This article was last modified on May 18, 2008.

The History of Art in Definitions

Art is not my specialty. History is my passion, however, and I feel that even art has an interesting history. Often we can see how art not only evolves, but is shaped by politics and in some cases shapes politics. With that in mind, I offer these very simplified definitions of art movements. Much of this is slightly modified from previously existing definitions (as I am no expert), and serves simply to be a “primer” or “refresher” for those who wish only to know the most basics of the history.

Eventually, I would like to modify this page to expand the definitions, explain more clearly the reasons such movements began or ended, their connection to politics (notably Communism, Italy Fascism and Nazism) and at the very least include images of examples for each movement.

Any feedback is appreciated, and feel free to point out movements I overlooked, as I am sure there are many.

Impressionism: 1860s, France

An art movement founded in France in the last third of the 19th century. Impressionist artists sought to break up light into its component colors and render its ephemeral play on various objects. The artist’s vision was intensely centered on light and the ways it transforms the visible world. Impressionism was characterized by the representation of a scene, object, or figure through the application of paint in dabs of color in order to give an impression of the view rather than an accurate, photographic-like depiction. Artists attempted to paint their subjects in a way that showed the changing effects of natural lighting throughout the day. Notable artists: Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Pierre Renoir.

Synthetism: 1880s-1890s, France

Synthetism is a term used by post-Impressionist artists to distinguish their work from Impressionism. Synthetist artists aimed to synthesize three features: the outward appearance of natural forms, the artist’s feelings about their subject, and the purity of the aesthetic considerations of line, color and form. Notable artists: Paul Gauguin, Émile Bernard, Louis Anquetin.

Cubism: Early 1900s

An early 20th-century school of painting and sculpture in which the subject matter is portrayed by geometric forms without realistic detail, stressing abstract form at the expense of other pictorial elements largely by use of intersecting often transparent cubes and cones.

Futurism: 1909-1919, Italy

One of several movements to grow out of Cubism, Futurism was influenced by politics, the style of which is characterized by the aim of conveying a sense of speed and/or movement. It glorified war, machine and modern technology, and has been linked to the growth of Fascism.

Suprematism: 1913, Russia

A Russian abstract movement originated by Kasimir Malevich circa 1913. It was characterized by flat geometric shapes (squares and circles) on plain backgrounds. Malevich’s wish was to create a vocabulary of geometric abstract shapes entirely independent of the visible world, and expressing pure artistic feeling.

Constructivism: 1913-?, Russia

A geometric abstract art movement, initially influenced by Suprematism, whose aim was to create a new society by applying geometric design principles to all areas of life. It focused on art for the industrial age, and dismissed “pure” art in favor of art used as an instrument for social purposes. The movement utilized technology and building materials such as glass, plastic, steel and chrome. Notable artists: Exter, Naum Gabo, Lissitsky, Antoine Pevsner, Popova, Rodchenko, Stepanova, Vladimir Tatlin.

Dadaism: 1915-1923, Europe

A nihilistic art movement (especially in painting) that flourished in Europe early in the 20th century; based on irrationality and negation of the accepted laws of beauty and aesthetic standards. It aimed to create antiart and nonart, often employing a sense of the absurd. Dadaism ridiculed contemporary culture and art forms. It produced art works which reflected a negative attitude toward social values but were at the same time absurd and playful. Notable artists: Duchamp, Tristan Tzara and Hans Arp.

Bauhaus: 1919-1933, Germany

A 20th-century school of design, art and architecture the aesthetic of which was influenced by and derived from techniques and materials employed especially in industrial fabrication (including glass, concrete, steel and chrome) and manufacture. Founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius. It was closed by the Nazis in 1933. Notable artists: Klee, Kandinsky, and Feininger.

Surrealism: 1920s, Europe

Originated out of Dadaism and the theories of Sigmund Freud. Style using subconscious mental activity as its subject matter, characterized by dreamlike, hallucinatory imagery. Surrealism brings dreams, instinct, desire and revolt into conflict with different forms of moral and social conventions. Notable artists: Miro, Dali, Magritte and Ernst.

Socialist Realism: 1930s, Soviet Union

A standard for art and literature developed in the Soviet Union in the 1930s; it demanded that art depict the life of the people. It was promoted by the Stalinist regime in Russia as a propaganda tool. A realistic, but melodramatic, style used to present an idealized vision of Soviet Society and its dear leaders. Socialist realism is a teleologically-oriented style of realistic art which has as its purpose the furtherance of the goals of socialism and communism. Although related, it should not be confused with social realism, a type of art that realistically depicts subjects of social concern.

Abstract Expressionism: 1946-1960s, America

A form of abstract art characterized by a desire to transmit powerful emotions through the sensory qualities of paint, often on canvases of huge size. The style was based on line and movement rather than shapes and colors. The physical process of painting was part of its style. It was the dominant movement in American painting in the 1940s and 1950s. Notable artists: Jackson Pollock.

Minimalism: 1950s-1970s

It is a term used to describe paintings and sculpture that thrive on simplicity in both content and form, and seek to remove any sign of personal expressivity. Art which uses very few, or minimal, resources, very often concentrating on single colors or forms. It often uses readily available materials (such as bricks) and concentrates on their properties –- shape, size and appearance. Often characterized as austere and impersonal, with the cool regularity of a machine. Notable artists: Carl Andre.

Also try another article under Historical / Biographical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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