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  • Antony Wilder

From Modern to Contemporary: Art’s Evolution. Parnonas Artist Residency, Peloponesse.

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

By Lee Down. 25-05-2023


Kandinsky, (1913), Colour Study. Squares with Concentric Circles


I. Introduction

A Brief Definition of modern art and contemporary art Modern art refers to the artistic movement that emerged in the late 19th century and lasted until the 1960s. It is characterised by experimentation, abstraction, and a focus on the individual artist's vision. Modern art includes movements such as Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. On the other hand, contemporary art refers to the art that has been produced since the 1960s. It encompasses a wide range of styles and forms, including installation art, performance art, and digital art. Like modern art, contemporary art is often experimental and challenges traditional definitions of art. The importance of understanding the relationship between the two movements Understanding the relationship between modern and contemporary art is essential for anyone interested in art history and criticism. Modern art laid the foundation for many of the artistic movements and styles that followed it, including contemporary art. Likewise, modern artists' innovations and experimentation influenced later artists' work and paved the way for new forms of expression. By examining the connection between these two movements, we understand how art has evolved and continues to shape our cultural landscape today. This understanding also helps us appreciate the diversity and complexity of contemporary art and its place in the larger art historical context.

Main points of this article

We will explore how modern art changed contemporary art. First, we will examine the development of modern art and its essential characteristics and then dive into the impact of modern art on the post-war period and the rise of new forms of art. We will also look at some of the criticisms levelled at modern and contemporary art and offer counterarguments to these critiques. Ultimately, we will make a case for why understanding the relationship between current and contemporary art is crucial for appreciating and evaluating art today.

The Development of Modern Art The historical context that led to the emergence of modern art in the late 19th century

The emergence of modern art in the late 19th century can be attributed to a range of social, cultural, and political factors. One significant influence was the Industrial Revolution, which brought new technologies and ways of life that challenged traditional modes of thinking. Simultaneously, there was growing disillusionment with the established art order, which many saw as out of touch with the changing times. As a result, the Impressionist movement emerged in the 1870s and was one of the first to break away from academic tradition and experiment with new techniques and styles. This sparked a wave of artistic innovation across Europe and the world, eventually leading to modern art. The rise of Freudian psychology and the increased interest in the subconscious mind also shaped modern art's focus on individual expression and unconventional forms. These factors created the conditions for a revolutionary new approach to art that would transform the cultural landscape for generations to come. Critical characteristics of modern art, including abstraction, experimentation, and a focus on the individual artist's vision

One of the defining features of modern art is abstraction, which involves reducing art to its essential elements and eliminating any representation of the external world. This allowed artists to explore the formal qualities of art, such as colour, shape, and line, in new and innovative ways. Another key characteristic of modern art is experimentation, which involves pushing the limits of traditional techniques and embracing new materials and technologies. This often resulted in unconventional forms of art that challenged established norms.

Finally, modern art strongly emphasises the individual artist's vision and expression, rejecting the academic tradition of copying nature and instead focusing on subjective experience. This allowed for greater personal expression and exploring previously taboo themes and subjects. These characteristics created a new mode of artistic expression fundamentally different from anything before.

The highlight of some of the most influential modern artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky.

Many influential modern artists shaped the course of art history in the 20th century and beyond, but some of the most notable include Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky. Picasso is widely regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century and a key figure in the development of modern art. He pioneered Cubism, a style that revolutionised how artists represented the world by breaking down objects into their parts and reassembling them in abstract forms. On the other hand, Kandinsky was a Russian artist often credited with paving the way for abstract art. His work emphasised the expressive power of colour and form, and he believed that art could evoke spiritual and emotional experiences. Both of these artists were instrumental in pushing the boundaries of traditional art and paving the way for the emergence of contemporary art.


Picasso – Pêche de nuit à Antibes, Pablo Picasso,

CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia CommonsWassily Kandinsky, Composition viii


In addition to Picasso and Kandinsky, many other artists played a significant role in the development of modern art. Henri Matisse was another influential figure who helped usher in the era of Fauvism, a style characterised by bold colours and expressive brushwork. Marcel Duchamp pioneered conceptual art, creating works like his infamous "Fountain" sculpture, which challenged traditional notions of what could be considered art. Jackson Pollock was a crucial figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement, known for his large, gestural paintings emphasising the physical process of making art. Other notable modern artists include Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Braque, and Piet Mondrian, each of whom contributed to the rich tapestry of modern art with their unique styles and approaches. Together, these artists represent the diversity and innovation of modern art and continue to inspire and influence contemporary artists today.


Fountain by Marcel Duchamp (replica), Kim Traynor, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons – Fountain

III. The Impact of Modern Art on Contemporary Art

How the innovations of modern art influenced artists in the post-war period

The innovations of modern art had a profound impact on artists in the post-war period, leading to the emergence of new forms of art and a shift towards more experimental and unconventional approaches. The trauma of World War II and the following social upheavals created a sense of disillusionment with established norms and a desire for new modes of expression. This led to the rise of movements like Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, which were heavily influenced by the innovations of modern art. Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning continued the tradition of abstraction and experimentation. At the same time, Pop Artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein embraced consumer culture and appropriated images from popular media. These artists and many others paved the way for contemporary art and continue to inspire artists today with their bold, innovative visions.


Tribute, Mark Rothko Art Centre, Daugavpils (Latvia), October 2017. Traqueurdelumieres, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons – Rothko


Whaam! – Roy Lichenstein

GualdimG, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons – Lichenstein


The rise of new art forms like installation art and conceptual art in the late 20th century is directly linked to the innovations of modern art. Artists began experimenting with new ways of creating and experiencing art, moving away from traditional media like painting and sculpture and towards more immersive and interactive forms. Installation art, for example, involves creating site-specific environments that often involve multiple elements and sensory experiences. This form of art challenges the viewer to engage with the work physically and emotionally, blurring the boundaries between art and everyday life. On the other hand, conceptual art emphasises the idea or concept behind the artwork rather than the physical object itself. This approach often involves using language, performance, or other non-traditional media to convey the artist's message. Both of these art forms were inspired by the desire to break away from traditional modes of art-making and to create new and innovative forms of expression that could better reflect the complexities of the modern world. Today, these art forms continue to inspire and challenge artists worldwide, reflecting the ongoing evolution of contemporary art.

Examples of contemporary artists whose work shows the influence of modern art, such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko

There are many contemporary artists whose work shows the influence of modern art, from the bold, expressive paintings of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko to the immersive installations of Yayoi Kusama and Olafur Eliasson. Some other notable examples include:

  • Cindy Sherman uses photography to explore themes of identity and gender, much like the Surrealists did in the early 20th century.

  • Damien Hirst has been compared to Marcel Duchamp for his use of ready-made objects and his questioning of the value of art.

  • Banksy often incorporates political and social commentary into his street art, much like the Dadaists and Pop Artists did in their time.

  • Jeff Koons creates highly polished and often controversial sculptures that blur the lines between high and low culture, much like Pop Artists.

  • Kara Walker uses cut paper silhouettes to explore the history of race and slavery, similar to how Matisse used cut paper to explore form and colour.

These artists and many others continue to draw inspiration from the innovations of modern art, adapting and transforming them to reflect the concerns and issues of the contemporary world.

IV. The Criticisms of Modern Art and Contemporary Art

Some criticisms have been levelled at modern art over the years, such as its perceived elitism and lack of accessibility. Modern art has been criticised over the years, with some detractors arguing that it is elitist and inaccessible to the general public. One of the main criticisms is that modern art is often seen as a product of the elite, catering to a small group of wealthy collectors and art institutions rather than the broader public. This has led to accusations of a lack of diversity and inclusivity in the art world, with many artists from underrepresented communities struggling to gain recognition and support.

Another common criticism of modern art is that it can be difficult for non-experts to understand and appreciate. For example, emphasising formal qualities like colour, line, and shape can be seen as esoteric and disconnected from real-world concerns. At the same time, some abstract and conceptual works can be challenging to interpret without extensive knowledge of art history and theory. This has led to accusations that modern art is pretentious and out of touch with the general public.

Despite these criticisms, it's important to note that modern art has also been celebrated for its innovation, creativity, and ability to push boundaries. Many modern artists have used their work to address social and political issues, challenge established norms, and inspire new ways of thinking. While it is true that modern art can sometimes be difficult to access or understand, this is also part of what makes it so exciting and rewarding for those willing to engage with it. Critics of modern art must therefore balance their concerns about accessibility and inclusivity with an appreciation for the unique and valuable contributions that modern art continues to make to the world of art and culture. Similar criticisms have been directed at contemporary art, such as a perceived lack of skill and craftsmanship.

Like modern art, contemporary art has also been criticised, including accusations of a perceived lack of skill and craftsmanship. Some critics argue that contemporary art has devolved into a form of spectacle rather than a meaningful exploration of aesthetics or ideas. In addition, they say that many contemporary artists rely on gimmicks, shock value, or conceptual frameworks to create works that lack technical proficiency or beauty. Another common criticism of contemporary art is that it can be overly reliant on theory and academic discourse, making it inaccessible and disconnected from everyday experience. This has led to accusations that contemporary art is too self-referential and focused on insider debates rather than engaging with broader social and political issues. Furthermore, some critics argue that contemporary art's emphasis on installation, performance, and other non-traditional media makes it difficult to assess and value, leading to concerns about a lack of quality control and standards in the art world.

Despite these criticisms, it's important to note that contemporary art continues to innovate and push boundaries, exploring new forms of expression and challenging established norms. In addition, many contemporary artists use their work to address critical social and political issues and create powerful, thought-provoking pieces that engage with the world meaningfully. While it is true that not all contemporary art will appeal to everyone, it is essential to approach it with an open mind and a willingness to engage with its ideas and perspectives.

Counterarguments to these criticisms and why modern and contemporary art are valuable and important


There are several counterarguments to the criticisms of modern and contemporary art. Firstly, it can be argued that contemporary art's perceived lack of skill or craftsmanship is a deliberate choice by many artists who seek to challenge traditional notions of what constitutes "good" art. Rather than indicating laziness or lack of ability, this approach is often a deliberate artistic strategy meant to create new forms of expression and push the boundaries of what art can be.

Secondly, while it is true that some contemporary art can be difficult to understand or appreciate, this is not necessarily a negative thing. Art has always been a means of exploring and expressing complex ideas and emotions, and contemporary art is no different. While some works may require more background knowledge or context to appreciate fully, this is also part of what makes them so rewarding and intellectually stimulating.

Thirdly, while some critics argue that contemporary art is too focused on academic theory and insider debates, it's essential to recognise that many contemporary artists engage with significant social and political issues, such as race, gender, and the environment. By using their work to explore these issues, contemporary artists are contributing to broader cultural conversations and raising awareness about important topics.

Finally, it's worth noting that modern and contemporary art has profoundly impacted the world of art and culture, inspiring new forms of expression and challenging established norms. From the innovations of modernism to the immersive installations of contemporary art, artists have continually pushed the boundaries of what art can be, offering new perspectives and ways of seeing the world. In this way, modern and contemporary art is valuable and essential for its aesthetic qualities and ability to inspire, provoke, and challenge us to think differently.

V. Conclusion Article summary

This article explores the relationship between modern art and contemporary art and how modern art has changed contemporary art. The post discusses the historical context of modern art's emergence and its key characteristics, including abstraction, experimentation, and focus on individual vision. It also examines the impact of modern art on contemporary art, such as the rise of installation and conceptual art and influential contemporary artists who draw inspiration from modern art. Finally, the post discusses criticisms of modern and contemporary art, including elitism, inaccessibility, and lack of technical skill, but also offers counterarguments to these criticisms. Overall, the post highlights the significant contributions that modern and contemporary art has made to the world of art and culture, inspiring new forms of expression and challenging established norms.

Reflection on the Significance of modern art's Impact on contemporary art

Modern art's impact on contemporary art has been profound and far-reaching. The innovations of modern art, such as abstraction, experimentation with form and materials, and a focus on individual expression and emotion, challenged traditional aesthetic conventions and opened up new avenues for artistic exploration. These innovations inspired new forms of art, such as installation and conceptual art, which continue to shape contemporary art today. Moreover, many contemporary artists continue to draw inspiration from modern art, incorporating its principles and techniques into their work to create bold and innovative pieces. By building on the legacy of modern art, contemporary artists can push boundaries and explore new modes of artistic expression, creating intellectually stimulating and emotionally powerful work. Ultimately, the impact of modern art on contemporary art highlights the enduring power of creative innovation and the importance of pushing boundaries to create new forms of expression.

In closing, it's essential to recognise that art is a deeply personal and subjective experience. While this article has explored the impact and significance of modern and contemporary art, we would love to hear your opinions and experiences with these movements. Have you been moved by a particular artwork or artist? Do you have a favourite contemporary artist whose work speaks to you? We invite you to share your perspectives and engage in a thoughtful dialogue about the power and importance of art in our lives in the comments below. By working together to explore and understand the world of art and culture, we can continue to appreciate its relevance and influence in our lives.

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