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Modern Art Movements and History

by Edouard Manet (1832-83)
by Edouard Manet (1832-83)

With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the second half of the 19th century, new art styles and movements appeared and disappeared at an increasingly fast pace - thus reflecting the growing rate of changes in our society. Here is a short overview on important modern art movements from Impressionism to Op Art.


The history of modern art started with Impressionism. It all began in Paris as a reaction to a very formal and rigid style of painting - done inside studios and set by traditional institutions like the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The exhibition of Edouard Manet's famous painting, Dejeuner sur l'herbe, in 1863 in the Salon des Refuses (organized by those painter who were rejected by the Academie des Beaux-Arts), caused a scandal. It can be considered as the beginning of Impressionism.

The Impressionist painters preferred to paint outside and studied the effect of light on objects. Their preferred subjects were landscapes and scenes from daily life. The best known names in Impressionist painting are Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro and Pierre Auguste Renoir in France and Alfred Sisley in England.


The word Fauvism comes from the French word fauve, which means "wild animals". And indeeed - this new modern art style was a bit wild - with strong and vivid colors. Paul Gauguin and the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh had carried Impressionism to its limits by using expressive colors. Fauvism went one step further in using simplified designs in combination with an "orgy of pure colors" as it was characterized by their critics. The first exhibition by Fauvist artists took place in 1905. The best-known fauve artists are Henri Matisse, Andre Derain, Maurice de Vlaminch, Kees van Dongen and Raoul Dufy.


Expressionism, in simplified terms, was some kind of a German modern art version of Fauvism. The expressionist movement was organized in two groups of German painters. One was called Die Bruecke, literally meaning The Bridge. The group was located in Dresden with the artists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein, Otto Mueller and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. After World War I, this group was followed by another group of artists, calling themselves Dresdner Sezession.

The second Expressionist gathering of artists was centered in Munich. The group is known by the name Der Blaue Reiter, meaning The Blue Rider. The famous names are Franz Marc, August Macke, Gabriele Münter, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Alexei Yavlensky.

Art Nouveau Movement

Art Nouveau is French and means New Art. It is characterized by its highly decorative style and by the dedication to natural forms. Art Nouveau was popular from about 1880 to 1910 and was an International art movement. The Germans called it Jugendstil, the Italians Liberty, the Austrians Sezessionsstil and the Spanish Arte joven. Art Nouveau was not restricted to painting or printmaking. It covered all forms of art - architecture, furniture, jewelry, glass and illustration.

Fine examples of Art Nouveau are the subway entrances in Paris, the glass works of Emille Galle and Louis Comfort Tiffany in the US or the posters by Alphonse Mucha. A famous painter is Gustav Klimt. Art Nouveau did not survive World War I, maybe because of the high prices for Art Nouveau objects. With the philosophical roots in high quality handicraft, Art Nouveau was nothing for mass production.

Art Deco Movement

Art Deco was primarily a design style, popular in the 1920s and 1930s. In simplified terms, the Art Deco movement can be considered as the follow-up style on Art Nouveau - more simplified and closer to mass production. The Art Deco movement was dominant in fashion, furniture, jewelry, textiles, architecture, commercial printmaking and interior decoration. The best known name is Rene Lalique, a jeweler and glassmaker. The Chrysler building in New York (1930) is an example of Art Deco style in architecture.


Cubism, another modern art movement, was primarily restricted to painting and sculpture. Nevertheless it had a major influence on the development of modern art. Cubism was initiated by the Spaniard Pablo Picasso and the Frenchman Georges Braques in Paris before World War I. Paul Cezanne, usually categorized as a Post-Impressionist, can be considered as their predecessor.

Cubism had strong roots in African tribal art. In cubism, geometrical forms and fragmentations are favored. Everything is reduced to cubes and other geometrical forms. Often several aspects of one subject are shown simultaneously. As famous artists besides Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques, Robert Delaunay, Marcel Duchamp, Juan Gris and Lyonel Feininger are to be mentioned. Cubism paved the way for abstract art.


Surrealism is another of the many modern art movements in the 20th century. Its philosophical "father" was Andre Breton, a French poet and writer who published the Surrealist guidelines, called Manifesto in 1924 in Paris. Surrealism emphasizes the unconscious, the importance of dreams, the psychological aspect in arts. Surrealism became an important movement in the fine arts, literature and in films (by the Spaniard Bunuel for instance).

For the fine arts, the best-known names are Salvador Dali, the Italian Giorgio de Chirico with his strange and eerie town views, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Joan Miro, Yves Tanguy, Rene Margritte and the Russian Marc Chagall.

Abstract Art

Russian-born painter Wassily Kandinsky is said to be the father of abstract art. If you should ever come to Munich, you should not miss a visit of the Lenbachhaus Museum. It has many Wassily Kandinsky paintings on display and you can recognize very well how his style developed by and by to semi-abstract and then to abstract painting. Piet Mondrian, a Dutch painter, is another dominant character in establishing abstract painting. Mondrian had experienced cubism in Paris. During World War II many leading artists emigrated to the US, for instance Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and Marc Chagall. Thus New York became the new center for modern art and abstract painting.

Pop Art Movement

The word Pop Art is an abbreviation for Popular Art. The name says it all. The Pop Art movement wanted to bring art back into the daily life of people. It was a reaction against abstract painting, which pop artists considered as too sophisticated and elite. Pop artists' favorite images were objects from everyday's life like soup cans for Andy Warhol or comics for Roy Lichtenstein.

Typical for the attitude of the Pop Art movement was Andy Warhol's use of serigraphy, a photo-realistic, mass-production technique of printmaking. Pop Art intruded into the media and advertising. The differences between The fine arts and commercial arts were voluntarily torn down. An excellent example are the designs of music album covers in the sixties. The undoubted cult figure of Pop Art was Andy Warhol (1928-1987). Other great names are Jaspar Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Georg Segal, Wayne or James Rosenquist. The Pop Art movement was mainly an American and British art movement.

Op Art Movement

After Pop Art it was Op Art, a short form for Optical Art. Op Art expressed itself with reduced geometrical forms - sometimes in black and white contrasts and sometimes with very brilliant colors. The most prominent artist is Hungarian-born Vasarely. In the seventies Op Art even made its way into fashion design. But Op Art never succeeded in becoming a really popular mass-movement of modern art like Pop Art.

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