Modern Art Movements: 1870s to 1980s
This timeline displays the major trends and movements in modern art, approximately dated to when they began, or when they gained prominence.
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Click on any movement for a quick overview and further information. Also, you can visit the full list of all movements and styles on The Art Story.
MOVEMENTS: 1870 to 1930
MOVEMENTS: 1940 to 1980
This French painting movement began when avant-garde artists including Cézanne, Renoir, and Manet scandalized the art world after being refused admission to the official art salon.
Turning away from the stress on clarity of form and realistic rendering, the French Impressionists had an interest in how visual perception was based in fleeting optical impressions. They sought new ways to capture light and movement, atmosphere, and weather. They loosened their brushwork and lightened their palettes to include pure, intense colors – especially in their landscapes. Drawn to modern life, they also painted the mid-nineteenth century changes in Paris – capturing alienation amid public spaces such as railway stations, boulevards, cafes, and cabarets.
Symbolism emerged in France led by artists that looked to add more personal meaning to their work.
Considered part of Post-Impressionism, Symbolist artists, writers, and musicians emphasized mystical, romantic, and expressive themes as a means of escaping contemporary moralism, rationalism, and materialism. Artists such as Edvard Munch and Gustave Moreau developed new ways to express psychological truth, giving form to the spiritual reality behind the physical world, evidenced in paintings of dream worlds, melancholy, and death.
Emerging in Paris, Les Nabis was a cult-like group of Symbolist artists that wanted to reveal reality through the arts.
Based on the teachings of Gauguin and the Symbolists, Nabi artists such as Vuillard and Bonnard saw themselves as "seers" with the power to reveal the invisible. They believed that sounds, colors, and words had a power beyond representation. They combined Impressionist brushstrokes with vivid colors, mystical subject matter, and patterned backgrounds to emphasize the mystery of everyday life.
The Post Impressionists were a loose group of Paris-based artists who are often viewed together because of their various reactions to the earlier Impressionism movement.
Post-Impressionists turned away from the effects of light and atmosphere to explore painting theory and the subjective artistic vision. Artists such as Gauguin and van Gogh looked to memories and emotions to explore personal ideas, while Cézanne and Seurat explored the building blocks of painting such as colors, shapes, and overall composition.
Art Nouveau dominated the decorative arts as visual artists, designers, and architects began adopting modern and naturalistic modes of decoration, as opposed to the ornateness of Victorian-era design.
Art Nouveau had a vast number of practitioners throughout Europe and went by several names such as Jugendstil and The Glasgow Style. The shared vision was to modernize decorative design using organic and geometric forms, simple floral patterns, "whiplash" curves, and angular contours. It aimed to raise the status of craft, aspiring to "total works of the arts" (Gesamtkunstwerk) – for example, to create buildings and interiors in which every element partook of the same visual vocabulary.
The Fauves were a loosely affiliated group of French painters who shared a preoccupation with expression through color and form.
The group built on Post-Impressionist experiments with paint application, subject matter, expressive line, and pure color - especially the innovations of van Gogh, Seurat, and Gauguin. Led by Matisse, The Fauves developed an anti-naturalistic style to express personal feelings towards their subjects. Formally, their work is characterized by vivid, often unmixed color, striking surface design and a bold approach to execution. A sky could be orange, a tree could be blue, and simple forms and saturated colors drew attention to the flatness of the canvas.
Expressionism emerged simultaneously in various cities across Germany as a response to fears of a loss of authenticity and spirituality.
Reacting against Impressionism, but influenced by Symbolism, the Expressionists focused on communicating spirituality and feeling in art. Drawn simultaneously to primitivism and to modern life, they employed distorted imagery and a rich palette to convey profound emotion. Art now came from within the artist, not the external world. On the canvas, swirling, swaying, and exaggeratedly executed brushstrokes revealed turbulent inner states or the mysteries of nature. The movement also often recorded social criticism of the modern city, depicting alienated modern individuals.
Futurism was the most important Italian avant-garde art movement of the twentieth century arising from interactions with French Cubist ideas and a general desire for progress.
Futurism celebrated advanced technology and urban modernity. Its members wished to destroy older forms of culture and to demonstrate the beauty of modern life - of the machine, speed, violence and change. Although there were some Futurist architects, most of its adherents were artists who worked in traditional media such as painting and sculpture, and in an eclectic range of styles.
Cubism developed in a period of rapid innovation between Picasso and Braque building upon the ideas of Cézanne.
The approach was a radical break and offered a new way of describing space, volume and mass with new pictorial devices. More generally, it pointed new paths towards abstract art, and suggested ways of describing life in the modern urban world. It abandoned perspective and realistic modeling - representing bodies in small, tilted planes, set in a shallow space. Following the examples of Picasso and Braque, the Salon Cubists used these innovations to create many interesting effects.
The Suprematist movement grew out of Russian avant-garde ideas on the function of language and the role and limits of art.
The Suprematists, led by Kazimir Malevich reduced art to its essentials. They devised a radically abstract art of simple geometric forms. Generally expressed through painting, it emphasized the irreducible characteristics of the medium. Inspired by rational inquiry, it sometimes took on a strange, absurdist tone, although its devotion to abstraction made it sometimes quite mystical and spiritual. Driven by a goal of totally abstract art the movement searched for the 'zero degree' of painting, the point beyond which their work could not go without ceasing to be art.
The artistic and literary movement launched in Zurich as a reaction to World War I, it quickly inspired similar groups in Hanover, Berlin, Cologne, Paris, and New York, ending with the rise of the Surrealism movement.
Dada was the first conceptual art movement invoking art as performance, art as life, and art as result of audience participation. The focus was on posing difficult questions, sometimes via new tactics such as Marcel Duchamp’s "readymades" – that forced questions about the extent of artistic creativity and the overall definition of art.
The Bauhaus art school in Weimar, Germany, was founded by Walter Gropius, and promoted a comprehensive and multi-disciplined approach to the arts, encouraging students to practice the visual arts, craft and design, architecture, industrial design, and even typography.
Following the Arts and Crafts ethos to unite fine and applied arts, creativity and manufacturing, art and industrial design, the movement put equal store in form and function, and set out to reduce decoration and frills, to rejuvenate design for everyday life. Although a formal school, the name became equated with modern German design from the early twentieth century, predating the rise of the Nazis. The Bauhaus style, aka the International Style, was promoted by Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Josef Albers, Marcel Breuer, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky – many of whom would become influential teachers across the world.
This movement evolved after the October Revolution of 1917, acting as a lightning rod for the artists that wanted to build a new utopian state.
Constructivism borrowed ideas from Cubism, Suprematism and Futurism, but bent them into a new approach to making objects, one which sought to replace traditional artistic concerns of composition with 'construction.' It stressed the inherent physical characteristics of materials, rather than any symbolic associations they might support. While seeking to express the dynamism of the modern world, and that of the rapidly changing Russian society, the Constructivists also hoped to develop ideas that could be put to use in mass production.
Arising in Paris on some of the ideas of Dada, the Surrealists hoped to access powerful ideas by going beyond conscious thought.
Surrealism shared Dada’s anarchic rejection of bourgeois values, and called for a revolution of the mind. Influenced by Freudian theories on the unconscious, dreams, desire, and repression André Breton called on artists to bypass reason by accessing their unconscious via automatism or dreams. Each artist relied on personal recurring motifs (Dali's ants or eggs, Ernst’s bird alter ego). Surrealist works caused shock and sensation due to their content, drawing on myth, primitivism, madness, sex, and desire they intended to jolt viewers out of their comfortable notions of reality.
The most influential movement in post-war abstract painting, Abstract Expressionism flourished in New York, establishing America over Paris as the post-war leader of modern art.
The Abstract Expressionists such as Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko were committed to expressing profound emotion and universal themes. Indebted to Surrealism’s exploration of painting as a struggle between self-expression and the unconscious they created a new art for the post World War II world. Their art was championed for being emphatically American in spirit - monumental in scale, romantic in mood, and expressive of individual freedom.
Born in New York City out of the huge popularity and academism of Abstract Expressionism, the participants of this loose movement wanted to open up the possibilities of art-making that became too stringent.
Artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg launched a radical shift in the focus of modern art - from the existential angst of the Abstract Impressionists, to focus on the audience, pop culture, and general ambiguity. Their aim was to force viewers to interact via absurd juxtapositions – taking up Dadaist Marcel Duchamp's premise that what the artist begins, the viewer completes. Neo-Dada used mass media, found objects, performance, and chance, to eliminate artistic control in favor of the viewer’s reading. They mocked and celebrated consumer culture, united abstraction and realism, and disregarded boundaries through experiments with assemblage and performances.
These movements have their roots in the Dada and Constructivist movements, but finally launched at the “Le Mouvement” exhibition in Paris, after which they attracted an international following.
Kinetic art – art that depends on movement for its effects, and Op art – art focused on optics and visual perceptions - were launched by artists seeking to create more interactive relationships with the viewer, and new visual experiences. They inspired new kinds of art that went beyond the boundaries of the traditional, hand-crafted, static object, encouraging the idea that the beauty of an object could be the product of optical illusions or mechanical movement.
The name designates a trend in Abstract Expressionism, pioneered by Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler, and Clyfford Still, seeking a modern, mythic style that removed any suggestion of illustration or the artist’s hand.
A major development in abstract painting, it was the first style to avoid the suggestion of a form or mass against a background. Instead, figure and ground are one, and the space of the picture, conceived as a field, seems to spread out beyond the edges of the canvas. Clement Greenberg put much of his critical praise into this movement, and the related Post-Painterly Abstraction movement.
The movement developed simultaneously in various global cities. Commonly associated to the New York artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein (and their Neo-Dada predecessors), there were crucial contributions by London's Independent Group and the German artists Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter.
During the post-WWII American consumer commodity boom, Pop’s visual vocabulary merged high art and popular culture, blending and elevating advertising, celebrity, and cartoons to the status of art. It was coolly ambivalent compared to ‘hot’ emotion of the Abstract Expressionists that had gone before it. This ambivalence created a subtle commentary on the new popular cultural landscape after the difficult years of The Great Depression and war.
Photorealism (also known as Hyperrealism or Superrealism) was developed by a loosely affiliated group of American painters and sculptors reacting to post-war art, pop culture, and photography.
Disillusioned by concurrent trends in nonrepresentational art, artists such as Chuck Close, Richard Estes, and Ralph Goings sought to portray objects with greater visual accuracy, relying largely on photographs in their practice and often depicting American motifs in their work. More broadly, the movement complicated notions of reality by interjecting fantastical or abstracted elements into their otherwise optically precise works. Building upon the idea of Pop Art, the movement reintroduced process and planning over automatism, and craftsmanship over unconscious improvisation.
Minimalism was born when a loosely affiliated group of New York-based artists began to question the boundaries between multiple media and to express the basic materiality of art objects.
An approach to art - principally sculptural - which stressed anonymous, industrial manufacturing and austere, geometric forms. Led by articulate spokesmen such as Donald Judd, the movement became a highly self-conscious attempt to overturn previous conventions of sculpture, to create objects with simple, indivisible forms, and to reject the appearance of art.
This movement is comprised of many tendencies that all focused on expanding the boundaries of current art and developed simultaneously across the world in the United States, Latin America, and Europe.
Following the avant-garde ethos of Cubism, Dada, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop Art the movement claimed all art is conceptual, prizing ideas and communication over material or visual components. Influenced by the simplicity of Minimalism, artists rejected conventions of sculpture and painting to reduce the actual material to a minimum – the "dematerialization" of art. Many eschewed objects altogether, others created a diverse output from maps and found objects to texts and photographs, performances, happenings, and ephemera. It is also a critique of the institution of art – raising the idea that aesthetics, expression, skill, and marketability were irrelevant.
The Italian Arte Povera movement was an artist collective taking a radical stance against all established modes of artistic taste, to promote ideas of a new art, free from convention.
In their common stance against a market-driven art world and reasserting the importance of personal expression, artists such as Alighiero Boetti, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, and Michelangelo Pistoletto practiced painting, embroidery, conceptual art, and performance, using simple, artisanal materials in contrast to consumer culture. Such "poor" materials borrowed from and referred to simple objects from everyday life.
This broad movement describes a collection of reactions against the abstraction, austerity, and formalism of the Minimalist style.
Post-Minimalism extended the ideas of the previous movement: process artists pushed further its interests in the materiality of sculpture; developed large, earth-based works; and feminist artists reintroduced qualities of emotional expression. Some practitioners shared in the Minimalist interest in abstraction and materiality, yet rejected industrial materials in favor of more expressive sculptures that convey personal emotions.
Although performance has been a part of avant-garde art through many styles, in the post-modernist world Performance art was picked up and gained currency by Feminist artists and other conceptual creators.
Performance art is presented "live," by the artist, with collaborators or performers. Disenchanted with conventional media such as painting and sculpture, artists sought to challenge and rejuvenate visual art, access new audiences and test new ideas using elements from work, sport, ritual, and dance. The movement extended the “action painting” of the Abstract Expressionists - the object no longer paint on canvas but something else, often the artist’s own body. This led to the use of the body to make personal statement as seen in Feminist Art and anti-war activism.
Neo-Expressionism started with Georg Baselitz’s return to painting as an avant-garde art form. Many artists followed by creating challenging works after many years of claims that painting is “dead”.
Disaffected with the intellectualism of Minimalism and Conceptual Art, it reasserted the creative power of the individual and the sensuousness of painting with textural, expressive brushwork and intense colors – a return from stylistically cool, sparseness. This took place simultaneously throughout the world and was marked by interests in primitivism, graffiti, and the revival of narrative. The works of Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, and Jean-Michel Basquiat are marked by a sense of the mythological, cultural, historical, nationalist, and erotic.
Known for their gritty urban subject matter, dark palette, and gestural brushwork, this loosely knit group of artists based in New York City played a crucial role in the 1913 Armory Show that introduced American audiences to European modernism.
In opposition to the American Impressionism that had preceded it, the Ashcan school captured modern life in New York’s immigrant and working-class communities. They painted from direct experience, in scenes of people walking in parks, bars, and vaudeville reviews. Their vigorous paint application and the immediacy of execution, gave their canvases a sketchy, lively quality. Artists such as Robert Henri, George Lucs, and John Sloan sought new forms of Realism to describe the rapid and great changes in urban life, commercial culture, and codes of social contact.
Born in the depression, a time of racial conflict, rising fascism, and political idealism after the Mexican and Russian revolutions, the movement explored both the artistic and political possibilities of art.
The Social Realists’ gritty subject matter often used the human figure to offer social critique. The aim was to use art as a weapon against capitalist exploitation and fascism. Works by Aaron Douglas and Isamu Noguchi show the human impact of social issues, in joblessness, poverty, and political injustice. Many of these artists were employed by the government Works Progress Administration (WPA), and took commissions for public buildings, using new platforms to raise awareness of social issues.
This Dutch movement arose in response to World War I, and conceived of art as a social and spiritual redemption, a universal visual language for a new world.
Reacting against the over-decorative Art Deco style, De Stijl artists eliminated representation in an abstract, pared-down aesthetic which worked in a visual language of geometric forms and primary colors. Piet Mondrian was influenced by the mystic ideas of Theosophy, while Theo van Doesburg’s journal, De Stijl advocated the fusion of form and function as the ultimate style - encompassing painting and sculpture, industrial design, architecture and typography, influencing the Bauhaus and the International Style.
The movement originated from the rise of environmental awareness and the Conceptual and Minimalist ideas in postmodernism.
The movement introduced site-specificity to the art world using natural spaces and materials such as stones, water, gravel, and soil. Influenced by prehistoric artworks such as Stonehenge, structures such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) explored unprecedented scale and exposed art to the elements identifying new concepts such as natural decay. Earth Art reflects the monumentality and simplicity of Minimalist objects, blended with Post-Minimalist tendencies such as process, installation, and performance art. In rejecting the commoditization of art, the movement challenged the idea of art being owned or displayed for profit in institutions, museums, or private homes.
The movement emerged in the late 1960s amidst anti-war protests and a growing call for equality in demands for civil, gay, and women’s rights.
Feminist artists sought to transform stereotypes, drawing from Conceptual art to make the viewer question the social and political landscape, and thus incite change. They adopted non-traditional media, using fabric, fiber, performance, video, and alternative venues to revolutionize thinking about female art and artists. By promoting the visibility of female artists, artists such as Judy Chicago and Barbara Kruger provided new perspectives to the male-dominated established precedents in the visual arts.
The movement covers a loose international group of artists, poets, and musicians, demanding social and economic change in the art world.
The goal was to destroy any boundary between art and life, reinvigorating Futurist and Dadaist ideas on art as life, and art for the masses. In the tradition of Marcel Duchamp, Fluxus used humor to mock the elitist world of "high art," but underneath lay a serious desire to change what, and who, constituted "art." Fusing Conceptual art, Minimalism, music, and poetry their aim to bring art to all involved the viewer, and in works such as Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964-1966) participation and chance are vital components, encapsulating the belief in art as a creative process, not an end product.
The movement emerged in post-World War II Japan, in a new era of freedom, replacing the totalitarian regime which had stifled individual expression.
The artists rejected representational art and put concept over form, their art making was performance, involving painting, installation, and theatrical events. The artists connected matter (paint, chemicals, tar, mud, water) and action (breaking, exploding, tearing, dripping). Conceptual in nature, viewers could imagine multiple potential meanings. Gutai’s artists used their new creative freedom to network internationally, collaborating with artists in Europe and America, including in Allan Kaprow's Happenings.
Artists turned to performance as a reaction against the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism and the social changes of the late 1950s.
Happenings, led by Allan Kaprow, drew from Futurist and Dadaist ideas of painting, poetry, music, dance, and theatre as a live action requiring the participation of the audience. Happenings could be big or small, but each audience member had a unique encounter as part of the performance and was thus involved in the art making process. As there was no art ‘object’ these performances challenged conventional views of art. Sound was a key component, building on the work of John Cage, with important participants such as Robert Rauschenberg and George Brecht that created Happenings throughout the 1960s. However, by the early 1970s the label had been consumed by the term Performance Art.
Viennese Actionists believed Austria was suppressing memories of war atrocities by the Nazis and wanted to face this trauma head-on via art.
Theirs was a violent, explicit, performance art collaboratively staged, filmed, and photographed. Vienna was the home of Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, and in their “actions” they wanted to use performance to exorcise post-war trauma. Performances might involve blood, urine, milk, entrails, sex, nudity, mock-crucifixions or disemboweled animal cadavers. They also involved breaking the law, and indeed Hermann Nitsch was imprisoned for masturbating and enacting violent sexual scenes in public settings.
Influenced by advertising, television and the increasingly image-led mass media, this loose affiliation of artists explored contemporary photo and video images.
Though many artists had been formally trained in painting and sculpture, The Pictures artists worked in unorthodox ways - examining composition in image production via photography and video. Artists such as Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince composed images with conceptual frameworks which enabled them to explore icons and stereotypes while reworking images. Their use of appropriation and montage blurred the lines between high art and popular images. This questioning of the relationship between originals and reproductions put the artists at the heart of the postmodern debate on authenticity and authorship.
This loosely-affiliated group of painters, sculptors, installation, and video artists met while studying Fine Art at London’s Goldsmith’s College, mounting one of the most shocking exhibits of the late twentieth century: Freeze (1988).
The Young Brits often used shock tactics with violent and pornographic images, achieving instant notoriety. Media savvy, the YBAs focus on spectacle was emphasized by the purchase and promotion of their works by the advertising mogul Charles Saatchi. Their Sensation exhibition (1997) featured Damien Hirst’s infamous shark, a Marcus Harvey portrait of a child murderer using children's handprints, and Chris Ofili's Portrait of the Virgin Mary using elephant dung, provoking international debates on the role and responsibility of art.