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The Development Of Modern Art

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      “Modern art” is not to be taken to mean “the art of the present day and age” as its connotative sense suggests (the art of the present day and age is “contemporary” or “postmodern” art). “Modern art” has diverse definitions and is therefore regarded differently by different people. For instance, Modern art is thought to embrace art of the twentieth-century Western world, or such arts as have been influenced by it ; it is considered “a term that can be applied to all Western or Western-inspired art … from about 1900 onwards but which is generally used more specifically to designate forms of visual expression from this period that are consciously in tune with progressive aesthetic attitudes.”  (Microsoft Encarta Standard Encyclopedia 2005). Further in the Encyclopedia, we find “In the second sense, Modern Art … represents a breakaway from the historical revivalism that had characterized much 19th-century art and a repudiation of many ideals and assumptions that had prevailed since the Renaissance.” Still, another definition has it as “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.” (The Columbia Encyclopedia 2004).

      For the purpose of this writing, however, the general definition of the phrase will be used:

    “Art since the beginning of the 20th century when a series of revolutionary movements fundamentally changed the way artists saw and represented the world.” (Ibid).

     (“Contemporary art” can, therefore, be taken as art that came into existence in recent times or that began long ago but has been modified by present-day development and sophistication.}

    In the birth and development of modern art, Paris was, before World War II, the principal focus because many of the leading figures in the modern art were resident there.  Several other countries, too, played prominent roles in its development. Germany, for instance, was the center and origin of Expressionism (an artistic style of distorting reality for expressive, emotional effect), while Russia originated various kinds of “abstract arts” (a form of art which does not accurately represent reality).

     In considering the development of modern art, this writing will touch two basic classes of art:  painting and sculpture. (While the development of modern art went on, most painters and sculptures were uninfluenced by the trends of this development and kept to the traditional modes of doing things.)

 (A)  PAINTING: Towards the end of the 19th century, avant-garde painters showed less interest in realism (“the depiction of facts and realities rather than imaginary objects” [Wikipedia]).They tended towards greater personal freedom of expression in their paintings. Increasingly, they created works that were distortions of reality. By the dawn of the 20th century, younger generations of painters engaged in greater anti-realism practices, and their paintings showed even greater distortions in line, color and pictorial space. These unconventional approaches soon led to the coming into existence of revolutionary movements which transformed painting, bringing what some people refer to as “modern art” (Thus, some people associate “Modern art” more with painting than with other forms of art.)

    The most important of these revolutionary movements are Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism and Abstract Arts.

  1. Fauvism:

(a) Description

     Fauvism was a comparatively short-lived movement ( and a form of painting) upheld by the fauves, a group of French painters who were united by their love for very strong and bright colors and together exhibited their artworks from time to time. The emphasis in Fauvism is the use of colors to express emotions.

(b) Development

     Fauvism, which was originated by the painters Henri Matisse, developed from Pointillism and Post-Impressionism, two mutually related kinds of painting. In Pointillism, “tiny dots of primary-colors are used to generate secondary colors” (Artcyclopedia), while Post-impressionism is a form of painting which derived from Impressionism (Impressionism is “a light spontaneous manner of painting…” [Ibid]). Post-impressionism, though retaining elements of it, was a diversion from Impressionism because its adherents did altogether agree with the principles of Impressionism. It is therefore understandable that the Fauves rejected certain aspects of Impressionism, such as the use of “soft, shimmering tones” (Encarta), in favor of those bright and violent colors “used by the Post-Impressionists Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh.” (ibid).They preferred the use of bright, violent colors because the emphatic effect of these colors served to achieve the emotionalism they desired.

     Thus, “… [with their] vigorous line, simplified yet dramatic surface pattern, and intense colour.” (Ibid), they produced paintings of great vitality, grace and poetry, paintings which were not at all garish but were electrifying enough in their appeal.

     The designation “Fauves”, which literally means “wild beasts”, was therefore an underserved, derogatory label for this set of painters, a label which by no means describes “their sunny or lyrically subjective imagery.” (Ibid).

    An illustration of fauvist painting is pictured below. It is a work of the very founder of Fauvism, Henri Matisse:

                                                          (Fig I)

  1. Expressionism

     (a) Description

     Expressionism is a subjective form of art which gives the artist immense space for the full, unrestricted expression of emotions. With expressionist painting, the artist reproduces not the object painted in its true form but his very inner or emotional reaction towards the object. “… the intention is not to reproduce a subject accurately, but instead to portray it in such a way as to express the inner state of the artist.”(Artcyclopedia). “Expressionist artists were not trying to reproduce what they could see but were trying to make their feelings visible.”(Guy Hubbard, 2001).

      Through Expressionism, the artist expresses his emotions in the most emphatic manner, as intensely and directly as is possible. He employs caricatures, line patterns and forms apparently unrelated to the real form of the object painted but directly representative of the intensity of emotions the object aroused in him. Figs II and III below are typical illustrations:

       For Fig II, it can be safely be said that there certainly was no such gathering of a group of people as is depicted there, but the depiction was possibly a reproduction of the determined protectiveness, the emotions of love and solicitude, of a group of oppressed adults towards their children, emotions which the artist felt and saw in this group of people, and which he sought to express as directly he could.  Fig III, on the other hand, might be a depiction of the painter’s feelings about the special mettle and long-suffering devotion which is characteristic of the type of horse he painted; or might even be the horse-like qualities of uncomplaining perseverance and submission which the painter saw in a person or in group of persons to whom the painting was dedicated “…the subject is frequently caricatured, exaggerated, distorted, or otherwise altered in order to stress the emotional experience in its most intense and concentrated form.” (Encarta Encyclopedia 2005). “Expressionist art usually includes recognizable objects, although most of it is quite abstract. Color is usually important … but correct perspective is not. While each artist has his or her own individual style, with practice students will find that Expressionist art is fairly easy to identify.” (Guy Hubbard, 2001).             

                       Fig II                                                                    Fig III

(b) Development

      Expressionism developed out of rebellion against the conventional style of art prevalent in the early twentieth century, namely, the Classical Art of the Greeks and Romans, which had existed since the Renaissance (1300-1600). A group of artists rejected Classical art because it did not satisfy their artistic urges which the conditions and developments of the time occasioned. “It appeared because artists rejected the fixed ideas of Classical art … which no longer seemed to fit the kind of world that was unfolding.” (Ibid). Such artists became creative enough to work independently of recognized schools and movements. The artists included such prominent painters as “Rouault, Soutine, and Vlaminck in France and Kokoschka and Schiele in Austria—all of whom made aggressively executed, personal, and often visionary paintings.” (The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2004).

     The first modern-art expressionists became active in the beginning of the 20th century. They were mainly from Northern Europe, from where part of the influences that appeared in their works came. They got ideas, too, from the study of human emotions made by the Austrian Psychologist, Sigmund Freud. The most conscientious and advanced expressionist painters resided in Germany, where the German Expressionist movement was founded by the painters Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.  These painters founded a group called “Die Bruke” (“The Bridge”), and were joined by other aspiring painters. In time the movement became strong and famous for its artistry, which emphasized a deliberate, conscientious expression of emotions and created rooms and possibilities for greater expressiveness. “This phase of Expressionism in Germany was marked by the conscious exposition of emotions and a heightened sense of the possibilities for expressive content.”  (Encarta). Unfortunately, World War I brought the activities of these painters to a halt.

     After the World War, there came realizations and discoveries about the flaws and inadequacies of “Die Bruke” and a new form of German Expressionism called “Die Neue Sachlichkei” ( “The New Objectivity”), came into being. This form was concerned about the expression of social truths with satiric bitterness and cynicism. Meanwhile, Expressionism had gained ground internationally, influencing works of artists far and near. “The influence of the Germans is seen in the works of such artists as Oskar Kokoschka, Georges Rouault, Chaïm Soutine, Jules Pascin, and Max Weber.” (Ibid).

III. Cubism

  (a)    Description

  Cubism is a 20th – century form of art in which the painter resolves the subject-matter into its basic geometric components and seeks to present it from as many perspectives as possible, through interlocking sets of the components not simultaneously visible in reality, “but arranged so as to form a unified composition (Encarta). “Another way that the cubist expressed their painting was by showing different views of an object put together in a way that you can not actually see in real life.” (Google Website). It should be added that though the presentation of the sets of geometric components appeared like a gross misrepresentation of the reality of the subject-matter, it was a reflection of the beliefs in the fact that objects can be viewed from many different perspectives. Moreover, it reflected the idea that objects were composed of cones, spheres and cylinders.

     A very good illustration is the following cubist depiction. It was a work by the painter Georges Bracque in which “constituent” cones, cylinders and spheres are interlocked to present a woman holding a guitar.

                                                                           Woman with a guitar 

                                                by Georges Braque (1913) (Wikipedia, free Encyclopedia).Fig IV

(b) Development

   Cubism fundamentally changed the way subject-matter had been depicted since the Renaissance, and the realism and proportionality that characterized the paintings during the Renaissance gave way for Cubism. Cubism, therefore, had a profound and extensive effect on the development of modern art, which until the advent of Cubism, had built upon, or at least not radically diverted from, traditional, Renaissance styles. For instance, Renaissance paintings were “regarded as a window on the natural world [because objects in painting corresponded in dimension and proportion to one another, and to the true appearance of the object]” (Encarta). This situation sharply contrasted the paintings of Cubism: to the uninformed they  were practical distortions of the objects they were claimed to depict, incomprehensibilities that conveyed no meaning whatever; or that, at best, presented a beautiful collage of indefinable, distorted or mysteriously combined geometrical shapes.

     In addition to being a revolt against the Renaissance art-form, Cubism was a rejection of the traditional emphasis on the effect of light and color, and the absence of form, which characterized Impressionism.

  1. Abstract art
  • Description

     Modern Abstract art (as against contemporary Abstract Art) was concerned with the intrinsic qualities of a form or object, rather than with their accurate representation. Abstract artists portrayed forms and objects in a reduced or simplified form and emphasized the particular intrinsic quality to which they wished to draw attention, a quality that belonged to a realm beyond the surface appearance of the object. Consequently, to appreciate modern Abstract art, the beholder must not only know something of the background of the painter, he must be imaginative enough to penetrate into the message the painter tried to convey. An example of modern art painting is pictured in Fig V below:                         

                            Fig V  “Improvisation 7″ [1910] by Wassily Kandinsky.
Since this painting is not representational, some knowledge of the background of Wassily Kandinsky and some imaginativeness are required to appreciate his intention in this piece of artwork.


     Before the birth of Abstract art, in the early twentieth century, artists had to limit themselves to representations of  sensory perceptions of objects, representations which could not appeal to the viewer’s deeper consciouness ; they had to be content with “merely grazing the surface of consciousness.” (Harley Hann). They had limited tools to penetrate into the depths and recesses of human consciousness. When the human brain processes, i.e. fashions and modifies, a recognizable image, a barrier is always erected that hinders any real penetration into the unconscious mental processes of the artist. Therefore, representational art, such as realism, limited the artist’s ability to influence or to produce an effect on the unconscious processes of the beholder.

    This limitation was removed by the advent of abstract art. It was “a powerful tool that [enabled] them to bypass literal perception and reach into this otherwise impenetrable world of unconscious emotion.” (Ibid)). The unconscious became accessible with Abstract art because the more Abstract, and thus less representational, a painting, the less prejudices and preconceptions it aroused in the viewer. “Previously, painters — restricted by the conventions of representational art — had confined themselves to either imitating nature or telling stories.”(Ibid).

     The first prominent Abstract artist was Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian who lived between 1866 and 1944. Kadinsky created sets of paintings which he labeled “Improvisations and Compositions” (Ibid) (Fig V). Even today, about a century later, Kadinsky’s painting still strikingly impacts on the inner feelings of the close viewer, with its “ability to bypass our consciousness and stir our inner feelings.” (ibid).

          Kadinsky’s creations led to the appearance of a number of other art movements; they “helped to usher in an age in which a number of abstract movements were established, one after another: Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism, Neoplasticism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and so on.” (ibid).


     Having examined the main Modern-art movements in painting, their forms and developments during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, this writing will proceed to a similar examination of another basic class of Modern art – sculpture. The coverage of sculpture will be less extensive than that of painting, because many of the movements that influenced Modern-art painting had a simultaneous influence on sculpture. For instance, when Cubism reigned, many of the works of sculptures bore patterns of Braque and Picasso’s Cubist painting. It is speculated that the departure from the pre-nineteenth-century traditional arts that characterized Modern sculpture was more in regard of the materials used than in respect of the style of carving.

     Four categories of Modern-sculpture approaches will be considered: Direct carving, Constructivism, Kinetic sculpture and Plastics.

  1. Direct Carving

 (a) Description

       In Direct Carving, rather than employ craftsmen to help in shaping his preliminary model before he refined it, the sculptor carved out this model himself and allowed the final shape to evolve as he carved. This approach was in the belief that the material used for carving should be decisive for the final carving.( This belief could probably not be appreciated enough by employed craftsmen to enable them incorporate it into their carving.) Thus, carving in bronze necessarily differed from carving in marble and wood because the artist consciously worked to bring out the beauty and color of each of these materials, and took the troubles accordingly.

  • Development

     Direct Carving was introduced about 1906 by the Roman Constantin Bracusi . Appreciating the beauty and basis of his approach, a host of other renowned sculptors – including Jacob Epstein, Barbara Hepworth – followed his example. With Direct Carving, sculptors tended away from pervious naturalism approaches, and focused more on form and texture. In his appreciation of the value of Bracusi’s innovation, Henri Moore wrote: “Since the Gothic, European sculpture had become overgrown with moss, weeds—all sorts of surface excrescences which completely concealed shape. It has been Brancusi’s special mission to get rid of this undergrowth and to make us once more shape-conscious.” ( Encarta).

      Following are examples of Direct-Carving sculpture clearing, which demonstrate the shape- and-texture consciousness of their creators:

    Constantin Brancusi                      Sir Jacob Epstein                                   Dame Barbara Hepworth
Fig VI                                          Fig VII                                                   Fig VIII                  

  1. Constructivism
  • Description

     As the term suggests, this form of Modern-art sculptor involved the joining together (or “construction”) of pieces of materials rather than modeling or carving. It is, however a non-representational style of sculpture, though it emphasized precision, often employing Mathematical tools and measuring instruments. The shapes of the sculpture constituents of constructivist were geometric, i.e. they involved circles, rectangles and squares. Constructivism was applied in industry in the construction of sophisticated gadgets, through the welding of such materials as glass, plastic, iron and steel.

  • Development

     The constructivism approach was pioneered by Piacasso in about 1912. He began by joining together pieces everyday materials, such as cardboards, strings and metals into shapes and forms of his desires. His attempts were generally regarded as amateur and humorous practices before, in 1914, the Russian sculptor Vladimir Tatlin visited him. Stimulated by the potential he saw in his practices, Tatlin took up his “joining-together” idea and formed it into the Constructivism of the 20th century. Tatlin was, therefore, regarded as the father of Constructivism.  For a few years after the 1917 Revolution, Constructivism became the main movement in Russian art before spreading to Western Europe in 1920.

III. Kinetic Sculpture

  • Description

     Kinetic Sculptures are carvings set in motion by electric power or by natural air currents. They can be made from light metals, where natural air currents are to be used for the motion, or from heavier materials, where the motion is to come from electric current. An illustration is pictured below, a  carving that is probably set in motion electrically:

                                                  Fig IX

                                               By Bryan Mavor  

  • Development

     The artists Gabo and Pevsner were the first to use the word “kinetic’ to describe their sculpture in 1920. Gabo’s experiment with electrically powered oscillating sculpture caught the attention of several other artists, who soon began to explore ways of introducing motion into their works. But Kinetic Sculpture proper was pioneered by the American artist Alexander Calder, who, in 1931, began to develop abstract moving constructions. He generally used natural air currents to cause the motion of his creations, although from time to time, he made use of electric currents. Calder remained the only recognized specialist of Kinetic sculpture for several years before, in 1950, several younger artists entered the field. It was after an exhibition held in the gallery of a dealer, Denise Rene, that Kinetic Sculpture became recognized as a form of sculpture.

(a) Description

    Plastic sculpture is basically casting. The smooth, shiny surfaces plastics provide are an advantage to sculptors. In plastic sculpture, plastic constitute the main ingredient in the casting work. Plastic is used in diverse forms, such as in the form of  PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) and fiberglass (plastic reinforced with glass). Lifelike, colored sculptures can be created with this form of sculpture.

     Pictured below is a plastic-sculpture piece of work ( a sculpture by an artist whose name was not given in the source from which it was excerpted):

                                                               Fig X

     (b) Development

     Although experiments with synthetic plastic as sculptural material had begun as early as 1860, plastics did not become a major ingredient of sculptors until after the World War II (1939-1945), becoming an innovation of Modern art. Authentication of the use of plastics for sculpture, and the popularizing of this method through the criticisms of critics and those of observers and users, had to take place in the intervening years. “Superrealist sculptors such as the Americans Duane Hanson and John De Andrea have made memorable use of it in their highly lifelike figures” (Encarta)

                                                         Works Cited

               “Abstract Art and Artist’s:Abstract Art: < http://www.abstractart.20m.com/>

              “Art History: Constructivism (1913 -1930)”: Constructivism Art- Artist, artwork,

              Bibliographies” <http://wwar.com/masters/movements/constructivism.html> Jan 11


               Cubism : Cubism <http://abstractart.20m.com/cubism.htm> 11 Jan 2006

                Encyclopedia article. The Columbia Encyclopedia, sixth edition, 2004.

                Fauvism: artists and their works: Artists by Movement: Fauvism <

                http://www.artcyclopedia.com/history/fauvism.html> 10 Jan. 2006

              Time Out <http://www.artlex.com/  > 10 Jan 2006

              Magazine article by Guy Hubbard; Arts and Activities, Vol.130, November 2001.

              Microsoft  Encarta Standard Encyclopedia 2005.

              Fauvism <http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/tl/20th/fauvism.html> 14th Oct 2002 ,

              Nicolas Pioch, 12 Jan 2006.

              Harley Hann, Understanding abstract art  <http://www.harley.com/art/abstract-art/ >

               2006, Jan 10 2006

             “Kinetic Sculptures, Kinetic Art, Artist, Art Works, Sculpture, Fine Art”: Kinetic Art

              <http://www.bertaut.com/mavor.html>  (Jan 11 2006)

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