Takes a quick tour through the history of abstract art and take in some unexpected pioneers along the way

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis' exhibited 1843
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis exhibited 1843
Oil on canvas
support: 787 x 787 mm
frame: 1036 x 1036 x 115 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

If you put the word abstract into a thesaurus some of the synonyms it will produce are as follows: theoretical; conceptual; intangible, while one of its numerous antonyms is ‘simple’. The word is suggestive therefore of something evasive, difficult, not easily grasped. This isn’t to say abstract art must be any of those things. On the contrary: linguistics aside, an artist working in an abstract way might be concerned with producing something of striking, elevating beauty, whisking us away from the humdrum realities of the everyday. In other words, art for art’s sake, pure and simple. Moreover, a raft of exhibitions show that far from being indefinable movements set apart from the mainstream, abstraction in its various forms has produced some of the most memorable, influential and indeed best loved art of any era.

While Wassily Kandinsky is often regarded as the pioneer of European abstract art – Kandinsky claimed, erroneously as it turns out, that he produced the first abstract painting in 1911: ‘back then not one single painter was painting in an abstract style’ – it can be argued that the roots of this movement are to be found deeper still (and if recent news is to be believed, the Neanderthals where ahead of the game in their cutting of abstract lines into stone). If we look at some of the later works of J.M.W. Turner for example, it is no great leap to suggest that his landscapes are in fact abstract; what might be traditionally recognisable forms in the hands of another painter are consumed by sublime elements, overwhelming evocations of light and scale which Turner used to such great effect. It makes for a compelling, if not definitive argument.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue 1927
Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue 1927

When it comes to some of the names we more readily associate with the movement, 2014 has felt like something of a high water mark for abstraction. Piet Mondrian, also among the first of those we consider abstract artists, began in more conventional fashion, painting figuratively (and with commercial success) in his homeland of Holland. But his work, exposed to avant-garde Paris in 1911, and the cubism of Picasso, would soon undergo, first an evolution, and eventually a radical transformation. With bold primary colours allied to a pursuit of purity and lack of any recognisably ‘real-world’ references, his orthogonal gridded work is considered by some to be the logical conclusion of painting, abstract or otherwise. With this ultimate evocation of his practise – what he called neo-plasticism – Mondrian sought to achieve the ‘destruction of natural appearance’, finding instead ‘the plastic expression of true reality’. This journey from figuration to abstraction is explored in Mondrian and his Studios at Tate Liverpool.  

Kazimir Malevich Black Square 1913
Kazimir Malevich
Black Square 1913

If Mondrian had neo-plasticism, Kazimir Malevich preferred the term suprematism (because of its quality of ‘the supremacy of pure artistic feeling’); their motivations, separated geographically, were startlingly similar, and Malevich, unbound by representation, produced his secular Russian icon, Black Quadrilateral 1915 (more commonly known as Black Square). Later, writing in his book The Non-Objective World (published in 1927), Malevich said: ‘In the year 1913, trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square.’ Malevich didn’t paint exclusively in black of course (as those visiting the Kazimir Malevich exhibition Revolutionary of Russian Art will find), but with Black Quadrilateral, he had realised one of the key works of non-representational abstraction.

Henri Matisse, 'The Snail' 1953
Henri Matisse
The Snail 1953
Gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted on canvas
support: 2864 x 2870 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1962© Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2002

From Malevich’s daring employment of black, to the extraordinary and intoxicating use of colour to be found in Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs; while not strictly abstract, one could easily be forgiven for making the assumption that the Frenchman had become a late convert to the movement Mondrian and Malevich had spearheaded. The Snail 1953, for example, seems to betray the movement’s key attributes: bold colours, geometric shapes and no obvious natural reference point. But, as with much of Matisse’s work, The Snail is inspired by nature; the geometric shell a red herring which inverts the thinking of strict abstraction. Nonetheless, with this method of ‘carving into colour’, Matisse, in a phase of life when the majority of us would be easing into going with the flow, had invented a new medium.

Following the diversion through Matisse, an artist irrefutably in tune with abstraction was Marlow Moss. Writing in the Guardian, Charles Darwent points out, she was for a time ‘a devoted follower’ of Mondrian’s. Written off by some as an imitator of the father of neo-plasticism – Moss’s work from the period following her discovery of Mondrian is undoubtedly in his debt – the influence, it can be argued, was reciprocal. After all it was Moss, not Mondrian, who first introduced twin lines into her gridded compositions in 1931. If that sounds insignificant, it’s not – a year later, Mondrian followed suit, painting Composition with Double Line and Yellow. Until recently largely forgotten, Moss’s oeuvre, thankfully, is undergoing something of a renaissance, one explored at Tate Britain.