How to Understand Modern Art

This modern art post will help you understand the origins of abstract creative thinking.

It will give you greater confidence to evaluate and feel comfortable understanding weird modern art .

Below, I broadly outline the development of abstract art and conclude with reflections and examples on how modern art relates specifically to our time.

But here’s the main point of the article….

Point 1. Modern art helps create freedom for people by challenging conventional thinking

fountain 1917 866x1024 How to Understand Modern Art

‘Fountain’ sculpture created in 1917 by Marcel Duchamp. The work presented an enormous challenge to conventional thinking about what exactly is art?

In our instantly accessible modern era, digital photography is taken for granted. It’s difficult to imagine in previous generations photography once didn’t exist.

Painting and drawing was once the only way to capture and record real life. People believed the best art must look real.

Point 2. Therefore, master artists like Rembrandt or Rubens were greatly admired in high Renaissance society.

The intricate detail of horses in battle and aristocratic portraits of noble kings and queens were only accessible by the wealthy class. The gap between the rich and poor was enormous.

In contrast to the instantly accessible digital photography of today, creating a realistic painting during the Renaissance was extremely time consuming and very expensive.

But the industrial revolution and modernist thinking changed everything.

Photography developed. And the printing press too. Suddenly factories were able to print and distribute images and information on a wide scale.

The poor became more educated.

A middle class developed and commodities were produced on mass scale. Goods became less expensive.

Point 3. Modern Art encouraged the spread of new ideas, freedom of thought and extensive commercial progress

With new modern ways of thinking, abstract art began to flourish too.

It offered greater freedom for innovative artists like Picasso. Abstract art is common today, however it wasn’t always a popular way of thinking.

Early abstract artists encountered great difficulty breaking through the public mindset. People had grown comfortable with paintings that looked real.

Point 4. The traditional mindset is always resistant to change.

One famous modernist piece of abstract art by Marcel Duchamp was painted in 1912 and titled ‘Nude descending the staircase’ pictured below. I love the painting but at the time….

It caused great controversy.

Marcel Duchamp   Nude Descending a Staircase How to Understand Modern Art

‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ (1912) by Marcel Duchamp. Oil on Canvas 147 cm × 89.2 cm Philidelphia Museum of Art

The painting and the artist are famous for encountering massive opposition and public outcry, so much so, that Marcel Duchamp removed his painting from the wall midway through the exhibition.

He later focussed upon playing chess abandoning the art world all together.

One New York Times critic disdainfully wrote the painting looked like ‘an explosion in a shingle factory’ hence the reference to factories – a concept dominant in the minds of people living during the industrial revolution.

However, there is an element of truth to the critic’s comment. It’s no coincidence that Duchamp’s painting contains visual elements similar to the rhythmic repetitive nature of a machine in operation.

Point 5. The mass production of industrial life was changing the way people perceived themselves.

During the industrial, or shall we say modernist era, three towering figures of modern art arose.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) Picasso and Duchamp who helped define a new visual direction and entirely new way of thinking, gave validity to the liberating ideas underpinning abstract art.

The history of art provides a long list of artists who changed public thinking altering the dominant status quo in society.

Modern Art has become a culturally acceptable vehicle for change

Duchamp, Picasso and Matisse were often ridiculed for challenging conventional thinking. Their emerging abstract style of paintings, were frighteningly bold for the time and excessively unrealistic.

Point 6. Artists have long played the role of provoking society, being the instigators of change and challenging conventional thinking.

Innovative paintings were difficult for the public to accept as genuine artwork during the 1900’s. Once again, new ideas from visionary artists had provoked mainstream society’s traditional comfortable mindset about what indeed was art?

The Joy of Life by Henri Matisse 1905 Oil on Canvas 175x241cm How to Understand Modern Art

‘The Joy of Life’ by Henri Matisse (1905) Oil on Canvas 175 x 241cm

The shape and form of Matisse’s paintings conveyed emotional force. Heavily influenced by traditional paintings, Matisse was also inspired by his contemporaries Gaugin, Cezanne and Van Gogh who also used colour excessively.

Point 7. Matisse is considered one of the founding fathers of modern art, his use of colour astounded the traditional mindset

Never before had a painter been so pure, unrealistic and imaginative in his approach to colour. He quickly became known for his radical position and always displayed signs of quiet rebelliousness throughout his career.

Matisse was in constant search for freedom.

His life might be interpreted as a continual struggle to break free. Eliminating barriers of constraint. A pattern typified by the history of modern art. Matisse once said,

“An artist must never be a prisoner. Prisoner? An artist should never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of style, prisoner of reputation, prisoner of success…” – Henri Matisse

Breaking from traditions of the past, Henri Matisse led an art movement called the ‘Fauves’ in 1905. Meaning ‘the wild beasts’. This title referred to the group’s use of extreme emotionalism, vivid colours and distorted shapes.

Predictably, the Fauves first exhibition brought a hostile public response. One critic wrote, ‘A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public’

Matisse Les Toits de Collioure 1905 How to Understand Modern Art

‘Les Toits de Collioure’ by Henri Matisse (1905) Oil on canvas 59.5 cm × 73 cm Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

Point 8. When artists express a vision  people have never seen before, great opposition and vehement criticism often follows.

Here’s 3 things I love most about abstract art.

Firstly, in every sense, abstract art is liberating. Unpredictable and uncontrollable, it challenges people to think differently on a variety of levels. Especially, questioning the concept of commercial value .

People struggle to understand why someone would pay millions of dollars, for what looks like child’s artwork at kindergarten?

Henri Matisse | Patitcha souriante (Patitcha smiling) 1947 | Purchased 1993 with funds from the International Exhibitions Program | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © Henri Matisse 1947/Succession H Matisse/Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2011

Matisse understood how people thought in his day, but he didn’t allow it to stifle the creative ideas and purity of art he pursued.

Power 9. Matisse understood the power and longevity of an idea, to overcome restrictions created by mainstream narrow-mindedness.

I love creating abstract paintings. And can never predict results. There is freedom in relaxing and ‘going with the flow.’ Allowing the paint control the direction of the artwork.

During this process, the subconscious mind is free to depict what needs to be expressed.

There have been many paintings and drawings I have created whereby an image has emerged I had no conscious control in bringing to life. As an artist, this is fascinating to observe.

The most famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung once taught, the subconscious mind expresses deeply intuitive, often important messages to people through archetypes and dreams. Likewise, Matisse emphasized the importance of intuition and instinct in the creative process.

Similar to abstract art, the subconscious mind creates abstracted fragmented messages unfamiliar to the conscious mind and difficult to process through logical conventional thinking. Salvador Dali expressed this phenomena in his surrealist paintings.

Abstract art accommodates for the unpredictability and irrationality of the human mind.

Point 10. Matisse believed he was not in control of the creative process. But that colour and form dictated the painting themselves.

The second thing I love about abstract art is the variety of responses it evokes from viewers. Some people simply love the shapes. Other people are touched by an emotional reaction to the colours .

Still others have very personal interpretations of the subject matter, discovering specific meaning to their inner lives. One doesn’t have to be a highly intelligent or well educated person to enjoy abstract art. It’s accessible to everyone on every level.

Modern art offers unique value to individuals and abstract art respects and encourages diversity. Honouring people’s different perspectives.

The Peninsula 1024x835 How to Understand Modern Art

‘The Peninsula’ by Simon Brushfield (2010) oil & acrylic on canvas, 2m x 1.8m (Sold: Private Collection)

In the painting above I was commissioned by an Australian art collector, who wanted a large abstract piece for his lounge room.

Like Matisse, the painting contains a mix of realistic and unrealistic emotive colours and imaginative subject matter symbolic of the owner’s personal background and happy childhood by the sea.

Point 11. Unlike mathematics, in modern art there are no right or wrongs.

Henri Matisse wanted to express hope through the purity and power of colour. He acknowledged difficulties encountered in life and saw art as a means of bringing hope and happiness into a troubled world. He once said,

“What I dream of is an art of balance, purity, and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter….a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue” – Henri Matisse

I love Matisse’s paintings because his artwork displays courage, a fierce determination and skilful ability to break into new territory, leaving behind a legacy of artistic and personal freedom for others to enjoy.

Point 12. Modern art epitomises the human spirit and its passionate desire to experience new and greater levels of  freedom

From my perspective, the Matisse legacy encourages people to live life to the fullest. In bright, beautiful colour. Even through difficulties, criticisms and vehement opposition. To expand upon conventional thinking in a persons life, increases their freedom. Modern art helps people to expand horizons. Thereby, improving the quality of lives.

This is priceless.

Henri Matisse was an intuitive artist who accepted gracefully the challenging consequences of living, loving and thinking in new ways. Allowing nothing to halt his creative progress. He once said,

“He who loves, flies, runs and rejoices; he is free and nothing holds him back.” – Henri Matisse

These ideals are expressed in his sentimental painting at the beginning of this article, titled ‘The Joy of Life.’ Henri Matisse lived and worked during a time of great change, historians term ‘Modernism.’ An era heavily influenced by the industrial revolution.

Similarly, we live in a time of significant change, characterised by the information age. Historians have broadly labelled our era ‘Postmodernism’.

My abstract painting below is a visual interpretation of the postmodernist life.

Postmodernism 791x1024 How to Understand Modern Art

‘Postmodernism’ by Simon Brushfield (2011) Oil and Acrylic on Canvas 80cm x 60cm (framed)

Maybe you would like to find out more about Simon Brushfield’s original paintings, or your possibly thinking of purchasing a piece of modern art, if so,

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About Simon Brushfield

Simon Brushfield is an artist whose work has been described as ‘poetic, enigmatic and dreamlike’ (Michael Berry, "Selected Contemporary Artists of Australia" book). His paintings have been exhibited and sold across Australia and internationally. If you enjoyed this post, sign up to Simons VIP list and have posts sent directly to your inbox.

Comments

  1. Hello Simon,

    I wanted to thank you for taking the time to write this website. I appreciate the background and explanations behind the thought process that goes into abstract art.

    Perhaps I’m a bit traditionalist (read: outdated) in my education in art, but one thing I am still baffled about is how abstract art is critically evaluated. Let me clarify: in my “traditional” art classes, I’ve been taught to analyze paintings in terms of geometric shapes, lines, positioning of objects on the work, color scheme, focus of the composition, etc.

    But when I go to art galleries, and I see paintings where it’s just a big canvas all in one color…or maybe a canvas with random splatters of paint on it, how do I evaluate that? You made a rhetorical question earlier in your post about why a piece of art may be considered genius by critics, when the average viewer thinks any kindergartener could have produced it.

    I do enjoy modern art in general, and I’m hoping you can help me appreciate it the way that art critics do.

    Thanks,
    Steve

    • Hi Steve, thanks for your input into an interesting topic.
      Like the average lay person, all critics think differently and appreciate different aspects of the art world. What I think is most important in art, is what excites the individual. What inspires you? What other people think is kind of irrelevant for me. I like to be moved by art, and if a large canvas with one colour doesn’t move me, I pay little attention to it despite what highly acclaimed critics think.
      But that being said, I really appreciate a strong idea.
      An idea can be expressed in detail, but also by elegant simplicity. To simplify the complex, now that takes creative skill. So in those instances an idea that breaks new ground is very important to me. Finally, let me say that the traditional principles will always be important so your early art classes gave you a solid background to begin evaluating the essentials of modern art. Thanks, Simon

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