One of the most ambitious exhibitions the Art Gallery of New South Wales
has ever undertaken, Paths to abstraction will include more than 150 pivotal works by some of the most influential pioneers of modernism, spanning 50 years when paintings, drawings and prints edged their way by degrees towards purely non-representational images.
Curator Terence Maloon has secured representative works of more than 40 of the leading artists of the late 19th and 20th centuries including Whistler, Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Munch, Gauguin, Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee, Derain, Denis, Marc, Duchamp, Braque, Bonnard and Mondrian among others.
These works are from 59 institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington; Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice; Museu Picasso Barcelona; Centre National dArt et de Culture Georges Pompidou; Tate Modern; Tate Britain; Kunstmuseum Bern; J Paul Getty Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum as well as private collections.
In the first decades of the 20th century, a radical new approach to art emerged almost simultaneously across Europe and the United States: abstraction. Yet abstraction was never a movement, it didnt originate in one place, nor was it practised by one cohesive group of artists.
So how had these artists arrived at such a convergence?
How had abstract art taken root so quickly?
Paths to abstraction explores the avant-garde movements and artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that preceded and paved the way for purely abstract art.
Non-representational paintings are first shown in a large, mixed exhibition in Paris. A senior member of the municipal council writes an open letter to the Ministry of the Arts protesting at the housing of such horrors in a national monument. The controversy becomes so heated that the disputed works are shown on the Gaumont newsreels. But abstract art has its defenders as well. In February 1912, the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire writes an article about it:
If the aim of art remains what it has always been to serve the pleasure of the eyes then, from now on, art lovers shall be expected to find a different pleasure in art from the pleasure they procure from the spectacle of natural things.
We are heading towards an entirely new art. It will be related to painting (painting as it has been conceived until now) as music is related to literature. It will be pure painting, just as music is pure literature.
The First World War is drawing to an end. The Russian Revolution breaks out. The jazz age begins. Abstract art is five years old. Many of its supreme masterpieces have already been created. The most radical implications of its various freedoms have been grasped and acted upon. The expanded parameters of modern art have been staked out. Abstraction is now an international phenomenon: in France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Russia, Italy and Portugal, it has become a feature of contemporary cultural life. But how did this situation come to pass? What were its origins?
James McNeill Whistler re-titles his paintings, giving them abstract titles. Symphony in white no III is the first work to be shown in public with this sort of title. From that point on, Whistlers titles serve to draw attention to the formal arrangement, the colour harmony, the tonality and mood of his pictures in other words, he emphasises their abstract qualities. Whistler writes: Art should be independent of all clap-trap should stand alone and appeal to the artistic sense of the eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like. All these have no concern with it and that is why I insist on calling my works arrangements and harmonies.
This is the period covered by the exhibition Paths to abstraction, a survey of the evolution towards an entirely non-figurative art. Although many of the artists who are featured never produced entirely abstract paintings, their work, in its time, demonstrated an unprecedented degree of abstraction, and was an inspiration to the first generation of abstract artists: Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Kupka, Larionov, Klee, Arp and Picabia, whose work is also featured.