I find the subject of who was the first abstract artist to be quite intriguing because it actually leads to several other questions, such as:
When did abstract painting begin?
What was the first form of abstract art?
What was the first abstract painting?
Identifying the first abstract artist has been a subject of debate for many years in the West. Several studies point towards Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) as being the father of abstract art and probably is considered the first to create abstract paintings in the early 20th century.
Kandinsky was born in Moscow and moved with his family to Odessa in 1871. He started to paint in his early childhood but his parents wanted him to become a lawyer. He studied law at Moscow University and graduated in 1892. A year later, he became associate professor of the Law Faculty at the university and continued teaching law. Later, he was appointed as the professor of the Department of Law.
At this time, Kandinsky was 30 years old and decided to dedicate his time to painting rather than law. To pursue his decision to focus on painting, Kandinsky left Moscow in 1896 to live in Munich, which was considered one of the main art centres in Europe and later, he moved to Bavaria.
In 1914, Kandinsky returned to Moscow due to the outbreak of World War I but later returned to Germany in 1920. Around 1933, he moved to France, became a French citizen and lived there for the rest of his life. Before creating abstract artworks, Kandinsky predominantly painted landscapes and towns.
He was always fascinated by colours, lines and shapes. He wanted to be free from depicted recognisable subjects in his paintings. Kandinsky was inspired by many things but primarily music and spiritual art.
(I have always been fascinated by colours and their influence on our moods. Many studies have highlighted the emotional powers of colours on people’s attitudes and creativity. However, the subject of colour psychology remains subjective as it is influenced by culture and personal experience. Similarly, our favourite colours can say quite a lot about our personalities).
Kandinsky was extremely fascinated by sensory experiences through colour and music. He was also fascinated by the relationship between painting and music (synaesthesia – seeing colours in music). He associated each musical note with a colour. Music had a great influence on Kandinsky’s development of abstract paintings.
(Many artists paint with music as part of their creative process. I paint with music, but I don’t paint music itself. Many famous artists claimed to paint music including Vincent van Gogh, Wassily Kandinsky, etc.)
Kandinsky was also deeply involved in theosophy and spirituality. His work focused more heavily on representing the artists’ spirituality. He believed that abstract art was deeply involved with the innermost human soul. He linked abstract art to spirituality, in one form or another.
In 1935, Kandinsky claimed to have created the first abstract painting in 1911. His widow also defended the same claim in 1946, two years after Kandinsky’s death. Other artists disputed the claim including Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) and Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964).
Several art historians believe that Kandinsky backdated the painting to 1910 and that it dates to 1913.
Many people may still say that Kandinsky was the first to paint abstraction, however, other artists played important roles in the development of the abstraction movement in the early 20th century, including:
Kazimir Malevich (1878-1943)
Robert Delaunay (1885-1941)
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)
Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953)
Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
Having said that, his painting, Composition V, helped to gain public interest in abstract art. The painting was first exhibited in Munich in 1911. It was the first time to showcase this type of art in a public gallery.
If Kandinsky was not the first abstract artist, who was?
Was Hilma af Klint the first abstract artist?
Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), a Swedish painter, was born in Stockholm in 1862. She studied at Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts and graduated with honours in 1887. She also became deeply interested and involved in Theosophy and spiritualism.
Together with four other female artists, af Klint formed a group called “The Five” and conducted séances to communicate with, what they believed, spirits through paintings.
During her lifetime, af Klint was known for painting portraits and landscapes. However, decades after her death, it was revealed that she had also created several non-representational abstract paintings between 1906 and 1915.
In a career spanning 6 decades, af Klint produced hundreds of paintings including abstraction. She claimed that in 1906, a spiritual guide commissioned her to prepare an artistic message for humankind. From January to November of that year, she did just that in secret.
Between 1906 and 1915, af Klint created her largest body of a non-representational group of paintings, The Paintings for the Temple, 193 paintings in many series. To af Klint, the paintings were an attempt to represent the spirit of the world. She had complete and total faith that her work contained meanings of how the world was put together.
Mystical idiosyncratic geometry emerged. They looked like secret geometric languages. Colours became gender walls. Blue means female, yellow means male and green is the unity of the two.
Her early paintings in 1906 included a series of colourful artworks of circles and other organic shapes in the form of abstraction. That was several years before Kandinsky and other artists even began to consider creating abstraction and to free their creativities from representational work.
Hilma af Klint rarely exhibited her artwork, particularly abstraction, believing the world was not ready to accept this new type of art. All her work remained unseen, publicly, until 1986.
She died at the age of 81 due to a tram accident in 1944. In her will, she stipulated that her artworks were not to be shown for twenty years after her death.
Art and Spirituality
Is there a relationship between art and spirituality?
Throughout my readings about abstract artists from the late 19th century and early 20th century, I noticed the reference to spirituality with many artists. We can see the same here with af Klint and Kandinsky. Spirituality has been a major influence on their creativity and inspirations reflected in their artworks.
It is a question that I have been exploring for many years but without any concrete answer. Art rituals have been used throughout history by people in the pursuits of different life activities, e.g. agriculture, hunting, cultural festivities, weddings, the birth of a child, etc.
Throughout history, art has always been greatly influenced by religion and spirituality. Since the dawn of humans, people have continuously sought to express themselves and share their life experiences through art and religion. A great example to show how far art goes back in time are the Cave Paintings, some 40,000 years ago.
We also know that art has always been linked to religions since ancient times. Sacred dancing, singing, meditation, paintings, pictures, sculptures, etc. are integral elements of many religious rituals around the world.
Some places of worship are greatly decorated with beautiful majestic designs and other sacred texts. But what about art in modern secular societies?
The beginnings of modern art in the early 20th century, particularly abstraction, provided a strong link between art and spirituality. This can be seen in the works of many artists of that time. Hilma af Klint, Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Duchamp, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and many other artists.
They all seem to share a common spiritual influence. To these artists, their art was primarily about and driven by spirituality. Their artworks attempted to express their views of the world beyond the norm – a transcended reality.
The beginning of the abstract art movement in the early 20th century provided many artists with the opportunity to move away from societal ideologies to personal and spiritual ideologies. Liberated to self-express.
Abstract Art – The Beginning
Many articles and studies refer to the beginning of abstract art towards the late 19th century/ early 20th century in Europe. Some went even further and specified the beginning was in 1910, associating this date with Kandinsky’s first abstract watercolour.
However, this is far from being accurate as it was proven that Hilma af Klint created her first abstract paintings in 1906, several years before Kandinsky. But, that may not necessarily mean that af Klint was the first abstract artist.
I came across this interesting article “Who created the first abstract artwork”, published by The Centre for Public Art History which highlighted another angle to abstract art.
What exactly could be considered abstract art?
The definition of abstract art refers to a visual language of colours, forms and lines that creates a visual composition. The main feature of this visual composition is that it does not depict or represent the real world.
In its various forms of impressionism, expressionism, cubism, etc. abstract art can be a complete or partial departure from the true world.
Abstract art does not focus on creating a realistic rendering of the external appearance of the subject but instead seeks to reflect its inner spirit.
With that in mind, our ancient ancestors created many types of art found in civilizations such as Mesopotamia, Persia, Rome, Egypt, China, Greece, etc. We can also look further into prehistoric art, for example, Cave Paintings.
Can any of that art be considered abstraction even though some of the ancient arts fit in well with the above definition?
The debate here highlights an important point and that is the intention of the artist. Did he/she intend to create abstract art?
The answer to the question
Today, we can look back at many artworks and can easily determine if the artworks can be classified as an abstraction based on the definition of abstract art. However, we would never know clearly whether the artworks were intended to be an abstraction.
So, where do we go from there and who was the first abstract artist?
In the context of the intention to create abstract art, such an intention may have been born with Hilma af Klint driven by her strong link to spirituality and the creation of abstract paintings in 1906.
But, perhaps it is a question that remains without an answer. This is one of the beauties and mysteries of art and how it is an integral element of people’s lives since the dawn of humankind.
Art is a reflection of human lives across the entire history of mankind; past, present and future. It is ever-changing as people change to adapt to new needs, behaviour, beliefs, emotions and values. The same applies to our arts reflecting those changes.
Humans are far too complicated; so is our art.