A Very Short History of Art: Into Modernity

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, ‘Marcelle Lender Doing the Bolero in ‘Chilperic’, 1895

Even before the First World War, not everyone in the world of art was cocooned in the golden haze of Impressionism. As early as the 1880s, just a decade after the term ‘Impressionist’ had been coined, another group of artists were producing work which would collectively come to be identified as ‘Post-Impressionist’.

2 Paul Cezanne Le Chateau Noir 1900
Paul Cezanne, Le Chateau Noir, 1900



It is entirely possible that this name came about because there was very little that their work had in common beyond the fact that it emerged onto the European artistic scene (just) after Impressionism did. Nonetheless, these artists owed a great deal to the Impressionists. It was the Impressionists who had shown that art didn’t have to be neat, slick, painted with an eye for posterity. Art could be rough and ready, joyous, and above all Modern with a capital ‘M’. It could depict, just as well as the emerging discipline of photography, the fleeting, ephemeral moment, but it could do it with a colour and energy – a vibrancy – that photography (at that time) simply couldn’t match. More, it could capture not just the seen world but also the unseen, invisible world of thoughts, dreams and ideas.

3 Vincent Van Gogh Starry Night 1889
Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night, 1889
4 Paul Gauguin Nafea Faa Ipoipo When Will You Marry 1892
Paul Gauguin Nafea Faa Ipoipo? (When Will You Marry?), 1892

The Post-Impressionists took these ideas and, in a myriad of individual ways, ran with them, giving rise in the process to the endlessly diverse and sometimes outright quirky world of Modern Art. The history of this period is still being written, and this last post in my series (and well done to everyone who has stuck with me through it) is therefore little more than a list of some of the most significant names, movements, and works to emerge in the world of 20th century art.

The term ‘Post-Impressionist’ relates primarily to a number of artists who were active in the period between roughly 1886 and 1910. These include Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), whose poster-style paintings depicting the seedier side of Parisian nightlife would become iconic symbols of the period, and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). All of these painted in a similar ‘unfinished’ style to the Impressionists but incorporated bolder colours and in some cases began over time to adopt the ideas of the Symbolists.

5 Paul Gauguin, The Vision after the Sermon 1888
Paul Gauguin, The Vision after the Sermon, 1888

Two of the most famous Symbolist artists, with very different styles, were the Norwegian Emotionalist-Symbolist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) and the Austrian Art Nouveau-Symbolist Gustav Klimt (1662-1918). Symbolism, as the name suggests, moves away from depicting the ‘real’, seen, world in order to capture and convey meaning through the use of significant, though not true-to-life images, colours and so on. It is probably no coincidence that the discipline of psychology and psychoanalysis was also emerging at this time.

There were also the Fauves, most famously Henri Matisse (1869-1954), whose bold colours and simple shapes were considered ‘wild’ (the term ‘fauve’ means ‘wild animal), and the less exuberant Expressionists, who emerged in Germany and whose style would prove perfect for capturing the trauma inflicted by WWI.

One of the most iconic artists of the 20th century was undoubtedly Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) who, after passing through his Blue Period (1901-1904) and the following Rose Period (1904-1906) decided it was time for something completely different, and thus conceived what would come to be known as the first Cubist painting ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’. Looking at this and other paintings by Picasso, and taking into consideration his romantic track record, it’s fair to say that the man had issues with women, but he certainly managed to turn those issues into some amazing art.

10 Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907

If the Symbolists superimposed the imagined world onto the real world and Picasso fragmented the world with Cubism, the next significant artistic movement would go even further. Abstraction emerged in the second decade of the twentieth century, and Pure Abstraction a few years later, during the inter-War period. Among the most famous Abstract artists were Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944).


13 Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931
Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931

Salvador Dali (1904-89) was no Abstract painter. To him belongs the surreal world of Surrealism, as well as credit for the popularisation of the neologism ‘surreal’ (meaning, roughly, ‘that which transcends reality’) itself.





14 Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950
Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950

Following WWII, an American named Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) became famous after he started producing Abstract Expressionist paintings by pretty much literally throwing paint at a canvas, an idea which he apparently got from his wife and fellow-artist Lee Krasner (1908-1984), who did it first.




15 Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe 1967
Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe 1967

Another American who adopted and popularised an idea was Andy Warhol (1928-87). The idea was Pop Art, which emerged in Britain in the 1950s and used images from popular culture to create works which, at their best, provided a clever commentary on social phenomena like consumerism and fame.



And the 1960s also saw the emergence of a completely new artistic concept: Installation Art. More than individual sculptures, Installation Art transforms an entire space using a range of materials to create a three-dimensional experience for the viewer. The concept has proven popular, and installations can now be found in art galleries around the world.

last Michael Parekowhai The Promised Land at Queensland Gallery of Modern Art 2015
Michael Parekowhai, The Promised Land, at Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, 2015

What does the future hold? Who knows. I Googled ‘famous contemporary artists’ and was overwhelmed with names. A few of the most popular seem to be Ai Weiwei (China), Jeff Koons (USA), Yayoi Kusama (Japan), Damien Hirst (UK), Cindy Sherman (USA), and the mysterious graffiti artist known only as Banksy (UK). Will any of these prove to have the staying power of Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Gainsborough or Monet? I guess time will tell.

Do you have any thoughts on Modern Art and the future of art? Tell me what you think.


5 thoughts on “A Very Short History of Art: Into Modernity

  1. Are you going to put all your posts into a book? The future of modern art looks like it is now more out of the gallery and into the streets. Events like the Poppies at the Tower of London, dramatic experiences such as “Tatlin’s Whisper #5”, with Tania Bruguera’s policemen on horses corralling us at the Tate Modern. Ever more graffiti and street art. Galleries will be for the Masters on a rotation.


    1. Oh, a book would be lovely! And just the sort of thing that would come in handy for someone wanting to become ‘cultured’. On the other hand, I get to treat my blog like a scrapbook of stuff that interests me, and that’s fun too.

      Yes, I definitely think there’s a lot to be said for street art and installations that bring art out where people can see it, but I do hope the tradition of ‘fine art’ won’t be lost forever. I saw footage of the Poppies at the Tower and it looked amazing.

      Liked by 1 person

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