8 Art Movements Explained ...

I enjoy art but my taste is somewhat limited and my knowledge of art movements even more so. Like everything else in the 21st century, there’s very little that is truly new and original in conception (although fantastically different in execution), but when people talk about the fashion of the '50s, or music of the '80s coming back in style, we understand generally what that means. When it comes to art movements and their revivals, or just in general, us lay art lovers are probably much less well informed. If you, like me, want to understand a little more about some of the popular art movements, please do read on.

1. Impressionism

This is probably one of the art movements that is easiest to understand because the very name conveys what it is all about. It caused quite a stir in late 19th century Paris where the likes of Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Manet and Degas started producing paintings where the ‘impression’ was achieved through the use of color and light. Painting from nature, the artists captured how atmospheres and looks changed as the light changed throughout the day. (It’s why Monet would produce more than 100 views of the same object – all different!) For purists who were used to distinct lines and colors, the first Impressionist paintings were an abhorrence and lacked the formal skill of an artist. Today however, the Impressionist works are among some of the most popular, most collected and most expensive.

2. Art Deco

If you like strong lines, precious metals and black and white, you will probably be familiar with Art Deco. You can see examples of Art Deco in many familiar buildings such as New York’s Chrysler Building, the Grand Theater in Shanghai, and many examples in Miami. You’ll find some excellent Art Deco furniture at Radio City Music Hall in New York, and many hotel rest rooms around the world adopt the bold, zig-zag and geometric black and white Art Deco stylings for their rest rooms and bathrooms. Art Deco is odd in some ways because it’s one of the few movements in art that wasn’t really showcased in paintings but in design, architecture and sculpture.

3. Pop Art

Pop Art is actually a form of another of the art movements – representational art. Representational art is essentially the creation of something that people will recognize. It doesn’t have to be a replica but must generate familiarity. So for example, you could see a street scene and know immediately it represented New York, even if the street doesn’t actually exist in reality. Pop Art took this further by taking everyday objects and representing them in unfamiliar ways and colors. Major proponents of Pop Art were Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

4. Surrealism

If you love the juxtaposition of the ordinary and fantastical, you are probably familiar with the weird and wonderful creations of surrealist artists like Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Rene Magritte. It’s quite hard to put into words what surrealism actually means because it is a form of expressionism quite like no other. The bizarre, strange, dreamlike, imagination-fueled works are thought-provoking and, some would say, slightly disturbing. This avant garde art movement of the 20th century certainly promotes the creative spirit of the unconscious mind.

5. Neoclassicism

Europe had been overrun in the 16th and 17th century by the Baroque and Rococo art movements, both of which produced very ornate, embellished and often grandiose creations. Gold leaf and gilding was a major feature and huge portraits were a big fashion statement in the over-fussy houses of the time. Neoclassicism was basically the 18th century reaction to all this excess and showiness, with artists returning to the simple lines, forms and favored subject matters of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

6. Futurism

Many art movements began in France but this is one that began in Italy. In the early 20th century, as we really started to enter the machine age, artists sought to glorify the wonders of the movement by capturing figures and machines in motion. Futurism is the affirmation of the beauty of technology in society. It is one of the lesser known movements in art without household names because it was a particular phenomenon in Italy, although there were parallel movements in Russia and England. Despite this relative anonymity, it paved the way for the future movements of Art Deco, Dada, and Surrealism.

7. Genre

I found it very interesting to learn that Genre, when applied to art movements, is not a general term. So for example, to say a painting belongs to the surrealism genre is actually incorrect – on two counts. Although generally genre means type, in art, it is applied to works that depict every day scenes without any idealization – very far removed from how surrealist works can be described. Many of the Old Masters and English School are Genre paintings.

8. Modern Art

I deliberately left this one until last. Of all the movements in art I would say this one is the most confusing. For those who don’t know, the term doesn’t mean whatever is current, despite the name. It actually applies to art from the 1860s to the 1970s. It earned its name from the major changes that were happening in the world in the mid 19th century onwards – major industrial, technological and social changes. And why it is confusing is because, many of the art movements I’ve already explained fall into this period. So if Modern Art doesn’t mean today’s art, what does our current stuff fall into? Because these days absolutely anything goes, and there are pockets of small art movements – some revivalist, some new – you can’t go wrong if you call it Contemporary Art.

I hope you feel a little more educated about art movements now - I do. The great thing about art though, is you don’t actually need to know anything about it to enjoy it. It’s a very personal thing and what appeals to one of us may leave another cold. Do you have any emotional connections to a style, particular artist or painting?