Abstract art is defined as a visual language which exists independent of visual references. Until the 19th century, most western art used a sense of perspective and this was taken as a given. That was until the 19th century when the abstract movement began. Following on from romanticism, expressionism and impressionism it sought to redefine and enhance those non-conformist styles into and beyond the 20th century. Here is a list of ten of the most famous abstract paintings
1. Henri Matisse ‘ Woman with a Hat
Matisse typifies the meaning of abstract art almost as a counter culture with the quote: ‘Seek the strongest colour effect possible, the content is of no importance’ and that is exactly what he did with this painting. It depicts a woman (actually his wife) in typical abstract style ‘ her colouring is gaudy and she wears a hat covered in fake fruit ‘ fashionable at the time. It created a storm with one critic who slated it: ‘A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public’
2. Wassily Kandinsky ‘ Composition VII
One of the most bizarre abstract paintings and one that typifies the idea of having no frame of reference, Kandinsky says that this composition was his most complex piece. It is not difficult to see why. Vibrant use of colour, it mixes perhaps some semi-identifiable shapes ‘ some may be human hands, others might possibly be brightly coloured animals. Either way, it draws the eye and gets people talking about its meaning ‘ and that’s the problem with abstract art, nobody knows if there is any!
3. Rhea Carmi – Upheaval
This shocking abstract piece reflects Carmi’s belief of the brutality of war. Having been born in Jerusalem in the 1940s, she has known most of the conflicts of the late 20th century, particularly in her home country. The piece uses deliberately miserable colours of black, grey, dusty beiges and yellows except for a blood red streak in the bottom left hand corner, perhaps a mass of human flesh? The image appears to depict a gateway or a checkpoint surrounded with barbed wire
4. Kasimir Malevich ‘ Black Suprematic Square
One of the first examples of pure abstraction, this image is precisely what it sounds like ‘ a black square. But that’s not all there is to it. There is a veiny thread pattern that roughly forms the shape of an animal. Is it the back of a cow? A rhino? Or a large human kneeling over? These are the questions that have been posed since its creation in 1915. When he died, the black square was carried over his coffin along with another of his famous paintings, White on White
5. Jackson Pollock ‘ Number 1
The most famous abstract artist of them all some have cynically accused of merely throwing paint at a canvas and seeing where it lands. That criticism is not without its merits when you look at ‘Number 1’ as a fairly typical Pollock production. This black, white and grey image looks like a 19th century urban map ‘ appearing to have streets, parks, roads and houses all in greyscale. Abstract art is not supposed to ‘be’ anything and Pollock himself would have said it was merely an expression of his energy
6. Natalia Goncharova – The Plane Over the Train
Goncharova is considered one of Russia’s first and finest Cubist artists (one of the many disciplines of abstract art). Inspired by primitive and folklore styles of her native country, she created many pieces of which this is the most famous. It depicts a yellow biplane covered in clouds and immediately below is a stylised train. The image uses vivid and contrasting colours to demonstrate the different technologies of the 19th and 20th century
7. Franz Kline – Chief
Where most abstract artists used gaudy colour, Kline stuck largely with black and white with heavy brush strokes, taking the abstract to a simplistic level. His images were the result of his use of an optical projector onto his wall or the furniture and recreating what he could see from that. ‘Chief’ was the recreation of a steam train that used to pass by his home. His images were not merely putting black strokes on white background; he actually painted the white parts too
8. Marthe Donas ‘ The Picture Book
This interesting image from the most famous Belgian artist, if not the world’s most famous female abstract artist, was compiled during WWI used plaster and oil paint on a cardboard background. It shows a human, possibly a child, sitting in a chair and reading a picture book. The figure is approximately egg shaped and is compiled using a cubist form.
9. Willem de Kooning – Woman I
Though famous mostly for landscapes, Koonig painted a number of images of the female form. It was a little bit of detraction from typical abstract tropes, slipping over into figurative, so it wasn’t completely abstract. The overemphasised shape, aggressive brush strokes, malicious snarls were indicative of Koonig’s troubled history with his mother. He painted a number of the series but it was Woman I that was considered the most ground-breaking. Some critics have suggested an Akkadian / Mesopotamian influence
10. Pablo Picasso – Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
Though not considered a fully abstract piece, it contains many elements of the abstract that would go on to illustrate Picasso’s work. Painted in 1907, it is of five figures ‘ all apparently naked women in various degrees of abstraction and distortion. To the right hand side, a figure at the back may be wearing a mask. Her face is dark and looks quite tribal African, as is maybe the woman in front of her ‘ this despite that the figures all appear to be Caucasian. They are all apparently prostitutes from Avignon
Art is in the eye of the beholder and abstract art is one of those that draws people into two groups ‘ those who think it is pretentious and meaningless, and those who think it is one of the highest forms of art. The examples above represent some of the most famous examples.