Is Modern Art Actually All that Modern?

Modern Art Movement is considered to have spanned the end of the 1800s until the 1960s.

If you assumed that Modern Art referred to recent or new art, you wouldn’t be alone. Some work from as early as the mid-1800s is considered Modern Art. As with all art movements, there is some overlap, and different movements developed simultaneously. The lines can be blurry. To simplify it, the Modern Art Movement is considered to have spanned the end of the 1800s until the 1960s. The artists or artworks to have marked the beginning of Modern Art is widely debated. More accurately, it was a progression of changes that saw artists move away from the traditional and begin experimenting with new forms of art. 

Before the 19th century, most artists were commissioned by wealthy patrons or institutions like the church. Many were individual or family portraits or were supposed to tell a story to teach the audience. The idea was to depict the world and its people realistically, but beauty was valued more than realism, and subjects were usually idealized and painted to perfection. Religious and mythical symbolism abounded. Technique was paramount, and there was little experimentation with material, form, or subject. The patron’s wishes usually eclipsed the artist’s creativity. 

“Painting is the representation of visible forms. The essence of realism is its negation of the ideal.” (Gustave Courbet)

The first move towards modernism was a change in subject, from wealthy patrons and mythical or religious scenes to capturing the essence of everyday life. Ordinary people started to appear in paintings. French artist Gustave Courbet rocked the art world with his paintings of everyday scenes. He painted his subjects with stark realism, imperfections and all. He used his art to champion the peasants of his hometown. His response to the political upheavals in France in his lifetime left him exiled in Switzerland, where he later died. Courbet was initially ostracized for his work but later gained recognition. This pattern of initial disdain followed by fame would be repeated for many artists of the Modernist era. 

Alphonse Legros’s Le Repas de Pauvres (1877) depicts a group of poor men sharing a modest meal in a dark room. As with Courbet and several other artists of his time, he began to depict social realism and drew attention to poverty and the hardship of the working class. Their work would lead to the movement that would later be called Realism. 

“We form a group and make noise because there are lots of painters about, and one is easily overlooked. When we get together ... we gain strength in numbers and grow more adventurous.” (Henri-Fantin Latour)

Mid 19th century Paris was the epicenter for European art. Many artists ran in the same circles and influenced each other’s work so it’s impossible who influenced who. Alphonse Legros, Henri-Fantin Latour, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler formed a trio and collaborated closely. Legros spent time in Corbet’s studio. Latour exhibited with the likes of Cézanne, Whistler, Pissarro, and Manet, at the famous Salon des Refusés, an exhibition that was instrumental in introducing the Impressionists. It’s impossible to say who was the first to introduce each movement, although many art historians have their arguments to support one artist or another. Many artists played with different styles and bridged Realism, Impressionism, and Post- Impressionism within their lifetimes.  

“A painter is revealing something which no one has ever seen before and translates it into the absolute concepts of painting. That is, into something other than reality.” (Paul Cezzane)

It’s hard to imagine how radical artists like Monet, Manet, Cezzane, and Van Gough were for their times. Modern Art was a move away from the traditional subject matter but also the perspectives that artists were mainly restricted to previously. Following the Realist movement, which removed many traditional constraints placed on artists, the Impressionists emerged. Artists began to paint what they saw, thought, and felt. Rather than a precise depiction, they sought to give an impression of what they saw and felt at the time. Most notably, they began creating ‘art for art’s sake.’ Although the term comes from a French slogan from the early 19th century, the Impressionists really began to embody this philosophy. 

Initially, the public was resistant to this new form of art. The French art societies rejected them, and so artists set up their own exhibitions. The particular styles may have varied, but criticism was what brought these artists together. 

Some art historians consider Edward Manet as the first modern artist. He painted scenes that did not try to appear ‘real.’ This movement away from trying to represent the outside world as it actually is led to a variety of movements that come under the arch of Modern Art.

Vincent Van Gogh is often referred to as the father of post-Impressionism. Like many of his contemporaries, he was underappreciated during his lifetime, but the Dutch painter has since become one of the most important and well-known figures in Modern Art. Post-Impressionists pushed back against the lack of form in impressionist paintings. Their subjects became more lifelike, but their color palettes and backgrounds retained an impressionist aesthetic. 

Fauvism came about in the early 1900s, with artists such as Henri Matisse and André Derain. Vivid colors and intense brushstrokes characterize their work. The pair worked together on an exhibition in 1905. Their bold colors and the simplicity of their forms made their work appear rather abstract and quite before their time. 

Around 1907, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque developed Cubism. They brought different perspectives of the same subject into one painting, creating an abstract depiction. Probably following the influence of Cezzane, but also Picasso’s interest in African and primitive Spanish art, they used geometric shapes to represent images. Over time, the figures became more abstract, moving even further away from traditional forms of painting.

While Cubism was rising in France, Futurism was emerging in Italy. In 1909, when Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published his Manifesto di Futurism, Italy was feeling the weight of its classic artistic past. Futurist painting combined elements of neo-impressionism and Cubism to create art that expressed the idea of the dynamic energy of ‘modern’ life.

Dadaism emerged after 1915, in reaction to World War I and in defiance of the logic of previous art movements. Dadaist artists expressed their anger towards violence and created work that seemed illogical at the time. This was undoubtedly a predecessor of the political, contemporary work that was to come in later decades.

From the Dada movement, many years later, emerged Surrealism. “Surrealism’s goal was to liberate thought, language, and human experience from the oppressive boundaries of rationalism.” Scenes were often illogical and unnerving. Paintings like Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory depict an unrealistic dreamscape. At the time, surrealist artists were perceived as almost absurd. Dali almost certainly was. In 1936, he appeared at a lecture in London dressed in Scuba gear. Partly through the lecture, he couldn’t breathe through his scuba helmet and needed rescuing. Nevertheless, Dali continued his lecture, with his accompanying slides, unsparingly, upside-down.  

The Industrial Revolution was one of the most crucial turning points in world history. And so it was for the art world. It changed the way people moved around the globe, and artists began to develop broader world views. After Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, many artists became interested in symbolism and the subconscious and began to explore the idea of personal identity through art. Artists such as Frida Kahlo used art as a vessel to explore her identity and work through personal experiences. 

Modern artists began to explore the idea of symbolism, abstraction, dreams, and personal iconography at the same time as photography, collage, and screen printing entered the art world. As photographic technology advanced, any landscape or portrait could be reproduced flawlessly, leaving the classical and portrait painters virtually obsolete. No artist could recreate a scene as accurately as a photograph! And so, artists needed to get creative with the ways they expressed their subjects. 

Russian painter, Wassily Kandinsky, is often applauded as the innovator of Abstract art. Abstract art is that which does not attempt to depict reality. Instead, it uses shapes, forms, and colors to create a feeling or effect. Abstract art, stylistically, built on the movements of Surrealism, Dadaism, Cubism, and Fauvism.

American Artist Jackson Pollock was a major player in the abstract-expressionist movement. He was one of the few who bridged the gap between modern and contemporary painters. He is famous for his drip paintings. He would drip or fling watered down paint onto his canvases that were laid down on his studio floor. He showed zero interest in classical technique, and the subject of his work was mostly ambiguous. 

From Realism to Cubism and the many styles in between, the link between the Modern Era artists was their innovation. They often offended the traditional state-run academies, and upper-class critics often saw their art as lewd and offensive. Many artists of the time did not fit neatly into a particular category. In addition to the time period, the common thread was their disregard for the constraints of ‘high art’ and a spirit of experimentation. 

After Pollock died in 1956, Allan Kaprow wrote in Art News that Pollock “left us at the point where we must become preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life…these, I am sure, will be the alchemies of the 1960s.” This prophecy was realized when the likes of Andy Warhol introduced us to Pop Art which, along with Pollock’s abstract pieces, would mark the transition between Modern and Contemporary Art.