Defining Art Movements: A comprehensive guide to key styles & trends in art history

Art movements

For artists, inspiration tends to come from far and wide. However, certain influences, points of view, and methodologies converge to form one coherent movement that has a humongous impact on the world. Art movements have been in existence for as long as there have been human beings. Ancient civilizations used a range of techniques and media to portray culturally significant subject matter.

As such, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Each of the art movements has significance over different centuries and continues to inspire thousands of artists all over the world today. Some art movements focused on the style or approach of a series of artists from a specific region, while others spanned numerous disciplines.

Art is one of those things that never expires and, like wine, gets better with time. Why? That’s because art is constantly progressing; works, styles, perspectives, and ideas tend to be grouped in a broader movement and this will probably continue long into the future.

In the 20th century, artists found themselves more inspired than ever, thanks to the rapid progress that had been made in technology. To respond to the changes, 20th-century artists started being more innovative and bold, which certainly helped to pick up the pace in the evolution of modern art.

The impact of the art movements that have existed throughout history will be felt today and in years to come. So let’s take a close look at some of the most important art movements through history:

Fauvism (1900–1935)

Fauvism was one of the earliest major artistic movements of the 20th century. Not only was fauvism more expressionistic compared to the earlier post-impressionist period, but it also favored the use of bolder ‘unrealistic’ colors rather than portraying an accurate representation of reality.

Since it was formed right at the beginning of the century during a period of revitalization, the movement gained pace quickly. Fauvism was created by Henri Matisse and André Derain in 1905 in Southern France during one summer in a small village in Collioure. The two artists spent time together in Collioure with other well-known artists such as Charles Camoin and Georges Braque to explore and try their hand at a technique that was later named fauvism.

As a result, the movement was born out of diverse influences, the most notable of them being neo-impressionism. In fauvist paintings, colors were the most important medium and for founder Matisse, this remained true throughout his work. Colors in fauvist works would barely touch once applied on the canvas and more importantly, they were never to be mixed with other pigments before the painting process.

Although this sounds quite simple today, it was quite uncongenial back then. Fauvism was one of the most important movements of the 20th century as it paved the way for other remarkable movements such as cubism and Expressionism.

Expressionism (1905–1920)

As the name suggests, the expressionist movement was all about expressing the emotion of the artist’s inner feelings rather than representing world views. Key artists that rose during this movement include Edvard Munch and Wassily Kandinsky. Other well-known artists of this movement include Ernst Ludwig, Alexej von Jawlensky and Franz Marc.

During the expressionism period, artists would frequently utilize bold colors and tense, striking lines to depict the feelings of the artists, be it joy, isolation, hope, or anxiety. The term expressionism was created in 1910 by a Czech historian that used the phrase to describe a group of artists creating art that was in contrast to the impressionists.

While the impressionist movement focused on interpreting nature, expressionists did the opposite by exploring the artist’s psyche. In the few years leading up to the First World War, expressionists made art to react to the highly industrialized and isolating contemporary conditions that were being created at the time.

Two major art movements that were defined by Expressionism rose, namely the Bridge and Blue Rider. The Bridge was established in 1905 By Erich Heckel and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner alongside Emil Nolde. The Bridge was established to tie art that was being created at that time to the ideas of the future. The second group, Blue Rider, was the brainchild of Kandinsky and was established in 1911 to foster the spiritual within art.

Cubism (1907–1914)

Cubism was one of the most popular art movements, considered today one of the most innovative and intellectually stimulating. It emerged in Paris during those early years of the 20th century. The movement was the brainchild of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso.

Cubism painters ditched traditional techniques of perspective for the use of flattened, geometric shapes. The painting to be considered cubist was Pablo Picasso’s 1907 Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It was this piece that inspired Georges Braque to abandon the Fauvist painting style that he was pursuing.

It is also this piece that led George Braque to seek out Pablo Picasso. The two forged a lifelong friendship that was spent developing and growing the movement. During this friendship, the two painters were practically inseparable and would at times create works so similar it was impossible to discern who did what.

Cubism is regarded as the first abstract art movement. Even though it was and is still closely associated with paintings, sculptors including Jacques Lipchitz and Alexander Archipenko, as well as Picasso himself, also applied it to their works.

Surrealism (1916–1950)

Surrealism was formed at the beginning of the 20th century at a time when the world was still grappling with the horrors of the First World War. Surrealism was created to hold a mirror to the irrationality and uselessness of warfare, highlighting the absence of greater meaning in life at the time.

Most surrealist works created defied logic and reason, thus disparaging the rationalist attitude. Surrealism painters were significantly influenced by the works of Karl Marx and theories developed by great sociologists such as Sigmund Freud, who was inspired greatly by the power of imagination. Many well-known surrealist artists emerged as a result of this movement, including Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, René Magritte, Frida Kahlo, Marcel Duchamp, Wolfgang Paalen, American Man Ray, Spanish Maruja Mallo and more.

Because many surrealist painters often defied reason or logic in their compositions, the surrealism period resulted in a truly fascinating collection of work spanning mythical landscapes and sculptural arrangements to captivating representations of people and animals.

Many surrealist artists often combined the use of various artists’ styles in a single piece without necessarily feeling the need to provide a concise explanation to the viewer. The primary objective was to embrace the unconscious and release the mind’s imagination. As such, every surreal piece had a different interpretation.

Abstract Expressionism (the 1940s–1950s)

Abstract Expressionism was influenced heavily by Surrealism. This movement was born in New York after the Second World War and was influenced heavily by the principles of Surrealism. Abstract Expressionism was the first movement to really put American artists on the map. It, therefore, helped to launch America’s dominance in the global art market.

To escape political instability in many of their European countries, several European surrealists sought exile in New York. Most of the artists that rose during this period emerged during the 1930s and were highly influenced by the politics of that era.

Abstract expressionist paintings shared some characteristics, including the use of huge canvases and an all-over approach in which the entire canvas was treated with equal importance. One of the most well-known abstract expressionist painters of his time was Jackson Pollock. Others included Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, whose works often involved the use of large blocks of color.

Optical art (the 1950s–1960s)

Optical art, also commonly referred to as op art, was highly influenced by the advances in science and technology as well as the growing interest in optical effects and illusions. The movement inspired artists to utilize shapes, colors, and patterns to form images that appeared to either be moving or blurring.

Many of these images were frequently produced in black and white to create maximum contrast for the viewer. The painters of the op art movement stood out from earlier artists that worked with geometric styles like cubism in that they incorporated the purposeful manipulation of color to evoke perceptual illusions and contradictions.

Some of the most well-known op-art artists include British artists Jesus Rafael Soto, Bridget Riley, Jeffrey Steele, Victor Vasarely, Ellsworth Kelly, Larry Poons, and Carlos Cruz-Diez. This movement first attracted attention from the international art world in 1965 when the group held an op-art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in NY titled The Responsive Eye.

Pop art (the 1950s–1960s)

Pop art is by far one of the most recognizable artistic movements of the 20th century. Rather than use abstract styles like the painters did in Abstract Expressionism, pop artists used everyday, mundane objects to come up with uniquely creative art that defied consumerism and mass media. The objective of pop art was to demonstrate the notion that art could be drawn from any source and still have an impact on the viewer.

This movement was pioneered by well-known artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. And even though most people assume that pop art was born in America, the first to truly create pop art were British painters in the 1950s. More specifically, the movement was created by a group of intellectuals known as the Independent Group, which consisted of respected artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton.

Pop art was inevitable at a time when the world was fascinated and consumed by entertainment and mass media. Seeing as pop art often sought inspiration from advertisement, media, and entertainment, it makes sense that New York quickly grew to become the heart of the pop art movement. Perhaps the most famous artworks of this period were created by Andy Warhol, with one of his most famous pieces to date being his Campbell’s Soup Cans.

Arte Povera (the 1960s)

Art Povera is an Italian term that means poor art. This art movement was created to challenge modernist and contemporary art systems. As such, arte povera artists often incorporated unusual elements such as pieces of paper, sand, soil, rocks, and other earthen components to arouse a pre-industrial feeling.

The Art Povera movement was born in Italy and was pioneered by Italian art critic GermanoCelant, in 1967. Other artists to emerge during this movement include Emilio Prini, Giovanni Anselmo, Pino Pascali, Gilberto Zorio, and more. These artists created art in many different ways, including sculpting, painting, photographs, and even large-scale and small-scale installations and performances.

Conceptual Art (the 1960s–1970s)

The conceptual art movement largely rejected other movements. Artists of this movement prized ideas more than visual components, this creating art in many forms, including performances, installations, ephemera, and more. Conceptual artists are some of the most radical and controversial in the modern art landscape.

Some conceptual artists believe that art is created by the audience and not by the artwork or the artists. Because the ideas and concepts are central, the materials and aesthetics play a minor role in conceptual art. This art movement was inspired heavily by Surrealism and minimalism.

Examples of well-known conceptual artists include Ewa Partum, who once scattered single alphabet letters across an array of landscapes in Active Poetry. American artist Joseph Kosuth used one chair in three different ways in his installation titled One and Three Chairs to demonstrate the role of language in art.

Contemporary art (1970 to present times)

The 1970s marked the beginning of contemporary art and this movement has persisted till today. Contemporary art movement consists of smaller sub-movements that include:

  • Postmodernism: In this school of thought, contemporary postmodernist artists create works that reflect irony and skepticism.
  • Feminist Art: This movement was created to break stereotypes of a male-dominated history of art.
  • Neo-expressionism: This movement was created to revive the original perspectives of Expressionism and focused mainly on creating very textural, expressive, humongous works.
  • Street art: This refers to graffiti-like art that is often created by popular street artists such as Banksy, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Barry McGee. As the name suggests, street art often appears in public spaces such as sidewalks and overpasses.
  • Digital art: This movement incorporates the use of technology such as computers, as well as audio and visual software to create artwork.

Final thoughts

Art movements are as old as time itself. As such, the world today now has an excess of art movements, each bearing unique styles and characteristics that reflect the political and social influences of the era in which they were birthed. Some of the more influential periods of art that have made an indelible mark in history include the Renaissance period, Modernism, and more.

Contemporary artists are not to be left behind either. Well-known artists such as Banksy, Kehinde Wiley, Kerry James Marshall, and more are constantly churning out pieces that are changing how modern audiences view and consume contemporary art.

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