Have you ever looked at an abstract painting and wondered what it’s about? A lot of them are indecipherable unless you take a moment to be in front of them.

Museums are one of the first places we are forced to reflect. We spend a moment looking at a painting, trying to connect to it.

This is easy when we look at something that is a painting of a landscape or a scene in a town, a little more difficult in symbolism-laden religious paintings, and hardest yet in abstraction.

Before my college modern art history class, a lot of modern, post-modern, and contemporary art movements made very little sense to me. I say this to you because looking at art encompasses a context that most of us do not use on a day to day basis, even artists!

However, the way we design cities, buildings, cars, furniture, and our technological interfaces is immensely influenced not just by pop culture, but by the boundary breaking art-makers from the early to middle 20th Century.

However, those groundbreaking artists are also the hardest to understand. Although this is very simplified to serve the purpose of orienting you to what our young artists did in Creative Universe, the Social Art Group, and Art Play this week, here is a crash course from the turn of the 20th Century to the moment that Duchamp painted the painting in the photograph above.

Marcel Duchamp, the painter of the painting in the poster with the projector image above, was a Dada-ist before he became a Futurist. He is most famous for his “ready-mades:” for example a urinal in the middle of a gallery. The Dada-ists are important because before them, there was an elitist academic system.  It worked more like a high society season, with people needing a certain background to gain entry.

The Dada-ists believed that this system was silly because it separated art from every-day life.  They made some pretty  crazy artwork to prove it. Some Dada art, like Duchamp’s Ready-made Urinal, was a bit irreverent.

The Dada movement spurred all kinds of other art movements including the Cubists who are the most famous. The Cubists looked at the world around us like a bunch of shapes and abstracted figural and iconic work equally to create some weird images.

In turn, the Cubists inspired the Futurists.

The Futurists weren’t just inspired by the flattened images and abstraction of the Cubists, but also by advances in technology. Since moving images were more and more possible, there was animation, high speed photography, and film being shown all over the place. The Futurists used what they learned from these moving images to create two-dimensional paintings that showed the concept of motion.

The artist whose photography I traced, Eadweard Muybridge, is famous for proving that horses have no legs on the ground in the middle of a gallop for a few seconds.  He took a lot of high speed photos, not quite at the speed of films, but with better clarity than the earliest cinematographic cameras.

As you can see in my image above, during our lesson we made this concept of flattening and stopping motion on a page concrete for our FLY artists.

  • First, we traced from a book the high speed photographic series of a woman descending a staircase.
  • Then we projected the whole sequence onto the screen.
  • Finally, we put them down so that they overlapped each other, like in the photo above. This is the way Duchamp and the other Futurists would have imagined the image before they painted it.

By the end of class, when they’d made their own moving collages of people, tigers, orang-utans and other things, the students understood a little more about moving objects, and how to understand some weird abstract painting that looked like ants and zig-zags when we started.

Come and join us next week for the next step in this series! We will play with making flat images move with a hand-held animation device!