Bold, innovative, progressive, experimental—all words that describe art that pushes boundaries and creates change. These characteristics are also all associated with a term that is often used but sometimes misconceived—avant-garde. The French term, which translates to “advance guard” or “vanguard,” refers to something visionary and ahead of its time.
Used frequently to discuss artistic contributions to society and culture, avant-garde is responsible for some of the most memorable works in history. But how does one characterize avant-garde art? And who are the forward-thinking artists that took the risks that now define art history?
In terms of art, avant-garde is usually tied to some sort of aesthetic innovation—one that is often misunderstood or unaccepted in its own time. It’s a concept that applies to those creatives who have pushed against mainstream ideals and, though it’s often used in relation to modernism, there are plenty of historic artists whose work can be seen as avant-garde during their time.
Before we dive into some of the most well-known avant-garde artists and art movements, let’s look at where the term comes from and how it took on its current meaning. Initially, it was used by the French military and referred to a small group of troops that carried out reconnaissance ahead of the main army. Over the course of the 19th century, it began being applied to left-wing socialist thinkers and their calls for political reform. In fact, it was the influential French socialist Henri de Saint-Simon who first applied the term to art.
In an 1825 text, he grouped artists together with scientists and industrialists as leaders of society that could guide people forward. From there, avant-garde was a term regularly applied to artists, with many citing the realism of Gustave Courbet as a starting point. Subsequently, many modern movements would see the term applied, though one could easily say that earlier artists like Leonardo da Vinci or Caravaggio were certainly avant-garde by breaking with traditional art practices. Even the Italian Renaissance itself was an avant-garde movement for its attention to perspective and realism in a way that was unheard of previously.
Avant-Garde Art Movements
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, here are some of the more memorable modern art movements in Western history that are considered avant-garde for breaking boundaries.
While Impressionist art may not seem avant-garde by contemporary standards, the movement was revolutionary in its time. Rejected by the traditional Paris Salon, painters like Monet, Degas, and Renoir favored landscapes and scenes of daily life over the accepted historical and mythological subjects. They also broke with tradition by moving out of the studio and painting en plein air.
Iconic Impressionist Paintings:
The Luncheon on the Grass by Manet
Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir
Impression, Sunrise by Monet
Dada can be a difficult movement to pin down because the output of its artists is so diverse. It was formed in Switzerland during World War I and is revolutionary for its focus on making work that wasn't necessarily aesthetically pleasing. Its purpose, instead, was to question capitalist society and its values. Dada also made use of readymades—everyday objects appropriated as pieces of art—as a way to question bourgeois sensibilities and the role of the artist in creativity. Dada had a profound influence on other avant-garde movements that followed, like Cubism and Fluxus.
Iconic Dada Art:
Fountain by Marcel Duchamp
Glass Tears by Man Ray
The Art Critic by Raoul Hausmann
Surrealism is a highly experimental genre based on principals of the subconscious mind, borrowed from a literary technique called automatism. This break from reality gave Surrealists like Rene Magritte, Salvador Dalí, and Man Ray complete creative freedom, as they were no longer guided by academic principals. The dreamlike scenery of their art combines realistic renderings of fantastical subject matter. Surrealists were also well-known for dabbling in many forms of art, from painting and sculpture to photography and film.
Iconic Surrealist Art:
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí
The Son of Man by Rene Magritte
The Great Masturbator by Salvador Dalí
By completely abandoning traditional forms and moving toward abstraction, Cubism is one of the most well-known avant-garde movements. Founders Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso played with all the traditional, academic rules of Western art and transformed them into a new, unexpected method for creating art. Figures were broken into geometric shapes, colors were brightened and simplified, and collage was incorporated for an innovative result that continues to shape art today. In fact, looking at a timeline of art history, Western visual culture can be split clearly into two pieces—before and after Cubism.
Important Cubist Artworks:
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso
Three Musicians by Pablo Picasso
Still Life with Metronome by Georges Braque
Taking shape in the 1960s and 1970s, Fluxus is an interdisciplinary movement that involved artists, designers, composers, and poets. Heavily influenced by Dada, members of Fluxus staged performance art events that included noise music, poetry readings, time-based performances and much more. Composer John Cage had a great deal of influence in Fluxus and his notion that interaction between an artist and the audience was the most important phase of work—rather than the finished product—was often followed. Avant-garde artists like Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, and Nam June Paik were all active in Fluxus.
Important Moments in Fluxus:
Cut Piece by Yoko Ono
Zen for Film by Nam June Paik
Make a Salad by Alison Knowles