Prominent Artists & Works of the 20th Century

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  • 0:02 A Nearly Indefinable Century
  • 1:57 A Whole Bunch of '-Isms'
  • 4:50 Contemporary Art
  • 7:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the world of 20th century art. We'll look at some overall characteristics of this century of art and then explore various trends and movements in the art world.

A Nearly Indefinable Century

Hang on to your hats! We're about to embark on a wild roller coaster ride through the world of 20th century art. The art of the 20th century is so diverse and unique that it is difficult to define as a whole. In fact, some scholars firmly maintain that the primary definition of 20th century art is that it is nearly indefinable. Artists followed various movements over the years that tended to diverge sharply in style and technique, and some artists chose to strike out in contemporary new ways, either starting a new movement or working totally independently. That being said, however, we can identify some characteristics of 20th century art:

  • Artists of the 20th century tended to break with tradition. They preferred to look forward instead of backward and experiment with new artistic choices rather than relying on old methods.
  • Art in the 20th century was all about progress. Artists wanted to contribute to the development of their viewers and their society.
  • Science and technology played an important role in the 20th century art as artists explored new ways of creating and distributing their works.
  • Artists of the 20th century highly valued free expression. They refused to conform to standard practices and instead painted what they thought, felt, and envisioned, even if no one else appreciated or understood it.
  • Content took a back seat to style in 20th century art. The subject matter was less important than the way that subject matter was communicated to the viewer.
  • Abstraction was central to 20th century art. In abstract art, lines, forms, patterns, tones, shapes, and textures are more important than people, objects, and places.

The Century's First Half: A Whole Bunch of '-Isms'

Now get ready to zip through the first half of the 20th century art. During the first 50 or so years of the century, the art world was home to a whole collection of -isms, or various artistic movements. We can't cover all of them in the scope of this lesson, but we'll touch on a few of the major ones:

  1. Fauvism focused on colors and the artist's emotions. Artists created simple drawings, but filled them with exaggerated, intense colors that expressed their feelings about the subject. Henri Matisse founded this movement about 1905, and it was popular for only a few years.
  2. Expressionism was a German-led movement in which artists expressed their emotions and spirituality through their work. Their paintings tended to portray the world as a dark, hostile, distorted place. Edvard Munch's famous painting The Scream is good example of Expressionism.
  3. Cubism, which was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, was a predecessor to abstract art, but never fully abstract itself. Cubist works presented subjects from several angles all at once by using bold colors and sharply defined geometric shapes. Subjects end up looking quite distorted, but Cubists claimed that their viewpoint was actually more realistic than traditional portrayals because human perception is always in motion.
  4. Suprematism was a style of purely abstract painting. Russian artists, led by Kazimir Malevich, refused to represent any particular subject, but concentrated instead on pure emotion.
  5. Dadaism developed out of the horrors of World War I. Artists that followed this movement rejected artistic beauty and traditional values, and worked in many different mediums and styles. Famous Dadaist works include the Readymades of Marcel Duchamp, as well as the irrational and often shocking collages of the German Dadaists.
  6. Surrealism grew out of French Dadaism, but focused primarily on expressing the artist's subconscious in painting, writing, and photography. Artists like Salvador Dali created fantastic and often bizarre paintings depicting dreams or symbols.
  7. Realism actually did endure during the first half of the 20th century, primarily in America. Artists like Robert Henri and Norman Rockwell chose to paint such subjects like daily life in New York City, scenes of the American West, or simply everyday life in the modern world.

The Century's Second Half: Contemporary Art

Now it's time to zoom along into the second half of the 20th century. Art from this period is broadly called contemporary art, and art from around the 1970s and 1980s is known as postmodern art. Artists from this era, which extends into the 21st century, retain many of the styles and techniques of their predecessors, but add a few innovations of their own. For example, the rise of conceptual art in the later 20th century shifted the focus from explorations of style and form towards ideas and politics, making way for the possibility that a performance or even a simple document could be considered art.

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