The difference between Modern Art and Contemporary Art explained

Pieter Paul Hensels, Author Gallerease
Pieter Paul Hensels
10 Articles

"How do we distinguish modern and contemporary art?" That's a question which is frequently asked by newcomers to the art market. Thankfully, the transition between these two art styles has been thoroughly described by art historians. In this article we outline the main differences as we take a look at the most representative works of modern and contemporary art. 

Modern art and abandoning the classical principles

It is difficult to pinpoint precisely when modern art began. However, there rests a general consensus that the roots of modern art lie in mid-19th century France. Artists like Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), Edouard Manet (1832-1883) and the Impressionist movement broke into new grounds by defying the prevailing academic traditions, instead pushing for a naturalistic representation of the world.

Manet's 'Déjeuner sur l’ herbe' (fig. 1), is one of those revolutionary examples. It was first exhibited at the 1863 Salon des Refusés, a popular exhibition in Paris where all of the rejects from the official Salon exhibition were assembled. There, it generated laughter and outrage.

Modern art painting titled Manet's Diner sur l'herbe 1. Éduard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l’ herbe, 1863, oil on canvas, Musée d’ Orsay, Paris.

Evidently the public was most upset by the "ordinary" setting. The painting depicts a nude woman in the company of two men dressed in everyday attire, enjoying a picnic in the grass. It completely ignores the classical and mythological tradition, causing the woman's nudity to be perceived as inappropriate.

Furthermore, critics could not wrap their heads around the unrealistic representation of the woodlands and were especially offended by the bathing girl in the background who served no purpose in this painting.


Modern art and defying the representational role

While Manet’s work distressed critics, it paved the way for the Post-Impressionists. They distinguished themselves by their choice of subject matter and their rejection of a collective way of seeing. Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) was one of the leading Post-Impressionists; in his work he focussed on the lines and planes and colours that comprise nature, resulting in a more abstract picture.

Mont Saint-Victoire seen from Bibemus Quarry by Paul Cézanne2. Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Bibemus Quarry, 1897, oil on canvas, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore.

In the painting 'Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Bibemus Quarry' (1897, fig. 2), Cézanne translated his direct observations of nature into small patches of warmer and cooler colours, bringing about a shift in common perception.


Modern art and fragmenting forms

Inspired by Cézanne’s endeavours to free the art of painting from its representational role and instead to focus on pure forms, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) pushed the boundaries of abstraction even further.

'Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon' (1907, fig. 3) is perhaps one of the most characteristic examples of this transition. The painting depicts five female nudes, yet their forms have been fragmented and interwoven with the equally jagged background. Through this painting, Picasso completely abandoned the traditional concept of a unified pictorial space for the first time in history.

The painting laid the foundations for the Cubism movement, in which a subject is fragmented into its geometrical components and often represented from several angles at once. Although the Cubists hyper fragmented their subjects, the forms always remained recognisable.

Modern Picasso painting les Demoissels d'Avignon3. Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon, 1907, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Modern art and non-objectivity

Fuelled by his interest in philosophy, religion, innovative scientific theories and music, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was one of the first artists to paint in an entirely non-objective manner, exemplified by 'Composition VII' (1913, fig. 4). This painting displays the artist’s repudiation of pictorial representation through a tumultuous rolling of shapes, colours and lines, demonstrating no discernible point of departure in the portrayal of recognizable subjects.

Kadinsky modern painting titled Composition VII4. Vasily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913. Oil on canvas, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Even though the artistic ambitions of Manet, Cézanne, Picasso and Kandinsky differed, all of their work is considered to be Modern Art. Modern Art presented an aesthetic response to modernity; to fundamental changes in society brought about by the industrial revolution and the introduction of the modern capitalist economy.

As a result, artists began breaking down forms and questioning the representational role of paintings. This slowly developed through a series of artistic movements. Besides Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Cubism, movements such as Symbolism, Fauvism, Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Dadaism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism also belong under the umbrella of Modern Art.


Contemporary art and concept vs. finished product

Most art historians will pin-point the late 1960's as a major turning point for the art world. Generally speaking, art created after this point in time may be considered as Contemporary Art, including conceptual art, performance art, minimalism, pop art, and video art. As of the late 1960's, the underlying concept became more important than the aesthetic qualities of the work.

For the first time in history, the process of making art received more attention than the final product. That process sometimes even required the participation of the audience, such as Yves Klein’s 'Performance Anthropometries of the Blue Period' (1960, fig. 5).

Yves Klein contemporary art performance titled performance Anthropometries of the Blue Period5. Yves Klein, Anthropometries of the Blue Period, 1960. Galérie Internationale d’art Contemporaine, Paris. Painted girls, like wet human brushes, are gliding upon sheets of paper in front of the audience.

But it was also the meaning and the cultural value of art itself which was questioned by artists. A celebrated example is Joseph Kosuth’s (1945) first conceptual work 'One and Three Chairs' (1965, fig. 6), in which a real chair is accompanied by a photograph of the chair and the dictionary definition of the word “chair”.

This slippery juxtaposition suggests that the image and the text have become interchangeable, consequently annihilating the traditional distinctions. By casting doubt onto the status of a photograph, Kosuth calls all representational art into question. This work laid the foundations of a trend that favoured the idea or the concept of a work over the physical object.

Contemporary conceptual work One and Three Chairs6. Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965. Wood folding chair, mounted photograph of a chair, and mounted photographic enlargement of the definition of “chair’, Museum of Modern Art, New York.  

This intrinsic debate is essential to contemporary art. Other then that, contemporary art covers a million different styles and approaches to art.


Contemporary art and engagement

A lot of art produced in the last thirty years is also connected to social and political issues. The work 'Sirens of the Lambs' (2013, fig. 8), made by the street artist Banksy, shows a bunch of puppet animals peeking out of a truck, squeaking with fear. It forms a blatant critique on the casual cruelty of food industry.

Banksy socially conscious contemporary art Siren of the Lambs7. Banksy, Sirens of the Lambs, 2.


And for instance, the controversial artist Damien Hirst (1965) creates figurative and non-figurative paintings and sculptures (fig. 7).

Damian Hirst contemporary artwork The persuit of oblivion8. Damien Hirst, The Persuit of Oblivion, 2004. Glass, painted stainless steel, silicone, stainless steel butcher's rack and meat hooks, knives, sharpening steels, cleavers, saws, stainless steel chain, umbrella, resin hat, cloak, bird cage, resin books, resin armchair, resin walking cane, resin shoes, motorcycle helmet, sides of beef, sausages, dove and formaldehyde solution.


Conclusion: how to distinguish modern and contemporary art?


First of all, Modern Art and Contemporary Art are from two different periods. The Modern Art period includes work from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, roughly from 1880 through the 1960s. Modern Art is also often an expression of individuality. While Contemporary Art focuses more on social impact, with society as the primary focus. It can be also be said that Contemporary Art focuses on the present and the future and Modern Art refers to an era that has been passed.

We hope this article has provide you a better understanding between the differences between these two art styles.

If you are interested to see or buy  available modern and contemporary artworks? Please, have a look at the Gallerease website for more Modern Art and Contemporary Art!


* The image in the header is "Color Study Squares with Concentric Circles" by Wassily Kandinsky, 1913. Watercolor, gouache and crayon on paper 9.4 × 12.4" (23.8 × 31.4 cm), Munich, The Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus

Written by Pieter Paul Hensels on 11 Mar 2021, 10:00 Category EducationalTagged Contemporary Art , Background information, Modern Art (1860s-1970s)
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