Fascination for the Abstract

Wim Crouwel
It is remarkable that, immediately after World War II, the entire international art world once again became fascinated with abstract art. Both in New York and in Paris, London and also in our Low Countries, artists rediscovered the force of abstract art, the wondrous world that exists alongside the perceptible reality.

The twentieth century was a bustling century of innovation for the arts. The visual arts tore themselves away from the realistic representation of visible reality and artists experimented with every means conceivable; in the period of conceptual art even with means that were inconceivable. In waves people were abandoning reality and drawing more and more on the world of the imagination. Sometimes in the form of a treacherous reality that we call surrealism, and then again, reality was entirely lost. Abstracting reality led Mondrian to primary rectangular compositions while, with Picasso, this resulted in the baroque portraits that are intensifications of reality. The visual arts in the twentieth century, certainly sensuously, developed between extremes.

Immediately after World War II in Europe, where post-war reconstruction was under way everywhere, many visual artists felt a new need for a fresh approach. Young artists rejected the pre-war realistic conventions. They expressed – through more or less geometric abstraction – a desire for a new harmony.

Was this connected to the world war that had just ended? Some critics of the day believed that geometric abstraction was a temporary response to the atrocities of war and that the control of the perceptible world was the true assignment of the visual artist. With hindsight, however, it is certain that it was not solely a response to the war, but also an active stand with regard to certain oppressive nationalistic realistic developments in the visual arts of the day. People were optimistic and wanted to adopt an international attitude; expectations for the future were keen and tense.

In addition to pure geometric abstraction more lyrical and expressionist forms of abstraction also developed. A new generation of artists gathered in Paris in the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, they were advocates of total freedom in the use of image. Numbering among the most important representatives of this school were Bissière, Bazaine, Manessier, Hartung and Poliakoff. Naturally, the preparatory work had been done by the older generations. The new developments would have been inconceivable without the cubism of Picasso and Braque and the work of Klee and Kandinsky also exerted a considerable influence on the new movement.

In our country, too, the Netherlands, where the arts were strongly focused on Paris, various artists were drawn to these topical expressions. Willy Boers, Piet Ouborg, Wim Sinemus, Jan Roëde, Ger Gerrits, Hans Ittmann, Wim Strijbosch, Kees Keus and André van der Vossen numbered among the new abstract-orientated groups “Creatie” and the “Liga Nieuw Beelden”.

Just as in Europe, abstract art also flourished in America. After the depression, that still had repercussions for the arts until World War II, artists such as Hans Hofmann and Robert Motherwell played a significant role in giving a strong, innovatory impulse to the direction of abstract expressionism in painting. Robert Motherwell was co-editor of Possibilities magazine that was briefly published in the years 1947-48 and, together with Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, he established a new study programme for artists. One of the most important painters of the new generation was Jackson Pollock with his frenzied action abstract works. Further artists who worked in this direction, each in their individual way, were Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Morris Louis.

These powerful developments had, in turn, a great influence in Europe. This was also the reason why many young artists from Europe toured round America for short or longer periods of time. Just as it was remarkable that these developments manifested themselves immediately after World War II, it is remarkable to see how today, some fifty years later, there is once again great interest in the work produced then.

Greet van Amstel - Geometric composition, 1975

Greet van Amstel – Geometric composition, 1975