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The Roots of Abstract Art - Abstract Animation

Abstract animation has its own festival category but how well do we really understand its roots in the world of abstract art?

Abstract animation has its own festival category but how well do we really understand its roots in the world of abstract art?

The artist, critic, and thinker Matthew Collings recently completely a superb series for Channel 4 titled “The Rules Of Abstraction With Matthew Collings.” It’s an informative and enjoyable watch – Collings’ presentation is clear, insightful, and lively. (And at least for now you can find Part one on YouTube.)

Abstract art was never meant to be just random, expressive marks and squiggles, though it could include them. It began as a set of rules. For the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, one of the first abstract artists, it was a way of making visual his growing attention to the spiritual realm. 

In this first part of four, Collings looks at thinkers like Kandinsky, Rudoph Steiner (the Austrian philosopher), and Helena Blavatsky (the mother of 19th century Theosophy) who turned current thinking about what could be expressed through art on its head. 

From the earliest moments of the Enlightenment the search had been on to quantify knowledge through scientific investigation – a clearly articulated hypothesis was followed by a rigorously measured investigation which resulted in a proof or disproof of the original hypothesis. And so knowledge built on knowledge.

By the early twentieth century the object world – as it was investigated and known through science – began to have competition as the only truly knowable sphere of experience. Early spiritualists believed that the spiritual realm, because it could be subjectively experienced, could also be known. And not only that; they believed it was the higher order of the two.

For Kandinsky colour was the way to communicate with the spiritual. Throwing off the burden of narrative or realism, he sought ways to generate sensual impact rather than represent a visible “thing”. Probing the rules of colour placement, he sought ways of making “a soul vibrate.”

The Kandinsky image reproduced above, "Mit dem Schwarzen Bogen", was inspired by the dissonant sounds in Arnold Schoenberg’s music. The black arch and dark lines generate the tension and rhythms that lend the work its energy and force. But the key to understanding Kandinsky’s work is knowing what black means for him:

“A totally dead silence, on the other hand, a silence with no possibilities, has the inner harmony of black. In music it is represented by one of those profound and final pauses, after which any continuation of the melody seems the dawn of another world. Black is something burnt out, like the ashes of a funeral pyre, something motionless like a corpse. The silence of black is the silence of death. Outwardly black is the colour with least harmony of all, a kind of neutral background against which the minutest shades of other colours stand clearly forward...” Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art [1910].

Which brings us to today and Abstract animation as a festival category. What level of knowledge do the juries need to have in order to understand it? to judge it?

My impression is that much of abstract animation is selected primarily for the way the visual rhythms sync with the soundtrack. But that’s only one of the many complex criteria that inform abstract animation. 

Educating ourselves in abstract art’s rich history would certainly elevate our looking.