Dates: 1850-1960

Origin: International

Key Artists: N/A

The term has been used to denote an ethos shared by many 19th- and 20th-century works of art and often considered to dominate the culture of this era. How best to describe such an ethos in visual art has been the subject of ongoing debate among critics, especially since Clement Greenberg proposed definitions for it in essays such as ‘Modernist Painting’ (1960). In the broader world, ‘modernism’ and ‘modern art’ have long been epithets used to characterize various innovatory styles, or else the ethos of artistic innovation in general.

Various factors from this broader context contribute to the meanings of ‘modernism’. The French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the new thinking of Kant and the Romantics may be seen as ushering in the ‘modern’ era of culture. Baudelaire’s ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1859) proposed a new relation between the artist, a detached consciousness, and the urban artifice of such a ‘modern’ reality. The essay seems to foreshadow the subsequent painting of Manet, a crucial component in all histories of modernism; arguably, it also influenced Picasso in 1907 when he painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, another fixture of the modernist canon.

These examples, and the work of Cézanne that historically stands between them, share a refusal to comply with received methods of representation. This refusal may be seen as asserting critical opposition to the surrounding culture of capitalism, or equally as a concentration on the formal essence of the art being practised: Greenberg argued in turn for both contentions, tracing modernist developments forward to the American painters of his own day. The self-defeating tendency of the avant-garde to become institutionalized, however, and the anti-formalist character of much later 20th-century art have both suggested to many critics that modernism as an ethos belongs to an era that effectively ended in the 1960s.

Bell, Julian. “modernism.” The Oxford Companion to Western Art. Ed. Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford Art Online. 11 Mar. 2010 <;

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