What Was The First Abstract Painting In History
The story of a legendary dispute: who created the work that was to change modern art forever?
Is it possible to invent an artistic style? Could it be an individual creation? A personal invention? One name which comes to mind when we speak of the birth of abstract art is, inevitably, Wassily Kandinsky. In 1935, the Russian artist wrote to his gallerist in New York to make a claim that was no small thing: to have created the first abstract painting in the history of art, a work made 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. A ‘historic painting,’” wrote the painter.
Even Kandinsky’s widow later participated in the discussion. In 1946, soon after her husband’s death, she defended his place as the original creator of abstract art. The dispute included other artists some of whom even changed the dates of their works to claim the coveted title. Among them were Robert Delaunay, Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, and Kazimir Malevich.
Window on the City No. 3, Robert Delaunay (1912).
At the beginning of the 20th century, art took a new direction thanks to advances in communications and transportation. Trains, steamships, and cars helped art, and the culture around it, to spread faster. The mass media and the critical reviews which it distributed made artistic works that much more “democratic.” It was an era in which itinerant art exhibitions arose, a practice initiated by the Italian Futurists. And all of this had its effects, as it is possible to see, in what today are called “intellectual property rights.”
For a long time, art experts argued that Komposition V, one of Kandinsky’s best-known paintings, was the first to capture the attention of a wide audience when it was exhibited in Munich in 1911. This painting, according to some, made a new form of artistic representation plausible. It’s curious that Kandinsky’s manifesto, On the Spiritual in Art (1909), which would lay the foundations for the ideological development of abstraction (and from which we can still extract some valuable lessons on life), was written before the painter did his abstract works. That’s to say, the Russian painter theorized the movement before giving it shape.
Komposition V, Wassily Kandinsky (1911).
At the same time, other artists were, in fact, completing works which are now classified as “abstract.” These include the Czech, František Kupka (whose Amorpha, Chromatique chaude, and Amorpha, Fugue à deux coleurs, were exhibited in Paris in 1912), or Francis Picabia, whose watercolor, Caoutchouc, was completed in 1909, before the Kandinsky manifesto. There’s no doubt, the discussion is difficult because it is possible to say that abstract art came into the world little by little and silently. Before the great works could be thus classified, and abstract artists could identify themselves as abstract, there were already works with touches of abstraction. Such is the case of the Swedish artist, Hilma af Klint. In her lifetime, she was known as a portraitist and landscape painter. But as of 1906, (guided by what she described as “spiritual forces”), some of her paintings were composed with spirals and decidedly abstract organic forms.
Primordial Chaos, Hilma af Klint (1906).
Trying to define which is the first abstract painting (as with the first surrealist or impressionist works) would in many ways be an idle, meaningless task. It’s also important to ask ourselves if an artistic style can really be “invented” by a person, or if it might be the result of a collective and gradual movement, one with many steps and multiple origins. We might do well to remember that the photograph was developed in at least three places simultaneously, but it was Daguerre who made the possibility of developing photographs more successful with his then unlikely daguerreotype. Still, the search is worthy – the search for a seed. It’s a journey which, in this case, takes us through works of intense beauty, and through creations which would eventually change the history of art in the West.
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