16. Into Abstraction

For many people the stimulation and challenges and the provocation and perplexities of twentieth-century art lie in its progression away from depicting the world around us toward the creation of abstract works, in which color and form take on a life of their own.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Post-Impressionist artists had asserted that a picture, whatever it depicted, was just as importantly (if not more importantly) an object with its own qualities - an assembly of colors, tones and textures.

In the twentieth century, in Paris, Cubist artists like Picasso, Braque and Gris, apparently taking their starting-point from Cézanne, developed their flattened, faceted forms, fragmenting and refracting the objects they depicted, and constructing a contradictory space that could no longer be seen as a clear window on to an illusionistic world. Painters in other countries, sometimes with very different concerns - Franz Marc in Germany, with his Arcadian visions of animals, Futurists like Boccioni in Italy or Larionov in Russia, seeking to reflect the acceleration and instability of modern life - frequently employed forms similar to those of Cubism.

Other currents, too, can be seen as contributing to the drift away from representation. In Germany Wassily Kandinsky was developing his richly patterned fairytale scenes into dramatic orchestrations of forms, aspiring to manifest directly spiritual forces at work. His swooping lines and amorphous 'thought forms' gradually gave way to clusters and scatterings of more geometric flat shapes. Meanwhile the idiosyncratic, pictographic work of Paul Klee mixed emotive, psychological and mystical concerns with analytical interest in the workings of line, color and visual sign-making.

It is easy to see all these trends as leading directly to the most uncompromising abstraction: the grids and flat colors of Mondrian and van Doesburg or Max Bill; the optical vibrations of Victor Vasarely or Bridget Riley; the notorious monochrome square of Malevich's and El Lissitzky's Russian Suprematism; the more gestural, expansive surfaces of American Abstract Expressionism.

It is interesting, too, to note in certain films preserved in the Roland Collection from the Abstraction-dominated 1960s (for example 'The Origins of Art in France' in Section 1, 'Digging for the History of Man' and 'Greek Pottery' in Section 2) the emphasis on distortion, simplification and formal qualities in the art of the past, which is interpreted as anticipating and contributing to the 'discovery' of modern abstract art. Compare also the Op Artist Bridget Riley's concentration on color and form in Old Master paintings ('The Artists Eye' Section 23).

Yet it is important not to see the development of Abstraction as a simple and inevitable drive away from representation and from the kinds of meaning more traditionally associated with painting and sculpture. While emphasizing the formal and concrete identity of their works, modern artists arguably still send out a rich range of personal, political and philosophical messages, although they are compelled to 'scramble' those messages in new ways.