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How abstract art was born

Tableau no 2, composition no V by Piet Mondrian

It’s no accident that abstract art emerged when it did, says Stephen Kern in Engelsberg Ideas. In the 19th century, the world was changing beyond recognition: the telegraph had been invented in the 1830s, then the telephone in 1876, followed by the wireless. Science had discovered invisible forces that could send messages over vast distances, transforming communication, and with it “the experience of time and space”. In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust finds telephone conversations an eerie invention. The voice of his grandmother – so distant, so “cut off from the rest of her being” – felt as though it came from beyond the grave. No longer were her words connected to “the movements of her body, her facial expressions, the sounds and smells and touches that had completed the mise-en-scène of prior conversations”.

At the same time, the world faced a “major assault” on the foundations of Western thought and morality. There was the rise of nihilism: in 1882, Nietzsche announced the death of God, and reasoned that humans therefore had to be more “godlike” and create their own moral system and basis for a meaningful life. Then you had the anarchists, who flatly rejected the old system in the hope that a more just world would take its place. It was against this shifting cultural and scientific landscape that artists began to move into abstraction. Until that point – right back to the first cave paintings – art had captured “recognisable objects”. In the early 20th century, artists like Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian began “rejecting the subject matter of the material world”, and instead sought to “express pure spirit with abstract forms”. It was a “revolutionary stylistic development” – one that’s impossible to understand without appreciating the “larger cultural framework”.

Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life is at the Tate Modern until 3 September. Book here.