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Modern Art and the Isms of the 20th Century


Art in the 20th century was a parade of isms: Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, and more. And with the advent of abstract and non-representational art, it seemed the only rule was: there are no rules.

Complete Video Script

[87] As the 20th century dawned — from telephones and cars to physics and Freud — the world was moving fast. Artists kept up, capturing the accelerated pace of life, as Europe stepped boldly into the modern age. As the world changed, so did art, fragmenting into a kaleidoscope of new styles.

[93] The early 20th century was a time of new "isms," including Fauvism. With their bold primitive style, the Fauves — or "wild beasts" — brought an untamed spirit to the art world.

[94, Fauvism, c. 1905–1908] The Fauves, led by Henri Matisse, painted with intense and clashing colors…colors that ignored reality. Artists, using thick paint with rough brush work, portrayed more what they felt than what they saw. Fauves painted simple but powerful figures with mask-like faces. This simplification to abstraction is quintessentially modern…modern yet primeval…a celebration of the sheer joy of life. While the movement lasted only a few years — Fauvism helped pave the way for the abstract artists who followed.

[99, Seated Nude, 1909, Picasso, Tate Modern, London] With Cubism, increasingly the subject — like, say, a person — dissolves into its visual building blocks. It's like Cubists shattered a three-dimensional reality and then reassembled the shards onto a two-dimensional canvas. Cubism shows "multiple perspectives" at the same time on a flat surface. We might see the front and side view on a single face. The foreground and background blend together into a flat pattern. Increasingly, what mattered was not the subject itself but how we see it. Picasso and his fellow artists innovated bold new styles that freed us to see the world in new ways. The notion of representational art — painting things the way they look — that had guided Europe for centuries was breaking up.

[102] Expressionism is the general term for art that captured the angst of the early 20th century. Often exploring isolation…and loneliness…its focus was on the emotional experience rather than the physical reality.

[103] When it finally ended in 1918, WWI left Europe demoralized and disillusioned. Artists — many of whom fought in the trenches — captured the horror.

[104] Expressionists expressed their trauma and cynicism with distorted scenes, haunted eyes, thick paint…simple figures with garish colors. They depicted the anguish of a world that had lost its bearings.

[106] Artists known as Surrealists explored the subconscious…deep urges, dark fantasies, weird dreams. Painting landscapes of the mind…with collages of everyday images in jarring juxtapositions, they freed the viewer to connect the dots.

[111] Abstract artists simplify reality: A person becomes a face on a stick, a mountain a triangle. They are masters of leaving things out — letting us fill in the rest — until the three-dimensional world becomes a two-dimensional pattern of colors, lines, and shapes…patterns that evoke the inner world we all feel — the world of emotions, ideas, and pure beauty.

[123, Tate Gallery of Modern Art, London; Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain; ARoS Art Museum, Arhus; and others] Artists — with increasing American influence — were blazing new frontiers in expression. No longer limited to conventional canvases and statues, they worked with non-traditional materials. They traded paint brushes for blow torches. Art played with the eye…it was interactive…and engaged all the senses. Light became art…and so did cartoons. Pop art became high art. Flowers became puppies…little boys became big boys. It was experimental, it was experiential, and it was fun.