In our continuing series of blogs on some of the greatest artists from the modern art movement, we take a brief look over the careers of five more of the greats. Abstract expressionists Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, symbolist artist Gustav Klimt, surrealist artist René Magritte, and the great outsider who often goes ignored in discussions about modern art; Edward Hopper, the realist.
Willem de Kooning, the artist’s artist
Unusually, de Kooning’s name is probably more widely known than his work, which has never enjoyed the long re-print poster shop life of many of the other artists in this list; but his impact amongst others in the modern art movement was significant and long lasting. Born in 1904 in Rotterdam where he trained in fine arts, he made his way to America where he worked as a house painter before discovering the emerging jazz scene and the interesting abstract art styles it inspired.
It led him into experiments with abstract painting which would lead to the abstract expressionist movement, propelling him into a career as an artist that would ultimately span seven decades. His worked touched on a range of styles and ideas, sometimes figurative, sometimes abstract, sometimes action-painted, and sometimes all three, his work is amongst the most valuable in the world, fetching prices as high as $300m.
Gustav Klimt, the gold symbolist and inspiration to expressionists
Widely famous for his work in shimmering golds and fine detail; The Kiss, Klimt was a master of symbolism, filling his work with allusions to the human psyche and sexuality, with his depictions of nudes and sexual liberation scandalising society of the day, as much of the modern art movement did. He captured the imaginations of emerging young expressionists, and even today prints of his work are best sellers in art galleries and museums.
He worked his way through decorative commissions and frescoes before finding confidence in his own creative impulses, with women and sexuality often becoming the centrepiece; this was typical of a growing change in society at the time, from Victorian repression to something much more liberated. It was controversial, but he pushed on, finding the inspiration for his gold period in Byzantine art, and decorating the fantastic clothing in detailed abstract shapes. He passed away at just 55 after complications with a stroke, but his work and ideas drove the expressionist movement, and helped inspire bauhaus, constructivism, art nouveau, and cubism.
René Magritte, creator of surrealist illusions
The modern art period was already well underway when Magritte was born just before the turn of the century, he began drawing lessons at 12 and was painting in an impressionist style by 18, but soon began to be influenced by symbolism, and in his late 20s turned to surrealism, holding his first show which critics immediately tore to pieces.
He moved to Paris and got to know Breton and other artists in the Surrealist group, rapidly standing out with his dream-like illusions of paintings. Within a few years he was exhibiting alongside Dali, Ernst, and Picasso, and continued to develop his style, at times taking on a painterly style, elements of fauvism, and spending a short period post war creating fake Picassos and Braques. Returning to his usual style in later life he passed away in his late sixties from illness.
Mark Rothko, the colour field abstract expressionist
Another highly influential name from abstract expressionism, but probably best known for his remarkable colour field abstracts, which truly have to be seen in the real world to fully appreciate. Emerging during the 1940s, over the course of his career he progressed from figurative works into increasingly simplified abstract forms, focusing on colour, composition, scale, depth, and balance, eventually settling into compositions of rectangular forms in rich colour fields.
Built up over endless layers of paint, his colours are luminous, and the scale and depth of each piece absorbs and engulfs any viewer, and though the forms and compositions could barely be any simpler, emotion and feeling is still conveyed. In later life, he was struck with an aneurysm, marriage problems, and depression, and tragically took his own life leaving no suicide note, though many feel his later work to be a suicide note of sorts, embracing sombre tones, black and greys over the colour of his most famous works.
Edward Hopper, the modern art movement realist
Amongst a field full of wild and eccentric artists and styles seeking to escape convention and tradition, Edward Hopper’s realist style can feel very traditional with little risk or experimentation, but that is to ignore the unique atmosphere and feeling that emanate from his paintings. Though almost minimally simple, his artworks always invite narrative interpretation about solitude and loneliness, and many tend to think of him as the greatest painter of modern life.
There was certainly realism to Hopper’s work, but there was also symbolism, melancholy, and other-worldliness, he was a true independent exploring possibilities with imagined spaces and moments in time that tell us more about our modern world than most romaticised classical works can, and affect the viewer as deeply, and unexpectedly, as a Rothko.