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Ever since humans have been able to use their hands to create to express, art has existed. Whether in clay or etched on walls, art has been at the very core of human civilization. It's been the central medium that has been used to convey and depict socio-political influences, and in a few exceptional moments sparked movements that have defined eras.
Just like the invention of the light bulb or the world wide web, which have shaped world history and inspired future generations - art in its tens of thousands of years of existence also has its definitive moments. Chronicled by specific movements, they not only defined the times they emerged but sparked decades of interpretations and mutations.
So, whether you’re an artist, collector, or admirer, understanding these marquee movements as well as the artists and art that provoked them is an invaluable place to begin in order to understand the art history timeline.
Led by the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Printmakers whose founding members included Monet, Degas, and Pissaro, the beginnings of this movement trace back to a rogue exhibition in Paris in the 19th-century. Featuring art that used short, broken brushstrokes, raw unblended colours, and distinct use of light, this movement borrowed its name from Claude Monet’s oil canvas Impression, Soleil Levant. This novel technique earned harsh critique at the time from art critic Louis Leroy who accused the work of being a mere sketch or ‘impression’ and not a finished piece.
Emerging at the turn of the 20th century, Fauvism has been lauded as one of the first avant-garde modernist movements. Characterised by artists like Henry Matisse and Andre Derain, this movement derived its name from a term coined by art critic Louis Vauxcelles who described these artists as les fauves loosely translated to ‘the wild beasts’. Distinguished by its definitive use of colour theory, the Fauvist movement was defined by an expressive colour palette as well as classic shapes and subjects.
Expressionism, as its name suggests, is the artist’s ability to express their inner feeling and thoughts in an almost distorted manner in order to elicit emotion. Inspired by the aesthetics of Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch, this modernist movement emerged in Germany in the 20th Century particularly with a group of artists who referred to themselves as Die Brucke (The Bridge). Spurred by the chaotic time in the years leading up to World War I, the avant-garde artworks of this movement were characterized by the use of unnatural color palettes, exaggerated or distorted configurations, and almost primitive subjects. While its origins have been defined by that time, influences of Expressionism can now be found in artwork from any era.
One of the most influential styles of the 20th Century, Cubism, was pioneered by artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Defined by two specific types - Analytical Cubism and Synthetic Cubism; the movement was marked by artwork like George Braque’s Violin and Candlestick which was a perfect example of the former and Pablo Picasso’s Three Musicians representative of the latter. With its ability to depict three dimensions on a flat surface to present diverse views of a particular subject, this movement served as a catalyst for many abstract styles like constructivism and neo-plasticism. Interestingly, the cubist movement may have even been the beginning of modern contemporary artforms like Mixed Media Art, considering its interesting use of textures to channel perspective.
Finally, we come to the era of imagination. Emerging in Europe in the aftermath of World War I, Surrealism was not just an art movement but a cultural one as well. Heavily influenced by Dadaism and its radical ideologies that challenged logic and reason - this movement amplified the concept further finding its footing in both art and literature. With the goal to explore the unconscious mind, the movement was epitomized by Spanish artist Salvador Dali and his work like, ‘The Persistence of Memory’, but in fact was founded by poet Andre Breton in 1924. Surrealism’s aim was to rubbish the concept of reason and individualism championed by the Enlightenment era and instead to create art that liberated the unconscious mind, going beyond the boundaries of rationality to explore the deep psyche.
By etching a timeline through different art movements, we are able to not only apprehend the development of modern and contemporary art, but also realize how art can been seen as a reflection of its time.
Dr Gunjan Shrivastava,Professional Artist, Educator, Art Critic and Co-founder of You Lead India Foundation
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