Modern and Postmodern Art

Two umbrella art movements which sat alongside the modern and postmodern eras of society.


What’s the difference between Modern and Postmodern? Hell, what’s the difference between modern and Modern? (By now I’ve already said the word modern so many times, it’s starting to sound strange, so let’s cut to the chase.)

First things first, it’s important to know that modern (and modernity) and postmodern (and postmodernity) refer to the time periods or eras of society as a whole. These encompass all aspects of society, including politics, sociology, religion, business, law, philosophy etc. as well as art.

Modern and Postmodern (note the capital letters) on the other hand, are the art movements that existed in parallel to these time periods. In fact, these are both umbrella movements, meaning that many different art movements or styles are encompassed within Modern or Postmodern art.

History of Modernism:

Beginning in the 1850s, Modernism became widespread by the first half of the 1900’s. It was a particularly Western movement brought about by rapid social change, industrialisation and advances in science and the social sciences. New ideas in psychology, philosophy, and political theory sparked a search for new modes of expression which manifested themselves in forms such as art. Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Suprematism, Constructivism, De Stijl, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism are all movements that have contributed to the overall Modern art movement.

Although encompassing many different movements in itself, various underlying principles define Modern Art.

  1. A deliberate rejection of the conservative values and traditional art of the past and an emphasis instead on innovation and experimentation in forms, materials and techniques.
  • Elitist authorities, such as the Art Academies had been the arbiters and decision-makers when it came to deciding what could be classed as art.  Instead, Modern artists wanted escape these shackles and embrace the spirit of innovation and experimentation that pervaded modern life. In order to capture the essence of modernity, they tested out new forms, materials and techniques and created new artistic styles, genres, methods and subject matters. There was an emphasis on materials, techniques and processes - the means as well as the end.

A desire to represent the utopian ideals of modernity.

  • Rather than seeking to represent reality, Modern art aimed to represent universal truths through the most pure form (using shape, colour and lines). These universal principles were thought to stem from religion or science and could explain a reality that is general, all-embracing and non-specific. Because artists aimed to represent a reality that was non-specific, they entered into abstraction, which does not represent any living thing or being or its individualities.

Modern Art became more and more refined across the first half of the 20th century, championed by influential critics such as Clément Greenberg, until it reached its peak as the dominant art form in Western society. By that point it had ironically become quite exclusive and narrow minded as a movement. This led to a backlash in the artistic community, who then began producing a new kind of work - what is now known as ‘Postmodernism’.

History of Postmodernism:

In the late 1960’s the huge breakdown of rigid social, political and family structures paved the way for postmodern thought, and with it Postmodern art. In contrast to modernism, postmodernism rejected notions of utopia and idealism. It challenged the idea of universal truths in favour of individual experience and interpretation of the world. Rather than seeking to represent a reality that was non-specific to any individual, postmodernity was highly specific and aimed to give voice to peoples varying perspectives. It embraces complexity, confrontation and dispute in order to foster platforms of communication and negotiation.

Postmodern art is often described as beginning with pop art in the 1960s and encompassing all that followed including conceptual art, neo-expressionism, feminist art, and the Young British Artists of the 1990s. However, as an art movement in itself, Postmodernism to some extent defies definition.

It embraces many different approaches to art making including painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, performance, installation, mixed media, new media and digital art. There is no single style or theory on which it is hinged. It deliberately aims to breakdown the boundaries between high and low art, high culture and mass or popular culture. Freedom is paramount and artwork may contain different artistic and popular styles and media, consciously borrowing from or ironically commenting on a range of styles from the past. Postmodern art often uses irony, satire, parody, controversy and humour to create works that are highly critical, self-aware and often push the boundaries of taste and ethics.

Examples of Modern Art:

Claude Monet (1840-1926)  London, Houses of Parliament. The Sun Shining through the Fog


Claude Monet (1840-1926) - London, Houses of Parliament. The Sun Shining through the Fog, 1904
Oil on canvas - 81 x 92 cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris/FR - Bequest of Count Isaac de Camondo, 1911
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

André Derain  Charing Cross Bridge, London


André Derain - Charing Cross Bridge, London, 1906
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC - John Hay Whitney Collection

Pablo Picasso  Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier)


Pablo Picasso - Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier) - Paris, late spring 1910
Oil on canvas - 100.3 x 73.6 cm; 39 1/2 x 29"
Museum of Modern Art, New York NY - Nelson A. Rockefeller Bequest
© 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Kazmir Malevich  Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying


Kazmir Malevich
Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying, 1915 (dated on reverse 1914) 
Oil on canvas - 58.1 x 48.3 cm; 22 7/8 x 19"
Museum of Modern Art, New York NY
1935 Acquisition confirmed in 1999 by agreement with the Estate of Kazimir Malevich and made possible with funds from the Mrs. John Hay Whitney Bequest (by exchange)

Naum Gabo (1890-1977)  Linear Construction No. 2


Naum Gabo (1890-1977) - Linear Construction No. 2, 1970-1971
Plastic and nylon threads - 113.0 x 60.0 x 59.0 cm
Tate, London/UK
Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1969

Piet Mondrian  Komposition mit Rot, Blau und Gelb (Composition in Red, Blue and Yellow)

De Stijl

Piet Mondrian - Komposition mit Rot, Blau und Gelb (Composition in Red, Blue and Yellow), 1930
Oil on canvas - 45 x 45 cm
Kunsthaus Zurich, Zurich/CH - Donated by Alfred Roth, 1987

Hannah Hoch  Dada-Rundschau (Dada-Review)


Hannah HochDada-Rundschau (Dada-Review), 1919
Collage - 43.7 cm × 34.6 cm (17.2 in × 13.6 in)
Berlinische Galerie, Berlin/DE

Yves Tanguy - Divisibilité indéfinie (indefinite Divisibility), 1942


Yves Tanguy - Divisibilité indéfinie (indefinite Divisibility), 1942
Oil on canvas - 101.6 x 89 cm; 40 x 35 inches
Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo NY

Jackson Pollock - Mural, 1943

Abstract Expressionism

Jackson Pollock - Mural, 1943
Oil and casein on canvas - 242.9 x 603.9 cm; 95 5/8 x 237 3/4 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Gift of Peggy Guggenheim, 1959

Eva Hesse - Accession II, 1968-1969


Eva Hesse - Accession II, 1968-1969
30.75 x 30.75 x 30.75 in.
Collection of Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit MI

Examples of Postmodern Art

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) - In the Car, 1963

Pop Art

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) - In the Car, 1963
Oil and magna on canvas 172.00 x 203.50 cm
National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh/UK Purchased 1980
© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2017


Conceptual Art

Joseph Kosuth (b. 1945) - In One and Three Chairs, 1965
Wood folding chair, mounted photograph of a chair, and mounted photographic enlargement of the dictionary definition of "chair"
Chair - 82 x 37.8 x 53 cm; photographic panel - 91.5 x 61.1 cm; text panel - 61 x 76.2 cm; 
Museum of Modern Art, New York NY

Jean-Michel Basquiat - Untitled (Fallen Angel), 1981


Jean-Michel Basquiat - Untitled (Fallen Angel), 1981
© Copyright 2016 The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Barbara Kruger Mobile Banner

Feminist Art

Barbara Kruger - Belief + Doubt, 2012
Permanent Installation
Hirschorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC


YBA (Young British Artists)

Damien Hirst - The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991
Glass, painted steel, silicone, monofilament, shark and formaldehyde solution - 2170 x 5420 x 1800 mm 
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York NYImage: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012


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