History of Modern Art

Edouard Manet,

Edouard Manet, "The Railway," National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse,

The History of Modern Art can be confusing even to art aficionados. I recall asking a collector to describe contemporary paintings exhibited in a local gallery. She said, "Oh, the art is contemporary and modern," combining two different art movements from two time periods. Her companion responded, "The art is avant-garde," using a 100-year-old art term.

Modern Art began in the mid-1870s in France and Western Europe with Impressionists Courbet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro and others; artists who painted in the outdoors, en plein air. With the motto, "art for art's sake," they used broad strokes of pure intense colors—intended to be blended by the eye—to capture the fleeting quality of light.
Contemporary Art, comprised of artworks made from the 1960's to the present, is generally more socially conscious and inclusive of several styles and media than that of Modern Art. It is experimental and includes hybrids of styles and influences from various periods of art history. And it incorporates conceptual and political messages, addressing feminism, multiculturalism, globalization, bioengineering and AIDS.

Their paintings, and those by the subsequent Post-Impressionists (Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Seurat, 1886-1905), continue to have a wide appeal, due in part to their vibrant colors and depiction of sunlit settings in the cities and the countryside. Yet the artists who created these works had a deeper intention than to just paint pretty pictures. They were working outdoors, painting directly from nature, interpreting urban settings, landscapes and people as they saw them, using broad dabs of paint—rather than creating scenes and portraits realistically in the studio, as artists had done for centuries.

These artists employed themes and techniques challenging the status quo in society, as well as the "imitation of life" creed, previously prevalent in the arts. Their paintings addressed the dramatic political, social and industrial changes occurring in Europe at that time, whereas art of previous eras tended toward religious and mythological themes. These changes were in large part due to events surrounding the Industrial Revolution, an era (from the mid 18th century into the 19th century) of profound changes in manufacturing, transportation, and technology.

The Gare Saint'Lazare

In the catalog, "Manet, Monet and the Gare Saint-Lazare," (Paris train station) © 1993, celebrating an exhibition of the same name at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., several paintings convey the rapid industrialization occurring in Paris in the second half of the 19th Century.

The catalog explains, "Among Claude Monet’s many paintings of urban Paris, its boulevards and its monuments, its single most striking and coherent group is that of his canvases depicting the Gare Saint Lazare. Monet set up his easel on the station platforms or on the tracks beside the point de l'Europe, to observe the trains that ran beneath the great bridge, to and from distant places…Edouard Manet, whose seminal picture of The Railway lies at the heart of our discussion, is a striking example of the importance of place, of the artist’s relationship to his surroundings."

Robert Atkins wrote in "Art Spoke" © 1993, "Crucial to the development of modernism was the breakdown of traditional sources of financial support—the church, the state and the aristocratic elite...Newly independent artists were now free to determine the appearance and content of their art."

With Impressionism and Post-Impressionism as its philosophical foundation, Modern Art prevailed in Western culture for nearly 100 years—with each new movement inspired by a range of historic and cultural influences, and by previous art styles.

Subsequent Modern Art movements include: Expressionism (Munch), Fauvism or "Wild Beasts" (Matisse, Derain), Cubism (Picasso, Braque), Dadaism (Man Ray), Surrealism (Dali, Miro), Conceptual Art (Duchamp), Abstract Expressionism (Rothko, Pollack), Pop Art (Warhol, Lichtenstein) and Minimalism (Donald Judd, Frank Stella). (See Abstract Expressionism, Contemporary Art, Pop Art and Postmodern Art.)

Regarding that conversation with the collector's companion, "avant-garde," used informally to describe contemporary art, was originally a French military term, meaning "advance guard." Impressionists and later modern artists used the term to describe their work, indicating that their paintings and sculptures were in the vanguard of art trends. Avant-garde became part of the English vernacular after the Armory Show opened in New York in 1913.
"The Association of American Painters and Sculptors" (AAPS) helped organize the Armory Show to bring art ("usually neglected by current shows," as they wrote) to the public. The AAPS was founded to open up exhibition opportunities for young, forward looking artists; and the Armory Show was created in part to showcase their work. Spearheaded by American painters Arthur B, Davies and Walt Kuhn and by art adviser and historian Walter Pach, the AAPS arranged for art from the "Sunderbund Exhibition" in Cologne and from the "Matisse and Picasso Show" in London to be shipped to New York. Kuhn also helped obtain paintings from the (Gertrude) Stein Circle, dealer Ambroise Vollard and from painters Marcel Duchamp and Jacques Villon.

Seminal Moment in the History of Modern Art

The New York Armory Show (International Exhibition of Modern Art) 100-year anniversary occurred on February 17, 2013. This groundbreaking display of European and American paintings and sculpture opened in 1913 in Manhattan’s cavernous 69th Regiment Armory. This seminal moment in the history of Modern Art featured 1,200 modern artworks, and was viewed by more than 400,000 people in New York and later in Boston and Chicago. Looking back at the Show—and at the prevailing viewpoint toward Modern Art during that era—recalls perceptions about Contemporary Art in its early years. (See quote box below.)

When the Armory Show opened, it brought to the public modern artworks by Post-Impressionists Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Seurat and Rousseau. Also present were paintings by the Fauves, Dufy, Matisse and Vlaminck; by Cubists Braque, Duchamp, Leger, Picabia and Picasso; and by German Expressionists Kirchner and Kandinsky, among many more artists. American artists—who contributed hundreds of their most ambitious paintings—were dismayed to see their works trivialized by the influence and fame of the European pieces.

Critics, reporters and cartoonists lampooned many of the European artworks, calling them, "alien, degenerate and politically dangerous." Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase was described as "an explosion in a shingle factory." Henri Matisse’s The Blue Nude, with its garish colors and excessively large breasts, was also derided by the press and burned in effigy by students at the Art Institute of Chicago. Yet both paintings would be considered tame by today’s standards.
Hilton Kramer wrote in The Nation in "The New Realists," November 1963: "Art, which once brought us closer to our experience, has now joined forces with the objects of the world, which alienate us ever more deeply from having a true sense of ourselves, and it is unclear whether our experience can now be aesthetically explored and repossessed without abandoning art—at least as we have known it in modern times—in the process."

Frank Jewitt Mather, Jr. wrote about the show in The Nation in "Old and New Art" (March 1913): "The trouble with the newest art and its critical champions is that fundamentally they have no real breadth of taste. These people are devoted to fanaticisms, catchwords, all manner of taking themselves too seriously…Either these new movements are aberrations and will promptly vanish, or else there is henceforth no art as the world has formerly understood the world and the thing…"

In spite of the Armory Show’s contentious ratings, hordes of people were intrigued by the event, while its impact inspired and influenced many of the American artists who exhibited there, including Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis, Man Ray and Joseph Stella, as well as collectors Walter Arensberg, Lillie P. Bliss and John Quinn.

The International Exhibition of Modern Art, held in three locations in the wake of World War I, compelled artists and viewers to look more closely at the art, which addressed social and political issues, while exploring new styles and approaches to art making—a game changer that helped pave the way for the dawn of Contemporary Art decades later.

(Please see my Huffington Post article on the Armory Show.)

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