Modern Art vs Postmodern Art

When, Where, What, Movements & Examples

Joseph Kosuth, One and three chairs, 1965. Wood folding chair, mounted photograph of a chair, and mounted photographic enlargement of the dictionary definition of "chair", Chair 82 x 37.8 x 53 cm, photographic panel 91.5 x 61.1 cm, text panel 61 x 76.2 cm. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Introduction: Modern Art vs Postmodern Art / When was Modern Art? / When is Postmodern Art? / Where was Modern Art? / Where is Postmodern Art? / What is Modern Art? / What is Postmodern Art? / Examples of Modern Art – What are the movements in Modern Art? / Examples of Postmodern Art – What are the movements in Postmodern Art? / Conclusion: The Key Differences between Modern Art and Postmodern Art

Introduction: Modern Art vs Postmodern Art

Art history has been marked by an abundance of terms, concepts and movements resulting in an often confusing terminology. An issue which frequently leads to confusion and ambiguity is the distinction of Modern Art versus Postmodern Art.

Modern Art is a container concept referring to art during Modernism marked by idealism and an almost dogmatic belief in reason and progress. Whereas Postmodern Art is a container concept for art during Postmodernism marked by an epistemological doubt challenging the notion of universal truth(s).

If things are not clear yet, do not worry. In fact, I would be surprised if they were! As a result, we have set up a simple Q&A article in which we answer step by step the most important questions about Modern and Postmodern Art, encompassing their definitions, key characteristics, differences and illustrating how these concepts are translated into art with some examples encompassing the most important art movements of Modern and Postmodern Art.

In just eight simple questions and eight – relatively – simple answers, the aforementioned confusion and ambiguity concerning Modern Art versus Postmodern Art will become clear. As a result, we point out the key differences in the conclusion at the end of the article. Now, without any further delay, let's begin with our Q&A article.

Edouard Manet, Déjeuner sur l'herbe. Oil on canvas – 208 x 264.5 cm. Collection Musée D'Orsay, Paris.

When was Modern Art?

As stated in the introduction, the difference between Modern Art and Postmodern Art is strongly connected and determined by the cultural period in which the art manifested itself.

Modern Art is a container concept referring to art during the period of Modernism starting and ending roughly around 1850 and 1950.

With all historical era's or movements, one must be aware of the fluidity of these periods blending slowly into the following period. As a result, these periods in time are not rigid and may not be interpreted too literally. As a result there are many possible starting dates and ending dates, as is with every historical period.

With Modernism, and thus with Modern Art, the starting point lies between 1830 and 1870. Some say the starting date of Modernism can be situated around 1830 with art movements such as Romanticism and Realism introducing new themes and topics. However, arguably the most common starting point for Modern Art is the symbolic event of the Salon des Refusés in Paris in 1863, where the artists departed from the academic conventions and started to innovate when it comes to style and subject matter.

For instance, it was during the first Salon des Réfusés the iconic painting Déjeuner sur L'herbe was exhibit after being refused by the jury for the Salon of the academy. Nudity was very common in 19th century France, however this was no Venus or academic nude Manet had painted. Instead he painted two naked prostitutes sitting next to two fully dressed bourgeoisie men resulting in controversy and public notoriety. In many (symbolic) ways, Modern Art starts with this painting.

The end of Modernism and Modern Art is situated between 1945 and 1960. The end of the Second World War resulted in a clear ideological shift in politics, philosophy and so it did in art. Others say Modernism ended around 1960 due to a noticeable shift in culture and also in art. The truth is this shift didn't take place over night but was more of a process instead of a sudden turnaround. But there was no denying something had changed as art went from Malevich's modern Black Square to Kosuth's postmodern One and Three Chairs.

Richard Hamilton, Just What is it that Makes Today's Homes so Different, so Appealing?, 1956. Collage – 26 x 24.8 cm. Collection Kunsthalle Tübingen.

When was Postmodern Art?

Postmodern Art consists of art produced during the cultural and philosophical era of Postmodernism, starting roughly around 1950 and arguably ongoing up to today.

Postmodernism is strongly connected to the Post-war era, as the Second World War plays a major role in the paradigm shift of Modernism towards Postmodernism. As a result, the starting point can be situated around 1945 up to 1960 taking over the torch of Modernism (cf. supra: the end of Modernism).

Doing so, Postmodern Art emerged during the 50s. Most commonly, Pop Art can be seen as the first art movement of Postmodern Art as the distinction between high art and popular culture dissolved into the characteristic postmodern approach of embracing different ways of making art or defying to be defined of what art is or can be. Postmodern Art really got into its stride during the 60 and 70s during the hey day of Conceptual Art, followed by Performance Art, Installation Art, Arte Povera and more (cf. infra: Art movements in Postmodern Art).

The end of Postmodern Art is still unclear as Postmodernism arguably still is the current cultural and philosophical movement. However, since the turn of the millennium, more scholars seem to state Postmodernism has ended and a new era has started. Although there is no consensus yet on this matter, in arts and literature one is able to notice a certain shift in the nature of the 'applied' Postmodernism transcending Postmodern irony, often referred to as Post-postmodernism. An issue to be continued!

Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles (Number 11), 1952. Enamel on canvas – 212.1 x 488.2 cm. Collection National Gallery of Australia.

Where was Modern Art?

As we mentioned earlier, the symbolic start of Modern Art can be situated in Paris, France, with the Salon des Réfusés in 1863. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Modern Art manifested itself primarily in Europe and also in Russia with the Russian Constructivism and Suprematism. During this half a century, Modernism really distinguished itself with radical developments in art resulting in an explosion of -isms, a Copernican Revolution in art, introducing Futurism, Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism and more (cf. infra: Art Movements in Modern Art).

During the late 30s and the 40s with the Second World War functioning as a traumatic event and catalyst for change, a lot of artists fled Europe to the United States where there was a thriving cultural climate. Doing so, the focal point of Modernism shifted across the Atlantic where Abstract Expressionism became the culmination point of Modern Art and marked the start of the dominance of American Abstract Art for the coming decades.

Marina Abramovic, Performance during 'Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present' (9 March, 2010, New York City). Museum of Modern Art. / Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images (c)

Where is Postmodern Art?

Trying to debate where Postmodern Art takes place is a bit of non debate. At this point in time, art movements have become rather globalized instead of local. What one can say is that Postmodern Art primarily manifested itself in the Western World from the 50s up to the 70s. With the ongoing globalization and the end of the Cold War, different spheres started to blend as regional differences disappeared. Postmodern Art became a global movement in World Art.

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907. Oil on canvas – 243.9 x 233.7 cm. Collection MoMA, New York.

What is Modern Art?

Modern Art is art produced during Modernism, marked by the rapid socio-political, cultural and economical changes since the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. These developments are often referred to as the road to modernity, a modern society or the modern industrial world. Progress was the key objective by manner of innovation, experiment and reason.

As a result, Modern Art is marked by innovation, experiment and an almost dogmatic belief in reason and progress, pushing the artist to discover new forms of art, innovating their style, medium and subject matter, freeing themselves from academic conventions, abolishing tradition in their quest for Modern Art.

From a visual point of view, modern artists experimented with colour, technique and eventually also with shapes, resulting in a clear tendency towards abstraction. Think of the Impressionists depicting reality with raw strokes of colour, the Fauvists and their free use of colour, or the Cubists and their unique approach towards form resulting in an abstracted representation of reality such as Picasso's iconic Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

There is also a very strong shift concerning the subject matter of modern art. The impelling force of Modern Art was often social such as Courbet's realism, or political such as the Futurists or Russian Constructivists. An ideological agenda of progress with often utopian or idealistic visions of modern life became one of the key elements of Modern Art. Further there was an immense interest in certain scientific or psychological discoveries. Think of the impact of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis and dream studies on art movements such as surrealism resulting in absurd associations and a new interest in the subconscious.

Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, 2010. Porcelain – variable dimensions. Collection Tate.

What is Postmodern Art?

Postmodern Art is art produced during Postmodernism, reacting against the empty promises of Modernism and the search for a new world order due to the Second World War.

Doing so, Postmodern Art is marked by skepticism, a suspicion of reason and a radical epistemological doubt challenging the notion of universal truths due to the imminent relativity of things.

Key aspects of Postmodern Art are the emphasis on the individual experience, irony and a complexity of contradictory layers of meaning. Further, the definition of art is contested, fading the distinction of high art and popular culture, introducing appropriation, eclecticism and breaking the formal conventions of art, questioning the art establishment.

These elements brought new media, new movements and a new definition of art in general often referred to as 'anything goes'. However, the ingenuity of these new developments in Postmodern and contemporary art are undeniable and has elevated the concept of art to a new level.

Examples of Modern Art – What are the Art Movements in Modern Art?

Modern Art experienced an explosion of new art movements especially during the first half of the 20th century. As a result, to understand and recognize Modern Art, in this section we will list up all the most important Modern Art movements followed by the best known examples of this particular movement.

The art movements during Modern Art are Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Les Nabis, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Suprematism, Constructivism, De Stijl, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.

Here come some of the best examples of these movements and thus examples of Modern Art. Notice how we scroll down further in time how the tendency towards abstractions continues to manifest itself.