A broad term used to describe the various movements in art, architecture, literature and music from the late nineteenth century to the 1960s. Modernism in visual art involved a break from traditional values and styles and the development of new forms in art and society believed to be more suitable to the industrial age. It emerged predominantly in Europe and America in the early twentieth century and dominated Western culture throughout the 1900s.

Pablo Picasso Mère et enfant [Mother and Child] 1902 © Succession Picasso. DACS, London 2023

The Origins of Modernism

Modernism is an open term encompassing many styles and spanning several decades, referring to art, architecture, design and literature from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century that embraced all aspects of the new. Poet Ezra Pound summed up the movement with his famous slogan, 'Make it new!'.

The exact starting point for Modernism has been argued by art historians, with some considering French Realist painter Edouard Manet to be the first true Modernist, while others cite Symbolism, Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism and Post-Impressionism as the foundations for the following decades.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a period of rapid industrial, social and intellectual change, with new ideas emerging in all strands of society including technology, industry, psychology, philosophy and political theory. As a result, the Romantic, idealised and historical Victorianism that had permeated visual culture was growing increasingly out of touch with modern society. Making a break with the past, artists associated with Modernism embraced modernity and industrialisation through a series of ever-changing, radical and experimental ideas.

Early Modernism in Europe

At the turn of the century, a succession of art movements erupted across Europe, particularly in Paris, before, during and after the two World Wars. These ground-breaking movements included Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Futurism, and Dadaism, led by progressive, forward-thinking artists with fiercely independent ideas, each in turn producing various manifestos outlining their schools of thought, a period often referred to as the avant-garde.

While artists and styles amongst these groups were diverse, they were united by several shared ideas, namely a focus on innovation and experimentation, a tendency towards abstraction and an emphasis on the expressive use of materials. Many early Modernists also explored the dissolution of form to break apart traditional values of representation, particularly seen in the Cubist work of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

Modernism after the First World War

Following the carnage of the First World War in 1918 most of these groups disbanded, with members fleeing Europe, becoming war artists or being killed in battle. Some who survived joined the next generation to focus on the reinvention of a new, better society through art, such as the highly influential Dutch De Stijl movement led by Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, producing distinctive spare, geometric styles of art and architecture in bold primary colours.

Modernism in the United States

During and after the Second World War a large number of artists fled Europe to the United States. New York was a popular city for ex-pats including Mondrian, Fernand Léger, Max Ernst and Andre Breton, and the city became a thriving artistic community. Modernist ideas filtered through to the next generation, leading to the development of a series of styles that continued to explore the new, brave and experimental, including Abstract Expressionism, Colour Field Painting, Hard Edge Painting, and Minimalism.

High Modernism

The second wave of Modernism that emerged in New York between 1940 and 1960 was generally less anarchic and fragmented than its predecessor. Artists worked towards greater levels of purity and simplicity, particularly seen in the Minimalist work of Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Agnes Martin, a period often referred to as High Modernism. Artists including Sean Scully and Mark Rothko sought to invest a greater sense of spirituality and emotion into their art through simplified forms, resonant colours and a sense of internal light, elevating them to the status of religious icons.

Renowned art critic Clement Greenberg is often cited as the chief spokesperson for this brand of geometric, abstract art from the mid-twentieth century. In his influential essay Modernist Painting, he celebrates 'art for art’s sake', which is reflective and self-aware, stating, 'Modernism used art to call attention to art'.


By the late 1960s, many artists felt the pure styles of geometric Modernism that had emerged in the United States had become too removed from real life. Their ideas were superseded by Post-modernism, Postminimalism, Arte Povera and, most predominantly, Pop Art, which quickly became the hip new voice for American art. Nonetheless, the far-reaching influence of Modernism was profound, with its emphasis on modernity, materiality and experimentation continuing to shape the future of art practice.