Art Informel
European Abstract Painting Movement: History, Characteristics.

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Art Informel (1940s, 1950s)

The European equivalent of American Abstract expressionism, Art Informel was one of the most important modern art movements in Europe during the post-World War II period (1940s, 1950s).


For the first four decades of the 20th century, fine art painting had been dominated by abstract art which was largely geometric in nature. These included the schools of Cubism (c.1907-1914), Suprematism (c.1913-18), Constructivism (1914-1920s), Vorticism (c.1913-17), Rayonism (c.1912-15), Orphism (c.1912-14), and De Stijl (1917-31), as well as the Bauhaus Design School (1919-1933). World War II changed everything. The new post-war reality required a new type of art. Representationalism was still unpopular - any type of realism was irrelevant when compared to the horrors of war - but so too was geometric art. The unemotional intellectualism of Cubism other geometric forms was no longer sufficient; nor was the conceptual precision of De Stijl and other similar design schools. (See also: History of Expressionist Painting 1880-1930.)

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Abstract Expressionism in America

The American answer was what art critics called Abstract Expressionism, a rather vague category of abstraction which encompassed two basic types of artist: the so-called "action painters" such as Jackson Pollock (1912-56) and Willem De Kooning (1904-97) who focused on an active, highly expressive style of gestural painting, and the more passive painters, such as Mark Rothko (1903-70), Clyfford Still (1904-80), and Barnett Newman (1905-70), who practised Colour Field Painting.

Example Art Work

The Blue Phantom (1951)
Ludwig Museum, Cologne.
Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Sculze)

Art Informel in Europe: Characteristics

Europe's answer to the New York school of abstract expressionist painting was Art Informel, a movement that was - like its American counterpart - a rather general umbrella term for a new style of abstract painting which did not have any intellectual baggage or methodology. Expressive, gestural and innovative, it was, as the name implies - an art without predefined form or structure. Artists merely had to engage with their materials. The actual name "Art Informel" was first coined in 1951 by the French art critic Michel Tapie, when describing the improvization (untouched by past or contemporary conventions) practised by a number of painters at his Paris exhibition on the theme of "Extreme Tendencies in Non-Figurative Painting".

Note: a good way to understand Art Informel is to think of it as "formless improvisation".

Participants in this exhibition, entitled "Un Art Autre" (Art of Another Kind), included artists like Karel Appel, Alberto Burri, Jean Dubuffet, Willem De Kooning, Georges Mathieu, Jean Fautrier, Jean-Paul Riopelle, and Wols, along with Henri Michaux, Hans Hartung and Pierre Soulages. As a result, the term Art Autre - from the title of the exhibition and Tapies book - is a not uncommon synonym for Art Informel, although the latter seems to be the term favoured by most art critics.

Terminology and Related Schools of Art

Art Informel originated in Germany, before spreading to France - where it was most active - and later Italy, Spain, and Japan. Its various manifestations and sub-variants included Tachisme, "Art Autre", Gesture Painting, Lyrical Abstraction, and Matter art. Art Informel was related stylistically to other groups and styles, including the Danish/Dutch/Belgian CoBrA group, the German groups Zen 49 and Quadriga, the Canadian Automatistes, the Italian Arte Nucleare and the Japanese Gutai association. In a more basic sense, Art Informel was a sort of recuperation of the Dada anti-art movement of the 1910s and early 1920s: a return to ground zero. It also influenced the later figurative style known as Neo-Expressionism.

For early 20th century types of expressionism, see: Expressionist Paintings.

Art Informel Style

Initial Art Informel pictures were small-scale paintings and drawings on paper enhanced with watercolour. Thereafter, artists moved on to large-scale canvases, to which they applied oil paint thickly, with a spatula, palette knife, or brush, or directly from the tube. Painters shunned explicit figuration preferring blotches, marks and tangles of paint. Forms (gestural or calligraphic) loomed up themselves from the canvas. Above all, the artist sought to produce something accidental and unexpected - something impulsive! - as far away as possible from the "well-made" traditional painting. A well-used source of inspiration for this type of Art Informel was the Surrealist technique of automatism, such as that practised by Andre Masson (1896-1987). In any event, paintings were executed spontaneously and rapidly so as to give full expression to the subconscious of the artist.

Matter Painting

In addition to Tachisme, another sub-variant of Art Informel was Matter Painting. This arose when the artist placed an emphasis on the texture, tactile quality or other evocative powers of the paint or other materials (often unusual ones). Artists involved in Matter Painting included the Italian Alberto Burri (1915-95); Dutchmen Jaap Wagemaker (1906-75) and Bram Bogart (b.1921); and Catalonian Antoni Tapies (b.1923).

Important Informel Artists

Leading abstract painters of the Art Informel movement included Jean Fautrier (1898-1964), Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Sculze) (1913-51), Hans Hartung (1904-89). The movement came to include: Jean-Michel Atlan (1913-60), Jean Bazaine (1904-2001), Roger Bissière (1886-1964), Camille Bryen (1907-77), Alberto Burri (1915-95), Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-92), Karel Appel (1921-2006), Asger Jorn (1914-73), Charles Lapicque (1898-1988), Alfred Manessier (1911-93), Patrick Heron (1920-99), Georges Mathieu (1921-2012), Henri Michaux (1899-1984), Serge Poliakoff (1906-69), Pierre Soulages (b.1919), Nicolas de Stael (1914-55), Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002), Antoni Tapies (b.1923), Pierre Tal-Coat (1905-85), Gustave Singier (1909-84), Alfred Manessier (1911-93), Jean Le Moal (1909-2007), and others. The Americans Mark Tobey (1890-1976) (calligraphic works) and Sam Francis (1923-94) (Tachism) were also important contributors; Jiro Yoshihara (1905-72) founded the related Gutai Group in Japan in 1955.

Art Informel Paintings

Important examples of the Art Informel style include:

Hans Hartung
T. 1935-1 (1935) Pompidou Centre of Modern Art, Paris.
T. 1949-9 (1949) Düsseldorf Arts Museum.

Mark Tobey
Broadway (1936) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Jean Fautrier
Head of a Hostage, No 2 (1944) Galerie Limmer Collection, Freiburg.
Baby Mine (1947) Tate Collection, London.

Blue Grenade (1946) Pompidou Centre of Modern Art, Paris.
Composition (1947) Kunsthalle, Hamburg.
Yellow Composition (1946–7) Neue N.G, Berlin.

Antoni Tapies
Painting no. XXVIII (1955) Galerie Stadler, Paris.

Georges Mathieu
Capetians Everywhere (1954) Pompidou Centre of Modern Art, Paris.

Sam Francis
In Lovely Blueness I (1955-7) Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

Henri Michaux
Untitled (1960) Samuel R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Paintings by Art Informel painters can be seen in the best art museums in Europe.

Note: For developments in American abstract expressionism, during the late 1950s, early 1960s, read about the general trend Post-Painterly Abstraction, and its individual styles like Colour Field and Hard-Edge Painting.

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