Monday, August 18, 2008

Lesson 5- Meaning of Art Styles and Trends in the 20th and 21st Centuries

When you look at visual arts like painting, you can easily understand what the artists are trying to communicate to the viewers when you have experienced what the artworks convey. It is important to analyze and understand the meaning of art in painting.

To analyze and understand painting, you can use elements and principles of art to get its meaning. Artists may use icons and symbols to show an obvious or sometimes hidden intention or message.

There was a continuous search for meaning in art at the beginning of the 20th century. Pablo Picasso, the most inventive genius, opened a new direction on his experimentation with form. In his artworks, he showed faces of hunger, loneliness, poverty, and bereavement using shades of blue. The figures were distorted to emphasize the conditions. Picasso painted one of the most powerful paintings of all time his “Guernica”.

In this painting, he used the cubist medium to show the horror and destruction brought about by the German bombing of a Basque town in the Pyrenes. Several styles in painting came out such as expressionism, surrealism, dadaism, and social realism. Artists use their styles to show their fears, to show horror, and protest against brutality, darkness and humanity in all forms.


Expressionism is an artistic movement where artists express their innermost feelings rather than to represent the external world. Expressionist paintings are intense, passionate, and highly personal. It is usually characterized by violent, unreal color, and dramatic brush work.

In expressionism, the artists manifest their protest against the rapid changes brought about by the machine age. Vincent Van Gogh and Edward Munch were among the oldest members of the artistic movement.


The term “Dada” is meaningless and this was given to an international “anti-art” movement that flourished from 1915 to 1922. Its main center of activity was the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, where like-minded artists, poets, writers and musicians would gather to participate in experimental activities such as: automatic drawing, nonsense poetry, and “noise music”. Dada was a violent reaction to the snobbery and traditionalism of the art establishment. Members of this movement were ready to use any means within their imagination to cause an outrage among the bourgeoisie. Two famous Dadaist painters are Francis Picabia and Marcal Duchamp.

Look at this artwork, there is nothing erotic about this machine but the title of this artwork triggers our imagination. Picabia displayed an innovative and unusual imagination using an inanimate, unerotic object to create an artwork with sexual undertones.


Surrealist painting came out from discoveries relating to the hidden desires and unconscious processes of mind. Its aim was to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality, and the ways in which this was achieved widely. Surrealist painters created unnerving and illogical scenes with photographic precision, created strange creatures from collections of every day objects. Surrealism was an art movement that sought to link the world of dreams with real life. Surreal means beyond or above reality. Surrealist paintings frequently had a dreamlike quality and depicted objects in unrealistic ways. The painting on the right shows watches melting in a landscape and the insects feed on the clockwork.

Social Realism

In Mexico and in the United States, realism allied with social consciousness, this characterized the artist’s works. Jose Clemente Orozco dramatized in his mural the “Gods of the Modern World” the social conflicts of his time. The United States during this period (1930-1950) was suffering from economic depression. Artists dealt on the subjects about social problems such as urbanism, alienation, lack of social integration, dehumanization of people, material greed and corruption, and the conflict between the interior and exterior world. Known artists who used art as a vehicle for communicating significant human experience and for shaping the human values necessary to have a truly humane society are the following.

  1. Edward Happer
  2. Anrdew Wyeth
  3. Ivan Albright
  4. George Tucker

In the advance of modernism in the United States, the mural art became alive and vigorous for a few years. Many artists worked on the walls of schools, city halls, hospitals, and other offices and buildings for their mural designs.