Lyrical Abstraction
Form of Art Informel: History, Characteristics.

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Lyrical Abstraction (c.1945-1960)

The least strident sub-variant of the wider Art Informel style - itself one of the most important European modern art movements of the post-World War II period - Lyrical Abstraction (or "Abstraction Lyrique") was a French style of 20th century painting in the manner of American Abstract Expressionism. Compositions were sensuous, romantic and painted in a loose gestural style. It is sometimes, confusingly, referred to as Tachisme, a style which only applies to pictures with blotches or stains.


Lyrical Abstraction was not a specific school or movement, rather a tendency within Art Informel. See it as a balanced, elegant, (sometimes animated, sometimes soothing) style of abstract art which is nearly always charged with content taken from the natural world. Often marked by sumptuous colour, its harmonious, painterly beauty may be contrasted with the harsh, angst-ridden and dissonant imagery produced by other Art Informel groups like COBRA, or recent Neo-Expressionists.

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Art Work Example

Seaside Railway in the Setting Sun
(1955) private collection.
By Nicolas de Stael.
Exemplar of the European style of
Abstract Expressionist painting.


Although the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) can be said to have pioneered the elegant combination of narrative, form and colour which is the basis of Lyrical Abstraction, the tendency emerged at an exhibition entitled "L'Imaginaire", which was held at the Galerie du Luxembourg in Paris, in 1947, and which included works by Hans Hartung (1904-89), Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze) (1913-51), Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002), and others. The actual term "Abstraction Lyrique" was coined by the French painter and exhibition co-organizer Georges Mathieu (1921-2012), while his fellow curator Jose-Jean-Marchand wrote that some of the works on show displayed "a lyricism disengaged from all servitude..." - meaning that the paintings were not derivative or weighed down by intellectual theory.


Lyrical Abstraction Artists

The main exponents of this form of abstract expressionism include: Hans Hartung (1904-89), Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Sculze) (1913-51), Jean-Michel Atlan (1913-60), Pierre Soulages (b.1919), Georges Mathieu, Nicolas de Stael (1914-55), and Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002). In addition, the American calligraphic painter Mark Tobey (1890-1976) and the American Tachist artist Sam Francis (1923-94) made major contributions to the style. Other Lyrical Abstractionists included Patrick Heron (1920-99), Jean Bazaine (1904-2001), Gustave Singier (1909-84), Alfred Manessier (1911-93), Roger Bissière (1886-1964), Jean Le Moal (1909-2007), Pierre Tal-Coat (1905-85), and Serge Poliakoff (1906-69). In 2006, an exhibition entitled "Abstraction Lyrique" was held at the Musee du Luxembourg in Paris. As well as those artists mentioned above, it included works by the Portuguese-born French painter Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-92), and Russian-French aristocrat Nicolas de Stael (1914-55).

Characteristics - Confusion of Styles

In theory, Art Informel was the main umbrella movement, which encompassed numerous sub-styles and sub-groups, such as Forces Nouvelles, CoBrA, Tachisme, Art Brut, Art Non Figuratif and Lyrical Abstraction. All these schools were abstract or at least semi-abstract, all rejected geometric abstraction as well as naturalism and figurative genres. All sought to create a new and spontaneous style of painting unencumbered by past theory or present conventions. Notwithstanding all this, many abstract painters of the time were members of one or more of these sub-movements, and, as a result, it is almost impossible to authoritatively identify paintings which belong to each of these movements.

American Lyrical Abstraction (1960s, 1970s)

A movement which became known as Lyrical Abstraction emerged in America during the 1960s and 1970s, in response to the growth of Minimalism and Conceptual art. Numerous painters began moving away from geometric, precisionist-type, hard-edge, and minimalist styles, toward a more harmonious, more painterly style, employing rich sensuous colours. They aimed to re-establish aesthetic principles, rather than continue with a spontaneous socio-political iconography. This American form of Lyrical Abstraction is exemplified in works by Helen Frankenthaler (b.1928), and Jules Olitski (1922-2007), among others. An exhibition entitled "Lyrical Abstraction" was staged at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in May-July 1971.

During this period, however, there were a number of similar variations of second generation Abstract Expressionism (post-painterly abstraction). And while there were clear theoretical distinctions between (1) Colour Field Painting, (2) Hard Edge painting, (3) Colour Stain Painting and (4) Lyrical Abstraction, among others, these points of difference are by no means obvious to the naked eye.

Paintings by Lyrical Abstraction painters hang in the best art museums around the world.

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