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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The 20th century brought about the evolution of a number of existing art movements, followed by the arrival of new and groundbreaking artistic approaches.

It was a time of considerable experimentation and also the globalization of art, fuelled by technological change.

The late 19th century had seen the early signs of modern art, or at least the initial artistic movements which would ultimately herald its arrival. The Expressionists such as Edvard Munch had shaken the art world with iconic works such as Scream in 1893 and a number of other young artists were ready to emerge.

Germany would be the earliest and main hub for this new push, though a number of other artists could be found all across the world, including Belgium, France, UK and the US, most of whom followed on afterwards.

The modern media would break down geographical barriers which previously had stunted the spread of art from one region to another. Television and photography initiated this change, with the rise of the internet and social media then speeding up things considerably.

Many cultures have since been fused together to form new styles of art, and the world has become a much smaller place over the past few decades. Looking to the future, technology will likely bring even more change, with the promotion and evolution of virtual reality and Artificial Intelligence, both of which will likely leave a lasting and unknown impact on society as a whole.

From a more positive angle, there are no-longer the institutional gatekeepers there once were in the art world, with opportunities being more democratically afforded, and a spirit of innovation and meritocracy spreading out across the art world.

Expressionism Delivering Artistic Emotion and Individualism

Europe in the first half of the 20th century was a turbulent, depressing place. War ravaged the continent, even more significantly than in previous centuries, and artists required new expressive forms of art that could release their darkened emotions.

Up until the outbreak of WWII the Expressionists would play a major role within European art, led by a number based in central Europe, such as Wassily Kandinsky, Egon Schiele, Edvard Munch, with James Ensor also influencing this style. The style of Expressionism was all about altering forms from reality in order to append the artist’s own emotional state, leading to strange and wonderful depictions in scenes which were particularly unique to each artist.

In altering reality, we were slowly moving towards the later use of abstract art, and Kandinsky himself made the transition within his own oeuvre. Art in the 20th century would no-longer be about an accurate representation of reality, but rather an expressive freedom which artists for centuries had longed for.

Cubism Continues the Transition towards Abstraction

Paul Cezanne’s fractal depictions of the French landscape and still life arrangements inspired the Cubist movement which appeared in the early 20th century. The key exponents of this exciting style were Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Fernand Léger. Whilst only lasting a few decades, the Cubist era evolved into a number of sub-genres which focused on different content, such as portraiture and still life, whilst also finding innovative ways of experimenting with angle, form and color.

Examples of this included Proto-Cubism, Crystal Cubism, and Tubism. Whilst being a dominant force in this short period, Cubism was also highly significant in the other movements which were inspired by its innovations, including the likes of Orphism, Futurism, Suprematism, Dada, Constructivism, Purism and abstract art more generally.

Some of the most famous Cubist artists would continue in this style throughout their remaining years, whilst others, such as Pablo Picasso, would continue to innovate in other styles in order to keep their output fresh and remain very much on the cutting-edge.

Fauvism brings a Clash of Color

Les Fauves were another significant group of artists to emerge in the early 20th century. The label given to them, translating as Wild Beasts, was entirely derogatory, which underlined the controversial style of their work. Color was the crucial ingredient to Fauvism, and its use was given a higher level of importance than any other aspect of their technical work, with most of its exponents choosing bright and heavily contrasting tones that would not always match reality.

The key names in this group included André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Henri Matisse, and the majority of their content focused on landscapes, cityscapes and portraits. Whilst academics felt uneasy with their clashing palettes of color, the public warmed to this brief, but influential movement.

Surrealism combines the Subconscious with Visual Art

Surrealism appeared in the second quarter of the 20th century and offered something truly unique to the European art scene. This art form would spread far and wide, truly becoming a global phenomenon which also impacted a wide variety of mediums including painting, sculpture, film and theater. At its core was the re-arrangement of items in an order which defied logic or expectation and the Surrealists regularly used philosophy as a basis for their work.

The leading lights within this organized group included André Breton, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte and Salvador Dalí, with many more famous names working on the fringes of this groundbreaking movement. As was the case with many organized art movements who published their own manifestos, any applied control would soon lead to arguments between its creative members.

The instability within Europe at this time also made it harder to keep the movement together, with a number of offshoot sub-genres soon appearing. There was a strong left-leaning political ideology at the root of Surrealism, but this was fairly standard within most new European art movements, and those who held opposing beliefs would tend to have to work independently, just as remains very much the case today.

Abstract Expressionism evolves Spontaneity in Abstract Art

Abstract Expressionism built on the work of Wassily Kandinsky, as well as the automated techniques of the Surrealists, to give American art an important home-grown movement which dates from the 1940s. Upheaval in Europe caused by WWII encouraged a number of major artists to relocate to the US, and over time this helped to switch the global art center of the world from Paris to New York.

This increased exposure allowed the exponents of Abstract Expressionism to build momentum more quickly, with dealers and galleries helping to promote their work. Most work from the Abstract Expressionist would be delivered in an active style, where paint might be thrown, or loosely applied without too much relevance to reality.

Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings are a well known example of that, with Rothko’s murals also providing expression in an abstract form. Other notable names in this group included the likes of Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman. Crucially, this movement marked the rise of the US from following in the shadows of European art for so long, as a mere imitator, to now leading the way with its own innovations.

Pop Art Combing Popular Culture with Art

Pop Art appeared just after WWII and offered something very different to the British and American art scene. It embraced mass culture in a bold manner that immediately set it against traditional art forms, but quickly grew a strong following across the western world. Advertising and cartoons influenced its content most significantly with Andy Warhol becoming the most famous contributor with his silkscreen paintings which captured famous celebrities and everyday products in a contemporary, illustrative manner.

Roy Lichtenstein embraced cartoons in his work, and there were also alternative approaches by the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Eduardo Paolozzi, and Richard Hamilton. The rise of television and global advertising helped to spread these ideas all across the world, with Pop Art becoming a global phenomenon which continues to evolve today.

Conceptual Art Promotes the Idea over the Method of Production

The rise of Conceptual Art in the 1960s promoted the importance of the idea behind a work, allowing artists to form these ideas in any way they felt appropriate. In some examples, the concept can be a set of plans, allowing anyone to create the physical artwork themselves, so long as they follow the original instructions. This underlined the transition of modern art away from the traditional disciplines of painting, sculpture and architecture towards a much more open landscape in which the production methods are less significant.

In a mark of how 20th century art was starting to diverge from that of previous centuries, we would also start to see the two types exhibited separately, with modern art galleries set up in alternative venues. Much of this new art was derided by critics, unsurprisingly, but it would receive strong financial backing from niche galleries and collectors, helping to attach significant valuations to the work of its leading exponents such as Marcel Duchamp and Solomon LeWitt, before several further waves would appear in later parts of the 20th century.

Graffiti and Street Art Bring Art to Public Spaces

The rise of street art helped to allow artists from any background to express themselves, which allowed the scope of art to move far beyond the stuffy circles of upper and middle class society. Initial views on graffiti art contrasted between its ability to give opportunities to talented artists who experienced barriers from their socio-economic status, whilst others saw it merely as vandalism.

Some of these perceptions faded away after a number of high profile graffiti or street artists rose to prominence, helping to convince nay-sayers of its inherent value. These included American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and much later the work of British artist Banksy. Politics and social activism became a strong part of the movement, and many of their artworks would contain references to these themes, though left leaning politics had already been prevalent in art for many centuries, just with different mediums of expression. Street Art serves as an umbrella which includes Graffiti art alongside public sculpture and other outdoor installations.