Defining Modernism through 5 Facts and 12 Works of Art

Modernism is an art period that emerged from major social and political changes in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. Here is the definition of modernism 5 facts and 12 artworks.

Nov 2, 2020By Alexandra Karg, BA Art History & Literature
Dance by Henri Matisse, 1909-10, via Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg; with Composition with Red, Blue and Grey by Piet Mondrian, 1927; and Women II. by Willem de Kooning, 1952


Like any other description of an epoch in art, ‘modernism’ and ‘modern art’ are difficult to define precisely. The reason is that such categories are subjective in a way and therefore will always stay controversial. Using the term ‘modernism’, we usually speak of a global movement that occurred both socially and culturally at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century in the countries of the Western world. Especially in fine art, the term meant a break with almost everything that happened before in art. And it describes the search for new means of expression.



Number 14 by Jackson Pollock, 1951, via Tate, London


Enclosed with great social, cultural, and political upheavals, ‘modernism’ is considered a period of innovation and experimentation. Roughly speaking, the term ‘modernism’ in art ranges from the realism of artists like Gustave Courbet to the abstraction of the 1960s. In the following, we will explain ‘modernism’ to you in more detail using 5 facts and 12 works of art.


1. Modernism Does Not Describe One Single Style 

The Japanese Footbridge by Claude Monet, 1899, via National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


Mostly, the description of an epoch is made according to its similarities in the works of art produced in a special period. Modern art, however, is not so easy to narrow down – quite the contrary. Instead of a single style, many different styles and artforms emerged in the modernist period. Many of the new art forms and styles have one thing in common: many bear the suffix -ism in their name. These include, for example, Impressionism, which was followed by Expressionism. But also Cubism and Fauvism fall into the category of ‘modernism.’


Violin and Pitcher by George Braque, 1910, via Art Archive

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In this section, you can see one work each of the artists Claude Monet and George Braque. On the surface, these works of art could not be more different. The technique as well as the colors and motifs are fundamentally different. However, the two works have more in common than you might suspect in the beginning. Both paintings were created during the modernist period in art. What still unites them will be shown in the following explanations.


2. Modernist Artists Questioned Or Even Rejected Conservative Values


The era of modernism in art was heralded when more and more artists rejected classical principles of art and increasingly repudiated traditional ideas about art. Artists such as Claude Monet refrained from depicting the world as realistically as possible in their paintings, as it was taught in the Renaissance before. Instead, like many other artists, he was concerned with a subjective expression of perception. This also meant that artists like Monet questioned seeing as such. An objective idea of seeing was put to the test and was increasingly replaced by a subjective idea of seeing.



The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893, via the Munch Museum, Oslo


Let us take a look at Edvard Munch‘s famous painting The Scream (1893). With this artwork, Edvard Munch shows how sudden excitement changes all our sensory impressions. All lines in the painting lead to the screaming head in the center of the painting. The wild mixture of bright colors and organic lines intensify the impression of the outburst of emotion. In this painting by the Norwegian artist, something becomes very clear: Painting in ‘modernism’ is neither about truths of nature nor about the presentation of ideal beauties. What counts is the pure expression of emotion, even if this means distorting a figure to the point of ugliness.

3. Modernism Stands For Innovation And Experimentation


Modern art was strongly influenced by the social and political events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The turn of the century represents one of the greatest historical upheavals for Western societies. Industrialization really took off during this period, capitalism took hold more and more, there were inventions such as the railway and the First World War. All of this confronted people with the unforeseen. This awakening and upheaval could also be felt in art. There were many innovations and people experimented with shapes, colors, lines, and motifs as they had done never before.


Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso, 1907, via MoMA, New York

A good example of this development is Pablo Picasso’s artwork Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907). If you look at this painting today, one could almost think that Picasso painted this work to change Western painting from its ground. Here, the artist does not only play with the shape of the female body by combining it with geometric forms but the faces of the women were inspired by African art. Both can be seen as elements of a pictorial revolution. 


Adulthood by Hilma af Klint, 1907, via Coeur & Art

Abstraction also found its way into art at the time of modernism. The Swedish artist Hilma af Klint is today considered a pioneer of abstract art, together with artists such as Wassily Kandinsky. In her art, she went through a pictorial development from naturalistic art to abstract art. Hilma af Klint painted her first abstract pictures already around 1906.



4. The Focus Was Often On Material, Color, Technique And Process

Composition with Red, Blue and Grey by Piet Mondrian, 1927, via Sotheby’s


Whether the brushstrokes of a Claude Monet, the areas of color on a work by Piet Mondrian or splashes of paint on an action painting by Jackson Pollock – in the age of modernism, material, color, technique and painterly procedure pushed themselves into the foreground in the works of many artists.

Yet, the paintings need not be overloaded in any way. Often it is even the total reduction that creates a special focus. Some good examples of this are the monochrome works of the French artist, Yves Klein.


Untitled Blue Monochrome (IKB 239) by Yves Klein, 1959, via Sotheby’s


Yves Klein is considered an artist of the avant-garde. His monochrome picture compositions, which he created in an ultramarine blue developed by himself, have become particularly famous. The color bears the official name International Klein Blue. In such a blue picture the color becomes the only motif and thus immediately attracts the attention of the viewer.

5. Clement Greenberg: An Important Theoretician Of (Abstract) Modernism


One name that is definitely worth knowing in connection with modern art is Clement Greenberg. The art critic Clement Greenberg is something like the head of late modern painting. Greenberg was convinced that art had to be reduced to its most basic elements: to the surface and its color. Thus, the American theorist primarily propagated Abstract Expressionism and color surface painting.


Vir Heroicus Sublimis by Barnett Newman,1950/51, via MoMA, New York


Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman owe their fame and international recognition to the influence and support of Clement Greenberg. One of Clement Greenberg’s most famous writings is Towards A Newer Laocoon (1940). The title already reveals it: With his writing, Greenberg refers to a famous text by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Like Lessing, Greenberg also wanted to separate the arts into their disciplines. He declares the visual arts to be the highest art. The strength of painting, he explains in his essay, only becomes visible when it renounces all narrative. This is precisely what the avant-garde has set itself in its painting, as we can see in the previous paintings.


Women II. by Willem de Kooning, 1952, via MoMA, New York


So let us note: ‘modernism’ is the term for a period of time at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. At that time, major social and cultural changes contributed to the fact that art was about to change. Modern art can by no means be reduced to a few similar characteristics. However, there are some characteristics by which modern art can be defined. There was a spirit of new beginnings in art and the courage to experiment. During the modernist era, artists questioned conservative values and traditional notions of art. They expressed themselves with color, forms, lines and techniques, thus paving the way to abstraction. An important theoretician figure in the development of modern art is the American art critic Clement Greenberg. His writings provide decisive answers to the question of what modern art should look like.


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By Alexandra KargBA Art History & LiteratureHey! I am Alexandra Karg. I am researching, writing and lecturing on topics in the field of art and culture. In my hometown of Berlin I completed my studies in literature and art history. Since then I have been working as a journalist and writer. Besides writing, it is my passion to read, travel and visit museums and galleries. On you will find articles by me about art and culture, especially about topics referring to the 20th century and the present.