Kandinsky, Untitled, 1910
Many painters today focus on producing abstract works – and a good number of them have only ever produced abstract works. But don’t look that far back in human history, and you’ll find that painting meant painting representatively, reproducing on canvas the likenesses of real people, places, and things out there in the world. Humanity, of course, did not evolve with its figurative art skills pre-installed: although some cave paintings recognizably depict men and beasts, many strike us today as what we would call abstract, or less abstract. So which modern artists can claim to have been the first to rediscover abstraction?
Kandinsky, Composition V, 1911
If you’ve studied art history, you might well name the early 20th-century Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (whose first abstract watercolor from 1910 appears at the top of the article). But “while Kandinsky is today hailed as the father of abstract painting“, writes Abigail Cain of Artsy, “he was by no means the only actor in the development of non-figurative painting”, although “his work Composition V certainly sparked public interest in abstract painting.
First exhibited in Munich in December 1911, “this monumental work was barely representative” and also “the first such work to be exhibited”, inspiring the art world not only to take abstraction seriously , but to see it as the future.
Hilma af Klint, Svanen, 1915
Kandinsky, inspired by Goethe color theory, had already thought a lot about abstraction. He had first written a manifesto defining abstract art a few years earlier, titled Spiritual in art, a title that would have resonated with Hilma af Klint, a painter who could have first become abstract. “Af Klint, who was born in Stockholm, showed an early interest in nature, mathematics and art, and she began studying at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in 1882,” writes the New York Times” Natalia Rachlin. She made a name for herself as a landscape and portrait artist after graduation, but at the same time “also pursued a more private pursuit: she had begun to take an interest in the occult and to attend seances from 1879, at the age of 17”.
Hilma af Klint, ‘Staggering’: The Ten Largest, Youth, 1907.
Af Klint’s “curiosity for the spiritual realm quickly grew into a lifelong interest in Spiritualism, Theosophy and Anthroposophy”, and during one seance she heard a spirit say to her to “make paintings which would represent the immortal aspects of man”. This proved to be the turning point in af Klint’s work: from the naturalistic to the abstract, from representations of physical reality to the transmission of the invisible. She went on to produce the 193 abstract paintings for the Temple. Exhibitions of her representational work continued, but she kept the rest private, and in her will “even requested that her abstract paintings not be shown in public until at least twenty years after her death, noting that the public was not yet able to understand it. work.”
Francis Picabia, Rubber, 1909.
Both Kandinsky and Af Klint seem like plausible candidates for the first abstract painter – it just depends on how you define the beginning of abstraction – but they are not the only ones. Cain also evokes the Parisian artist of Czech origin František Kupka, or his colleague of the French avant-garde Francis Picabia, whose watercolor of 1909 Rubber (Rubber), pictured just above, came before Kandinsky had painted an abstract image or even finished writing about it. Yet some objectors note that “the work still retains some semblance of form, reminiscent of a bouquet of flowers”. These questions of purity, innovation and above all originality are complicated. As Clive James once said, “It’s very difficult to be totally inventive, so I’m not very interested in originality. Vitality is all I care about” – a quality that all of these works still exude today.
Helen Mirren tells us why Wassily Kandinsky is her favorite artist (and what theater and modern art have in common)
Goethe’s colorful and abstract illustrations for his 1810 treatise, Theory of Colors: Scans of the first edition
Travel back in time to 1926 and watch Wassily Kandinsky create art in a rare vintage video
MoMA teaches you to paint like Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning and other abstract painters
Free lesson: An introduction to Italian Renaissance art
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts about cities and culture. He is working on the book The Stateless City: A Walk Through 21st Century Los Angelesthe video series The city in cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books Korean blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.