Contemplate Botanical and Biological Motifs in Some of the Earliest Abstract Art

In case you didn’t notice, February 12 is the birthday of Charles Darwin.

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an untitled and undated painting by Hilma af Klint (1862–1944)
Untitled and undated
Hilma af Klint (1862–1944)

In the late 19th Century, as the theory of evolution gained acceptance, scholars would apply its principles and language to many fields of human endeavor, such as history, education, and how to help the poor. A large part of this transfer was due to the writing and influence of the English polymath Herbert Spencer (1820–1903).

And what did he do, or rather, what did he envision?

Spencer extended the idea of evolution from living things into an all-embracing concept about the physical world as well as the human mind, human culture, politics, and societies. He suggested that they all developed progressively.

As a result, in criticism of art, music, and literature, scholars began identifying ways that an artist’s work or ideas “evolved” over the course of a career, or how a genre or field evolved across decades or centuries. By 1900, the symphony “evolved,” portraiture “evolved,” the short story and the sonnet “evolved,” and some works were established as the greatest because it was all sorted out by a process of . . . wait for it . . . natural selection.

You might step back from all that progressive development and competition to ask, when did this “evolution” begin? On an individual level, at an early age indeed. In The Child’s Pianoforte Book (1882), English businessman, mayor, and philanthropist Henry Keatley Moore would summarize the tone of the times where he says, “The development of the race is reproduced in the development of the child . . . all teaching must proceed from the simple to the complex, from the concrete to the abstract, from the known to the unknown.”

It’s this background that brings us to the classically-trained Swedish artist whose work challenges the established notion of how modern art “evolved.” Read more