Modernism – Meaning, Definition, History & Examples

Modernism in general, is a philosophical movement that encompassed many aspects, including art. This was influenced by the development of industrial societies due to the Industrial Revolution and rapid urbanization and reactions to the horrors of the First World War. They repudiate history and conservative values of the past centuries. Instead they subscribe to scientific knowledge, technology and pragmatism in the pursuit of their idealistic visions. They wanted to empower the individual, encouraging them to reshape or improve their surroundings.

In the context of art, artists around the world employed new imagery, materials and techniques to create works of art they felt reflected the realities and hopes of modern societies rather than continue living in the past still holding on to its ideas they considered obsolete or unsuited to contemporary times.

Modernism in Art

In the context of art, artists of this school of thought made use of new types of paints and materials. They took a different approach in expressing their thoughts and ideas in their works which is reflected in abstractions and fantasies instead of realism. Several schools of art have emerged.

Abstract Art

This Modernist art school approach is a departure from reality when depicting imagery. They do not attempt to make an accurate depiction of a certain subject the way classical artists had done. Instead, they only use shapes, colors and forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect. Some of its famous proponents are Francis Picaiba, Wassily Kadinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Robert Delaunay, Leopold Survage and Piet Mondrian.

For instance, in Mondrian’s works which are known for the use of geometric elements such as lines, his paintings reflected his utopian ideas though traditionalists would have difficulty figuring that out. Mondrian was one of those who believed art is a reflection of the spirituality of nature. It may be difficult to show it had it been depicted realistically. By reducing it to simple basic geometrical elements such as lines, he revealed the essence of mystical energy in the balance of the forces of nature and to an extent, the universe.


This movement consisted of a group of early twentieth-century modern artists whose works emphasized strong color over the representational or realistic values associated with Impressionism of the 19th century. Artists associated with this movement are Andre Derain, Henri Matisse, Maurice de Vlamnick, Georges Braque and Kees van Dongen. Matisse and Derain were considered leaders of this movement and Braque would later start the Cubist school with Picasso.

The common denominator of the artworks of the Fauvist school is strident colors often applied directly from the tube and wild brush strokes, living up to their movement’s name which literally means “wild beasts,” which can be inferred they were influenced by artworks outside of Europe.


As its name suggests, the Pointilist school is not about the subject matter of the artwork but rather its method. It is characterized by the use of small distinct dots of various colors applied together to form an image. It is an offshoot of Impressionism. Georges Seurat and Paul Signac were the ones credited with the development of this movement.

Pointillism makes use of optics to create colors from many small dots placed so close to each other like a collage or mosaic. They are placed so close to the point that the viewers’ eyes would blend the color to see the image rather than the dots. At present, this is akin to the pixels in digitalized images that follow the same approach. This can be seen in Seurat’s famous work A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. From a distance, it may look like a typical painting done the conventional way. But upon very close examination, you can see the miniscule dots Seurat put there. It took him two years to complete this painting using only dots rather than conventional painting methods.

Other proponents of Pointilism were Charles Angrand, Maximilien Luce, and Theo Van Rysselberghe who made similar paintings.

Swiss Art

This school of art is associated more with graphic design which can be considered an art form since it entails style. It is characterized by crisp blocky layouts, sans serif typefaces (we all call fonts), asymmetric layouts, using photographs rather than illustration, employing a grid to determine placement of elements and a minimalist design mentality.

As the name suggests, this school of thought originated in Switzerland in the 1950s. The style was influenced by the ethos that design must be invisible as possible, hence the minimalism. This is to let the content stand out and (design) should not interfere. As for the choice of the serif typeface, it was considered neutral. As for the asymmetry, it gave a greater sense of unity and more white space in the design, making it look cleaner. It goes without saying that Swiss Art emphasizes form must follow function.