In 1910, the Russian artist, Wassily Kandinsky (who was working in Germany at the time) caught sight of one of his own artworks leaning against a wall. Because it was upside down, he didn’t immediately recognise the objects painted in it. Instead he saw a combination of forms, colours, and lines – a work, he said, “of extraordinary beauty, glowing with inner radiance”.
And that, it is said, is how modern abstract art was born. After that experience, Kandinsky consciously tried to free his paintings of any direct reference to objects in the world. Instead he painted images of singing colour, light, shapes, marks, gestures and lines.
Kandinsky wrote of this shift in his work: “The separation of the domain of Art and the domain of Nature [the world of objects as they appear to us] grew wider and wider for me, until I could consider them absolutely distinct, one from the other. I knew then that objects harm my painting.”
Of course, abstract images were made long before Kandinsky. San painters, for instance, made abstract forms on rocks hundreds of years earlier. Indeed, other artists in Kandinsky’s own time had also started to experiment with non-figurative imagery (imagery that does not depict particular objects). But it was Kandinsky who developed an entire theory around abstraction, building complex ideas which he wrote about extensively. These included thoughts about the relationship between abstraction and music, for example, and between abstraction and the spiritual realm. He believed that these relationships were inherent in abstract painting.