Defining Modern Art

André Dombrowski, Frances Shapiro-Weitzenhoffer Associate Professor of 19th-Century European Art, discusses modern art’s origins, influences, and impacts.

Friday, November 19, 2021

By Jane Carroll

(L–R) Frédéric Bazille, Young Woman with Peonies, 1870; Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Seine, c. 1902; Kazimir Severinovich Malevich, A Peasant Woman Goes for Water, 1913; Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest No. 8 - Adulthood, 1907

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In the history of art, the term modern art encompasses a wide range of artistic practices and time frames, resisting easy definition. André Dombrowski, Frances Shapiro-Weitzenhoffer Associate Professor of 19th-Century European Art, attempts to define it—or at least describe and circumscribe it—in a new undergraduate course called What Is Modern Art? “It’s very much devised as a course offering an archaeology of the students’ current relationship to art, to new media, and image culture more broadly,” says Dombrowski.

Here, Dombrowski shares his thoughts on what makes art modern. He says the lack of any one, clear-cut definition of the term is not necessarily a bad thing. “I’m not a one-answer kind of person,” he says.


How do you describe modern art?

On a basic level, modern art describes the period roughly from the late 19th century to the 1960s, and it tends to include art made in Europe and North America but was obviously a global phenomenon. The “isms” most people are familiar with—Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, and so forth—are subsets of Modernism.

On a more conceptual level, modern art, or Modernism, implies a particular mindset and a particular practice—a willingness to double down on the category of art itself, to question it, to interrogate it, to be particularly self-aware about the concept of art and the various practices of art making. In that sense, Modernism is a willingness to experiment, to take things to extremes, to push the boundaries, to break existing rules and protocols.

That interrogation or experimentation can happen at the level of form—digging into the structures and materials of painting, sculpture, or photography.

It can be experiments with identity, such as when someone like Andy Warhol photographed himself in a number of guises, or the 19th-century artist Rosa Bonheur dressed in men’s clothing to gain access to the male-dominated art establishment. Or, some artists projected themselves into different (better) futures or pasts.

Modern art can offer visions of different communities and collectivities, new gender and sexual norms, and postcolonial conditions, even new forms of museum practice and other, more open forms of cultural and institutional belonging.

And finally, Modernism can mean an experimentation within, and with, the social. Modern art can offer visions of different communities and collectivities, new gender and sexual norms, and postcolonial conditions, even new forms of museum practice and other, more open forms of cultural and institutional belonging. The best modernist art is perhaps that in which form is probed substantively for social meaning and resonance.


Are there particular works of art or artists that critics point to as the beginning of the modern period?

It’s one of the central questions of Modernist studies in art history, and there isn’t a clear-cut answer because different scholars come down on different sides of the above polarities. For those interested in form and formalism, Modernism starts in the late 19th century with Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, and Vincent Van Gogh, that moment around 1890 when a whole group of artists started to use color independently—painting trees blue and so on—or when they obliterated Renaissance perspectival space. Some go further back to Édouard Manet in the 1860s and say that he’s the one who started to break actively with established academic rules of the past within his paintings.

The other group of scholars is more interested in the relationship between Modernism and modernity, in the social origins of Modernism. They tend to take the story still further back. Some say that Modernism began with the American, French, and Haitian revolutions, or the American Civil War. Their argument would sound something like this: It’s in those moments when the instability and volatility of the political and colonial environments emerge most articulately, and therefore the formal experimentations of art and artistic practice can respond more easily to what’s happening on a social level.

I don’t think there is a camp that truly wins out, and the conversation between them is what energizes so much of this debate. When I teach this, I introduce students to both of these origin stories. I do think that the truth of the matter is somewhere in between.


What is the relationship between Modernism in visual art and literature?

From the very beginnings of modern art, those lines are very blurry and fine artists were friends with poets and writers. There are many examples in which the milieu of writing and the milieu of the fine arts deeply intersected. And there are poets, like Stéphane Mallarmé, who were very interested in what one might call visual poetry, where the word and the letter become visual sign and image. And once that happens, there really is no longer a true distinction between the fine arts and poetic or literary expression.


How did cultural events like wars and technological advances impact Modernism? 

Wars and technological advancements are social vehicles of change, so if you have an artistic movement that banks everything on changing existing norms and practices, then it in turn will feed on those historical moments during which change itself registers forcefully—when new social orders get tested or old political regimes overthrown, often by violent means. Modern art thrives on those moments and conditions when life itself is interrupted and disrupted, either in terms of politics or when it comes to gender norms or race relations. That kind of coming together, a willingness to explore the boundaries of form at the very moment when the social is at its most volatile—I think that combination energizes modern art profoundly.

Secondly, modern art of course has a technocratic bent. Modern artists think of art-making often in almost militaristic terms—a “call to arms,” or, a “let’s tear this down.” In many ways, Modernism has a deeply violent rhetoric, and sometimes violent practices as well, at its core. And those tend to reverberate more when a whole culture speaks in similar desires for change and social restructuring. So, it’s a loop—political culture and art feeding each other.


Some critics see Modernism as primarily male and Euro-centric. Is that a fair characterization?

I’m not sure whether Modernism (or modern art) in itself deserves the label of being male and Euro-centric. The historic record is truly diverse and wide ranging, and art history is making expanded efforts currently to demonstrate the true breadth of art-making in the modern era, with new histories of Black Modernisms and Feminist Modernisms and Queer Modernisms being written. They have mainly just not been told enough. So, I would rather lay the blame at those powerful institutions, like museums and art academies, art history departments, art magazines, journals of art history, that have shaped artistic preferences and tastes over centuries, but also a broader bias that has favored a modern art to be this virile, white, Euro-centric, North American kind of thing.


Where does the postmodern period begin?

This is as difficult to answer as the question of when modern art begins. Some say the postmodern period has never truly begun, because we are still living through a late phase of Modernism and modernity itself. But if one were to make the following distinction—that Modernism is a concentration on the category of art itself and an ontological questioning of art as a practice, then postmodern art is somewhat more interested in the social functions of art, the social meanings that surround the artwork, and in bringing out those social implications. If one looks carefully, there’s a postmodern strand that runs parallel to Modernism itself; despite the “post” prefix, they are contemporaries. Much of the course I’m teaching is anchored around World War I, and in an utterly parallel manner, pure abstraction emerges in Hilma af Klint, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, and others, just around this time. But in those same years, Marcel Duchamp is making the first readymades and the nihilistic Dada movement is in the offing as well. It’s a much more looping and recursive narrative overall, rather than a jump from Modernism to Postmodernism.