What is Modern art?

Modern Art. We’ve all heard of it. We all refer to it. We associate it with the likes of Picasso, van Gogh, Kandinsky and Duchamp. What we don’t realise is that Modern Art refers to a period of artistic style and philosophy and not to be confused with contemporary art. Modern Art is a definitive artistic period with a start and an end, it does not refer to anything ‘modern’ in the sense we might think.

Modern Art

The period of Modern Art can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution and extends roughly from the 1860’s to the 1970’s. Typically, before this period, art was surrounded by hundreds of years of style and tradition, materials, functions and methods that governed a strict set of ‘rules’ artists were inclined to follow. The beginning of modern art saw these artistic confines thrown aside to make way for experimentation. This experimentation brought new ways of seeing and fresh ideas about art and what it should be. The traditional concept of art providing a narrative was pushed aside, moving towards abstraction. This evolution was caused in part by the shift of artwork being almost exclusively created through commissions, eg. Royal, wealthy and Church, towards artists beginning to create their own work about people places and things.

Essentially leading this revolution were the painters Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat and Henri de Toulouse-Lautre. You can see the similarity between their work and traditional painting styles fused with imaginatively painted people and landscapes. Their characteristics of painting included relatively small and this, yet visible brush strokes with an emphasis on accurately depicting the changing of light, inclusion of movement and very untraditional visual angles. They started exploring and interpreting ideas such as personal iconography, dreams and symbolism through their work.

Effectively, the beginning of the Modern Art era challenged the notion that artistic expression should realistically depict the world. There are far too many contributing factors to list within this short article, but everything from exposure to Japanese printmaking to the works of Sigmund Freud to the World Wars played a role in influencing these artists.

Some of the more ‘famous’ styles to emerge during the age of modern art were expressionism, impressionism, formalism, cubism, surrealism, pop art and abstract expressionism. There is a very large variety seen in each of these movements. What makes them modern is the characteristic investigation of the inherent potential in the painting medium to utilise towards exploring spiritual responses. These responses are to the change of life in the 19th and 20th centuries due to accelerated technological advances, scientific advances and the realisation of some traditional sources of value and belief.

Next time you’re looking at a work of modern art, you can think back to everything that led to that work being created. The social conditions, influencing artists, stylistic evolution, etc. and appreciate the significance that particular piece may have played in creating the ever evolving art movement we have today.

“The modern artist is working with space and time, and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating.”   – Jackson Pollock

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