Home Magazine Off the radar. 10 forgotten artists and movements of Modern Art

What is Modern Art? Modern Art is a concatenation of movements - Everything you need to know about Modernism in visual art - , but it is also the story of the “forgotten moderns”, of those who have been “aside” of the official, Western art world. 

Related articles: 30 seminal oil paintings of Modern Art - Who is considered the father of Modern Art criticism? - 20 modern artists you should know

Modern art should be the story of the ones who found little recognition in lifetime, such as the French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Cézanne, who was described by Henri Matisse as “The father of Modern Art” and received posthumous recognition. His work remains influential today. 

And what about the States? How was Modern art in America different from European Modern Art? While Cézanne was the forefather of EuropeanModernism, the AmericanModern Spiritwas encapsulated in the figure of Maurice Prendergast. The 1913 Armory Show - American’s first large-scale introduction to European Modernism - feared that the new European art would overshadow the work of American artists, because Modern Art in America was different and more traditional than Europe. Admiring Prendergast’s exquisite watercolors, you will immediately change your mind!

The history of modern disremembered artists and movements is the red thread that guides us in this brief excursus, from 1860 to 1960, from United States to India. 

The brilliant work of Hilma Af Klint- which has finally been given worthy attention - can be understood in the wider context of the Modernist search for new forms in artistic, spiritual, political, and scientific systems and the involvement in spiritism, very much in vogue at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. African American artist Horace Pippin had one of the most improbable careers in the history of 20th-century American art. He was already 43 when his works were chosen for the show of so-called naive, or primitive, art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Pippin had a short but extraordinary career that is not widely remembered. Though Brazilian painter Tarsila do Amaral is widely celebrated in her native country, the first exhibition in the United States devoted exclusively to her dates back only to 2018. From 1963 to 2005 Tarsila do Amaraldisappeared from the radar of art. Nigerian Ben Enwonwu writes in an important article: Problems of the African Artist Today(1956) “I will not accept an inferior position in the art world…European artists like Picasso, Braque were influenced by African art”. As an African artist, he felt undervalued and limited by colonialist forces and by the dominant discourse of Western and white modern art.

Rediscover the art of these 10 artists, decades after their death (except for one).

1. Maurice Prendergast- the “First American Modernist”

A true independent, Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1858 – 1924) fits into no particular category of modern American art. As a “post-impressionist painter”, he worked in oil, watercolor and monotype. Prendergaststudied in Paris from 1891 to 1895. A trip to Venice in 1898 exposed him to the inventive and complex genre scenes of the Venetian school. In 1908, he supported the protest of the group known as "The Eight" - which argued for the depiction of urban life against the conservative National Academy of Design - and this irrevocable association left him stylistically isolated in genealogies of modern art. His paintings, like BalloonandEaster Procession St. Mark’s in Venice -in jewel-like colors, with soft and rounded lines - resemble mosaics barely dampened by the rain.


Maurice Brazil Prendergast, Balloon, 1898, watercolors. 


2. Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh - the “Glasgow Style” girl of 1890s

The talented other half of Scotland's most famous architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh,Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (1864–1933) was the Modern designer of the Twentieth Century. Her innovative and imaginative work (she did not keep sketchbooks) was inspired by Celtic imagery, literature, symbolism and folklore. Art Nouveau, Egyptianand japanese decoration, Vienna Secessionism’s taste, they all converge in her well-known gesso panels made for interiors schemes, such as theRose Boudoirat the International Exhibition in Turin, in 1903, and the Willow Tea Roomsin Glasgow, in 1902. Mackintosh was active and recognised during her career - somewhat marginalised in comparison to her husband - but she definitely returned to the fore in the 1990s following the rediscovery of her grandest work the Seven Princesses.


Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, The white rose and the red rose, 1902, painted gesso over hessian, with glass beads, 38½ in. x 39½ in. (97.8 cm. x 100.3 cm.), Courtesy Sotheby’s.

3. Hilma af Klint- The first abstract Swedish theosophist

The spiritual paintings of Hilma af Klint(1862 – 1944) were the first Western abstract art, years before Kandinsky’s compositions. The exhibition "The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting 1890-1985” - organized in Los Angeles in 1986 - was the starting point of her international recognition. Before then, she rarely exhibited her radical paintings, untethered from any recognizable references to the physical world. “Paintings for the Future”, her first major solo show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, in 2019, was a pure revelation. Automatic drawings “painted directly through her”, which lead af Klint toward an inventive geometric visual language. Symbols, letters, and words evoking religions, atoms, and the plant world. Her paranormal ideas and the Theosophical teachings of Helena Blavatsky were shared with a group of artists called "The Five" (De Fem).


Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest, №7., Adulthood, Group IV, 1907, Tempera on paper mounted on canvas, 315 x 235 cm, ©Hilma af Klint.


4. Fermín Revueltas Sánchez - the protagonist of the “Movimiento Estridentista”

The color revolution of Mexican draftsman, architect, painter and stained glass artist - initiator of the Mexican muralist movement - Fermín Revueltas Sánchez (1901-1935) embraced the Stridentism. This Avant-garde and social changemovement in Mexico, during the 1920s, shared some characteristics with Russian Constructivism, Dadaism and the Futurism of Marinetti. Well before the famous muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, RevueltasSánchez developed a critical language of forms - from vignettes to rebellious woodcut engraving, from urban to rural landscaping. He also designed manifestosand posters for the revolutionary group !30-30!. Part of his production survives in the collection of theengineer Silvestre Revueltas. However, most of his stained glass windows and murals disappeared, while others were left unfinished due to his premature death at the age of 34.


Fermín Revueltas Sánchez, The Stag Dance, 1933, oil on canvas, 54 x 54.5 cm, Courtesy La Colección Andrés Blaisten, Mexico.


5. Lyubov Sergeyevna Popova - the first female pioneers in Cubo-Futurism

Russian painter and designer Lyubov Sergeyevna Popova (1889-1924) grew up, near Moscow, with a strong interest in ancient Russianicons, the paintings of Giotto, and Italian Renaissance visual treasures. After first exploring Impressionism, in 1914 she traveled in France and Italy, to develop that personal synthesis between Cubism and Futurism known as Russian Cubo-Futurism. Analytical geometry, conical forms and the feeling of speed and energy: what Popova termed “painterly architectonics” also suggests an affinity with the work of French painter Fernand Léger. As an “Artist-Constructor”, she had made Agitprop books, posters, textile designs, and line engravings. So far - since her last Russian major solo show in 1925 - few exhibitions have been dedicated to one of the “Amazons of the Avant-Garde”.


Lyubov Sergeyevna Popova, Objects from a Dyer's Shop, 1914, Oil on canvas, 27 3/4 x 35" (71 x 89 cm), The Riklis Collection of McCrory Corporation, Courtesy MoMA.

6. Horace Pippin - The rare genius of Harlem Renaissance

The self-taught artist Horace Pippin (1888-1946) - eulogized by the New York Times in 1947 as the "most important Negro painter" in American history - was the first African American to be the subject of a monograph, of three major retrospective exhibitions, several scholarly books and articles, and a book of poetry. He was discovered late in life, mostly post mortemas a “real and rare genius” of Folk Art. During his service in World War I, Pippin began to make pencil drawings in his War Notebooks(1920), and then devote himself to painting on stretched fabric. His first oil painting, The Ending of the War, Starting Home (1930) depicts a scene informed by his personal experience. Pippin also created images related to genre art,popular cultureand the injustice of slavery.


Horace Pippin, Christmas Morning, Breakfast, 1945, oil on canvas, 21 1/8 x 26 3/16 in. (53.6 x 66.5 cm), Courtesy The Edwin and Virginia Irwin Memorial. 

7. Tarsila do Amaral - The inventor of Modern Art in Brazil

The “Anthropophagic Manifesto” - published in 1928 - was inspired by Abaporu ("the man that eats people”), the most valuable painting by Brazilian modernist artist Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973). For the “Antropofagia Movement” (1920-1930), Brazil’s history of "cannibalizing" other cultures became a way to assert itself against European post-colonial cultural domination. In her paintings, drawings, illustrations, sketchbooks, photographs, prints, murals, and five sculptures, Amaralmixes surrealist European style with nationalistic bright colors and tropical images, considered “naïve", and "cerebral". Her iconic work helped Latin American art to develop more boldly and freely and allow us to rediscover Brazil's First Cannibal Art. The first exhibition in the United States devoted exclusively to Tarsila’s groundbreaking art was only in 2018.


Tarsila do Amaral. Abaporu. 1928. Oil on canvas, 33 7/16 x 28 3/4" (85 x 73 cm). Collection MALBA, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires. © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos.

8. Ben Enwonwu - The Négritudepainter behind Africa’s Mona Lisa

In 1937,Parisbecame the centre of the international Négritude, an anti-colonial cultural and political movement founded by a group of African and Caribbean students. Influenced by Surrealism and the Harlem Renaissance, Négritudecalled for an international African art and a viable philosophical model,in order to critique imperialismand European ethnocentrism. The Nigerian painter Ben Enwonwu(1917-94) was one of the leading artist of the movement and “the most influential African artist of the 20th century”, who recently gained renewed attention. In 1956, when the young artist was commissioned to do an official bronze sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II, Enwonwu was criticisedfor "Africanising" the lips of the Queen. This also proved that the new African Modern art was different from conventional art-historical narrative of European modernist.


Ben Enwonwu, Tutu, 1974, Courtesy of Bonhams London.

9. Gopal Ghose - The Indian modern wonderer

In 1943, West Bengal painter Gopal Ghose (1913-1980) founded the first group of modernist painters in India: the Calcutta Group. The social and political realities of the nation, including the rural India, at the time, were the core of the group’s research. What was considered an "artistic scandal” has been instrumental in the transformation of contemporary Indian art and society.

After several travels to Europe and America, Ghose started to rework the genre of landscape painting, investing it with European Expressionists and Cubists qualities - with watercolor, tempera, pen and ink, brush and pastel. Among his contemporaries, he stood out, both as a draughtsman and as a skilled water colorist. Sensual and lyrical, his experimentation has a miniature quality. 


Gopal Ghose, Returning Home, Through the Field, 1954, Pastel on paper; Conte crayon on paper, 13¾ x 20¾ in. (35 x 52.8 cm.); 14⅛x 19 in. (36 x 48.3 cm.), Private Collection, Courtesy Sotheby’s. 

10 Wadsworth Jarrell - A “bad relevant African artist”

American painter, sculptor and printmaker Wadsworth Jarrell (1929) - after attended the Art Institute of Chicago - became heavily involved in the local art scene and the sound of jazz music. In the late 1960s, he opened, with his wife, WJ Studio and Gallery where they hosted artists and musicians. In 1969, Jarrell co-founded AFRICOBRA: African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, which would become internationally acclaimed for its expansion of black empowerment. The abstract figures in Jarrell’s canvases, his totem sculptures and prints, and his experimentation with pigments and colors, are inspired by the masks and sculptures of Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso. “Vibrant, stylistically innovative and politically engaged art”. What a Pity that his last solo shows date back to 1990s.


Wadsworth Jarrell, Woman Supreme, 1974, acrylic and metal foil on canvas, Overall: 45 1/2 × 29 1/2 inches (115.6 × 74.9 cm), Courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts.


Cover image: Tarsila do Amaral. Abaporu. 1928. Oil on canvas, 33 7/16 x 28 3/4" (85 x 73 cm). Collection MALBA, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires. © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos.

Written by Petra Chiodi

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