The meaning behind the movement

Does Impressionism make a big impression on you? Are you pretty Modern in your tastes of art? Or would you prefer something contemporary?

“Wait,” you might think. “Modern”… isn’t that synonymous with “contemporary”?
Not necessarily, is the answer, as things go. Some art movements have names that appeal to our logic more than others.

This is definitely something to bear in mind when looking at names of art movements with capital letters (“Modern, neo-Classical” etc).

Monet’s Water Lily Pond can be attributed to the Impressionist and Modern movements. Having been part of the Batliner Collection, it has been exhibited in Vienna’s Albertina Museum.

Impressionism, as a type of art, gets its name from the idea that the focus of such art is on the impression left on an artist by a particular scene from the real world. An impressionist-type painting has as its essence this impression that was left on the painter (as opposed to a conscious attempt to paint a scene as it really is, to paint picture in an objectively real manner).

The idea that what was being painted was an “impression” as opposed to a realistic depiction was applied to many painters associated with the Impressionist movement. One of Claude Monet’s works – depicting the port of Le Havre – is called “Impression, Soleil Levant” (Impression, sunrise). In fact, even before the Impressionists – Impressionists with a capital “I” – a particular style of painting had been called an “impression”. This was not necessarily a positive evaluation of a particular piece of art. The 19th century painter Charles-François Daubigny received a comment from the poet Théophile Gautier of the same epoque. Gautier’s comment expressed how it was a pity that Daubigny was content to paint only “an impression” of scenes.

Whatever anyone’s opinion on the value of Impressionist-type paintings, at least it is easy to see how the name got there.

A similar logic applies to the way the Expressionist movement got its name , where expression of a particular feeling is the ultimate goal of the artist. Consider “The Scream”, by Edvard Munch; the curves of the anguished screaming figure – along with the curves of the sky – show a scene that is not trying at all to be a photorealistic depiction of life; rather, the painting conveys the uninhibited expression of emotion.

Then there’s Cubism – it’s not difficult to see how this form of art came to be called such; looking at the sharp, angular shapes arranged next to one another in these paintings is like looking at a cube shape from several different angles at once. That’s what the art critic Louis Vauxcelles concluded when he witnessed the art of Georges Braque. (A similar assessment could be made of Picasso’s Cubist paintings.)

A tiled representation of Pablo Picasso’s « Guernica », which can be appreciated by anyone visiting the village of Gernika after the battle of which the Cubist painting was named.

But when you look at certain other art movements, the associations get tougher.

Is neo-Classicism and style really that new? Are Modern works really that recent?
And why is it that so so few Late Gothic art projects have been initiated lately?
The key thing to bear in mind when considering these art movements, with names that can seem counterintuitive, is that things are relative.

A work of art from two hundred years ago is still “new” relatively speaking if we are to compare it with art from two thousand years ago.

This explains the “neo” part of “neo-Classicism”. Paintings of the “neo-Classicism” movement depicted scenes from the classics, scenes from the classical societies of Rome and Athens and scenes from the belief systems incorporated by these societies.
As such, whilst a painting from just over two hundred years ago might not be new in the sense that it is older than any living human being, a “neo-classical” work of art is nevertheless taking a new look at themes that were addressed by inhabitants of these classical societies.

It’s a similar situation with “neo-Gothic”. Consider a “neo-Gothic” cathedral such as Liverpool Cathedral, England. It was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, and its foundation stone was laid in 1904. As a work of Gothic architecture, it is still older than almost any person breathing today, but in terms of a building embracing Gothic style… comparatively it’s a recent one.

Liverpool’s neo-Gothic Cathedral

So that’s neo-Gothic architecture. Things become clearer, then, regarding why it’s still new, in the comparative sense of new. But while we’re on the subject of Gothic works… what about the use of “Late” in “Late Gothic architecture”?

Again this is relative. Sure, no works of late gothic architecture have been undertaken lately. But a building of “Late Gothic” style is of a style that, again, refers to the more recent part of the era of Gothic style. Consider the City Hall of Münster in Germany. It was completed with its gabled façade around 1395.

Late Gothic architecture: the Town Hall of Münster, Germany

This puts it at the later end of the Gothic period. The earliest Gothic cathedral – the Basilica of St Denis, around Paris – dates as far back as 1144.

So, when considering late and neo styles, it’s all relative. (Talking of the oldest cathedrals around today… Etchmiadzin Cathedral in Armenia dates back to 301 AD)

Would these names of art movements seem easier to remember now?

These names may not be so intuitive at first… but keep in mind that the forms – and meanings – of words often change with time.

Then there’s the “Modern” movement in art.

For many art critics, the Modern art period came to a close around 1960. From the sixties onwards, artists did more and more experimentation with less typical media and subjects of art, such as Andy Warhol’s depictions of mass-produced tins of soup. Following the modern period were artworks that called into question what it really meant to be a work of art.

In other words, what might have been considered as “modern” in the early twentieth century began to seem dated.

The naming of the period following modern art was, as things turned out, remarkably logical. What followed Modern art was post-Modern art (now more commonly spelled postmodern art, because the essence of postmodernism is calling into question what is real and what is not, and which letters we capitalise, and which we don’t…).

Still, sometimes there is apparent logic to the names of art movements… sometimes!

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