Abstract art is perhaps the easiest of art forms to dismiss as overpriced, over-hyped nonsense. The US cartoonist Al Capp encapsulated this sentiment eloquently when he said:
“[Abstract art is] a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.”
But when it comes to art, isn’t the whole point that there are no rules? To quote another art aficionado, Aristotle:
“Let each man exercise the art he knows.”
The famous Greek critic, philosopher, physicist and zoologist elaborated on this attitude to art by asserting that “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” Abstract art certainly adheres to this notion; lacking clear coherent meaning, the observer is forced to turn to the inward significance of what they are presented with. So below we’ve examined five famous examples of abstract art and postulated about what their inward significance could be…
Robert Delaunay – ‘Le Premier Disque’ (1912-1913)
Besides being a prime example of abstract art, this colourful work is also a prime example of Orphism. Orphism was a movement that took place alongside Cubism, which embraced colour over the monochrome palette that was typical of Cubism. This is also a prime depiction of Lyrical Abstraction, which opposed the coldness of Geometric Abstraction, and marked an opening to personal expression for French artists during this period.
In many ways the content of this painting is remarkable in the way that it rebelled against the trends of its time, which adds a sense of bravery to the warmth of the palette and the satisfying completeness of the composition.
Matisse – ‘The Yellow Curtain’ (1914-1915)
Also known as ‘Le Rideau Jaune’, this work by Matisse combines the thoroughly abstract with relative realism – though it initially looks like a random collection of shapes. The composition focuses on a simplistic depiction of scenery through a window, while the eponymous ‘curtain’ can be seen to the left.
The curtain actually features a floral pattern and seems to be fluttering in a very un-abstract manner. Since the scenery is painted in such a flat and simplistic way there is a suggestion that it is a picture within a picture, making us question our perceptions of reality and form.
Kazimir Malevick – ‘Black Square’ (1915)
This famous Russian work of art became emblematic of Suprematism, which was an abstract movement that involved stepping into the new art. Malevick and his peers basically argued through their work that art was a spiritual activity, which enabled artists to create their own place within the world. Conversely many of his contemporaries argued that art was life, which they expressed through theatre design and graphic works.
Through depicting a black square on a white background Malevick invokes an ultimate sense of bleakness, annihilation and nothingness. Age and design have rendered the painting full of hairline cracks, which fill it with a sense of knowing and experience that is both unnerving and intriguing.
Piet Mondrian – ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ (1942-1943)
As a pioneer of abstraction, Piet Mondrian would work and rework each painting, building it layer by layer toward an ultimate equilibrium that incorporated form, color and surface. Mondrian was apparently fascinated by the exuberance of New York City life, which can be observed in the colourful, kinetic feelings his paintings evoke.
More literally the checkerboard lines could be interpreted as the streets of ‘the city that never sleeps’, with the yellow depicting the iconic yellow NYC cabs. The restlessness of the city is also captured by the lack of differentiation between the yellow and gray areas, which have the same brightness and so create a jittery lack of definition.
John Hoyland - ‘Lebanon’ (2007)
Like ‘Le Premier Disque’, this bold painting typifies Lyrical Abstraction, though it was created almost 100 years later. While ‘Lebanon’ is still identified as abstract art, the inspiration for this work – and the exhibition it comes from – is relatively easy to trace. According to the Sheffield-born artist, he ‘borrowed’ the content from a photograph of blood-spatter on the floor of a hospital in Lebanon, which also explains the work’s title.
The powerful, richly-coloured piece focuses on a nerve-cell shaped splash, which is at once specifically violent and universally meaningful. According to Hoyland “You’ve got to have a structure otherwise you’ll just paint chaos.” which is a concise way to define abstract art. Though Hoyland and his fellow abstract artists may seem to be creating chaos on canvas, each piece is born out of an idea upon which it is hung.
Neeru Bhangu works in design and marketing for a printing company, Print Express UK. She loves writing about new design trends and giving marketing advice. In her spare time Neeru enjoys long walks and London’s fine art.