Art History 2: Midterm Paper

Art: Modernism into Postmodernism

Since the introduction art into human society it has spent quite an extended period of time being used as a representational format by people for various expressional views of human life, love, history, and religion. And as everything in the world progresses so to does art. From the tools and mediums to the processes and techniques, almost every artist moved art ever forward along its path into the future. But art always seems to come to a point where an artist feels that what they attempt has either been done before, in terms of representation or technique, or that it is not actually progressing art in a way that they find meaningful to themselves or to others: even if it means taking new and dangerous risks in their art and careers. Movements such as: Futurism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, and Pop Art are examples of such a thought process. However, I feel that it was the movement of Modernism that really speaks to that form of thought.

Modernism is an artistic movement that spans the timeframe of the end of the First World War and some time in the 1970s (1). It was a movement that rejected the ideas and way of thought held by the artists of the Enlightenment and Realism and felt that many, if not all, traditional forms of thought in the fields of art, religion, writing, science, philosophy, and architecture were becoming outdated in the newly industrialized and modern world. The majority of modern artists even denounced their own religions as obsolete (2). At its core the idea of Modernism is that it was art for the sake of making art. Not art for the sake of the audience or viewer. Modernist art makes use of older works of art in ways that reprise, rewrite, revision, and parody the older works in ways that re-examine every aspect of existence. Modernist artists seek to use their art as a way to figure out what exactly is taking the forward progress of modern society and replacing it with new ways of action and thought that always arrive at the same conclusion, and therefore hold the progression of society and art back.

And in this way of thinking, Pablo Picasso, from my point of view, is the most recognizable and one of the most influential artists of that time time and movement in art. Picasso, with the help of fellow artist Georges Braque, helped in starting and popularizing the Cubist movement (3): a movement highly regarded as one of the most influential art movement of the 20th century (4). In Cubism the artist analyzes an object, either living or non-living, and then breaks the object’s form apart in to various geometric pieces and re-arranges them into an abstract form. Generally this newly arrangement shows the previous object from more than one viewpoint at a time, further abstracting it while also giving the viewer more context on the object (5). Picasso felt that with this new method of thought, Cubism, he could bring the aspect of the third dimension from sculptures on to the canvas and into paintings.

This idea and the use of abstracted re-representation of objects were pulled from the Cubist movement and incorporated into future art movements like Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism. These examples, as I see them, all seem to diverge off into a new path for art from a baseline created by the movement of Classical art.

The Classical art movement – primarily during the periods of antiquity in Greece and Rome, and the Age of Enlightenment – is the period of time within the history of art where it used as a format for accurate expression and representation for historical events, ideas, and religion. And it is what most of humanity seems to refer to as the pinnacle of all art forms. This was a time where artists would paint even the smallest, most insignificant information in a scene as a display of their skills as an artist and as a challenge to other artists. It is an art movement that sought to be formal and restrained in execution (6). An example of such an artist would be French artist Jacques-Louis David, the painter the famous work Oath of the Horatii.

Neoclassicism, the art movement of Age of Enlightenment, was the time in which David produced his works. David is noted for his branding of historical painting, which was a serious change of pace from the amount Rococo paintings still being produced at the time and was something that all art enthusiasts could support: as Rococo art was art that was made for and sold to only the aristocracy of the time (7). His work was part of what helped bring art into the Enlightenment and out of the cheap production of Rococo art and was a huge influence to the movement of 19th century art.

This was, in a way, similar to that of what Picasso had done with his introduction of Cubism into the world. David had created is paintings in a way that challenged the old rigidity and conformity of the French Academy’s approach to art (8). With this he was attempting to change his approach to how his art was done: similarly with Picasso. He had taken this experimental step in his artistic process to push his art. And in that both artists had seemingly set up new situations that started to pave a brand new a path for new artists to follow, explore, and expand on.

However, with the creation of this new path by Picasso in Modernism, where ideas from previous art movements had been totally rejected and thrown aside, there gave rise to artists who then would reject the ideas of Modernism. It’s a sort of extended rejection of artistic thinking that also still expanded artistic thought while keeping the progression of art: Postmodernism. But, Postmodernism wasn’t just the rejection of Modernist ideas it was also the effect of Modernism: without the introduction of Modernist thinking there might not have even been a Postmodernist movement at all.

The main goal of Modernism can be summed up as making art for art’s sake. It was artists making art for the progression of art and to always be something that was cutting edge: avant-garde. However, Postmodernism rejects this notion and essentially states that as soon as something new is made anything before it is no longer the newest thing. The previous work is no longer avant-garde because of the new work, which is now avant-garde itself. The Postmodern movement sees this as a paradox and essentially a wasted effort and that the new future for art is post-progress (9).

With the goal of Postmodernism in mind, Yves Klein was an important figure in the Postmodern movement with his use of the Nouveau Réalisme, or New Realism, brought more of a satirical standpoint to his art. On such image being his composite photo Leap into the Void. This specific photo that depicts a man jumping from a building as if he has no care in the world and is yet only a few feet from the street below him. The image specifically poked fun at the Modernist thought of essentially taking blind leaps into the unknown for the sake of furthering their art. Yves Klein thought the actions that Modernists took to continuously reach the avant-garde with their work as foolish because he, as with most other Postmodernists, viewed this as always leading to a dead end for art. The leaping man represents a Modernist artist and the close ground shows the inevitable failure of the attempted progression.

While having different points of view on what can and does actually progress art, both Modernism and Postmodernism – and even Classicism – have, more or less, very similar intentions. They all wish to continue to push forward the progress of art for future generations of artists, and for art to always be at the front of what defines society. Time always moves forward and with the influence of many risk-taking artists through the course of history so will art. Artists will always come to the point where the feel they must take new action for the progression of their art and for art as a whole. An artist may use new techniques for paint application, or entirely new mediums for their art to rest upon to achieve this.

It doesn’t seem to matter what day, month, year, or century it happens: art always seems to evolve and progress with each new movement. Even when a movement is revisited by a new generation, or if there are movements that conflict with each other about which direction is the correct direction to move art into there is always a progression made. I feel that there is no one correct artistic direction to take into the future, but instead that there are many branching paths that lead to new ideas for art. And while some may reach “dead ends” there always seems to be an influenced artist that takes it in a new direction.


1. “What is Modernism?” National Trust for Historic Preservation. Mar. 6, 2016)

2. Pericles Lewis, “Modernism, Nationalism, and the Novel”, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

3. Christopher Green, MoMA collection Cubism, Origins and application of the term, from Grove Art Online, Oxford University Press, 2009

4. Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2014

5. Jean Metzinger, Note sur la peinture, Paris, November 1910

6. Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form1956:242

7. Matthew Collings. “Feelings”. This Is Civilisation. Season 1. Episode 2. 2007.

8. Roberts, Warren. Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist. pg. 14.

9. Rosalind E. Krauss, “The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths.” The MIT Press. July 9, 1986

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