To talk about the art of the 20th century and all its famous painters is to talk about an exciting, complex, groundbreaking avant-garde period in the history of arts that had broken away from tradition and changed the way we comprehend the arts forever. Rooted so deeply in the immediate socio-political reality of its time as well as the highly influential artistic and technological developments from the end of the 19th century, the art created between 1900 and 2000 is one that goes beyond its pure visual approach, one that hides an intellectual theory behind its mysterious façade, one that reaffirms and denies itself in unprecedented ways. It is a century that was looking for an answer to the question: What is art? through challenge, curiosity, innovation, dare, urge for change, recognition and expression.
From the vibrant explorations of Expressionism and Fauvism, new intellectual points of view of Cubism and Constructivism, the political stance of Social Realism and the rebellion of Dadaism, to the frenetic action painting, the re-invented return of Realism, the sensational Color Field painting or the mind-boggling Op Art, the powerful simplicity of Minimalism and the celebratory critique of Pop art, to say that the century behind us was artistically exciting is a great understatement. Every movement had its famous painters, ones that still stand strong and undefeated as the ultimate creators of new ideas and that inspire generation after generation of talented individuals who embraced their legacy and continued their contribution to the evolution of contemporary art today. Their genius is still a force to be reckoned with and the very backbone of the 21st century painting.
Who were the most famous painters of the great 20th century?
Editors’ Tip: Art of the 20th Century
One of the most comprehensive volumes on famous painters and artists of the 20th century, this book this readable and encyclopaedic masterwork ranges across the full spectrum of disciplines available, including photography and new media, and thematically chaptered to highlight relationships between works and movements. Whether you want Surrealism or Land Art, Fluxus or Bauhaus, this is your be-all, end-all guide to art of the 20th century. An undertaking as immensely ambitious as this one deserves to be owned by everyone. Author Ingo F. Walther’s many other titles for TASCHEN include Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Art of the 20th Century, and Codices illustres.
Kazimir Malevich - The Supreme Artist
Not only did he rebel against the dominating Social Realism, he also went against tradition in painting in general. Kazimir Malevich is the legendary creator of Suprematism and paintings like White on White and Black Square on White Ground which in the mid-1910s shook the art world to its core. For Kazimir Malevich, painting had to be free of social or political content, pure aesthetic, focused solely on its own form, line, shape and color, looking to evoke that ultimate subliminal feeling in its viewer. In 1912, he proclaimed himself a “Cubo-Futurist” artist, under the influence of the two movements at their peak at the time. Eventually, however, he returned to representational painting, although his Suprematism still left a deep mark on the future of art both in the Soviet Union and beyond.
Featured image: Kazimir Malevich – Self-portrait, 1910, detail. Image via Wikiart
Pablo Picasso - The Father of Cubism
Could we possibly imagine the history of 20th century painting without his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or Guernica? Would today’s art market make sense? Hardly, because Pablo Picasso is arguably the greatest figure of modernism and co-creator of one of the most influential movements – Cubism. He’s the man who made us look at our entire existence in a completely different way, as he introduced multiple points of view and various interpretations of a single subject. Pablo Picasso’s art, influenced by French Impressionist art at the dawn of the century, spanned a number of periods, such as the Blue and the Rose, and had a great impact on the further development of not just painting, but also sculpture, ceramics and printmaking.
Featured image: Pablo Picasso – Self-portrait, 1907, detail. Image via gretchenrubin.com
Piet Mondrian - An Abstract Painter
The inventor of Neo-Plasticism and one of the pioneers of pure abstract art, Piet Mondrian created some of the most curious works of art, made of rigid design patterns and blocks of color. His most famous paintings, of the 1920s and 30s, only involve the three primary colors, red, blue and yellow, separated by thick black lines in a perfect grid which sought to reveal a sense of order and universal harmony. In a precarious period between two world wars, Piet Mondrian cofounded the influential De Stijl movement together with Dutch painter Theo van Doesburg, whose members also strived for a purer, non-representational abstraction based on color theory and straight lines. Perhaps the best testimonies to this are his iconic works Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue from 1929 or Broadway Boogie Woogie from 1942.
Featured image: Piet Mondrian – Self-portrait, 1918, detail. Image via paintingdb.com
Frida Kahlo - Painting Painful Reality
When someone spends their entire life in pain, art becomes like a getaway. For Frida Kahlo, it was simply like having a visual diary, a vividly painful depiction of the things that she endured. A fierce Mexican and a hopeless romantic, she created striking self-portraits filled with symbols, meanings, interpretations and references, at the same time deeply personal and outspokenly political. Somewhere between surrealism, realism and symbolism, the art of Frida Kahlo elicits tenderness, femininity and the strength of a unique spirit, the feminine quality of truth, reality, cruelty and suffering. Her husband, painter Diego Rivera, once described it: ”Never before had a woman put such agonised poetry on canvas as Frida.”
Featured image: Frida Kahlo – Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940, detail. Image via fridakahlo.org
Jackson Pollock of Abstract Expressionism
Considered one of the greatest and most famous American painters, Jackson Pollock was a performer of sorts, an artist who dripped and smeared his paint onto the laying canvas through a series of movements and gestures, thus giving life to Action Painting. His artworks ooze with drama, tension and energy, rejecting all the traditional techniques religiously used for centuries prior and inspired by the Mexican muralism and Surrealist automatism. A protégé of one wealthy collector and patron, Peggy Guggenheim, Jackson Pollock, or “Jack the Dripper” as Time magazine called him in 1956, had a rather artistic career that was interrupted by his untimely death in a car accident at the age of 44, although his legacy and impact can only be described as everlasting.
Featured image: Jackson Pollock. Image via wordpress
Georgia O’Keeffe and her Flower Power
She refused to be known as the wife of noted US photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Instead, she became one of the most famous painters of her country and beyond. Georgia O’Keeffe and her sensuous semi-abstract flowers in all their beauty and glory certainly marked the history of 20th century art, along with her equally captivating urban cityscapes, landscapes and still lifes. Soaked in sublime colors and light yet evocative shapes, these paintings managed to stand out in a slightly chaotic modernist scene of the time, turning Georgia O’Keeffe into an independent artist and one of the very few female painters. Willingly or not, she paved the way of prominence for many other women who wished to become successful creatives, and continues to do so even today.
Featured image: Alfred Stieglitz – Georgia O’Keeffe, Hands, 1918, detail. Image via wikipedia
Salvador Dali - The Surrealist
As eccentric and as imaginative as they come, Salvador Dali surely is one of the most famous painters whose artworks never seize to amaze and intrigue. Coming from a background of explorations in the fields of pittura metafisica and Futurism, his eyes finally set on Surrealism, to which he has contributed some of the greatest pieces that are nothing short of a meticulous visual representation of dreams and an extraordinary creative state of mind. Moreover, Salvador Dali is considered the principal innovator of “paranoia-criticism”, a philosophy of art making that is ”irrational understanding based on the interpretive-critical association of delirious phenomena.” Looking at his psychedelic, almost hallucinatory compositions, such approach becomes quite evident.
Featured image: Salvador Dali – Soft Self-Portrait with Fried Bacon, 1941, detail. Image via Wikiart
Francis Bacon - The Troubled Irish
To depict unease, nightmares, death, violence and a hazardous state of mind surely is one of the hardest things if you’re a painter… unless you’re Francis Bacon. Indeed, almost his entire oeuvre is an homage to the horrifying and the uncomfortable, a kind of imagery that stays with you long after you’ve looked at it, because it is simply that powerful. Art often imitates life, and in the case of Francis Bacon this is true to a great extent, as his was a very turbulent one. Caught between gambling and alcoholism, he painted people screaming or in pain, disfigured faces and visceral bodies, an emotion that is penetrating from the back of the canvas with a haunting effect – just think of his 1953 Study After Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X.
Featured image: Francis Bacon – Three Studies for a Self-Portrait, 1981. Image via Christie’s
Andy Warhol - The Pop Master
His Campbell soup cans and Brillo boxes are everywhere, as are his Marilyns, Lizas, dollar signs and self-portraits. He was a painter, printmaker, illustrator, filmmaker and sculptor, the controversial lover of the popular, a mad fan of fame, glamor, celebrities. Andy Warhol is an integral part of our lives really, someone who turned that very life into art and vice versa, an acknowledged leader of the Pop art movement who was a star as much as he was an artist. His paintings are the finest examples of consumerist art, mechanical and serial production of things and faces all too familiar, yet somehow fresh and new every time. A master of screen printing, Andy Warhol was also known for his Factory studio, something of a hub for anyone hip and radical enough to get his attention.
Featured image: Andy Warhol – Self-Portrait, 1986. Image via Tate
Jean Michel Basquiat - The Graffiti King
If anyone helped graffiti become a more recognized form of postmodernist art, it’s Jean Michel Basquiat. Starting on the streets and underground passages of New York City as SAMO, at a time when street art started gaining its strength, he commented on the surrounding injustice, segregation and intolerance through seemingly simple yet elaborate designs rooted in his multicultural background. It wasn’t before long that his Neo-Expressionism works were hanging in galleries and even museums in the US and abroad, recognized for their uniqueness and raw honesty. By incorporating drawing, poetry, pictograms, diagrams, abstraction and figuration alike, Jean Michel Basquiat introduced an unprecedented, highly personal style that can never be imitated.