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Discovering the 20th Century through 20 artistic movements

The 20th Century was characterized, in terms of art, by the large amount of artistic movements that arose during those years. In addition, those movements and trends completely changed the concept of art that had been prevailing so far.

The 20th Century is varied, active and participative. There is only one thing in common: for the first time in history, art is no more exclusively aimed to the the elites and it begins to represent the tumultuous political and social scenarios that were being experienced at that time.

During that period, art was made to serve protests, both individual and collective, and became another means of expression, to stage the strong emotions that imbued the social mood of a period which, as you know, was marked by different changes.

Main artistic movements of the 20th Century, by years

In this respect, we could consider the below-mentioned movements in this art blog, as a revolution in the world of art, where the constant search for new ways of expression, most of them deeply influenced by a major break with the previous aesthetics, resulted in a total renewal of the concept of art and its limits.

Modernism (1900)

Around the turn of the Century (1890 -1910), a new renewing artistic trend arose in Europe: Modernism, also known as 1900 Style or Art Nouveau, since it had different names in each European country. However, it had a common feature in all of them: definitively break with the academic styles that were prevailing to date, and take advantage of technology and industry.

In architecture, Modernism advocated for decorative typologies that sought their sources of inspiration in nature. In Barcelona you will find the best examples of Spanish Modernism, with the works of architects Antoni Gaudí, Lluís Doménech i Muntaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch.

In painting, the Spanish Modernism was very diverse, both thematically and stylistically, showing Impressionist features (interest in light and atmosphere), Symbolist features (imitation of nature and dreamlike representations), and also features of the plastic tradition of the 19th Century: interest in portraits and landscapes. The most representative artists were Santiago Rusiñol, Ramón Casas and Isidre Nonell.

Fauvism (1905)

Born in 1905, Fauvism was a French artistic movement, exclusively focused on painting, since the use of colour in its purest state is its main feature.

Its name comes from the French word fauve, which in English means “beast”, and it defines this exacerbated, violent and strident use of colours on canvasses, completely breaking the traditional association with the represented object.

For Fauvists, the perspective or modelling of figures makes no sense, and they express their emotions and perceptions through colour and distorted lines, i.e., colour is more important than the mimetic copy of reality.

The most prominent representatives of Fauvism are Henri Mattisse, André Derain, Maurice Vlaminck and Raoul Dufy.

Cubism (1907)

This artistic movement was expressed specially in painting, and its main objective was to move away from the representation of nature, and to be able to capture simultaneously on a surface, an object seen from multiple angles.

The emergence of Cubism is directly linked to the work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso, circa 1907, and it reached its peak around 1914, although it continued being developed during the 1920s.

By rejecting the realistic representation followed since the Renaissance, Cubism marked a key change in art history, becoming the forerunner of artistic abstraction and subjectivity.

In short, Cubism was a revolution against traditional painting, since it rejected perspective and movement and highlighted lines, shapes, and used of cool, muted shades.

Futurism (1909)

Founded in Paris by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909, its main ideological purpose was to break with the past and exalt the power of technology, machines and modernity.

Some people identify Futurism as a version of Cubism. In Futurism, artists sought to obsessively reproduce the feeling of movement, change and transformation, all of them closely linked to the idea of progress. Machines were the greatest inspiration for futurist artists, who wanted to show action and frenzy to the world.

Its main representative was Humberto Boccioni.

Expressionism (1914)

Expressionism was an artistic movement that looked for the expression of the artist’s feelings and emotions. So we could say that more than a movement in itself, it was a way of understanding art.

Expressionist artists tried to represent emotions in their fullest expression, disregarding the external reality, but rather caring about their internal nature and the emotions they arouse within the observers, trying to reflect, in a vehement and critical —and sometimes cruel— way, the sociopolitical atmosphere that foreshadowed the coming of the First World War and its terrible consequences. To achieve that, subjects were exaggerated and distorted in order to strengthen the artistic communication.

Some of the most outstanding representatives of Expressionism are Edvard Munch, Vasili Kandinski, Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Franz Marc, Marc Chagall, among others.

Russian Constructivism (1914)

Constructivism was an artistic movement emerged in Russia in 1914, which clearly describes the power of artistic influence at the service of political interests.

To this end, artists created works (posters, photographs, illustrations) that they later made available to the Bolshevik revolutionary government as a transmitting means of propaganda.

Flat colours and the use of geometric and linear shapes were two of the most widely used features by Russian Art and its artists. Some of these outstanding artists are Aleksandr Ródchenko, Vladímir Tatlin and Liubov Popova.

Dada (1916)

Around 1916, a number of artists met in Zurich (Switzerland) to set up a new artistic movement that rejected the rational: Dada, a trend conceived as the anti-art, which offers freedom to artists, with no explanations or reasoning.

Its main figure is Marcel Duchamp, with his famous “ready made”, which consists of taking an everyday object and transforming it into a work of art by the magical will of the artist, i.e., it is an object of common use, to which a minimal intervention of the artist, whether a signature, a date, an appearance at an exhibition, but mainly a de-contextualization and re-contextualization, turn it into a work of art.

Bauhaus (1919)

Bauhaus is actually a German architecture school, established in 1919 by Walter Gropius, which had such a remarkable influence in modern art that nowadays is considered one more artistic trend.

Its architectural representations, also known as Rationalism or Functionalism, followed a common pattern, by promoting the collaborative work of technicians and artists, but mainly bearing in mind that aesthetics had to serve functionality, so its works lacked ornamentation.

Among its main representatives were Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.

Geometric abstraction (1920)

Abstraction is considered the largest ground-breaking movement in the 20th Century. Its pioneer was Wassily Kandisky, who around 1910, consciously abandoned figuration in order to influence the soul of spectators through the harmony of shapes and colours.

In the same spiritual line, we find Geometric Abstraction, led by Piet Mondrian, a movement that tried to simplify shapes as much as possible, until reaching its fundamental components, lines, cubes, planes and primary colours (red, blue and yellow) and neutral colours (black and white). This way, everything that could be considered superfluous (figures) was eliminated, in order to just the elemental prevailed (the structure).

Art Déco (1920)

Art Déco was a popular design movement from 1920 to 1939 (although its starting point was the Universal Exhibition of 1900 in Paris), which had a decisive influence on all decorative arts.

Art Déco lines are rough and terse, not sinuous. It has a clear preference for materials of industrial origin, such as steel or aluminium. Symmetry was an important element in representation, as well as geometric elements, specially visible in architectural elements.

In Spain, we can find many examples of Art Déco style, including those designed by the Valencian architect Francisco Javier Goerlich Lleó, such as the Martí Cortina building, the Luis Vives Residence Hall or the Roig Vives building.

Surrealism (1924)

Surrealism arose circa 1924 with the theoretical manifesto by André Breton. The artists who followed this movement stated that there had to exist a reality independent of the visible, where rational controls were totally annulled, giving rise to most of the images being psychic, subjective and dreamlike.

Within Surrealism, there are two different lines:

  • Surrealist abstract current: artists reproduce a universe of symbols, sometimes abstract, arising from the subconscious and haphazardly. Joan Miró was one of its main representatives.
  • Surrealist figurative current: artists recreate strange and disturbing associations, typical of the world of dreams, by following the traditional rules of figurative representation. Salvador Dalí and René Magritte were its main advocates.

Socialist Realism (1924)

Socialist Realism was an artistic current whose main purpose was to expand the class consciousness, the knowledge of social problems and the personal experiences of the agricultural or industrialized working class.

This movement was developed specially in the Soviet Union after the revolution, particularly during the governing of Joseph Stalin, although it was also an important part i Chinese art and, in general, in most socialist countries.

Through Socialist Realism, it was possible to extol the values of proletarian work, which had previously been considered despicable, and to turn it into something admirable.

Abstract Expressionism (1947)

Abstract Expressionism was an artistic movement that emerged circa 1947 in the United States, and its maximum expression was painting, which was usually oversized.

Here, figuration disappears again, although not radically, since sometimes we can find recognizable figures, but generally shapes are rejected and we find spots, textures, sands, drips… There are no hierarchies among represented elements, so the pictorial space is seen as a whole. The colour range is limited to the use of black and white and combinations of primary colours.

As in previous movements, abstract expressionism also developed according to two trends:

  • Action Painting: energetic and expressive. Its representatives are Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.
  • Colour Field Painting: more purely abstract, still and mystical, its main representative is Mark Rothko.

Pop Art (1950)

The name Popular Art was given by the English critic Lawrence, who used it to designate a movement that, from the mid 1950s to the early 1970s, developed simultaneously in London and New York.

Pop Art’s works have a strong figurative character, supported by the imagery of the consumer society and popular culture: advertisements, magazines, comics, newspapers, famous people and everyday consumer objects.

Its top representative is Andy Warhol, with his famous series of Campbell Soup cans, or Coca Cola bottles, as well as screen-printed portraits of famous people, such as Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley.

Op Art (1955)

Op Art —meaning Optical Art— is an optical art based on the creation of visual games and optical illusions, which give a sensation of movement and deceive the observer as they are looked at.

In this sense, emotional elements are completely outside the artist’s desire, who focuses on purely aesthetic aspects. Combination and repetition of geometric lines and figures, together with extravagant colours, give rise to unusual representations.

The Hungarian Victor Vasarely was one of the most prominent figures of this artistic trend.

Action Art (1960)

In the early 1960s, a number of artists removed the traditional art object, i.e. the easel or sculpture, and replace it with a creation of a happening in show format, halfway between theatre and arts.

Action art is just that, the name given to a set of techniques and styles that focus on creative acts, i.e., on the action performed by the artist to give rise to a work of art, a fact that also confers it an extremely ephemeral nature.

The Happening, the Body Art or the performance are expression forms of the Action art. In this kind of representations, the artist is part of the result of the work.

Fluxus (1962)

Fluxus is a movement of the visual arts, which had its most active moment between 60s and 70s in the 20th Century. It fought against the artistic conception as an object of consumption or merchandise, transforming it into an artistic movement of great sociological value and highly coveted in art auctions in Spain..

Within its works, this movement brought together different elements and materials from different environments, giving them a holistic meaning by combining them in artistic representation.

In short, Fluxus is a trend that seeks to incorporate art into society’s everyday life. There’s only a record of its actions, ephemeral in time, through videos or photographs taken during the act.


Minimalism (1965)

Minimalist Art is a trend within Contemporary art, emerged in the 1970s in the United States, which aims to the need to reduce the content to its purest essence, thus getting rid of any remaining element that does not add value to the work.

Minimalism seeks the greatest expressiveness with minimum resources, making a kind of criticism to the excess and overloading of certain artistic manifestations of that moment, particularly that of pop art.

This movement is very symbolic and has a high intellectual value, although at a production or manufacturing level it does not require a great talent.

Arte Povera (1967)

The term Arte Povera was coined in 1967 by the Italian critic Germano Celant, to refer to all those works of art characterized by having been made with poor materials, such as sand, straw, stones, branches, leaves, metal or glass fragments, among others.

In its conception, the main idea of this type of works was to face the commercialization of art, representing through works the expiration and the real value of objects after the intervention of the artist, disclosing the question about where the artistic value was, whether in the work itself, or in the artist who made it.

Italian stars Mario Merz, Piero Manzoni and Michelangelo Pistoletto and the Greek Jannis Kounellis are among the most prominent.

Hyperrealism (1968)

In response to the excessive coldness and distancing of the art forms of previous years, emerged the Hyperrealism, which sought, once again, to represent the reality in an absolutely faithful and objective way, often starting from a copy of photographic models, trying to make the copy and the original resemble each other as much as possible.

In order to magnify the final result their works, the hyperrealist artists added reflective, sinuous or brightly coloured elements to their images.

Chuck Close, Robert Nottingham and Richard Estes are three of the most outstanding artists in the field of pictorial Hyperrealism, while Duane Hanson and John de Andrea created hyperrealist sculptures in which human figure is reproduced in various daily attitudes.