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The First 50 Years of Abstraction

Why did artists turn their backs on the commonly perceived world when it had served them as an object so perfectly well for a long time?


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Why did artists turn their backs on the commonly perceived world when it had served them as an object so perfectly well for a long time?

There is no simple answer but an answer that must be seen through a rather complex historical context. Abstract art, the opposite of depicting reality, as it is visually perceived, seems to frequently baffle many people. The style can seem to be rather tricky to grasp since it is most often unrelated to the world of appearance and calls into question the very nature of art.


Pablo Picasso, Standing Female Nude (1910) Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Pablo Picasso, Standing Female Nude (1910). Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


From the Renaissance, Western art had been underpinned by the logic of perspective and by producing an illusion of a reality. Artists were aware of the gap between depicted images and reality and took the role to transform reality into art. Simplistically stated, the development of abstract art was a result of the social, intellectual and technological upheaval that took place from the middle of the 19th century, which changed the artistic roles. Science created a different perception of the world and the evolution of photography contributed to “freed” the artist from the need to recreate external appearance. The spirit of modernism became an avant-garde attitude through which artists sought a new way of responding to the changing perceptions of the new societies.


The style evolved along with the growing independence that art movements such as the Impressionism managed to give to art. According to the suggestion that artists should draw on their inner perceptions, several artists began to experiment with abstraction. A major stimulus for future abstract development was the Cubist paintings of Picasso (1881-1973). In his Female Nude (1910), by approaching his viewpoints from many imagined angles and combined shapes, Picasso pushed the forms so far that the final image was barely recognizable, away from any naturalistic starting point.


Giacomo Balla, Girl Running on a Balcony (1912) Courtesy of Museo del Novecento, Milan.

Giacomo Balla, Girl Running on a Balcony (1912). Courtesy of Museo del Novecento, Milan.


If one way to abstract experimentation had been given by Cubism, another one was provided by scientific theory. Many Italian Futurists became interested in freeing the speed and power of the machine from a representation. Giacomo Balla (1871-1958), associated with the Futurists, was one of the first artists to evolve a fully abstract style through a fascination with motion and electric light – as showed in Girl Running on a Balcony.



Marcel Duchamp, The Bride (1912). Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, USA


Meanwhile in Paris, artists such as Marcel Duchamp preferred to use the machine as a reductive symbol. As compared to Balla’s Girl running on the Balcony, Duchamp’s The Bride shows a deeper concern to decompose forms rather than suggesting movements for its’ own sake. In The Bride there is no apparent relation to the natural world and no object is clearly recognizable. However, it looks abstract. The title suggests a human content and encourages to engage imaginatively in the range of associations that are released through this suggestion.


As Europe became divided within the years of the Great War, some artists turned toward an abstraction that relied less on the forms of an uncertain and changing world while focusing more on universal values based on philosophical and spiritual doctrines. As long as art, as any object, had a soul there was nothing to prevent it from being abstract.  



The Exemplary Life of the Soil (Texturology LXIII) 1958 Jean Dubuffet 1901-1985 Purchased 1966. Courtesy of Tate. Photo from


But it wasn’t really until the decades after the Second World War that abstraction reached a wider public. Paris, still a leading art center, had a wide variety of abstraction flourishing. Growing in popularity, abstraction fragmented into different styles with a distinction between “cold” and “warm” abstraction. While the first referred solely to the use of quasi-geometric patterns, the latter was given a plethora of names: lyrical abstraction, tachisme, informal art, etc. Expressiveness was a common characteristic, which reached international currency during the second half of the century as Abstract Expressionism came to characterize the New York art scene during the War years.

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