Who Painted the First Abstract Painting?: Wassily Kandinsky? Hilma af Klint? Or Another Contender?

Kandin­sky, Unti­tled, 1910

Many painters today con­cen­trate on pro­duc­ing abstract work — and a fair few of those have only ever pro­duced abstract work. But look not so very far back in human his­to­ry, and you’ll find that to paint meant to paint rep­re­sen­ta­tive­ly, to repli­cate on can­vas the like­ness­es of the actu­al peo­ple, places, and things out there in the world. Human­i­ty, of course did­n’t evolve with its rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al art skills pre-installed: though some cave paint­ings do rec­og­niz­ably depict men and beasts, many strike us today as what we would call abstract, or at least abstract­ed. So which mod­ern artists can lay claim to hav­ing redis­cov­ered abstrac­tion first?

Kandin­sky, Com­po­si­tion V, 1911

If you’ve stud­ied any art his­to­ry, you might well name the ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry Russ­ian painter Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky (whose first abstract water­col­or from 1910 appears at the top of the post). But “while Kandin­sky is today hailed as the father of abstract paint­ing,” writes Art­sy’s Abi­gail Cain, “he was by no means the only play­er in the devel­op­ment of non-rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al paint­ing,” though “his work Kom­po­si­tion V did, admit­ted­ly, jump­start pub­lic inter­est in abstract paint­ing.”

First exhib­it­ed in Munich in Decem­ber 1911, “this mon­u­men­tal work was just bare­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al” and also “the first such work to be put on dis­play,” inspir­ing the art world not just to take abstrac­tion seri­ous­ly but to see it as the future.

Hilma af Klint, Sva­nen, 1915

Kandin­sky, inspired by Goethe’s The­o­ry of Col­ors, had already giv­en the sub­ject of abstrac­tion no small amount of thought. He’d first writ­ten a man­i­festo defin­ing abstract art a few years ear­li­er, titling it On the Spir­i­tu­al in Art, a title that would have res­onat­ed with Hilma af Klint, a painter who might have actu­al­ly gone abstract first.  “Af Klint, who was born in Stock­holm, showed an ear­ly inter­est in nature, math­e­mat­ics and art, and she began study­ing at the Roy­al Swedish Acad­e­my of Fine Arts in 1882,” writes the New York Times’ Natalia Rach­lin. She made her name as a land­scape and por­trait painter after grad­u­a­tion, but at the same time “also con­tin­ued a more pri­vate pur­suit: she had begun show­ing an inter­est in the occult and attend­ing séances as ear­ly as 1879, at the age of 17.”

Hilma af Klint, ‘Stag­ger­ing’: The Ten Largest, Youth, 1907.

Af Klin­t’s “curios­i­ty about the spir­i­tu­al realm soon devel­oped into a life­long inter­est in spiritism, theos­o­phy and anthro­pos­o­phy,” and dur­ing one séance she heard a spir­it tell her to “make paint­ings that would rep­re­sent the immor­tal aspects of man. This proved to be the turn­ing point in af Klint’s work: from the nat­u­ral­is­tic to the abstract, from por­tray­als of phys­i­cal real­i­ty to con­vey­ing the invis­i­ble.” She went on to pro­duce the 193 abstract Paint­ings for the Tem­ple. The exhi­bi­tions of her rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al work con­tin­ued, but she kept the rest pri­vate, and in her will “even asked that her abstract paint­ings not be shown in pub­lic until at least twen­ty years after her death, not­ing that audi­ences were not yet capa­ble of under­stand­ing her work.”

Fran­cis Picabia, Caoutchouc, 1909.

Both Kandin­sky and Af Klint look like plau­si­ble can­di­dates for the first abstract painter — it just depends on how you define the begin­ning of abstrac­tion — but they’re hard­ly the only ones. Cain also brings up the Czech-born, Paris-based artist Fran­tišek Kup­ka, or his col­league in the French avant-garde Fran­cis Picabia, whose 1909 water­col­or Caoutchouc (Rub­ber), pic­tured just above, came before Kandin­sky had paint­ed an abstract image or even com­plet­ed any writ­ing on the sub­ject. Still, some objec­tors note that “the work still retains some sem­blance of form, rem­i­nis­cent of a bou­quet of flow­ers.” These ques­tions of puri­ty, inno­va­tion, and espe­cial­ly orig­i­nal­i­ty do get com­pli­cat­ed. As Clive James once said, “It’s very hard to be total­ly inven­tive, so I’m not ter­ri­bly inter­est­ed in orig­i­nal­i­ty. Vital­i­ty is all I care about” — a qual­i­ty that all these works exude still today.

via Art­sy/Tate

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Helen Mir­ren Tells Us Why Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky Is Her Favorite Artist (And What Act­ing & Mod­ern Art Have in Com­mon)

Goethe’s Col­or­ful & Abstract Illus­tra­tions for His 1810 Trea­tise, The­o­ry of Col­ors: Scans of the First Edi­tion

Time Trav­el Back to 1926 and Watch Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky Make Art in Some Rare Vin­tage Video

The MoMA Teach­es You How to Paint Like Pol­lock, Rothko, de Koon­ing & Oth­er Abstract Painters

Free Course: An Intro­duc­tion to the Art of the Ital­ian Renais­sance

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (9)
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  • Rodolfo Coliqueo says:

    Me gus­ta el expre­sion­is­mo abstrac­to, pero no puedo pen­sar en ello sin ten­er en cuen­ta a Jack­son Pol­lock. Miro sus obras y nun­ca encuen­tro un final, siem­pre veo algo nue­vo, quizás fue el tiem­po que le tocó vivir.

  • micheal madigan says:

    well, it seems you’ve lim­it­ed the para­me­ters of “who paint­ed the first abstract paint­ing” to west­ern euro­pean artists of the 19th,20th cen­tu­ry.

    If one would care to include Islam­ic art .…the para­me­ters widen and the dates fly deep into the past.…unless you dis­qual­i­fy Islam­ic art as abstract art.Do you?

  • A. E. Stiegman says:

    There are seri­ous argu­ments put forth that Arthur Dove beat Kandin­sky to it and paint­ed the first com­plete­ly abstract paint­ing in West­ern art.

  • hakudou says:

    If you look at Japan­ese paint­ings, Sesshu’s “Splashed-ink Land­scape (破墨山水 Haboku san­sui), 1495”, which was strong­ly aware of abstract expres­sions, so it will be the old­est.

    Also, the com­plete abstract paint­ing will be Zen paint­ing “square-tri­an­gle-cir­cle” by Sen­gai Gibon (仙厓 義梵, 1750 — 1837).

  • Garreth says:

    Much Islam­ic art is won­der­ful tes­sel­la­tion i.e. the rep­e­ti­tion of geo­met­ri­cal forms on a sur­face to form a repeat­ing pat­tern, which can be mod­i­fied by the intro­duc­tion of oth­er geo­met­ri­cal forms at reg­u­lar inter­vals. There are sur­viv­ing exam­ples of mosa­ic floors and walls with tes­sel­la­tion from the Roman empire. In the 1930s, the Dutch illu­sion­ist design­er and painter, M.C. Esch­er, made tes­sel­lat­ed paint­ings using repeat­ing geo­met­ri­cal designs and crea­tures from nature. He was inspired by Moor­ish visu­al cre­ations that he admired dur­ing a vis­it to the Alham­bra in Spain.

  • Marlene Scott says:

    Def­i­nite­ly the abstract art is the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the feel­ings and the most inter­nal form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that an artist has, it is not a mat­ter of form or con­crete, just the impul­siv­i­ty of the moment, or I fol­low the painter Gabi­no Amaya Cacho, who paints dots of unmixed col­ors, in a clean and beau­ti­ful way.

  • Salina Vaughn says:

    The date of Hilma af Klint’s work goes back as far as 1907. So if that date was men­tioned (which in doing research for this arti­cle would be dis­cov­ered) the answer to the ques­tion would with out a doubt be af Klint.

  • Jim Woodring says:

    Does “The Tal­is­man” by Paul Sérusi­er, made in 1888, qual­i­fy?

  • Brian B Buckley says:

    The tal­is­man is a fair­ly lit­er­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a lake (Bois D’amor).

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