From the Renaissance until the middle of the 19th century, Western visual arts were geared towards representing external visual reality, using perspective to create the illusion of three-dimensionality. From the earliest attempts at abstraction in Western art onwards, geometric forms have been a key source of inspiration for artists, often representing a stepping-stone between figurative and abstract works, and as abstraction has continued to develop throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, geometry has held an enduring appeal for abstract artists.
As early as the 1860s, Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley began to break with the traditional style of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, producing looser and more gestural works. Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne took this radical approach a step further with his pared-back paintings, making use of geometrical forms to capture the fundamental structure of his subjects. This technique, exemplified in Cézanne’s famous landscape paintings executed around L’Éstaque in the early to mid 1880s, bridges the gap between his Impressionist predecessors and the cubists to come with a nod towards a more fully-realized abstraction through his geometrical simplification of shapes.
In the early 20th century, geometry continued to play an important role in the journey towards abstraction, with cubist painters, most notably Pablo Picasso and George Braque, creating highly geometrical images characterised by intersecting lines and tonally graded segments in a palette of browns, greys, and beiges. The angular, geometrical compositions that characterise early cubist works, inspired by the stark though simple aesthetic of African, Polynesian, Micronesian, and Native American art, were born of attempts to represent subject matter from multiple viewpoints. However, though they mark a radical departure from the aesthetic of earlier painting, since cubist works aim to represent external visual reality they cannot be considered “abstract” in the full sense.
By contrast, a number of other movements that emerged in the early 20th century, including Constructivism, DeStijl, and Suprematism, also characterised by use of geometrical shapes and compositions, took abstraction as a central aim of their practice. Amongst the most notable works combining abstraction and geometry were realised by Russian painter and pioneer of the Suprematist movement, Kazimir Malevich. Founded in 1915, Supremacist painting, characterised by its use of simple geometric forms such as squares, rectangles, and circles in a limited colour palette, aimed to capture what Malevich termed “the primacy of pure feeling in creative art”, eschewing figuration on the basis that “the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless”, and citing “feeling” as “the only significant thing”. Amongst the most notable, or even notorious examples of Suprematist painting is Malevich’s 1918 Suprematist Composition – White on White, one of the first examples of monochrome painting, and a radical work that would inspire generations of artists to come.
Another key figure in geometric abstraction was Piet Mondrian, a pioneer of the DeStijl movement and contemporary of Malevich. Mondrian’s iconic geometric compositions comprising blocks of primary colours and white separated by black lines represent geometric abstraction at its most pure. Like Malevich, Mondrian saw geometric abstraction as a means of creating “true” artworks, rather than mere imitations of the external world. Of his artistic mission, the Dutch painter wrote: “I want to come as close as possible to the truth and abstract everything from that”, his quest for truth and pure abstraction a common theme amongst geometric abstract painters of the period.
Though the 1910s, ‘20s, and ‘30s were a particularly fruitful period for geometric abstraction, later abstract artists continued to take inspiration from geometry in their work, with artists such as Bridget Riley, a central figure in the Op Art movement, using geometrical shapes in her work to entirely different effect. Nevertheless, since the advent of abstraction in Western visual art until the present day, geometry has been a constant source of inspiration for artists, representing for some a means of breaking free from illusory and imitative painting, others a tool to challenge the orthodoxy of traditional figurative painting, and others a device to manipulate visual perception through optical illusions.
(Photo credit: Ideelart - "Rotation Station Sequence 1", 2014, by John Monteith)