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The World - People & Culture - Modern Art

Understanding Modern Painting
by Rosario (Y5C, 2006-07)

I decided to do this oral presentation because of the very interesting presentation Juan did the other day in class. As I was listening to him, I started having a lot of ideas to write about, which I had to reduce because I had too many ideas to write about! So I thought I could do an oral presentation about modern painting, including helpful practical explanations to understand it.

When you go to an exhibition of modern painting, or you talk to somebody about one, you can hear expressions like: “You call that art?,” “I could do better than that,” “Where is the skill in painting just a circle in the middle of the canvas?” I’m not going to say what art is and what it is not. I’m going to accept that what experts call art is art – who actually knows? - and then give some useful clues to understand it, because if you don’t understand it, there is little chance you can get to like it.

First, think about paintings you can understand and you like. Velázquez’s paintings, for example, are undoubtedly art. You look at them and you see lifelike people, still lives, landscapes. While contemplating “Las Meninas” you feel the atmosphere, the air inside the painting. In “Las Hilanderas”, the distaff is wheeling at high speed and you can see it.

Then comes the big question: Why don’t they paint pictures like that any more? Why can’t painters today do such excellent works of art? The obvious answer is – we are not in the 17th century anymore. Velázquez didn’t paint as Giotto did in the 13th century, because in four centuries artists discovered new techniques, such as perspective, or how to represent depth. So today’s artists can’t do the same Velázquez did, because there have been a lot of improvements not only in art, but also in the way of life, in politics, science and technology, and so on.

Since 1840, photography brought new possibilities to represent reality: it could fix movement, moment in space, in a durable image. In fact, the earliest photography tried to imitate painting and its compositions. Photography started to represent reality, whereas painting was displaced towards interpretation. This is a great change, but there are more.

The new social class, the bourgeoisie wanted portraits and landscapes, like the ones the aristocracy had. There was a new market for art, with more consumers and therefore with more money. So painters felt less engaged to people in power and freer to experiment and stay away from classical ways of working.

Another important point was the development of Psychology at the end of the 19th century. Freud and his researches discovered the importance of subconscious, the interpretation of dreams, the inside workings of the human mind.

One more reason why painting changed was industrialization and the development of cities, with factories and machines, which brought along a new way of life. In fact, it is said that human life has changed more in 100 years than in the previous 2000.

All these transformations and discoveries had to be reflected in art and painters started to experiment and discover new paths. But this has always happened – it is not new. Going back to Velázquez, he was a great artist not only because he painted well, but also because he made some contributions to art. Actually, there would be a “before” and an “after Velázquez.” In his time, like in every time, there were good painters, but only a few had something new to say. And at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, there were more new things to say than ever. All the “-isms” brought brand new ways to approach the new reality through art.

For Expressionism, for example, the canvas was where artists could express their emotions and the tool to make the spectator feel the same. Edward Munch is one of the most representative expressionists, and his painting “The Scream” is one of my favourites pieces of art.  It doesn’t represent the world literally, but it makes me feel loneliness, a sensation of anguish – it moves me. And all this is exactly what Munch tried to express. Actually, he explained this work by saying: “Alone, trembling with anguish, I felt the vast, infinite scream of nature.”

Another movement, Futurism, was in favour of machines. Futurists thought only machines could make people feel happier. And they tried to express movement and speed in the canvas, reflecting modern life and the future.

Surrealism is, maybe, the best-known of those new movements. It is related to the world of dreams, subconsciousness, a whole world that is in the human mind and escapes from reason. Remember Dalí's paintings: contemplating them is like being inside a dream, because you can recognize the “things” (the watches, for example), but they are used in an irrational manner, such as it happens in your dreams. They have their own internal logic, but it is not rational.

Then, as the 20th century went by, these movements were developed and started to mix. It was becoming increasingly difficult to understand art without knowing about where it was coming from. As modern art doesn’t reflect the reality as it is, one recurrent piece of criticism that you can hear everywhere is that the artist didn’t know how to paint. A painting may look childish, very simple, but it is a valuable work of art because it is the consequence of the artist’s growth and experimentation. Think of Mondrian, for example, who painted big squares and rectangles, used plain colours, and separated them using black lines. Technically it looks easy, but it’s not, and it has a deep meaning: Mondrian developed a new artistic language reducing natural forms into their abstract essence. He wanted his paintings to express a universal truth. He did not want, to study an object but the plastic laws that grow from the picture itself. That’s why he only used the three primary colours (blue, red and yellow) and horizontal and vertical lines, all with a symbolic value: vertical lines represented man, space, static, harmony; and horizontal lines meant woman, time, dynamism, melody. So you may think you can actually draw those lines, but the only thing you would be doing is copying Mondrian once you have seen his work, and your painting would not have the meaning Mondrian pictures have.

If you want to appreciate modern art, you have got to know where it comes from and the context it was produced in. We cannot apply the same criteria we use for classic art to appreciate its value. Remember this sentence: “If the artist only copied nature, the best artist should be the mirror”.

The Scream, by Munch