modernist art

late impressionism through surrealism

key concepts of modern art


people, terms, and concepts: naturalism, chiaroscuro, linear perspective, orthogonal line, vanishing point, local color, realism, expression, social agency, formalism

The expectations that most viewers of the late-nineteenth century (and many today) took with them to art galleries should be kept in mind as background to the Modernist art we will be looking at for the first exam especially.  These expectations included the following conventions:

• that art should be naturalistic in style; that is, that it should fairly closely imitate the appearance of the visible world;

• that the space of the work should be clearly developed through the use of linear perspective, in which the orthogonal lines in the work converge toward one or two vanishing points on the horizon;

• that the mass of objects and the direction and intensity of the light illuminating the scene should be clearly shown through the use of chiaroscuro (modeling in light and shade);

• that the colors used should be based on the local color of the object (the color that the object actually is);

• that the brushwork or ‘facture’ should be blended and made invisible, rather than left “painterly” and visible; and

• that the works should at best entail some instructive message that will improve the viewer’s mind or moral values; or at least that the work should not violate conventional moral and social values.

All of these conventions are clearly demonstrated in the Couture below; and all of these conventions (and more) are challenged by the various movements of Modernism. Some mid-nineteenth century "precursors" of Modernism introduce four basic reasons for violating the above conventions:

realism -- the notion that the purpose of art is to be true to objective reality. Although much Modern art looks "unrealistic," some Modernist artists and critics argued that the conventions above are just that: artificial conventions, which must be broken in order to be more true to reality. How can the innovations evident in the Courbet and even the Turner below be justified as "more realistic" than the Couture?

expression -- the notion that the purpose of art is to capture and convey a subjective, emotional feeling. For some Modernists, the artist has to depart from the facts or actual appearances of events in order to more powerfully move their viewers' emotions. How can innovations in the Turner below be justified as being "more expressive" than a conventional Academic-style representation of a storm at sea?

social agency -- the question of how art affects viewers' attitudes and behavior:  how it improves or corrupts their moral values; confirms or questions their commonly-held beliefs; reinforces or erodes the authority of their leaders, and so forth.  The social agency of traditional (Academic) art was to support the status quo and the ruling elite; the social agency of Modernist art was increasingly to criticize, question, and attempt to alter the status quo.  How is the Couture below highly conventional and socially acceptable in terms of social agency? How is the Manet more radical in that regard?

formalism -- the notion that the essence of art is in its inherent aesthetic (sensory) qualities: painting should be about colors and shapes on a flat surface; sculpture should be about three-dimensional forms in space, and so forth. This is perhaps the most unfamiliar concept we will be working with this semester, and we'll clarify it a lot more, but Whistler is a good example of a formalist inasmuch as he insisted that the purpose of his works was not to be realistic representations of the things he depicted, but instead just beautiful formal "harmonies" of color.

We'll be working with all of these concepts throughout the semester, so be sure you have a good grasp of them.

Thomas Couture, Romans of the Decadence, French Academic, 1847

J. M. W. Turner, The Slave Ship, British Romanticism, 1840

Gustave Courbet, Funeral at Ornans, French Realism, 1849-50

Manet, Luncheon on the Grass, (no particular movement), 1863