The History Of Video Game Art In Reverse

The main hallway of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City is a spiral. When you walk through it, ascending several flights in the process, paintings all to your right, you get the sense of walking through an artistic history.

Last week I visited the museum to see an exhibition of the life's work of early 20th century painter Vasily Kandinsky. And a thought struck me — a video game thought as my thoughts often are — that in walking along the museum's ascending spiral, past this great artist's works I was seeing something in reverse.

I felt like I was walking backward through gaming's graphical history.

I was seeing an artist start his career with works that somewhat literally depicted the real world and then develop his craft toward an aesthetic of abstraction. In other words, I saw an artist progress by going in the opposite direction as the supposed "evolution" of video game graphics.

The Guggenheim has an online exhibition of Kandinsky's work. I've pulled a few images from there to illustrate the point. Here's Kandinsky early in his career, in 1907,with a painting called Riding Couple:

The History Of Video Game Art In Reverse

The painting isn't exactly realistic, but as I walked further through the exhibit I saw this, which was painted a year later. It's called Blue Mountain:

The History Of Video Game Art In Reverse

By 1911, he's painting like this:

The History Of Video Game Art In Reverse

And by 1924, as seen in this painting called One Center, he's developed the style of abstraction for which he became famous.

The History Of Video Game Art In Reverse

The painting atop this post, Composition 8, is another example of how abstract Kandinsky's work became.

There are plenty of painters who developed their style differently. Not all veered toward abstraction. But walking past Kandinsky's life's work, walking through it chronologically, watching the development of his style and interests, I couldn't help but think I was seeing the "progress" of video game graphics in reverse.

On the lowest level, at Kandinsky's earliest work, I saw the closest things in the exhibition to a Gears of War or God of War.

At the top of my spiral journey, I saw Pac-Mans and Centipedes.

It made me think about the drive for realistic graphics. It made me think of the priorities that have propelled video game graphics. It made me think about the outliers, the rare modern games with retro graphics such as Pictobits (UPDATE: or Rez, which our Michael McWhertor notes was inspired by Kandinsky's work). It made me wonder where gaming's Kandinskys are or if we already had them 20 or 30 years ago and their time has past.

It made me wonder: Has gaming been leaving abstract art behind from day one?

(Images in this post are from the Guggenheim's site. I recommend you check out the online exhibition. New Yorkers, the show runs through January 13)