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Painting an Inclusive Picture of Abstract Art

Updated: Apr 1, 2022

Hilma af Klint


It is a widely held misconception that abstract painting resulted from the male-dominated explorations of Modernism. While Modernism certainly played a central role in bringing abstraction to the mainstream, it was by no means its origin. Its birth stretches far beyond the selective embrace of the Western art canon.

They say history is written by the victors, so the discriminatory narrative of Western art history is no surprise. But if abstraction is defined as a work of art devoid of representation, then we cannot accept the widely held notion that it was introduced by the Cubists as late as the 19th century. Hundreds of thousands of years before Pablo Picasso was even a glimmer in his father's eye, ancient artists were making abstract images.

In the early 2000s archeologists discovered the oldest known abstract drawings at Blombos Cave on the Western Cape coast in South Africa. The cave contained proof not only of intentional art-making but also of a pigment production workshop. Taking the form of inscribed ochre pieces around 10mm in size, the Stone Age works of geometric art are minute yet incredibly detailed. Over 8000 have been found at the site and they are purported to be between 70 000 and 100 000 years old.

The patriarchal propaganda of abstract painting applies also to recent times. Hilma af Klint was a Swedish artist and mystic whose paintings were the first known expression of Western abstract art. Though the term abstract art had not yet been popularized, she is seldom afforded credit for her breakthrough by the contemporary art community. Gender clearly played a role in undermining her practice.

Today queer, womxn, and POC artists continue attempting to shatter the barriers that dictate that abstract art is produced by a select few. Of course, the capitalist art market has changed the dynamics of art production altogether and the story of art is becoming murkier and murkier. We can only hope that somehow this great legacy will be observed by future generations with greater clarity.

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