The Avant Gardists – Meaning, Definition, History & Examples

When one speaks of art, it cannot be avoided that “avant garde” will be mentioned at some point as a topic. Literally meaning “advanced guard,” it is a movement (in the context of art) characterized by the introduction and favoring of new ideas, some of them bordering on the unusual. This is a movement where its proponents are not afraid to experiment or try out something new, even if it may go beyond conventional norms.

There are some who consider the avant garde movement to be a hallmark of modernism. Many artists have subscribed to the avant-garde movement and still do so to this day.


The avant garde concept or idea may have been credited to Henri de Saint Simon, an influential socialist thinker. He saw the potential power of art as a prime mover of the future (of his time, the 19th century). He had this to say:

“We artists will serve you as an avant-garde, the power of the arts is most immediate: when we want to spread new ideas we inscribe them on marble or canvas. What a magnificent destiny for the arts is that of exercising a positive power over society, a true priestly function and of marching in the van [i.e. vanguard] of all the intellectual faculties!”

What can be gleaned from what he said was that art can be a powerful vehicle to express thoughts and ideas, and not just be mere decorations or an occupation of the artists; and if harnessed correctly, lead the way. True enough, avant garde has promoted social reforms, some of them being radical and this was made possible through art as Saint Simon had foreseen.

Avant Garde Schools of Thought in Art

There have been many schools of thought of art that emerged in the avant garde movement, a testament to its encouragement to experiment radical ideas that border on the unconventional. The artists were not afraid to step on proverbial toes as they dared to be different.


With its origins in Russia around the 1910s, artists wanted to “construct” art, hence the term. They rejected autonomous forms of art and wanted to do art for social purposes. This was especially true in Russia which by that time was caught up in the Bolshevik Revolution which saw the end of Romanov monarchy and the emergence of a socialist state in the Soviet Union. At the time, the Constructivists works aimed to encompass cognitive, material activity, and the whole of spirituality of humanity. Some of the artists who subscribed to this movement were Lazar Lissitzky, Vladimir Tatin, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Alexander Rodchenko. They took a non-traditional approach in doing their work. Through their artworks, artists wanted the viewer to step out of the traditional setting and make them an active viewer of the artwork before them to the extent of shocking them. These works had social and political undertones, and reflected the revolutionary times of the decade.


Originating in Italy in the early 20th century, futurism placed emphasis on speed, technology, youth, violence, the car, airplane and an industrial city. In the latter subjects, they were chosen because they symbolized modernity, they represented the victory of technology over nature. Like Constructivism, it used art to forward social ideas by glorifying modernity because the artists wanted Italy to move forward and leave its past behind despite building a proud heritage for the country considering it is the birthplace of the Renaissance (art) movement. These Futurists repudiated this rich heritage, saying those who adhere to it follow a cult of the past and all imitation.

Such artists involved in the movement were  Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Gino Severini, Giacomo Balla, and Luigi Russolo. They employed every known medium of art they found suitable for their purposes. Even though it was mainly in Italy, similar ideas have also sprung in other European countries, possibly influencing other movements.


According to one theory of its origin, the term is said to have been derived from the French colloquial word for “hobby horse.” In this movement, its artists rejected the all conventional logic, reason, and aestheticism associated with modern capitalist society. Instead, they subscribe to nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest in their works. This can be seen sometimes in parodies or bastardized versions of classic artworks that underscored their irreverence if not disrespect for it. This is a reflection of their adherence to far-left (socialist) ideas.

The art of the movement encompassed all forms of art. Dadaist artists expressed their discontent with violence, war, and nationalism which they also claimed to be concocted by capitalists only to further their interests and profit from it. Such proponents were Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, and Kurt Schwitters and many others.


One other famous school of thought of avant garde art is Cubism and is considered the most influential art form of the 20th century. When one thinks of Cubism, Pablo Picasso comes into mind and should come as no surprise as he was the founder of the movement along with Georges Braque. There were others such as Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Robert Delaunay, Henri Le Fauconnier, and Fernand Leger. As evidenced through Picasso’s paintings (in particular because they were more widely known), Cubism was very revolutionary in its approach to art when depicting reality.

Instead of the conventional approach, Cubists reduced everything to geometric outlines such as cubes, hence the name of the movement. By breaking objects and figures down into planes and even interweaving them, and using simpler shapes and bright colors, the artists wanted to show different perspectives within the same space in three dimensional form.