Post World War 1 and the inter-war years in modern art
Whatever positivity and sense of fun experimentation had preceded the war began to tarnish and fade; anti-art movements such as dadaism emerged with artists like Duchamp, which sought to not so much change art as flip it entirely away from what had gone before. The logic, reason, and aesthetics of capitalist society were abandoned in favour of nonsense, irrationality, and mundanity to create an anti-bourgeois sentiment in modern art.
Many of these themes were also explored in social realism after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, focused on the hardships of the working classes, and critiquing the power structures that created their hardships. Things returned to a more conventionally realist style to ensure broader appeal and political impact, represented superbly in Grant Wood’s American Gothic.
Dada’s approaches also inspired others, and triggered the full emergence of surrealists like Dali, Magritte, and Ernst, who escaped into imagined worlds combining dream and reality, allowing the subconscious to leak through somewhere in-between with their fantastical visions. Abstractism had reached across the war divide and evolved into the far more restricted perspectives of De Stijl, which allowed only horizontal and vertical lines in a palette of black and white, or occasionally primary colours. It is probably best known in the minimal compositions of Mondrian, and had many aesthetics in common with the Bauhaus and constructivist who intended to better represent an industrialised, mass produced society.
World War 2, and the last great shift in the modern art period
After the horrors of the war, Dadaism’s anti-art ideals came back with force, encouraging artists to reject any trace of a society that had let such horrors happen, starting with its art. Abstract expressionists like Pollock and colour field painters like Rothko pulled ideas from surrealism, abstractism, cubism, and Bauhaus to create an entire new body of work for people to say “How is that art?” about, alongside variations including op art, minimalism, and hard edge painting.
Ideas were also moving beyond canvasses, prints, and the art gallery, as conceptual art, performance art, Fluxus, and art happenings sought to create experiences and moments. Beyond seeking change after the war, in part this was also driven by the wider emergence and popularity of photography; here was a way to perfectly capture landscapes and figure studies in an instant, painting with any level of realism was perhaps becoming redundant, and so abstracts and other forms were embraced by artists, if not every art gallery at first; land art, postminimalist sculpture, and video art were all happening or soon to begin.
And of course, there was pop art, an original art as mass produced art prints; bright, colourful aesthetics built around popular culture and celebrity icons which, depending on your viewpoint, either idolised or mocked the consumerist culture that took hold in the later days of the modern art period. Things finally ended at the only place they logically could; the photorealist painters of the 1960s and 1970s who would paint a scene so perfectly that it could be confused for a photo. Much like pop art, they were reacting to the abstract expressionism which had broken apart conventional painting technique and craft so completely, and dominated in many art gallery exhibitions.
The end of a wildly creative, and redefining, era for art
The modern art period ultimately succeeded in many ways, vastly expanding the concept of art and what form it could take. Even though it occasionally strayed into indecipherable abstract painting, household items displayed as sculpture, or people creating wild live performances, it pushed and challenged as all art should.
It also existed across a time of vast change; two world wars, the Cold War, the decline of the British Empire, the industrial and consumerist age, the 60s counter-culture movement and much more. There was a lot for artists to respond to, and whilst modernism sometimes incorporated anti-war messages and sociological critique, for the most part it felt positive, utopian, and progressive. The skepticism and rejection of such ideals would come in the post-modernist and contemporary art period, even as modern art became adored by art galleries and hung as art prints on millions of household walls.
The great variations in style also lent itself well to popularising art; most people can easily differentiate a Warhol from a Picasso, even if they didn’t think very much of either. Today, much of that has changed too; where modern art was once greeted skeptically by the general public, now almost every major city from London to Tokyo and the Americas offer entire art galleries dedicated to modernism and the movements that followed.