Modern Art — All You Need to Know

Dr. Ruth Polleit Riechert for smart-collectors

When did Modern Art start?

In the history of art, the term ‘modern art’ denotes the style and ideology of art, roughly from the 1860s through the 1970s.

Why did it start?

During the industrial revolution in the 1830s, photography was invented. Artists did no longer have a reason to make art exclusively for the sake of portraying reality. Before the 19th century, it was quite common that artists were commissioned to create artworks that told stories and informed the beholder about wealthy patrons or institutions like the church. Now, artists started to paint surroundings that interested them like, for instance, day-to-day scenes of the common people.

What was Modern Art about?

Many of the modern artists began — and this was quite revolutionary — experimenting with colour, form, shape, different techniques, and different mediums as well as new ways of seeing nature and functions of art. A tendency away from the realistic and the narrative toward abstraction is characteristic of much modern art.

What are the most important painters and pictures?

The first modern movement was called “Impressionism”. Led by Claude Monet (1840–1926), the painters mainly worked outside, focussing on light and atmosphere.

Claude Monet, “Sunrise”, 1872, Musée Marmottan, Paris.

This was indeed a new and revolutionary way to produce art.

The “Post-Impressionists” focused even stronger on colour and shape when painting their surroundings. Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Paul Cezanne (1839–1906), and Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) represent this movement.

Paul Cezanne, “The Large Bathers”, 1898–1906, MoMA.
Paul Gauguin, “Harvest: Le Pouldu”, 1890, Tate.

As another great leap in the evolution of modern art, Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and Georges Braque (1882–1963) subsequently established “Cubism”. They abandoned perspective altogether and deconstructed objects into basic shapes.

Pablo Picasso, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, 1907, MoMA.

In part as a reaction against Impressionism and academic art, artists like Edward Munch (1863–1944), Franz Marc (1880–1916), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938), and Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) were painting compositions that were meant to come from within the artist, rather than represent a depiction of the external visual world. This so-called “Expressionism” mainly emerged in Germany and spread throughout Europe.

Edward Munch, “The Scream”, 1893, National Gallery Oslo.
Wassily Kandinsky, “Lyrics”, 1911, Museum Bojmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands.

At the same time, in the early 20th century, artists started to questioning the purpose of art and developed the first conceptual art movement called “Dada”. Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) invented “Readymades”, found objects which were presented as art.

Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain”, 1917, Replica at Tate.

What followed was “Surrealism”: Salvador Dali (1904–1989) explored human subconscious with dream imagery.

Salvador Dali, “Persistance of Memory”, 1931, MoMA.

Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) revolutionised painting with his technique of loose and unconscious application of paint on the canvas. With this method, he combined Impressionism and Surrealism in a way and formed “Abstract Expressionism” with his drip paintings.

Jackson Pollock, “Full Fathom Five”, 1947, MoMA.

With Jasper Johns (*1930), art moved away from the emotionally driven style of the “Abstract Expressionists” towards portraying everyday objects.

Jasper Johns, “Flag”, 1954–55, MoMA.

By borrowing art from any source and creating paintings or sculptures of mass culture objects and media stars, the “Pop Art” was formed mainly by Andy Warhol (1928–1987).

Andy Warhol, “Red Liz”, 1962, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

As a reaction to the aggressive “Abstract Expressionism”, artists started avoiding overt Symbolism and emotional content, calling attention to the materiality of the works instead. Frank Stella (*1936), Robert Morris (*1931) and Richard Serra (*1938) formed this movement called “Minimalism” that ends Modern Art.

Robert Morris, “Untitled”, 1965, Reconstructed 1971, Tate.

Art from the 1960s/1970s up until today is called “Contemporary art”.

Where to go?

The world’s leading museums are Tate Gallery of Modern Art, London (Tate), and Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA). If you are interested in seeing modern art, you should absolutely go here!

Learn something about art every week:

Art Historian Ruth Polleit Riechert, PhD, publishes her weekly newsletter “Art A-Z” in a series of 26 issues. Don’t miss an issue and sign up here. See also her previous posts about “Street Art” (in German), “Printmaking” (in English), and “documenta” (in English).

Book your art advisory consult:

If you would like to get help in buying and selling art wisely, please contact Ruth here.

Try rent-to-own art:

For an easy option to try and get art into your home, have a look at Smart-collectors. This is a brand-new art lending and selling platform Ruth supports: choose art you like, buy or rent it, and have it delivered to your home! Special tip: Browse abstract art from German artist Peter Herkenrath (1900–1992).

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