Modern Art Definition, History, Movements & Paintings
The emergence of Modern Abstract Art & The Idea in Modern Art Paintings
29 July '19
Modern Art Definition, History, Movements & Paintings

by Alina Livneva

29 July '19

Modern Art Definition, History, Movements & Paintings

The emergence of Modern Abstract Art & The Idea in Modern Art Paintings

Modern art refers to a worldwide movement in culture and society that by the first decades of the twentieth century sought a new alignment with the expertise and values of modern industrial life. Building on 19th -century precedents, artists around the world used new vision, materials, and methods to make artworks that they felt better reflected the realities and hopes of contemporary societies.

The terms modernism and modern art are generally utilized to refer to the series of art movements that historians and critics have identified from the realism of Gustav Courbet to abstract art and its developments in the 1960s. Surrounded by the term, certain underlying principles specify modernist art. A rejection of background and conservative values (like a realistic depiction of topics ); invention and experimentation with form (the shapes, colors, and lines that make up the job ) with a propensity to abstraction. And an emphasis on materials, techniques, and procedures. Several political and social agendas have also driven modernism.

These were often utopian, and modernism was generally associated with perfect visions of human life and culture and a belief in progress. Since 1960s modernism had become dominant in art, and Clement Greenberg created a particularly narrow concept of modernist painting. A response then took place that was quickly identified as postmodernism.

Modern Art Gustav Courbet
Gustav Courbet

The arrival of modernism can be traced to the Industrial Revolution. This period of rapid changes in production, transportation, and engineering started around the mid-18th century and continued through the 19th century, profoundly affecting the social, economic, and cultural elements in Western World. New forms of transport, including the railroad, the steam engine, and the subway, changed how people lived, worked, and traveled, expanding their worldview and access to fresh ideas. As cities prospered, workers poured to cities for industrial jobs, and cities populations boomed. Most often commissioned to make art by wealthy sponsors or institutions such as the church. Much of the art depicted spiritual or mythological scenes that told stories meant to instruct the viewer.

Throughout the 19th century, many artists began to make art based on their own personal experiences and subjects that they chose. With the publication of psychologist Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) and the popularisation of the notion of a subconscious mind, many artists began exploring dreams, symbolism, and personal iconography as paths for the depiction of the subjective experiences.

Challenging the idea that art must realistically portray the planet, some artists experimented with the expressive use of color, unconventional materials, and new mediums and techniques. One of the new mediums was photography, whose creation in 1839 offered radical possibilities for depicting and distributing the world. After 1880, when the air was ripe for daring artists to take their work in new, surprising, and contemporary directions.

As secularisation of the society progressed, and the bourgeoisie class shaped up, art gradually started to evolve into a separate and self-sufficient field. Masters got engaged in exploring the essence of visuality and its unique features. Impressionists, like Monet, Sisley, Degas were among the first, who paved the way to that "complicated and weird" contemporary art: without completely rejecting the presence of a plot, they already started stressing the qualities of oil painting as an object – character of texture, painting surface, interaction with the space of a viewer.

Modern Art Monet
Claude Monet

Artists strived to assert the independence of their works from any other spheres of life, form social, political, or historical context. 'Art for art's sake' was the famous motto among French, British and American artists and writers of fin de siècle. It was the powerful reaction on two interconnected factors: (1) Industrial Revolution, which led to the extensive growth of mass production and, as a result, the excessive commercialistic approach towards art; (2) protest against the middle-class perception of art's mission as moralization and instruction of a viewer.

The members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, James Whistler, who were the passionate followers of "Art for art's sake," still worked in line with the conventional vision of fine art, with a story behind their oil painting and life-like modeling of figures.

However, gradually that principal started getting more radical forms, as Modernist art movements shaped up. Post impressionists (Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin), Fauvists (Edvard Munch, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner) challenged the concept of art as replicating of the reality, letting visual means of expression (color, line, composition) to play the first flute.

And if before those changes the critical issue was WHAT is depicted?, now the focus gradually shifts to HOW is it depicted?

Such exaggerated accent on the formal side of works (mostly oil painting) led to the huge gap between artists and public since it was sometimes difficult for an average viewer, who was used to classical canons and had no artistic training, to appreciate the author's delight with a brushwork or palette. Modernism became the elitist art for artists.

Avant-Garde - Challenging the idea of art

Such detachment of art from society caused the counter-reaction in the form of the avant-garde movements. Avant-garde originated in the realm of modernism, yet it was a sort of the protesting gesture against it. Modernism, driven by the idea of the autonomy of art, has significantly transformed its norms, yet it hasn't evolved into the critics of the institution of art itself, and, generally speaking, didn't break up with the tradition, applying classical genre system and subjects.

Avant-Garde, in contrast, was targeted at rejecting the ideas of artistic autonomy and 'high' culture. Futurists (Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla), Dadaists (Marcel Duchamp, Hans Arp), Constructivists (Vladimir Tatlin, El Lissitzky) Surrealists (Salvador Dali, Max Ernst) believed in the importance of re-establishing the connection between art and society and the ability of their works to make real social changes. That is why they often voiced politically charged positions, promoted the necessity of revolution not only in art but in life as well.

Modern Art Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali

Masters ironized over typical for the Modernistic image of the artist as genius and belief in originality as the main definition of art. The border between art and life was almost eliminated in Avant-garde: it is enough to remember the infamous gesture of Duchamp, when he put the manufactured porcelain urinal on display at the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, entitling it Fountain. The new attitude was represented through the innovative artistic forms as well, like collage and readymade, particularly popular among Dadaists and Surrealists.

The aim of art was the efficiency of the statement – it is supposed to shock, excite and provoke. One of the ways to achieve it was letting art out of specific locations like museums and galleries, and entering the public space. The desire of progress pushed artists into cooperation with political systems that turned out to be totalitarian and suppressed the creators, as it was in the USSR.

Even when masters refused to work on them (like Bauhaus in Germany), Avant-garde was still just another side of the same coin totalitarianism belonged to. Both phenomena were driven by the sense of the upcoming significant transformations and utopian confidence in the possibility of the New World. Going through the tragedies of two world wars, society got disappointed in the positivistic attitude of modernism, giving way to the new philosophy of postmodernism.


The beginnings of modern painting cannot be restricted, but there's general agreement that it began in 19th-century France. The paintings of Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, and the Impressionists represent a deepening rejection of the prevailing academic heritage and a quest for a more naturalistic representation of the visual universe.

The successors can be seen as more modern in their repudiation of traditional practices and subject matter and their expression of a more abstract personal vision. From around the 1890s on, a series of diverse movements and styles emerged, which are the core of contemporary art and that represent among the high points of Western visual culture. These modern movements include Neo-Impressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Metaphysical painting, De Stijl, Dada, Surrealism, Social Realism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop art, Op art, Minimalism, and Neo-Expressionism.

Regardless of the tremendous variety seen in these moves, a lot of them are characteristically contemporary in their investigation of the potentials inherent within the painting medium itself for expressing a religious response to the varied conditions of life in the 20th century and beyond. These conditions include accelerated technological change, the growth of scientific knowledge and understanding, the seeming irrelevance of some standard sources of belief and value, and expanding the consciousness of non-Western cultures.

Abstract Art

An important trend that started in the 20th century has been that of abstract, or nonobjective, artwork - art where little or no effort is made to objectively replicate or depict the looks or forms of objects in the domain of nature or the current physical world.

It should also be mentioned that the evolution of photography and allied photomechanical methods of reproduction has had an obscure but surely important influence on the evolution of modern art since these mechanical methods freed (or deprived) manually implemented painting and drawing of the hitherto crucial role as the sole means of accurately depicting the observable world. Modern art relates to ideas of rejecting traditional, historical, or academic forms and conventions to create an art more engaged with economic, social problems.

Probably, we should name Cubism (Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque) as the point of no turn, leading to the complete deconstruction of form, which finally resulted in the development of abstract art and abstract painting (Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian).

Modern Art Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso

Modern Architecture

Contemporary architecture arose from the rejection of revivals, classicism, eclecticism, and all adaptations of previous styles to the building kinds of industrializing late 19th- and 20th-century society. Additionally, it arose out of attempts to make architectural forms and styles that could use and reflect the recently available construction technologies of structural iron and steel, reinforced concrete, and glass.

Until the spread of postmodernism, the contemporary structure also implied the rejection of the applied ornament and decoration feature of premodern Western buildings. The thrust of contemporary architecture has been a rigorous concentration on buildings whose rhythmical arrangement of people and shapes states a geometric motif in light and color. This development was closely tied to the new construction types demanded by an industrialized society, such as office buildings housing corporate direction or government management. One of the most important trends and movements of modern architecture are the Chicago School, Functionalism, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, De Stijl, the Bauhaus, the International Style, the New Brutalism, and postmodernism.

Related Artists

Eugène Atget, Hippolyte Blancard, Paul Cézanne, Salvador Dalí,Max Ernst, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Hector Guimard, Wasilly Kandinsky,Raoul François Larche, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, Franz Klein, Paul Klee, Frantisek Kupka, Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Édouard Vuillard.

About author Alina Livneva was born 1985 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. She studied at Saint Petersburg Academy of Arts. Educated in Russia and the United States. Lives in Miami. Has also lived in Russia. Collections expert, exhibitions and loans. E: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Related Content
© 2020 Virtosu Art Gallery. All rights reserved. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.