The Emergence of Abstract Art

January 26, 2015

The Cow, 1910, wikipedia

When abstract painting burst on the scene at the beginning of the 20th century, it was a completely new and revolutionary form of art that came to dominate the art world for many decades. In his upcoming class, “The Creative Work of Art: The Emergence of the Abstract,” Professor Fernando Casas explores the ideological influences and circumstances that contributed to the birth of abstract art. We visited with him to find out more about this intriguing subject.

WIH Reporter: What is important for us to know about the emergence of abstract art?

Casas There is one fact about the sudden emergence of abstract art that is most remarkable in itself and also most interesting at this moment in time, and that fact is that it is directly connected with the terrorist attack of Charlie Hedbo

WIH Reporter: What parallels can be drawn between the two?

Casas: The appearance of abstract art at the hands of the two pioneers – Vassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich – is to be accounted by the confluence of very diverse factors and circumstances, all of them coming to influence and articulate the logic of art at the moment. But the final motivation that led these two artists to jump from representation to abstraction was religious iconophobia.

WIH Reporter: What do you mean by religious iconophobia?

Casas: This term is used to describe the dislike or hate for images. The most obvious origin of it is found in the Old Testament. This is the origin of the iconophobia existing in Christianity and Islam. In Christianity its most clear expression took place in the 8th Century when the creation of icons was forbidden and there ensued a wholesale destruction of images across the Roman Empire that lasted roughly a century.

WIH Reporter: How does this relate to Kandinsky and Malevich?

Casas: Both Kandinsky and Malevich had a certain ‘hate’ for the material world and yearned to rid their art of any connection to objects, that is, disengage completely from the task of representing material objects.  Kandinsky, and Malevich (in his own way),  both wanted to connect their art  - instead of with the physical – with another reality, the spiritual.  

WIH Reporter: What else should we know about conditions fostering the emergence of abstract art?

Casas: It’s important to note that the emergence of abstract art took place during a short period of time that some historians consider the most revolutionary in the history of the West: 1900 to 1919. At that time profound scientific, technological, artistic, philosophical and political and social revolutions took place. The sudden emergence of abstract art after the long tradition of  thousands of years of figurative art,  was at the time a shocking and seemingly inexplicable event. Yet today we can come to understand why it came about,  and what significance it had when we examine – as we will do in this course – the complex yet fascinating logic of art that unfolded at that time.

WIH Reporter: What misconceptions might we have about this class?

Casas: This is not an art class or a “history of art” class proper.  My interest is in the history of ideas: scientific, artistic, philosophical, religious, etc. Surely, we will examine quite closely  the logic of art at that particular moment in history, and  will  also examine quite closely each and (almost) all the artists that  played a role  in the emergence of the abstract  Van Gogh,  Gauguin, Munch, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso etc.

WIH Reporter: In what ways will it be different from a typical art history class?

Casas: In addition to examining the logic of the art of that time, we will also dedicate a good amount of time to explain how such things as  1) the discovery of the atomic structure by Rutherford, 2)  the science of optics,  3) the existential philosophy of Nietzsche,  4) the invention of the steamboat,  5) Freud’s publication of The Interpretation of Dreams,  6) Christianity’s notion of the Fall and sin, 7) philosophical idealism,  and other factors contributed to the astonishing emergence of the abstract in 1910.

(This class begins on 02 – 02 – 2015, from 1:00 pm - 3:00 pm. For more information, or to register for this class, click here.)