A brief history of Concrete Art
Concrete Artists, following in the footsteps of movements such as Constructivism and De Stijl, offered an art completely divorced from realistic themes, based on precise compositional structures, many of which represented mathematical or scientific formulas. The term was introduced by artist Theo van Doesburg in his 1930 Manifesto of Concrete Art, published in the first and only issue of Art Concret magazine. In this manifesto the artist stated that there was nothing more concrete or more real than a line, a color or a flat area of color.
Later, the Swiss artist Max Bill became the spokesman for concrete art, having, in 1944, organized the first international exhibition in Basel. The Swiss artist stated that the aim of concrete art was to create 'a visible and tangible form of things that did not exist before - to represent abstract thoughts in a sensible and tangible form'.
By the 1950s, concrete art was already an internationally prevalent and immediately recognizable style, across Europe and, most significantly, in Latin America. Find out more about this movement here.
What is Concrete Art?
The term "concrete art" refers to any type of abstract art that has no figurative or symbolic references. An abstract painting whose motifs or forms are evidently derived from any natural elements would not be considered concrete art: the painting must be totally devoid of any naturalistic associations. As a result, most concrete art is based on geometric images and patterns and is often referred to as geometric abstraction. Thus, concrete art is totally free of any observed reality and has no symbolic meaning. The very word "concrete" is defined as "something in a material or physical form", as solid, material, real, and its antonyms are "abstract" and "theoretical". However, it is precisely through the antonyms, abstract and theoretical that concrete art is found, often taking these two concepts to the extreme. In the broadest sense, concrete art completely dispenses with real-world forms, focusing only on ideas that come "straight from the mind".
Furthermore, geometric abstraction is in line with classical aesthetics: Plato, for example, held that the highest form of beauty resides in the 'ideal' concept or geometry of a thing rather than its actual appearance in the natural world. Finally, as it has nothing to do with the material world, concrete art can be seen as possessing a spiritual dimension. It is this spiritual dimension, for example, that underlies the "infinity pattern" designs of Islamic art.
How did concrete art come about?
The geometric forms of abstract painting appeared long before the term concrete art. Islamic art, for example, is famous for its geometric designs, such as the "endless pattern", as well as common Celtic designs, such as spirals, labyrinths, knots. The first half of the 20th century was a transformative period for Western art. During the 1910s, some artists broke completely with any kind of representation, which was quite an abrupt change even for late Cubism and Fauvism.
Russian Wassily Kandinsky was possibly the first to paint purely abstract pieces, soon followed by numbered compositions by Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. Independent, Swedish Hilma af Klint developed her own concept of high abstraction, creating visual representations of complex spiritual ideas derived from hermeticism and theosophy.
All these ideas set the stage for De Stijl, also known as Neo-Plasticism, a movement founded in 1917 in Amsterdam and formed by the painters Mondrian, Vilmos Huszár and Bart van der Leck, together with the architects Gerrit Rietveld, Robert van 't Hoff and JJP Oud . De Stijl was the name of the newspaper published by the group's leader, Theo van Doesburg, which served to bring the group's ideas closer to its public and art lovers. With the Netherlands isolated during World War I (Dutch artists could not leave the country after 1914 due to the officially neutral position), a distinctly original and unique modern movement emerged partially influenced by the main currents of the artistic world at the time. As proponents of neoplasticism, the group's members advocated the use of simple horizontal and vertical geometric shapes, using little color other than white, black and the primaries, reducing everything to the essentials of form and color. “Red and Blue Chair” by Gerrit Rietveld is possibly the most famous example of this movement.Less than a decade later, Constructivism, the Bauhaus and, finally, Concrete Art emerged.
The Concrete Art Manifesto
O Concrete Art Manifesto, published in Paris in 1930, by Van Doesburg argued for a type of abstract art that would be totally free of any basis in observed reality - a form also devoid of any symbolic implications. In this manifesto he stated that: "The work of art must obtain nothing from the formal properties of nature or from sensuality or sentimentality... The technique must be mechanistic, that is, exact and anti-impressionist." In effect, Van Doesburg wanted to create an entirely independent art form that focused exclusively on itself. I saw no need for any imitation of nature, or linear perspective to create a false 'depth' to the painting, because I thought that nothing was more concrete or more real than a line and color. Sadly, Van Doesburg died a year after publishing his manifesto, but his ideas were further developed by the group Abstraction-Creation - led by Belgian artist Georges Vantongerloo (1886-1965) and French painters Jean Helion (1904-87) and Auguste Herbin (1882-1960) - whose members included European abstract sculptors such as Jean Arp (1886-1966), Naum Gabo (1890-1977), El Lissitzky (1890-1941), Antoine Pevsner (1886-1962), Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) and Ben Nicholson (1894-1982).
Concrete art was further exemplified by the spiral abstract sculpture of former Swiss Bauhaus architect, sculptor and designer Max Bill (1908-94). The Swiss artist spread and popularized the genre in his own country, organized the first international exhibition of concrete art in Basel in 1944 and also introduced the movement in Italy, Argentina and Brazil. Max Bill's works are now seen as precursors to minimalism in sculpture.
The later developments of Concrete Art
This new movement differed from the previous ones by its even stronger tendency to rely on pure geometric forms, the formal qualities, the complete denial of lyricism, dramatism and symbolism. Most of the time, especially in sculpture, the pieces were superbly finished looking virtually machine-made, with no human touch. Later, these characteristics inspired critics to call this movement "cold abstraction".
Like any other strong artistic idea, the style has lived on and transformed even after its initial period in the spotlight. In the late 1950s, several groups emerged in Latin America (Arte Concreto-Invención, Arte Madí, Grupo Neoconcreto), all of which continued to pursue purely abstract artistic goals in rationalist opposition to the muralist propaganda popular at the time. Concrete art continues to have the power to fascinate us to this day. Later generations expanded its influence, its application and therefore its accessibility to the general public, not being limited to closed spaces like a gallery, but expanding to all surfaces in the modern world.