What Is Modern Art?

When looking at a Renaissance and a modern day artwork; the differences in style, technique and subject matter could not be more diverse. Indiscernible subject matter and unconventional creation modes are more commonplace than traditional painterly styles with fine detail. How did the transgression from one extreme to the other come about?

‘Dance,’ Henri Matisse, 1910

Throughout art history, there have always been pioneers who lead the frontier and bring about challenges to deep-rooted conventions. These challenges came in the form of different art movements such as Romanticism, Pre-Raphaelites and Impressionism. Even with all of these artistic evolutions however, art at the start of the 20th century, although markedly different from Renaissance art, still had its roots in academic painting.

These artworks may have been considered low with regard to the hierarchy of genres in academic painting, but they could still be classified as ‘traditional’ art. Despite the low genres, these were a stark contrast to the modern art that was about to explode all over the 20th century.

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‘Three Dancers’, Pablo Picasso, 1925

So, what happened?  Art has always been influenced by many factors, new technologies, social and political, fashion, current affairs to name but a few. Art of the twentieth century is no exception. With two world wars, countless inventions, technological advancements, space, consumerism, mass production to name but a few, it’s no wonder that the face of art changed.

Huge changes in the 20th century had an impact on artists and how they view the world. The Cubist artist Fernand Leger said: “If the pictorial world has changed, it is because modern life has necessitated it. When one crosses a landscape by automobile or express train, it becomes fragmented. The view through the door of the railroad car or the automobile windshield, in combination with the speed, has altered the habitual look of things.”

‘Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a Mantelpiece’ Georges Braque, 1911

A revolution in art and painting in particular came about. Truth to realism was seemingly abandoned with a decline in the reliance on naturalistic colours. Skies and water no longer had to be blue; human figures no longer had to be anatomically accurate and modelling was steadily omitted. What carried the most importance was an artist’s personal style, whereby art previously demonstrated the knowledge and technical skill of the artist, modern art was an expression of inner feeling.

Two terms that are frequently used when referring to modern art are ‘modernity’ and ‘modernism.’ But what exactly do they mean? Modernity is the reflection of the new times, but rather than depicting the physical aspects, for example new inventions such as telephones, modernity is more of a social psychology and a shared sense of feeling of what it is like to live surrounded by these new advancements. This can be seen across different art movements such as the dabbed brushstrokes and blurred forms of Impressionism and the anti-consumerist Pop Art of the 1960s.

Andy Warhol Marilyn Diptych 1962 (detail) Tate Purchased 1980 © 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London.

Art that reflects and captures the sense of modernity is referred to as Modernism. This art is largely abstract, exists outside of the sphere of what is traditionally considered as ‘art’, and is concerned with the effect it bestows on the viewer.

The term Modernism was first introduced into our vernacular by Clement Greenberg in his 1960s essay ‘Modernist Painting’ however, the actual practise of ‘modernism’ has its roots in the art of 19th century art and in the art of Post-Impressionist French painters. Art of this time was referred to by the English art critic Roger Fry as the ‘direct expression of feeling’ and Matisse himself spoke of ‘purging superfluous detail.’ So, although the term, which is used to define this art of expression where the personal style of the artist takes precedent, only entered language in the 1960s, the practice of Modernism had been carried out by artists for many decades before it was given a name.




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