A Simple View of Modern Art Movements

Once upon a time, at a college far far away, I took a 20th century art history class. However, this era was fraught with overlapping artistic movements and philosophies, and, quite frankly, their names are just a big tangled mess in my memory. Memorizing proper nouns and dates is not my strong suit.

But, as an artist, people expect me to know this stuff by heart. So here I am…subjecting you all to my studies!

(And thanks to Outmane Amahou for these excellent, minimalist graphics!)


Expressionism (1905-1925)


Everyone who renders directly and honestly whatever drives him to create is one of us.” -Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Expressionists wished to convey personal emotion, considering the the inner vision of the artist more important than reproducing a subject accurately. They used distorted and exaggerated forms, vivid colors, bold brushstrokes, and bold outlines in the interest of emotional effect.



Post-Impressionism (1880-1905)


Nature is not only all that is visible to the eye…It also includes the inner pictures of the soul.” -E. Munch

The Post-Impressionists were a few independent artists who were dissatisfied by the limitations of Impressionism (i.e. naturalistism). They painted subjects that were symbolic and held highly personal meanings, hoping to explore their inner world so as to connect more profoundly with their audience.


Dadaism (1915-1922)


DADA, as for it, it smells of nothing, it is nothing, nothing, nothing.” -Francis Picabia

Dadaists called into question the validity of the society that could produce the horrific events of WWI. They created works that were irrational, absurd, and nihilistic so as to draw attention to the nonsensical nature of war. The name itself, “Dada”, is made up.



Cubism (1908-1914)


Cubism is like standing at a certain point on a mountain and looking around. If you go higher, things will look different; if you go lower, again they will look different. It is a point of view.” -Jacques Lipchitz

Cubists focused on how to describe space, volume, and mass. They abandoned the logics of perspective and began looking at their subjects in a new way, using interlocking planes and breaking up the subject in abstract forms in order to portray various viewpoints in one artwork. Styles also began to reflect the geometry and angles of the fast-growing, industrial urbanity.



Surrealism (1924-1940)


Although the dream is a very strange phenomenon and an inexplicable mystery, far more inexplicable is the mystery and aspect our minds confer on certain objects and aspects of life.” -G. de Chirico

An anarchic rejection of conventional values, and highly influenced by Freudian theories, Surrealists attempted to challenge reality and unlock the mind’s creative potential by exploring the unconscious. They portrayed the weird and the fantastic, often including an element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur.



Pop Art (1954-1976)


Pop is everything art hasn’t been forthe lasttwo decades. It’s basically a U-turn back to a representational visual communication, moving at a break-away speed…Pop is a re-enlistment in the world…It is the American Dream, optimistic, generous and naïve.” -Jim Dine

Think “Popular Culture”. Pop Art was a sharp turn back to representational art and is at times considered a critical commentary of the values of traditional fine art. Artists drew inspiration from modern popular culture and the mass media, such comic strips, canned goods, and science fiction.


Op Art (1964-1970 )


There was a time when meanings were focused and reality could be fixed; when that sort of belief disappeared, things became uncertain and open to interpretation.” -Bridget Riley

Op (short for “Optical”) artists explored the connections between perception, technology and psychology. They embraced research and experiment, exploring different ways to create the illusion of movement in their art. It is characterized by geometrical forms with patterns and color to create optical illusions.



Fauvism (1905-1910)


If the trees look yellow to the artist then painted a bright yellow they must be.” -Paul Gauguin

From the French word fauve , meaning “wild beast .” Fauvists sought to express their feelings towards a subject with styles that were painterly and anti-naturalistic. They used distorted forms and vivid, often unmixed, colors.



De Stijl (C.1917-1931)


We speak of concrete and not abstract painting because nothing is more concrete, more real than a line, a color, a surface.” -Theo van Doesburg

Also known as “neoplasticism”. These artists reduced objects into pure geometric forms, intent upon developing a kind of universal visual language. The most popular artworks employed bold vertical and horizontal lines and geometric blocks of primary colors.



Futurism (1909-1915)


“Idealists, workers of thought, unite to show how inspiration and genius walk in step with the progress of the machine, of aircraft, of industry, of trade, of the sciences, of electricity.” -Filippo Marinetti

Futurism was Italian art movement that celebrated urban modernity and technology. Artists rejected old cultural traditions and glorified the energy and dynamism of the modern machine age. They sought to portray sensations, movements, and rhythms in their paintings.



Abstract Expressionism(1944 and 1960)


The texture of experience is prior to everything else.” – Willem de Kooning

The Abstract Expressionists emphasized form and color with nonrepresentational forms. They attempted to express profound emotion and the struggle between coherent self-expression and the mystery of the unconsciousness.




One response to “A Simple View of Modern Art Movements

  1. I love all your posts on art history. Thank you for sharing your knowledge in a simplistic and understandable way.
    If I had spare time on my hands, I would sit around and read all books out there on art history. Unfortunately that’s the case, that’s why appreciate your posts.

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