Home Magazine Everything you need to know about Modernism in visual art

Modernism was an international movement across many societies that began at the end of the nineteenth century and continued well into the middle of the twentieth century. Its influence and effect on the way we now live cannot be underestimated. Modernism was in part a response to the radically shifting conditions of life surrounding the rise of industrialisation. In the visual arts, artists made work using fundamentally new subject matter, working techniques and materials to better encapsulate this change as well as the hopes and dreams of the modern world. 

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Gustave Courbet, Les raboteurs de parquet, oil on canvas, 1875.


Taken as a whole, the term ‘modern art’ refers to millions of modern paintings and other art objects made across every continent over a period spanning roughly a century. Modern art began being made as early as the 1860’s and was arguably being produced as late as 1970. The popularly understood meaning of modern art is that it is art which rejects art historical traditions and embraces experimentation. Several paradigm shifting, artistic innovations were made throughout this period including the move away from narrative and figuration to abstraction. 


Installation view of Hilma af Klint’s paintings in the Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2019. The paintings date from the early 20th century and are considered to be the first abstract paintings ever made. 


Historical context: 

Modernist art was inextricably linked to the philosophical patterns of thought that had emerged from the fallout of the Enlightenment. These include influential figures such as Emmanuel Kant. Many thinkers see the French Revolution of 1789 as being fundamental to the start of modern era, due to its violent overthrowing and questioning of societal institutions and attitudes that had pervaded unchecked for centuries. 

In terms of modernist art, and particularly modernist painting, there were a number of early, pioneering movements that were foundational to all subsequent modernism. These were principally the Impressionist painters, the Romantics and the Realists. Towards the beginning of the 20th century there were a greater diversity of movements including Cubism, Symbolism, Futurism and post-Impressionism which all existed under the rubric of what we now call modernist art. 

The stylistic and formal influences on this array of early modernist movements was varied and global. Edouard Manet, for example, who was a key Impressionist painter was heavily influenced by the Japanese Ukiyo-e prints. These allowed him to make flatter paintings with less of an emphasis on perspective, whilst still representing the world around him in a sensitive manner. Abstract painters across different movements were certainly influenced by the innovations made by artists such as Delacroix and Turner. Realist painters such as Courbet were influenced by an everyday depiction of events, and eschewed the stylised and idealistic depictions of life that populated traditional, academic art. 


Edouard Manet, Portrait of Emile Zola, oil on canvas, 1868.


Before the early modern period, art mostly came about through a commission by a patron and so was implicated in a wider economic agreement between agents. Throughout the nineteenth century, this changed as artists began to break away from these strictures and made work exploring subjective perspectives. Although Sigmund Freud’s 1899 work The Interpretation of Dreams was not widely read at the time, it signalled a shifting understanding of the subconscious mind and encouraged explorations in this arena and is crucial to interpreting these changing structures of artistic production. 


Sketch of Sigmund Freud by Salvador Dali, 1938.


Modernism beyond visual art: 

Modernist art was interrelated with its sister movements in other areas of cultural production, notably music, literature and architecture. 

In literature, the impetus towards accurately depicting a changed, industrialised world was the same as in the visual arts. In literature, however, although a number of authors including Joseph Conrad and Henry James are associated with modernism, it is only really in the post WW1 period that modern literature begins to be written. One of the pioneering modern literary works was The Waste Land, a poem written in 1922 by the English writer T.S. Elliot. 

In music, innovative composers such as Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky experimented with novel tonal arrangements, producing entirely different musical compositions. The same was true of the performing arts and its use of music: figures such as Loie Fuller completely deconstructed traditional forms of dance such as ballet and created what we now understand as modern dance. 

The same story also happened in architecture, and by the end of the nineteenth century a whole new approach, which embraced functionality and innovation was beginning to take over. In the decade following WW1, what is now known as the International Style took hold across Europe. Buildings in this style were free from ornament and other historical references, favouring unadorned walls. Le Corbusier and his pronouncement that a house should a machine for living embodied this approach. 


Le Corbusier’s Weissenhof House, 1927, Stuttgart with a 1929 Mercedes Benz.

Modernist innovation:

Modern painting was characterised by a host of innovations that allowed new subjective perspectives on the world, and for artists to explore aesthetic and sensorial effects in their work. In the case of the Impressionist painters, they believed in trying to communicate sensibilities such as mood, atmosphere and certain optical effects into their paintings. Monet would often paint the same view a number of different times in a single day to explore the differing ways the sun and shadows altered the appearance of a building, sky and body of water. To achieve this, they would often paint outside: en plein air. 

Aside from technical innovations, the Impressionists were also inventive in the way they came together as a self-identifying group which allowed them to mount exhibitions. They called their group the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs ("Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers") and they followed certain methods of working. This was seen to trump the then-traditional model of a national style, and was repeatedly followed throughout the modern period. 


Monet in his garden at Giveny, France.


Key, early movements of modernism: 

Having discussed impressionism above, it is important to explore the breadth of the other central modernist styles and movements that have defined art since. They are: 

1. Cubism: 

The central figure of cubism in the popular imagination is Pablo Picasso: the word has almost become a description of some of his works. Georges Braque, however, was also foundational to the hugely important movement and the two artists worked together to create this geometric style with its emphasis on flattening of pictorial space and reductive qualities. Both Picasso and Braque’s cubist-era work looks very similar and aimed conceptually to emphasise the illusionistic flatness of the canvas and foreground this in an experience of looking. An important work from the movement is Picasso’s 1907 painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), which shows the influence of tribal art from Africa through its depictions of figures. Another important stylistic innovation was the ability of Braque and Picasso to use a monochromatic gradation to focus on the geometry of the paintings. 


Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, oil on canvas 1907.


2. Post-impressionism: 

Post-impressionism’s name suggests its beginnings: it aimed to go much further than its already ground-breaking predecessors and was again based out of France - and Paris in particular. It had got well underway by the beginning of the 20th century and some of its main exponents were the painters Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh. They further deconstructed what it meant to depict a pure and subjective expression and were radical in their simplicity and brushwork. Although now labelled as a movement, and despite the fact that many of the principal figures were aware of the other members and their practices, they often worked in solitude and without the same communicative aspect to their working lives. This produced a real divergence of work, with one extreme example being that of the aforementioned Georges Seurat and his defining painting in the pointillist style from 1884-6, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. 


Georges Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, oil on canvas, 1884-6.


3. Futurism: 

Almost exclusively Italian and one of the more radical and politically motivated movements of modernism was Futurism. The 1909 manifesto of the movement, written by Filippo Marinetti declared that ‘the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed’, and he went on to explain how traditional cultural forms were of no use to this modern and industrialised society: ‘a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.’ The movement saw itself as a totality of culture, inviting not just painters and sculptors to join its ranks, but also writers, dancers and architects. Futurism has since drawn controversy due to its seeming endorsements of violence and misogyny. Many of the most defining images of Futurism contain machines, depicted in a geometric way to emphasise movement, dynamism and speed. Bright and bold planes of colour added to the general effect. Despite being firmly pro-war and expounding the virtues and changes that war could bring, the movement waned with the cruel reality of the Second World War. 

4. Vorticism: 

Often seen in parallel with Futurism, Vorticism also embraced the machine aesthetic and ideology of the automated. It was a distinctly English movement, pioneered by Wyndham Lewis just before World War One, with input from Ezra Pound. They had a print output in the form of their magazine Blast, which espoused their theories to an audience. Key to their thinking was the suggestion that it was only abstraction and its possibilities of novel representation that could help the nation move on from their dominating and claustrophobic attachment to the moralising and outmoded Victorian culture that pervaded so severely. Vorticism’s fate was similar to that of Futurism, however, with their ardent pro-machine position firmly implicating them with a pro-war perspective. The death of two well-known proponents of the Vorticist movement, namely Gaudler-Brzeska and T.E. Hulme in World War One, was a blow it never really recovered from. 

5. Constructivism: 


Picture of Tatlin’s Monument for the Third International, mixed media, 1919-20.


The Constructivist movement demonstrated how modernism spread far beyond the confines of Europe. The movement was much influenced by concurrent movements on the continent, however, and as the aesthetics and ideology of Futurism and Cubism took hold further east, they blended with the revolutionary zeal of Russia at the time to form Constructivism. The basic tenant of the movement was a suggestion that the construction of art should be from industrial materials in order to serve a social purpose, rather than just expounding abstraction for its own sake. The Russian often credited with kickstarting constructivism is Vladimir Tatlin who was exposed to the cubism of Picasso whilst studying in Paris. Tatlin made his way back to Russia, and subsequently in 1920 wrote the Realist Manifesto which like previously discussed modernist movements fetishised machines and technology. The movement centred around art serving a distinct purpose, and so shifted the focus from painters to the graphic arts and architecture. The enduring image of constructivism remains a design proposal for a monument that Tatlin made. Called the Monument for the Third International (1919–20), the sculpture-like object was never actually built but imagines a futuristic spiral of a building which was intended for government use. 

Other defining moments  of modernism: 


Gustave Courbet, The Stone Breakers, oil on canvas, 1849.


The above image shows a painting by the realist painter, Gustave Courbet. He was seen as one of the first modern painters to scrutinise reality and aim to paint without ideology or illusion. The Stone Breakers is unremarkable to a modern sensibility, but went against the privileging of religious, mythological and historical painting that existed at the time in the French salons. It was deemed shocking when exhibited. 



Marcel Duchamp, The Fountain, 1917 (replica).


The above image is from the Dada artist Marcel Duchamp. The highly unconventional group was founded in Zurich, which was a neutral city amidst the horrors of the First World War. Its aims were deliberately absurd, but was politically radical and again wanted to foreground an entirely new aesthetic sensibility that embraced chance and the nonsense. 


Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles, oil on canvas, 1952.


The above image is from one of the later, great modern art movements to come out of America known as Abstract Expressionism. Jackson Pollock along with other titans of modern art Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning conceived of a large scale, bold expression of pure and untethered abstraction which was entwined with American individualism. 

There were a host of other movements that were central to modernism. Many of them came out of America in the mid 20th century, such as the aforementioned Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. The advent of Pop Art and Neo-Dada artists such as Robert Rauschenberg in America signalled the beginning of the end of modernism. With the visual landscape radically altered by mass media and the societal upheavals of the 1960’s hanging in the air – these artists began to question the artist’s role in society and what roles images played in shaping people’s daily reality – in a manner unknown to the modernist artists. 


Cover image: Georges Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, oil on canvas, 1884-6

Written by Max Lunn


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