What is modern art?

Written by Simone | 20th March 2020 | Cover image: Vincent van Gogh - The Sower

After answering the classical question, we’re looking to Modern Art next. With the help of Modern Art expert, Koos Weel, we tackle its timeline, key figures, themes and why we love it. 

What is modern art?

Broadly speaking, modern art is used as a term to describe work produced between the 1860s and 1970s. It’s more of a timeframe and less of a distinct style or set of principles. The goal of modern artists was really to advance the practices and ideas of art, by portraying a subject as it exists in the world, according to their own, unique perspective.

In the preceding centuries, the prevalent characteristic was idealisation, often religious or mythical in nature. Artists worked mostly on commission and the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris was the deciding factor in making or breaking an artist. To even be considered for one of their famous Salon de Paris expositions, the work needed to conform to a rigid set of classical principles. 

With Burial At Ornans, Gustave Courbet was one of the first to challenge the Académie by depicting a funeral as opposed to a religious or mythical subject.

For the Salon of 1863, two-thirds of artists were rejected. In an attempt to calm down the artists’ protests, Napoleon III allowed a second exposition: the Salon des Refusés. Although most visitors–up to a thousand a day–came there for a laugh, the exposition also legitimised the emerging avant-garde in painting.

Technological advances like photography also challenged artists to find new ways to express themselves, as they were never able to capture an image as accurately as a photograph could. Artists started to paint subjects based on their own, personal experiences. They began experimenting with subject, theme, colour, symbolism, composition and medium and the idea of what constituted art constantly evolved. 

Who are the key figures?

One of the leading men in breaking tradition was Édouard Manet, who exhibited his now landmark work at the Salon des Refusés: Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe. This painting strayed from the Académie’s rules by depicting an everyday subject – a picnic in the park, with two naked women and two fully dressed men – painted in broad, quick brushstrokes.

The Impressionists were the first to form a movement and included the likes of Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Paul Cézanne and Edgar Degas. Their paintings didn’t have one single focus point but an open composition and used small and easy brushstrokes to depict movement and change in light. 

Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet is the painting that gave the Impressionists its name.

Vincent van Gogh was one of the four key figures in post-Impressionism and made artworks full of life and colour, painted in aggressive brushstrokes, and posthumously became the face of Expressionism. His friend – at least until the incident where Van Gogh cut off his own ear – Paul Gauguin, also used colour to boost the liveliness of his paintings, many of which often depicted ‘exotic’ tribes. His colourful flourishes and style became known as Synthetism, and heralded the onset of another strand of post-Impressionism.  

Meanwhile, Georges Seurat rejected the notion of brush strokes altogether and created paintings that were made out entirely of tiny dots: known as Pointillism. But perhaps the most important figure of post-Impressionism was Paul Cézanne. He planted the seeds for Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism and Fauvism, by introducing multiple perspectives in one painting. 

Works by Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat and Cézanne.

Why do we love it?

Modern art entails so many different styles and movements – we haven’t even got to De Stijl, Surrealism or Abstract Expressionism yet – that it really shouldn’t be about whether you love Modern Art or not, but what kind of Modern Art you love. There is bound to be something that you enjoy, even if there are plenty of works or styles that just aren’t for you. “If there is a style, movement or individual artwork you don’t like at first, educating yourself and understanding the historical context and the ideas and point of view from the painter can make all the difference”, says Koos. 


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