Home Magazine What is Modern Painting?

Modernism developed between the 19th and 20th century. Including many art forms and movements, artists break with the past. By looking at Modern Paintings, we can understand the ideas which push Modern Artists to focus on the medium of their work, and distance themselves from the traditions of Figurative Art.

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In Europe, towards the end of the 1800s and the start of the 1900s, the growing wealth of the bourgeoisie made us look at the period as one of prosperity. Indeed, the name we give to this period is the belle époque. But poverty is widespread, and only a few benefit from the growing economy.

The classist society is full of unhappiness and socio-political tensions. Indeed, the conditions the working class lived and worked in, as well as the fight for women’s right to vote become central themes with the rise of capitalism. The very contrasts which characterize this period are those which lead to the Modern Era. In fact, artists are unsatisfied with tradition. The purpose and means of art must change.

Developing until the 1960s, Modernism encompasses various artistic styles and many forward-thinking artists. It is an era of experimentation in which new ways of representing reality are born. Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism, Primitivism (read more here): the way materials and mediums are used, and even the purpose of art change drastically. All this is thanks to the creation of new, liberated aesthetic standards and everything is happening at a pace that could hardly have ever seemed possible before.


Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Courtesy of Blogspot.com © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski.


How does Modernism start?

In 1863, Parisian artist Édouard Manet painted Olympia. Manet presents it at the Parisian Salon, a yearly official art exhibition which presented only the artworks which were approved by the Académie des Beaux-Arts. The response to this artwork marks Art History forever. This is the start of Modernism.

One look at this painting and we are thrown back into artistic tradition. Specifically, it reminds us of how women have been represented for centuries, and specifically of the goddess Venus lying on a bed in the exact same position. But who is this woman in Manet’s painting? And what has Manet done with the delicate beauty of Venus?

Shocking for anyone trying to show off their class, wealth, and morality – Olympia is a prostitute. Although, it is not her nudity that is scandalous, but the way she stares at the viewer as if to confront them about their superficial morality. In fact, she earns her living by pleasing those very men who would publicly condemn prostitution as immoral.

With a black lace tied around her neck, Olympia is lying on an undone bed – precisely where the impure act could have happened just moments before. She is even still wearing her slippers! And with a cat at her feet, symbolising lust and infidelity, she is definitely not showing the ‘virgin innocence’ of Venus. How could the bourgeoisie look at this painting with the symbols they know so well, and turn the other way?

This painting criticises society and, of course, is considered immoral – just as the act itself. But it is not only the contemporary subject which causes this reaction. The technique Manet uses in this painting is quick and imprecise compared to the absolute precision of realism. All-round this painting was a true scandal! And it is with this painting that, for many art critiques, Manet sets himself as the pioneer of Modernism – starting what yet is to be embraced by his contemporaries.


What is the critical idea behind Modernism?

Modernism is ‘discipline’ which ‘criticises the discipline itself’, in the words of art critique Greenberg. By explaining the Philosophical Movement, Greenberg breaks down the idea behind the anti-traditional art forms. But what does this author mean by a ‘discipline’ which ‘criticises discipline itself’?

When looking at a realist painting the object appears to be central. On the contrary, in Modernism, the medium, paint and material are in the spotlight. In other words, Modern Art does not hide the limitations of a medium: the two-dimensional reality, flatness, opaqueness, brushstrokes, and unrealistic pigments. For modernists, who have seen photography become more and more common, these are the real advantages of painting.


Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral, End of the Day, 1894, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


Think for instance of the Impressionist Movement. With this group of artists and their en plein air paintings of modern life, Art becomes strictly connected to the uniqueness of its medium. The pigments and brushstrokes are clearly visible – not hidden! Looking at Claude Monet’s series of Rouen Cathedral (1892-4), the advantages of paint, along with the painter's sensibility are obvious. The Impressionists try to capture a specific moment, atmosphere and light in their paintings. And this is something which could not have ever been achieved with photography or the canons of the past.

The Era of Enlightenment in which the observer was more interested in the invisibility of the artist and scientist which looked upon the surrounding world with its quietness is now abandoned. Modernism answers the sound of progress, turmoil, and of course the tensions which lead to the First World War. In fact, at the start of the 20th century artists can finally turn their attention to the real advantages of painting. They start using this medium in their favour by studying forms, colours and experimenting with gestural freedom. They start to represent how things are seen by the painter.

Impressionism is just the first step. In fact, against the impressionists, the post-impressionists soon take a stand. Inspired by the simple graphic effects of Japanese prints, they emphasise more than just light. Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin are to be the big figures as Modernism develops. Indeed, Cézanne laid the foundations of Cubism with his focus on shapes, colour and solidity, Van Gogh those of Expressionism with the emotional weight of each brushstroke, and Gauguin of Primitivism as he fled the western world to explore the representation of other cultures. Their works become the basis for the theories and manifestos of the (extremely close) peak of modernism.


Phil Roeder, Installation view of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) by Pablo Picasso, 12 December 2014, Courtesy of Phil Roeder and Flickr © Phil Roeder.


The Peak: Avant-Garde

Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin lead the way, researching predominantly alone. But as more artists need to break with the past, they start to form groups according to common views about the purpose of their art and how to go about achieving it. These famously give shape to various Avant-Garde movements.

These Avant-Garde movements are the hallmark of Modernism. More often than not, these artists have a manifesto to describe their aims and means – like those who find themselves in Dadaism, Cubism, Surrealism, Fauvism and Futurism. Indeed, they take the purpose and break with the past extremely seriously. Defining and distinguishing themselves thanks to these manifestos, they introduce new ways of seeing through art, manipulating it to present their idea of truth – truly political!

The artworks of this period are truly shocking. A great example is Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), introducing Cubism. Painted by the acclaimed Spanish master Pablo Picasso, there is a strong idea of solidity in this work, but it is achieved in a very different way if compared to the chiaroscuro of the past. It takes from the study of forms and colours at the centre of Paul Cézanne’s work. But here the break with the past reaches another level.

Like other cubist artworks, the five women depicted in Picasso’s painting are seen from different angles – as if shattered. Two of the figures even resemble African masks, making the break with Western tradition even more obvious. The women hardly look humanlike – nothing at all like the perfectly harmonious statues of antiquity! But, nevertheless, the strong lines, shapes and colours convey an idea of solidity and shape. Picasso achieves this by highlighting the different angles in which the volumes can be seen – as if he had broken up the image to then recreate it on the canvas.


Henri Matisse, The Dessert: Harmony in Red (The Red Room), 1908, Courtesy of HenriMatisse.org.


A different movement, more focused on colours than on volumes is that of Les Fauves – literally wild beasts. French artist Henri Matisse’s The Dessert: Harmony in Red (The Red Room) (1908) is an exceptional example. In Matisse’s painting, the canvas is used as a flat surface. We are not thrown into a rigorous prospective illusion, or drawn to get lost in the infinity of the view through the window when looking at this artwork.

Prospective? sfumato? These techniques are abandoned completely as Matisse simplifies the image to give space to the colours which he wildly spreads on the canvas. We are lost in the pattern which dominates, and seemingly merges the wall and the table. The other elements become decorative details, only highlighting the flatness of this painting.


Gustave Klimt, The Virgins, 1913, Courtesy of WikiArt.com, Public Domain.


Another important example that underlines another important dimension, is Gustave Klimt’s The Virgins (1913). This painting, an example of Viennese Expressionism and the Art Nouveau style, illustrates an inner psychological dimension taking from Sigmund Freud’s Psychological Theory.

In this painting, the various phases of a woman’s life are portrayed at the same time. Instead of being sculptural, the figures become decorative, losing themselves in the floral and spiral motifs – typical of Art Nouveau. This underlines the ephemerality of human life reminding us of the continual changes that the world and people face.

Moreover, all these examples are a critique of the moralistic and standard views of the past. By presenting things very differently, they focus on an individual’s perspective. These innovative artistic styles set artists free, by letting them explore the different ways in which they can paint things.


A break with Figurative Art

Until this moment the outside world remains central to the artworks produced even though it might have become unrecognisable. But after the First World War, the importance of an individual’s life soon becomes more than a simple suggestion – like in Klimt’s piece. In fact, a group of artists’ starts to focus on the invisible, inner world of the subconscious: the Surrealists. Moving beyond the startling feeling provoked by Dadaism, Surrealism aims at presenting the ‘real truth’ of the unconscious.


René Magritte. L’Assassin Menace, 1927, Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art and Kay Sage Tanguy Fund. © Charly Herscovici / ADAGP / ARS 2013.


Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory and in his investigation of dreams were at the centre of the surrealists’ work. With artists such as Joan Miró and René Magritte the unconscious is set free on the canvas through free associations and automatic drawing. Examples are Magritte’s L’Assassin Menace (1927) or Miró’s Woman and Bird in the Moonlight (1949). But, although they do not focus on the outside world, many of their works remain very much figurative.


Joan Miró, Women and Bird in the Moonlight, 1949, Courtesy of The Tate © Tate


Gradually, emotions, actions and feelings gain more and more importance in Modern Paintings. But how can these be represented through a medium which until then only knew the objects and bodies studied in the Academy? The answer lies with the introduction of abstraction. With artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian, guided by music or by keeping only a few points, lines, shapes and colours, the strong tie to physical objects and bodies is loosened. Finally, these artists let go of what was essential up until the 19th century. For instance, in Paul Klee’s Fire Evening (1929) the only things which are left of the scene the title refers to are the block colours – a distant echo of figurative art.


Paul Klee, Fire at Full Moon, 1933, Courtesy of Museum Folkwang and Artribune.com.


As the new standards of a liberated medium presented at the start of the 1900s become accepted by the middle of the 20th century, a fertile soil of innovative and ground-breaking ideas awaits the Late Modernists in the 50s and 60s. The importance of the artwork itself surpasses the importance of the object – whether real or imaginary. No object or subject is needed anymore. Painting, the medium now exists for its own sake.


Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1948, Courtesy of Jackson-Pollock.org.


Away from the European tradition, American artists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko took the chance to explore the gestural and vivid qualities of painting. For instance, Jackson Pollock’s Number 1 (1948) was made with his famous technique in which he would actually pour, drip and throw paint onto the canvas – Action Painting. The name says it all: It is the act of painting itself that is at the centre of Modern Painting. With Mark Rothko, on the other hand, the focus is on observation. Looking at the painting, the viewer is nearly overwhelmed. The intensity of the colours in Untitled (1950-1952) don’t allow us see anything but the paint.

What comes after this? Is this the end of modernism? Questions which even art critics Rosenberg and Gombrich ask themselves, but probably this question cannot yet have a certain answer. According to some, Modernism is challenged by Post-modernism towards the 1960s-1970s with Pop Art and Intermedia art. But this idea is still very much open to debate. Some question whether Modernism has ever ended at all. Indeed, looking at contemporary artworks the relevance of Modernism cannot be ignored – but when does Art ever stop looking back at Art History to reinvent itself?


Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1950-2, Courtesy of The Tate © Tate.


Cover image: Phil Roeder, Installation view of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) by Pablo Picasso, 12 December 2014, Courtesy of Phil Roeder and Flickr © Phil Roeder.

Written by Zoë Rivas Zanello

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