Art Appreciation – Modern Art

Claude Monet, la Grenouillère, 1869
Claude Monet, la Grenouillère, 1869

I wish I could paint, but I can’t – so you know what they say, those who can’t do, teach.

I’m not teaching how to paint, but rather art appreciation.

My favourite art period is around the turn of the 20th Century – that is, that Modernist period, and I particularly love French art.

Years ago, I started attending face-to-face art appreciation programs, and had lots of ‘ah ha’ moments as I saw such interesting images and heard stories about the artists and their lives and communities. I also did an on-line program through the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and read, read, read. Finally, after opening an art gallery, and becoming part of our local arts community in a serious way, I began conducting my own face-to-face art appreciation programs. Then last year, I wrote my first on-line program. Lots of work, lots of learning, and lots of serious fun.

Why the Modern Art period?

Because so much changed in the art world (reflecting the changing society) in such a short period of time.

The birth of Modern art in Europe can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution, from about 1760 up until about the mid 1800s. This period saw rapid changes in manufacturing, transport, technology and scientific development which profoundly affected the social, economic and cultural conditions of those living at that time.

Inventions during this time included the telephone, the electric light, the combustion engine and x-rays. 1918 saw the first powered flight. Darwin produced his Theory of Relativity and Sigmund Freud wrote his Introduction to Psychoanalysis.

Urban centres boomed, with greater migration to cities (particularly as industrial jobs increased), as the railroad, steam engine and subway opened new opportunities for people to move greater distances. It also became possible for people and goods to travel between countries with greater ease, leading to greater exchanges of ideas.

However, the period from the mid 1700s also saw great political upheaval in France, with a number of revolutions and wars, up until about 1871 (The Franco-Prussian war), which resulted in the Seige of Paris and subsequently the Paris Commune, where workers unsuccessfully attempted to take power through the formation of communes, or workers’ councils.

From the mid 1800s, Emperor Napoléon III appointed Georges-Eugene Haussmann  to make major changes to Paris. He was directed to ‘bring air and light to the centre of the city, unify the different neighbourhoods with boulevards, and the make the city more beautiful’.  The centre of Paris up until this time was overcrowded, dark, dangerous and unhealthy, with traffic circulation being a major problem. Although his changes met with a great deal of opposition and the displacement of many people, they did result in a more modern, industrious and vibrant city.

Then, from 1871 up until World War I, Paris became a relatively peaceful city which attracted large numbers of writers and artists. The turn of the 20th century was termed La Belle Époque, or “the beautiful era”, in part because of the  cultural development that occurred at that time. Entertainment for the general public was a fairly new phenomenon – in cafés, cabarets, the theatre and at the Moulin Rouge, for example.

Paris became ‘the’ city to come to, and as a result was the primary force for change in the art world, until about the 1930s, when many artists fled to America to escape the coming war. Other centres, in Germany, Italy and Russia, also saw the rise of avant-garde art.

This new era created an environment where artists felt freerer to experiment, and you can see changes to the way colour is used, work becoming increasingly more abstract, different techniques being used to apply paint (and other media) to a surface and a changing response to the purpose of art.

For some it meant exploring ‘art for arts sake’ (including design and decoration),  for others it meant adopting a more scientific approach to art, or responding to the inner world of dreams and feelings, or relationships to other artistic forms, such as music or sculpture.  Others responded to new developments in psychology.

From about World War I, many artists responded to the conflict and destruction and what they saw as meaningless of life, by producing ‘meaningless’ art, or using art as propaganda. A number of artists who were directly involved in the war sought to express their own inner turmoil.

From a historical viewpoint, it is such as interesting period overall, and I don’t think there have been such significant change in painting styles since that time.

This is an excerpt from my online art appreciation program, Introduction to Modern European Art


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