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Understanding the –Isms of Modern Art

modern-art800The “modern” in Modern Art is not a generic term synonymous to present-day, current or contemporary. Rather, it refers to innovation and the experimentation of novel ideas thus marking a break from the restrictions of tradition. The period that is considered to be that of modern art is from the 1860s to the 1970s, give or take a few years or decade depending on varying sources. There is no one right or wrong source. Art after all is relative and emotional, unlike science which is objective and absolute.

How Modern Art Began

Before artists broke out of their mold to create the modern art movement, artwork was done upon orders of the church or their wealthy benefactors. Understandably, these were of a religious nature and their goal was to educate people. Modern paintings appeared first in the 1860s, followed by such as sculptures, architecture, prints, photography and other forms. For this article, we shall focus on the modern paintings.

Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin are widely regarded as the pioneers of modern art. Other art historians would include Georges Seurat and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec. In the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp were among the more well-known names in modern painting. Pop art in the 1950s became popular largely due to the likes of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.

Because modern art encompassed 90 to 110 years, several styles and movements arose. Artists were defined by the movement they engaged in, although they are not limited to one style alone. The pioneers Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gauguin were Post-Impressionist artists while Matisse leaned towards Fauvism and Picasso focused on Cubism.

Owing to the span of time that modern art covered, numerous painters and movements belong to this era and even then, historians do not share a common mind of all the movements. Here is an overview of the styles, their defining features and the artists that belong to each movement. Consistent with the nature of art itself, chroniclers and historians differ in their views of issues, but for the sake of enriching knowledge, these differences should not be a hindrance to learning more about modern art.

Impressionism ca. 1870 – 1905

Believed by some to be the origin of modern art painting, a group of artists in Paris defied state controlled exhibitions, or salons, and the strict adherence to techniques and subject matter as dictated by the French government. Impressionist painting aimed to catch the fleeting effects of a subject matter through sketch-like brush strokes and a palette of vibrant colors to depict light and movement. They often painted in plain air when the norms at that time dictated painting in a studio.

The painters of this movement were rebuffed by the traditional salons. To counter this refusal, they formed their own exhibit to show their artwork to the public. Most notable Impressionists are Camille Pissarro (1831-1903), Edouard Manet (1832 – 1883), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Alfred Sisley (1839-99), Claude Monet (1840-1926), Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), and Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901.)

Post-Impressionism early 1880s – mid 1910s

In the 1880s, a few artists went beyond the focus on the optical effects of Impressionism and wanted to show the emotional and structural aspects of elements. Aside from further intensifying the already strong colors of Impressionism, there is no central feature of Post-Impressionism. The artists in this movement had their unique styles and techniques for painting. Vincent Van Gogh had emphasis on the emotional content; his style is called Expressionism. Paul Gauguin evolved into Cloisonnism or Synthecism, using flat areas of colors and bold outlines, and Georges Seurat painted in small dots of pure color to create an image, a style known as Pointillism. It was Post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne who created the link between Impressionism and Cubism. He used geometry to paint landscape, saying nature is made up of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone.

Other notable Post-Impressionists are the Frenchman Henri Rousseau, the Les Nabis group, Norwegian Edward Munch and Belgian James Ensor, to name some.

Fauvism 1898 -1910

Henri Matisse is the founder of Fauvism, and along with Andre Derain, his fellow Frenchman, headed a group of painters who called themselves Les Fauves, or The Wild Beasts. They broke away from the confines of Impressionism to farm this avant-garde movement. Their key technique is in using highly simplified sketches and painting with pure and unmixed colors, then exaggerating the effect by applying the paint in thick splashes and smears.

Other Fauvists are Albert Marquet, Dutch Kees van Dongen, Henri-C harles Manguin, Othon Friesz, Georges Roualt, Belgian Henri Evenepoel, Mauric Marinot, Jean Puy, Maurice de Vlaminck, Charles Camoin, Raoul Dufy and Georges Braque.

Cubism 1907 – 1922

Cubism was developed in a period of rapid progress by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who had also painted in Fauvism. Inspired by Cezanne, it is considered as the first movement in Abstract Art and had the distinctive characteristic of ignoring perspective and instead assembling an abstract form of an image to give viewers multiple viewpoints. Cubism developed in two stages: Analytical Cubism, pre-1912 and Synthetic Cubism, post-1912. It is also the forerunner of other styles in modern art such as Expressionism, Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism and De Stijl.

Known cubists include Jean Metzinger, Fernand Leger, Juan Gris and Willem de Kooning.

Surrealism 1922 – 1939

Surrealism sought to find the superior reality (sur-reality) of an artist by calling into play images of dreams from the subconscious and creating a spontaneous drawing free from mind control. It was formed to counter the negativity of Dadaism, an avant-garde movement by artists who had fled to neutral Switzerland in the midst of World War 1. Great influences are the writings of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx.

Famous surrealists are Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Joan Miro and the American Man Ray. The center of the Surrealist movement is Paris but when war broke out in 1939, the Surrealists left Europe for New York.

Pop Art 1954 – 1970

When Pop Art is mentioned, the iconic Andy Warhol comes to mind. This art movement was born during the post-war boom, along with the pop music of Elvis Presley and The Beatles, and pop culture. Pop art is youth-oriented, fun, cheeky and indifferent to artistic traditions. Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans painting and Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book best exemplify the artwork in Pop Art. Coincidentally, both artists are Americans.

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