Kandinsky and abstraction

In this article the development of abstraction in art is describe on the example of the exhibition about work of W. Kandinsky in Dresden. Further the definition of abstraction as well as it’s importance and influences in different areas of science is discussed.

How much?






Outlook: “Visionary spaces. Kandinsky, Mondrian, Lissitzky and the Abstract-Constructivist Avant-Garde in Dresden 1919-1932”, 2.3.-2.6.19, Albertinum, Dresden


Dresden is known as Florence on the Elbe or at least the Germans call this city proudly this way. It is also known as capital of baroque and is for sure worth visiting for its architectural and historical significance. Another exciting and important part of Dresden is its cultural heritage, which is represented through a large number of museums, which offer even greater number of permanent and temporal exhibitions. If the weather is not good enough to explore the city and architecture or you have an hour till you train a visit to one of these exhibitions is certainly worth considering.

Several museums are conveniently located in the historical center of the city in the old baroque buildings, which certainly makes possible to combine the historical tour through the architecture of the city with the dive into cultural development. An address, which is located in the center and offers several exhibitions is Residenzschloss.

I lived in Dresden for a while and enjoy the supplementation of my visits with the exploration of the new exhibitions. This time I invested a little bit over an hour of my time into visiting a temporary exhibition “The trend towards abstraction”, which shows mainly the works of W. Kandinsky. It explores the trends towards abstraction in art around 1910.

Wassily Kandinsky, Komposition, 1922, in: “Bauhaus-Drucke, eue Europäische Graphik”

Here you can see around 100 Prints, drawings and paintings, which are arranged along the timeline of creation. An important part of this display are the woodcuts, which, being pieces of art by themselves, illustrate the experimental approach of the artist to the use of surfaces, colors, techniques and abstraction. The development of the later can be followed e.g. through concentration of depiction of the (jumping) horse in the pieces.

The exhibition in the Residenzschoss jumps through time in order to conclude the topic of abstraction with works of modern Japanese photographer H. Sugimoto. He experimented with shutter speed, focus and contrast to create views of the ocean, which resonate with the viewers experience and mood. Other works are using repetitive patterns, contrast or microscopic images.

All points connected, the exhibition shows the “invention” of abstract art, represented by Kandinsky and some of his contemporaries, the motion from representative to abstract, which culminates in the modern photography. Below I want to discuss the importance of abstract thinking in science, language and modern world.


Abstraction is not only a phenomenon of art, but also an important method of detachment from a particular object. It is used in mathematics, physics, computer sciences and philosophy. In fact, the communication itself and therefore all human languages are based on abstraction, as all words, which we are using are abstract representatives of objects. Lets take the word “chair” as example, if you hear this word and someone points to the particular chair, it is of course representative for this chair, but in other case it is an abstract term representing all kinds of chairs, which you can or even cannot imagine.

Merriam Webster dictionary defines “abstract” as:

  1. a) disassociated from any specific instance or b) difficult to understand or c) insufficiently factual
  2. expressing a quality apart from an object
  3. a) dealing with a subject in its abstract aspects or b) impersonal, detached
  4. having only intrinsic form with little or no attempt at pictorial representation or narrative content

Lot of people think of abstract things in terms of the definition 1b). However, the definition 2 is the one of the interest, as it is what humans do in all instances, even in art. Abstract means moving from depiction of a concrete object to the description of the class of objects (language), phenomena (science) or feelings (art) (Cognitive Psychology, 1971; Biological Sciences, 2003; Psychological Review, 1947)

Recently in a study it was shown that already five months old children can connect abstract terms with tangible symbolic identifiers both visual and acoustic. For this study the activity in the babies brains during processing of the different combination of syllables with images or words was measured (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United Stats of America, 2019). On the other hand the research of Genevieve von Petzinger suggests that before the writing emerged starting at least one hundred thousands years ago humans (and probably also homo erectus and others) were using abstract signs in their cave paintings, probably to denote animals and phenomenons around them. Some of these signs are consistent around the world (University of Victoria, 2009).

In science specific description via symbols makes it possible to write down complex phenomena in a most simple and short way, to classify all possible cases (e.g. in mathematics, where you can prove the validity of theorem for all cases) or to symbolize the indescribable (e.g. infinity). Scientific abstraction can be abstract and very specific at the same time (JSTOR, 1963). Take zero – an ancient concept of depiction of the absence of something. As zero only shows the quantity you can put any unit behind it, as 0 m or 0 apples (no apples) or 0 knowledge. The absence of the specific object was therefore generalized. The infinity on the other hand was introduced in our lives by science, as it is uncountable, but nevertheless often used in everyday speech (NTM, 2002).

“Zero” as a mathematical concept of absolute nothingness appeared only in 7th century AD. It helped to understand many physical phenomena, for example, space, which mostly consist of emptiness. Frame from “Gravity” movie (2013).

In physics the generalization of forces as vectors, usually denoted as F = F*e, where F is a vector, F is the modulus of the vector and e is the unit vector, makes it possible to account easily for forces and to calculate e.g. the static of a construction. The abstraction in computer science made a leap towards the object oriented programming possible, which is founded on the generalization of classes, objects and methods (Minds and Machines, 2007).

Iuliia and the stool are concrete objects, while forces acting on Iuliia are totally abstract scientific concept.

The abstraction in art has the same motivation – a depiction of object with a recognizable symbol, which depicts in the end a class of objects and often provokes a certain class of feelings. However, often this objects can only be recognized, if context is given. This leads to the fact that many people are rebuked by the abstract art. Nonetheless the same is valid for science, philosophy or language – you can not understand the foreign language without learning the context (Theoretical Linguistics, 2011).

In the exhibition of the Kandinsky prints there is a pronounced figure – a figure of a jumping horse (see the images below). As you walk through the exposition you can see how through time the depiction changes and becomes more abstract, however it is still similar and recognizable as a jumping horse in context of the former works of Kandinsky.

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The ability and process of abstraction are very important in the modern world. Especially in the programming, machine learning and AI the abstraction is a tool, which makes it possible to write complicated algorithms. But what sounds so abstract and incomprehensible is in fact native to each human being and is done by everyone on daily basis (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United Stats of America, 2019; University of Victoria, 2009). Therefore next time you see a requirement of abstract thinking in a job portal think twice, it might be not that complicated at all. And if you want to learn the abstract thinking – there are lot of methods as programming or mathematics, but visiting museums more frequently might also just do the trick.


Abstraction is the motion from specific to general, which happens with simplification of specific phenomenon and development of it’s general depiction, which often is understandable if the context is known only. Despite the understanding of abstract as equal to complicated the abstraction is native to humans and finds itself in linguistics, philosophy, literature, psychology, physics, mathematics and other area of science and everyday life.


  1. J. D. Bransford and J. J. Franks, The Abstraction of Linguistic Ideas. Cognitive Psychology, 2 (4): 331-350 (1971)
  2. P. L. Ferrari, Abstraction in Mathematics. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society BBiological Sciences, 352 (1435) (2003)
  3. R. Arnheim, Perceptual abstraction and art. Psychological Review, 54(2): 66-82 (1947)
  4. C. Kabdebon and G. Dehaene-Lambertz, Symbolic labeling in 5-month-old human infants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United Stats of America, (Mar 2019)
  5. G. von Petzinger, Making the Abstract Concrete: The Place of Geometric Signs in French Upper Paleolithic Parietal Art, University of Victoria, (2009)
  6. R. S. Hartmann, The Logical Difference Between Philosophy and Science. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 23(3):353-379 (1963).
  7. D. Laugwitz, Debates about infinity in mathematics around 1890: The Cantor-Veronese controversy, its origins and its outcome. NTM International Journal of History & Ethics of Natural Sciences, Technology & Medicine, 10(1-3):110-129 (2002)
  8. T. Coleburn and G. Shute, Abstraction in Computer Science. Minds and Machines, 17(2):169-184 (2007)
  9. M. Stokhof and M. van Lambalgen, Abstractions and Idealisations:The Construction of Modern Linguistics. Theoretical Linguistics, 37 (1):1-26 (2011)

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