Art has long been thought to be the product of logical thinking and indeed throughout the early times when most artists were concrete-sequential thinkers trying their best to copy reality as they perceived it, they strove to make pictures.
Only recently, within the last 100 plus years, have artists made use of their emotions to tell art’s stories in ways that encouraged deeper feeling-involvement.
Wassily Kandinsky is generally regarded as the originator of abstract art. However, a Swedish woman called Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) might claim that title, since it is she and not WK who painted the very first abstract painting. When Wassily Kandinsky wrote to his New York gallery owner Jerome Neumann in December 1935, he was clearly anxious to reassure Neumann once and for all that Kandinsky had painted his first abstract picture in 1911: “Indeed, it’s the world’s first ever abstract picture, because back then not one single painter was painting in an abstract style; it is an ‘historic painting’, in other words.” Sadly, this historic painting was thought lost. The artist thoughtlessly neglected to take it with him when he left Russia in 1921 for Germany, before later moving on to France. He should have known that the art world was engaged in a contest of prima pintura. To be acknowledged as having produced the First Abstract Painting had become a highly coveted prize. Discovering which modern artist could truthfully claim that prize was still being contended. The other leading candidates were František Kupka, Robert Delaunay, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. What Kandinsky did not know is that a Swedish woman painter by the name of Hilma Af Klint had produced her first abstract painting in her Stockholm studio in 1906, five years before Kandinsky. What’s more, she had taken almost exactly the same creative route towards abstraction. Without knowing of each other’s existence, the two artists seem to have travelled for a long way like two trains journeying upon parallel creative tracks. Klint arrived five years before Kandinsky.
Who was this mysterious woman, Hilma Af Klint? And how did she become an artist during those male-dominated times? Two aspects of her biography would give her a distinct advantage. First, she was an admiral’s daughter born in 1862 in Sweden, a country that permitted women to study art well before France, Germany or Italy. As a result, she was able to enroll at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm in 1882. After graduating five years later, she obtained the lease on a studio in the city’s artists’ quarter and gradually gained recognition as a landscape and portrait painter. She also had a passion for the study of plants and animals, and in 1900/1901 worked as a draughtswoman for the Veterinary Institute.
Secondly, Klint was born into a protestant family and came into early contact with Theosophy. It doesn’t take a spiritualist to see the advantages that Theosophy could offer a young artist. In the nineteenth century no one doubted that great works depended on equally great inspiration. Hardly any man, however, believed that when women painted, the higher powers came into play. Theosophy, founded by a woman (the Russian Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, at one time living in West Philadelphia), viewed things quite differently. Women were welcomed as members and indeed some held senior positions of responsibility. In short, The Theosophical Society was the first religious organization in Europe that did not discriminate against women. Klint was only seventeen when she attended her first spiritualist séance. This experience appears to have opened her mind to the unlimited possibilities resident in the artistic life.
In 1905 she reported that she had heard a voice that had given her the following message: “You are to proclaim a new philosophy of life and you yourself are to be a part of the new kingdom. Your labors will bear fruit.” Between November 1906 and March 1907 she painted a series of abstracts; they were dreamy, small-format canvases entitled Primordial Chaos. Some of them are reminiscent of landscapes, of a stormy sea above which flicker mysterious lights. Others break entirely free from representation, combining geometric shapes such as spirals with dynamic brushstrokes, letters of the alphabet and symbols. The mood is expressive and resembles that of the drawings she made apparently unconsciously in a trance state during séances in the 1890s. The Surrealists were later to call this method ‘automatic drawing’.
Klint’s Primordial Chaos series was the seed from which almost 200 abstract paintings were to develop over the following years. Between August and December 1907 Klint created a series of monumental works entitled The Ten Biggest, characterized by ovals, circles and serpentine lines in joyful colors. The organic forms of the early abstractions gave way to rigorous geometrics. In 1914/1915 she painted The Swan, composed of circular forms on a red ground. This painting and its companion pieces were visibly foundational to later lithographs by M. C. Escher. By the time of her death in 1944, the painter had shown none of her abstract works in any exhibition.
Sadly, she appears to never been accepted into the male dominated abstract art scene.
During the same years that Klint was discovering abstraction, a movement titled Constructivism came upon the art scene:
Constructivism was the last and most influential modern art movement to flourish in Russia in the 20th century. It debuted just as the Bolsheviks came to power in the October Revolution of 1917, and initially it acted as a lightning rod for the hopes and ideas of many of the most advanced Russian artists who supported the revolution's goals. It borrowed ideas from Cubism, Suprematism and Futurism, but at its heart was an entirely new approach to making objects, one which sought logically to abolish the traditional artistic concern with composition, and replace it with 'construction.' Constructivism called for a dispassionate, careful technical analysis of modern materials, and it was hoped that this investigation would eventually yield ideas that could be put to use in mass production, serving the ends of a modern, Communist society. Unfortunately, however, the movement foundered in trying to make the transition from the artist's studio to the factory.
Some continued to insist on the value of abstract, analytical work and the value of art per se; these artists had a major impact on spreading Constructivism throughout Europe. Others, meanwhile, pushed on to a new but short-lived and disappointing phase known as Productivism, in which artists worked in industry. Russian Constructivism was in decline by the mid 1920s, partly a victim of the Bolshevik regime's increasing hostility to avant-garde art even though it seemed to be somehow related to the national “religion” of Marxism in Russia at the time; Dialectic Materialism. But it would continue to be an inspiration for artists in the West, sustaining a movement called International Constructivism which flourished in Germany in the 1920s, and whose legacy endured into the 1950s.
These two powerful and opposed art movements colored the years after the First World War. Other movements also appeared, stemming from these two, but not as powerful in attracting adherents.
One of these was named Dada: “Dada does not mean anything.. We read in the papers that the Negroes of the Kroo race call the tail of the sacred cow: dada. A cube, and a mother, in certain regions of Italy, are called: Dada. The word for a hobby-horse, a children's nurse, a double affirmative; Da-Da in Russian and Rumanian, is also: Dada." Tristan Tzara
Now you can readily understand that art during the beginning of the twentieth century was bifurcated in that Abstraction was emotional while Constructivism was attenuated emotional. Actually, many Russian artists liked to think as logically as they could and that type of thinking was injected into Constructivism and Futurism. Dada, on the other hand, was dubbed Art-anti-Art.
In Vienna Austria around 1900, there was also a renaissance of art and enlightenment of the mind. Intellectuals were beginning to look inward, trying to understand human emotional motivation. This began to affect the artists’ attitudes and spurred them to greater depths of self-examination. Gustave Klimt was at the forefront of this “Modernist” movement, founding The Vienna Kunstlerhaus with Joseph Hoffmann, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Max Kurzweil and others. Architect Otto Wagner was the reigning design force within the intellectual movement, having almost singlehandedly redesigned the city at the behest of the Emperor. Psychiatrist/analyst Sigmund Freud was pioneering the use of hypnosis in treating hysteria. Josef Hoffmann and Joseph Maria Olbrich joined with Otto Wagner to create a new Vienna Style of Architecture.
Personally, I can see evidence that art is both emotional and logical as well as so much more because of the great complexity of feelings generated by association with production of art. Now, here in the 21st Century we are entering a new paradigm of electronic art, made available over the Internet. We have new heroes driving our culture and it is up to us to recognize who they are and what they think.