What Is Modern Art? Abstract, Cubist & Surrealist Art Explained
What is Modern Art?
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
- 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.
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© 2014 Amanda Littlejohn