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
© Angela Verren Taunt 2022. All rights reserved, DACS

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.

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 in modernism

Read the captions of the artworks below to find out some key developments of modernism

Alphonse Legros, ‘Le Repas des Pauvres’ 1877
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.

Paul Gauguin, ‘Harvest: Le Pouldu’ 1890
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
Henri Matisse
André Derain 1905
© Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2022

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’ c.1910–12
Georges Braque
Bottle and Fishes c.1910–12
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022

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
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
Bart van der Leck
Composition 1918
© DACS, 2022

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
Raoul Hausmann
The Art Critic 1919–20
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022

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
Salvador Dalí
Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937
© Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2022

Surrealism: Surrealism was a movement which began in the 1920s of writers and artists. The aim of surrealism was to reveal the unconscious and reconcile it with rational life

Jackson Pollock, ‘Yellow Islands’ 1952
Jackson Pollock
Yellow Islands 1952
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022

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, reconstructed 1971
Robert Morris
Untitled 1965, reconstructed 1971
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022

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’