Modern Art Movements

This brief overview of some of the main modern art movements is of offered as a quick reference guide to the main players on the art history stage in the 20th century. 

The beginnings of modern art movements can be traced back to the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century with Impressionism, Post-impressionism and Fauvism changing the way artists depicted their subject matter and used colour in their work.


From 1907, Cubism, pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, made a major contribution to the development of modern art movements.   The ideas and techniques that characterised it, namely the depiction of a subject  from multiple perspectives in one painting, had a lasting influence on future generations of artists.

Pablo Picasso Fruit Basket (Modern Art movements Cubism)
Fruit Basket, Pablo Picasso
Image from Easyart

Photography liberated artists from the need to reproduce reality and knowledge gained through scientific studies into colour theory encouraged them to experiment more with  colour and explore its influences in their work.  These developments, combined with a growing sense of spiritual awareness resulted in artists moving towards more abstract forms of self-expression in the mid 1900s. 


Russian artist, Wassily Kandinsky understood  the emotional impact of colour in painting and the power it had to convey the spiritual dimension of the creative process.  He is credited with producing  the first abstract work around 1911 and published his seminal work, Concerning The Spiritual in Art in the same year.  He went on to found Der Blaue Reiter with  a group of like-minded German Expressionist artists, including Franz Marc and August Macke. The group shared an interest in the use of colour in painting and the spiritual values it could convey.  They invited  Robert Delaunay and Paul Klee, both of whom were interested  in  the effects of colour and light in abstract works to exhibit with them. 

Elsewhere in Russia,  Kasimir Malevich, in a movement known as Suprematism, was engaged in a similar quest to strip art back  to its simplest form, a black square or black circle suspended against a white background and thus lead the viewer into a more elevated spiritual dimension. 

Despite or possibly because of the outbreak of the First World War, modern art movements continued to emerge. 

Marcel Duchamp Nude Descending a Staircase No 2 (Modern art movements cubism futurism)
Nude Descending a Staircase No.2, Marcel Duchamp
Combines elements of Cubism and Futurism
Image from Easyart

De Stijl, The Bauhaus, Dada, Surrealism

In the Netherlands, Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg  were on a similar spiritual path and in 1917 came together in a group known as De Stijl.  Their aim was to pioneer a more universal, less individual, form of abstract art which they believed would bring harmony and order to the world and create a purity of experience that would enhance the viewer’s perception of the human condition.

Dadaism grew out of the revulsion other artists felt to the atrocities of the war.  Founded in 1916, it was a short-lived anarchic movement that was in essence a necessary form of  artistic protest.  When it disintegrated in 1921, many of its members turned to  Surrealism,  a movement  which promoted  the power of  the subconscious mind and its use as  the source of inspiration for art, a technique which artists such as Joan Miro and Salvador Dali used to great effect. 

The end of the war also saw the birth in Germany of the most influential modern art movements of the twentieth century. The  Bauhaus school of art was set up in 1919 to unify the teaching of fine art and architectural design skills and to embrace new machine technology in the production of household products that could be both beautiful and functional.    

The influence of Surrealism and the Bauhaus extended well beyond the boundaries of their origins.  Surrealism  played an important role in the development of the abstract expressionist movement in New York in the 1930s and 1940s and the principles of Bauhaus reverberated across the decades and can still be found in contemporary design today. 

 Abstract Expressionism

The abstract expressionist movement dominated the New York of the 1940s and 1950s and made it the centre of the art world.   Unlike their European predecessors who had, in the main, reacted to the First World War on a collective basis, the abstract expressionists were more individual in their response to the Second World War.  They introduced a spirit of freedom and vigour into the production of their paintings, choosing to work on large canvases and exploring new and more energetic ways of applying paint.  There was no manifesto, no collective voice.  They all worked in very different ways and what united them was their determination to express themselves creatively and freely.

 Hard-edge painting, Minimalism, Pop Art

The late 1950s and 1960s saw a return to art that was less personally expressive.  The absence of boundaries, championed by the abstract expressionists, gave way to a more structured approach to painting as artists once again felt the need to produce simpler, more controlled work.  Artists such as Kenneth Noland, Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella developed a  contemporary style of colourful, geometric paintings that was known as hard-edge painting. 

Further development of this approach led to an art form known as Minimalism.  Artists such as Richard Serra, Kenneth Noland, Donald Judd and Robert Morris attempted to simplify their paintings even more and removing  any trace of themselves as artists within them.  By eliminating  all signs of the creative process and  rendering the paintings anonymous, they believed  the viewer could experience the work more intensely. 

Probably the famous and enduring art style from this period is American Pop Art.  From the late 1950s and through 1960s, the American pop art movement dominated the art scene.   As the Dadaists had done before them, Pop artists such as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein set out to challenge the art world. With their use of everyday objects, advertising imagery and its focus on mass culture, they opened up the art world to a new generation who felt less constrained by convention and were free to express themselves in whatever way they wanted. 

Selected Modern Art Movements of the 20th century: