Characteristics & Types of Early 20th-Century Art

Characteristics & Types of Early 20th-Century Art
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  • 1:05 Understanding Expressionism
  • 1:58 1908: Cubism
  • 2:57 1914: Dada
  • 3:40 Social and Political…
  • 4:10 Influence of Early…
  • 5:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Explore the styles of abstract Expressionism and the art movements that arose at the beginning of the 20th century. Learn about Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, and other modern artists that contributed to changing the face of Western art.

A Mustard Stain or a Work of Art?

An honors student and a pretentious tween visit an art gallery to see a Kandinsky exhibit. The student wows the tween and their chaperones with her comprehensive knowledge of the painter's life, the social context, and the interpretation of the canvasses but in the process, humiliates her entourage for their ignorance of fine art. In the end, the pretentious tween, the honors student, and their chaperones share a laugh over a mustard stain at the hotdog stand. Some of those Kandinsky paintings looked just as accidental.

So, what did the student get that the others didn't? Was there some mystery revealed in her art books that showed her the secret to understanding Kandinsky's abstract Expressionism?

The difference lies in the knowledge that the student brought to the exhibition with her. She understood the social and artistic context of the paintings, giving her the tools to deconstruct the compositions and understand their meaning. Otherwise, we might as well be looking at mustard stains.

This lesson situates the art of the early 20th century in its historical context, providing a background to the philosophies and style that emerged before World War II.

Understanding Expressionism

The key to understanding Expressionism lies in the non-representational. If abstract art seems generally perplexing, it is because the artists seek to portray an idea or emotion rather than a scene or object from real life. They tend to be uninterested in traditional notions of beauty, but rather use form, shape, and color to convey meaning.

Often attributed to Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian painter who pioneered a new kind of abstract art in Germany beginning in the first decade of the 20th century, Expressionism developed out of the urge to portray a subjective feeling as opposed to an identifiable visual object. As the years ticked by, a style of modern art emerged that became more and more abstract.

1908: Cubism

Beginning around 1908, Spanish painter Pablo Picasso and French artist Georges Braque developed Cubism, which was based on the simplification of form and the influence of non-Western art, such as African sculpture and folk art. They were enamored and inspired by the art that was making its way into Paris from the East, which showed them a path to move away from the entrenched styles of Realism and representation.

1909: Futurism

Like the movements of Expressionism in Germany and Paris, other European countries also spawned new movements in art during this period. Futurism, akin to Cubism, it came out of Italy and was representative of the nationalist passion, optimism toward technology, love of machines, and vigor for violence. The movement was spawned by Italian poet Filippo Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto, written in 1909.

1914: Dada

Dada came out of Switzerland as a critique of war and politics. Its primary mode was the art of collage, which allowed artists to convey their objections to the political agendas of World War I. The birth of Dada corresponded with the outbreak of war in 1914.

1915: Suprematism

Suprematism was an extreme form of Expressionism that developed in Russia. It pushed the limits of what can be called 'art' by simplifying compositions into their most basic geometric and color components. Inspired by the spread of Futurism, the style of Suprematism emerged in Russia following an exhibition of the work of Kazimir Malevich in 1915.

Social and Political Contexts of Expressionism

Artists reacted to their turbulent cultural moment and became entwined with politics.

For example, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) was an artist collective that incorporated literature, philosophy of art, and painting toward a mission of social engagement. The group published a magazine in 1912, which included the seminal and highly influential art theory of Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky.

While Italian Futurists promoted the nationalist pride and optimism for the vigor and destruction that came with war, Dada artists responded with anti-war sentiments.

Influence of Early 20th Century Art on Design and Architecture

Prompted by the utopian impulse to create a new and better future in the 20th century, architects and artists came together during this period to spark a revolution in design. With such movements as Bauhaus and De Stijl, artists merged the philosophy of abstract expressionism with a design philosophy that was conscious of the social use of urban spaces. Understanding Bauhaus and De Stijl as social movements rather than art helps clarify their many influences on design.

The German Bauhaus school was both an educational facility and a related architectural style. Its influence was felt most strongly in modern architecture and design, leading to the development of the International style, which was characterized by simplicity, straight lines, and functionality.

De Stijl was a Dutch group (the name literally translates as 'the style' or 'new style') associated with painter and designer Piet Mondrian. Like Bauhaus, De Stijl had wide-reaching impact on modern design, especially furniture and interior design.

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