Modernism refers to the broad movement in Western art, architecture and design which self-consciously rejected the past as a model for the art of the present, and placed an emphasis on formal qualities within artworks and processes and materials

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  • Henri Matisse, 'André Derain' 1905

    Henri Matisse
    Andr Derain 1905
    Oil on canvas
    support: 394 x 289 mm frame: 550 x 471 x 75 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Knapping Fund, the Art Fund and the Contemporary Art Society and private subscribers 1954 Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2002

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  • 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

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  • Hans Hofmann, 'Pompeii' 1959

    Hans Hofmann
    Pompeii 1959
    Oil on canvas
    support: 2140 x 1327 mm
    Purchased 1981 The estate of Hans Hofmann

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Modernism, which gathered pace from about 1850, proposes new forms of art on the grounds that these are more appropriate to the present time. It is therefore characterised by constant innovation and a rejection of conservative values such as the realistic depiction of the world. This has led to experiments with form and to an emphasis on processes and materials.

Modern art has also often 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.

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, culminating in abstract art and its developments up to the 1960s. By that time 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.