Modern vs. Contemporary

I have often overheard the phrase ‘eugh. I hate Modern Art’.

This always puzzles me. So I go on to clarify by asking “so you don’t like Van Gogh? Cezanne? Or Picasso?”

These artists, believe it or not, are considered as ‘Modern’, despite having been born in the 1800s.

It might be more accurate to say that you dislike ‘Contemporary’ art, if you truly feel this way at all. And yes, in the art world, there is a big difference between Modern and Contemporary Art.

Fear not, this is not an Art Theory themed post that will discuss the mammoth question of:

What. Is. Art?

(cue a dusty study and an elderly gentleman in tweed suit with a pipe musing over what, actually, defines an artwork)

Probably best not to open that can of worms.

Whilst accepting that not everything can fit into a category according to a list of tick boxes, this short post is merely to help clarify some of the main differences between Modern and Contemporary Art so that we’re all on the same page, artistically speaking.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I will begin:

Modern Art

Comes from Modernism, that is, a difference or departure from a continuing tradition.

Many artists, around the turn of the 20th century, no longer wished to paint the world ‘traditionally’. They began to use strange shapes, colours and materials in their work to create distorted or exaggerated representations of the world around them.

Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907

This is recognised to have been born in European cities as far back as about the 1860s and goes hand-in-hand with the development of the ‘Modern World’ and Industrialisation. It was in the 1800s that the world sped up – trains, cars, even photography were all developed in this century and Art too began to evolve and reflect this change with dynamic colour and angular forms.

It was at the beginning of the 1900s when Cubism began to flourish that generally provides a starting point for what we perhaps think of as Modern in the Art World. Modern Art then gave way to Abstract Art, which is the kinda black-square-in-the-middle-of-a-white-canvas sort of thing.

So, given the above, we could group both Monet (b.1840-d.1926) and Pablo Picasso (b.1881-1973) under the same ‘Modernist’ umbrella even though their styles are so different.

Both artists broke away from the traditional format of depicting the world in one key feature: their use of colour. All the blends of pinks, yellows, oranges etc in Monet’s late works such as the Water Lilies are increasingly Impressionist and even at times, could be considered as Abstract.

Monet, Water Lilies, 1920-26. Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris

Picasso’s Blue Period and Rose Period, when he was painting using only hues of these two colours (before he even got to Cubism), could be considered just as modern as Monet, artistically speaking. Picasso went a step further and, being inspired by African wood carving, he introduced sharp, angular elements to his work. See Picasso’s Les Dems above from 1907. Notice some of the women even wear African masks (not dodgy make-up as it might first appear).

It would seem then, that Modern Art can actually be quite old. Or at least, older perhaps than we expected, just to confuse things. Excellent.

Ok, let’s now look (briefly) at:

Contemporary Art

Contemporary art, which includes Post Modernism, is generally dated from the 1970s to the present. It differs from Modern Art to include not only traditional methods like painting, drawing and sculpture but also performance art, land art, video art and installation art.

During the 1970s, there was arguably a shift within the Art World when painting, in its traditional sense, took a bit of a back seat. Photography began to play a far larger role in an artist’s work. In America and Europe, artists experimented with making art with mass media images – hello Mr Warhol and his Mao Zedong portrait from the early 70s. Contemporary art also tends to be by a living artist or one who has lived in and produced work from the 1970s.

Contemporary art addresses Social Issues more heavily. For example, Grayson Perry’s tapestries which explore ‘taste’ and ‘class’ in British society today. Perry’s work, a contemporary take on William Hogarth’s 18th century paintings known as A Rake’s Progress, dissects contemporary class mobility and the influence that social class has on our aesthetic taste.

Grayson Perry, Upper Class at Bay, 2012

Another contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei from China, produces art works which speak out against human rights abuses and the need for reform in China. His work entitled Straight,  exhibited at the Royal Academy in London last year, is made of 90 tonnes of steel reinforcing rods used in construction to provide a sort of skeletal frame for a building. The artwork comments on the poor standards of regional building projects in China, specifically in relation to the devastation left by the Sechuan earthquake where the rods for the artwork were all sourced.

Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2008-12


So, if you’re still with me, how can we sum up?

Well, if Modern art had a dating profile, I guess she/he would describe themselves as follows: I’m edgy, colourful and I like to find my next outfit in the closest vintage store.

Contemporary Art, on the other hand, might say something along the lines of: I’m interested in the ‘here and now’, and think it’s important to question our society. Plus, I’m partial to the occasional suede jacket and flared jeans.

If you fancy getting to know Modern Art better, there’s a great choice in London at the moment. Not only do you have the permanent collection at the Tate Modern and their fancy new extension (free entry for all), but there’s also the Picasso Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery as well as the Abstract Expressionism at the RA.

Or, if Contemporary is more up your street there’s always the Whitechapel Gallery, The Serpentine Galleries or perhaps the White Cube, Bermondsey. For more intimate venues, have a walk around Mayfair which is scattered with hundreds of small contemporary art galleries that showcase some unique and exciting up-and-coming artists hot off the press.

So, your Blind Date moment has come.

Tonight Cilla, I’m going to choose… 


3 thoughts on “Modern vs. Contemporary

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s