On 27 February in London, Christie’s presents a collection of 10 works reflecting the diversity of abstract artistic production in Europe in the early 20th century. The group, Abstraction Beyond Borders, will be offered across the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale and The Art of the Surreal sale. Featuring paintings by Georges Braque, Francis Picabia, Kurt Schwitters and Georges Vantongerloo, among others, it highlights the idiosyncrasies of these artists’ abstract inventions.
Executed circa 1910-11, Cartes et cornet à dés dates from a groundbreaking period in Georges Braque’s career, when he was engrossed in an intense artistic relationship with Pablo Picasso. Working closely together, the pair broke down pictorial conventions to create a new artistic language, Cubism, that would alter the course of painting.
Cartes et cornet à dés exemplifies one of the most important characteristics of Cubism: the depiction of multiple viewpoints at once. No longer are objects rooted to one spot; instead, dice seem to skitter through space, captured as they turn in the air. ‘Scientific perspective is nothing but eye-fooling illusionism,’ Braque declared, ‘a bad trick which makes it impossible for an artist to convey a full experience of space.’
Although Francis Picabia had first begun to incorporate collaged elements into his work at the beginning of the 1920s, his involvement with the technique began in earnest following his relocation to the south of France several years later. In Sans titre (Pot de fleurs), executed circa 1924-25, Picabia uses everyday materials such as paintbrushes, string, quill toothpicks and the lids of paint tins to create a highly stylised depiction of a pot of flowers. Embedding the tools of artistic creation into the image itself, this playful work underscores the artistic process while subverting the traditions of painting.
From the paint-splattered brushes that suggest branches and stems to the keys that denote leaves and foliage, each element is a reminder of the painting’s own construction. Perhaps the work’s most distinctive feature is the circular paint-can lids — bearing the distinctive logo of the enamel paint Ripolin — used to represent flowers.
Picabia fills the background with a generous layer of Ripolin, which he uses to stick the collaged elements onto the canvas. Embedding the paint lids in this way, Picabia challenges traditional conceptions of ‘fine art’. It is a wonderful example of the iconoclastic approach to painting that characterised Picabia’s oeuvre.
Executed just a few years later, in 1929, Iris is a key work from Picabia’s Transparency series, in which multiple transparent images, layered on top of one another, produce an effect reminiscent of multiple-exposure photography. Picabia traced the roots of this fascination with layering to a moment in a Marseille café, when the reflection of the café’s interior seemed to be superimposed on the outside view.
Picabia drew on a multitude of visual sources for the Transparencies, including prints and reproductions of classical sculpture, Renaissance paintings and Catalan frescoes. Towards the end of the 1920s, the art of antiquity became particularly prominent in the series, with images of classical sculpture often serving as the composition’s base. Rather than functioning as homages to the past, however, Picabia’s Transparencies seem to be provocative pastiches. Picabia mixes the sacred with the profane, the old with the new, the density of overlapping images confounding all attempts to pick apart and understand the visual fragments that fill the canvas.
Made at the height of Kurt Schwitters’ involvement with International Constructivism, Das Richard-Freitag-bild is one of the artist’s great wooden relief paintings, from a period in which he had begun to reintegrate natural rhythms into his work. Around 1926, Schwitters’ development of pictures assembled from the detritus of everyday life — what he called the ‘Merzbild’ — had reached a turning point. Now, in 1927, Schwitters sought to create a mature form of Merz: in Richard-Freitag-bild, the artist incorporated biomorphic and organic forms, working with hand-crafted geometric shapes of flat colour and merging painting, sculpture and relief.
As if to reinforce the sense of play at the heart of this painting, its title was taken from a label that Schwitters stuck on the back, which read: ‘Richard Freitag, Möbeltransport’ (‘furniture movers’). The entire relief construction has been built on a background of planks that may once have belonged to a packing crate or piece of furniture. In this way, the work’s title emphasises the role that chance and impulse — in the form of found objects — play in artistic creation.
Some three years later, Belgian painter Georges Vantongerloo’s idiosyncratic approach to the ideals of the De Stijl movement resulted in Composition émanante de l'équation y=-ax2+bx+18 avec accord de orangé, vert, violet. Vantongerloo had first made contact with the artists involved in De Stijl in 1918, and quickly became absorbed into the radical group of thinkers, architects, painters and designers. Particularly influential for the young artist was his friendship with Piet Mondrian.
While there are obvious parallels between the artists’ compositions, Vantongerloo employed a wider range of colours, expanding Mondrian’s strictly limited palette. A complex mathematical language underpins many of Vantongerloo’s works from this period, whose titles were often complex algebraic equations with meanings just beyond our comprehension.
Abstraction Beyond Borders will be on view in London from 20 to 27 February.