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The First Abstract Painting
There is a tendency amongst artists and others to equate Abstract Expressionism totally with the New York School of the late 1940s and 1950s in such a manner as to suggest that Americans "invented" abstraction in the wake of WW II, Surrealism, and the gradual course of events growing out of Picasso, Braque, and Cubism during the first decade of this century. This is categorically wrong! In a scenario not unlike that of the space race, it has to be reported that the Russians invented Abstract Expressionism a good thirty years before any American artists ever slapped paint to canvas in anything approaching such an effort. And like the space race, even when Abstract Expressionism blasted off in this country, it was largely the efforts of a number of foreign born artists that got it off the ground.

Russian born artist, Wassily Kandinsky, painted what he blithely named First Abstract Watercolour in Munich, Germany, in 1910. The title is apt. Only through a deliberate struggle with one's imagination can one visualise any recognisable subject matter, which is just as Kandinsky intended. There is a kind of colourful swirl of reds, pale blues, blacks, and yellows suggesting some kind of maelstrom of activity in which any indication of external subject matter seems totally accidental. The painting had largely the same impact upon the eastern European art community as Picasso's (non-abstract) Cubist Les Demoiselles de Avignon did during roughly same time in Paris. Only the differences in size and media would account for any differences in the impact these two paintings had upon the art and artists of their time.

In the East, artists such as Kasimir Malevich took off toward stark black on white geometric symbols to fuel his Suprematist movement while Piet Mondrian was gradually "wading into" abstraction of his own design with his ongoing study of trees, which ultimately ended in total abstraction but with a distinct set of "footprints" leading back to subjective painting. Like the first Sputnik, Kandinsky's efforts were like a wake-up call to the entire world that nothing less than a new threshold had been crossed after which any representational subject matter would somehow seem traditional and retrograde. It was not a moon landing, which allegorically we could say was left to the Americans of the New York school, but it was a ceremonial throwing down of the gauntlet declaring that this was the direction art would go in the twentieth century!

Contributed by Lane, Jim
18 December 1998


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