Making Sense of Abstraction: Roots, Context and Meaning

On campus

Dr Emily Christensen

Tuesday 10 – Thursday 12 September 2024

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 shall examine stories of the creation of these paintings – what the artists may have intended – in the cultural and political context of their period. We shall 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. Afternoon gallery visits will include Tate Modern.

Lecturer's biography

Dr Emily Christensen is an Associate Lecturer at The Courtauld. Emily teaches European 19th and 20th-century art, and on issues of empire and representation in Orientalism. Her own research has focused on Orientalism in the work of Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter, and she has published on these artists and related topics in The Burlington Magazine, World Art, Aesthetica Universalis and Manazir and has contributed exhibition catalogue essays for the Kunsthaus, Zurich (2023) and for Tate’s forthcoming exhibition on Expressionism (2024). In addition to her teaching and scholarship, Emily co-curated an exhibition in The Courtauld Gallery Project Space entitled Drawing on Arabian Nights (2023), and collaborated on the exhibition Re-Orientations: Europe and Islamic Art, from 1851 to Today at the Kunsthaus in Zürich (2023).