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What is Modern Art? Abstract, Cubist & Surrealist Art Explained

Updated on June 18, 2017
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Amanda is a retired educator with many years of experience teaching children of all ages and abilities in a wide range of contexts.

What is Modern Art?

 'Variation' by Alexej von Jawlensky, c1916. This is an example of abstract art in which the image itself and the materials it is made with are what matters, rather than anything it might seem to represent.
'Variation' by Alexej von Jawlensky, c1916. This is an example of abstract art in which the image itself and the materials it is made with are what matters, rather than anything it might seem to represent. | Source

Modern Art - Cultural Revolution or Con?

Do you know what we mean when we talk about modern art? Many people think they do. They might say that it is abstract art or that it is art that represents feelings rather than actual things. Or they might even say that it is simply art that any five-year-old could do!

Well, apart from the very last comment, all of those descriptions might have some truth. However, in strict terms, modern art is not defined by any particular technique, style or approach.

So, what is Modern Art?

It is simply the art produced in North America and Europe during the period from the time of the Impressionists up to the middle of the twentieth century.

This period can be defined as distinctive because many artists started working in new and exciting ways that challenged traditional ideas about what art is and could be.

It's true that many of these new, innovative artists explored the possibilities of using art not only to make representations of objects, people and landscapes but as a way of expressing feelings, emotions, atmospheres and dreams.

It's also true that many of the techniques they invented might seem primitive or even random at first. Some of these artists were more concerned with simply exploring the possibilities of the materials themselves without wanting to express or represent anything.

That's the definition of abstract art.

Malibu - by Mark Rothko

'Malibu' by Mark Rothko. This is an interesting example of abstract art as its title and composition suggest an image of a well known place but it remains more about the relationship between the forms and colors on the canvas than anything else.
'Malibu' by Mark Rothko. This is an interesting example of abstract art as its title and composition suggest an image of a well known place but it remains more about the relationship between the forms and colors on the canvas than anything else. | Source

Even when the Modern Artists were painting more recognizable objects, they tended to draw inspiration from the mundane, real life people, places and things they saw around them in their everyday lives, rather than themes and images from the Bible or Classical Mythology.

So let's take a look at some of these artists and their work. Some of it may surprise you. A lot of it is pretty weird, too. And almost all of it is interesting and fun - whether you think that these artists were any good or not!

Arlésiennes (Mistral) - Paul Gaugin

This painting by Paul Gaugin is a lesser known work and was sold by the artist to another famous painter, Van Gogh, for the sum of 300 French Francs in the late nineteenth century!
This painting by Paul Gaugin is a lesser known work and was sold by the artist to another famous painter, Van Gogh, for the sum of 300 French Francs in the late nineteenth century! | Source

Modern Art Movements

There were many groups of artists during the modern art period that used to meet each other regularly and even live together.

Henri Matisse Quotation

"What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue."

They frequently discussed their own and each other's work. They were often influenced by this sharing of ideas and techniques.

Some of these groups were intentional and gave themselves names. Others didn't think of themselves as belonging to a group or artistic movement at the time but later art historians have grouped them together.

Outside these well-known movements, such as Les Fauves, the Cubists and the Surrealists, there were also many artists who defied all attempts to categorize their work.

The History of Modern Art

Henri Matisse and Les Fauves

The name of this movement translates from the French into 'the wild beasts'.

The name indicates something of their attempt to move beyond the constraints of the formal conventions of the art world of their day.

They had a tendency to work with very garish and shocking pigments - bright, unrealistic coloring and exaggerated forms.

Still Life - Henri Matisse

A Still Life by Henri Matisse. Notice the dynamism represented in otherwise still objects and the unrealistic use of color.
A Still Life by Henri Matisse. Notice the dynamism represented in otherwise still objects and the unrealistic use of color. | Source

In a painting by any member of Les Fauves you might well find people with green skin or landscapes in which the trees are purple or pink.

Two of the most famous members of this modern art movement were Henri Matisse and Raoul Dufy.

Posters in Trouville - Raoul Dufy, 1906.

A street scene, Posters in Trouville, by Raoul Dufy, an influential artist and member of Les Fauves. These artists frequently found their inspiration in the everyday rather than classical myths or religion, which was revolutionary at the time.
A street scene, Posters in Trouville, by Raoul Dufy, an influential artist and member of Les Fauves. These artists frequently found their inspiration in the everyday rather than classical myths or religion, which was revolutionary at the time. | Source

Matisse was an obsessive painter. In later life he suffered from crippling arthritis. The condition became so bad that he was unable to pick up a paint brush. But this didn't stop him making art. He started working with collage, using scissors to cut out colored paper shapes and sticking them to the canvas to create his images.

Watch the following video about the Tate exhibition of his cut-out works:

Henri Matisse - The Cut-Outs.

Pablo Picasso (1881 - 1973)

Pablo Picasso was Spanish by birth but went on to become a resident of France where he spent most of his life.

Picasso was a child prodigy, attending art school from the age of eleven years. When he was nineteen years old he moved to Paris, one of the world's most vibrant centers of artistic creativity at the time.

He was very driven and prolific, producing thousands of pieces of work across a range of media including paintings, drawings, sculpture, ceramic work, mosaics and even theatrical scenery.

Of all the artists of the modern art period, Picasso is probably the most famous.

Picasso was very fond of kids and seems to have been a fun-loving guy. He enjoyed dressing up in disguises, playing practical jokes. He had doves in his garden and kept a goat in his house. He was often surrounded by children and enjoyed letting them play in his studio.

Pablo Picasso and The Cubists

Most people have heard of Pablo Picasso. Perhaps no other modern artists has captured the public imagination in quite the same way.

Picasso was the most important artist in a group known as The Cubists. Another famous cubist was Georges Braque.

The main idea behind cubism was to try to 'see' things from every possible angle all at the same time and then present this in pictures.

They used straight lines and combinations of two-dimensional surfaces to create this illusion. Many of the resulting images appear fractured and confusing but also encourage the viewer to see those things in a new light.

The cubists worked in many media, including painting, collage and sculpture.

They would often incorporate 'found objects' such as driftwood, bicycle parts or old envelopes into their work.

Watch This Exciting Video About Picasso

Salvador Dalí and The Surrealist Movement

The Surrealists were a group who were fascinated by the images and ideas found in dreams, visions and mystical experiences.

They were influenced by the emerging discipline of psychoanalysis (the early beginnings of modern psychology) and felt that people were largely influenced by the subconscious mind.

Portrait of Salvador Dalí

Salvador Dalí - the most influential leader of the Surrealist Movement in Modern Art. He was interested in irrationality and dreams.
Salvador Dalí - the most influential leader of the Surrealist Movement in Modern Art. He was interested in irrationality and dreams. | Source

The most famous exponents of this movement from the period of modern art were Salvador Dalí, Juan Mirò and René Magritte.

It is interesting that these artists used very different techniques and styles in their paintings but they are associated by a common idea.

The Persistence of Memory - Salvador Dalí

Popularly known as 'the melting watches' this famous painting by the surrealist Salvador Dalí is actually titled 'The Persistence of Memory.'
Popularly known as 'the melting watches' this famous painting by the surrealist Salvador Dalí is actually titled 'The Persistence of Memory.' | Source

Abstract Art

One of the most revolutionary movements in modern art is the art of abstraction.

Abstract artists don't try to imitate or represent real things at all - even symbolically. They are concerned only with the images themselves and the materials from which the images are made.

No interpretation is offered, and no interpretation is considered either 'right' or 'wrong' about what these works mean. It is down to each individual to experience them in her own way.

One of the first artists to experiment with these ideas was Vassily Kandinsky.

Composition VII - Kandinsky

 Kandinsky's  most complex painting, Composition VII, from his 1913 body of work.
Kandinsky's most complex painting, Composition VII, from his 1913 body of work. | Source

Paul Klee described his work as 'taking a line for a walk.' Sounds quite a lot of fun, doesn't it?

Piet Mondrian contrasted thick, black lines with geometric blocks of bright, primary color.

Marc Chagall is counted among the abstract artists even though he did use recognisable elements in his dreamlike works. However, he is considered an abstract artist because there is no narrative intention in his paintings.

No 5 - Jackson Pollock

A typical result of Jackson Pollock's style of action painting.
A typical result of Jackson Pollock's style of action painting. | Source

On the North American scene, two of the most famous abstract artists are Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

Jackson Pollock's work is especially interesting both for its scale (sometimes a single painting would fill an entire wall) and for his methods.

He worked on large canvas, randomly splashing, flicking and splotching paint - sometimes letting the paint dribble down or squeezing it out from 'squeezy bottles' suspended on string.

Red Balloon - Paul Klee

Klee was influenced by many of the contemporary art movements of his day and also made a profound study of color theory.
Klee was influenced by many of the contemporary art movements of his day and also made a profound study of color theory. | Source

Where to See a Modern Art Exhibition

The best way to understand and appreciate modern art is to go see it!

But where can you find an exhibition of modern art works? Well, the first place to try is your local museum or art gallery.

Then, if you live in or are visiting New York, there is MoMA (Museum of Modern Art).

Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Looking across to the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA).
Looking across to the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). | Source

MoMA is located in midtown Manhattan, New York City, at 11 West Fifty-third Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues. It's a really exciting place and there is always something fascinating going on there.

If you live in or are visiting London in Great Britain, there is The Tate Modern where you can see wonderful work from all around the world.

The Tate Modern is located on Bankside, London SE1 9TG.

The Tate Modern - London

The austere and cathedral-like building which houses the Tate Modern art gallery in London.
The austere and cathedral-like building which houses the Tate Modern art gallery in London. | Source

In Paris there is the famous Pompidou Center. The building itself is a work of modern art! The 'Centre Pompidou' is located at Place Georges-Pompidou, 75191 Paris.

If you are ever in any of these places, it really is worth the effort to visit one of these world-famous art galleries.

But remember that there are touring exhibitions that frequently visit smaller, regional galleries - and there are many new artists whose work can be seen in local arts centers, museums and galleries wherever you live.

Le Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Part of the complex construction of the Pompidou Center in Paris. Paris has long been the epicenter of art in Europe and if you are in Paris, this gallery is well worth a visit.
Part of the complex construction of the Pompidou Center in Paris. Paris has long been the epicenter of art in Europe and if you are in Paris, this gallery is well worth a visit. | Source

How to Make the Most of a Visit to a Modern Art Gallery

If you haven't been to an art gallery before and you want to go to one for the first time, there are a few tips that can be useful to make the best of your experience:

  • First of all, make your first visit to somewhere nearby. If you find that you enjoy the experience, you can plan a more ambitious trip to one of the great galleries at a later date.

Visiting an Art Gallery

Visiting an Art gallery for the first time can be an overwhelming experience but with careful research and planning it can be educational, inspiring and fun.
Visiting an Art gallery for the first time can be an overwhelming experience but with careful research and planning it can be educational, inspiring and fun. | Source

The Modern Art Poll

Do you think that Modern Art is...

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  • Don't try to see everything in one visit. It can be very tiring walking around a gallery. Do some research first and choose the main works or exhibits that most interest you. Then go straight to them and spend time appreciating them, looking and thinking about the work. Many experienced gallery goers will go to see just one painting and then spend several hours looking at it and really immersing themselves in it.
  • All the paintings in an exhibition gallery, as opposed to a purely commercial gallery, will have informative labels next to them. Take time to read them. They will tell you the name of the artist, perhaps a little about their life, what materials were used in the work and other interesting facts - including the title!
  • Remember that you will probably not be able to to take photographs in the gallery. Flash lights can damage pigments and many paintings are under legal protection, too.
  • Pick up a map of the gallery at the reception and check out were the restroom and the cafe are located - you'll need some refreshment afterwards.
  • If you enjoy making art yourself why not take your art stuff with you and do some sketches of the work you like best? Just don't try to sell the results as originals on eBay - seriously, folks have tried!
  • Finally, while you can't take photos, you can usually buy postcards, prints and books in the store in the larger galleries.

How to Look at Art in 5 Easy Steps

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© 2014 Amanda Littlejohn

Ever seen modern art? Like it? Don't like it? Got a question? I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

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    • stuff4kids profile image
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      Amanda Littlejohn 3 years ago

      Hi chef-de-jour!

      Thank you so much for your contribution to the hub. I'm really glad that you enjoyed it. One of the most interesting things in the history of modern art - or the history of art in general - is the way that it both reflects the Zeitgeist and challenges the status-quo. It's that curious juxtaposition that gives it social as well as artistic relevance. In fact, art -as-social-commentary probably begins with these guys.

      You are right that Marcel Duchamps, Malevich and dozens of others should be included but you will appreciate that this is intended as an introductory guide for kids rather than a comprehensive survey!

      Bless you :)

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 3 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Thank you for more art and art history! Some great information and descriptions of work from a few of the 'greats'. Well, we call them great now but when they first emerged many were criticised and pilloried!! It just shows you how tastes turn and artwork deemed ridiculous initially gradually becomes accepted and finally hailed as great!

      Marcel Duchamps and I think the Russian Malevich (White on White) are also worth a mention.

      Votes and a share.

    • stuff4kids profile image
      Author

      Amanda Littlejohn 3 years ago

      Hi FlourishAnyway!

      Thanks for your appreciative contribution to this hub. It's great that you take your daughter to art galleries! MoMA is well worth a visit, even if modern art is not your favorite, it's such an interesting place.

      Bless you! :)

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      What a well done hub, between your explanations and the videos. I try to take in art galleries with my daughter to at least get the exposure to different styles and schools of art. Although modern art isn't my favorite, I'd love to be able to visit the MoMA or other museums you mentioned. Voted up and more, plus sharing.

    • stuff4kids profile image
      Author

      Amanda Littlejohn 3 years ago

      Hi Bill!

      Thanks so much for that contribution to the hub. I am in total agreement with you. If we would just, as a society, put both quality of life and our children first above simple economic measures we would all be so much better off in ways the folks in the corridors of privileged power couldn't even begin to imagine.

      Still, many of our best galleries (in the US and Europe/UK) are still free at the point of entry so there's every chance for teachers, parents and independently minded kids to get the young folk in there thinking about it and above all, enjoying it!

      Bless you :)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I am all for anything that exposes children to the Arts. With school districts cutting back on funding for the arts...with whole cities cutting back on funding for the arts....we must do everything possible to make sure our children have a well-rounded education. Love the message in this my friend. Well done.

    • stuff4kids profile image
      Author

      Amanda Littlejohn 3 years ago

      Hi chchipamedical,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Bless. :)