To Dream, to Collect

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Modern art describes visual art produced from the 1860s right up to the 1970s. 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. Realism is often recognized as the first truly modern movement in visual art. The realists aimed to portray - with uncompromising and unidealised accuracy – the world around them. This stood in heavy contrast to the mainly religious and grandiose history paintings that populated the salons in Paris. Realism was followed by other Paris-based movements such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Abstraction then became central to modern artists through the innovations of individuals such as Hilma af Klint. Later in the 20thCentury, America became the centre of the large-scale abstract painting. 

Related articles: Modernism in visual art - 51 Most Popular Contemporary Artists 

1. Gustave Courbet (b.1819)

Gustave Courbet was the pioneer of Realism in 19th-century France and remains its most well-known exponent. Stylistically, he often employed the use of a palette knife to create heavy, impasto paintings which demonstrated his difference from the overly finished surface of academic paintings. 

Courbet was born at Ornans and exhibited at the Paris saloon in 1844, however, his revered reputation waned from this point on due to the controversial nature of his work. He is well-known for arguably staging the first solo show outside of any institution, after he was rejected from showing in Paris’ Exposition Universelle in 1855. To counter this move he put on what he called The Pavilion of Realism in a tent-like structure to showcase his position as a realist. 

In general, Courbet was highly committed to painting unromanticised visions of the world, and this is reflected in works such as The Stone Breakers, from 1849. 


Gustave Courbet, The Stone Breakers, 1849.


2. Edouard Manet (b.1832)

Édouard Manet was a French modernist painter. Like Courbet – who was a large influence on his work – he was one of the first 19th-century painters of modern life, and is now regarded as a central part of the shift from Realism to Impressionism. 

Despite the fact he was born into an upper-class household with strong political connections, Manet made the decision after failing to enter to the Navy to commit himself to his art. He is now well-known for works he did early in his career such as The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe)and Olympia, both of which were painted in 1863, and which led to much controversy. Despite Manet’s numerous attempts to defend his work, these scenes were often criticised throughout the decade. Olympia was considered the most scandalous work in the Salon of 1865. Despite the fact it owed an art-historical debt to Titian’s much-admired work The Venus of Urbino– which hangs in the Ufizzi in Florence – this in practise only led to further polarise the public’s perception of appropriate renderings of the female nude: a voluptuous goddess was deemed acceptable, whereas a prostitute pushed the boundaries.


Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863.


3. Paul Cezanne (b.1839)

Paul Cézanne was one of the greatest of the Post-Impressionist painters, and an individual whose works and ideas were hugely influential in the aesthetic progress of a host of 20th-century artists and art movements, most notably that of Cubism. Cézanne’s art, like many of the figures discussed in this text was often publicly misunderstood. His own practice began most closely aligned with the Impressionists but ended up effectively challenging many of the conservative ideals of visual art in the 19th century, owing primarily to his insistence on subjective vision. Also central to his beliefs was the integrity of the painting itself as an object – irrespective of what it was aiming to represent. 

Cezanne was a vigorous innovator and would continually update his practice to reflect different modes of representation. For example, in his still-life paintings from the mid-1870s, Cézanne left behind the impastoed paint surfaces he was known for, and developed new theories of vision with regards to issues of form and colour. He called this new style “constructive brushstrokes,” which aimed to give more weight to his forms. One example is Still Life with Jar, Cup, and Applesfrom 1877, which shows the emphasis on gradation he opted for in later life. 


Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Jar, Cup, and Apples, 1877.


4. Claude Monet (b.1840)

Claude Monet’s name is the one most associated with Impressionism: in fact it was after a work he completed called Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), 1874, that the whole movement takes its name. Monet was a pioneer in the style for a number of reasons: he firmly advocated working en plein air, and that artists must study nature and the optical effects of light in person. Following on from this, he is well-known for completing series of works which centre around one subject matter in order to study the effects of light on a scene throughout the day, or in different seasons. Examples of these works are haystacks and churches. Monet’s house at Giverny has also become entwined with perceptions of his art. Monet bought the house in 1883 and embarked on a large landscape project by creating the large lily pond he would paint countless times over the last 20 years of his life.  


Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise),1874.


5. Vincent Van Gogh (b.1853)

Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch post-impressionist painter who ranks amongst the most well-known figures in the history of art. Living a relatively short life, most of his work was done in a very prolific ten-year period, where he painted almost 2,100 artworks. They encompass a broad range of subject matter including portraits and self-portraits, landscapes and still lives Stylistically, Van Gogh’s works form a relatively homogenous continuum (unlike Cezanne, for example) and are broadly typified by their bold, bright colour schemes and the dramatic, often-impulsive and highly expressive brushstrokes that so evidently contributed to the foundations of all subsequent modern art. It is well known than Van Gogh found no commercial success in his lifetime and in fact committed suicide at the age of 37 after problems surrounding his mental health. 


Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889.


6. George Seurat (b.1859)

Georges Seurat was a part of the post-Impressionist movement in France. His largest technical innovation came from developing the technique he used in painting known as pointillism. Less well known but also significant was ‘chromoluminarism’, which shared many of the same ideas. Pointillism as a term was first used by art critics to poke fun at the artistic innovations, but it is now widely used as a complimentary term. Practically, the technique describes a method of painting characterised by using dots instead of brushstrokes. It relies in a sense on the potential of the eye and mind of the viewer to blend the spots into a fuller and smoothly gradated range of tones. Seurat is seen as being particularly interesting owing to the juxtaposition inherent to his artistic personality. This revolves around his highly sensitive aestheticism on one side, which is opposed to his obsession with a kind of scientific and mathematical abstraction common in his works and theories of vision. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1886) is undoubtedly one of the most iconic works from the latter part of the 19thcentury. 


Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, (1884–1886).


7. Hilma Af Klint (b.1862)

Hilma af Klint was a Swedish artist who extended her visual interests into mysticism and spirituality. Her paintings, which have only very recently been appropriately considered and examined art historically are considered the first examples of Western abstract art (many of her abstract works significantly predate what are considered the first ‘purely’ abstract works by Kandinsky). Hilma af Klint was part of a unique group known as "The Five", which consisted of a number of women who advocated attempts at contacting what af Klint called the ‘High Masters’. The sessions were meditative and sometimes were in the form of seances. Her paintings, although understood as abstract, can also be seen as diagrams in some form which represent her spiritual paths of meaning. She certainly occupies a very unique terrain within the wider story of modern art and her singular vision draws very few comparisons. 


Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest, No. 7, Adulthood, Group IV, 1907.


8. Edvard Munch (b.1863)

Edvard Munch was an enigmatic Norwegian painter recognised for his anguish-ridden depictions of figures often in landscapes. The Scream, his most famous work, is an icon of art and has spawned a whole genre of images in popular culture. Munch came up with the idea of The Screamin the city we now call Oslo. He supposedly was out walking one evening when we suddenly 'heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature'. The tortured face depicted in the work is often recognised as the general angst and malaise associated with the archetypical modern individual. 

Most of Munch’s works are categories as being ‘Symbolist’, in that they focus on the internal meaning and depiction of the objects represented, as contrasted to solely an image of their outward appearances. Symbolist painters advanced the idea that art should in some way be subjective, and embody emotions and abstract ideas rather than focus on narrative and an objective rendering of things. 


Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893.


9. Piet Mondrian (b.1872)

Piet Mondrian was a Dutch painter and inventor of visual theories who is now seen as one of the most innovative artists to have emerged in the 20thcentury. Ceaselessly experimenting with abstraction throughout his early years, his artistic journey can be seen as a total reduction of form and colour which resulted in him only using simple geometric elements – straight lines and the three primary colours – to create his now very famous compositions. 

Mondrian’s work was highly conceptual, and he believed he could find universal truths through the geometric expressions he was concerned with. In 1914 he said ‘[A]rt is higher than reality and has no direct relation to reality. To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual’. 

The movement he is most associated with is called Neoplasticism which essentially means a novel and 'pure plastic art'. Through this pared-down mode of visual expression, Mondrian hoped to communicate the 'universal beauty' he believed to be inherent to these works. 


Piet Mondrian, Composition C (No.III) with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1921.


10. Pablo Picasso (b.1881)

Pablo Picasso was an artist born in Spain but who is often associated with France. His work encompassed a large number of genres, and he is renowned as a: painter, printmaker, sculptor, ceramicist and even theatre designer who spent most of his adult life in France. 

He was a hugely prolific artist, but some of his two strongest works are generally considered to be Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), and Guernica(1937). Arguably the most important artist of the modern era, he is renowned for the part he played within the founding of Cubism, as well as a host of other achievements such as the formation of constructed sculpture, a pioneer of the collage form, and also for the myriad of later techniques and styles he continued to experiment in. The work of Picasso is often split into a variety of loosely defined time-periods, namely: the Blue Period (1901–1904), the Rose Period (1904–1906), African-influenced Period (1907–1909), Analytic Cubism (1909–1912), and Synthetic Cubism (1912–1919). 


Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907.


11. Georges Braque (b.1882)

Georges Braque’s life and work is often overshadowed by that of Picasso, with whom he founded Cubism in the early 20thcentury. Of a very similar age and with similar visual theories, both of their work at the early stages of the cubist movement – from 1908 and up until 1912 - was difficult to tell apart. Aside from Cubism, Braque was renowned as an excellent draughtsman, collage artist, sculptor as well as printmaker. Braque was also involved in the fauvist movement from the first decade of the 20thcentury. 


Georges Braque, Bottle and Fishes, 1910.


12. Georgia O’Keeffe (b.1887)

Georgia O'Keeffe was an American artist who is universally acclaimed for her role in American modernism and for developing a totally unique visual vocabulary which centres around paintings of enlarged flowers alongside New York skyscrapers as well as landscapes from New Mexico where she lived at the end of her life. In her early artistic career, she was introduced to the artistic theories and philosophies of Arthur Dow who was a highly esoteric artists working with principles of subjective vision and interpretation. 


Georgia O’Keeffe, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932.


13. Marcel Duchamp (b.1887)

Marcel Duchamp was one of the most radical and progressive artists of the 20thcentury, often seen as the first truly conceptual artists and most famous for incorporating everyday ‘readymade’ objects into his practice. He was French and American and worked variously as a painter, sculptor and subsequently chess player and writer. Despite his enigmatic qualities, he overlapped with a number of highly important movements including that Cubism, Dada, and conceptual art. 

By the end of the first decade of the 20thcentury, Duchamp had become increasingly radical and was no longer interested in traditional mediums and the artists that employed them. He came up with a critical binary of ‘retinal’ art and non-retinal art, which allowed him to categorise art made as serving either solely the eyes (retinal art) or both the eye and the mind. Most enduring of all his works is his 1917 readymade, Fountain, which was become a symbol for all subsequent avant-garde art. 


Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.


14. Mark Rothko (b.1903)

Mark Rothko occupies a position as one of the most mystical and brooding artists of the modern era, and his colour-plane paintings are often seen as attempts to depict the inner depths of the human psyche. Not personally identifying with any concurrent artistic movement, Rothko was most often associated with the Abstract Expressionists owing to the large scale and abstract nature of his work. His works are all variations upon a common arrangement of varying colours, and stand totally alone as paintings in the history of art. \

Rothko’s most well-known quotation reads: ‘[I]’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions. If you…are moved only by their colour relationships, then you miss the point’. 


Mark Rothko, Light Red over Black, 1958.


15. Frida Kahlo (b.1907)

Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter whose own personal narrative looms just as large as her art in the popular imagination. This is in part due to the fact that almost a third of her entire artistic output consisted of self-portraits, and all of her other work closely referenced her life. Some of the themes she often returned to were her difficult personal life, her relationship with the mural painter and revolutionary Diego Riviera and her persistent illness. 

Her style has been defined in a variety of ways but which share some common elements: Kahlo’s foundational motifs were drawn from Mexican popular culture and she utilised an essentially folkish and naïve style to render her often mythical, surreal and fantastical worlds. Politically, she was very active and belonged to the post-revolutionary Mexicayotl movement, which aimed at its core to advance a novel form of Mexican personhood.


Frida Khalo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Dr Leo Eloesser, 1940.


16. Francis Bacon (b.1909)

Francis Bacon created some of the most unsettling and perverse paintings of the 20thcentury, often understood in relation to the horrors of modern life. Bacon was an Irish-born but English painter mainly working in a figurative manner. His subject matter varied, and  included within it scenes of crucifixions, portraits of anguished popes, unnerving self-portraits. Often, Bacon employed the use of a geometric framework to lend a space to the otherwise formless, colour-plane environments that his subjects existed within. Never fitting into an artistic movement, Bacon was often seen as part of the diverse School of London that existed at the time and included other luminaries such as Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach who have all become renowned in modern painting. 

It is possible to categorise Bacon’s paintings into various different time periods where ge would make work fixated upon a single motif or series of images. Bacon worked a kot from photographs and was very influenced by early experiments in the genre and individuals such as Edward Muybridge. The loosely defined periods include: the Furies and bio-morphs he made throughout the 30’s, the mostly-male faces and heads standing alone in rooms or barely defined spaces in the 40’s, the series of ‘screaming popes’ from the 50’s, the early various scenes of crucifixions done in the 60’s and finally the self-portraits from the 70’s. 

Read more about Francis Bacon here.

Francis Bacon, Triptych August 1972, 1972.


17. Jackson Pollock (b.1912)

Jackson Pollock invented the contemporary idea of the mythical artist through his nonchalant public persona, personal issues and enigmatic working style, with Life Magazine dubbing him the ‘greatest living painter’ in 1951. 

His main formal breakthrough came in the late 1940’s when he began to law his canvases horizontally on the floor of his studio and drip enamel paint on them from above, creating his ‘drip paintings’. This performative process which directly and physical engaged his body and its movement into his paintings was one of the largest stylistic innovations of the 20thcentury. Pollock believed in the utopian quality of the pure, unbridled abstraction of line and form, and didn’t want his paintings to be understood as representing anything in the world. In political terms, Pollock’s work came to be seen as emblematic of American individualism during the cold war and there have been suggestions they were used as propaganda tools by the CIA. 


Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1949, 1949.


18. Joseph Beuys (b.1921)

Joseph Beuys was a German artist mainly working in a Conceptual and performative vein. He has become well-known for the totally unique way he worked and the often bizarre subject matter he chose to illustrate his themes of war, love and life. Always committed to a radical agenda, Beuys’ “social sculpture” was an attempt to collapse the divide between art and life and eventually aimed at making visual art more of a democratic process that every single individual was capable of taking part in. 


Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974.


19. Yves Klein (b.1928)

Much like Beuys, Klein also often incorporated a live, performance-related element to many of his most significant works of art. Klein was a French artist and became the principal figure in the France-based post-war movement called Nouveau réalisme that was founded by the art critic Pierre Restany in 1960. Klein’s career intersects with many movements, including those of performance art, minimal art, and even pop art.

International Klein Blue remains Klein’s most well-known artistic creation, and it was a colour that he patented in 1961. Klein commented that ‘[B]lue…is beyond dimensions, whereas the other colours are not. All colours arouse specific ideas, while blue suggests at most the sea and the sky; and they, after all, are in actual, visible nature what is most abstract.” Klein employed the colour in a variety of monochromatic works which have come to typify his whole oeuvre, including when used in a performance involving nude women who dipped themselves in the paint before pressing themselves onto paper, all directed by Klein in formal evening attire.


Yves Klein, Anthropométrie, 1960.


20. Andy Warhol (b.1928)

Andy Warhol’s name has become synonymous with the movement he was so fundamental to, and which he embodied in his personal life and public persona: pop art. Often describing himself as a machine, Warhol investigated the role of images and specifically mass-media in contemporary, consumerist American society in the. 1960’s. 

His now incredibly valuable and ubiquitous silkscreens of pop cultural and brand consumer icona (including figures such as Marilyn Monroe and brands such as Campbell’s Soup Cans) — have become the default way to understand American society at the time. Warhol claimed that ‘[T]he best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people in it do’. 


Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962.



Cover image: Piet Mondrian, Composition C (No.III) with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1921.

Written by Max Lunn

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