Modern Art History

Sometime during the birth of the 20th century, art changed in a deeply fundamental way. Art broke. Surfaces shattered, forms dissolved, images shredded. This was not due to a lack of skill on the part of the artist, or a lack of discipline. Art broke consciously, deliberately. During the past century, every aspect of art was separated and dealt with in a new way: including color, light, pigment, form, line, content, space, surface and design.

The breaking started during the nineteenth century, as Impressionists moved their easels outside and painted rapidly, trying to capture the reality of sunlight and the fleeting atmosphere of nature. This was the beginning of a gradual separation from the ideals of the Renaissance, including an emphasis on human form, three-dimensional representation and a centrally focused design.

Following the Impressionists, Vincent van Gogh transformed broken color into broken pigment and abandoned literal representation of forms into a highly-emotional representation. Van Gogh in turn influenced the Expressionists in the early part of the 20th century, who used pitted surfaces, unpredictable color and broken lines to highlight the emotional intensity of their paintings.

Hard on the heels of the the Expressionists came the advent of Cubism. Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Leger, and Gris rearranged planes and surfaces in their painting. The chaotic multiplicity of their experience of life in the industrial age was reflected in the ability to see all sides of an object at once in their painting.

Related to the Cubists, the Futurists in Italy attempted to move the transparent planes of Cubism through time, illustrating the path of an object as it moves through space.

Surrealism broke up chronology, or the story in the picture. Influenced by Sigmund Freud and his theories of the subconscious mind, time and reality in paintings were shattered with a world infused with dreams. Disconnected episodes within the painting illustrated the disturbing life of the unconscious.

Beyond Surrealism came the total break-up of Abstract Expressionism. This movement dwells on the fact that painting is painted. Abstract Expressionism celebrates the act of painting itself. During its heyday, Abstract Expressionism was also called "Action Painting." In this art, there is no central idea. All the old rules of line, light, color, form, pigment, surface and design are defied. The artist's impulsive actions become the painting. The pigment itself becomes involved in the painting, like a co-author to the artist. The Abstract Expressionists tell their stories in their feelings, in the texture and movement of the paint on the canvas.

Throughout history, science has always played a key role in the influence of art. In the nineteenth century, when the Impressionists took up the challenge of light and atmosphere, numerous scientists were experimenting with optical color laws and relating color to its effect on the human eye. Monet, Seurat and the other Impressionists were familiar with these scientific theories and sought to apply them to their paintings. The wonders of natural light, explored by the Impressionists, gave way to the paintings of artificial light as the nineteenth century came to a close.

When the 20th century was new, the popularity of inventions like the microscope and telescope offered artists inspiration in enlarging or isolating new worlds. Artists discovered that details, when separated from the whole, could stand on their own as new experiences. With the advent of the two world wars, science became almost synonymous with destruction and the atomic age gave rise to the understanding that all form is simply space expanded.

Speed itself, with cars, trains and airplanes, became a factor in experience and was reflected in modern art. Swifter communication overlapped experience. Modern life in the 20th century was no longer about one-thing-at-a-time, it was about multiple overlays of experience and the pressure of time.

Abstract art took much from life in the 20th century. Science made revolutionary strides and painters and sculptors reflected this in changing the way art works.

When abstract art broke art apart, it wasn't a destructive breaking. It was a breaking that reformed, regenerated and redefined the art of seeing. Today modern art often uses the vocabulary of abstract art. Modern art demands of us that we examine art more fully, penetrate our world more deeply and pay attention to all the forgotten aspects of our lives.