Modern Art (1860s-1970s)

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ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Periods and Styles in Western Art >

It is impossible to say exactly when and where modern art began. The history of art is like a chain to which new links are always being added. Every link is attached to the link before it. For example, the many different styles of the 20th century are outgrowths of the styles used during the 19th century. In turn, 19th-century art developed from the styles of the previous century. If we were to trace the origins of modern art as far back as possible, we would find that it really began with the very first link in the chain--the rock scratchings of cavemen.


During the first half of the 19th century the artists of France--then the world's center of artistic activity--began to look for new ways to paint. The French Revolution was over, and the Industrial Revolution was under way. Many artists felt that the formal, classical pictures of such artists as Jacques Louis David (1748-1825) no longer expressed the spirit of the times. These young artists preferred the work of Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) and Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), who were known as romantics. The romantics painted dramatic pictures filled with bright, sometimes raw colors. The painters who admired romanticism thought that this informality and passion better expressed an age in which freedom and individuality had become very important.

Gustave Courbet (1819-77), a Frenchman, said that the aim of painting was to set without change what was seen by the human eye. He called himself a realist. Other artists who claimed to be searching for realism were puzzled by Courbet's statement, for the newly invented camera reproduced exactly what was seen by the eye. Was there no difference between a photograph and a painting? For an answer to that question, some French artists looked to the work of an Englishman, J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851). Turner sacrificed details in order to capture atmosphere. He felt that mist, fog, and light were as real in a scene as trees and water. Nature is ever changing, and Turner tried to suggest the changes that occur from hour to hour and season to season.

Around the middle of the century there were several groups and individual artists who were attempting to develop a realistic style. The painters of the French Barbizon school--so called because they worked in the town of Barbizon, south of Paris--went outdoors to paint. They hoped to capture the qualities of nature that were momentary, fleeting, and very real. In this they differed from Courbet, who painted pictures of peasants at work or relaxing. Courbet thought that paintings of day-to-day activities represented a peak of realism. Édouard Manet (1832-83) combined the ideas of Courbet and the Barbizon painters. He liked to depict the quality of a single moment, and his subject matter was often commonplace.


On April 15, 1874, a group of Paris artists opened an exhibition of 165 paintings. During the month-long show visitors crowded the gallery, but their opinion of the work was low. The most common reaction was laughter. One critic wrote a humorous article called "Exhibition of the Impressionists." This name, taken from Claude Monet's painting Impression: Sunrise, was meant to be sarcastic. Apparently the artists had no objection to it and began calling themselves impressionists.

Most of the impressionists were mature artists. Their exhibition had not been meant to startle or shock. Instead, its purpose was to display the kind of work that had been rejected from official exhibitions for years. The impressionists, after all, had been developing their approach for a long time. Painters like Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) and Claude Monet (1840-1926) had been experimenting with many techniques since before 1860.

Objects themselves were of little importance to the impressionists. The play of light over a surface, the discovery of hidden colors in shadows--these became the subject matter of impressionist paintings. The impressionists studied scientific color theory and tried to apply what they learned to their painting. If an object was supposed to be purple, they did not mix blue and red paint on their palette and then apply the paint to the canvas. Instead they painted the object with many small dabs of blue and red. The eye of the viewer mixed the color, making it appear purple.

Impressionism was not so "scientific" as the impressionists said it was. A painter named Georges Seurat (1859-91) invented a technique called pointillism. Seurat's canvases were painted entirely with tiny dots of colors, premixed according to formula. But most of the impressionists did not wish to paint according to formula. Thus, the works of the impressionists bear individual differences.

Impressionism is a kind of painting, but the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) is sometimes called an impressionist. Like the painters, he wanted to create surfaces that seemed alive. He accomplished this by modeling his surfaces with many distinct little planes. The planes catch and reflect light and make the surface almost appear to breathe.

Rodin was also interested in the space that his sculpture occupied. If a figure had its hands placed on its hips, the triangle of space between the arms and the body was, to him, as important a shape as the arms themselves.

Compared to painting, sculpture had been of little importance after the 17th century. It almost always had represented the human form in a classical manner. Soldiers and statesmen were shown in statues to look like Greek gods. Rodin gave new life to the nearly dead art. Trained in the academic tradition, he modeled naturalistic and dramatic figures. His talent was great and his influence strong. Though his work hardly looks revolutionary today, he revived the art of sculpture.


Although he was not an impressionist, Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was close to the group and took much from its style. Degas was a collector of Japanese prints. From these prints he learned a great deal about spacious compositions and sharp contrasts of simple shapes. Unlike the impressionists, he used black paint and drew hard edges. But his dancing colors were similar to those used by the impressionists.

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was influenced by impressionism and by the work of Degas. But he was not interested in a scientific formula of light. Gauguin liked the flat pattern effects suggested in the work of Degas. He simplified the human figure, treating it as part of an over-all pattern.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) loved the effects of shimmering light achieved by the impressionists. He concentrated on this effect, applying paint thickly, in large dabs, making his colors appear to swirl around or explode. The subject matter of his paintings seems to be light alone--its movement and its power.

Gauguin and Van Gogh, along with Seurat and sometimes Degas, are often included in a group called postimpressionists. This term has little meaning because the styles of these painters vary greatly. It does, however, indicate that their styles developed after the impressionists'.

Paul Cézanne

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) was about the same age as most of the impressionists. But in a discussion of art history Cézanne is always mentioned after the impressionists and after Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Seurat. Although he lived only until 1906, he is regarded as the first 20th-century artist.

Cézanne was impatient with impressionism. He thought that the impressionists had created a veil of pleasing color across the canvas without describing the solid forms of nature. In his paintings he tried to show that natural objects had structure and weight--that they were made of more than atmosphere. A landscape, a human body, and a basket of fruit were solid and real to Cézanne, and he was interested in their every surface, or plane.

In most of Cézanne's pictures there is little suggestion of depth. A tree in the foreground and a mountain in the background appear to be the same distance from the viewer's eye. He divided his objects into planes. A face, for example, would be painted according to its separate surfaces, with a different plane for the forehead, the cheeks, the nose, the chin, and so forth. Cézanne would make the face look solid by varying the amount of light that struck each plane and by varying his shading or brushstroke on each plane.

Cézanne was never fully appreciated when he was alive. He was not an impressionist (though many of his friends were). He desired public recognition, but he died feeling that he had failed. In 1907, a year after his death, a memorial exhibition of his work was held in Paris. Its effect was startling, as we shall see.


For the Autumn Salon of 1905—the official exhibition of the French Academy of Art--the Academy jury accepted the works of five painters whose styles had certain things in common. Henri Matisse (1869-1954), André Derain (1880-1954), Albert Marquet (1875-1947), Georges Rouault (1871-1958), and Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958) painted with bright, rich colors. Their pictures contained only the barest suggestion that they depicted natural scenes. Colors were pure and flat. Very little shading was employed.

The Academy decided to display the pictures of the five artists in one room, apart from the rest of the Salon. One critic, after visiting the exhibition, called the five painters fauves ("wild beasts").

The fauves learned about color theories from the impressionists. From Van Gogh and Gauguin they learned to use color boldly. From Cézanne they learned how to make separate forms appear solid. They placed complementary colors next to one another, making the canvas seem to vibrate.

Matisse was the greatest painter of the fauve group. Strongly influenced by Cézanne, he continued working with flat, pure colors in patterns. Throughout his long career he produced a tremendous number of pictures and much fine sculpture.


The early years of the 20th century were exciting ones. Modern science was exploring everything, replacing superstitions with facts. In all areas of life there were reactions against illusions of any kind. Moreover, the new science of anthropology revealed much about the relationship between art and civilization. By studying so-called primitive societies, the anthropologists realized that art was more than just decoration: it was an important part of life.

Two young painters in Paris were very much aware of the scientific discoveries of their day. The Frenchman Georges Braque (1882-1963) and his Spanish-born friend Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) were interested in African sculpture. They found the simple shapes and sharp contrasts beautiful, and they began to develop a new style influenced by African work. Then, they attended the Cézanne exhibition of 1907. Greatly impressed, they returned to the studio they shared to experiment. Within the year, they developed cubism, a style of painting that dominated art until World War II.

The cubists saw no reason why they should paint a subject from just one view. After all, there are countless ways to look at something. Just as Cézanne had done, they divided their subjects according to planes. But instead of showing only the visible side, they tried to suggest all the sides at once. It was almost as though they had smashed their subjects to bits, put all the pieces on a flat board, and then painted what they saw.

In their early cubist paintings Braque and Picasso used only pale, grayish colors applied in small, even dabs. These neutral colors prevented any part of the picture from appearing to come forward or go backward. Later the cubists began using larger areas of brighter colors. Braque remained within the framework of cubism, experimenting and perfecting, until his death in 1963. Picasso has moved on to other things, working in countless styles.

Cubism, by nature, was very influential in the development of the sculpture of the period. The idea of simplifying a shape into its basic planes and forms was, in fact, a sculptural idea. Picasso did a great deal of three-dimensional work within the cubist framework of ideas.

The cubist idea of collage (the gluing of paper, cloth, or other materials to a surface) was soon developed into the school of constructivism—the building of sculpture out of ready-made pieces of shaped materials. Picasso did quite a lot of sculpture using construction as his method.

Sculpture that is constructed, rather than modeled or cut from a block, makes wider use of space shapes than the more traditional type of work. This consciousness of space developed into a new form of sculpture. In the work of sculptors like Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973) the whole piece is actually a network of empty spaces and solid forms.

Futurism in Italy

Until World War II, Paris remained the art capital of the world. But experiments in art had spread throughout Europe. In Italy, around 1910, a short-lived but important modern movement developed. It was called futurism, and the artists who developed it wanted to express the speed, progress, and even the violence of modern life.

The futurists, led by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) and the painter Giacomo Balla (1871-1958), were enthusiastic about such modern developments as motion pictures, the airplane, and mechanical weapons. They were actually looking forward to the mechanized war that seemed to be coming. They wanted their art to capture the speed and violence of the new century. They drew objects on their canvases with flowing, overlapping lines, trying to show how things move in ever shifting light.

Futurism lasted until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Then the war upset the whole scheme of life and the natural development of modern art in Europe.

The futurist artist Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) was one of the first artists to use space shapes in sculpture. He did this by imitating a natural object in reverse. That is, he would often include a hollowed-out space where one would expect a full, rounded form. A nose, for example, might cut back into the head rather than project from it.

Another method used by futurist sculptors was to exaggerate space in order to give the illusion of movement. For example, the stride of a walking figure would be extended beyond the natural to make it seem as if the figure were really walking.

German Expressionism

The fauves in France had counterparts in Germany. In 1905 several young painters in Dresden rented a studio together and formed a group called Die Brücke ("The Bridge"). The most famous of the group are Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) and Emil Nolde (1867-1956). In their paintings they wanted to express their passion for life. They felt that the brightness and darkness of their colors and their generous brushwork could express their innermost feelings.

By 1911 the Bridge group had moved to Berlin. They held exhibitions at the gallery of a magazine, Der Sturm ("The Attack"). A year later another group of painters began to exhibit at Der Sturm gallery. Calling itself Der Blaue Reiter ("The Blue Rider"), this group had begun in Munich in southern Germany. The founders were Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Franz Marc (1880-1916).

Kandinsky was a Russian who was strongly influenced by the folk art of his homeland. He came to believe that the strength of all art lay in colors and shapes. He abstracted objects to their simplest forms, and soon no one could identify any natural objects in his paintings. Thus, from 1910 to 1914 he painted the first really abstract works of the 20th century.

Another important Blue Rider artist was Paul Klee (1879-1940). Usually small watercolors, the pictures of this Swiss-born painter are not totally abstract. But his simple figures resemble those that children draw. Although Klee's subject matter is frequently frivolous or fantastic, his pictures are carefully constructed, beautifully painted, and highly sophisticated. Klee is one of the few modern masters whose work is admired universally. His paintings appeal to artists of all modern schools.


In 1912 the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) met Picasso in Paris and discovered cubism. He was enthusiastic and returned to Russia to start a similar movement. The cubists had broken down objects and simplified them to geometric shapes. Malevich's work emphasized only the geometry itself. With the circle, rectangle, triangle, or square he felt that he could suggest any form in the world. One of Malevich's most famous pictures, White on White, is simply a white square placed on an angle within the square of the canvas.

Malevich called his style suprematism because geometric forms were regarded as the simplest and therefore the most pure, or supreme, shapes. His followers, however, changed the name to constructivism.

The brothers Naum Gabo (1890-1977) and Antoine Pevsner (1886-1962) are the best known of the constructivist sculptors. The work of these Russian artists was an outgrowth of the cubist construction, but it relied more on the laws of mathematics and geometry. Whereas cubist work was often expressionistic or emotional in character, the constructivists tried to keep their sculpture as impersonal and scientific as possible.

During the war years (1914-18) a movement was developing in the Netherlands. Its ideas were similar to those of Malevich. Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) and Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) started a magazine called De Stijl ("The Style"). For more than 11 years they published their ideas about art. They influenced industrial designers and architects as well as painters.

Mondrian's neoplasticism was an attempt to remove art from the world of natural forms. He said that geometric forms were the only pure ones—the only fully manageable, or plastic, forms in painting. He divided his rectangular white canvas with black lines, drawn up and down or straight across; there were no diagonals. The lines crossed and formed squares and rectangles, which Mondrian sometimes painted with primary colors—red, yellow, and blue. Thus he produced pictures that were perfectly orderly, with the simplest possible shapes and colors. His idea was the opposite of the futurists'. Instead of capturing the speed and violence of life, Mondrian wanted to describe orderliness.


The outbreak of World War I had different effects on the artists of the period. Some artists fought in the war; others continued working in the styles they had developed in the decade before the war. A group of artists from all over Europe protested against the social ills of the time. Meeting in Switzerland—a neutral country—they created work that was anti-war, anti-modern life, and, indeed, anti-art. This group called their art dada because the word had nothing to do with anything—it was pure nonsense.

The dadaists wrote nonsense poetry in which the words were gobbledygook, and they created nonsense objects. For example, Man Ray (1890-1976) attached carpet tacks to the bottom of an iron and exhibited it. Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) exhibited a printed reproduction of the Mona Lisa on which he had painted a moustache. When they held exhibitions, the dadaists sometimes encouraged the public to destroy some of their displays. This was their reaction to the new civilization of the 20th century. They thought that governments had become insane and art too serious.

The dadaists set out to make fun of—or even destroy—art, but they failed. They failed because while trying to destroy art they created it. They used the cubist collage to put all kinds of objects together. They pasted together drawings, photographs, buttons, advertisements, rubbish—anything at all.

Many people found the antics of the dadaists foolish, insane, vulgar, and destructive. Nevertheless, new territories of modern art were being opened. Dada forced people to re-examine their opinions of what is ugly and what is beautiful. It forced them to look carefully at everything—even objects that were not supposed to be art. For example, the dada artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) made some of the most admired collages of the period out of ticket stubs, candy wrappers, matchbooks, and similar materials.

One of the most important ideas to develop out of the dada movement was automatism—the automatic production of art. This meant that whatever came into the artist's mind was used as part of the work of art. Dada poets, for example, would write down any words that formed in their minds, regardless of how nonsensical these words seemed. Dada painters would draw the first shapes or objects that appeared to them.


The only style of any importance to develop in the years following World War I was surrealism. This style, an outgrowth of dada, became the most important art movement in Europe during the late 1920's and 1930's. Many artists who were not members of the movement were strongly influenced by it during this period—even Pablo Picasso, the cubist painter.

Many of those who were very important in the dada movement—such as the French writer André Breton (1896-1966) and the German-born painter Max Ernst (1891-1976)—were also the founders of surrealism. This new school combined the dada idea of automatism (free and automatic painting) with the psychology of Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that people's real thoughts were hidden in their unconscious minds and in their dreams. He felt that to understand people you must search their dreams. Only dreams are clear. Daytime life is too full of outside events to be understood.

The surrealists believed that the artist should try to understand this world of dreams. They felt that the job of the artist was to show this unconscious world through his work. Obviously they could not paint while asleep. They believed the next best thing was to let the imagination wander and to paint whatever happened to come to mind.

Probably the most important of the surrealist artists was Max Ernst. Not only was he one of the founders of the movement, but he was also a great innovator, developing new ideas in collage. He invented the technique called frottage (texture rubbings). Ernst worked mostly with the idea of automatism, allowing his imagination complete freedom. He often painted or pasted objects next to one another that had no apparent reason for being together. They were placed in this position as an automatic action.

Max Ernst also worked quite often in sculpture, using the same theory of automatism in this medium. Some of the work he did was modeled from clay, using strange and imaginative forms, while other pieces were constructed of ready-made objects in a collagelike technique.

Another very important artist of this period was Joan Miró (1893-1983), who was born in Spain. Although Miró developed no new techniques, his paintings are good examples of surrealism. Completely forgetting the real world, his mind invented humorous abstract paintings made of colorful and unusual forms.

Working a great deal in sculpture, mostly as construction, Jean (Hans) Arp (1887-1966) also was influential as a surrealist artist. Like Miró, Arp created abstract works, using automatism as a means of freeing his imagination and allowing his unconscious mind full reign. Arp's work was based on simple shapes, often symbolic or suggestive of living forms.

A very important surrealist sculptor is Alberto Giacometti (1901-66), who was born in Switzerland. Some of Giacometti's work seems to use space as its only subject matter. His sculpture often consists of a group of sticklike figures standing on a flat surface. Because the figures are so simple, it becomes obvious to the viewer that the space between them is important. The effect of these strange pieces of sculpture is often eerie and dreamlike.

There were some artists who took an entirely different approach to surrealism; among this group were the Spanish painter Salvador Dali (1904-89), French-born Yves Tanguy (1900-55), and an Italian, Giorgio di Chirico (1888-1978). These artists believed in a more literary approach to surrealism. They tried to illustrate dreams the way one would illustrate a story, using symbolic images. Tanguy and di Chirico were very popular during their own period but did not have a great influence on later artists.

Modern Art in the United States

In 1913 an international exhibition of modern art was held in a large armory (military building) in New York City. The Armory Show, as it came to be called, gave the public its first glimpse of some of the important European art movements. And it had a strong influence on American art. During World War I, New York became an active center for modern art. Young artists there came into daily contact with the latest art movements.

In the 1920's, United States artists became convinced that modern art could make a better world. They modeled their art on the highly refined style of the constructivists, and they called for art that associated itself with technology and progress.

During the Depression of the 1930's, when artists found it difficult to support themselves, the U.S. Government provided projects for thousands of artists. As a result, the public became much more aware of modern art.

At the start of this period, in 1929, one of the country's major museums—the Museum of Modern Art in New York City—was founded. During the 1930's and 1940's, the Museum of Modern Art expanded its collection and did much to help people understand the importance of modern art and design. Today the museum has the most important collection of modern art in the world.

Many artists escaped the beginnings of war in Europe during this time. They fled to New York City to live and work. As a result of their activities and the activities of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City became the center of modern art.

Abstract Expressionism
During World War II, a significant new style of modern art developed. It became known as the New York school. Arshile Gorky (1904-48), Willem de Kooning (1904-97), Mark Rothko (1903-70), Jackson Pollock (1912-56), and Franz Kline (1919-62) were among the most important painters of this school. They combined abstraction with emphasis on the expressive quality of paint as it is applied to canvas. Pollock became famous for paintings on which he dripped, swirled, spattered, and pushed the paint in many directions. To do this, he spread the canvas on the floor. His paintings had the look of being unplanned, even though they were carefully planned and controlled. Because Pollock and others valued the action of painting so highly, their work was called action painting. The style was known as abstract expressionism because it consisted of expressively created abstract forms.

Significant new forms of sculpture also were being developed in the United States. Alexander Calder (1898-1976) and David Smith (1906-65) were the two most important sculptors during this time.

Calder developed the mobile—a construction or sculpture with parts that are delicately balanced and move freely in space. Later came his stabiles. These are abstract sculptures somewhat like mobiles but stationary. They influenced the form of all outdoor sculpture.

David Smith was a highly productive artist who tried to move modern sculpture in the direction of painting. His early works were welded abstractions that were clearly influenced by cubism and surrealism. His later works were simpler and larger pieces, but they were just as complex in their meaning.

Pop Art and Minimal Art
In the 1960's, many artists felt that abstract expressionism was too specialized to appeal to the general public. As a result, pop art ("popular art") came into being. It went back to everyday subject matter and methods. The artists felt that this was a better way for modern art to mirror U.S. society. Jasper Johns (1930-) made careful easel paintings of the United States flag, and Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) created "combine" paintings. In these, he combined pieces of junk that he found on New York City streets. Andy Warhol (1928-87) turned out multiple copies of paintings based on subjects featured in newspapers and advertisements, such as motion picture stars and cans of Campbell's tomato soup. Marisol (Marisol Escobar) (1930- ) and Louise Nevelson (1900-88) used everyday things or "found objects" to create their sculpture. The observer had to view the subjects, as well as the process of art itself, in a new way.

Some artists objected to the direction that pop art was taking. They felt that the relation between art and the modern world would be better expressed if abstraction was refined and simplified. These feelings were expressed in a kind of art called minimal art ("minimal" means "the least possible"). It made use mainly of simple geometric forms executed in an impersonal style. The paintings of Frank Stella (1936-) and the sculpture of Donald Judd (1928-94) looked simple. Yet they were highly complicated in their meanings. Viewers had to bring their own meanings to these works and wonder what the artist intended. One of minimal art's most important influences on contemporary art was the artists' willingness to join art more closely with an appreciation of beauty. They were concerned with how a simple geometric shape looked in different lights and colors. They wanted to create a more satisfactory means of communication through the use of abstraction.

Conceptual Art
One of the more recent developments in modern art was the concept that the idea of a work of art is more important than the finished product. Sol Lewitt (1928-2007) illustrated this development in his many-lined wall drawings and his modular structures.

Artists went on to include the process of thinking out, or acting upon, the idea. They called it conceptual art, or "idea art." The result was a breaking down of boundaries among all the arts. Artists now convey ideas through performance, theater, music, dance, video, and photography as well as painting, drawing, and sculpture. All of this has revealed a richer field of artistic expression and a new emphasis on variety and complexity. Modern art, as ever, is fully in step with modern life.

Reviewed by Richard W. Ireland
Maryland Institute College of Art
Patrick Stewart
Williams College

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