Shanna loves 20th century art and also loves writing about it!
20th Century Art Movements
The 20th century was one of particular worldwide upheaval, ranging from wars to economic downturns to radical political movements. No one can disagree that the years between 1900 and 2000 were years of extreme change for artists worldwide.
These changes were boldly reflected in the works of avant-garde artists throughout the century. Classical art was being challenged more and more as waves of nationalism and imperialism spread over the world in the early half of the twentieth century.
Artists explored extreme and varying themes in the years before and after World War I. Those same themes were revisited in the aftermath of World War II, creating an interesting parallel.
This article is divided into two sections: 1900–1945 and 1945–2000, and focuses on art themes that captured the talents and ideas of some of the most well-known artists around the world.
Neo-Expressionism and Feminism
Fauvism and Expressionism
By the turn of the century, artists were rapidly making their departure from more classical works and were seeking to express themselves through different means.
Fauvism was the short-lived name for the longer-lasting art movement called Expressionism. From about 1905 to 1910, artists sought to explore emotions in new ways, employing the use of bright, vivid colors and emotional images and subjects.
This movement is most known for capturing the creations of such famous artists as Henri Matisse. The Fauvism movement eventually faded into the calmer, more thoughtful expressionistic art as Fauvism—which came from the word Fauves meaning wild beasts—lost popularity. The short movement characterized the years between 1904 and 1908 but engaged much of the first decade of the 1900s.
Cubism and Primitivism
Pioneered by Pablo Picasso, Cubism sought to deepen the consideration that expressionist artists had created by rendering objects and ideas from different angles, seeking to break up and analyze things. Primitivism was similar by extension and was influenced by American colonization and exploration in the early 1900s.
Featuring collages and works made of many different mediums, Cubism and Primitivism explored the human relationship with the mundane and extraordinary and were characterized by their analytic and synthetic qualities.
This art movement was also relatively short and reached its height in the years between 1907 and 1911, extending and intermingling with the Futurism movement. However, art scholars agree it had reached the end of its lifetime by 1919.
One of the lesser known art movements, Futurism, did not produce any works of art that are still widely known by the world today. However, Futurism was an important political tool used by artists in the years leading up to World War I. In fact, some scholars believe the unrest associated with the Futurism movement may have served as propaganda for World War I.
The movement advocated societal revolution and changes in the way art was made and produced. Largely an Italian movement, the Futurism movement featured growing unrest and unhappiness with the economic climate that was producing larger separations between the working and upper classes.
Futurism provided fuel for the later Dada movement, despite its lack of fame and longevity; the Futurism movement was over by the end of World War I.
By the end of World War I, artists realized that the Futurism movement was not the answer to their problems. World War I left artists disillusioned, angry, and bitter across the world. Their art was irrational, and their ideas radically departed from centuries of art forms.
The Dada movement espoused strange and revolutionary ideals, as they explained in one of their many art manifestos:
"Dada Knows everything. Dada spits on everything. Dada has no fixed ideas. Dada does not catch flies. Dada is bitterness laughing at everything that has been accomplished, sanctified....Dada is never right... No more painters, no more writers, no more religions, no more royalists, no more anarchists, no more socialists, no more politics, no more airplanes, no more urinals...Like everything in life, Dada is useless, everything happens in a completely idiotic way...We are incapable of treating seriously any subject whatsoever, let alone this subject: ourselves.
The art produced during the Dada movement was fascinating in the abstract principles and ideas it sought to portray. Some call it "anti-art," and some claim it is not art at all because the creators did not consider it as such. Often the artists of the Dada era sought to mock more classical and conventional artists, as Marcel Duchamp did when he submitted an old urinal to an art museum as a piece of work.
Dada was the final explosion of the Futurism movement and gave way to surrealism by 1924.
The anger after World War I gradually faded and was replaced by Surrealism, a longer-lasting art movement that explored the human psyche. Pioneered by such artists as Salvador Dali, the Surrealism movement followed in the footsteps of many leading psychologists of the day in discovering dreams and exploring what made reality real.
Characterized by strange paintings and dream-like qualities, the art of the Surrealism movement is fascinating to look at and study today and is reminiscent of some of our strangest dreams and ideas. Surrealism was the return to a calmer art movement that sought to dig deeper into human consciousness, emotion, and preference instead of overturning it.
Many art scholars argue that all art has its roots in propaganda or religious ideas. While this sweeping generalization is still debated today, it is obvious that some art is indeed used first and foremost as propaganda.
The end of the Surrealism movement was marked by the beginning of World War II in Europe, and propaganda was the movement of the day, with artists requisitioned to contribute to the war efforts and produce works of art that would motivate their country to support the war effort.
The idea was to create a "righteous anger." Some of the most famous works of World War II propaganda came from the United States, which entered the war a bit late and had to garner support. Rosie the Riveter, Uncle Sam, and other famous faces decorated propaganda art until the end of 1945.
Existentialism was a renewed social, cultural, and artistic craze that followed World War II. It concerned a specific set of ideas related to human existence, thought, and ideas that were abstract and generally unique to each individual. Existentialism in art was similar to expressionism and renewed the same sort of cynical ideas about human existence.
Art focused on angst, despair, reason, failings, and many complex, dark and difficult emotions. Many of the artists were atheists and centered around what one art history textbook calls the "absurdity of human existence" (Gardner). Francis Bacon is a noted artist from this time period with his work simply called "Painting," which portrayed a gruesome slaughterhouse scene and symbolic meaning in the life of man.
In the late 1940s, Abstract Expressionism sprang up with the idea of expressing a state of mind.
Considered the birth of "modern art," artists who painted during the Abstract Expressionism movement wanted viewers to really reach deeply for an understanding of an image. They wanted the ideas about the painting to be free of conventional thinking and believed that their images would have a unique, instinctive meaning for each viewer.
Some of the famed artists during this time period were Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, using splatter paint and other unusual methods to create abstract works of art. The Abstract Expressionism movement moved into the "Post-Painterly Abstraction" movement, which attempted to create a brand of "purity in art," but the movement died out by the mid-1950s.
A new brand of art called Pop Art emerged in the 1950s as a surprising breakaway from previous movements. Artists in the Pop Art movement felt that Abstract Expressionist art was alienating the audience and sought to use their art to communicate more effectively with the viewer.
Roy Lichtenstein was the famed pioneer of this movement and used his art in a commercial way, expressing emotion and ideas in a vividly appealing way that his audience could easily understand and relate to.