Modern Vs. Contemporary Art: What’s the Difference?

Modern and contemporary art are two fields of art whose distinctions often come confusing for many, especially for the newcomers to the art market. Some people even use them interchangeably. Although there is an overlap between them, understanding the nuances between modern and contemporary art is crucial for the artists in terms of approach and the collector in terms of value.

As these two styles of art serve as the reflection of our inner selves, the cultural and political conditions, and the evolution of our society, knowledge about their differences also helps art enthusiasts appreciate more or draw inspiration from a specific modern or contemporary art piece.

In this article, let’s take a closer look at the attributes, styles, and artists of both modern and contemporary art to help you get a better understanding of their distinctions. 

History and characteristics of modern art

Within the context of art history, modern art is a theory and practice predominant in North America and Western Europe and is associated with modernism, which spanned between the 1860s and the late 1960s. It was at this period that a momentous change across various strands of society occurred through the Industrial Revolution.

From the artistic perspective, there have been positive and negative responses. However, this novelty opened up new venues for artists to showcase their pure creative expression, and one profound invention during this era was photography. Themes of history and the refined styles of painting dominant in the previous era were stripped off and replaced by new perspectives of revolution and modernity.

Because modern art is incredibly diverse, it is difficult to make a general characteristic of this art style, but one common trend was abstraction, where traditional representation and narrative perspectives in art shifted to the expression of inner feelings and emotions. Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, and Paul Gauguin were one of the first modern artists who paved the way for various modern art movements.

Examples of modern art movements

  • Impressionism and post-impressionism

Came out of the scene in the 1870s, impressionists and post-impressionists focused on the study of light, atmosphere, and color. Impressionists get down on their canvas an “impression” of how a person, an object, or a landscape appeared to them at that specific moment. As they didn’t seek perfection in terms of visual appearances, they used looser brushstrokes and lighter colors. One example of this is the “Luncheon of the Boating Party” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Post-impressionists continued these explorations and experimented with the combination of colors and forms, such as the use of heavy eclectic colors in Vincent van Gogh’s works and the meticulous points of color in George Surat’s works.

  • Fauvism

The Fauves (which means “wild beasts” in French) is an allied group of French painters whose members include Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault, and Albert Marquet. These artists valued individual expression, where they incorporated their direct experience, emotional response, and intuition into their subjects. They used intense colors to describe light and space, with the overall balance of the composition as the primary artistic concern. 

  • Expressionism

This modern art movement emerged simultaneously across different German cities in response to humanity’s increasing anxieties and lost feelings of authenticity. Expressionist artists employed techniques like swirling and exaggerated brushstrokes in the depiction of their subjects. This was to convey the turgid emotional state of the artist reacting to the anxieties and yearnings of the modern world.

  • Surrealism

The surrealists aimed to unleash the power of imagination by tapping into the unconscious mind, which is often repressed by rationalism. The artists frequently used nature as the imagery and produced perplexing works where viewers had the opportunity to go out of their comforting assumptions. For example, Salvador Dalí’s works often included ants or eggs, and Max Ernst used birds in his works.

History and characteristics of contemporary art

The term contemporary art is attributed to the period between the 1970s to the present. It also showcases artworks produced by living artists today. With this “living” status, this art style doesn’t have an “end” date.

Historians proposed that the emergence of this art style came about immediately after World War II. There had been a greater focus on American artists in the international art scene during this period, and their works emphasized their contemporary cultural experience. In addition, contemporary art has also been a response to the mass media boom from the 1960s onwards. Other historical information on contemporary art is available in our previous article, Art History Timeline Part 3: Emergence of Contemporary Art.

Compared to modern art, contemporary art is more complex and eclectic. With a focus on exploring personal or cultural identity, offering critiques of institutional structures, or redefining art itself, many contemporary artists use an expanse of media and modes of expression like digital art, installation art, land art, and performance pieces. Traditional forms of art like drawing, painting, and sculpture are still present and popular but contemporary artists have given them a different style by including the elements of digital imagery and nontraditional contemporary materials.

Famous examples of contemporary art

  • Abstract art

Two iconic artists—Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko—were the leaders in the fields of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting. They have introduced the art world to the pure power of color. As a nonrepresentational form of art, abstract art allows appreciation of the elements of art itself.

Pollock used painting styles that involved paint splatters and drips to showcase rhythmic patterns of colors. Rothko, on the other hand, applied large swaths of solo hues to evoke raw emotions.

  • Pop art

As opposed to abstract art, pop art sought to connect contemporary culture and its idiosyncrasies to its subject matters. Some of the most famous pop art pieces include Andy Warhol’s screen-printed replications of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, which aimed to evoke deeper questioning of the significance of the art to this modern world using these cultural references.

If you possess any modern or contemporary artwork that you wish to sell, Biltmore Loan & Jewelry can help you evaluate the value of your item and guide you through the buy/loan process.