Although a great many artists continued to choose to attend the Academies and adhere to their rigorous realist rules, many more artists chose to ignore those rules and develop styles and rules of their own. As the 20th century began, the Impressionists were soon in company with the Expressionists, then the Fauvists, Cubists, Futurists, and the flood of other non-Realist artistic trends that came to define modern abstract art. The Turner-esque idea that each of these trends or styles had in common was that there was more to everything in the world than simply what could be seen by the eye alone. Modern artists didn’t simply want to represent something in the world to us; they sought to create a real thing – a work of art – for us. Mere representation of anything became rapidly outdated and thought to be lacking in artistic merit in the evolving Modern world order. To the artists leading this revolution, these were powerfully inspirational times as they essentially redefined what qualified as art. Their collective quest was to bring truth into the world through their art.

To many people this was all rather confusing. A picture of a thing–a horse, for example–could be easily understood, judged, and valued. In contrast, Kandinsky’s picture Composition VII was a cacophony of swirling colors, lines, and forms which resembled nothing else in the world. What was this? What did it mean? If we couldn’t tell what it was, how could we know if Kandinsky had gotten it right? But he came right out and told us what it was: Composition VII. It was a new creation, a new truth, that Kandinsky created to share with us. How could we judge this strange thing given that there is literally no thing in the world to compare it to? British art critic Clive Bell in his book, Significant Form, suggested that we judge this new abstract art based on our personal aesthetic experience of the colors, shapes, and lines in each new work of art. That, of course, asked more of us as viewers than in the past when we would have based our judgement on how well this depiction of a horse compared to a real horse. Essentially, Bell asked us to engage with this new art and actually experience it for what it was, not what it was trying to be.

The world gradually began to embrace abstraction in its many forms. A market emerged for Modern art, and art schools around the world began teaching it in theory and practice. After World War II, when the G.I. Bill guaranteed a college education to all those who had served, abstract art was so popular that colleges across the country opened new departments of art which were generally directed by recognized masters of the abstract styles. And in the August 8, 1949 issue of LIFE, the magazine gave the American public its thumbs up endorsement of abstract art by featuring a glowing, multi-page story on Jackson “Jack the Dripper” Pollock. After that, things start to get a lot more interesting for at least the next 50 years.

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