The 20th century saw a new era of visual artists who challenged the precedent art styles. Beauty and aesthetics gave way to abstraction, expression, and symbolism. This metamorphosis formed numerous distinct and important art movements which presented a new type of aesthetic, some of which overlap with or influenced others. Below is a broad overview of the most influential visual art movements during the 20th century, excluding some of those shorter-lived or lesser-known.
Fauvism, taken from the term les fauves meaning “wild beasts” in French, refers to the early 20th-century art movement characterized by the divergence from the representation in impressionism in favor of abstract painting techniques. In particular, Fauvism rejected the soft, pastel color palette of impressionism and opted for bold coloration. This revolutionized the use of color and subject distortion in modern art.
Expressionism was an avant-garde style that began in Germany in the early 20th century and can be characterized by evocative and emotional pieces that are typically abstract. The use of traditional representation was discarded in favor of communicating the emotion or meaning behind the work. This use of thematic rather than literal expression revolutionized Western visual art and became an antecedent for many other 20th-century movements.
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Cubism is regarded as one of the most influential movements in 20th-century art and is known for its reduction of subjects into geometric or ‘cube-like’ shapes to produce a more three-dimensional perspective. The movement can be divided into two stages: Analytical Cubism and Synthetic Cubism. Early Cubism (Analytical) works are typically more severe and monochromatic with tones of black and grey, whereas later Cubism (Synthetic) works feature bolder colors and the incorporation of external elements for collage.
Futurism was founded by poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in Milan in the early 20th century. Like its predecessors, Futurism emphasized abstraction and nontraditional representation. It valued speed, viscerality, youth, and modernity and acted as a form of Italian liberation from its fraught history. Although founded in Italy, its influence also spread to other European countries.
Dada was developed during World War I in Zurich as an avant-garde, anti-art movement. It rejected and mocked the capitalist and nationalistic cultural climate of World War I, focusing instead on the irrational, nonsensical, and absurd with strong anti-bourgeois overtones. The movement spread throughout Europe and the United States, echoing far-left radical thought and the overall discontentment with the violence of wartime.
Highly influenced by Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, Surrealism sought expression through the exploration of the unconscious mind. Its imagery was characterized by unsettling, dreamlike settings with juxtaposing and often deformed subject matter. Having developed from the avant-garde Dada movement, Surrealism began in Europe and expanded throughout the Western world as a cultural, artistic, and literary movement.
Abstract Expressionism (1943-1965)
Emerging in post-World War II New York, Abstract Expressionism was the first major international art movement to originate in the United States rather than Europe. It draws from Surrealist automatism and focuses on the abstraction of subject matter. Its style is characterized by brash, chaotic brushstrokes and bold pops of color. As a postwar movement, it is also an important antecedent for subsequent postmodernist art styles.
Pop Art (1950s-70s)
Pop art rose to prominence in the United States and the United Kingdom during the 1950s and 1960s, taking inspiration from elements of mass media and popular culture. Pieces often featured juxtaposed or inconsistent elements from comic books, magazines, and advertisements, placed together to emphasize the banality of popular culture. Often ironic or satirical, pop art aimed to subvert traditional ‘fine art.’
Minimalism emerged in New York in the 1960s in a continuation as the precedent diversion from traditional “high art.” Instead of luxury, beauty, and expression, minimalism focused on brutal, geometric shapes, muted colors, and anonymity. Most elements of biography or emotion were removed from minimalist art, drawing attention to the simplicity of the shape itself as the subject.
Postmodernism cannot be characterized by definitive elements. Rather, it can be described as a general divergence from modernism that incorporates other 20th-century art movements, including conceptual art and Neo-expressionism.
While modernism focused on idealism and upholding core beliefs, postmodernism proposed skepticism, cynicism, and antiauthoritarianism. It is a highly conceptual, self-aware combination of other art styles, theory, and media to create a complex and multifaceted movement.