What is Modern Art?

The use of the word 'modern' becomes a little more misleading with each passing year, and you could be forgiven for thinking that 'Modern Art' alludes to works created during the present day.

The term, however, is actually used to describe artistic works created from the 1860s to 1970s (more recent and present day works are referred to as 'contemporary' or 'postmodern' art).

According to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Industrial Revolution greatly influenced late 19th Century artists to break with tradition, and to begin experimenting and creating art more suited to the evolving 'modern age'.

The acceleration in technological developments from the mid-18th century and through the 19th century had momentous affects on the culture, socio-conomic, and living conditions of the time; and the introduction of new forms of transportation enabled people to travel more widely (for both work and leisure) which widened people's world-view.

This provided a catalyst for exploration and access to new ideas and other cultures. In the art world, this manifested as a shift from creating realistic works, which had largely been commissioned by wealthy patrons or religious institutions, to creating pieces which reflected the artist's own personal experiences, or topics about which they were passionate, in new and interesting ways.

Characteristically, Modern Artwork leans more towards abstraction in style (you can read our article What is Abstract Art for more information on that particular subject), which came from a newfound desire to challenge the old notion that art “must realistically depict the world”.

Pioneers of the genre include avante-garde artists Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose artistic approach emphasised contours, forming his characters using distinct lines and silhouettes, his Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, poster (1891) is a particularly well known example, and is noticeably influenced by classical Japanese woodprints; Paul Gauguin, who was famously experimental with colour, and practised Synthetism – which incorporated the three features of the subject's outward appearance, the artist's feelings about the subject, and the aesthetic application of colour, line and form; and French post-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat, who created new and exciting painting techniques which are now known as pointillism (the application of a series of coloured dots of paint to create an image) and chromoluminarism, which can be seen in his most famous piece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1886)...which eagle-eyed movie fans will also recognise from the well-known Art Institute of Chicago scene in classic 1980s film Ferris Bueller's Day Off!

Other 19th Century Modern Art movements include, but are not restricted to, Impressionism, so coined after French painter Claude Monet's free flowing and ethereal piece Impression, Sunrise (1874) garnered admiration and sparked a movement focused on light and colour, and concerned with rendering fleeting
moments; Symbolism, which was of French, Belgian and Russian origin, and sought to use metaphor and symbolism to depict the artist's subject or message in resistance to realism; and Art Nouveau, a movement inspired by the curves and aesthetics of nature, plants and flowers, often featuring swirly botanical elements, as demonstrated in the work of Alphonse Mucha.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the modernist movement Expressionism was developed by artists as a way of expressing moods or ideas rather than physical realities. The subject would be wildly distorted in order to generate a purely emotional experience.

The global horrors of World War I further accelerated cultural and artistic movements such as Surrealism, in which artists like Max Ernst and Salvador Dali would depict nonsensical scenes in order to unnerve the viewer, and act as an expression of the artist's unconscious mind. According to French poet Andre Breton the idea was to "resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality".

In 1917, the Dutch movement known as De Stijl was founded, who's principal members included Dutch painter Piet Mondrian – since lauded as one of the greatest painters of the 20th century. A trailblazer of Abstract Art in the 1900s, his style evolved to the point where he would create his works from only simple geometric shapes placed in primary directions (horizontally and vertically) and a basic palette of primary colours outlined by white and black in order to create a 'universal beauty', like his recogniseable piece Composition with Red Blue and Yellow (1930). He once said “one will make as little use as possible of reality[...] Art should be above reality, otherwise it would have no value for man."

This year marks 150 years since the exemplary painter's birth, and several high profile museums will be marking the anniversary with sole exhibitions devoted to “the founding father of the De Stijl movement” - like the Kunstmuseum Den Haag in the Netherlands, who currently harbor the world's largest Mondrian collection.

After World War II, American Abstract Expressionism began to emerge, and although he was always reluctant to align himself with any particular movement, Mark Rothko became associated with it and for colour field painting techniques - making use of simplified elements and colour in order to elicit an emotional response. He is once purported to have said: “I am not an abstractionist[...]I am not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else[...]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 show that I communicate those basic human emotions[...]The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point”.

His instantly discernable piece Untitled - Black, Red over Black and Red (1964) was painted during his “classic” period and features his technique of painting rectangular areas of colour which he destined to be “dramas” which should provoke a psychological response in the observer.

During the latter stages of the Modern Art era Pop Art gained recognition and interest due to it's accessibility and opposition to elitism. The movement sought to make use of popular images from mass culture – such as well-loved celebrities, familiar products, and imagery from advertising and comic books
– and to expand upon abstract expressionism.

Although it began in the 1950s, the term wasn't formally introduced until December 1962 during the MoMA organised “Symposium on Pop Art”.

Probably, the most well known members of the Pop Art movement are Roy Lichtenstein, who is professed to have defined “the basic premise of pop art better than any other” - appropriating and parodying scenes from comic books with his own brand of irony and humour, to merge mass culture and fine art, in pieces like Whaam! (1963); and Andy Warhol, who famously featured food items like Campbell's Soup cans in his artwork, as well as his depictions of iconic star of the silver screen Marilyn Monroe (1967).

It's not always possible to get a viewing of these renowned and influential works of Modern Art IRL, so thankfully Collier & Dobson published artist Chris Ross Williamson has created a collection of 'gallery' inspired limited edition prints in homage to some of these artistic heavyweights. Head over to our online gallery to browse and buy from his collection.

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