What is modern art?

When people use the phrase “Modern Art”, to what are they referring?

Modern art is a term without any clear-cut definition, but it essentially refers to the period of time between the 1860s and the 1970s when the open-minded, free-thinking, come-all attitude of contemporary art we enjoy today was incubated.

Modern art is in many ways inextricably linked to the modernisation of the Western world during the Industrial Revolution which commenced around the middle of the 18th century. This period of rapid technological expansion and innovation created and influenced many elements of modern urban life from an economic, political, cultural and social standpoint. As new forms of transportation and communication were invented, people were now able to travel more easily, exchange ideas and expose themselves to other ways of living and thinking. This had a huge effect on how people saw the world and themselves, perhaps on no group of people more than artists.

Up until that time, (in the Western world) the vision and output of artists had been dominated for centuries by the church and wealthy patrons were paintings either depicted religious scenes or flattered the vanity in polished portraits of those who could afford to have themselves rendered in pigment. As modern life evolved and with it independent thinking, many artists started to base their work on their own thoughts, feelings and impulses– using their personal experiences as material and prioritising a sense of individual expression.

As Modern Art is an enormous, sprawling topic and many of the movements and artists who created them blur into each other, we are going to focus on a few of the prominent movements and artists who contributed to their creation. 

Impressionism, 1865 – 1885 

With the advent of photography in 1839 and its subsequent rise in popularity, painting could no longer compete with its realistic depictions of the world. This is regarded as one of the contributing factors to the birth of Impressionism, which like all points on the timeline of art history isn’t without its precursors, such as painters Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet who started to break with conventions and are considered late figureheads of the Realism Movement.

Similar to Realism, the French Impressionists worked from their own experience of landscapes and urban environments but actively challenged academic attitudes that painting had to realistically depict reality, instead focusing more on the overall atmosphere or impression of a scene. The Impressionists worked outside (en plein air) away from their studios and radically for the time, made no attempt to hide the brushes’ presence on the surface. They prioritised a sense of light, the time of day and season using thick energetic marks, vivid colours and high contrast to create stunning paintings which at the time sent shockwaves through the conventional art world– and was rejected by many as vulgar and lacking in basic drawing ability.

Artists: Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Auguste Renoir, Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas.

Mexican artists: Francisco Romano Guillemin, Joaquín Clausell

Post-Impressionism, 1886 – 1905

The Post-Impressionists (a term coined in retrospect in 1910) were less of a defined group and more a cluster of artists who expanded on some of the ideals of Impressionism (the continued use of expressive marks and painting from life) whilst reacting against some of their values– namely a rejection of their preoccupation with a natural portrayal of light and environment. The Post-Impressionists embraced robust geometric shapes, distorted perspectives and unnatural colours whilst exploring something more of their individual visions and emotional states (of themselves and their sitters).

Spearheaded by Cezanne (who both Picasso and Matisse considered the Father of Modern painting) Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, the Post-Impressionists were amongst the most seminal painters in the Western canon and were the forefathers of both Fauvism and Cubism, movements whose members went on to really redefine painting as we now know it today.

Fauvism, 1905 – 1910

Fauvism emerged in France in 1905 with the now iconic artist Henri Matisse at the helm. The term was appropriated from “les fauves” (the wild beasts), the somewhat derogatory description French art critic Louis Vauxcelles used to describe the works when he first came into contact with them at the 1905 Salon d’Automne in Paris.

For a relatively short movement of only 5 years, Fauvism and its members went on to leave a disproportionate mark on the history of art. Their work was distinguished by bold, unrealistic and at times almost garish colour combinations (often straight from the tube), reduced figuration, simplified forms and an emphasis on intensity over realism. These characteristics shocked audiences and were used in an attempt to portray images with a sense of immediacy, imbued with the emotional life of the subjects and the painters themselves.

Cubism, 1907 – 1920

Pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, one could argue Cubism was the avant-garde painting movement that truly cracked open painting, in ways that had never been seen or even imagined before. Cubism truly revolutionised the way in which painters perceived the potential to represent reality, by completely letting go of and reimagining traditional pictorial concepts of shape and perspective into deconstructed, abstract and cascading repeating structures. Key approaches of the Cubists included muted palettes to emphasise form, and the way in which they depicted their subject matter from various perspectives on the same surface, in an effort to characterise and perceive the subject in a broader context.

Cubism owes a debt to both Paul Cézanne’s vision and Picasso’s fascination with African art, which had already been stylising and rearranging figurative forms for thousands of years. The Cubists expanded on their influences, and in doing so literally offered a new way of seeing and decoding the world around us into paintings, laying a deconstructed platform for the unravelling of creativity and originality in art over the following decades. 

DaDa / Surrealism, 1915-1950s

Da-Da was a group of European artists founded by German writer Hugo Ball who were roused into action, horrified by the tragedy of WWI. In response, they created a collective of artists working with literary, visual and sound media, who sought to completely reject logic, reason, aesthetics, nationalism and capitalism, in favour of absurdism, irrationality and unfiltered expression. Eventually, DaDa’ism more or less collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity and lack of cohesive direction. As the dust settled, some of its fringe members led by French writer Andre Breton established a new philosophical movement and way of responding to the world with the publication of the “Manifesto of Surrealism” in 1924.   

The Surrealists were heavily affected by Sigmund Freud’s book “The Interpretation of Dreams” in 1899 which exposed the world to new ideas about the influence of the subconscious mind on our behaviour and creativity. Surrealism eventually became one of the most consequential artistic movements in history thanks to the celebrity of some of its members such as Salvador Dali and René Magritte. The Surrealists worked across painting, literature, film, photography and sculpture and embraced the irrational elements of the human mind, championing ideas of automatic art (spontaneous mark-making without self-censorship or conscious control), and the use of dreams as a source of creativity. All of which resulted in their hallmark aesthetic of bizarre, fantastical, sexual, violent and sometimes unsettling imagery that actively contradicted the logic of our everyday reality, in an effort to unearth hidden meanings and symbolism buried deep in our psyches.

Other notable Surrealists:, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Man Ray

Mexican Surrealists: Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, Pedro Friedberg, Rufino Tamayo, Kati Horna, Alice Rahon

Abstract Expressionism, 1940s – 1950s

Abstract Expressionism emerged in post-World War II 1940s New York, which had become the centre of the art world after the devastation of European cities led to a mass migration of Europe’s intelligentsia. The dawn of Abstract Expressionism symbolises the moment that painting started to arrive at the last stops on the road of aesthetic evolution. Spearheaded by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, this movement was a revolutionary artistic schism where all the previous breakthroughs of Modern Art coagulated and then violently erupted. Now, paintings no longer had to resemble any object, person, place or thing, in short: they didn’t have to look like anything anyone had seen before.

At the time America was still under the restriction of artistic censorship– abstract art was seen as a way of subverting these policies which suited the climate of “intellectual rebelliousness”, where aesthetic values were being redefined, and abstract art was considered by some as a purer means of expression. Paintings were now seen less as pictures and more as records of physical events where the emphasis was placed on process, material experimentation, automatic movements, colour relationships and the ways in which subconscious psychological states could manifest themselves on the surface of a non-representational painting– and then project and implant themselves into the emotional world of the viewer.

Canvases came off the walls and onto the floor, paint was now thrown, splattered, brushed, dropped, mixed, smeared, scraped and manipulated in every way imaginable. With no real guiding principle other than the pursuit of freedom, exploration and the elicitation of a visceral response, styles between the artists drastically differed as they each pursued their own visual languages. In doing so they completely broke open, revolutionised and redefined the potential of painting for all those who followed in their footsteps, present-day artists very much included.