Art & Abstraction

From Modernism to Abstraction, the breath of the 1950s


By Estelle Arielle Bouchet


The concept of Abstract Art is not confined to being a sophisticated movement of our time or some intellectual affectation for a circle of insiders, but rather relates to a pictorial tradition that is brutal, vernacular and instinctive, dating back to the beginning of time: rock painting without any kind of human representation whatsoever or like the Gate of Babylon which highlights a pictorial dialectic made up of symbols and animals or the ancient frescoes of the Lascaux caves.



Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Rigide et courbé, signed with monogram and dated '35' (lower left) oil and sand on canvas. 114 x 162.4 cm. Executed in Paris, December 1935. Courtesy Christies.com. Lyrical abstraction from Wassily Kandisky


These representations, because of their mystery and their origins that are so remote, leave enormous room for poetry. Whether it’s the funerary art of the Pharaohs with its hieroglyphics or the cave paintings or the early writings of Sumer in Mesopotamia, there is always the same mystery and an invitation to dream, similar to what happens in the Abstract art of the Twentieth Century. This latter vigorously rejects the figurative academicism of the Nineteenth Century that never stopped reproducing, with a romantic monotony, relative reality with its still lifes, portraits and landscapes.


While the intention was to take over reality in a rational faithful way, it was with an almost neurotic toughness, because this was ruled by a fear of seeing the unknown, so one thus stripped away, at the same time, the poetic, symbolic and magical dimension of creation and the surrounding world.


This obsessively figurative vision reflects human confinement that cuts us off from the original myth of Narcissus, which gives everyone the opportunity to be in a permanent state of metamorphosis.

You have to dive into the unknown to find the new” was the battle cry for Baudelaire in the well-mannered bourgeois Nineteenth Century. All painters or artists who were committed to the Abstract view aimed at rebirth with this Paradise Lost which corresponded to the very nature of the poetic topos.


Whether it be a work by Miro or by Kandinsky or the dark and mysterious atmosphere of a film by Alfred Hitchcock lit up by the presence of a star like Grace Kelly at the peak of her sublime goddess beauty, it is the same dialectic of a mystery in search of a transcendent fugitive moment, but to which we can devote a lifetime.


The search for the Sublime is inextricably linked to the abstract approach. This metaphysical form which follows just after the original form, whether in design like the wonderful black and white sketches of René Gruau from Christian Dior featuring an ideal of refined elegance that suggested more than it imposed and gave birth to the “New Look”, the name given by Caramel Snow, editor of the celebrated Harper’s Bazaar. But make no mistake, under this apparent simplicity; Christian Dior once again made Paris, like a phoenix from the ashes, the world capital of fashion just after the Second World War.


It is similar in the purity of the constructions on blank backgrounds by the painter Mondrian in the 40s: silence embodied in the colour white, itself symbolizing a window onto the breath of the imagination and mouthfuls of oxygen from an emptiness that is healthy and calming, taking us to a perfectly-structured geometric space.

André Courrèges later took up these themes again in his minimalist dresses in the 60s which were highly graphic. The first, although this is still subject to controversy, was Mary Quant from Great Britain with her creation of the mini-skirt which sold by thousands in her shop in the King’s Road in 1965.

Mary Quant represents a perfect example of that era when mechanization was at the service of creativity: faced with a voracious enormous demand, the answer was by infinitely producing and reproducing and to use this to make the industrial tools available through Taylorism. In this Modernist era, America reigns supreme and imposes its laws.


On the same subject of global success: at the 1959 American Toy Fair in New York, Ruth Handler presented the first Barbie. The doll- woman exactly corresponded to the aesthetic canons of the pin-ups of the 50s. The fatal carnal beauty of the sex-symbols of the 50s makes themselves seen, embodying life and its physical appetites. America, the country that rescued Europe from horror and destruction, often had the lead in World War II hero figures. Its all-time stars had no rivals and this period invented the feminine ideal: platinum-blond hair, wasp waists, wide hips and large breasts. From Rita Hayworth to Ava Gardner, from Liz Taylor as Cleopatra at her peak, through Grace Kelly who radiated the glow of her very aristocratic more discreet beauty as far as Europe ....

This Modernist and Post Modernist movement, two sides of the same coin, embodies everything and its opposite: the frantic sensuality of this post-war period mingled with invention and the development of the applied arts, pre-announcing the bulimic consumption of the 60s.

From the phantasmagorical elegance of Kenneth Lane, inventing delirious jewellery for well-bred American WASPs while drawing his inspiration from a bestiary of animals or going back to a new Ancient Egyptian purity with his grand Cleopatra-like wrist pieces. A world where Hollywood has its importance and television has already announced the warning signs of “all virtual” which today occupies all the space and punctuates all exchanges of all kinds.


The 1950's was also a relevant source of inspiration for Van Cleef & Arpels's latest High Jewellery collection, ‘Chevron Mystérieux’. Conceived by its CEO and Art Director Nicolas Bos and his talented team, ‘Chevron Mystérieux’ is a modern echo of the Mystery Set technique - an illustrious and innovative technique developed by the Maison back in 1933.


This emblematic Collection offers a 50's vision of its new creation illustrated by the drawings of Jérémie Fischer. A mixture of purity and craft this masterpiece necklace is composed of three pear-cut diamonds in a trilogy of 31.24, 12.18 and 12.07 carats surrounded by a crimp of intense emeralds, sapphires and diamonds; it’s sustained by a pure and geometrical structure highly inspired by the 50's abstract spirit; it is utterly captivating!


It’s true genius manifests itself in its metamorphic role - with its detachable pendants, this versatile collar can be cleverly adapted and remodelled in six different ways.


Above: Chevron Mystérieux paraure is inspired by 1950s fashion. and embodies the Legend of Diamonds High Jewellery collection by Van Cleef & Arpels for fall 2022, consisting of 25 Mystery Set™ Jewel - made from the colossal 910-carat diamond the Lesotho Legend, (vancleefarpels.com)The necklace offers six options for metamorphosis.© VAN CLEEF & ARPELS 2022.