For painting enthusiasts, it is sometimes difficult to understand what art represents in our modern world. Indeed, following the explosion of the non-figurative or semi-figurative art that appeared during the first decades of the last century, art took tangents that often took it away from the so-called “traditional” painting. Taking it to avenues that, sometimes a century later, are still able to baffle a less informed viewer…
Of course, even in 1907, when Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) unveiled “Les demoiselles d’Avignon”, painting had already taken unexpected avenues. Art history buffs remember the scandals that greeted the first Impressionist paintings during the “Salon des Refusés” in May 1863. From then on, the way of seeing art changed and slowly gave up the servitude to realism that it had hitherto respected and looked for since time immemorial.
Les demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso, 1907
Suddenly, the vision of the artist became the primary goal and imagination often became a source of inspiration.
It is therefore not surprising that the artists that came following this artistic revolution began to take increasing risks in their interpretation of the subjects they chose to put on canvas.
For example, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) evolved towards an almost geometric vision of reality, Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) or George Seurat (1854-1891) focus on color and matter and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) puts aside realistic concerns to embrace an almost expressionist painting.
Les joueurs de cartes, Paul Cézanne, 1890-1895
This is the key to a better understanding of what contemporary art expresses.
The inexorable evolution of art towards an almost purely intellectual expression really begins towards the end of the 1910s and the appearance of the Dada movement which mixes all forms of art without clear distinction between the disciplines preferring to see creation as a whole and life as art.
In 1917, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) abandoned the formal pictorial approach that he favored earlier and “invents” the “ready-made”, granting an artistic value to found objects by adding an intellectual and philosophical approach often opposite to the original use for which these objects were intended.
A urinal becomes a fountain, a bicycle wheel is placed on a stool and a bottle holder becomes a hedgehog. Suddenly art becomes EVERYTHING and EVERYTHING is potentially art – if the artist chooses so.
Fountain – R.Mutt (Marcel Duchamp) 1917
This philosophy soon be permeated all forms of artistic expression from painting to sculpture, film, music and literature, leading to Surrealism, and then, a few decades later, to pop art and other major movements in Twentieth century art.
This more intellectual than aesthetic approach became be the basis of the great currents of painting of the last century. Abstract Expressionism – think Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) – where aestheticism takes a very second place vis-à-vis pure expression, Neo-Dada in the late 1950s, conceptual art, Op-Art from the 1960s-70s; the list of movements is long and would deserve its own article … The artists’ concern for “beauty” becomes secondary to the research and the expression of intellectual concepts and of an approach where substance often takes the place of form.
Convergence, 1952 (Jackson Pollock)
During the last third of the last century, a form of visual art totally detached from painting becomes the result of nearly one hundred years of research and artistic evolution. Indeed, influenced by the great artistic, cultural, musical, theatrical and literary movements, a new generation of artists does away with the permanence of art and thus appears an ephemeral form of art, the installation.
As Wikipedia says: “An art installation is a three-dimensional piece of visual art, often created for a specific place (in situ) and designed to change the perception of space. The term “installation” appeared in the 1970s generally applies to works created for interior spaces (gallery, museum).
Of course, this approach existed before the 1970s – Duchamp had created “Moment Donnés” between 1946 and 1966 – but, following a certain culmination in the simplification and minimization of painting, artists soon began to take this new avenue where physical restrictions of the canvas don’t exist thus allowing the expression of concepts totally inapplicable to pictorial art.
The sheer size of the ephemeral works thus created often surpasses anything that seemed possible in the past – think of Christo (1935) and Jeanne Claude (1935-2009) who pack entire sections of cities, Dennis Oppenheim (1938- 2011) who returns architecture on itself or Spencer Tunick (1967) who creates massive assemblages of naked human bodies.
Le Reichstag embalé; par Christo et Jeanne-Claude
Of course, art seen from this angle is hard to display on walls but it stems from a philosophy that claims that the artist’s mission is one of revolution, of ideas and art should not be used for the decoration but is an integral component of human thought and aesthetics cannot be considered at the moment of creation.
It is, of course, an opinion and, the search for beauty and aesthetics still has a place in the lives of the vast majority of people. On the other hand, we hope that this short overview of the origins of contemporary art will allow the less initiated to better understand and, why not, to be interested in the less approachable forms of arts, because, let’s face it, art is a living entity which has not stopped evolving since the moment when man marked his passage in the caves where he lived eons ago.