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Modern Artists: Mondrian to Munch

From the late 1800s, artists worldwide began to feel a need to break away from the art conventions and traditions of the past; there had to be more to art than impeccable realist depictions of romanticised classics on canvas or in stone. Facing considerable criticism at first, a criticism that would re-emerge with each new modern art movement, artists began to experiment with different ways to use a brush or consider colour and composition. Perhaps most importantly, they began to consider what different ideas and themes could be communicated by breaking away from conventional forms completely. Following on from previous blogs, here are five more of the most important modern artists from the period.

Piet Mondrian, the minimalist of the modern artists

Almost everyone is familiar with Mondrian’s work on some level, his distinctive and minimal abstract grids filled with simple primary colours are a classic of art, design, and popular art prints in poster shops. They evolved gradually from traditional figurative and landscape work which took on increasingly simple brushwork and colouring, touching on impressionism, fauvism, and cubism before settling into abstracts made from geometric forms. The first grid paintings began just after the First World War, and though they appear to be flat colours, a close inspection reveals extensive brushwork designed to provide the white space with the greatest depth. His style continued to mature throughout his life, focusing more heavily on linework, until the lines began to be made up from blocks of colour also in his last few pieces.

Wassily Kandinsky

The Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky began his career proper at the start of the 1900s, having spent his youth admiring much of the emerging impressionist art styles around him, focusing mostly on landscapes and a vivid use of colour that has been compared to fauvism. His work continued to develop, drawn increasingly to more freeform shapes and abstractions to represent his vision, which carried through into fully abstract and geometric shapes and forms in the post World War One period. Often incorporating emerging styles like surrealism and constructivism to see how they could better express his vision, Kandinsky’s work connected the movements of music and spirituality with the intent of connecting on a deep emotional level with the viewer.

Édouard Manet, one of the first of the modern artists

Manet was another key artist in leading the transition from the traditional realism of past art, with the impressionism that drove the early development of modern art. He was one of the earliest artists to begin painting modern life rather than classics or antiquity, and began working with loose and simple brush strokes that some critics called “unfinished”, but which formed the essence of the emerging impressionist style. Much of his work finds comparison in contemporary art through street and documentary photography; studies of cafe scenes, social activities and street scenes in Paris, all in natural light, capture the world around him and that period of time. Whilst these are common subjects today they were revolutionary at the time and had a huge impact; for many, Manet is the father of modernism.

Frida Kahlo

Women were rare in the art of the past, but as art and society changed, we began to hear voices beyond the impoverished male artist of Europe, and Frida Kahlo was one of the most outstanding new voices to appear. Working in a naïve folk art style her work often touched on surrealism, focused heavily on Mexican culture, and also expressed her feelings and experiences such as dealing with chronic pain. Often producing self portraits, or including herself within her work, she caught the attention of European surrealists and became the first Mexican artist to have work hung in The Louvre. Largely forgotten by time, her original artworks were rediscovered in the 1970s alongside the growing feminist and LGBTQ+ contemporary art movements, and by the 1990s she had attained an iconic status in these communities and amongst Chicano artists.

Edvard Munch

Famed as the painter of The Scream, one of the most iconic and well known images in all of art, Edvard Munch had an unusual childhood full of trauma. He evolved his artistic style under the nihilist Hans Jæger, who encouraged Munch to paint from his soul, expressing his emotional and psychological state, which paved the path to Munch’s unique style and the development of expressionism as an art movement. Though he struggled with mental health throughout his life, his gradual acceptance by the art world, and the community of Oslo and his native Norway, helped him find peace in privacy and working through his later years.

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