Abstract art timeline: colour and shape

Colour and shape

Abstract art has its roots in early human civilisation. Cultures across the globe have used non-figurative, but highly symbolic, decoration for centuries.

While abstract art became the dominant art form of the 20th century, it started to evolve in the 19th Century. This timeline will lead you through some of the key works, with images and clips from the BBC archive.


The artistic industrial revolution

The industrial revolution brought great advances in engineering, including the mechanisation of factories and the invention of the steam engine.

JMW Turner was a ground-breaking painter whose work captured some of these changes in England. His style of painting came to place great emphasis on the appearance of light and verged towards abstraction. For example, his 1844 painting Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway offers little detail of the landscape, its dramatic viewpoint manages to both create an atmosphere and give an impression of rapid movement.

Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway by JMW Turner, National Gallery / Bridgeman


Abstraction on the horizon

Another 19th Century painter who anticipated abstract art was James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

He based his compositions on ideas of visual harmony as well as the relationship between art and music. This was emphasised by the titles of many works, such as 1875’s Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket, a night scene composed mostly of black with only a few flashes of colour. It was so heavily criticised by John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the time, that Whistler sued him for libel.

Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket by James Whistler, Detroit Institute of Arts / Bridgeman


The father of them all

Paul Cézanne's approach to painting was significant because he came to perceive even natural forms as being understandable through geometry.

In his later work he began to break down the rules of perspective, bringing each element of the composition forward to the surface of the painting. This paved the way for Cubist artists to develop a style which attempted to show a different kind of reality, where it was possible to see an object from a variety of angles simultaneously.

Ginger Jar by Paul Cézanne, Barnes Foundation / Bridgeman


The unknown abstract artist

Though little known outside her native Sweden, Hilma af Klint perhaps has the best claim to the title of first abstract artist.

She was interested in practices such as spiritualism and theosophy, a philosophy which sought direct knowledge of God. This led her to experiment with both automatic drawing and geometric abstraction before other artists. Her work used symbols and diagrams she claimed were communicated to her by spirits. These paintings were not exhibited in her lifetime and Klint requested in her will that none be shown until 20 years after her death.

Matthew Collings looks at the work of Hilma af Klint, a little known Swede who produced many abstract paintings. Clip from The Rules of Abstraction.


Cubism approaches abstraction

There was a marked progression towards abstraction in the work of both Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque from 1907 onwards.

While the subject is clear in Picasso’s 1907 Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, both artists pushed at the boundaries of representation in subsequent paintings. In Braque’s Still Life with a Violin of 1910, recognisable elements are reduced to geometric shapes and dispersed across the surface of the canvas. Critic Louis Vauxcelles called Braque’s painted forms ‘cubes’ and the term Cubism was coined.

Still Life with a Violin by Georges Braque, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou / Bridgeman


The future is now

Futurism was a movement launched in Italy in 1909 by poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

Partly influenced by Cubism, it celebrated the increasing mechanisation of the modern world and rejected traditional values. The Futurists sought to show the speed and dynamism they felt to be characteristic of the urbanised 20th Century. Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space was an attempt to show the truth of the human figure in motion rather than a static representation of visual reality.

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space by Umberto Boccioni, De Agostini Picture Library / Bridgeman


Colour, but not as we know it

Henri Matisse's innovative use of colour also broke with traditional representation, but in a different way.

It showed less how he saw the real world and more how he felt about it. In The Red Studio he rejected naturalistic colour, filling the entire canvas with a saturated red. This flattens the composition and makes the objects appear to be floating in space. Mark Rothko was moved to tears by this painting when he saw it in New York in 1949.

The Red Studio (1911) by Henri Matisse, © Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2014


Colour and form alone

Wassily Kandinsky famously experienced an epiphany on seeing a painting of haystacks by Monet in 1896.

He did not recognise the subject but was moved by the arrangement of colours. This led him to the conclusion that colour and form alone could have a powerful effect. Kandinsky had a condition called synaesthesia, a confusion of the senses which allowed him to see colours when listening to music. Like music, his abstract paintings tried to express emotional and spiritual truths.

Matthew Collings looks at one of Kandinsky’s early abstract paintings, Picture With a Black Arch. Clip from The Rules of Abstraction.


Beyond representation

Kandinsky was not alone in his quest for an inner truth.

Influenced first by Cubism, then by the Italian Futurists, the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich developed a new approach which he called Suprematism. His first works of pure geometric abstraction, which he created in secret, were exhibited in December 1915. He called his famous Black Square the ‘zero of form’, the beginning of a new, non-objective reality.

Matthew Collings examines two works by Russian painter Kazimir Malevich. Clip from The Rules of Abstraction.


Primary colours

When Piet Mondrian arrived in Paris in 1911, he was nearly 40 years old and had been working in a style influenced by his interest in theosophy.

The influenced of Cubism, however, radically shifted his focus towards abstraction. In 1917, Mondrian painted his first purely abstract work, Composition in Line, and by 1919 had fully developed an abstract visual language, Neo-Plasticism. This featured horizontal and vertical black lines, punctuated by areas of white and occasional blocks of primary colour.

Matthew Collings analyses the work of Piet Mondrian. Clip from The Rules of Abstraction.


Constructing a new art

Lyubov Popova, who studied under Malevich, was one of the main figures in the Constructivist group alongside Alexander Rodchenko.

These Soviet artists were interested in how abstract art and design could be applied to the cause of revolution. From typography to textile design, architecture, painting and sculpture, their vision was of an art of the everyday, constructed for the good of society. Some even said what they were doing was not art, it was the process of overcoming art.

Andrew Graham-Dixon visits a Constructivist exhibition at Tate Modern. Clip from the Culture Show.


Seeing the light

A number of key artists taught at the Bauhaus art school in Germany between 1919 and 1933.

Here the ethos was to reconcile mass production and the creative spirit. Paul Klee joined the teaching staff in 1921. His great friend Kandinsky followed in 1922. Klee’s use of colour had been greatly shaped by his experience of the landscape, architecture and quality of light during a trip to Tunisia in 1914. He painted his first abstract composition on his return.

Matthew Collings on the impact of the Tunisian light on the art of Paul Klee. Clip from The Rules of Abstraction.


Games of chance

Geometric abstraction was not the only development of the 20th Century.

In 1920s Paris a group of artists called the Surrealists began to experiment with ideas of chance in order to unlock their subconscious minds. One method they used was automatic drawing, where the artist would suppress conscious thought and produce an image which was the direct expression of their ‘unconscious’ thoughts. Joan Miró used this technique in a number of paintings he made between 1925 and 1927.

Painting (Peinture) by Joan Miró, ADAGP, Paris / Tate


Pure emotion

Klee’s colour harmonies would seem to have echoes in the large scale canvases of Mark Rothko.

These feature soft-edged blocks of colour arranged against a saturated background. Despite being influenced by the work of Matisse and early abstract artists such as Klee, Rothko rejected the idea that he was an abstract artist, saying, “I'm not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on.”


Action painting

Like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock’s art aimed to provoke a strong emotional response from the viewer.

Pollock experimented with a number of styles before eventually developing a vigorously gestural technique, dripping and spattering paint across his canvases in a seemingly random way.

Andrew Graham-Dixon analyses Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) by Jackson Pollock. Clip from Art of America: Modern Dreams.


Beyond the canvas

The Conceptual and Minimalist art of the 1960s could be seen as a reaction against painters like Rothko and Pollock.

Although they had quite different styles, they were collectively referred to as Abstract Expressionists. In this, the hand of the artist was vital to its emotional impact. But a number of artists began to use the precision of geometric abstraction to disconnect the artist from the work. What was important to artists like Sol LeWitt was the communication of the idea and not the execution. LeWitt’s wall drawings are installed by teams of assistants, to his original specifications.

Wall drawing # 951 by Sol LeWitt, Museo Civico, Spoleto, Italy / Bridgeman

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