Understanding Modern Art in 5 Artworks

Trying to comprehend the expanse of Modern art can be difficult. Let’s look at a few artworks, so we can get a better idea of the period’s goals.

Feb 9, 2024By Miles McMorrow, BA Art History

understanding modern art artworks


A lot of the world’s most famous artists are modernists. Claude Monet, Salvador Dali, and Pablo Picasso are artists that most people have heard of. Their array of artworks is vastly different, yet they all fall under the one umbrella of modernism. So, how exactly do we define the Modernist era? The overarching theme of modern art is the rejection of traditional academic standards. While historians can’t exactly agree on a starting date, an important event in the advent of modernism was the Salon des Refusés in 1863. This exhibition marked the beginning of a new era, where artists gained a new-found freedom away from the rigid rules of the Academy.


Modern Art: Background & Context

Water Lilies, Claude Monet, 1906. Source: Art Institute of Chicago.


When we talk about Modernism, we have to understand the events in art history leading up to it. Art academies were first established in Italy, with the first one being created in 1563 under the Florentine Duke Cosimo de Medici I. Named the Accademia del Disegno (Academy of Design), this school was built in order to codify what art should be: naturally modeled forms, inspired by classical literature like mythology or the Bible, and acts as a window onto the world.


Around 300 years later, the Salon des Refusés was born. An exhibition of artworks rejected from the Academic Salon—which was an annual art event displaying the very best of the best—coincided with a shifting thought in artistic society. Artists began to experiment with styles like Romanticism and Realism, straying away from the Renaissance ideals of visual form. All of the ideas established in these movements coalesced into the larger movement of Modernism, named with the same convention of marking the more general historical era.


1. Eugène Bataille (Sapeck), Mona Lisa Smoking a Pipe, 1887

Mona Lisa Smoking a Pipe, Eugène Bataille, 1887. Source: Gallica Digital Library


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An early modern group that headlines the beginning of the period is one called Les Arts Incoherents—French for Incoherent Art. Led by writer Jules Lévy, this group was defined by humor, satire, and accessibility of art, seen in the fact that most of their graphic artworks were cartoons/comics published in widely distributed journals. While most of their works were made in the form of poetry or performance art, some graphic artists were present as well, particularly Eugène Bataille.


Also known under the pseudonym Sapeck, his illustration of Mona Lisa Smoking a Pipe for the journal, Le Rire, remains a virtually unknown piece of modernism. Here, he draws the all-famed Mona Lisa with one simple addition: a pipe. Satirical images like this are still recreated today. Bataille appropriates the famous Mona Lisa by putting a phallic object in her mouth, poking fun at the renowned status of her and her artist.


Modernism is usually referred to as revolutionary; a title that makes all too much sense for someone like Bataille, living in the aftermath of the French Revolution. As rebellions spread throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, it only made sense that the same ideas would integrate themselves into the art world. The works of the modern era can even be argued to be a broad act of iconoclasm–defined as the destruction of images. While this term typically refers to the damaging of religious icons (such as the Byzantine Iconoclasm) or political images (seen during the French Revolution), its general idea can be applied to the modern period. Artists were working to destroy the established concepts of art on a large scale, rejecting everything put in place before them.


2. Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919

L.H.O.O.Q., Marcel Duchamp, 1964 (replica of 1919 original). Source: Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena


More than anyone or any movement, Duchamp and the Dadaists truly embody what Modernism means. Established in the early 20th century, Dadaism isn’t so different from Les Arts Incoherents. They focus on satire and appropriation, making fun of the elitism of the art world. Ironically, little did they know they’d become a symbol for what we consider elite art today.


Marcel Duchamp was a forerunner of Dadaism, with his most famous work, Fountain. In this piece, Duchamp took a manufactured urinal, flipped it on its side, and submitted it to be exhibited. Fountain created an outrage–if artists can take ready-made objects and call them art, then what does art really even mean? This question was the exact one Duchamp was trying to elicit. But a work even more Modernist than this one is L.H.O.O.Q., another depiction of the Mona Lisa, created 30 years after Sapeck’s rendition.


Here, Duchamp took a postcard of La Gioconda and gave her a mustache and a beard. His joke is exemplified by the title: L.H.O.O.Q., which, with French pronunciation, sounds like Elle a chaud au cul, meaning She has a hot ass. Duchamp, like Bataille, sexualized the artistic icon by commenting on her physical sexuality. In fact, the added beard and mustache can even be seen as symbols of pubic hair around her lips. With commentary on the male gaze, and perhaps even the long-rumored homosexuality of Leonardo da Vinci himself, Duchamp broke away from the art world by criticizing it through one of its most famous components.


3. Wassily Kandinsky, Untitled, 1915

Untitled, Wassily Kandinsky, 1915. Source: Art Institute of Chicago.


While artists like Bataille and Duchamp lean into the appropriation aspect of modernism, there’s another important part of the era—abstraction. We typically define abstract art as a deconstruction of the physical form. The first artist that might come to people’s minds is someone like Pablo Picasso and his Cubist pieces, where he broke a form down into all of its elements.


An artist like Wassily Kandinsky took it a step further, though, and turned abstraction into non-representation. That is, the form is so deconstructed that there is hardly anything recognizable anymore. Kandinsky started Der Blaeu Reiter group along with Franz Marc, where together they pioneered the German Expressionist movement. An artwork like Untitled (1915) confuses the viewer at first. The first question they might ask sounds simple, but is actually deeply complicated: what is Kandinsky trying to show?


In his artworks, it’s not the what that’s important, but the how. Kandinsky is an expressionist who focuses on expressions or feelings. What’s being shown on the canvas gives way to how it’s being shown. Kandinsky does this primarily through his colors. He considered himself a synesthete, so for him, color had sound, typically denoted by a certain instrument. For example, red was aggressive, and as a warm color, it moved out toward the viewer. On the other hand, blue was calming, and receding in its cool qualities. Juxtaposing these two together created chaos and disharmony. If you look in the upper corners, you’ll see large splotches of red across from blue, which make the canvas almost tilt in imbalance. Keep this concept in mind when viewing Kandinsky’s works, and their meanings might come a little easier.


4. Willem de Kooning, Woman I, 1950-52

Woman I, Willem de Kooning, 1950-52. Source: Museum of Modern Art.


Now, Kandinsky’s Expressionism shouldn’t be confused with the later movement of Abstract Expressionism. Yes, he’s making abstract works in the expressionist style, but these movements are defined separately. One of the largest differences between the two is that Abstract Expressionism took place in the 1940s-50s, in the new art capital of New York City. A trailblazer in this style was the Dutchman Willem de Kooning. Artists like de Kooning were looking back a few decades, inspired by creators like Van Gogh and Munch. De Kooning’s Woman I takes a very traditional European subject—the female nude—and flips it on its head, not in a way entirely dissimilar from Bataille or Duchamp.


The figure depicted in Woman I is grotesque and disturbing, though it is still clear she is a woman through her prominent breasts. De Kooning was appropriating the female form, much like Duchamp or Sapeck did with the Mona Lisa, but on a broader scale. He reduced this woman down to her basic body parts, emphasizing the most important aspect of his movement: abstraction.


His dynamic, dramatic brushstrokes created a similar sense of chaos that Kandinsky depicted in his Untitled work. The colorful palette of pinks and greens gets drowned out by the large swatches of gray that create the woman’s form. We can’t tell if she’s standing or sitting, where her arms or legs are, or if she’s clothed or naked. The disorder of the form recalls the post-war era in which de Kooning was painting. Yet, working in the United States, de Kooning and the abstract expressionists were finding it easier to remove themselves from European tradition and establish their own, fully American forms of art.


5. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Three Quarters of Olympia Minus the Servant, 1982

Three Quarters of Olympia Minus the Servant, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982. Source: Stanford Auctioneers.


Modernism informally ended around the 1970s, ushering in a new era of postmodernism. Artists like Duchamp and Kandinsky became household names. The context of the Cold War flipped the world upside down once again, and artists, doing what artists do, had to modify their works in order to keep up with the times.


This idea is exactly what the early modernists were trying to do. The father of Modernism, Édouard Manet took the traditional subject of a female nude in his Olympia and unveiled something deeper, something gritty, not unlike what de Kooning did with Woman I. His depiction of a sex worker astounded the Salon-goers in the 1860s, paving the way to the shocking early Modern artworks of the Impressionists.


Olympia, Édouard Manet, 1863. Source: Le Musée D’Orsay.


The neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat did what Duchamp did with L.H.O.O.Q. to Manet’s Olympia: he appropriated her iconic status as a symbol of the Modern art world. In Three Quarters of Olympia Minus the Servant, Basquiat took abstraction to an extreme, breaking apart all forms until everything was virtually unrecognizable.


It’s hard to tell where Olympia is meant to be–there’s some kind of face in the middle, but it looks nothing like Manet’s courtesan. Instead, it more accurately reflects the woman in de Kooning’s work: bald, ugly, and disturbing. Basquiat rejected everything that became mainstream in modernism, taking its values and rearranging them into something that suited him as a Black artist in New York City.


Every artwork he made was an assault on the elitist art world. His graffiti medium portrayed the same idea of accessibility as Les Arts Incoherents did with their journals. Basquiat was painting identity, not just figures and bodies. He was evocative, just like the expressionists, forcing the viewer to analyze and interpret, not just observe.


Modern Art: How Did It Lead Us To Today?

Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Édouard Manet, 1862. Source: Le Musée D’Orsay, Paris.


The Modern era allowed artists to experiment and try out new forms, styles, and subjects. Without them, we might still be stuck in the stagnant tradition of academic formality. Imagine if every artwork looked just like a work made by Leonardo or Michelangelo. Sure, they’re beautiful pieces to look at, but doesn’t it get quite boring? Shouldn’t we prefer a wide range of styles, enticing us with each new work we look at?


While Modern art can be hard to get, it’s still important to understand its place within art history. Without artists like Bataille and Duchamp, Kandinsky, or de Kooning, we could very well be trapped in the cycle of history without an escape. Their appropriative artworks satirizing artistic icons, or their abstract pieces breaking apart the form in a way never seen before, allow the audience to experience something new every time. So, the next time you go to a museum and get fed up with the complicated nature of Picasso or Matisse, think about how modern artists like them granted freedom to the art world, allowing us to explore the expansive beauty of the artistic form.

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By Miles McMorrowBA Art HistoryMiles holds a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from Juniata College. They specialize in Modernism, primarily in Expressionist and Dadaist works. As a recent college graduate, they are exploring the fascinating work force within the art world, with a particular interest in writing and criticism. While history is their greatest passion, Miles also enjoys reading classic literature, listening to a wide array of music, and trying out new meals to cook.