Modern art is not another term for contemporary art
The two are often confused, but modern art describes a broad collection of artistic movements and styles that flourished between 1860 and 1970, united by one ideal; rethinking the traditions of art in synch with the changes taking place in the society around it. After the industrial revolution life began to change dramatically; and modernist ideas came to artists who wanted to respond to it in new ways, breaking from the classical art gallery traditions.
Modern art covers around a century in time and includes a vast number of movements, but they divide into roughly four periods; pre-1900s, 1900s-WW1, WW1-WW2, and post-WW2; the huge social impacts of the wars forcing dramatic reactions and re-directions amongst artists each time. Modern art also created fresh divides in opinions between the art world and the wider population. Some found dramatic directions such as cubism or dada to be incomprehensible, or pop art’s original art prints nonsensical, and unrecognisable as art alongside conventional old masters in a gallery.
This was a crucial period for art though, where artists decided to break away from the constraints of having to express ideas through perfectly composed re-imaginings of biblical or classical narratives. Simple shapes, simple colours, abstraction, interpretation, and mood all began to dominate, and the creativity of artists reached out far beyond the canvas in ways that shaped the current contemporary art period.
Pre-1900s; the early genesis of modern art in painting
There is some debate, but many see the birth of modern art in the 1863 painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe by Édouard Manet. At first glance, it appears traditional, however, why is there a nude sitting with two men chatting in the countryside? What’s with the still life basket in the foreground? And who is that huge woman in the lake? On close inspection much of the brushwork is sketchy and unfinished; little about it made sense to art critics, as it very deliberately broke with painting traditions, and hinted at the surrealist movement that would come later.
There had been a gradual trend towards modernism for almost a century, the Industrial Revolution of 1760 to 1840 and the French Revolution in 1789 had already created significant waves through society, but it took time for the impacts to set in and mature everywhere. Manet’s work represented a seismic shift, perhaps all it asked was, “why can’t we paint something different?” It also established a lifelong experience for much of modern art in that no one really liked it very much; it remained unsold for 15 years, and went for a fraction of the original asking price.
Romanticism and realism had already toyed and played with subject and representation, but things started moving faster with movements like macchiaioli, impressionism, pointillism and divisionism. These played with new representations of colour and light, as symbolism questioned portrayals of absolute truth and les nabis broke down form and colour even further. By the turn of the century sculptors, designers and architects were also responding with styles like art nouveau; things were ready for another seismic shift.
The pre-war 1900s; abstracts, expressionism and cubism
The century began with fauvism, including Matisse, which further deconstructed impressionism’s realistic qualities with more expressive strokes and colours. Cubism broke down reality into simple component shapes which could be turned and shifted; re-positioned to show a single object from multiple sides at once, and perhaps representing it better in the process. Picasso was the best known cubist, and for those who find his portraits and artwork baffling, understanding that he sought to represent subjects from multiple perspectives at once is the first step to understanding him.
Expressionism, which includes pieces such as Edvard Munch’s The Scream, let form, colour, and brushwork shift to express mood and feel as the primary goal. Futurism combined all of these in wildly shifting colour palettes, brushwork and representation of subject. Abstractism broke away entirely from reliance on visual associations, with simple shapes and colours intending to represent through expression.
In 1913 Giorgio de Chirico exhibited several modern artworks widely noticed by other artists. The painting style was very traditionally realist, but objects were depicted in random groupings and locations, with a strange, dreamlike, quality to them; de Chirico was perhaps the first of the surrealists. As the ideals and ideas of modern art continued to wrap around the world, reaching the art gallery and then the wider audience of the art print, variations on these art styles emerged; orphism, vorticism, and synchronsim diverged from cubism and combined with abstractism, and suprematism broke down abstractism further.
Artists seemed enthused with the process; wild colour and bold expression was everywhere, but a new shift was coming; World War 1.