An Introduction to Abstract Paintings and Movements


Abstract artworks are usually characterised by the absence of a figurative subject, but there's more to the term than just a composition of colours, strokes, textures and forms on a canvas. You may think 'I can do that too' upon seeing an abstract painting, but let's run through some of the things you might not know about it and its movements and we might change your mind!

The Emergence of Abstract Paintings

The big debate to determine whether abstract art emerged in the 19th or 20th century still exists. Most experts come to a consensus that the Picture of the Circle of Wassily Kandinsky in 1911 is considered as the birth of abstract art.

It should also be mentioned that abstract painting appeared due to the rise of the need to express no subject, but still attempting to communicate certain emotions through lines, colours, and shapes.

Before we go further, let Deborah Iskandar, art expert and principal of ISA Art Advisory bring you to a series of contemplative questions: "Can you trust your eyesight? When we look at art, we often look for things that are either aesthetically pleasing or has some deeper meaning. But what if you aren’t sure about what you’re looking at?"

According to Deborah, art can be regarded "as an ever-evolving medium", in part because "artists are often finding new ways to explore their visual language and play with the viewers optics." Similarly, abstract art has attracted many art enthusiasts since the 1910s and it continues to evolve many years to come.

Wassily Kandinsky’s Picture of the Circle (1911) | Source:

Despite that, others put the importance of historical context in the emergence of abstract art, which mentioned the name of the famous painter, Impressionist Claude Monet and Post-Impressionist James McNeill Whistler. Both artists were acknowledged as the main inspirations of future abstract painters as their works in the late 19th century focused more on visual sensation instead of the object portrayal.

Claude Monet's Water Lilies (1896 – 1926) | Source:

Abstract Art: An Umbrella Term

When we hear "abstract art", most of us generally think of gestural abstract art; we picture paintings made of splatters of colours and loose or rapid brushwork.

In reality, there are many different types of abstract art before it arrived to the minimalist or avant-garde version that we may be more familiar with. For example, Cubism is a type of geometric abstraction, while Surrealism is a type of emotional abstraction. Keep scrolling for other movements that falls under abstract art.

Cubism - Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (Pablo Picasso)

Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) | Source:

Cubism was an avant-garde abstract art movement that disputed Renaissance depictions of space and embarked after the hugely great response of Pablo Picasso's semi-abstract painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907.

Cubist works were mainly portrayed as dynamic arrangement of volume and planes in which the foreground and background blended together, fragmenting the images into geometric forms. Some also incorporated collage and pop culture elements into the paintings, even explored into sculpture.

Fauvism - The Dessert: Harmony in Red (Henri Matisse)

Henri Matisse's The Dessert: Harmony in Red (1908) | Source:

In the early 20th century, a small group artists living in France, namely Henri Matisse, André Derain, Georges Braque and Maurice de Vlaminck, developed a revolutionary new style of abstract painting, which highlighted the use of vivid colour, fierce brushwork and abstraction. Later, this movement was called Fauvism that transformed everyday landscapes and people into the formation of lively colours, contorted forms, and cringe-making viewpoint. Let’s just take a look The Dessert: Harmony in Red, 1908 by Henri Matisse and witness how emotive it is.

Futurism - The City Rises (Umberto Boccioni)

Umberto Boccioni's The City Rises (1910) | Source:

While many contemporary art movements centred in Paris, Futurism was one of the only exceptions. It was initiated in Italy in 1909. The trend was also followed in Russia, England, and other nations. Futurism is characterised by its forms that are fractured into dots and stripes in which it could portray super speed motion blur effect or a spark of light. Furthermore, it also embraced the science and technology associated with the Futurist ideology, which glorified technological advancement, scientific progress, and industrial revolution. The honourable mention of the Futurist movement goes to influential Italian painters Umberto Boccioni, who produced The City Rises, and Carlo Carra with his prominent work, Leaving the Theatre.

Orphism - The City of Paris (Robert Delaunay) and Adam and Eve (Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné)

Robert Delaunay's The City of Paris (1910-1912) | Source:

Inspired by Cubism, Fauvism and Divisionism, the name of Orphism actually comes from the mythic musician and poet Orpheus, whose works is thought to possess the supernatural power. Orphism abstract paintings somehow had a similar charm, embracing a harmony of colours while radiating forms that represented universal energies. This term is usually applied to works by eccentric artists such as Robert Delaunay, Sonia Delaunay, and Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné.

Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné's Adam and Eve (1912) | Source:

German Expressionism - Composition VII (Wassily Kandinsky)

Wassily Kandinsky's Composition VII (1913) | Source:

Apparently, no one painted in German Expressionism style more expressively than Wassily Kandinsky. Considered as the first true abstract painter, he formulated the specific approach to endorse the saturated palette and its resemblance to human emotions. It also became the essence of abstract paintings, which encompassed the expressive art through vividly coloured artworks without depicting the objective reality. One of the best samples for this style is Kandinsky’s Composition VII that evokes the sensation of music in painting as the forms and colours intersect and eventually strike the fantastic harmony.

Rayonism - Cats (Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov)

Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov's Cats (1913) | Source:

Derived its name from the word "ray" of light, Rayonism first emerged in Russia back in the 1900s. Using the light rays as the main inspiration, the abstract painting of Rayonism mostly portrayed the colourful, multiple reflections of objects. Take Cats of Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov as an example. The painting exemplifies abstraction to the next level, which is also influenced by the Cubism's form interpretation, and Futurism's emphasis on dynamic lines.

Abstract Expressionism - Lavender Mist (Jackson Pollock) and Rust and Blue (Mark Rothko)

Jackson Pollock's Lavender Mist (1950) | Source:

By 1940s and 1950s, a small group of American painters, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning developed new approach into abstract painting by experimental works that were often characterised by gestural brush-stroke and the impromptu action. This so-called action painters bound together by the belief that abstract art should also arouse the emotional and expressive aspect.

The unique thing about abstract expressionism is how the paintings were either Action Painting (as epitomised by Jackson Pollock) or Colorfield Painting (as expressed by Mark Rothko). While Pollock and his allies relinquished the use of brushes and preferred to put the canvas on the floor, Colorfield Painting involved maneuvering the artwork in such a way that the colour itself produced the painting, instead of the gesture of the artist.

Mark Rothko's Rust and Blue (1953) | Source:

ISA Art Advisory is an art consultancy firm that advises clients on buying and selling art and building collections both on a business or personal level.

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Awal Hidayat