5 Strangest Art Movements You Need to Know

Grotesque gestures, blood, trash, and airplanes—these are all a part of the strangest art movements in art history.

Oct 26, 2023By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art
strangest art movements you need know


History has seen hundreds of different art movements. Some of them had a strong theoretical basis, while others relied mostly on the visual aspect of artworks. Although countless artistic groups and creative ideas did not make it into the cannons of the history of art, some of the puzzling products of human creativity left their mark. Here are five of the strangest art movements ever.


1. Strangest Art Movements: Mannerism

lotto annunciation painting
Recanati Annunciation by Lorenzo Lotto, c.1527, via Wikimedia Commons


The art movement of mannerism originated in Italy during the sixteenth century. Some art experts see Mannerism as an early stage of Baroque, yet others insist that it had enough peculiar qualities of its own to be distinguished as a separate style. Mannerism represented the late stage of Italian Renaissance art and dealt with complex and often chaotic compositions of multiple figures, details, and elaborate settings around them.


The most obvious features of Mannerism paintings can be noticed in the excessive and hyperbolized gestures and facial expressions. Mannerism painters started to explore movement and dynamism in their works, and sometimes a dynamic, living, and breathing composition came at the expense of anatomical correctness. Mannerists often faced criticism for their unusual approach to canonical subjects.


Looking for new ways of depicting mythological and biblical scenes, they often humanized their characters without thinking of their sacred status. In Lorenzo Lotto’s Recanati Annunciation, the Virgin Mary flees from archangel Gabriel in horror, followed by her cat. Such composition was a great step away from the traditional image of Mary accepting her fate with humility and dignity.


el greco laocoon painting
Laocoon by El Greco, 1610, via National Gallery of Art, Washington

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


Mannerists wanted to surprise the viewer with optical effects and challenge their perception of reality. To achieve that effect, the artist relied on trompe l’oeil—a hyperrealistic way of painting that made the painted image look almost indistinguishable from real life. Real architectural elements of buildings transformed into painted ones, flat walls suddenly had extra rooms behind them, and the ceilings moved higher towards the sky.


Still, despite the exquisite attention to architectural details, human figures of Mannerism departed further from reality in order to serve expressive purposes. The Greek Mannerist El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) distorted color, line, and silhouette almost to the point of caricature, but he was praised by his contemporaries as one of the most skilled and progressive artists of the century. Today, El Greco’s works appear to be much closer to twentieth-century art movements like Expressionism.


2. Aeropittura

crali parachute painting
Before the Parachute Opens by Tullio Crali, 1939, via SpeakArt


Aeropittura, also known as aero-painting, was a sub-genre of the Italian Futurist movement. Originating at the beginning of the twentieth century, Futurism celebrated technology, violence, and dynamism. The movement’s ideologist, poet Filippo Marinetti, called for the immediate destruction of old art, knowledge, and institutions. Marinetti and his followers believed that the historical past was holding Italy back from becoming a truly modern and developed nation. Most of them were also devoted fascists who supported the regime of Benito Mussolini and aimed to make Futurism the official state art.


By the 1930s, the original form of Futurism outlived itself and required new ideas and perspectives. The members of the first generation of Futurists either died during World War I or, like the legendary Giacomo Balla, grew disappointed in the movement. Aeropittura emerged in 1928 with the manifesto titled Perspectives of Flight. The followers of the new movement claimed that the invention and development of flight changed the human perspective completely, switching the worldview from terrestrial to aerial.


Flying Over the Coliseum in a Spiral by Tato (Guglielmo Sansoni), 1930, via Guggenheim, New York


Aeropittura artists focused on painting aerial landscapes, planes, and the mid-air movement. The only anthropomorphic figure present in their works was a pilot, but he was not entirely human. The figure was the extension of the plane, yet another part of the mechanism exploring the sky. Tullio Crali’s painting Before the Parachute Opens shows a human figure indistinguishable from a plane’s propeller.


Decades after Futurism emerged, its proponents toned down their claims to destroy everything old and outdated while still staying true to the idea of the superiority of their modern age. Aerial landscapes of Tato and Alfredo Ambrosi often incorporated old cultural landmarks like the Coliseum but still left no illusion about their secondary status in the list of ideological priorities.


3. The Incoherents

cheret incoherents print
The poster for The Incoherents exhibition by Jules Chéret, 1886, via Wikipedia


In the late nineteenth century, the ideas on what could and could not be considered art started rapidly expanding. The new art movements experimented with line, color, shape, and form up to the point when conservative critics pronounced the death of art and the moral decline of humanity. In this creative turmoil, a small yet remarkable movement appeared. The Incoherents only lasted a short while, yet they were important precursors of Dadaism, which would develop decades later.


During several exhibitions of The Incoherents, the artists presented their own works along with found objects and drawings done by children. After the initial success of the first exhibitions of The Incoherents, the people behind them (particularly the musician Jules Levy) became targets of bitter criticism, accused of turning genuine artistic expression into an attraction in order to capitalize. The whole point of The Incoherents’ art was to make fun of the art that already existed. The works on display featured a Mona Lisa smoking a pipe—decades before Marcel Duchamp made the legendary L.H.O.O.Q.


First Communion of Anaemic Young Girls in the Snow by Alphonse Allais, 1883, via Wikipedia


The Incoherents could be seen not only as members of a proto-Dada movement but as the original conceptualists. One of the artists exhibiting with The Incoherents was Alphonse Allais, the forgotten pioneer of abstract art. Allais became known for his series of ironic monochrome paintings with titles that clarified their meanings. A completely white painting represented the first communion of anemic young girls in the snow, and the red one represented apoplectic cardinals gathering tomatoes on the shore of the Red Sea. At the time of the paintings’ exhibition, the public saw Allais’ works as witty jokes and sheer absurdity. Yet, several decades later, monochrome abstraction will become a legitimate means of artistic expression.


4. Arte Povera

strangest art movements pistoletto venus installation
Venus of the Rags by Michelangelo Pistoletto, 1967, via Tate, London


In the late 1960s, the European artistic scene was dominated by abstract art and the omnipotent art galleries, dictating their own norms and regulations. The artists who started the Arte Povera movement aimed to change that. The central idea was to utilize the most accessible and simple materials that were usually considered trash. Cheap materials created space to appreciate form, texture, and ideas without the additional element of cultural elitism.


Arte Povera was indifferent to the aesthetic norms of the time, instead trying to build a new visual system where no material would be seen as cheap or unworthy of engagement with the artist. Arte Povera artists used dirt, rags, tar, newspapers, and broken furniture, presenting them in the sterile environments of galleries and museums. The contrast between the viewer’s expectations and reality seemed interesting to some and infuriating to others. A Greek artist Jannis Kounellis once presented a dozen hay-chewing horses in a Roman art gallery.


kounellis horses installation
Untitled (12 Horses) by Jannis Kounellis, 1969 (repeated in 2015), via The New York Times


In a certain way, Arte Povera like Pop Art relied on daily practices of consumerism and interaction with mundane objects. Everyday materials were repurposed and given new functions, forcing the viewer to reconsider their relationship with them. Many Arte Povera artworks implied their own impermanence. Kounellis’ installation with horses or Luciano Fabro’s newspapers lined on the floor could always be recreated and they have no dependency on a specific horse or a specific newspaper cutout. Although Arte Povera relies on materials as a category, at the end of the day, it is more about the concept behind the work than its physical components.


5. Viennese Actionism: The Most Disturbing of Art Movements

nitsch orgy performance
Blood Orgy by Hermann Nitsch, 1970, via The Telegraph


The most shocking art movement on our list is called Viennese Actionism. It became famous not for its originality but for its disturbing and often disgusting practices. These artists’ use of self-inflicted violence, dead bodies, and bodily fluids set them apart from other performance artists. Aggressive provocation was a way to dishevel the quiet conformity of their audience and force them to talk about difficult and uncomfortable subjects. The artists of the movement all belonged to generations born either before or during World War II, so they all experienced trauma at an early age. With their actions, they called for a reflective and honest discussion about Austria’s past and present.


strangest art movements brus mutilation photo
Self-Mutilation by Gunter Brus, 1965, via Frieze


Despite the shocking component of their performances, Viennese Actionists could be considered direct yet troubled descendants of legendary Austrian Expressionists like Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoshka in terms of their uncompromising and sometimes repulsive body imagery. The use of pain, blood, feces, and torture was cathartic for the Viennese actionists. They attempted to bring the tortured souls of the nation to purification. Many performances and photographs created by the group featured imagery of forced medical manipulation, bandages, and stitches, representing the painful and disturbing process of healing

Author Image

By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.