The last two centuries have seen an exhilarating march of overlapping and blending movements. Don't worry too much about it; just realize that art that does not attempt directly reflect reality is usually considered to be "modern." The art movements below are all factions of modern art.

MODERN ART: 1800 - present
Modern Art entered around 1800, a century before Picasso and his buddies made it famous again. While traditional portrait painting was still being cranked out by the acre, there was a growing movement of artists who wanted to rebel against the stage-y art that people were hanging over their living room sofas. What makes a work "modern" is its purposeful breaking of the traditions of the past; those who broke the rules got the headlines. Modern art does not necessarily represent concrete objects (be it real, like a person, or imaginary, like a unicorn), but rather revels in its weirdness.

Dead giveaways: the tourists around you are squinting and asking, "What is it?"

Pretentious comment to say: "It is art."

: 1870 to 1900
Spun off from realism, Impressionism took the act of seeing to a new level, thanks to an obsession with light and color. Impressionists painted the light they could see, using countless little dabs of paint. Claude Monet was the founder of the movement and its most consistent practitioner. In short, impressionism is obsessed with tons of colors, and as the movie Clueless so eloquently put it, impressionist paintings look normal from far away, "but close up, it's a big ol' mess."

Dead giveaways: the same image painted two or more times under different lighting conditions.

Pretentious comment to say: "Look closely. All the colors in the painting are represented in every square inch of the canvas."

: 1880 to 1920
The Postimpressionism movement basically consists of a group of guys who have no other distinction than coming after the impressionists. They started out with the impressionist rules of painting light, but went in different directions. Postimpressionism also has a particular affinity for drawing attention to the physical act of painting, focusing on such features as thick swabs of paint (Van Gogh) or only painting with tiny dots of color (Seurat). Others include Gauguin and Cezanne.

Dead giveaways: You see paint first, image second.

Pretentious comment to say: "You know, his ear never had a chance to grow back."

: 1900 to 1920
Cubism has nothing to do with Cuba; rather, it was an intellectual approach to the figure/ground problem. For instance, Picasso and Braque used multi-facets (unrealistically portraying several perspectives at once) to break up the forms of the figures and blend them into the ground.

Dead giveaways: It was painted by Picasso or Braque between 1906 and 1921.

Pretentious comment to say: "In the collage phase, Picasso synthesizes his faceted abstractions with the new sound of Jazz."

: 1912 to present
Abstract art refers to works that have no literal subject at all. The artist strips the forms and colors of any trace of representation. The painting doesn't represent anything at all. It just is. Even in abstract art there's still the classic and romantic split. Kandinsky, for example, painted chaotic splotches of singing color that clearly set him in the emotional category. Mondrian's works, on the other hand, are classic calm.

Dead giveaways: You say to yourself, "I could do that."

Pretentious comment to say: Anything but, "I could do that."


Style: De Stijl
Artist: Mondrian
Look for: Monopoly boards, the Partridge Family bus.
Pretentious comment to say: "The asymmetrical balance is so simple, yet complex."

Style: Surrealism
Artists: Dal, Magritte
Look for: Melting clocks, floating bowler hats
Pretentious comment to say: Anything with the words "existential" and "gestalt."

Style: Abstract Expressionism
Artist: Pollock
Look for: Dribbling, drippy paint splattered on the canvas.
Pretentious comment to say: "The enormous canvas envelopes your perception and draws you into the network of drips like an insect into a web."

Style: Pop Art
Artist: Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein
Look for: Campbell's Soup cans.
Pretentious comment to say: "His original reproductions of mass produced objects are an ironic commentary on the modern preoccupation with materialism."