History of Abstract Art

William Turner abstract

William Turner abstract


Surprisingly Abstract Art is now well over 100 years old as an art form. Many people confuse abstract art with contemporary art, although the terms are interchangeable and many historians have grouped both into the term modern art they are different, although this subject is continually debated.

Contemporary art has mainly been used to describe movements from pop art to impressionism. Contemporary art simply mean any art form that is produced at the present time whereas abstract art refers to specific types of art and can be more than 100 years old.

Abstract art goes as far back as to the late 1800\’s with Joseph Mallord William Turner. Then in the 19 century Cezanne pictured reality as patterned shapes then in the early 20th century the Cubist painter Braque responded to Cezanne by picturing reality as a flattened space.

A few years later abstract art responded to Cubism with shapes and spaces only. Artists saw spirituality as both a challenge to the power of science and a way of harnessing it.
This counterintuitive idea came from the spiritual movement of Theosophy, which was founded in New York in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky.

Hilma Af Klint

Hilma Af Klint

Blavatsky took aspects of eastern religion and aspects of science, mostly evolution, and came up with a spiritual movement based on evolution of the soul. Abstract art started at the very peak of Theosophy’s popularity. People thought spirituality was like X rays or infrared radiation or electricity. It could be revealed. There were a lot of different artistic takes on the spiritual, but the strangest was the earliest.

Hilma Af Klint who was born in 1862 and lived and worked in Sweden. For decades nobody knew about them, but recently they’ve emerged and started to be exhibited all the over the world.
From totally invisible she’s become the main excitement about historic abstract art. A woman doing abstraction, plus doing it so it’s full of meaning.

The Russian artist, Wassily Kandinsky, is the lord of abstraction. He said it was created from inner necessity and it didn’t need nature to picture. It contained all of nature anyway, just in abstract art’s shapes and colours.

Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky


In 1914, Sonia Delaunay, one of the great founders of abstract art, created this colour painting.
Electric Prisms Sonia Delaunay

Electric Prisms Sonia Delaunay

It’s called Electric Prisms. Delaunay invented a whole new way of compressing arrangement in art down to colour and form.
But in 1855 the colour chemist, Eugene Chevreul, said colours opposite each other on the wheel have the same intensity and placing them side by side causes what he calls an optical vibration.

Delaunay absorbed that scientific rule and took it over to serve her own rule of painterly evocation of the emotional lift of light.
In 1912, when Kandinsky’s On The Spiritual In Art was spreading its message, Robert Delaunay wrote a manifesto called, simply, Light. The manifesto had a climactic last sentence, like the words of a colour prophet, “Let us attempt to see.”

The rule John McLean obeys is the rule to keep looking for the infinitesimal adjustments that will give simple shapes a convincing subtlety, like light in the world. Paul Klee, whose abstracts were often nothing but squares, nevertheless the rule was always to observe nature. In order to make something abstract seem true to the world around us Klee uses tonally graded colour. Tone is different to colour. Colour is colour but tone is the alteration of colour’s vivid bright vibrating impact by making that colour lighter or darker.

The Russian abstract artist, Malevich, created his pure geometric abstract art style, which he called Suprematism, in 1915, the First World War was under way.
But this painting was done very shortly after he created a work called the Black Square.

Malevich's Black Square

Malevich’s Black Square


The most famous abstract painting in history.

He redid the original several times because its surface cracked. This 1923 version is a delight of velvety-rich, granulated brushy blackness.
The creation of something out of nothing, a painted something.

Liubov Popova was influenced by Malevich’s teaching and painted this painting by Popova from 1917
Abstraction in Europe went quiet in the 1930s with the rise of fascism in the West and totalitarian communism in Russia.

Liubov Popova

Liubov Popova

The end of the Second World War in 1945 saw a revival of abstraction in lonely studios in New York. Changing the world by cosmic visions, by spirituality, or art giving a concrete form to socialism were not the ideas context for abstraction any more.

Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock


Jackson Pollock, paints in a very liquefied method. Only black, no other colour, thrown onto the canvas, and very briefly titled, Number 32. The painting was done one day in 1950, with the canvas rolled out on the wooden floorboards in his studio in New York, in a rural part of the state a few hours’ drive from the city.

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko


Mark Rothko, created a sort of breathing surface is the main theme, the main effect by which the painting is able to convey its message.
Rothko was a New Yorker whose family emigrated from Russia when he was a child. The visual impressiveness of abstract art from the 1950s and 1910s is carried on by abstract art now,
but often not with the old sense of abstract purity.

Thanks to a fantastic documentary in which painter and critic Matthew Collings covers abstract art over the last 100 years & the BBC for much of this content.

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