Towards abstraction

Landscape and folk culture

Perhaps no artist’s career better demonstrates the shift away from naturalism and towards abstraction than that of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). Evening: the Red Tree was painted in the Zeeland coastal resort of Domburg where, like many other artists, Mondrian was spending the summer.

Mondrian depicts the broad branches of the apple tree as an explosion of colour in fiery red and cobalt blue, marking a break with his earlier work in a traditional naturalistic style - such as Row of Trees along the Gein - and signalling his first step towards abstraction. This path culminated some years later in Mondrian’s famous geometric compositions, such as Composition no.IV/Composition 6, 1914, and Victory Boogie Woogie, painted in New York in 1942-44, both of which can be seen at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.

In the interwar period, many European artists continued to be inspired by their own cultures. In The Planters, 1932-33, Cypriot artist Adamantios Diamantis (1900-1994) expressed his love for his country’s rural traditions.

In The Planters, Diamantis suggests a timeless and intimate connection between the labouring women and the land they cultivate. The generalised figures of the women become one with the landscape, part of an ancient cycle of the seasons. The artist applies a modern style of painting to a traditional subject, like those we encountered in the previous chapter.

Latvian artist Jānis Tīdemanis (1897-1964) takes a similar approach in his painting Girl in a Folk Costume, 1930, applying a coarse, Expressionist style to a conventional folk motif. By way of contrast, compare this work with Lithuanian Girl with Palm Sunday Fronds by Kanutas Ruseckas.

Tīdemanis trained at the Antwerp Royal Academy of Art from 1922-27 before studying at the National Institute of Fine Arts in the same city. Whilst in Belgium, Tīdemanis became a key figure connecting the Belgian and Latvian art worlds, including his countryman Kārlis Padegs whom we met in chapter three.

After the Second World War, a plethora of new art movements sprang into life including Op art, Pop art, Conceptualism, Anti-art and Performance art, to name a few. Pop art was one of the more playful of these movements. Estonian artist Malle Leis (born 1940) is known for her striking, colourful works including a vivid interpretation of Pop art, full of bright colours and flowers.

Malle Leis is an oil-painter and graphic artist who creates distinctive and strikingly vivid works. Leis was educated at Tartu School of Art from 1958-1961 and she was a member of the Tallinn art collective ANK 64. A substantial part of her oeuvre consists of oil and watercolour paintings, characterised by fragmentary compositions and bright colours, like Young Gardeners. In the introduction to her 2015 exhibition at the Tartu Art Museum, Leis’s work was called ‘as colorful and corky as a warm summer day. Her world of depiction is filled with different plants, vegetables, rainbows, horses, but also with those closest to her and important landscapes… and of course flowers. Lots and lots of flowers.’