Many different, colourful abstract shapes floating against a black and white background. i Wassily Kandinsky, Roter Fleck II, 1921, detail, oil on canvas, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau, Munich

Making Sense of Abstraction: Roots, Context and Meaning


Dr Emily Christensen

5 pre-recorded lectures with 5 live Zoom seminars in the evenings over 5 weeks from Wednesday 13 September to Wednesday 11 October 2023, with an optional visit on Saturday 14 October 2023
£195 or £245 with visit

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. Emily teaches European nineteenth- and twentieth-century art, and on issues of empire and representation in Orientalism. Her PhD research explored the role of ‘the Orient’ in the development of Wassily Kandinsky’s artistic strategies as he experimented with abstraction. Current projects include collaborating on an exhibition about the reception of Islamic art in twentieth century Europe at the Kunsthaus Zurich and co-curating a forthcoming exhibition in The Courtauld Gallery Project Space. She has published in The Burlington Magazine, Aesthetica Universalis and Manazir, and is the guest co-editor of a forthcoming special issue on Orientalism in World Art. Emily has recently collaborated on the exhibition Re-Orientations: Europe and Islamic Art, from 1851 to Today (open until 16 July 2023) at the Kunsthaus in Zürich.