Abstract painting

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Wassily Kandinsky : The Last Judgment / Composition V , 1911
Robert Delaunay : Disque simultané , 1912/13

Abstract painting (from the Latin abstrahere : peel off, separate) or absolute painting (see → Abstract Art ) is a collective term for various currents of non-object-related painting styles of Classical Modernism .

Abstract painting means arranging or composing with colors, contrasts, lines and geometric shapes without deliberately depicting objects or the gestural application of colors on canvas ( action painting , Informel ) - without the intention of composing .

In abstract painting, there was a break with one of the basic principles of historically grown occidental painting. Up until the beginning of the 20th century, the reference to actually existing objects was a universal and style-independent point of reference for artistic creation.


Adolf Hölzel : Abstraction II, 1915/16, oil on canvas, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart

The term abstract painting is understood to mean the tendency to avoid any reference to objectivity and to limit what is painted to the sounds of shapes and colors and their inner-pictorial relationships and opposites.

In the first half of the 20th century, the term abstraction in relation to the visual arts was constantly expanded. Finally, abstract painting could designate any form of simplifying representation that reduces the impressions of nature.

The beginnings of abstract painting around 1910

Kazimir Malevich - Black Square, 1915

The art review regards the path to pure abstraction as a necessary development within general tendencies of classical modernism . Abstract painting is seen as a consequence of Neo-Impressionism , Fauvism , Expressionism and Cubism .

Purely abstract painting began in the period after 1910. Wassily Kandinsky , František Kupka , Piet Mondrian and Robert Delaunay are among the main founders . One of the most radical and controversial works of abstract painting is the famous Black Square by Kazimir Malevich , which was first exhibited in 1915.

Hilma af Klint - Original Chaos No. 16, 1906/1907

However, who created the first abstract work is controversial. It is now doubted that it was Kandinsky who was the first to create a completely abstract watercolor without a title in 1910. It is believed that it is pre-dated and may have served as a study for Composition VII from 1913. According to the latest findings, the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint , who was inspired by occultism , spiritualism and theosophy, painted the first abstract picture as early as 1906. However, her recently discovered work remained completely unknown in its time and therefore had no influence on the development of abstract painting. František Kupka was the first to exhibit completely abstract pictures in the Paris Salon d'Automne in 1912, which caused an enormous sensation. In the early days of abstract painting there was no particular group of artists who were solely dedicated to this new direction in painting. The painters who did not work objectively belonged to different, more or less independent currents.

The new painterly point of view spread rapidly in Europe after 1910. In 1913 one can already speak of a “fashion”. Today abstract painting is an integral part of modern art.

The simultaneous emergence of Arnold Schönberg's atonal music is seen as significant in the context .

Abstraction in painting before 1910

William Turner: Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge , 1843. Oil on canvas, 79 × 79 cm
Example image of the genre color field painting

As early as the 19th century , paintings and graphics were created without any directly recognizable reference to the subject. Hundreds of such pictures can be found, for example, in the work of the English painter William Turner , the French poet and draftsman Victor Hugo and the French symbolist Gustave Moreau . On the discursive level, the idea of ​​abstract painting first became tangible in the early romantic period. A generation later, Gottfried Keller , who trained as a painter in his youth, describes in his autobiographical novel The Green Heinrich how the protagonist creates an abstract drawing, whereupon his painter friend Erikson - albeit ironically - the age of non-representational art, connected with the utopia of an egalitarian society, proclaims. The study of the effects of lines and colors in the sense of abstract formal principles of representation was practiced almost exclusively in the studio before 1900. Many traditional works were based on abstract preliminary studies and sketches. In this sense, "the achievement of the avant-garde around 1912 did not lie in the invention of abstraction", "but in the fact that it was declared a work of art."

The main representatives of the first movements of Classical Modernism , Fauvism and Cubism , Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso , did not take the last step towards complete abstraction. They took the position that in this way the abstraction was only imitated. It was not until 1910 that the first major wave of purely abstract painting artists emerged. Strict abstract directions such as constructivism or suprematism developed .

Different abstract tendencies in painting

After its creation, abstract painting quickly fell into a number of styles. Its cross-style division into an expressive abstraction (Kandinsky) and a geometric abstraction ( Malewitsch , Theo van Doesburg , Piet Mondrian ) or a lyrical and a constructive-geometric direction has essentially external features in mind, less methodological differences. Abstract principles were even used in surrealism (see automatism ). The best-known representative of what was later called abstract expressionism or action painting was the American Jackson Pollock ; However, other painters were pioneering here, such as the French surrealist André Masson .

"Painting" of animals

A picture of Congo

The chimpanzee Congo, born in 1954, painted "abstract" pictures, some of which were presented in an art exhibition in London. The pictures have been declared high-ranking works of abstract art by art connoisseurs. After the artist was announced, there were heated discussions about the art worthiness of such works.


From the beginning, abstract painting was greeted with enthusiastic reception and defense as well as polemical and serious criticism. Even important artists and art historians were critical or even hostile to it.

Abstract painting found it difficult to be accepted and accepted by the public, but also by art critics. Due to its deviation from the established concept of art and its renunciation of representational depiction, it met with displeasure from the general public. It was stated that it was not about art and that neither artistic talent nor manual skills were necessary to create it. The above examples of painting chimpanzees have often been cited in a polemical way by critics of abstract painting.

The criticism that abstract painting, especially Abstract Expressionism , was functionalized during the Cold War goes in a different direction . Thereafter, the CIA subsidized Jackson Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists through the Congress for Cultural Freedom and in accordance with the funding policies of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation . While Stalin pushed for " socialist realism " in his immediate sphere of influence , abstract painting was the obvious choice after the war in destroyed Europe as a demonstration of political and artistic progressiveness and freedom (without a socially critical message).

Representatives of abstract painting (selection)

See also


  • Heinz Althöfer (Ed.): Informel. The beginning after the end . Series of publications by the Museum am Ostwall, Volume 1, Dortmund 1999.
  • David Anfam : Abstract Expressionism . Thames and Hudson, New York 2007 (Reprint with revisions).
  • Susanne Anna (Ed.): The informal - from Pollock to Schumacher . Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern 1999.
  • Christine Baus: The formal in informal painting. A methodological investigation into the painting of the German Informel . Dissertation, Heidelberg 2008. ub.uni-heidelberg.de (PDF)
  • Tayfun Belgin (Ed.): Art of Informel: Painting and Sculpture after 1952 . Wienand Verlag, Cologne 1997.
  • Roger M. Buergel, Stefanie-Vera Kocklot (Ed.): Abstract Expressionism: Constructions of Aesthetic Experience . Verlag der Kunst, Dresden 2000.
  • Mark A. Cheetham: The Rhetoric of Purity. Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract Painting . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge / New York 2009.
  • Frances Colpitt (Ed.): Abstract art in the late twentieth century . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK 2002.
  • Dietmar Elger: Abstract Art . Taschen, Cologne 2008.
  • Ann Eden Gibson: Abstract Expressionism. Other Politics . Yale University Press, New Haven / London 1997.
  • Max Henry: The New Atlantis: Abstract America . Saatchi Gallery, Jonathan Cape, London 2008.
  • Barbara Hess: Abstract Expressionism . Taschen, Cologne 2005.
  • Nicola Carola Heuwinkel: Painting without borders. Art informel in Germany . Dissertation, Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg / Berlin 2010.
  • Kay Heymer, Susanne Rennert, Beat Wismer (eds.): Le grand geste! Informal and abstract expressionism 1946–1964 . On the occasion of the exhibition at the Museum Kunst-Palast, Düsseldorf, April 10, 2010 to August 1, 2010. DuMont, Cologne 2010.
  • Claudine Humblet: The New American Abstraction 1950–1970 . (Vol. 1–3), Skira, Milano / Thames & Hudson, London 2007.
  • Petra Joswig: Abstract Expressionism: “Nature into Action” . Dissertation. Heidelberg 2001. ub.uni-heidelberg.de (PDF)
  • Norman L. Kleeblatt (Ed.): Action Abstraction. Pollock, De Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976 . Yale University Press, New Haven / London 2008.
  • Ellen G. Landau (Ed.): Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique . Yale University Press, New Haven 2005.
  • Susan Landauer: The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism . With an Introduction by Dore Ashton. Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, CA 1996.
  • Heinrich Lützeler : Abstract Painting, Gütersloh 1961.
  • Elisabeth Madlener (Ed.): Abstract painting between analysis and synthesis . The book will be published as a follow-up to the exhibition Abstract Painting between Analysis and Synthesis from January 24 to March 18, 1992 in the Gallery Next St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Vienna and for the International Art Talk of the same name by the Gallery Next St. Stephan at the University of Applied Arts , Vienna, January 25, 1992. Ritter Verlag, Klagenfurt 1992.
  • Joan Marter (Ed.): Abstract Expressionism. The International Context . Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick / New Jersey / London 2007.
  • Kobena Mercer (Ed.): Discrepant Abstraction . MIT Press, Cambridge MA / London 2006.
  • Bob Nickas: Painting Abstraction: New elements in Abstract Painting . Phaidon, London 2009.
  • Rosalind Ormiston: Modern Art - The 50 Most Important Styles. Prestel-Verlag, Cologne, 2014, ISBN 978-3-7913-4881-0 .
  • Clifford Ross (Ed.): Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics: An Anthology . Abrams Publishers, New York 1990.
  • Irving Sandler: Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: A Reevaluation . Hard Press Editions, Lenox MA and School of Visual Arts, New York in association with Hudson Hills Press, Manchester VT / New York 2009.
  • Karin Thomas: Blickpunkt Moderne - A History of Art from Romanticism to Today. DuMont Buchverlag Munich, 2010, ISBN 978-3-8321-9333-1 .
  • Barbara Til (Hrsg.): Zero - International artist avant-garde of the 50s / 60s . On the occasion of the exhibition in the Museum Kunst-Palast, Düsseldorf, April 8 to July 9, 2006; Musée d'Art Moderne, Saint-Etienne September 15, 2006 to January 15, 2007. Edited by the Museum Kunst-Palast. Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern 2006.
  • Rolf Wedewer: The Art of Art Informel: Loss of the World and Assertion of the Self . Deutscher Kunstverlag, Munich / Berlin 2007.
  • Karen Wilkin: Color as field. American Painting 1950–1975 . With an essay by Carl Belz. American Federation of Arts in association with Yale University Press, New York / New Haven 2007. afaweb.org (PDF; 607 kB)
  • Klaus Wolbert (Ed.): Gutai. Japanese avant-garde 1954–1965 . Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt March 24 to May 5, 1991. Darmstadt 1991. Michael Leja: Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s . Yale University Press, New Haven CT 1993.
  • Christoph surcharge, Hans Gerke, Annette Frese (eds.): Focus Informel: sources, currents, reactions . On the occasion of the exhibition “Brennpunkt Informel” of the Kurpfälzisches Museum of the City of Heidelberg and the Heidelberger Kunstverein in cooperation with the Art History Institute of the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg. Wienand-Verlag, Cologne 1998.

Web links

Commons : Abstract Painting  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Untitled - 1910 ( Memento from February 18, 2015 in the Internet Archive ), arcor.de, accessed on February 18, 2015.
  2. Clemens Bomsdorf: The FAZ Spring of Hilma af Klint ( Memento from May 24, 2011 in the Internet Archive ), www.art-magazin.de, May 19, 2011 (with ill.), Accessed on October 24, 2011.
  3. ^ Raphael Rosenberg, Max Hollein: Turner - Hugo - Moreau. Discovery of abstraction. Hirmer Verlag, 2007, ISBN 978-3-7774-3755-2 online
  4. See Klaus Lankheit : Die Frühromatink and the basics of "non-objective painting", in: Neue Heidelberger Jahrbücher , NF, 1951, pp. 55–90.
  5. 2nd version, 3rd book, 15th chapter. .
  6. www.schirn-kunsthalle.de ( Memento from October 24, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) Text accompanying the exhibition Turner - Hugo - Moreau. Discovery of abstraction in the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt , dump on January 5th, 2008.
  7. So Frances Saunders Stsonor in: Who paid the piper. The CIA and the Cultural Cold War