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Flight to abstract expression

How the radical and daring dissolution of familiar shapes and forms captured the fancy of the people in the lifetime of the artist...

Until Picasso, it was the era of distortion or rearrangement of shapes and color for the sake of expression. Even if the fauves like Matisse used the means of color to project their feelings on canvas, yet the shapes of objects remained intact in a simplified form. Then the cubists came. They were technique oriented but, in the end, they too described various familiar objects. Hence, form ruled the roost.

But after that, came the most outrageous shock. Forms dissolved. Pure emotion prevailed.

How did it happen? Who did it and why did he do so?

There was an intelligent young man from a very rich Russian family. He completed his graduation in Law with flying colors. But one day, some paintings of Monet rattled him. Leaving his prospect as a law professor, he decided to pursue art. And for that matter, Russia was not the place. He headed for Europe. In any case, money was not an issue.

In Germany, he stumbled upon a few other likeminded artists. Under the leadership of a wealthy art collector, they formed a group. But in some time, they parted ways. This young man, at that time, was painting like Matisse, Vlaminck or at times like Cezanne. Some samples are as follows.

You can see, red road, blue houses and so on. You can notice the flat broad strokes of paint like those in the paintings of Cezanne. Hence, we can conclude that this young man was riding the wave of the trend at that time. He was not doing anything new at all. It was a blend of the styles of fauves and the master impressionists. And he was getting attention of the market. His paintings were starting to enjoy commercial success too. It was not surprising because he was riding the bandwagon of tradition of the day. He was fast emerging from the haze of anonymity. Of course, we must not forget that he had plenty of education and money. In fact, a lot of money.

Something strange happened next. He returned home one evening and noticed one of his paintings kept at ninety-degree angle resting on its side. In twilight, the image looked unfamiliar to him, but he loved what he saw. The image did not make any sense in realistic term, but it spoke volumes. Suddenly the eureka moment flashed.

Before I explain what flashed in his head, I must talk about a certain ability in some people. It is called Synesthesia. No, this is not a disease like dyslexia or the likes. It is a special ability. Those gifted with it can see images when they hear music. Or the vice versa. So did this young man.

The sudden flash told him that he should paint the images he saw when he listened to music. He mulled over it and decided that the expression of feeling did not have to be imprisoned by the shapes and forms in the daily life. The canvas could create a world of its own, completely free from the colors and shapes of things in the corporal world.

He, in fact, detailed the emotions invoked by the various kind of color and shapes that got nothing to do with known objects like chair, table, guitar, mountain or the likes. In his book, On the spiritual in art, he tabulated the feelings invoked by different colors and forms.

Blue and yellow combination represented the tussle between spirituality and passion. Mixing the two released the tension and green is born. White implied a great silence. Black is deadness. A circle represented wholeness and a semicircle seated on its flat edge symbolized tranquility whereas an upright triangle implied energy.

Following is the first abstract painting by the artist. This painting still stands as the testimony to the watershed moment in the history of art.

Of course, there was ridicule in the beginning but soon the objections vanished, and the radical newness of outlook began to capture fancy. And why not? He had plenty of money, an impressive personality, an ability to express himself lucidly in words. He was an intellectual with multifaceted charm. To top it all, he was already an advocate of the trend and became a known figure by riding the wave of convention. People had to pay attention and listen to him.

Then broke the first world war. He left for Russia. You can get an estimate of the wealth of the artist by looking at the building he lived it. In fact, he owned the entire building in Moscow. He planned to earn from rent out of the building while occupying the best apartment in it himself.

But not an inch of the world was to be spared from the turmoil. Vladimir Lenin's October revolution changed everything in Russia. The private properties were taken away and redistributed. It is not very clear if the artist sold off the building before that.

After the first world war, Walter Gropius invited him to teach in Bauhaus. It shows the kind of status he already enjoyed in the intellectual circle of Germany. He left for Germany again and began teaching in Bauhaus.

The western world was now swayed by the wave of abstract expressionism. He became a living legend until Hitler and the Nazis brought back another world war. It is no surprise that he was designated as another degenerate artist forbidden to paint. He died in Paris in 1944, as another mover and shaker in the history of art but in neglect and ignominy.

Now, the question is, despite painting in a manner as radical as Van Gogh did, this artist did not suffer the grind of failure. Why? Because he sailed out of anonymity by riding the tradition’s wave and then demanded attention with his abstraction on canvas. He had plenty of money and could speak up in clear terms as for what he meant by painting that way.

Hence, the shapes vanished suddenly ushering in an era of what did not exist.

This is the story of the pioneer of Abstract Expressionism, Wassily Kandinsky. In the end, we must remember that after the impressionists, no artist really painted anything radically new right from the beginning of their career. Rather, they started off with the traditions of the day. They were gifted people and quickly made their mark as another good artist. Hence, when they claimed attention for their new ways of painting, people obliged.

So, for the younger artists of the day, it may be a good idea to begin with some cliched paintings like Banaras Ghats or Radha-Krishna-Ganesh or Buddha and after getting a foothold in the art market, they can reveal their originality. This, probably is an easier route to leaving a mark in the pages of history of art.

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