What makes a work of art abstract

Abstract art

This painting dates from 1915 and was painted by Kazimir Malevich. The black rectangle is gloomy, rigid, stable. The blue triangle, on the other hand, is smaller, but more lively and flexible. It penetrates the rectangle. One can find many similarities in reality: where something is rigid and immobile, there is always something new and lively added to it.

Abstract art is often called non-representational art. Works of art such as statues or paintings show something that is immediately recognizable: an object such as a house or a table, an animal or a person, or a landscape. But abstract art doesn't show that.

Abstract art is about shapes and colors. Anyone looking at such a work of art can feel something or think about something: a certain color like red reminds him of something powerful or dangerous. He can imagine for himself what exactly is powerful or dangerous for him.

The word abstract means something like “to pull away” or “to detach”. Abstract art is therefore "detached from the representational". The artist wants to show something without having to paint concrete things, people, animals and so on.

What is "normal" art?

A drawn wren. The picture comes from a work for ornithologists from 1859. More than 150 years ago it was hardly possible to photograph birds because the cameras and films were not that good.

With pictures or statues you often want to show exactly what something looks like. For example, scientists want to know what a certain species of bird looks like. Today you take a picture, in the past you drew birds. Such drawings weren't necessarily art: they just showed what a bird looks like.

Art goes one step further. It not only shows what is visible, but also wants to trigger and effect something in the viewer. Art should also trigger feelings or moods. A beautiful landscape causes a different reaction in the viewer than a wild bullfight.

How did abstract art come about?

“The night café in Arles” is a painting from 1888. Vincent van Gogh painted it. The painting is not really abstract yet. But van Gogh is obviously primarily interested in shapes and colors. It is bright in the room, the strong colors "bite" each other. For van Gogh, these are people's ugly passions.

Maybe abstract art has always existed. Already in the Stone Age or in ancient times one had pictures with squiggles, lines and other shapes that didn't mean something straight away. Usually, however, this is just an ornament: There is no feeling or thought behind it.

Photography was invented around 1850. Anyone who wanted to depict something precisely no longer needed a drawing. Some artists therefore thought: How can I still do something special with art, something that you can't do with a photo?

For these artists it was no longer so important to paint an "object" correctly. Shapes and colors that emphasize something were more important. This can also be used to express feelings and stimulate the viewer to feel something for themselves. Abstract art therefore goes one step further than “normal” art.

Some works of art are special because of the way colors were used. A color may appear repeatedly in different places and it represents a thought or a feeling. The whole picture is held together by the color. Or a shape connects something in the picture, like a circle or a line.

So many people don't find abstract art interesting. There is little you can imagine. You would rather be able to see something from reality. Some people even think that it's not art at all. They don't see any special skill in it either.

Who were the first artists to do abstract art?

Piet Mondriaan from the Netherlands painted the picture you can see in the middle. The French fashion maker Yves St. Laurent got the idea for some clothes from this.

The artists have moved away from the representational step by step. That's why it's hard to say which work of art was the first abstract. Many artists started with "normal" art and then created more and more abstract works.

For some scholars, Hilma af Klint from Sweden was the first painter of abstract art. Wassily Kandinsky from Russia is much better known. His pictures were initially expressionistic. That's why he learned to work with bold colors. Pablo Picasso is a well-known abstract painter, but actually his pictures are often quite representational.

Abstract art began in painting around 1910. It took around ten or twenty years longer for sculptors. Henry Moore is known, for example. With him you can often still see that he is actually showing a person, but sometimes not.

  • Hilma af Klint: The Swan, painted around 1915.

  • Kandinsky called this painting from 1911 “Concert”.

  • Victor Vasarely painted "Op-Art" that fools the eye. This sculpture in the open air in Hungary shows it.

  • "Reclining", by Henry Moore, modeled around 1970.

  • Sometimes a building also looks like abstract art, for example this shopping center in Portugal.

  • Abstract art or not? This picture was painted by a chimpanzee. Did he also want to have an effect on the viewer?


There is also an article on “Abstract Art” for beginners on MiniKlexikon.de and other search results from Blinde Kuh and Ask Finn.

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