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Hilma af Klint
Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 7, Adulthood, 1907
Tempera on paper mounted on canvas
800 × 597 cm (315 x 235 in.)
Courtesy of Guggenheim Museum, New York

“The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brushstroke.”

Hilma af Klint

MoMA defines abstraction as “non-representational works of art that do not depict scenes or objects in the world or have discernible subject matter.” The word is made up of ab- meaning “away, from” and tract, a “period of time,” and so to be abstract is to consider an object or idea by looking beyond its practical matter. By 1941, the term was widely used in the fine arts to describe art that lacked representational qualities, and abstract art has had significant influence over many genres within modern art.

The roots of abstract art can be found in Post-Impressionism, which was predominantly developed in France before the turn of the 20th century. The movement embraced the freedom and vivid colors of Impressionism, but rejected its realism and focused instead on conveying emotion. To do so, Post-Impressionists like Georges Seurat and Paul Signac invented new techniques including Pointillism, where dots of color are used to form softly flickering images of people or places.

Peppi Bottrop
ystrd. Cl, 2021
Graphite and coal on canvas
186 x 133 cm (73.2 x 52.4 in.)
Courtesy of the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul

The sense of motion generated by the Post-Impressionists is visible in the works of abstract artists like Wassily Kandinsky, the self-named pioneer of abstract art. Kandinsky made great effort to claim his title, writing to his New York gallerist in 1935 that he had “painted his first abstract painting in 1911” - though that it had been lost when the artist left his home in Moscow in 1921.

However, another abstract artist Hilma af Klint is described by Tate as having “discovered [abstract art] back in 1906,” having made her first abstract painting in Stockholm that year - five years before Kandinsky is dated to have done the same.

To “discover” can mean to conjure up something new, or to reveal and expose something that came before; following this, perhaps the name of the first abstract artist is still open to question.

Wassily Kandinsky
Cossacks, 1910-1911
Oil on canvas
94.6 x 130.2 cm (37.2 x 51.3 in.)
Courtesy of Tate, London

Georgiana Houghton
The Eye of God, c. 1862
54 x 44 cm (21.3 x 17.3 in.)
©Victorian Spiritualists’ Union, Melbourne, Australia

In the summer of 1871, when Kandinsky was only five years old and Hilma af Klint just nine, British artist Georgiana Houghton was preparing her first exhibition at the New British Gallery on Bond Street in London. Aged 57 at the time, the artist had prepared 155 abstract watercolors characterised by bold colors and dramatic layers of swirls. However, the presentation was not well received by the public; Houghton only sold one painting and was driven to near bankruptcy.

Whether abstraction was formally “discovered” in Moscow, Stockholm, London or earlier and further afield, remains unanswered - yet they have influenced many styles that followed. One of the best known is Abstract Expressionism, which was developed in the United States after World War II. Based primarily in New York City, there were two main branches of the movement: action painting and color field painting, made famous through the work of artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

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