Indian Art Gallery

Origins of Modern Art

Modern Art, art created from the 19th cent. to the mid-20th cent. by artists who veered away from the traditional concepts and techniques of painting, sculpture, and other fine arts that had been practiced since the Renaissance (see RENAISSANCE ART AND ARCHITECTURE). Nearly every phase of modern art was initially greeted by the public with ridicule, but as the shock wore off, the various movements settled into history, influencing and inspiring new generations of artists.

Origins of Modern Art

In the second half of the 19th cent. painters began to revolt against the classic codes of composition, careful execution, harmonious coloring, and heroic subject matter. Patronage by the church and state sharply declined at the same time that artists’ views became more independent and subjective. Such artists as COURBET, COROT and others of the BARBIZON SCHOOL, MANET, DEGAS, and TOULOUSE-LAUTREC chose to paint scenes of ordinary daily and nocturnal life that often offended the sense of decorum of their contemporaries.


MONET, RENOIR, and PISSARRO, the great masters of IMPRESSIONISM, painted café and city life, as well as landscapes, working most often directly from nature and using new modes of representation. While art had always been to a certain extent abstract in that formal considerations had frequently been of primary importance, painters, beginning with the impressionists in the 1870s, took new delight in freedom of brushwork. They made random spots of color and encrusted the canvas with strokes that did not always correspond to the object that they were depicting but that formed coherent internal relationships. Thus began a definite separation of the image and the subject. The impressionists exploited the range of the color spectrum, directly applying strokes of pure pigment to the canvas rather than mixing colors on the palette. In sculpture, dynamic forms and variations of impressionism were created by RODIN, Renoir, Degas, and the Italian Medardo ROSSO.

Other Modes of Modern Art

A more fanciful sort of modern art was created by Jean ARP, Marcel DUCHAMP, and Kurt SCHWITTERS in the irreverent manifestations of the DADA movement. Dada artists devised “ready-mades” and COLLAGE objects from diverse bits of material. The movement was linked with Freudianism in the 1920s, producing the wild imagery of SURREALISM and VERISM, as seen in the paintings of Salvador DALI, Yves TANGUY, Max ERNST, and Joan MIRÓ. The 1920s also saw the beginning of an art of social protest by exponents of NEW OBJECTIVITY, among them George GROSZ, Otto DIX, and Max BECKMANN. With the rise of FASCISM and the GREAT DEPRESSION of the 1930s, the protest increased in intensity. The Mexicans OROZCO, RIVERA, and SIQUEIROS painted murals in which the human figure was made monumental and heroic (see MEXICAN ART AND ARCHITECTURE).

Postwar Modern Art and the Rejection of Modernism

The development of a new American art movement was held in abeyance until after World War II, when the United States took the lead in the formation of a vigorous new art known as ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM with the impetus of such artists as Arshile GORKY, Jackson POLLOCK, and Willem DE KOONING. Action painting, as the movement was also known, made its impact felt throughout the world in the 1950s. A number of notable developments were led by artists associated with these and other New York school artists. As the influence of abstract expressionism waned in the 1960s, artists came to question the very philosophy underlying modernism. A vast variety of new movements and styles came to dominate the art world that, in the aggregate, can now be seen to mark the beginnings of artistic POSTMODERNISM and the post-midcentury shift from modern to CONTEMPORARY ART.

Modern Sculpture

In sculpture the explorations of Julio González led to abstract configurations of welded metal that can be seen in the works of Americans such as David SMITH, Theodore Roszack, Seymour LIPTON, and Herbert FERBER. This tradition has been a lasting one, and contemporary examples of large abstract compositions of welded metal can be found in the work of many later sculptors, including Mark DI SUVERO and Beverly Pepper.

Alexander CALDER largely stood apart from other modernist sculptors with his brightly colored MOBILES and STABILES, which have since been widely influential, as in the large, brightly colored sculpture of Albert Paley. Meanwhile, the early-20th-century tradition of Brancusi’s organic abstract forms was inventively exploited in midcentury by Henry MOORE and Barbara HEPWORTH in England and by Jean Arp in France, while the Swiss Alberto GIACOMETTI and the Italians Giacomo Manzù and Marino MARINI each achieved a distinctive sculptural style. Later 20th-century sculpture has followed the patterns of the various postmodern art movements and is described in the article on CONTEMPORARY ART.

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