i Wassily Kandinsky, Multicoloured Circle, 1921, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, USA. Image: Wikimedia commons

Making Sense of Abstraction: Roots, Context and Meaning


Dr Emily Christensen

Online. 5 pre-recorded lectures. Live Zoom seminars on Wednesday evenings from 14 September to 12 October, at 18:00 – 19.15. If student numbers make it necessary, we will teach in two groups, with the second group scheduled for 19.30-20.45. An optional in person course visit on Saturday 8 October 10:00-13:00.

£195; a £45 supplement for the optional visit

This course and its waiting list is full

Course description

Abstract art has provoked strong reactions since it emerged in the early twentieth century. It has been derided, reviled, banned and burned. But it has also become one of the dominant and most celebrated forms of artistic expression of our time. What is abstract art? Where did it come from? What does it mean? This course will explore these questions from different angles, examining the early manifestations of European abstraction through the work of artists including Wassily Kandinsky, Hilma af Klint, Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian as well as later permutations elsewhere in the world including works by Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Saloua Raouda Choucair and Ibrahim El-Salahi. We will be examining stories of the creation of these paintings – what the artists may have intended – in the cultural and political context of their period. We will also look at how viewers responded to them and uncover stories of the unexpected, shifting meanings ascribed to the paintings by politicians and ideologues as the twentieth century progressed. The lectures will focus more on broad themes, while the discussions will allow close looking at and discussion of individual works. In addition to the on-line lectures and discussions, there will be an optional in-person visit to Tate Modern to look at some of the works covered in the course.

Lecturer’s biography

Dr Emily Christensen is an Associate Lecturer at The Courtauld, where she recently completed her PhD supervised by Professor Gavin Parkinson. Emily teaches European 19th and 20th century art, and on issues of empire and representation in Orientalism. Her thesis explored the role of ‘the Orient’ in the development of Wassily Kandinsky’s artistic strategies, examining its impact on his development of abstraction, and his contribution to a broader network of Orientalist imagery. Emily has published in The Burlington Magazine, Aesthetica Universalis and has an article forthcoming in Manazir.