The Age of Modern Art: Part II

Author- Ria Sarkar, For Eikowa

The biggest contribution of the 19th century was to steer Modern Art from objectivity to subjectivity, realigning the audience into appreciating works that were emotional and introspective as opposed to solely capturing the tangible aspects of life around us. The ability to make viewers sympathize with an artist’s inner world was inculcated by the Post-Impressionists, paving the way for future movements that began playing with these ideas in greater detail.

This article will continue from Part I and explore how the 20th century evolved from the preceding century’s ideas and discovered new techniques and art styles such as Cubism, Conceptual Art and Surrealism that would come to be celebrated as the pinnacle of Modern Art.


 Expressionism is a powerful art movement that focuses on the personal, introspective and sometimes psychological journey of an artist. While Post-Impressionists like Van Gogh and Gauguin had a great impact on the Expressionists, their approach towards painting was even more dynamic than their predecessors. In their work, the subject matter is a direct link into the artist’s mind, rather than records or observations of what he/she sees around him. In order to express themselves, artists use bold colors, strong outlines and are more prone to distorting the scale and proportion of objects to prove a point. The primary objective is to get the message across. The struggle to resist the ugly side of bourgeois society that manifests itself in alienation, anxiety and social fragmentation forms some of the issues that these artists were dealing with.They utilized emotion as a tool to break free from materialistic constraints and often employed a primitive style of technique and composition to create maximum impact on the viewers.

Among the European artists, Van Gogh is considered by some to uphold the Expressionist ideals, placing him in both the movements (Post-Impressionism and Expressionism) simultaneously. Other important artists include Henri Matisse, who became well known for his innovative use of bold colors, Wassily Kandinsky whose work became a contributing factor to many contemporary movements such as Abstraction and Bauhaus, Paul Klee and Edvard Munch, an important forerunner of German Expressionism. Indeed, Expressionism really took root in Germany where three separate groups emerged, which are collectively referred to by art historians as German Expressionism: ‘Die Brucke’ or The Bridge (1905-13), ‘Der Blaue Reiter’ or The Blue Rider (1909-14), and the post-war ‘Die Neue Sachlichkeit’ or New Objectivity (1920s).

kandinsky_moscow 1_1916

Wassily, Kandinsky, Moscow I, 1916, Oil on canvas, 51.5 × 49.5 cm, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.


Paul Klee, Ad Parnassum, 1932, oil on canvas, 100 x 126 cm, Kunstmuseum, Berne, Switzerland.



Henri Matisse, Yellow Odalisque, 1957, oil on canvas, 55.2 x 46 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, US.


Fauvism is a form of Expressionism and was developed by combining features of Post-impressionism and Pointillism. The name is derived from ‘les fauves’ or ‘the wild beasts’, a term coined by critic Louis Vauxcelles when he saw the work of Henri Matisse and André Derain in an exhibition in Paris, 1905. The use of vibrant, explosive colors applied loosely and often directly from the tube, as well as simple forms and figures make it an interesting form of artistic expression.

The fauvists were fascinated with scientific color theories developed in the 19th century – particularly those relating to complementary colors. The influences of these earlier movements inspired Matisse and his followers to reject traditional three-dimensional space and instead use flat areas or patches of color to create a new pictorial space.



Henri Matisse, Green Stripe(Madame Matisse), 1905, 40 x 32 cm, oil on canvas, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark.


Art entered the phase of exploration with Cubism in 1907 when the great Picasso produced Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. During a career that lasted longer than 75 years, he contributed to various other movements such as Abstraction, Expressionism and Primitivism before finding his niche in Cubism. Picasso joined hands with Georges Braque to rewrite important principles of modern art. Braque was so impressed with Les Demoiselles that he quit Fauvism and instead underwent a complete transformation of his style in his next painting Large Nude (1908).



Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, oil on canvas, 243.9 x 233.7 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York, US.

braque_candlestick and playing cards_1910

Georges Braque, Candlestick and Playing Cards on a Table, 1910, oil on canvas, 65.1 x 54.3 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, US.

Braque and Picasso are the co-originators of Cubism that went on to influence twentieth century art like never before. It is admired because the movement broke away from European traditions by bringing in three dimensionality in an abstract form. It was a progressive idea as compared to the linear perspective of the Renaissance style; a novel way of interacting with space and dimension visually. Other artists who followed them included painters Albert Gleizes, Fernand Léger, Jean Metzinger, and Piet Mondrian in his early work.

In the first phase after the concept was developed, Cubists broke down form and space that gave them the name ‘Analytic Cubists’. In this sub-sect of Cubism, objects and pictorial space intersect in a fragmented fashion against each other, sometimes overlapping which actually highlights the two-dimensionality of the canvas. Analytic Cubism was soon followed in 1913 by Synthetic Cubism, in which the “analysis” of objects was discarded. Instead this sub-sect focused on “constructing” or “synthesizing” objects through the overlapping of larger, more discrete forms that seemed as if they might have been cut and pasted to the canvas. This new form of Cubism was popular during the 1930s, featuring a variety of patterns, vivid colors, undulating lines and different kinds of shapes.


Analytical Cubism: Pablo Picasso, Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier), 1910, oil on canvas, 100.3 x 73.6 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York.


EPSON scanner image

Synthetic Cubism: Kazimir Malevich, Woman at a Poster Column, 1914, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. WikiArt.

Cubist-oriented movements


Originating in Italy, Futurism is an offshoot of Cubism combined with Divisionism (the style of separating colors into dots or patches), which represents the experience of the modern metropolis. By showing multiple phases of motion simultaneously along with interpenetration of objects, a ‘futuristic’ visual plane is formed. In other words, Futurists try to capture the speed and energy of everything associated with modernity in their work. Important figures are Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni and Carlo Carrà among others.


Umberto Boccioni, Charge of the Lancers, 1915, Collection of Riccardo and Magda Jucker, Milan.


Kazimir Malevich was inspired by Futurism and described most of his work from 1912 to 1915 as “Cubo-Futurist.”


Robert and Sonya Delaunay’s work was given the French term ‘Orphisme’ in 1912 by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The term is derived from ‘Orpheus’, who was a poet and musician in Greek Mythology. It is also known as Orphic cubism due to Robert’s early works being in a Cubist style. The Delaunay’s paintings shifted from the limited palette of early Cubism into color combinations based on the “law of simultaneous contrast of colors,” developed in the 19th century by French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul.

The harmony and lyrical quality of color combined with geometric shapes is captured beautifully in Robert and Sonya’s work. Later in his career he veered towards Abstraction, collaborating with Kandinsky in the German art style ‘The Blue Rider’.


Anti-Art movements


Conceptual Art is one of the most radical movements in Avant-Garde Art. It is based on the understanding that the ‘idea’ or ‘concept’ behind a work is paramount, even more so than the artwork itself. It emerged in the mid 20th century and created a whole world of new possibilities for the modern artists. The freedom that Conceptual art allows the artist to express oneself majorly appealed to the artists of that time. This is because, unlike any other art movement, the artist is not restrained by any particular medium, or skill that he/she has been developing throughout their career. Their primary focus is conveying an idea, with the liberty to do it in whatever way they wish to– this could be anything from a performance piece to a written text.

Although there is no one style or form used by conceptual artists, from the late 1960s certain trends emerged. It has also been called Idea art, Post-Object art, and Dematerialized art because it encapsulates an artist’s thinking.

French artist Marcel Duchamp is considered to be the pioneer of Conceptual art, with his invention of exhibiting ‘readymades’. He created the groundwork for this art style when he started using readymade objects as artworks. His most iconic piece is called the ‘Fountain’, which was a urinal signed R. Mutt, 1917 which he submitted as part of an exhibition for the newly established Society of Independent Artists.


Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, replica in 1964, porcelain readymade object. Tate Britain.


Dadaism or Dada, was an anti-art campaign that represented the total opposite of art. It emerged as a result of the disgust that people felt with World War I and its aftermath. The rising fervor of anti-colonialist and anarchist ideals among the artists channeled them into taking provocative action against the bourgeois values that they felt was responsible for the war. In plain terms, Dada was a protest dialogue through art against everything that it stood for. It was art as propaganda that was expressed through nonsensical, satirical, violent imagery not just in art, but through performances, festivals and readings among a host of other activities. The purpose was not to please, but to offend.

Through the activities of artists and writers such as Jean Arp, Hugo Ball, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Tristan Tzara, Dada spread from Zurich in 1916 to New York and almost all the major European cities.


Max Ernst, Cormorants, 1921, collage and paper, Cologne, Germany.


When Conceptual Art combined with newfound theories in the field of psychology, Surrealism was born. It was pioneered in France during the 1920’s by André Breton, originally having begun as a literary movement before being imbibed into the world of art. Breton’s group of Surrealist artists and writers explored Sigmund Freud’s concepts about dreams and dream-work, and the obscure relation between one’s unconscious to lived reality. An art form that is expressed solely through the power of imagination, Surrealists deployed the imagery of hysteria, primitive art, hallucinations and disturbing imagery to unsettle the conventional notions of form and figures. Joan Miro with his dynamic graffiti art and Salvador Dali with his melting clocks offer two unique perspectives of Surrealist thought. Other artists affiliated with Surrealism include Hans Bellmer, Max Ernst, Frida Kahlo, René Magritte, André Masson, Pablo Picasso, among others.


Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931, oil on canvas, 28 x 33 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York, US. Wikimedia Commons.



Joan Miro, Harlequin’s Carnival, 1924.

magritte_apples with masks

Rene Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928-9, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 93.8 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California, US.

Mexican Muralism

Mexican Muralism is associated with the revival of painting large-scale murals during the 1920s-1930s. Artist Diego Rivera spearheaded the movement along with fellow artists José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. At the time, Mexico was undergoing intense political turmoil and most of the artists were advocating left-wing ideas through their works. This is another example of propaganda art meant to address socialist ideologies.

Between 1923 and 1928, Rivera made murals for the Mexican National Preparatory School and subsequently for the Ministry of Education. The Mexican Muralists contributed some murals to USA, which helped bring further their cause and reach a larger audience. These in turn also came to influence the abstract expressionists.

Rivera_Pan american unity

Diego Rivera, Pan American Unity, 1940, mural, 74 x 22 feet, city college of San Francisco, San Francisco, US.

The next stage of 20th century art leads to the formation and development of Abstract Art, which in turn diversifies into a host of other related movements like Suprematism, Constructivism and Kinetic Art. For an in depth understanding of Abstraction and its historiography, head on to “When did Art become Abstract” for the full story.

For Part 1 of The Age of Modern Art, please click here.


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