What is Abstract Art? Complete Guide

Posted by Robert Lange on

What is abstract art? It’s a type of art that does not aim to represent reality or the world around us; instead, it communicates its messages through lines, colors, shapes, distortions, and forms. It is not literal but symbolic; hence, it is often called nonrepresentational art. While some believe that this current started only in the 20th century, the truth is that even prehistoric cave paintings could be considered abstract art. Let’s delve into this topic a bit further and discuss abstraction in detail.

What Is Abstract Art? Definition

Before we provide you with the definition of abstract art, we need to define the word “abstract” itself. For that, we might need to look into a few dictionaries.

“existing as an idea, feeling, or quality, not as a material object” – Cambridge Dictionary

“expressing a quality apart from an object” or “having only intrinsic form with little or no attempt at pictorial representation or narrative content” – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

“: relating to or involving general ideas or qualities rather than specific people, objects, or actions” – Encyclopedia Britannica

The last source is especially interesting, since it also defines “abstract” in relation to art, stating that it means “expressing ideas and emotions by using elements such as colors and lines without attempting to create a realistic picture.”

Considering these three definitions of “abstract” and the one definition of abstract art, we can conclude that it is a type of art that conveys a message or expresses emotions through vivid images that do not represent reality nor the exact concepts that they deal with. It’s symbolic but doesn’t employ traditional symbolism; instead, it utilizes the smallest elements like shapes or colors.

What Is the History of Abstract Art?

While generally, we could consider some of the prehistoric or ancient works as abstract, the true time when abstract art started to flourish was much closer to modern times – either at the end of the 19th century or at the beginning of the 20th century (art historians argue on the exact time). Due to this difficulty in determining the exact start of abstract art movements, it’s also impossible to determine its founding fathers.

What we do know, on the other hand, is that abstract art emerged as a counterpoint to the growing realism that was the direct consequence of inventing photography. Artists sought a way to break off from tradition by seeking new subjects and styles. This led to the creation of many new movements that shaped the history of modern art.

Abstract Art

Abstract Art Paintings and Sculptures – Examples of Movements Embracing Abstraction

Knowing what abstract art is, we can take a look at the most important art movements that embraced this concept. Take a look at the list below.

  • Impressionism – Started in the late 19th century, Impressionism was one of the first abstract art movements the world has seen. Represented by such figures as Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, it was characterized by visible brush strokes and pure, unmixed colors. The level of abstraction grew as the movement was older, though you must bear in mind that not all Impressionists created abstract works.
  • Post-impressionism – The natural follow-up to impressionism was also quite abstract, with the likes of Vincent van Gogh or Paul Gauguin, who pursued abstraction out of the desire for personal expression.
  • CubismGeometry in art and abstraction – that’s what defines cubism. It emerged at the beginning of the 20th century and was characterized by showing objects from multiple angles, while simplifying them. While the paintings weren’t fully abstract in this art movement, as they were anchored in reality, they appeared so for many viewers, due to the aggressive use of shapes.
  • DadaismDadaism art, similarly to Cubism, was grounded in reality. It took real-life objects but changed them completely, elevating them to abstraction and nonsense. Yet, due to its dualist nature, it cannot be named a fully abstract movement, but rather one that drew from both abstraction and realism.
  • Abstract Expressionism – Finally, in the middle of the 20th century, abstract expressionism emerged – a sub-movement of Expressionism. The art created by artists from this movement focused on tapping into emotions and conveying them on the canvas. The works were highly metaphorical and fully detached from reality, which makes this movement the first fully abstract one in the US.

The Takeaway

Abstract art paintings are intriguing and thought-provoking. Like poems, they can be interpreted in thousands of ways depending on the person viewing them. Thus, it is no surprise that many contemporary artists embrace abstraction when creating their works.

Did you like this article? Then you should also read: What is Futurism Art? Definition & History





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