Up to the late 19th century, a person’s identity was defined by external factors such as their family background, gender and job. Then psychoanalysis turned the “who am I?” question inwards, changing our self-perception from a mere piece that must fit in the social jigsaw to a unique being with buried secrets. The new search for the subconscious inspired artists of the early 20th century to explore spontaneity as a new technique, leading to the wildest forms of abstraction that the world had seen to date and which cannot be surpassed in their radical break from the past.
Gone were the days of objective representation. The Surrealists embraced Freud’s theory, experimenting with automatic writing, painting and drawing (Masson, Miró), then in turn inspired the Action Painters (Pollock, Kline and de Kooning) and Tachists (Soulages, Mathieu). Creating was now all about the direct manifestation of the subconscious pouring out on to the canvas – to the amazement or contempt of viewers to this day.
Although the lack of structure and coherence of such works may not appeal to all, early 20th-century abstraction has undeniably and irreversibly broken the restrictive barriers of the conventional and predictable while celebrating freedom and individuality wholeheartedly.