The Mystery and Allure of the Abstract Landscape

May 25, 2016

The natural world was always one of the most celebrated settings onto which many artists projected their beliefs, inner feelings, tormented and tortured souls, and the most celebrated and progressive ideas about the new developments and new trends that art should reflect. The history of the abstract landscapes, the genre of the landscape paintings, whose developments can be traced to follow two different schools, of Chinese landscape art and the Western Paintings, reflects the changing ideas about art, its functionality and transcends the genre to the heights of spiritual art, especially in some of the most celebrated paintings by Wassily Kandinsky. The freedom which was explored and the breaking away from the traditional rules of landscape art represent the importance of the abstract landscape art as an indicator of the major developments in art history that are still reflected in a variety of contemporary artworks that focus on continuing the exploration of the genre. Let us take a look into the brief history of the abstract landscape with the focus placed on the most progressive ideas that helped this genre become what it is today.

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Wasilly Kandinsky - Mountain Landscape with Church. Image via

En Plein Air

Before the Impressionism burst to the scene with the interest in the shift of the light, and the disappearance of the atmosphere, landscape paintings served in the service of the most traditional roles. The religious paintings, portraiture, and history paintings were the dominating trends that used nature, either as a backdrop for the portraiture paintings of aristocrats and rulers or as a setting, which depicted major events in the history of that time. The landscape was an established genre in Chinese art by the fourth century CE, but in the Western paintings, this school of paintings doesn’t really begin until after the era of Renaissance art in the sixteenth century. Small depictions of nature, by major painters such as Leonardo da Vinci or Raphael, reflected the classical and times of antiquity. Here, nature was still viewed as background scenery, whether it depicted the small pastoral scenes or the grand travels of the aristocrats on their famous Grand Tours. The depictions of the places traveled didn’t stop here, as the need to explore the world reflected in the birth of the exotic landscapes and precise typography works as well.

It was with the birth of Romanticism that nature received an important metaphysical quality, as the place of the divine and the spiritual. Nature was viewed through its shifting atmosphere, the different weather conditions, and was a place of possible transformation of the spirit.
The innovation that appeared with the birth of the Impressionism, which came many years later, of the en plein air paintings, suggested the need to truly understand the natural world around us. Before this time, you must realize that most landscape paintings were produced in studios of the painters, who worked from memory or from the classical examples of nature. The Romantics and especially the Impressionist made a major breakthrough in the birth of the later abstract landscape art, as their innovative ideas helped to transcend the landscape art into spiritual art and major abstract works as well.

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David Hockney - The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire. Image via

The Investigation of the Pictorial Planes and the Birth Of Geometry

The investigation of the shifting light and the depictions of the open-air themes that influenced Impressionist artists was a fruitful period for the development of the landscape art. Their focus on an ephemeral quality of the light, and the need to investigate the perceptions of the eye reflected the way the paint was applied onto the canvas and the color scheme as well. The evident brush strokes and the unmixed colors were elements that helped build the canvas surface and even during this period, especially in the paintings series of Claude Monet, we see the birth of abstract thought. But, it was due to the advancing spirit of the major Post-Impressionism artist, Paul Cézanne, and Georges Seurat that the landscape art was brought more into the arena of abstraction. The dot theory that Seurat developed, later known as Pointillism, reflected later in the birth of Neo-Impressionism. The depicted open-air theme was stylized and simplified and the surface, build up with the use of dots, reflected the merge of science and mathematics in the approach to nature. The natural laws reflected years before with the use of the golden section, here were minimalized to the basic geometrical shapes. This was the major concern of Paul Cézanne, whose paintings reflected the artist’s idea that any subject matter depicted, landscape included, has its base in the simplicity of different geometrical shapes. His own paintings reflected the artist’s geometrical look onto the world, which later brought to us the birth of Cubism art.

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Piet Mondrian - Grey Tree. Image via

The Abstract Landscapes and Spirituality

The radical ideas of Cezanne and Seurat produced the first trend of the abstract landscape that is still visible today. The exploration of nature as a simplified and flat surface where the application of paint, color, serve the service of the exploration of the surface of the canvas, and the horizontal planes that help build the picture. Often, the color has the most important role, and some of the examples of the geometrical landscape are minimalized to the utmost monochromic look, where the play is only between the colors, surfaces, where the painted surface is sometimes a decorative pattern or ornamentation, and the hint of a landscape exists in a title of the paintings.

On the other hand, the heritage of expressionism by artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Paul Gauguin, all major figures of the Post-Impressionism movement as well, influenced many artists of the Modern art, to view art as a vehicle that could transcend, represent the inner world of the artist, and add on a spiritual quality to the created paintings. The German Expressionism, The Symbolists, and the early abstract artists, such as Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, all produced landscape paintings, that both reflected the ideas of simplifications and importance of geometry, but added the investigation towards the theory of color and expressive forces of the brushstroke that we tools reflecting the artist’s soul.

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Nicolas de Staël - Landscape Study. Image via theredlist

The Absolute Abstraction

The two ideas that helped shape the absolute abstraction in landscape art represent the two trends that are still visible in contemporary art today. The focus on the basic geometrical shapes shaped the production of the abstract landscape art, which focused on the simplification, merge of science and mathematics, and sometimes even a decorative view of the painted surface. On the other hand, the expressionism brought the spiritual side of nature, and the transcending quality to both the producer of the work and the recipient.

Throughout its history the different roles that the landscape art fulfilled showcase to us the mystery and explain the allure of the genre. Nature, as a setting onto which many artists today and future artists to come would reflect their ideas, will never fall out of fashion but may, due to the digitalization of the world, just explore different realities and worlds.

Editors’ Tip: Landscape Painting: A History

The article above just lightly touched upon the key two developments that helped to reach the abstract views explored in the landscape paintings. If you are tickled to find out more, the book recommended is a place to start your research. Standing as an in-depth analysis of the history of the genre, the book explores the cultural, historical and aesthetic context of the genre. Beautifully illustrated, the book offers examples of the most influential works as well as a broad understanding of the genre within the history of painting.

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured images in slider: Andreas Achenbach – Clearing Up Coast of Sicily, detail. Image via; Claude Monet – Haystacks in the Morning Snow Effect. Image via; Vincent van Gogh – Wheat Field with Crows, detail. Image via; Wassily Kandinsky – Romantic Landscape, detail.Image via; Nicolas de Stael – Cap Blanc Nez. Image via