The shift from mimetic art into abstract art was made possible by a number of historical and theoretical factors. The historical factors that played a great role were: a development of capitalism and a liberalization of customs and morals. The theoretical underpinnings of modern art were a shift from mere mimetic into an attempt to capture various themes that previous art did not concern itself with: the emotions of the moment (as with Impressionist art), the human ability to express, and, finally, the transcendental realities (for abstract art).
The history of modern art is generally thought to start with the establishment of the Salon des Refuses by Napoleon III in 1963. By this time, however, the processes were already well underway. The increasing commercialism of 19th century society and its pressure upon the artistic community led to an attempt to break away from the bourgeois values of the time. The artists were not interested in power games nor in the older, codified style of doing art. They were a marginal culture, though a product of their time – and yet a culture whose numbers were growing intensely. Interest in art was rising, and so was the number of attempts to make a career in art in Paris. This interest became even greater after the 1970 fall of Napoleon’s empire, when, as a result of the establishment of a new order, there was a reexamination of the government cultural control apparatus. This led to a lessening of censorship and a new kind of artistical education. The numbers increased: by the beginning of the 20th century, the number of artists had doubled.
The institutions could not provide for such a huge amount of newcomers, moreover, they were not receptive of their avant-guarde ideas, and thus newcomers were forced to create outlets for themselves, to work around art as sanctioned by the Academie des Beaux-Arts, mostly in journalism and entertainment. This naturally created a multitude of small groups which rivaled against each other, yet were singular in their opposition to mainstream culture. A great amount of private schools, which used to complement and prepare for state schools, now played a leading role in artistic culture. Workshops were set up everywhere, from taverns to small rooms. This marginalization also forced art to attempt a dive into philosophy and rhetoric, simultaneously depict abstract concepts that spoke to the elites and communicate these ideas to the world which rejected them.
The theoretical underpinnings were thus linked to the social factors. Artists were dissatisfied with the canon of neoclassicism, they found it stifling and dead, unable to depict the reality they lived in, as it was not limited to history, mythology and and religion. At the time when the shift to modern art happened, there was no such notion in official art as “self-expression”. Canon replaced feeling, the technique itself was limiting – mimetic art was unable to show abstract concepts and even the coloring was regulated – and thus the new generations of artists under pressure went different directions in their attempt to solve this problem. Impressionist painters included among their numbers Eduard Manet (and his famous Breakfast on the Grass), Camille Pissaro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and others. They would pioneer a new style, which would take its inspiration from the daily realities of life, and the uncertainty of air and light. They attempted to capture the way we perceive every day reality, and even though the term “impressionism” was at first an ironic one, it soon took hold.
A leading member of many groups was Cezanne, from whose breakthrough work, which attempted to return real, physical feeling to Impressionism, Expressionism soon followed. This movement included Vincent Van-Gogh and Tolouse-Lautrec, and its main concern was with expressing the vision of the artist. Symbolist art, so named in 1891 by Albert Aurier, was to “clothe the idea with a form perceptible to the senses”, and was purportedly led by Paul Gaugain, and was concerned with expressing a multitude of ideas in a symbolic styles, less with technique, more with sense. In the beginning of the Twentieth century Fauvism came, exalting pure color and celebrating the human energy. The leader of the group was Anrie Matisse, and the group’s main principled were based on a uniformity of lighting, instead, constructing space by color. Abstract art must be mentioned last, as a pure turn away from gross physical reality and to attempting to show philosophical concepts in works of art. The first abstract art work was by Wassily Kandinsky, the author of “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, in 1910.
Thus we can see how the social reforms led to a manyfold split among the artists, and the search for new forms of expression coupled with new philosophies, which were all based upon creating something new to take the place of the old style, collectively thought to be out of date.
Cottington, David. Modern Art: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Wright, W.H. Modern Painting – Its Tendency And Meaning. Patterson Press, 2007, 396 p.