Modernism refers to the broad movement in Western arts and literature that gathered pace from around 1850, and is characterised by a deliberate rejection of the styles of the past; emphasising instead innovation and experimentation in forms, materials and techniques in order to create artworks that better reflected modern society

Ben Nicholson OM, '1934 project for Massine for Beethoven 7th Symphony Ballet' 1934
Ben Nicholson OM
1934 project for Massine for Beethoven 7th Symphony Ballet 1934
Oil and pencil on board
support: 155 x 200 x 6 mm
frame: 172 x 212 x 19 mm
Accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1995© The Estate of Ben Nicholson. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2002


The terms modernism and modern art are generally used to describe the succession of art movements that critics and historians have identified since the realism of Gustav Courbet and culminating in abstract art and its developments in the 1960s. 

Although many different styles are encompassed by the term, there are certain underlying principles that define modernist art: A rejection of history and conservative values (such as realistic depiction of subjects); innovation and experimentation with form (the shapes, colours and lines that make up the work) with a tendency to abstraction; and an emphasis on materials, techniques and processes. Modernism has also been driven by various social and political agendas. These were often utopian, and modernism was in general associated with ideal visions of human life and society and a belief in progress.

Mark Rothko, 'Black on Maroon' 1958
Mark Rothko
Black on Maroon 1958
Mixed media on canvas
support: 2667 x 3812 mm
Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1968© Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/DACS 1998

By the 1960s modernism had become a dominant idea of art, and a particularly narrow theory of modernist painting had been formulated by the highly influential American critic Clement Greenberg. A reaction then took place which was quickly identified as postmodernism.

Key moments and movements in modernism

Browse the slideshow below for a whizz through of some of the key developments of modernism; and read the captions to find out more:

1 of 12
  • Alphonse Legros, 'Le Repas des Pauvres' 1877
    Courbet and realism: This painting by Alphonse Legros reflects the influence of Gustave Courbet who, in the mid-nineteenth century, challenged convention by rejecting the historical and mythological subjects that had dominated art for centuries. Instead he painted scenes of daily life. The paintings, on the large scale previously reserved for history painting and in a realist style, shocked the art world.
  • Impressionism: Like Courbet, the impressionists chose to paint scenes of everyday modern life. They also wanted to capture the movement and effects of light that they saw in nature and rejected established styles, using instead rapid brush marks and bright colours. Their radical technique and creation of paintings which can appear quite abstract, place them as important innovators in the early history of modern art.
  • Paul Gauguin, 'Harvest: Le Pouldu' 1890
    Post-impressionism: In the late 1880s a group of painters explored ways of expressing emotions in their work, by using simplified colours and definitive forms – rather than simply painting what they saw. Although their work did not look similar and they did not see themselves as part of a movement, artists Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh and Cézanne are referred to as the post-impressionists.
  • Henri Matisse, 'André Derain' 1905
    Fauvism: The Fauve painters were the first to break with traditional methods of perception. Their spontaneous, often subjective response to nature was expressed in bold brushstrokes and high-keyed, vibrant colours used directly from the paint tube.
  • Georges Braque, 'Bottle and Fishes' circa 1910-2
    Cubism: Cubism was a revolutionary new approach to representing reality invented in around 1907 by artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque who aimed to bring different views of subjects together in the same picture, resulting in paintings that appear fragmented and abstracted. Cubism opened up almost infinite new possibilities for the treatment of visual reality and was the starting point for many later abstract styles.
  • Kazimir Malevich Black Square 1913
    Malevich’s black square: Kazimir Malevich painted his first Black Square in 1915. It is one of the seminal works of modern art, and of Western art generally, marking as it does the break between representational painting and abstract painting. Malevich declared the square a work of Suprematism, a movement which he proclaimed but which is associated almost exclusively with his own work.
  • László Moholy-Nagy, 'K VII' 1922
    Constructivism: Constructivism was a particularly austere branch of abstract art building on the experiments in abstraction undertaken by the cubists. It was founded by Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko in Russia around 1915. It rejected the idea of art as separate from other aspects of life and was in favour of art as a practice for social purposes.
  • Bart van der Leck, 'Composition' 1918
    De Stijl: Meaning ‘style’ in Dutch, De Stijl was a circle of Dutch abstract artists who promoted a style of art based on a strict geometry of horizontals and verticals. It was founded in in 1917 by Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, and had a profound influence on the development both of abstract art and modern architecture and design.
  • Raoul Hausmann, 'The Art Critic' 1919-20
    Dada: Formed in Zurich as a response to the horrors of the First World War, the aim of the Dada artists was to destroy traditional values in art and to create a new art that could reflect the modern world. The art, poetry and performance produced by dada artists is often satirical and nonsensical in nature. In addition to being anti-war, dada was also anti-bourgeois and had political affinities with the radical left.
  • Salvador Dalí, 'Metamorphosis of Narcissus' 1937
    Surrealism: Surrealism was a movement which began in the 1920s of writers and artists (including Salvador Dalí and René Magritte). Strongly influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis the aim of surrealism was to reveal the unconscious and reconcile it with rational life.
  • Jackson Pollock, 'Yellow Islands' 1952
    Abstract expressionism: In the 1940s and 1950s American painters such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning developed a new approach to painting characterised by gestural mark-making, and the impression of spontaneity. They were supported by probably the most influential art critic in the twentieth century Clement Greenberg, who emphasised the importance of the formal properties of art – such as colour, line and space – over subject or meaning.
  • Robert Morris, 'Untitled' 1965/71
    Minimalism: Developed in the USA in the 1960s, and typified by artworks composed of simple geometric shapes, minimalism extended the idea that art should have its own reality and not be an imitation of some other thing. The medium, (or material) from which it is made, and the form of the work is the reality. Minimalist painter Frank Stella famously said about his paintings ‘What you see is what you see’.

Further reading

Picasso & Modern British Art
Online exhibition guide to this 2012 exhibition which explored the influence of Pablo Picasso on the development of modern British art in the twentieth century.

BP Spotlight: Spaces of Black Modernism: London 1919–39
This Tate Britain display explored the experiences and interactions of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds in London’s art world between the wars. Read the display text online to find out more…

Other perspectives

Kurt Schwitters, 'Painted Stone' 1945-7
Kurt Schwitters
Painted Stone 1945-7
Painted stone
object: 35 x 80 x 313 mm
Lent by Geoff Thomas 1991© DACS, 2002

Sifting defunct modernism in search of something useful
Article exploring ‘new modernism’ – the recent trend for re-sifting and re-puporsing modernism for the twenty-first century.

Something supernatural, this way comes
Micheal Bracewell discusses the pervading influence of folklore, mythology, mysticism and the occult in the development of modernism and surrealism in Britain, in this Tate Etc. article.

A stubborn cornerstone at the onset of modernism
Artist Dexter Dalwood and curator Nancy Ireson explore the enduring influence and legacy of self-taught artist Henri Rousseau.

Modernists don’t die in Ambleside
This article investigates the exile of German modernist artist Kurt Schwitters, who spent his final years in the Lake District painting the local landscape and winning prizes in provincial art exhibitions. 

Modernism in detail

Kasimir Malevich, 'Dynamic Suprematism' 1915 or 1916
Kazimir Malevich
Dynamic Suprematism 1915 or 1916
Oil on canvas
support: 803 x 800 mm frame: 1015 x 1015 x 80 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1978

Kenneth Clark and the Death of Painting
For this research article, art historian Martin Hammer reviews Kenneth Clark’s public spat with Herbert Read about modern art, situating the exchange within discourses about modernism and politics. The spat erupted in successive issues of the Listener magazine in October 1935.

Modernism and the Sublime
Art historian Philip Shaw reflects on modernism and the sublime, contrasting dada, surrealism and art informel with De Stijl, suprematism and abstract expressionism, and looks to the ideas that inform the search for the sublime today.

‘Waste Dominion’, ‘White Warfare’, and Antarctic Modernism
Research article investigating the historical coincidence of modernism and the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, with reference to the allusions to Antarctic journeys in the writings of Henry James and T.S. Eliot. 

Related glossary terms

Abstract art, formalism, significant formmedium

Groups and movements:
Realism, impressionism, post-impressionism, fauvism, cubism, suprematism, constructivism, De Stijl, minimalism, postmodernism