Introduction to Art Movements: The Emergence of Modern Art in Europe
The years between the late 19th century and the early 20th century in Europe were a time of rapid changes and shifts in society. The rise of industrialization and urbanization combined with the onset of the First World War and the resulting devastation changed the course of many individual’s lives. Artists often react to the world around them, both documenting and responding to their environment through their work. During this volatile period, modern art emerged through various art movements; some that built upon one another and others that existed contemporaneously. These movements represent the ways in which artists responded to the changing world of 19th and 20th century Europe, which has indelibly influenced many of today’s working contemporary artists worldwide.
Impression: Sunrise, Claude Monet, 1872. Musée Marmottan Monet
Arguably one of the most popular and widely known art movements today, Impressionism was revolutionary and initially disliked when it emerged in Paris in the late 1870s. Rather than depicting an accurate representation of a scene, Impressionist artists strove to capture a fleeting moment, thereby creating an impression of a scene. A remarkable divergence from the preceding Realist movement; Impressionist paintings are characterized by quick, loose brushstrokes and spontaneity. Impressionist artists often painted with an intentional lack of clarity, representing the impermanence and transitory nature of daily life—a feeling that was particularly evident during the rapid industrialization occurring in France at the time. Artists began to take their canvases and paintbrushes outside to paint en plein air, resulting in a more natural and spontaneous composition. Impressionist artists often depicted simple moments from daily life, which can be seen in Claude Monet’s garden scenes, Pierre-August Renoir’s depictions of active city life, and Edgar Degas’ intimate glimpses of ballet rehearsals.
Unlike the Impressionists, Post-Impressionist artists were not members of a specific group that exhibited alongside one another. The movement is instead a categorization of avant-garde artists who were able to take the innovation employed by the Impressionists—namely visible brushwork and lack of strict adherence to representation—and build upon it. Post-Impressionists often focused on the expressive use of line, color, and form—a precursor to the later Expressionist movement. One representative artist is Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), now widely known for his vivid and incongruent use of color and vigorous brushstrokes that express emotion. Van Gogh was little known in his time, but was revolutionary in developing a new aesthetic style with lasting emotional resonance. Post-Impressionist artists, like the Impressionists, often responded to the rapidly changing environment around them in their work, which resulted in emotionally charged paintings. Take for example the work of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Vivid depictions of emotions and the human psyche are the cornerstone of his work—skillfully rendering loneliness, fear, desire, and despair through his expressive, colorful, and often crudely painted compositions.
The Expressionist movement is characterized by exaggeration and distortion of form, dissonant color combinations, and powerfully expressive and emotional content. In contrast to earlier representational art movements like Impressionism and Realism, Expressionist artwork is often the result of an artist’s inner world and emotions, focusing on expressing feelings rather than depicting a lived reality. While Impressionism aimed to represent the beauty of the natural world and daily life, Expressionism worked to represent the inner world of the artists and their reactions to residing in the external world. The Expressionist art movement was strongly embraced in Germany in the early part of the 20th century, beginning around 1905 and lasting through approximately 1920. Two German artist groups are associated with the origins of Expressionism: Die Brücke (The Bridge), led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), led by Wassily Kandinski (1866-1944) and Franz Marc (1880-1916). Expressionist artwork often exhibits intense, non-naturalistic color applied with intuitive brushstrokes that result in powerful and evocative imagery. Swirling brushstrokes, exaggerated forms, and shocking use of color were employed to reveal the artist’s own inner anxieties, fears, and frustrations.
The Cubist art movement began roughly around 1908 and is contemporaneous with Expressionism. Created by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963), Cubism represents a turning point in art history in which the picture plane was fractured and representational illusionism was abandoned. This movement prompted a formal shift from representation to abstraction. Inspired by African and ancient Iberian sculpture and the later work of Paul Cézanne, Picasso began experimenting with new depictions of shape and form. While centuries of artists before him strove to depict three-dimensional space and perspective on a two-dimensional canvas, Picasso abandoned this concept and instead analyzed shape and form to depict a new kind of visual reality. There are considered two phases of Cubism: analytic cubism and synthetic cubism. Analytic cubism (1908-1912) often featured overlapping shapes and numerous viewpoints, and synthetic cubism (1912-1914) is often characterized by experimentation with texture and collage. While analytic cubism turned representational objects into fragmented images, radically exploding the possibilities of representation, synthetic cubism aimed to flatten the image and create visual play between three-dimensionality and two-dimensionality, incorporating materials beyond just paint and canvas.
The Dada art movement emerged primarily as a reaction to the widespread chaos and devastation of World War I. Dadaist artists created visual art, performance art, and poetry that often contained themes of satire, spontaneity, and absurdity. Holding the belief that the concepts of reason and logic led to the war, Dadaists produced work formulated by using the opposite principles, namely irrationality, intuition and the unconscious mind. The Dada movement provided an essential turning point in art-making and challenged the accepted notions of what is defined as art, allowing artists to creatively explore new methods of creation that were not reliant on representation or the logical abstraction of Cubism. Perhaps the most well known of the Dadaist artists is Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), who famously questioned the foundations of Western art by presenting an exhibition of “ready-made” sculptures in 1913, which consisted of mass-produced common objects. The Dada movement, following in the footsteps of Cubism, represented a radical questioning of traditional art tenets and allowed artists to begin creating work that was primarily intellectual or conceptual in nature, rather than aesthetic.
The Dada movement was a natural precursor for Surrealism, as many artists associated with Dada later participated in the Surrealist movement. The first Surrealist Manifesto was published in France in 1924, which emphasized many Dadaist concepts, such as exploring the inner psyche, elements of fantasy, and improvisation and chance. Surrealists were heavily focused on the dream-like state and used art as a way to explore the unconscious. Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) may be the most well known of the Surrealist artists, but André Breton was one of the movement’s leaders. In addition to visual artists, Surrealism also interested photographers, writers, and filmmakers, becoming an international movement. Take for example the work of Belgian artist René Magritte, who used realist, trompe l’oeil painting techniques to defy logic and common sense, creating new and layered reasons to depict representational objects. While Surrealists often favored realistic renderings of objects and scenes, rather than abstraction, they imbued those scenes with irrational, dream-like and uncanny elements, paving the way for new methods of art-making and art interpretation.