A Brief History of Modern and Contemporary Art

Posted by Robert Lange on

The history of modern art, although short, is filled with changes, shifts, and different art movements. Pop art, street art, minimalism, photorealism, conceptualism, and many more, are just a few examples of how diverse it is. But how did it happen that just this one brief period on the timeline has so many styles and movements within? For that, we need to study the history of contemporary art. In this article, we do exactly that – delve into the past few decades and explore why and how this diversification happened. Read on to find out more!

If you’re new to the world of art, first check: What is contemporary art?

What Period Is Considered Modern and Contemporary Art?

First of all, let us make it clear what we are discussing. Contemporary art, as an artistic period, started in the 1940s and still lasts now. Modern art, on the other hand, is the period that was right before contemporary art and started more-or-less in the 1860s, lasting to the 1970s (yes, these periods overlap).

A Brief History of the Modern Art

Modern art started when artists decided that it was no longer the time to paint realistic images of real-time events and turned toward focusing on emotions. Thus the art movement that initiated this period is actually impressionism.

It was Claude Monet's Impression, Sunrise, put on display in France that sparked discussions and truly kicked modern art off, though initially, the critics were less eager to appreciate this piece. One of the most common concerns was that the paint brushes were too visible, but that did not stop Monet or other artists from further exploring this artistic direction.

Claude Monet – Impression, Sunrise

Claude Monet – Impression, Sunrise

Other modern art movements further followed impressionism, with many influential ones emerging and entering the world of art. These include:

  • Cubism – A movement that challenged the traditional approaches and reduced paintings to the most basic shapes. The most known cubist artists are Pablo Picasso and George Braque.
  • Fauvism – Colorful and simple, this art movement started near the end of the modern art period. It was represented by the likes of Henri Matisse, Georges Braque (who experimented with both cubism and fauvism), and Georges Rouault.
  • Expressionism – This approach in which art becomes a canvas for emotions rather than a reflection of reality has also surfaced during the modern art era. Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh are but two of the most famous artists following this movement.
  • Surrealism – Like fauvism, this art movement appeared somewhere between modern and contemporary art periods. It was all about free form, in contrast to, for instance, cubism; therefore, the works of surrealist artists are too diverse to characterize them anyhow together. Who were the most prominent representatives of this movement? Salvador Dali and Max Ernst.

A Brief History of the Contemporary Art

The history of contemporary art starts after the Second World War. It’s the period when art started evolving, becoming even more diverse and moving closer to the common audience rather than just art critics and enthusiasts.

The beginning of contemporary art is marked by abstract expressionism in the 1940s and 1950s, represented mainly by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. However, this was but the first domino block that started the chain reaction leading up to the art of the 21st century that we admire nowadays.

The serious abstract expressionism provoked a reaction in the form of pop art – creating pieces based on commerce, advertising, and popular culture. This movement has drifted away from the emotions that were the basis of Expressionism and truly accelerated the changes that were about to come.

After Pop Art, it was time for minimalism, which took the elimination of personal expression and narrative, sought after by pop artists themselves, to another level. At the same time, Conceptual Art was started, a movement that took the focus away from the objects and put it on the ideas or concepts behind them.

Yet, nothing was as effective in appealing to the general public as street art, a movement in the second half of the 20th century. Politically or socially rooted themes carved into exterior walls, overpasses, or bridges, were what truly sparked the attention of people who were less interested in art and increased the reach of the messages that the artists were trying to convey and share with the world.

The Takeaway

After all these changes in the history of modern and contemporary art, we have entered a time of digital, globalized, and socially engaged pieces. How long will it take until a new artistic current will once again change the contemporary landscape? When will we leave contemporary art behind, and a new period will start? These questions shall remain unanswered, at least until some major changes will once again revolutionize art.

Did you like this article? Then we encourage you to read: What is Realist Art? Definition, Artists, and Examples

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