Collecting Twentieth-Century Painting A Guide and Timeline Perspective
THREE ART MOVEMENTS THAT SET THE 20th-CENTURY ON COURSE
For centuries, Western painters had made studied
efforts to convey subtleties of the human condition, to capture a
landscape, to freeze an epic moment in time, and more recently, with the
Impressionists, to filter the essence of nature. But on the eve of the
20th Century, the world was undergoing an unprecedented transformation
driven by technology, and monumental global conflict. In painting, this
upheaval was paralleled by changes equally brave, threatening, and
profound -- even more so than those presented by the advent of Modernism.
Three early 20th-Century movements -- Expressionism
and Cubism -- each represented a reinterpretation of
art's relationship to reality. Each liberated a key aspect of painting,
and in turn, laid the groundwork for most of the painting movements that
have followed to the present day. By familiarizing yourself with these
three movements, you'll be able to better appreciate the entire scope of
THE FAUVES. The first
20th-Century painting movement to gain notice -- more accurately, to cause
a scandal -- was Fauvism. A salon of like-minded artists showed their work
in 1905; critics collectively called them fauves, French for "wild
beasts," in response to their unbridled and seemingly irrational use
While the 1905 salon was informally led by Henri
Matisse (whose prolific and varied career soon outgrew the Fauve moniker),
the Fauvists owed much to the primitive-style works of Paul Gauguin, who
died two years earlier. The group also included painters such as André
Derain, Georges Rouault, and Georges Braque (who soon embraced Cubism).
Influenced by the 'primitive' art and stained glass windows of Brittany,
what they shared in common was a nearly orgiastic use of color to convey
emotion, without regard to "reality"-- a sky might be orange, a
tree crimson, a human form green, or even a multiplicity of colors.
Fauvism liberated color. Finally, artists could use
it in any way imaginable, both possible and impossible.
Around the same time as Fauvism's 1905 salon, the more loosely aligned
Expressionist movement was garnering attention. German, Scandinavian, and
other Northern European painters were allowing inner emotions -- sadness,
anger, fear -- to spill out honestly and directly onto their canvases.
Norwegian Edvard Munch's "Scream" (1893) is the most famous
precursor of the Expressionist movement.
It was with the gathering clouds of World War I, and
its resulting horrors, however, that Expressionism gained momentum.
Painters such as Wassily Kandinsky strove to portray spirituality and
other intangibles on canvas. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner focused on humanity's
awkward and contrived state of affairs, not only of war, but also of urban
industrialization. Even Gustave Klimt, who had gained notoriety in the
late 1800s with his stylized Art Nouveau technique, became linked with
Expressionism, as he poured a world of sublime beauty onto canvas, in
direct reaction to the waste and destruction of the world around him.
Expressionism liberated emotion.
THE CUBISTS. If you
stop to think about it, most paintings are a ruse -- a way of tricking us
into seeing a three-dimensional world on a strictly two-dimensional
canvas. By 1907, two French painters -- Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque
-- had each chosen to expose the trick for what it was.
Picasso and Braque synthesized 'primitive' African
and Oceanic art with Paul Cézanne's earlier experiments in abstract
geometry. The results: quasi-primitive visages, torsos, and objects
splayed out onto a flat canvas as if they were steamrollered, often with
little or no depth perspective.
Some critics dismissed Cubism as a childlike ruse of
its own. But both Picasso and Braque, and soon others, were working from
codified theories of how to reinterpret and represent geometry and
dimensionality. Ironically, their best works challenge the viewer to
contemplate and appreciate our dimensional world all the more. Cubism
movements flourished for decades, through the works of Juan Gris, Fernand
Léger and others. In their course, these movements had an immense impact
on the world -- way beyond the art world -- by serving as metaphors for
the abstract and increasingly form-changing reality of modern life.
Cubism liberated form.
FOLLOWING MOVEMENTS. What a remarkable start
to the 20th Century: Within the first decade or so, the roles of color,
emotion, and form were turned upside down. No longer were they confined to
strict parameters, such as the pursuit of reality, or the impressionistic
distillation of a subject to its fundamental colors and forms.
By 1910, the Fauvist, Expressionist, and Cubist
movements had collectively said to artists, for the first time,
"Anything goes!" Most of the painting movements that were to
follow owe something in part to one or more of these standard bearers.
Indeed, the next major painting movement, Futurism,
which appeared in 1909, used all three elements -- color, emotion, and
form -- in radical ways, to celebrate modern change, originality, and
innovation in culture and society. In 1913, these new directions
collectively exploded onto the American scene with the International
Exhibition of Modern Art, colloquially known as the Armory Show. Held at a
New York Regiment Armory, it featured works by Picasso, Matisse,
Kandinsky, and most significantly, Marcel Duchamp -- whose boldly abstract
"Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2" provoked critical and
public outrage -- much like the Salon des Refusés had done 50 years
(Outrage might as well have been Duchamp's middle
name. In 1917, two years after the foundation of the anti-art Dada
movement, he anonymously -- and antagonistically -- submitted a ceramic
urinal set on it's side, signed "R. Mutt," to another
exhibition. Since the organizers -- whose roster included Duchamp -- had
agreed to accept any submission, they had no choice but to include the
urinal, causing an even greater furor than Duchamp's 1913 painting.)
While the Fauvist movement became passé within a
few years of the 1905 salon, its influence can be detected in works by Expressionist
and more contemporary painters. Early analytical-style Cubism had largely
run its course by 1915, though its influence and offshoots continued to
reverberate through the '30s, and it remains one of the most widely
recognized art movement of the entire century. As for Expressionism, it
never really went away -- and was whole-heartedly revived in the '40s,
'50s, and '60s by Abstract
Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko,
Francis Bacon, and Robert Motherwell. Even in the '70s and '80s, the Neoexpressionists
-- including Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian
Schnabel, and Kenny Scharf -- owed much to their namesake forebears (as
well as Fauvist and Cubist primitivism).
The 20th Century has been blessed with so many vital
movements in painting, including Dadaism, Surrealism,
Realism, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art -- and more
recently, Minimalism, the Neoexpressionists,
and Post-Modernism. You'll find descriptions
of these and other notable movements below; see the TIMELINE OF 20th-CENTURY PAINTING.