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What is Modern Art? Part One: Modern Art & Modernism

By Lisa Thomas

We often use the term Modern Art here at Stair Galleries while looking at paintings and objects, cataloguing for upcoming sales, or when talking with buyers and sellers about works of art. But what does Modern Art really mean? And how is it different from Modernism, Postmodern, and Contemporary Art? In two short essays we’ll look at the definitions for these art historical terms and look at some examples of each style or period.

<i>Self Portrait, 1888</i>, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), oil on canvas. Courtesy of The Yorck Project.
Self Portrait, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), oil on canvas. Courtesy of The Yorck Project.

Picasso Girl with a Mandolin 1910
Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), c. 1910, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art New York.

1896 Telephone from Sweden
1896 Telephone from Sweden

Advertisement for Winton Horseless Carriage, 1898 (Wikipedia)
Advertisement for Winton Horseless Carriage, 1898 (Wikipedia)
Modern Art is a term used to describe a period of Art History extending roughly from the 1860s to the 1970s. The term denotes the style and philosophy of the art produced during that time. The roots of the Modern Art movement are found in the work of late 19th Century artists like Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gaugin, whose training and early careers were based in a traditional style of painting. At the end of the 19th Century, many artists began to move away from realistic narrative in subject matter and style, and move toward a more abstract style of painting that addressed their new aesthetic ideas.The term “modern” is associated with art that has moved away from traditional painting. Modern artists experimented with new ways of seeing their subjects and new ways of using the traditional materials of painting. They challenged the idea that art must realistically depict the world, experimenting with expressive use of color, new techniques and non-traditional materials that are now considered the hallmark of Modern Art.

The beginning of the 20th Century brought even more experimentation. The Fauve artists began painting “wild” expressive landscapes, and the Cubist artists began deconstructing subjects into solid shapes that rendered them almost abstract. These art movements, and those that followed them into the 20th Century, built on the new ways of thinking, seeing and experiencing art, the very definition of what Modern Art is.Where Modern Art is a term used to describe an artistic movement and a period of Art History, Modernism is the name of the philosophical movement that emerged at the same time. The Industrial Revolution, rapid growth of urban areas, and new forms of transportation contributed to the development of the Modernism philosophy that rejected traditional forms of thinking, art, religion and social behavior. Modernism and Modern Art are inter-related and coexisted — the theories of Modernism fueling the thinking of the artists, and Modern Art furthering the philosophy in actual practice.
Maison Maria with a View of Chateau Noir, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), oil on canvas, 1895.
Maison Maria with a View of Château Noir, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), oil on canvas, c. 1895. Courtesy of The Yorck Project.

Le Bonheur de Vivre, oil on canvas, Henri Matisse (1869-1954), c. 1905-6.
Le Bonheur de Vivre, oil on canvas, Henri Matisse (1869-1954), c. 1905-6.
Check back with us to continue our conversation in What is Modern Art? Part Two, where we will talk about Postmodern Art through Contemporary Art.
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