There can be a lot to take in when it comes to learning about art. Just getting your tongue around all the ‘isms’ can be hard enough, never mind understanding what the differences between the movements actually are!
Never fear though, we are on hand to introduce and clarify some of the major art movements of the last century or so. Below you will be guided through the essentials in alphabetical order. Thousands of books have been written and libraries are filled with histories of art, so if you would like to delve a little deeper, why not take yourself off to your local library, or you can investigate our suggestions for further reading at the bottom of this page.
Abstraction and Abstract Art
Abstract art was largely a result of artists’ increasing interest in the formal aspects of art (such as colour theory) and the creative process, placing emphasis on personal expression. Representational forms, such as figures or landscapes, are often exaggerated, distorted or simplified until they become virtually unrecognisable. The intention of abstraction is to strengthen the power of the image.
Artists: Barbara Hepworth, Vassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson
Image: Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 28 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2013
This movement originated in America in the 1940s, becoming popular in the 1950s. The key interests of the Abstract Expressionists were freedom of expression and exploring the subconscious. Many artists associated with this movement worked quickly and applied paint in unconventional ways such as pouring or splattering paint directly onto the surface, allowing chance and accident to play a significant role in the creation. Some also began experimenting with modern materials and industrial and domestic paints.
Artists: Willem De Kooning, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko
Jackson Pollock, Number 33 © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2013
Conceptual art, as its names implies, is primarily concerned with conveying an idea or concept behind a work, rather than the creation of a traditional art object (such as painting, print, or sculpture). The term first came into use in the 1960s, but is usually associated with artists of the 1970s. However, artists have been making work which is now regarded as conceptual since the beginning of the 20th century, perhaps the first being Marcel Duchamp’s infamous urinal piece made in 1917. In many examples of conceptual art, the art object can be replaced by a description of it or by a set of instructions for its construction, and the actual physical involvement of the artist can often be quite minimal.
In the 1990s conceptual art enjoyed a resurgence and has been linked to the origins of the Young British Artists (YBAs), largely consisting of graduates from Goldsmiths College under the guidance of conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin. Because Conceptual Art is often dependent upon the discourse surrounding the work, it is strongly related to other movements of the last century, such as Cubism, Dada, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.
Artists: Marcel Broodthaers, Jenny Holtzer, Sarah Lucas, Tracy Emin, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst
Image: Tracy Emin, My Bed © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2013
This somewhat ambiguous term usually refers to work created after 1945. Some define contemporary art as work made within the last 30 years (Christie’s auction house uses 1970 as the cut-off point for their contemporary auctions, while Sotheby’s and Phillips maintain the more conventional 1945 date).
The Affordable Art Fair’s definition of ‘Contemporary Art’ is work produced by artists who are still living.
Figurative / Figuration / Representational
The term figurative is now used as the opposite of abstract or conceptual, and extends to anything that depicts a subject taken from life, be it a landscape, objects (a still life) or the human figure. Figuration is often used to describe naturalistic or lifelike elements in otherwise abstract or non-figurative work. Representational art depicts objects, places, or scenes that are easily recognisable, but not necessarily accurate, lifelike (figurative) depictions.
Figurative Artists: Michelangelo Representational Artists: Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque
Image: Pablo Picasso, Still Life With Guitar © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2013
Installation art is often made for a particular event or space. It is usually referred to as being site-specific and is designed to transform the perception of a space. Although some installations can be re-installed elsewhere or re-made at different venues, they are rarely permanent and may only exist as a documentation of its finished state. Much installation art is considered conceptual and it is a popular art form for alternative spaces rather than galleries.
Artists: Christo, David Mach, Antony Gormley
Image: Antony Gormley, Angel of the North
Modernism and Modern Art
Modernism and the period referred to as the ‘modernist’ age relates to art and literature from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. It also includes artists who forged artistic movements such as Fauvism, Cubism and Surrealism. Art at this point made a radical break with the past, deliberately departing from traditional materials and techniques. Whilst modernist ideas are still used widely in contemporary art and design, the movement fell out of fashion in the post war period. It should not therefore be confused with contemporary art.
Artists: Alberto Giacometti, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne
Main image: Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night
Pop Art largely explores popular mass culture and the products of consumerism and capitalism. Its message is not always certain, and could be critiquing or celebrating its subject. Largely associated with American culture, it actually began in England in the late 1950s, helped substantially by the focus brought on Britain by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. By appropriating the materials, styles and imagery of mass media – advertising, billboards, screen-printing, commercial packaging and design – pop-artists encouraged their audience to question the imagery used to advertise everyday products, and at the same time challenged the elitism of previous art movements.
Artists: Peter Blake, David Hockney, Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein
Image: Andy Warhol, Marilyn, 1967 © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London 2013
Post-modernism is the recognition that we have gone as far as we can from traditional values in the name of innovation. Therefore nothing can be considered wholly original because everything refers to what has gone before it. This is now part of our everyday ‘Cultural Liberalism’ in which no creative output can categorically be said to be better or worse than any other. Value is given to something according to what it refers to, hence the current fashion for retro culture and revivals of former styles.
Artists: David Salle, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Gavin Turk
Image: Gavin Turk, Pop Diptych, 2011. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Gavin Turk / Live Stock Market
Suggested further reading
While we may not have read everything on this list ourselves, we have it on good authority that they are all worthwhile and informative reads!
The Story of Art, E.H Gombrich
The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes
This is Modern Art, Matthew Collings
Theories of Modern Art, Herschel B Chipp
Art in Theory: 1900 – 2000, An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Harrison and Wood