Brush Up On…ART HISTORY

Degas(Impressionism)

It’s taken me AGES to pull this one together because it’s so far from my usual field of thought. But it is fascinating. I love how the art movements through history inform and are informed by the events of the day. And I love that I am suddenly keen to visit a gallery and have a better look.

I heard that it’s just over 100 years since the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre – by an Italian Handyman who hid overnight in a closet and slipped out to remove the painting and exit the museum, to be found 2 years later in Florence, still with the Old Girl in hand. Anyway, it got me thinking that I have absolutely no friggin’ idea of what’s what in the art world. With the opening of MONA in Hobart last year, it’s just not cool any more not to know your cubists from your whatever-ists. So here’s a quick, lo-gloss brush up of the recent(ish), best known art movements we would all do well to know. In chronological order:

Romanticism (1780-1850) Ooh I love this one. Romanticism was something of a revolt against growing industrialism and the social rules and conventions of the time, including increasingly scientific perspectives on life and nature. It highlighted the importance of emotion and imagination as a source of aesthetic experience. Caspar (see image below), Friedrich, Gericault, Delacroix, Turner and Benjamin West are all artists of the romanticism movement.

The Song of the Lark (Realism)


Realism (1848 – 1900) This seems to me like the boring, text-book artists looked snootily down their noses and my romantics and said, Oh for goodness sake you fey dickheads, this is how it’s done, this is the Real World. Realists depicted their – usually working class/peasant – subjects without embellishment, ideology or interpretation. They are actually rather lovely and seem to bring out the beauty of everyday things. Corot, Courbet, Millet and Daumier were all Realist artists. Our girl Mona Lisa is an example of Classical Realism. (I have just had my first true study of the painting and come to the conclusion that Da Vinci’s subject Lisa Gherardini would have been horrified to see her eyebrows and eyelashes rubbed off by cleaners and how flat her hair is.)

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog – Caspar Friederich (Romanticism)

Impressionism (1860-ish – 1900) A group of Parisian painters took painting outdoors, focussing on the transient nature of colour and light and it’s various forms according to time of day. They highlighted the importance of movement and colour in daily lives, as opposed to the static portraiture and muted tones of previous artistic fashions. They captured moments in real time with short brush-strokes of often bright colours. In close aspect the paintings can appear messy and unclear, but from a distance the subject is clear and real. Impressionist works are popular because they usually depict nice happy things. Think Monet, Renoir, Degas and Pissarro. Those ballerinas are my favourite, by Edgar Degas.

Post-Impressionism (1885 – 1910)  These guys poo-poo’d the whole light and movement focus of the Impressionists and pursued individual styles to express emotion. They tended toward abstract and used simple, bright colours and sharp lines to convey deeper symbolism beyond what we see. Seurat, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne are recognised as Post-Impressionists, though they didn’t see themselves as part of a collective movement.

And this – at the dawning of the twentieth century – is when the Modernist Movement began. Modernism includes Expressionism, Surrealism, Abstract Impressionism, Pop Art and Minimalism…

The Scream, Edvard Munch

Expressionism (1900 – 1935) Exaggeration and distortion are used to convey emotion in these babies. They typically show agitated brush strokes and bold colours to depict fantasy, horror or other extremes of subjective emotion. So no boring old bowls of fruit, rather there are personal, thoughtful and often bizarre scenes. These are the ones that beg for art-wank – like, “hmm, a clear expression of the chaotic humdrum of human synapses and grotesque visions…” or something. Expressionist artists are – amongst others – Max Beckman, Otto Dix (tee hee), Lionel Feininger and Emil Nolde. Many of these blokes were inspired by Edvard Munch’s famous painting, “The Scream”. Munch is a funny surname. There is nothing funny about his painting though.

Portrait of Picasso by Juan Gris (Cubism)

Cubism / Futurism (1905 – 1920) Cubism came first. It was set in motion by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who tried to create new ways of seeing things by using basic geometric shapes to construct people, objects or landscapes. It is said they were trying to create images we try to visualise with our mind’s eye – fragments of them as opposed to the whole. Picasso said he was inspired by Cezanne, who was the first to look at the basic shapes in nature. Futurists took this all a little further. These Italian hooligans were inspired by speed, technology and violence (I think have a 5 year old futurist). Their techniques went beyond cubism and heralded the triumph of technology over nature. Triumph seems like the wrong word these days. Key futurists include Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni and Caro Carra. Key words that pop into my head when I look at a futurist/cubist work – ‘fucking’ and ‘ugly’. Put the two together.

Surrealism (1920s – 1930s) was both a literary and artistic movement which was dedicated to expressing imagination as if through dreams, liberated from conscious control. It was greatly influenced by theories of perception, in particular those of that weirdo genius

Dali’s Galatee aux Spheres

Sigmund Freud with his model of subconsciousness. In fact the whole movement seems a bit weirdo to me, but I guess seeing the beauty in incongruous stuff – like the “chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table” has its place in the creative world. Salvador Dali is probably the most famous of the surrealist artists. He was inspired by – among other things – paranoia and atomic bombs.

Jackson Pollock (Abstract Expressionism)

Abstract Expressionism (post world war II)U Ah these are the dudes who indulge their art by chucking a bit of paint at a canvas. Hmm, reminds me of the big dragonfly on the carpet ad (“Oh Mr Hart, what a mess!”). But that dragonfly was way too lucid for these fellas. This was the first artistic movement to arise out of the US, which meant the Arty capital of the world moved from Paris to New York. The style has a reputation for being rebellious, idiosyncratic and to some degree, nihilistic (the idea that human existence is pointless – jeepers no wonder I don’t feel inclined to hang one of these babies on my wall). Jackson Pollock worked in a abstract expressionist style, so

did Arshile Gorky and other tortured, angsty people. These are the ones you stand before, put hand to chin and utter, “It speaks to me, I see the clash of emotion and the torture of Swahili warrior women in the days of war. And look! There’s a child’s last breath and a pear.” Sorry, shouldn’t take the piss, it’s clearly genius.

Andy Warhol (Pop Art)

Pop Art (mid 1950’s) This movement perhaps marks the beginning of when advertising began to take over the Western world (my theory anyhoo), Pop Art began to include imagery from mainstream culture including advertising, cartoons, comics and news. It was an elaboration (clarification I reckon) of the ideas behind Abstract Expressionism. It used banal, found material, often kitch, to make ironic statements with striking results. It made the simple Cambell’s soup label cool and attractive and gave us Marilyn in vivid colour. Iconic is the word here. Think Andy Warhol.

Minimalism (1960’s, 1970’s) Rooted in the reductive style of Modernism, and reacting to the mess of

Robert Ryman (Minimalism) 

Abstract Expressionism, minimalism goes off in the other direction and sets out to expose the essence, essentials or identity of a subject through eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts. Raw, stripped down, flat, geometric, structured, bare, bland, cold and boring are words that could be associated to minimalist works. Minimalism (like many of the art movements) has leached into other art fields such as architecture, interior design, literature (begone you pesky adjective) and even music (drones are one example). Well known Minimalist artists include Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, Robert Ryman and Al Held.

Deconstructivism Architecture

Postmodernism and Deconstructivism (1970– ) Postmodernism – of which Deconstructivism is an example, is most often associated with architecture and in smaller ways art, literature and philosophy. But there’s a whole new post in that so I’ll stick with visual art. Deconstructivism has been influenced by minimalism and cubism, Like minimalism it is seen to be disconnected from cultural references, like cubism, it deconstructs subjects and reassembles them in differing forms. The movement was famously brought to a head by the 1988 Museum of Modern Art (NY) exhibition, Deconstructionist Architecture. Weird, monstrous, ugly and Federation Square are words I would associate with deconstructivism. And hulky but I made that one up. The movement is steadily moving under the influence of computer generated design.

In Conclusion: I am old fashioned, outdated and dislike progress, especially if every artistic bugger takes us further from the grand old days of Romanticism. When I look at the artistic “progress” of late  – and clearly this comes from a background of absolutely no technical arty know-how or appreciation (though I am in awe of how the hell those deconstructed buildings stay standing) – I can only ask, “What the hell next?”

My Contemporary Favourites And this is not a blatant plug but a genuine love for these works that have come to my limited attention recently. Thank goodness not everyone is chucking paint willy-nilly, dissecting stuff and assuming that life is pointless.

Underwater 18 by Martine Emdur (Yep Larry’s sister)

Procession by Crispin Akerman

Backstage by Angus Douglas

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Categories: Brainwork, Nerdy Bits

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2 replies

  1. I have to agree, especially the about the cubists…*giggles*
    very nice run through

    The realists… one of the best was Bouguereau – he was the first to open his art school to women
    the impressionists…
    Degas – scoffed at working outside btw- and found some of the behavior or the impressionists a bit too much for his conservative upbringing

    sandwiched in with the post impressionists were the art nouveau crowd- they could be acknowledged as the first to use art as advertising
    could one for them is Toulouse Lautrec and his wonderful posters of the moulin rouge along with painting of the prostitues who worked there (in lesbian relationships) those were too much for his uncle’s sense of propriety- and most of them were burned. Mucha is anpther name in Art Nouveau

    • Thanks so much Amanda! This stuff is fascinating. Degas is by far my favourite but he sounds like he might have been a bit of a snob. Wish I could invite them all for dinner – imagine the debates. Thanks for the Art Nouveau insertion. I love those posters and even more so mow I know where the fit in.

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