Modern Art and its Meanings

14TH JUNE 2021

The art world can often appear a perplexing and impenetrable place, and its definitions can seem shrouded in mystery.

Up until around the mid-1800s, artistic movements were more strictly defined, but when we look back on the last 150 years, modes of expression have begun to intermingle and influence one another – often to the point of bewilderment. So, what exactly is modern art? How do we define it? Where did it come from and which artists were considered pioneers of the movement? What is its relationship with abstract, post-war, and contemporary art?

This article will answer all these questions and more, to help decode and demystify the era of modern art and its conception.

What is modern art, and how do we define it?


The era of modern art began in the mid-late 19th century until the mid 20th century. It has no one style but instead refers to a collection of movements that are defined by a rejection of, or departure from, the traditional ideals of classical art. So it was, above all else, ‘avant-garde’: both revolutionary and experimental. Modernist artists explored different materials, subject-matter and techniques as well as developed new theories about art, its role in the contemporary world, and the function of the artist.

Where did it begin?


A group of artists based in Paris in the mid-1800s, now known as the Impressionists, were the first to fully turn away from the traditional modes of art that were upheld at the time. From 1816 onwards, an annual exhibition called ‘The Salon’ was held at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It was here that artists’ reputations were made and broken, depending on whether their work was accepted into the exhibition, and the governing powers of the institution had highly conservative and traditional tastes. For centuries, the most celebrated artworks had focussed on ‘academic’ genres and a very limited subject-matter that drew inspiration from the art and culture of classical antiquity, namely the mythological, biblical, historical, portraiture (of nobility) or landscape.

The Impressionists set out to overturn these genres that they saw as lifeless and irrelevant to the modern world and instead began creating paintings of everyday life and subjective experience, often suffused with the light and movement of their immediate surroundings. As ‘The Salon’ turned their nose up at these new ‘shocking’ paintings, the impressionists set up their own annual exhibition to show their work, ‘The Salon des Refuses’ (Exhibition of the Refused) and thus began the epoch of Modern Art. 

Claude Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train (1877), oil on canvas, 83 x 101.3 cm. © Art Institute of Chicago
Claude Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train (1877), oil on canvas, 83 x 101.3 cm. © Art Institute of Chicago

Why were the impressionists interested in modern life in particular?


There were two central reasons why the impressionists were moved to capture the experience of modernity. Firstly, the Industrial Revolution brought about a period of rapid change which profoundly changed economic, social, and cultural conditions of those who lived in the West. New modes of transport, manufacturing and technology changed the way people travelled, worked and lived. These new exciting and advanced surroundings were of great interest to the impressionists.

Secondly, the rise of impressionism can be seen, in part, as a response to the newly established medium of photography. Photography encouraged the impressionists’ to produce a ‘snapshot’ of ordinary people doing everyday activities, but it also negated the need for capturing reality in exact detail. A photograph already did this for them - and better than they could possibly do. Instead they attempted to record their ‘moment of truth’ by focussing on colour, light and movement. This turn away from an objective representation of visual reality towards a more subjective impression gave rise to the beginnings of abstract art.

The first daguerreotype camera, invented by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre in 1839.
The first daguerreotype camera, invented by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre in 1839.
Wassily Kandinsky, Holzschnitt fur Den Sturm, 1910, woodblock on paper
Wassily Kandinsky, Holzschnitt fur Den Sturm, 1910, woodblock on paper

So, what is abstract art?


Abstract art is defined by a departure from the depiction of objective reality. Like modern art, it does not refer to movement but a wider approach to representation. Abstract art is nearly always guided by theory or an overarching concept, rather than an attempt to replicate materiality.

Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky is widely credited as the first artist to create a truly abstract piece in 1910, although Francis Picabia, Piet Mondrian and Hilda Af Klimt could also be considered contenders for the crown. In reality, our late Palaeolithic ancestors were the first to scratch abstract shapes and marks onto the walls of their caves but, as we can never know their intentions, their contributions are overlooked within the wider history of abstraction.

What is post-war and contemporary art?

 

Like modern art, both post-war and contemporary art can be classified into loose time periods; 1945 – 1970 and 1970 – present day, respectively.

‘Post-war’ means exactly that – art works produced during the period immediately following WWII. Many of the artists working at this time were attempting to deal with the horrific aftermath of the war, thus much of their work focussed on re-establishing both personal and collective identity. As a result of Europe’s instability during and following the war, the centre of the art world shifted from Paris to New York and has arguably remained there ever since.

‘Contemporary’ refers to any art works produced after 1970 until the present day. In vernacular English, ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ share the same definition which can lead to confusion. ‘Modern art’ and ‘contemporary art’ do not and refer to entirely different paradigms. Whilst modern art challenged the conventions of representation, contemporary art challenged the very notion of artwork itself. As a result of globalism and cross-cultural influence, contemporary art is wonderfully diverse, in subject matter, medium, form and concept.

A semi-abstract lithograph by contemporary American artist, Keith Haring. Flowers III (1990), screenprint in colours, 97.7 x 129.4 cm.
A semi-abstract lithograph by contemporary American artist, Keith Haring. Flowers III (1990), screenprint in colours, 97.7 x 129.4 cm.

For more information about any of the artists, movements or works mentioned in this article, please contact Clarendon Fine Art on +44 (0) 20 7499 0947.

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