What is Modern Art? Exploring the Movements That Define the Groundbreaking Genre


Shortly before World War I, painters in Germany and Austria began to take an experimental approach to their practice. Eventually known as Expressionists, these artists adopted and adapted the unprecedented characteristics of other modern movements. Like Post-Impressionist and Fauvist works of art, pieces rendered in the Expressionist style convey a fascination with bright, artificial color and individualistic iconography.

What is Modern Art Definition Modern Art Movements

‘Reiter' by Wassily Kandinski
Photo: Wassily Kandinski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Characterized by deconstructed, fractured forms, Cubism marked modern art's shift toward abstraction. Pioneered in 1907 by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, the avant-garde movement materialized as topsy-turvy paintings, multi-dimensional sculptures, and cutting-edge collages. Like other modern art movements, Cubism emphasized a subjective approach to creating. “When we discovered Cubism,” Picasso explains, “we did not have the aim of discovering Cubism. We only wanted to express what was in us.”

What is Modern Art Definition Modern Art Movements

‘Braque Exhibition' by Alfred Stieglitz
Photo: The Met


In the 1920s, visual artists Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Joan Miró, and Yves Tanguy came together to found Surrealism, a movement rooted in the subconscious. Lacking “any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern” (André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism), the genre culminated in a diverse collection of dream-like depictions straight from the artists' imaginations.

What is Modern Art Definition Modern Art Movements

‘Dorothy True' by Alfred Stieglitz
Photo: The Met

Abstract Expressionism

In the middle of the 20th century, an innovative group of artists forewent figurative styles of painting for an original, abstract aesthetic. Known as Abstract Expressionists, these painters placed artistic emphasis not only on modernist characteristics like color, composition, and emotion, but on the creative process itself.

What is Modern Art Definition Modern Art Movements

‘Bluepoles' by Jackson Pollock
Photo: By Jackson Pollock [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Modern Art vs. Contemporary Art

Due to the experimental nature and overlapping themes of both modern and contemporary art, the genres are often confused for one another. However, once one recognizes the movements that compose each, the ambiguous, blurred line that differentiates them becomes clearer.

Typically, modern art is understood to include Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, and the stylesin between. Therefore, contemporary art commences with the first major movement following modernism—Pop Art—and, of course, continues today.

What is Modern Art Definition Modern Art Movements

Photo: Jon Ander

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Kelly Richman-Abdou

Kelly Richman-Abdou is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met. An art historian living in Paris, Kelly was born and raised in San Francisco and holds a BA in Art History from the University of San Francisco and an MA in Art and Museum Studies from Georgetown University. When she’s not writing, you can find Kelly wandering around Paris, whether she’s leading a tour (as a guide, she has been interviewed by BBC World News America and France 24) or simply taking a stroll with her husband and two tiny daughters.
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