The Ultimate Outline of 20th Century Art

Art History

November 24, 2016

There is no doubt that the 20th century art was all about changing perspective. The artist's way of seeing and therefore understanding things has been changing and continues to do so even in this day and age. The new, experimental approach to perspective was pursued both directly and implicitly. Painters and sculptors had abandoned linear perspective and began discovering other ways of representing reality, but furthermore, the very vantage point from which to observe and comprehend art in general was changed as well. It was art's way of breaking with tradition and embracing a different approach to its disciplinarity, on the one hand, and reality on the other. This radical shift was not only present in the art world, of course. Rather, it was similarly embodied through other aspects of our society - economics, industry and social unrest. To all of this, art was never blind, which is why it was always connected to life, even when it claimed (and gained) independence.

20th century art page - Piet Mondrian - No. VI - Composition No.II, 1920
Piet Mondrian - No. VI - Composition No.II, 1920

Introducing Modern Art

Different theorists interpret different movements as predecessors of modern art; and modernism is what we recognize as the historical theme of the 20th century today. This is mostly due to various understandings of what modern art entails, since this broad category has been changing its meaning throughout history. In sum, we have to thank Realism for changing the nature of subject matter, and Impressionism, as well as Post-Impressionism, for building upon this idea and introducing subjectivity and selective layers of representation. These two movements triggered a series of responses that came in the following years.

Georges Seurat – A Sunday on La Grande Jatte
Georges Seurat – A Sunday on La Grande Jatte

Fauvism in France

The first new style that emerged in the 20th century was the rebellious, anti-rational, colorful Fauvism. Three of its most notable protagonists (Henri Matisse, Andre Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck) met, symbolically, in the 1st year of the century (1901) and that was when they decided to share a studio. Their collaboration eventually led to a new approach in painting, which, although short-lived, had immense impact on other styles and resonated over the course of decades. The group adopted the name “Wild Beasts”, which was initially used by the famous art critic Louis Vauxcelles and intended as an insult. Hence the name of this inconsistent movement - Fauvism. The Fauves introduced individualism, using dense brush strokes and dissolving the forms, which led to a very evident “change of perspective” mentioned in the beginning. The members went separate ways before their style turned into mannerism.

arts in museum visual
Andre Derain - Charing Cross Bridge, c. 1906

Expressionism in Germany

While the beasts were raging in France, there began a similar modernist movement in Germany. These two painterly styles shared numerous characteristics, among them a crucial emphasis on self-expression, color and the emotion that it relates to. They both favored subjectivity over realistic depiction and the painters used quite similar techniques to achieve this. Expressionism was, however, established later in 1913, even though it coexisted with fauvism in the past. This made it difficult for Expressionism to acquire significance as a movement, since it coincided with many other -isms and devastating events (such as World War I), during which it was urgent for art to take on a more political, more critical role. Nonetheless, many expressionists, such as Kandinsky and Klee, are certainly among the most famous painters ever.

Wassily Kandinsky mountain landscape with church
Wassily Kandinsky - Mountain Landscape with Church, 1910

Cubism - The Very Explicit Change in Perspective

In the 1910s, Cubism made us re-think what we already knew - that our world is not two-dimensional. It did so in an unlikely manner, by aligning different views of bodies in space one next to another, thus making the flatness attest to the multiplicity of our world. In their paintings, Picasso, Braque and Gris found new ways to simultaneously represent different facets of objects, humans and landscapes, creating a familiar distorted type of imagery of which many are in awe, even today. It affected sculpture and architecture, and even survived the First World War. However, after 1918, cubist paintings have already become part of a more conservative stream, since painting itself was facing a critical point, after which many questioned its role and even existence in the future.

Pablo Picasso - Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907
Pablo Picasso - Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907 (detail)

Futurism - Capturing Motion

Visually similar but ideologically controversial, Futurism arose in Italy shortly after Cubism in France. In painting and sculpture, Futurism was in much inspired by Cubism as a style. It, too, aimed to represent the multifaceted picture that embraces more than one single outlook, often depicting multiple postures in a single piece. However, most Futurists were driven by a clearly defined manifesto, with their ideological guidelines rooted in nationalism, industrial revolution, speed and the triumph of technology over nature. Because of this admiration for the progressing, modern era, many Futurists strove to support Fascism, as they believed it fought for the same cause. Connection with the Fascist Party cast a dark shadow over many futurists after World War II was over.[1]

Umberto Boccioni - Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913
Umberto Boccioni - Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913

Negotiating Abstract Art - Suprematism, Neoplasticism, Bauhaus

All of the movements from the 1900s and 1910s were gradually leading up to a total reduction of shape and form, which was officially crowned for the first time through the works of the Russian avant-garde. Those who were not inclined to affiliate art with life, like Constructivists did, joined Kazimir Maljevic and his concept of the "supremacy of the pure artistic feeling" over representation (embodied through Suprematism). A similar idea guided Mondrian when he explained the nature of Neoplasticism, or in a more "designerly" manner - De Stijl. The idea was to create a universal language, a language without hidden meanings, a form of purism that is based on relations of shapes and 3 basic colors rather than "truthful depiction" that aims to imitate rather than tell. Many of the artists who were associated with De Stijl were also members of the Bauhaus school, which was founded in 1919 and stood as a representative of an all-encompassing style that conjoined ideas from opposing styles, and aimed to merge intellectualized art with manufacture.

20th century art in search for abstraction
Kazimir Malevich - Suprematist Composition White on White, 1918

Dada - The Ultimate Avant-Garde Movement

Even today, we can safely say that Dada was the essence of the avant-garde, the pioneer of anti-art which inspired many of their successors and one of the most radical responses to the political climate of the early 20th century. The group that used to gather in Cabaret Voltaire is basically responsible for the rapid change of course in art. They were driven by the lack of correspondence between art and life, in which art was repetitively failing to address the disorder and chaos that people felt. In Dada, there were no rules, no rights or wrongs, “No more painters, no more writers, no more religions, no more royalists, no more anarchists, no more socialists, no more politics, no more airplanes, no more urinals... Like everything in life, Dada is useless, everything happens in a completely idiotic way... We are incapable of treating seriously any subject whatsoever, let alone this subject: ourselves.[2] Unlike art styles and movements, Dada was never constrained by anything, which is probably why the things that Duchamp, Tzara and their contemporaries did are still considered equally prodigious even when subject to our 21st century gaze. In fact, the only thing that had a formulating impact on Dada was its eventual reception among the critics, which made the members terminate the movement. What was proclaimed non-art has eventually become art, and not ironically as Duchamp may have intended at first. We will have seen that Dada, in which everything is a piece of art, indirectly gave rise to almost all avant-garde movements to come and (unintentionally?) introduced a variety of new media.

20th century art use of visual abstraction
Marcel Duchamp - Fountain, 1917


In the early 1920s, Surrealism appeared as a stylistic successor of Metaphysical Art and in response to the Dadaist activities from the past. Both were implemented with the help of Andre Breton, who was part of the Dada movement himself and a great admirer of de Chirico's work. While his automatic writing was conceived during the Dada period, it is one of the precursors of Surrealism as a school that emphasizes the role of the unconscious in creative processes. Interestingly, Breton did not come to his admirable leading position on his own. In 1924, two groups of Surrealist artists formed, each claiming to be the followers of Guillaume Apollinaire's revolution. After a series of debates and fights over who has the right over the term Surrealim, Breton turned out to be more eloquent and his group eventually outnumbered the one led by Yvan Goll. But even after the movement was established and defined by a manifesto, it was often accompanied by disagreements and fractions.[3] However, that didn't prevent Surrealism from becoming one of the most influential movements, especially since it continued to exist even in the post-war period. Scholars cite the year 1966 as the moment in which the movement, as an organized group, ended (it was the year in which Breton died), however as a style in literature, painting and film, it continued to live on.

visual search for museum of abstraction in arts
Salvador Dali - The Persistence of Memory, 1931

Abstract Expressionism

Briefly before and during the Second World War, many creatives moved from Europe and found refuge in the United States. Incidentally, it was the period in which Abstract Expressionism emerged in America. The war is often associated with this style, usually as an explanation for the embodiment of chaos found in these paintings. The other reason for this is the period of regression that was happening in Europe at the time, when Hitler and the Nazi Party proclaimed all types of non-traditional art "degenerate".[4] As the name suggests, the style reflected inner emotion and self-expression, through non-figurative means that often (but not exclusively) involved the trace of the author's body movements or brush strokes. Although most of us automatically think of Jackson Pollock and his dripping technique, Abstract Expressionism was more of a philosophy than a name for a unified visual identity. Nonetheless, it was the first internationally acclaimed influential movement to originate in America.

20th century art
Jackson Pollock - Lavander Mist, Number 1, 1950

Pop Art

But it certainly didn't end there, because then came Pop Art. The ambiguous postmodern movement was a direct response to the over-intellectualized high art (Abstract Expressionism, that is). Surprisingly, this idea to merge low art and high art turned out to be a major success. Pop Art was the exact opposite of what preceded it, as it involved highly figurative motives and objects from popular culture, speaking to the broader audiences in a more relatable, familiar language. It is still one of the most distinct styles, and it became a highly collectible, commercial type of art that indeed was respected both by high art institutions and the masses.

page for 20th century art, search for use of abstract arts
Andy Warhol - 32 Campbell's Soup Cans, 1962

1960s - Protests, Revolutions and Conceptual Art

The 1960s and the early 70s are often regarded as the decades of cultural and societal revolutions. In a non-chronological order, let's just remind ourselves that this was the period in which many of the civil rights movements came into being, such as The Black Panther Party. It was also when Feminism started its first serious take on the art world, and when Street Art emerged on the streets of New York. Coincidentally, the 60s marked the emergence of Conceptual Art as well. Greatly dependent on what was already done in the past (particularly, Dada and Duchamp), conceptual artists questioned an artist's need to produce anything material at all. They felt that the idea, or namely the concept behind a piece of art is more important than its aesthetic quality, or any other aspect of an artwork.[5] Since their goal was to negate aestheticism of any kind, artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Robert Barry and the group Art & Language started using language, text and diagrams as mediums. In this period, the role of a gallery as a formalist white cube was brought into question, as they were against art as commodification as well.

Joseph Kosuth - One and Three Chairs, 1965
Joseph Kosuth - One and Three Chairs, 1965

Late 20th Century Art and the 21st Century

Non-material art that favors the idea over the material product gave rise to Performance and Land Art. Art-making was no longer strictly related to galleries indeed, and many new types of non-art and anti-art appeared. However, what we know about art today tells us that galleries are still pretty much as white as ever, meaning that conceptual art was eventually silenced or transformed by the art market. Artworks are getting more expensive each day - even the ones produced by conceptual artists from the 60s - and the market just keeps on growing (while everything else seems to go down). Everything is a commodity, and the very reason why art is being produced is problematized now more than ever. Ethics and art production seem to clash on a daily basis.

Marina Abramovic - Rhythm 0, 1974
Marina Abramovic - Rhythm 0, 1974

Contemporary Art, Post-Conceptual Art

In the last decades of the 20th century, the term Contemporary Art came into use, in order to try to classify different types of art that coexist at the same time. Not the best choice of words, since it is still used just like it was 30 years ago, to define art that is contemporary, meaning - in relation with the time in which it is made. The confusing term contributes to the fragmentation of all the various types of artworks we can see in the 21st century. For this reason, Peter Osborne uses the term post-conceptual rather than contemporary to define artistic practices that are predominant today (although he does make a distinction between the two).[6] These works seem to resonate with the idea that the concept is a crucial part of art, but it is, however, acknowledged that the aesthetic aspect is its integral part, even if redundant. Nonetheless, this doesn't come across as a consistent style or a movement. What we might need today is something equivalent to Dada. Well, at least the state of the world seems just as chaotic today as it did in 1915.


  1. Braun, E., Mario Sironi and Italian Modernism: Art and Politics under Fascism, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  2. Kleiner, F.S., Gardner's Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective, Volume 2, Cengage Learning, 15 edition, 2016.
  3. Witkowsky, M., Surrealism in the Plural: Guillaume Apollinaire, Ivan Goll and Devětsil in the 1920s , 2004. [November 19, 2016]
  4. Barron, S., 'Degenerate Art:' The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991.
  5. Lippard, L., Six Years: the Dematerialization of the Art Object From 1966 to 1972, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
  6. Osborne, P., Anywhere Or Not At All, Verso, 2013.

Editors’ Tip: The 20th Century Art Book

Complementing the phenomenally successful Art Book, and most recently The American Art Book, The 20th Century Art Book presents a new and original way of bringing art alive. The book comprehensively covers the international nature of the modern art scene, encompassing the established, iconic artworks and the classics of the future. There are around 500 artists showcased in alphabetical order, each represented by an illustration and a text that gives valuable information both about the piece and the author. This book is above all easy to use: cross-references help the reader make connections between artists; there is a jargon-free glossary of artistic terms and movements; and an international directory of museums and galleries lists the works on public view.

Featured images: Constantin Brancusi - Newborn, via Huffington Post; Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Lawrence Weiner - The Xerox Book; Works by Alberto Giacommeti; Roy Lichtenstein - The Ring, 1962. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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