Abstract Art: An Universal Language

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Abstract Art: An Universal Language

Those who have followed the course of abstract art over the past 70 or 80 years will have been struck by its persistence. When the Cercle et Carré exhibition was held in April 1930, the Parisian press informed us that such painting was “the mere ghost of an experiment which we thought had died long ago,” and that “all this has nothing new to offer.” In 1955 the same outbursts of weariness and boredom, if not anger, can be heard at any exhibition of abstract art: “about time the joke was buried… same old bag of tricks… poor old public.”

Maybe. But things become entirely different if we are patient enough to take a closer look. Then we see that abstract art has never stopped adding to its range and means of expression, never faltered in its search for greater depth. If the ABC of this language was firmly established in the ‘heroic’ phase by Kandinsky, Mondrian, Delaunay and Malevitch, this does not mean that everything has been said in the same language.

The critics’ ignorance and the public’s sophisticated grumbling were unable to prevent it from branching out into the remotest corners of the western world, where it has won over intelligent collectors and gained a hold, even a considerable hold, in civic museums and galleries. Kandinsky and Mondrian, both of whom lived to a good age, thanks to their long working life were able to show their successors what a range of values can be drawn out of such simple elements; Kandinsky stressing inventiveness and Mondrian the importance of increasing depth.

The other movements or schools which sprang up in such great numbers all over the world in the past hundred years all enjoyed a much shorter span of life. At the moment of writing (1955), abstract painting has flourished for forty years and shows no signs of slackening vitality.

Those critics who began by encouraging it but who now pull a long face at some geometrical composition by Vasarely or some colour-composition by Riopelle, remind me of Zola when, throwing over his former Impressionist friends in 1896, he voiced his disillusionment in a notorious article in the Figaro which does not stand to his credit: “Not a single artist in this group,” wrote the author of L’Œuvre, “has succeeded in translating into paint, with the slightest power of finality, the new formula which is to be observed in snippets on their various canvases… They are all forerunners. The genius is yet to be born… They are all unequal to the task they have set themselves, they can’t talk, they stutter.” At the Jeu de Paume Museum (for example) we can now go and see exactly what stuttering meant. No oracle is needed to predict that fifty years hence some other Jeu de Paume will be showing an astonished public those masterpieces of abstract art that are being painted at the present time and which we are treating with contempt.

Written by: Ilyas Hizli

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