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A Brief History Of Western Art Movements | Behind The Masterpiece

The first piece of visual art in history is
from 40,000 years ago. Even before the existence of written language,
our Neanderthal ancestors made some of the earliest images we have. The need to create is a part of being human. It’s as old as our species; as innate as
any other desire, the need to eat, to seek protection, to love. Many of us think of art and our minds immediately
jump to a framed painting or kneeling statue in a museum. Thinking it’s too nuanced and convoluted
to understand. It’s intimidating. But art is not just for the ones seeking it
out. It’s for anyone who wants to experience
it. It’s not a luxury. Really, Art is anything that stirs emotion
in us. When I first began learning about
art history, I wanted to know one thing above all — the timeline. The idea of progress through the years is
intriguing. And the evolution of art goes hand in hand
with advancements in technology, expansion of knowledge, and the growth of society over
the years. If we want to know more about who we are as
a society today, we should look back. Before the development of written language,
humans were creating cave paintings, and rock engravings as a way to share information between
themselves and other tribes. This was a time when human survival was the
only priority and so the art from this period reflected that; depicting stick figures and
animals often in scenes of the hunt. The exception to this art movement is the
Venus of Willendorf. A small sculpture of a nude woman with exaggerated
features of fertility. Very little is known about its origins but
many researchers believe it to be a fertility Goddess. During a period of time where most evidence
about human behavior was purely survival through the tools we’ve found, the art we’ve
since discovered is a clear indication of symbolic and abstract thought; a beginning
to all art movements. During this time, advanced civilization throughout
Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Persian, China and Rome were becoming more literate and so
started creating the earliest naturalistic images of human beings. In these societies, art played an important
role as a means of enforcing religious and political ideologies. It included symbolic imagery, mythological
stories, and text to tell stories of gods, and rulers. Look at this, this is one of the most famous
artworks from this period. the “Code of Hammurabi.” It’s a piece of stone, carved with a set of
laws and an image of the kind Hammurabi, and the Mesopotamian god Shabash. The techniques, forms, and evolving subject
matter of this art movement has made many people consider Ancient Art to be the foundation
of Art History, rather than Prehistoric Art. This thousand plus years period occurred between
the end of the Roman Empire, and the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe. Art was no longer about the many different
figures people looked up to as the church was gaining more power, and they only believed
in one god. Medieval artists were trying to convey religious
messages in their art and were not so concerned with Realism. They depicted clear iconic images of religious
figures and decorated them with extensive use of gold and jewels as a way to attract
more people to the church. From the 14th through the 17th century, Italy
underwent a period of enlightenment, and artists started to appreciate cultural subjects like
art, music, and theatre, as well as religion. The term Renaissance derives from the Italian
word Rinascimento, or “rebirth.” Artists of this period looked back at Ancient
Rome and Greece and found inspiration in classical art, which materialized in portrait paintings,
anatomically correct sculptures, and symmetrical architecture. The invention of the printing press during
this time period also helped push creation even further. By making books more widely available, the
literacy rates in Europe were higher than ever, and so people were more open to appreciate
this cultural explosion. As the Renaissance period was coming to an
end emerged the Baroque movement. Art during this period emphasized extravagance
and emotion. Like this. Look at the drama that Caravaggio has created
here through his meticulous treatment of light and shadows. Artists using other mediums also accomplished
a sense of theatricality. The sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini forged a
new path for future artists through his amazing skills in manipulating marble to create intricate
drapery. Architects across Europe took to this art
movement to embellish their designs. From more ornate carvings to adding in columns
and dome-like ceilings to their structures. Following the opulence of the Baroque movement,
came the playful and utopian Rococo period, blossoming in 18th century France and quickly
spreading across Europe. The term Rococo comes from the French word
Rocaille, which is a method of decorating furniture and interiors 
with pebbles and seashells. This decorative style has fluid 
asymmetrical forms, elaborate ornamentation, lighter pastel colors, and whimsical narratives. After the lavishness of the Baroque period
and the decorative aesthetic of Rococo, there was a renewed interest in the simplicity,
principles, and subject matter of the art from Ancient Rome and Greece. The discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum buried
roman archaeological cities brought a renewed sense of interest for Neoclassical artists
to look back. This art movement can be distinguished by
its classic-looking subjects, minimal use of color, attention to lines and symmetry,
and clear definition of forms and figures. The 18th-century European art world was dominated
by Neoclassicism until Romanticism came around. While Romantic artists also 
valued the individuality  that was depicted in Neo-classical artworks, they looked within and found inspiration in  their own imaginations, 
and the nature around them. This art movement predominantly looked into
the spiritual side of humanity, exploring the essence of the natural world, and the
value of personal freedom and expression. The French Revolution of 1848, established
the right to work in the country and brought on the anti-institutional art movement of
Realism. These artists rejected what came before them. Exotic scenes of religious figures, clergy,
nobility, and mythology. Instead, they focused on depicting real people
in everyday life. Realism was the first art movement that gave
a voice to the members of society that were overlooked up to this point because of their
social and financial circumstances. Realist artists depicted contemporary life
and nature, completely unembellished. A close observation of people, the paintings
almost look like photographs. Separating from Realism, Impressionism started
when a group of French artists broke academic traditions by painting outside, en-Plein-air. A controversial and shocking decision that
got them rejected from the official French Salon. This rigid traditionalism forced these artists
to start their own alternative exhibition which was held annually for three decades
until the beginning of World War I. Some of the founding members of this art movement
include Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas. These artists did not create images that followed
in the footsteps of Realism, of paying attention to lines, and realistically-painted subjects
but instead, they opened their compositions to capture the transient presence of sunlight
and movement. The result is an intense and vibrant scene
of modern life. You know a painting is done in the Impressionist
style when the brushstrokes are visible and small, there is little blending and the colors
are vivid. This art movement is an 
extension of impressionism,  yet at the same, it rejects 
some of its limitations. Post-impressionist artists continued using
bold colours and painting scenes of modern life but left behind their predecessors’
spontaneous and naturalistic rendering of light and movement. The major figures were Paul Cézanne, Vincent
van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Seurat. This art movement really highlighted each
artist’s subjective vision and in turn, Post-impressionism includes many art styles
like Neo-Impressionism, and art techniques like Pointillism, and divisionism. These artists incorporated science and imagination
into their art as a way to convey more powerful scenes. Meanwhile, in the neighboring northern countries,
a modernist movement was gaining steam. Expressionism was found in poetry and paintings,
presenting the world solely from a subjective point of view. Expressionist artists radically distorted
the scenes on their canvases to align with their mood, emotions, and ideas. Imbuing their
works with power through emotional experiences as a response to a rapidly changing world. These works were often done in vivid and lurid
colors, and centered around disfigured subjects. They offered the viewers a new meaning to
what is considered beautiful. One that did not concern itself with recreating
the physical reality, but instead celebrated the internal chaos of what it’s truly like
to be a free-spirited human. The good and the bad of it all. Near the end of the 19th century, a movement
of “new art” spread across European countries and took on different names and characteristics. In Austria, it was called the “Vienna Secession”
In Spain, it was “Modernisme,” and in France, as it’s more commonly known, “Art
Nouveau.” Artists of many mediums embraced this movement. Art Nouveau was heavily featured in paintings,
but also in architecture, decorative arts, and its most enduring medium—posters. This art movement is characterized by long
sinuous lines, almost like the stems and petals of flowers. A rhythmic scene. It modernized the path of art progression,
seeking to escape traditional styles and instead creating luxurious works by returning back
to nature. Two-dimensional, filled with geometric forms,
and flat. This is Cubism, one of the most important
art movements of the 20th century. Founded by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque
in the early 1900s, Cubism completely breaks down the art movements that came before it. The two men analyzed the subjects they wanted
to paint, broke it apart, and put it back together on the canvas in an abstract form. Cubist artists wanted to show different viewpoints
of the subject on the same plane. They painted in a way that 
suggested a three-dimensional  form by emphasizing the two-dimensional flatness. Bringing together different
views of the subjects in the same painting. This was a new and fresh form of representation. Playing with the typical perspective that
had been around since the Renaissance. They threw out the rule book, and what’s
more, is that they opened the door for the development of abstract modern art movements
that came after. Around the same time, Cubism was picking up
steam in France, another movement was growing out of Italy. The energy and the dynamism of the modern
world excited many artists about the future. Launched by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti,
Futurist artists of all mediums passionately denounced the oppressive culture of the past
and welcomed the modern world of technology and industry. In his Manifesto of Futurism, Marinetti said
“we will free Italy from her innumerable museums which cover her 
like countless cemeteries.” This art movement is characterized by the
power of machines, and the restless energy of modern life. The landscape of art changed drastically after
the start of WWI. One art movement rejected all logic, reason,
and order of western civilization that caused the horrors of war. Dada is often referred to as an “anti-war”
movement to follow anything set by the bourgeois society. They felt that the war made them question
every aspect of the societies they were living in. A society that started this horrific 
event and what’s worse, continued it. And so these artists produced works that were
satirical in nature. They wanted to destroy traditional artistic
values and create something new to replace it. This twentieth-century art movement explored
the inner workings of the mind, aiming to revolutionize the human experience. Surrealism can be difficult to grasp. This imaginative movement, led by Andre
Breton, a French writer, and Poet, fascinated viewers then and even today. Influenced by the writings of psychologist
Sigmund Freud, Surrealist artworks show us the uninhibited works of these artists, free
of the boundaries of the rational mind as they tap into their subconscious. Many surrealists, like Salvador Dali even
used Automatism to draw inspiration from their unconscious minds. This is a method of art-making in which the
artist releases conscious control over the creation process, to allow the unconscious
mind to take over. Surrealist artworks challenged perceptions
and reality by juxtaposing unrealistic subject matter with realistic painting styles. The movement’s ideologies extended past
the artistic mediums, to inspire political liberation. Many Surreal artists turned to political activism,
taking on these revolutionary concepts from their creations and applying it to their lives
and communities. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, the art movement
of choice for experimental European artists was Bauhaus. Established by Walter Gropius in 1919 Germany,
Bauhaus was a revolutionary school of art that aimed to show art in everyday life and
not just in fine arts museums. Its name comes from the german words for building
and house. Perhaps hoping to invoke the idea of a fraternity
in the school, working together to build a new society. This school housed many well-known artists
as instructors including Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee. Bauhaus art is characterized by abstract styles,
geometric shapes, and aesthetics that include no historical, mythical, or emotional sources. Abstract Expressionism was the first American
movement to become popular internationally. Following World War II, this movement incorporated
the dark trauma of the war that lingered, with the spontaneity of Surrealism. Within this movement, there are two groups
of artists: Action painters who filled their canvases with expressive brush strokes like
Jackson Pollock; and the color field painters who created canvases with large areas of a
single color like Mark Rothko. Both artists were leaders of the movement
and showcased their individualism and American spirit. Through their innovation, they created original
and almost meditative works of art. In the 1950s, in post-war Britain and America,  young artists began to revolt 
against the traditional views on what art should be. They felt what they were taught in art schools
or saw in museums, had nothing to do with their everyday lives or what they considered
to be art. So they turned to what surrounded them for
inspiration. Hollywood movies, product packaging, comic
books, and advertisement posters. They used mundane items from mass media to
usher in a new and accessible approach to art that even today is unique and recognizable. Pop artists were imaginative. They used repetition, bold imagery, and bright  color palettes to introduce 
art to new demographics. This time without intimidation but through
familiarity. Free of the artist’s input, Minimalism is
an extreme form of abstract art that was developed in the US in the 1960s. It embraces literalism, rejecting self-referential  narratives, to instead 
highlight the characteristics of the artwork, believing art should have
its own reality. Minimalist artists like Carl Andre, Frank
Stella, and Donald Judd, use factory-made   objects, precise hard-edged forms, and geometric
shapes to create pieces free of outside influence. “What you see is what you see.” The viewer is to only observe what is in front
of them. The viewer is to only observe what is in front
of them. Though the date of the start of this movement
is unclear, it’s commonly known as “the art of today.” If you’ve ever stepped inside a modern art
gallery, you know that it’s impossible, to sum up, this movement in a few words. It sometimes feels as if the general public
rejects it, feeling that it doesn’t necessarily count as art. That might due to the fact that contemporary
art is often about ideas, rather than aesthetics and so there are no clear visual styles for  viewers to hold onto, like some other 
movements that have recognizable features. Contemporary artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat,
Yayoi Kusama and Damien Hirst create art of all mediums that reflect the issues of
our societies. Not only self-contained pieces, contemporary
art moves beyond the walls of galleries and museums. These artworks are a part of a bigger cultural  dialogue around identity, 
community, and nationality. As we come back to the present, looking back
at the progression of the history of art, there’s a bit more clarity. Exploring each art movement makes such a vast
topic digestible. A linear timeline filled with talented individuals
over the years that always moves forward; towards something more, something new, something
that excites a generation. The need to create is human. That’s for sure. But art is also a business, and those whose
names we are familiar with today were chosen based on their amazing set of skills and talents,
as well as an array of privileges, timing, and sometimes pure luck. What’s missing from western 
art history are the people,   and cultures that influenced these movements. Those who have had a great deal of 
influence, yet are rarely recognized. The Japanese artists who inspired Van Gogh
and Degas. Picasso and Modigliani’s African-influenced periods, and the ideals of indigenous art
that inspired contemporary artists to represent in their artworks something beyond themselves. We live in a visual world, constantly looking
at images whether we realize it or not. Through learning about art, we can see where
we’ve come from, who we were as a society, and most importantly we can make informed
decisions about where we want to be, and what we need to do today, to live in a more inclusive
world tomorrow.
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