Towards abstraction

Departures from realism

As we have seen in this chapter, the trend towards abstract painting in the first half of the 20th century was seen in various art genres such as landscape painting, folk art and portraiture. Religious art was no exception.

The stained glass window Apollo: Copernican solar system by Stanisław Wyspiański (1869-1907) was commissioned for the Medical Society building in Kraków, Poland. All of the building’s interior furnishings were designed by the artist, including the wall decorations and furniture. Wyspiański was a poet, a painter and a playwright who wrote symbolic, national dramas within the artistic philosophy of the Young Poland Movement. Explore more of Wyspiański’s remarkable work on Europeana here.

Like Wyspiański, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911) was a multi-talented artist: a composer, painter, writer and photographer who remains a major figure in Lithuanian art to this day. In complex work such as Sonata No. 6 (Sonata of the Stars): Allegro, Čiurlionis’s art detaches itself from reality and embraces a cosmic type of abstraction.

Like many artists and writers active at the turn of the 20th century, Čiurlionis was interested in exploring different philosophical and religious theories. He painted seven pictorial sonatas which were associated with the theory of synesthesia, in this case the fusion of music and art. Čiurlionis applied the principles of musical composition to painting, in works such as Sonata No. 6 (Sonata of the Stars): Allegro, in which compositional elements are arranged in a complex rhythm of different variations. The painting is described by the M. K. Čiurlionis National Art Museum thus, ’Čiurlionis envisions the universe as a magnificent polyphonic symphony of intertwining cosmic mists, stars and sunlight. The waves of this ocean of space – the melodies – eddy and weave past each other, forming a rich, ornamented and splendid web pierced by the path of the Milky Way. The movement in outer space is not chaotic, but rhythmical and harmonious. The symbol of the order and harmony of the Universe is envisioned as the bright figure of an angel standing on a tapering tower of light.’

Throughout the 20th century – as ever – new styles of art often met with a hostile reception from the gallery-going public and artistic establishment. Irish artist Mainie Jellett (1897-1944) studied under Walter Sickert at the Westminster School of Art in London. In 1921, she moved to Paris to train with the Cubist painters André Lhote and Albert Gleizes.

When Jellett returned home and first exhibited her non-figurative work in Ireland in 1922, she received a great deal of criticism. However, she continued to act as an advocate for modernism and abstraction and, in 1943, she was central to the establishment of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art. Today, Jellett is considered a key figure in Irish Modernism.

Raul Meel (born 1941) is a self-taught Estonian artist whose work has been exhibited and collected all over the world. In his youth, he took decisive steps to distance himself from the official requirements of Soviet art, becoming one of the first proponents of ‘concrete poetry’ in the former Eastern bloc. Meel studied electrical engineering at university and his technical background perhaps gave him a different perspective towards art. With his experimental ‘typewriter poems’, Meel felt an affiliation with Western avant-garde artists of the 1960s and 1970s.

Meel’s radical art engaged with minimalism and conceptual art, which the Soviet Union had attempted to prohibit by all means. The Singing Tree is a typewritten drawing consisting of words (bird and land), the impact of which is determined by the interrelations between different systems of symbols (text and visual images).