Modern Art: An Overview

A look inside the many movements and artists that define this time period.

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Jerry Saltz, a renowned art critic, once stated that Modernism was the most visually and intellectually consequential Western art movement since the Renaissance. It revolutionized traditional artistic styles by breaking away from pictorial realism – which had dominated for centuries.

The period of Modern art is generally considered to have spanned between 1900-1945. During this time several movements emerged such as Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, The Fauves, Expressionism, and Dadaism among others.


Like all subjects; we must consider Modern art against the backdrop of the political and social contexts of the time. This era saw remarkable advancements in technology, science, and psychology, as well as widespread political unrest. After an initial wave of optimism at the turn of the century about society’s progress, came World War 1 (1914) into which US troops entered in 1917. Meanwhile Russia became the world’s first Communist nation in 1917 in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution. Mexico underwent its own revolution from 1910-1917. By 1929, the New York Stock market crashed, plunging the West into the Great Depression. By the mid-thirties fascist dictators were in power over several nations- Benito Mussolini in Italy, Adolph Hitler in Germany, Francisco Franco in Spain, and Joseph Stalin maintained authoritarian rule over the Soviet Union.

At the same time, new theories and discoveries in psychology altered how humans viewed themselves and the world around them. Traditional theories of human awareness, unconsciousness, reason, and irrationality were challenged at unprecedented levels by Sigmund Freud’s and Ivan Pavlov’s ideas which shattered commonly held views on humanity while unleashing unrestrained impulses.

Similarly, modern artists challenged conventional norms with their innovative ways of seeing our world including ourselves and experiences. They sought to break free from traditional restraints through the Modernist urges for innovation inspired by societal changes at the time.

The First Modern Art Movement: The Fauves

This movement was met with significant criticism due to its approach and exploration beyond what had been previously accepted or understood. Art historians largely agree that the first Modern movement made its debut in the Salon d’Automne in 1905. Critic Louis Vauxcelles, reviewing the 1905 Salon d’Automne, referred to some young painters (including Henri Matisse) as fauves (wild beasts). Leaders of the movement, including Henri Matisse (1869-1954), advanced the colorist tradition in modern French painting alongside Impressionists and Post-Impressionists such as Gauguin and van Gogh.

Matisse's Woman With a Hat painting.

Matisse was interested in the disharmony created with color, juxtaposing complementary and contrasting colors which created an entirely unique visual experience - something exemplified by his controversial portrait of Amelie, his wife, titled The Woman with the Hat. The work, exhibited in the 1905 Salon, was thought to be portrayed as crude, with arbitrary colors that created harsh effects. Matisse defended his work in a 1908 pamphlet titled "Notes of a Painter.” He wrote, “What I am after, above all, is expression… The whole arrangement of my picture is expressive… The place occupied by figures or objects, the empty space around them, the proportions, everything plays a part.”


The Expressionist movement in northern Europe saw a surge of young artists who used abstracted forms and colors to convey complex emotional and spiritual states, following the footsteps of renowned painters like van Gogh and Ensor. However, members of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) took this further, leading one member to create some of the first completely abstract paintings ever seen.

Aquarelle Abstraite by Vasily Kandinsky is thought to be first abstract painting

The Blue Rider formed in Munich around the painters Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Franz Marc (1880-1916). Both artists considered blue the color of spirituality. Franz moved from a Barbizon-inspired landscape style to a colorful form of Expressionism influenced by the Fauves. Kandinski, the most radical of the Expressionists, broke away from traditional modes and sought to eliminate subject matter altogether and began to explore what art could do with colors and forms alone. Most art historians agree that Kandinsky created the first completely abstract artwork. Kandinsky saw his art as an opposition to the materialism of Western society and hoped his paintings would lead humanity toward greater self-awareness.


Of all Modern art movements created before World War 1, Cubism is thought to have had the most influence on later artists. The collaborative efforts of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) gave birth to this revolutionary style. Prior to his move to Barcelona in 1899 where he began to mingle with avant-garde circles, Picasso pursued a largely conservative artistic path. It was his painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) that is thought to be the painting that led to Cubism. To this day it continues to be regarded by many contemporary artists as the single most influential painting ever created.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso, thought to be the painting that led to Cubism

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was greatly inspired by Picasso’s interest in the expressive power of African art. However, Matisse, who was no stranger to criticism himself, upon viewing the work unsympathetically accused Picasso of making a joke of Modern art and threatened to break off their friendship. Matisse would also later reject Braque’s submission of Houses at L’Estaque into the 1908 Autumn Salon referring to the painting as “little cubes.” Nonetheless both Picasso and Braque set off together developing new ideas about Cubist style which aimed primarily at reducing or eliminating unnecessary detail to emphasize basic forms, thus creating a tension between order and disorder.


Dadaism emerged as the first artistic movement to boldly challenge and reject the violence and greed of World War 1. This form went beyond Modern arts exploration of humanity, and questioned language, reason, institutions – even challenging what constitutes “art” itself! Dadaist French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) believed that art should appeal to the intellect rather than the senses. Duchamp famously transformed ordinary objects into works of art simply through his decision to label them so. Perhaps the most notorious of these objects was Fountain: a urinal turned 90 degrees with the pseudonym “R. Mutt” scrawled across it.

Marcel Duchamp's Dadaist artwork "Fountain"

When Duchamp anonymously submitted the work for display into the first annual exhibition of the American Society of Independent Artists in 1917 (of which Duchamp was a founding member and head of the show’s hanging committee) simply to see how open the society was to pushing the limits of traditional thought, this provocative piece sparked outrage from society directors who deemed it indecent and unworthy of recognition as art; leading Duchamp to resign immediately thereafter. Yet despite such controversy surrounding his work – or perhaps because of it- many consider him a masterful philosopher whose irreverent challenges have helped reshape our preconceived notions about everything.

Gone are the days of realism dominated; modern artists sought to innovate by introducing fresh ways of perceiving the world around them through their art. Modern art includes some of the most well-known names and colorful characters in art history, and encompasses a wide range of styles, techniques, and philosophies that explore subjective and emotional aspects of society.

Modern art is about breaking free from limitations, traditional norms, and forms of expression. This shift has inspired many Contemporary artists who continue the legacy of Modern artists by experimenting with different approaches and ways of perceiving.

As saltz rightly puts it: “The warfare model” where each movement kills its predecessor is as effective as letting all kinds of artwork coexist within one’s creative space. Therefore, we must embrace diversity in our approach toward making and viewing art – this will help us create unique works while maintaining an appreciation for the past.

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(Cover image: Pablo Picasso, Family of Saltimbanques, 1905. Fig. 1: Henri Matisse, The Woman with a Hat, 1905. Fig. 2: Vasily Kandinsky, Aquarelle abstraite, 1910. Fig. 3: Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907. Fig. 4: Marcel Duchamp, The Fountain, 1917.)

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