Modern Art is a general term used to cover artistic innovation from the late 19th century up until the 1970s.
With the invention of photography realistic representation of subject matter was rendered obsolete. Artists began to experiment with new ways of seeing. They had fresh ideas about the nature and the very function of art.
Impressionism, acknowledged to be the first Modern Art movement, was centred on Paris. Its influences were many and varied and included exposure to Japanese prints, the innovations of Turner and the search for the depiction of common life as found in the work of painters like Millet. The Impressionists such as Manet, Renoir, Monet and Pissarro, argued that people did not see objects but only the light that they reflected. Therefore artists should paint outdoors rather than in studios to capture the effects of light in their work.
Among the movements in Paris that flowered at the dawn of the 20th century were Fauvism and Cubism, the former being a derogative term meaning ‘wild beasts’ used by art critics who were appalled when they first saw the vibrant works of Matisse, Derain, Marquet, Rouault and Vlaminck.
The name Pablo Picasso, that colossus of 20th century art, is synonymous with Cubism. Recognized as a child prodigy, in his late teens he moved from Barcelona to Paris, a city that was already acknowledged to be the world centre for art. Following his ‘Blue Period’ he started to paint in a truly revolutionary manner. Inspired by Cézanne’s flattened depiction of space, working alongside his friend Georges Braque, he began to express volume in strong geometrical terms. These initial efforts at developing an almost sculptural sense of space in painting were the beginnings of Cubism. Picasso and Braque went on with their experimentation, many of the finest examples of their Cubist works being collage. After the First World War Picasso became influenced by Classicism. He was attracted to Surrealism, but on his own terms. His constant striving for new means of expression make Picasso a one-man history of Modern Art.
The German Expressionist movement began in 1905 with artists such as Kirchner and Nolde who favoured the Fauvist style of bright colours but with the addition of strong linear effects and harsher outlines. It is usually linked to paintings and graphic work at the turn of the century which challenged academic traditions, particularly through Die Brücke, a group of Dresden artists and Der Blauer Reiter who were centred in Munich and included the Russian, Wassily Kandinsky. More generally, it referred to art that expressed intense emotion.
The Great War brought this phase to an end, but indicated the beginning of a number of anti-art movements such as Dada and the work of Marcel Duchamp who pre-empted Pop, particularly American, with his ‘readymades’, everyday objects that he declared were works of art. Surrealism, a movement of the both the visual arts and literature, flourished in Europe during the inter-war years. It emphasised positive expression and represented a reaction against what its participants saw as the destruction wrought by the ‘rationalism’ that had guided European culture and politics in the past that culminated in the horrors of the First World War. To André Breton, the spokesman for the movement, Surrealism was a means of reuniting the conscious with the unconscious so that the world of dreams and fantasy could be joined to the everyday rational world. Drawing heavily on theories of Freud, Breton saw the unconscious as the wellspring of the imagination. The Surrealist painters were diverse in style ranging from Arp and Miro to Dali and Magritte and were largely responsible for perpetuating the traditional emphasis on content in modern painting.
Artistic groups including de Stijl in Holland and the Bauhaus in Germany were seminal in the development of new ideas about the interrelation of the arts, architecture and design and art education.
In England artists such as Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore were the lonely standard bearers for Modernism.