Updated date:

What Is Modern Art? Abstract, Cubist & Surrealist Art Explained

Amanda is a retired educator with many years of experience teaching children of all ages and abilities in a wide range of contexts.

What Is Modern Art?

“Variation” by Alexej von Jawlensky, circa 1916. This is an example of abstract art in which the image itself and the materials used to make it are what matters rather than anything it might seem to represent.

“Variation” by Alexej von Jawlensky, circa 1916. This is an example of abstract art in which the image itself and the materials used to make it are what matters rather than anything it might seem to represent.

Modern Art: Cultural Revolution or Con?

Do you know what we mean when we talk about modern art? Many people think they do. They might say, “abstract art” or art that “shows feelings rather than things”. Or they might even say, “something any five-year-old could do!”

Well, apart from the last comment, all of those descriptions may be true. But in strict terms, we don’t define modern art by technique or style.

So, how do we define modern art?

We define it as the art produced in North America and Europe from the time of the Impressionists up to the middle of the twentieth century.

This period is distinctive because many artists worked in new and exciting ways that challenged traditional ideas about what art is and could be.

It's true that many of these new, innovative artists explored the possibilities of using art not only to make representations of objects, people and landscapes but as a way of expressing feelings, emotions, atmospheres and dreams.

It's also true that many of the techniques they invented might seem primitive or even random at first. Many of these artists were more concerned with exploring the possibilities of the materials themselves without wanting to express or represent anything.

That's how we define modern and abstract art.

"Malibu" by Mark Rothko

“Malibu” by Mark Rothko. This is an interesting example of abstract art as its title and composition suggest an image of a well-known place but it remains more about the relationship between the forms and colors on the canvas than anything else.

“Malibu” by Mark Rothko. This is an interesting example of abstract art as its title and composition suggest an image of a well-known place but it remains more about the relationship between the forms and colors on the canvas than anything else.

Even when the modern artists were painting more recognizable objects, they tended to draw inspiration from the mundane, real life people, places and things they saw around them in their everyday lives, rather than themes and images from the Bible or Classical Mythology.

So let's take a look at several of these artists and their work. It may surprise you. A lot of it may seem pretty weird, too. But you should find all of it interesting and fun whether you think that these artists were any good or not!

"Arlésiennes (Mistral)" by Paul Gauguin

This painting by Paul Gauguin is a lesser-known work sold by the artist to another famous painter, Van Gogh, for the sum of 300 French francs in the late nineteenth century!

This painting by Paul Gauguin is a lesser-known work sold by the artist to another famous painter, Van Gogh, for the sum of 300 French francs in the late nineteenth century!

Modern Art Movements

There were many groups of artists during the modern art period that used to meet each other regularly and even live together.

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.

— Henri Matisse

They discussed their own and each other's work. This sharing of ideas and techniques often influenced them.

Several of these groups were intentional and gave themselves names. Others didn't think of themselves as belonging to a group or artistic movement at the time but later art historians have grouped them together.

Outside these well-known movements, such as Les Fauves, the Cubists and the Surrealists, there were also many artists whose work defied categorization.

The History of Modern Art

Henri Matisse and Les Fauves

The name of this movement translates from the French into “the wild beasts”.

The name indicates something of their effort to move beyond the constraints of the formal conventions of their day.

They had a tendency to work with very garish and shocking pigments - bright, unrealistic coloring and exaggerated forms.

"Still Life" by Henri Matisse

A Still Life by Henri Matisse. Notice the dynamism represented in otherwise still objects and the unrealistic use of color.

A Still Life by Henri Matisse. Notice the dynamism represented in otherwise still objects and the unrealistic use of color.

In a painting by any member of Les Fauves you might well find people with green skin or landscapes in which the trees are purple or pink.

Two of the most famous members of this modern art movement were Henri Matisse and Raoul Dufy.

"Posters in Trouville" by Raoul Dufy, 1906.

A street scene, “Posters in Trouville”, by Raoul Dufy, an influential artist and member of Les Fauves. These artists often found their inspiration in the everyday rather than Classical myths or religion, which was revolutionary at the time.

A street scene, “Posters in Trouville”, by Raoul Dufy, an influential artist and member of Les Fauves. These artists often found their inspiration in the everyday rather than Classical myths or religion, which was revolutionary at the time.

Matisse was an obsessive painter. In later life he suffered from crippling arthritis. The condition became so bad that he was unable to pick up a paintbrush. But this didn't stop him making art. He started working with collage, using scissors to cut out colored paper shapes and sticking them to the canvas to create his images.

Watch the following video about the Tate exhibition of his cut-out works:

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs.

Pablo Picasso (1881 - 1973)

Pablo Picasso was Spanish by birth but spent most of his life in France.

Picasso was a child prodigy, attending art school from the age of eleven years. When he was nineteen years old he moved to Paris, one of the world's most vibrant centers of artistic creativity.

He was prolific, producing thousands of pieces of work across a range of media including paintings, drawings, sculpture, ceramic work, mosaics and even theatrical scenery.

Of all the artists of the modern art period, Picasso is the most famous.

Picasso was fond of kids and seems to have been a fun-loving guy. Enjoying dressing up in disguises and playing practical jokes, children often surrounded him and he enjoyed letting them play in his studio.

He had doves in his garden and kept a goat in his house.

Pablo Picasso and The Cubists

Most people have heard of Pablo Picasso. Perhaps no other modern artist has captured the public imagination in quite the same way.

Picasso was the most important artist in a group known as The Cubists. Another famous cubist was Georges Braque.

The main idea behind cubism was to try to 'see' things from every possible angle all at the same time and then present this in pictures.

They used straight lines and combinations of two-dimensional surfaces to create this illusion. Many of the resulting images appear fractured and confusing but also encourage the viewer to see those things in a new light.

The cubists worked in many media, including painting, collage and sculpture.

They would often incorporate 'found objects' such as driftwood, bicycle parts or old envelopes into their work.

Watch This Exciting Video About Picasso

Salvador Dalí and The Surrealist Movement

The Surrealists were a group fascinated by the images and ideas found in dreams, visions and mystical experiences.

They influenced them by the emerging discipline of psychoanalysis (the beginnings of modern psychology) they felt the “subconscious mind” exerted a great influence on people’s thoughts and behaviour.

Portrait of Salvador Dalí

Salvador Dalí was the influential leader of the Surrealist Movement. He was interested in irrationality and dreams.

Salvador Dalí was the influential leader of the Surrealist Movement. He was interested in irrationality and dreams.

The most famous exponents of this movement from the period of modern art were Salvador Dalí, Juan Miró and René Magritte.

It is interesting that these artists used very different techniques and styles in their paintings but share a common ideal.

"The Persistence of Memory" by Salvador Dalí

Popularly known as "the melting watches", this famous painting by the surrealist Salvador Dalí is actually titled "The Persistence of Memory".

Popularly known as "the melting watches", this famous painting by the surrealist Salvador Dalí is actually titled "The Persistence of Memory".

Abstract Art

One of the most revolutionary movements in modern art is the art of abstraction.

Abstract artists don't imitate or represent real things at all, even with symbols. Their concern is with the images themselves and the materials from which they make the images.

The artists offer no interpretation, and you can be neither "right" or "wrong" about what these works mean. It is down to each individual to experience them in her own way.

One of the first artists to experiment with these ideas was Vassily Kandinsky.

"Composition VII" by Kandinsky

 Kandinsky's  most complex painting, "Composition VII", from his 1913 body of work.

Kandinsky's most complex painting, "Composition VII", from his 1913 body of work.

Paul Klee described his work as "taking a line for a walk". Sounds quite a lot of fun, doesn't it?

Piet Mondrian contrasted thick, black lines with geometric blocks of bright, primary color.

We count Marc Chagall among the abstract artists even though he used recognisable elements in his dreamlike works. But we consider him an abstract artist because no narrative intention exists in his paintings.

"No 5" by Jackson Pollock

A typical result of Jackson Pollock's style of action painting.

A typical result of Jackson Pollock's style of action painting.

On the North American scene, two of the most famous abstract artists are Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

Jackson Pollock's work is especially interesting both for its scale (sometimes a single painting would fill an entire wall) and for his methods.

He worked on large canvas, randomly splashing, flicking and splotching paint - sometimes letting the paint dribble down or squeezing it out from “squeezy bottles” suspended on a string.

"Red Balloon" by Paul Klee

Many of the contemporary art movements of his day influenced Klee. He also made a profound study of color theory.

Many of the contemporary art movements of his day influenced Klee. He also made a profound study of color theory.

Where to See a Modern Art Exhibition

The best way to understand and appreciate modern art is to go see it!

But where can you find an exhibition of modern art works? Well, the first place to try is your local museum or art gallery.

Then, if you live in or are visiting New York, go to MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art.

Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Looking across to the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA).

Looking across to the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA).

You'll find MoMA in midtown Manhattan, New York City, at 11 West Fifty-third Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues. It's a really exciting place and something fascinating is always going on there.

If you live in or are visiting London in Great Britain, go to The Tate Modern where you can see wonderful work from all around the world.

You’ll find The Tate Modern on Bankside, London SE1 9TG.

The Tate Modern in London

The austere and cathedral-like building which houses the Tate Modern art gallery in London.

The austere and cathedral-like building which houses the Tate Modern art gallery in London.

In Paris you'll find the famous “Centre Pompidou” in Place Georges-Pompidou, 75191 Paris.

The building itself is a work of modern art!

If you are ever in any of these places, it really is worth the effort to visit one of these world-famous art galleries.

But remember that touring exhibitions often visit smaller, regional galleries; and you can see many new artists’ work in local arts centers, museums and galleries wherever you live.

Le Centre Pompidou, Paris

Part of the complex construction of the Pompidou Center in Paris. Paris has long been the epicenter of art in Europe and if you are in Paris, this gallery is well worth a visit.

Part of the complex construction of the Pompidou Center in Paris. Paris has long been the epicenter of art in Europe and if you are in Paris, this gallery is well worth a visit.

How to Make the Most of a Visit to a Modern Art Gallery

If you haven't been to an art gallery before and you want to go to one for the first time, follow these tips to make the best of your experience:

  • First of all, make your first visit to somewhere nearby. If you find that you enjoy the experience, you can plan a more ambitious trip to one of the great galleries at a later date.

Visiting an Art Gallery

Visiting an art gallery for the first time can be an overwhelming experience, but with careful research and planning it can be educational, inspiring and fun.

Visiting an art gallery for the first time can be an overwhelming experience, but with careful research and planning it can be educational, inspiring and fun.

    • Don't try to see everything in one visit. It can be tiring walking around a gallery. Do research first and choose the main works or exhibits that most interest you. Then go straight to them and appreciate them, looking and thinking about the work. Many experienced gallery goers will go to see just one painting and then spend several hours looking at it and immersing themselves in it.
    • All the paintings in an exhibition gallery, as opposed to a commercial gallery, will have informative labels next to them. Read them. They will tell you the name of the artist, perhaps a little about their life, what materials were used in the work and other interesting facts, including the title!
    • Remember that you probably can not to take photographs in the gallery. Flash lights can damage pigments and many paintings are under legal protection, too.
    • Pick up a map of the gallery at the reception and check out where to find the restroom and the café. You'll need refreshment afterwards.
    • If you enjoy making art yourself why not take your art stuff with you and do sketches of the work you like best? Just don't sell the results as originals on eBay. Seriously, folks have tried!
    • Finally, while you can't take photos, you can often buy postcards, prints and books in the store in the larger galleries.

The Modern Art Poll

How to Look at Art in 5 Easy Steps

One Question Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. How much did Van Gogh pay for Paul Gaugin's painting, 'Arlésiennes'?
    • 300 Francs
    • 300 Euros

Answer Key

  1. 300 Francs

© 2014 Amanda Littlejohn

Ever seen modern art? Like it? Don't like it? Got a question? I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on June 23, 2014:

Hi chef-de-jour!

Thank you so much for your contribution to the hub. I'm really glad that you enjoyed it. One of the most interesting things in the history of modern art - or the history of art in general - is the way that it both reflects the Zeitgeist and challenges the status-quo. It's that curious juxtaposition that gives it social as well as artistic relevance. In fact, art -as-social-commentary probably begins with these guys.

You are right that Marcel Duchamps, Malevich and dozens of others should be included but you will appreciate that this is intended as an introductory guide for kids rather than a comprehensive survey!

Bless you :)

Andrew Spacey from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK on June 22, 2014:

Thank you for more art and art history! Some great information and descriptions of work from a few of the 'greats'. Well, we call them great now but when they first emerged many were criticised and pilloried!! It just shows you how tastes turn and artwork deemed ridiculous initially gradually becomes accepted and finally hailed as great!

Marcel Duchamps and I think the Russian Malevich (White on White) are also worth a mention.

Votes and a share.

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on June 16, 2014:

Hi FlourishAnyway!

Thanks for your appreciative contribution to this hub. It's great that you take your daughter to art galleries! MoMA is well worth a visit, even if modern art is not your favorite, it's such an interesting place.

Bless you! :)

FlourishAnyway from USA on June 15, 2014:

What a well done hub, between your explanations and the videos. I try to take in art galleries with my daughter to at least get the exposure to different styles and schools of art. Although modern art isn't my favorite, I'd love to be able to visit the MoMA or other museums you mentioned. Voted up and more, plus sharing.

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on June 12, 2014:

Hi Bill!

Thanks so much for that contribution to the hub. I am in total agreement with you. If we would just, as a society, put both quality of life and our children first above simple economic measures we would all be so much better off in ways the folks in the corridors of privileged power couldn't even begin to imagine.

Still, many of our best galleries (in the US and Europe/UK) are still free at the point of entry so there's every chance for teachers, parents and independently minded kids to get the young folk in there thinking about it and above all, enjoying it!

Bless you :)

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 12, 2014:

I am all for anything that exposes children to the Arts. With school districts cutting back on funding for the arts...with whole cities cutting back on funding for the arts....we must do everything possible to make sure our children have a well-rounded education. Love the message in this my friend. Well done.

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on June 12, 2014:

Hi chchipamedical,

Thanks for your comment.

Bless. :)

Related Articles