The Philosophy Behind Abstraction
Ellie Skelton | 27 March 2017

To define abstraction: the process by which no recognisable elements of the world in which we live exist, and thus contradiction occurs; it is surely incoherent for abstraction to be the cause of something that is not, abstract? Like causes have like effects from which artists must ask themselves… to what extent are we confined within the realms of visual importance that we are now unable to detach ourselves from what we can see? Has abstraction, and the nature of abstract art, become merely a spiritual objective that cannot be actualised by bodily creativity? Can modern day artists reach abstraction?


Wassily Kandinsky, considered the originator of ‘purely’ abstract art, allowed his processes to develop from that of realistic landscape paintings to a focus on line, shape and colour. ‘Squares with Concentric Circles’, 1913, arguably remains Kandinsky’s most famous work and he often used music, in the later stages of his career, as his inspiration and guide when painting, inflicting emotion into his work; the use of yellow, and its importance to Kandinsky, is seen in ‘Squares with Concentric Circles’; a bright dominance create vivacious tones that enhance the “celestial sound” of the blue and enrich the blushing reds. Kandinsky referred to the “celestial sound” in his experimentations regarding the ‘Language of Colour’ from which he argued every colour displayed a particular emotion to him as an artist. By using sound as a stimulus Kandinsky succeeds in not allowing the restrictions of the physical world to dominate his work; instead the subjective nature of music licenses him to become looser and, in doing so, gives his work the suggestion of abstraction.


This route to abstraction is easily understood and interestingly when one studies Kandinsky’s later work, the theme of musical sounds is somewhat obvious in the compositions; extended lines for extended notes, bright blocks of colour presenting perhaps loud noises… although his work steers away from what he can see, it still revolves around the source of its creation. If one is to make the distinction between abstraction and abstract art then it can be concluded that Kandinsky succeeded in his creation of the latter but not to the same extent in the former. However, if no discrepancy is made then, although Kandinsky did indeed steer away from visible incentives, he relied on the feelings established through music to drive his paintings, to which such works like ‘Squares with Concentric Circles’ were derived from. It seems to me that the abstraction which exists within music cannot be translated onto canvas as it inevitably possesses a certain spirituality that, I feel, can only be felt, as opposed to seen.


Piet Mondrian is important to mention in regards to abstract art; his iconic use of primary colours and limited tonal palette make his paintings exquisitely simple. Instead of a rainbow spectrum of colour being a key visual point like Kandinsky, he refrains, instead emphasising the structure and lines of each composition, using only blue, red and yellow to harness such forms. Arguably Mondrian reached new levels in pushing towards ‘pure’ abstraction and to some he indeed surpassed this point.

His paintings endeavoured to represent the two essential opposing forces: the positive and the negative. A dynamic balance, which can be seen in his compositions, reflect what he saw as the universal balance of forces and thus link with his choice of using only the rudimentary three colours. However, his paintings still consist of identifiable shapes, and, in an attempt to reveal the basic forces of the universe, he created a collection of basic forms which display no hint of such mystical resistances.

Certainly, Mondrian’s spiritual journey remains evident throughout his work, which should be seen as search of knowledge.


"I don't want pictures, I want to find things out”


Through this quote one can establish that, for Mondrian, the importance lay, not in each finish composition, but in the means by which such artworks were reached. This belief suggests a different perspective; perhaps any aims to exceed abstraction through art will only blind an artist from finding knowledge and truth. It is ironic that Mondrian, who was not so bothered about abstraction, that he perhaps came closest to reaching it.


The third artist to mention is Mark Rothko, who sought to explore subjects other than rural and urban scenes; instead he, like his predecessors, balanced his growing concern with form, space and colour, with mythology. Rothko’s principle philosophical influence, along with Freud and Jung, was Friedrich Nietzsche, who facilitated belief that his art could free unconscious energies previously liberated by mythological images, symbols, and ritual; in short, Rothko’s abstract oil paintings served as a way of escaping reality and coming to exist in a spiritual realm for the viewer. Rothko also stopped donating names to his work as he felt it led to the imaginings of the observer being limited to the confines of such a title, in the same way that I believe artists have become too reliant on physical forms, from which to create art.


The extent of philosophical thought behind art in general can never be known exactly, as the majority of it exists subconsciously. It is no doubt that spirituality is the key to creating abstraction, as well as the ability to look beyond ‘looking’ which could very well be impossible. I feel abstraction is ultimately a sense that cannot be harnessed with any sort of natural medium. However, in saying this, I would make a distinction, like Mondrian does, between the process of creating art and art itself; one is neither more or less important that the other, but, if one refers to abstraction as a means of expression and inspired communication, eventually, without the initial pursuit of expression, there would be no expression at all.

James Routledge 2016