Before the 20th century, fine art in the Western world was "representational", meaning it looked like something recognizeable. Whether it was a painting of a bowl of fruit, snow-capped mountains, or a man holding a fluffy kitty - we could see right away what these things were, and what the artwork was about. Art was easy to understand.
Things changed a lot in the 20th century. Life sped up. Technology advanced in leaps and bounds. The middle class blossomed. New ideas flourished. Science made new discoveries, shattering our old perceptions of the way things were. Suddenly life was less easy to understand. People were full of new questions about identity, existence, the purpose of life, our place in the universe and the workings of nature. As such, artists sought a new way to express themselves... without words, without objects, without boundaries.
As Jackson Pollock put it,
"New needs need new techniques. And the modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements ... the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture."
Abstract art paintings and drawings were the fresh new way to express ideas in a rapidly changing world.
In visual terms, the journey from representational art to abstract art was no accident. For one thing, the invention of photography had a huge impact on the art world. What was the point of mimesis if a machine could replicate reality far more easily? So artists began questioning the very role of being an artist, in addition to all the other questions and changes occuring at the time. Cubism, fauvism, impressionism and post-impressionism were all precursors to abstract art paintings. These art movements explored the very nature of perception. By breaking down the "rules" of what art could be, they paved the way for abstract art to emerge.
To begin with, the first modern abstract art paintings developed as an abstraction of a natural form. Using nature as a starting point, the images were made more and more abstract until they were unrecognizable as what they once resembled. A good example is the progression of Mondrian's trees.
So there are two different types of abstracts: those that have their basis in natural forms, and those that are purely abstract. Compare and contrast these two abstract art paintings:
Quoi d'autre - 6" x 6" - Acrylic on Wood Panel
Mesmeric - 8" x 10" - Acrylic on Canvas
Take a close look at these two abstract art paintings. Can you "see" anything in the images? Or do they just look like random patterns and designs?
The painting on the left is a landscape. Therefore, the designs are based in nature. Although the painting doesn't immediately appear to be a landscape, if you look at it closely you can see where the inspiration comes from. You can see green rolling hills, rows of plants, and a shining sun.
The painting on the right is purely abstract, meaning it was not based on anything that exists in nature. It is not meant to "look like" anything. It is meant to be appreciated simply for what it is... an image comprised of colorful patterns and intricate designs. The theme of this painting is more ethereal and conceptual than the painting on the left.
Both of these paintings are done in the same style of bright colors and detailed patterns, full of energy and movement. Although they share common stylistic qualities, one was based on natural forms, while the other was purely abstract. This is an important point to consider when looking at an abstract and trying to figure out what it's all about.
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