Art History 101: The main artistic movements explained

In the history of art, several artistic currents defined an era.

Historical, political, sociocultural, beautiful... art, in different periods, was dedicated to revealing the common feeling of entire societies. Some artists, like the Japanese, always sought something classical; others, like the Italians, used art as propaganda, as did Russia and, to a certain extent Mexico. For the Brazilians, appropriating art forms and doing something new became a mantra, and the Americans, as if it were a harbinger of today’s society, were preoccupied with excessive consumption. Thus, understanding artistic currents in their space and time is vital to understanding art and even the history of humanity.

Main Artistic Currents in Alphabetical Order

Abstract Expressionism

This style of art emerged in New York during the 1940s as an amalgam of ideas between surrealism and American concepts about the importance of being pioneers in art and leaving traditional art behind. It is neither completely expressionist nor abstract. The current took the technique of automatism and took it to a new level to generate images. Expressionist painters fit into two categories: the former filled the canvas with scribbles like Jackson Pollock; the latter had compositions dominated by a single centralized form, such as Rothko’s late canvases.



A term attributed to Marcel Duchamp to describe artistic works that challenged and redefined all preconceptions about the nature of art, such as the addition of a mustache to the Mona Lisa painting and titled it with phonemes with heated suggestions: L.H.O.O.Q. Dadaism, for example, was the first anti-art movement.

Archaic Art

It spans from the Archaic to the Classical Greek period. Greek artists quickly assimilated foreign styles and motifs into new representations of their myths and customs, thus forging the foundations of Archaic and Classical Greek Art. Greek statues had the characteristic of a conventional smile known as “the Archaic smile.”


Art Nouveau

An exaggeratedly asymmetrical decorative style that was used throughout Europe during the last decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. It used undulating forms and curved lashes adorned with natures, flames, and waves. The women had highly stylized figures, and with this current, the historicism of the 19th century was rejected. It was full of symbolist elements and the Arts and crafts movement.

Art Deco

After the “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” of 1925, a decorative style was baptized with this name. Art Deco emphasized the use of luxurious materials with gigantic masses. They used classical elements dating from the reign of Louis XVI and combined them with other cultures such as African, Aztec, Chinese, and Cubism.



This is a term designated by historians in the 19th century to refer to the Eastern European style. It encompasses art from 1580 to the beginning of the 18th century. It was a temperamental and flowery art that combined different things, such as a revolution against mannerism, its intellectual, elitist character, and emotional coldness to serve religious impulses and to be known by the masses. Theatrical effects were also one of the main features.

Byzantine Art

Art of the Eastern Roman Empire dates from the 5th century to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. This type of art was inexpressive because of its divine origin, inspired by God. This artistic current spanned the time between antiquity and the Middle Ages. Byzantine Art embraced a variety of styles and regional influences and developed a long-lived Christian iconography that is admired by today’s professionals. Byzantine emperors used art and architecture to signal their strength and importance.


Conceptual Art

Refers to the artistic current of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s that was created according to one of the following principles: art consists of a basic idea that has no way of being represented in physical form. Language becomes the basic material of art, and the barrier between art and art theory is broken down. This artistic activity becomes an investigation of the nature of art; each result and incarnation is a demonstration of a general conclusion. Among the most important conceptual artists are Lawrence Weinter, Sol Levitt, Joseph Kosuth, and Bruce Naumann.


An abstract art movement that emerged in Russia before the revolution. This movement attempts to create art through different abstract properties. However, they did so from more scientific studies, such as the study of the surface of the work, construction, line, and color. They sought to apply their art to the industrial and social needs of their time, integrating it into architecture and experimenting with different materials such as clothing or furniture. It had a great influence on institutions such as the Bauhaus.



It was a current led by Picasso and Braque, who took Cézanne’s theories to develop it. This movement was created in mid-1909 and is characterized by trying to represent everything the artist sees in three dimensions to capture it on a flat surface. It was divided into analytical cubism, which abandoned conventional perspectives by juxtaposing faces; and synthetic cubism, which transformed reality to capture it in an equivalent code on canvas.


Dada means nothing, and like its name, this movement tried to establish itself as the first anti-art movement. During WWI, Hugo Ball, Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara, and other artists, used nonsense in texts and performances as a protest against the ideals of the entire world.



The term expressionism was popularized by the German art critic Herwarth Walden to designate all art that was opposed to impressionism. Later, it was used for art that did not represent reality but subjective reactions to reality. The painter’s emotions are manifested by the distortion of form and color.


The term goes back to the French critic Louis Vauxcelles who described a group of young painters who exhibited at the Salon d’automne in Paris in 1905. Their canvases highlighted the fury of unrealistic and very wild colors. Among the members were Matisse, Derain, Marquet, and Vlaminck. Although the Fauves took up some of the styles of the Post-Impressionists such as Van Gogh and Gauguin, the date of that exhibition is considered the beginning of the Modern Movement.


Feminist Art Movement

Led by Judy Chicago and her massive installation “Dinner Party,” the feminist movement emerged in the 1960s and was concerned with talking about the differences between men and women and their perception of the world. This movement sought to rescue all the historical achievements made by women, that for so many years had been erased. They tried to achieve equality among female artists, creativity, politicians, and economic activity.


A type of art and also part of the criticism that emphasizes the analysis of form and the use of formal elements before content. Some communist critics claimed it was the opposite of Socialist Realism.



An artistic movement founded in 1909 by the Italian writer Marinetti. In principle, it was a literary movement that sought to break the barriers of grammar, syntax, and logic to make primordial the sensation and sound of the technological world of the future. Futurist painting and sculpture were represented by Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, and other artists who wanted to provide the sensation of movement and speed with the simultaneous representation of different planes. Futurism was publicized in different manifestos and public performances in which the audience was provoked and scandalized.

The Hague School

A group of realist artists worked in the Netherlands between 1850 and 1900, intending to revive various 17th-century traditions such as Dutch architecture and architectural paintings. The group included members such as Anton Mauve, Johannes Bosboom, the Maris brothers, and Joseph Israels.



A French art movement that attempted to use contemporary scientific techniques to make studies of color to achieve an accurate representation of both color and tone. Most Impressionists applied paint with small dabs of pure color rather than broad brushstrokes. The result: dazzling paintings. Impressionists painted outdoors to capture color impressions and light accurately rather than imagining it in their studio. The first exhibition was held in 1874 with works by Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pisarro, Cézanne, Degas, Guillaumin, Boudin, and Berthe Morisot.

The Kano School

A Japanese heritage school founded in Muromachi by Kano Masanobu. Its tradition lasted until the 19th century and taught Japanese decorative arts and Chinese ink drawings.



According to Umberto Eco, “Kitsch is the work that, to get its effect-stimulating function justified, struts with the offal of other experiences and sells itself as art without reservation.” They are mass-produced products that attempt to imitate the aesthetic standards of the cultural elite.

Magical Realism

The artistic current of Magical Realism is the fusion of the present and the past, the invention of strange objects, the juxtaposition of different things, and the depiction of alienation are just some of how magical realist painters evoke the mystery and strangeness of everyday reality. The original movement emerged in the 1920s in Germany to counter the emphasis on individual subjectivity of earlier avant-garde artists. Frida Kahlo was a painter in this movement.



It was a term attributed in the 20th century to European art from about 1515 to 1610. Mannerist painters had a cunning style and sought exaggerated and bizarre effects to show the body and muscles perfectly. The contrapposto and extreme elongation of the figure is characteristic of this trend. The artists were more concerned with the style than the content of the painting.

Minimalist Art

In the 1960s, this term was used to describe art that had abandoned all pretensions, expressiveness, and illusions. Figures are given by chance, like a handful of sand, or are made with simple geometric shapes that tend to repeat themselves.


Mexican Muralism

A Group of painters such as Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros participated in the creation of new public art in Mexico. Initially, José Vasconcelos supported this type of art with public resources. He was the minister of education during the government of Alvaro Obregón after the Mexican Revolution, so the intention was that with muralism there would be a feeling of unity, fraternity, and nationalism in the country.


An artistic trend popularized in the second half of the 19th century showed the disappointment and triviality of ordinary life in painters and writers.



The style of decoration is based on ancient Greece and Rome in the 1750s as a protest towards the whimsical style characterized by excess. It was characterized by a preference for lines and symmetry and flatness over plasticity.


Proposed by Mondrian, it assured that art should be totally abstract. Only right angles could be used and the colors they worked with were the primaries, white, black and gray only.


Pop Art

It took up elements of consumerism and mass culture to evoke irony and celebration. It began in the 1950s with various investigations of popular culture in London. It completely changed the way art and design were viewed. In the United States, the avant-garde took hold with Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Claes Oldenburg. In Britain, Richard Hamilton, Allen Jones, and Peter Philips.


A general term is given to European artists in no particular style who followed Impressionism. Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Toulouse Lautrec are some of the best-known painters of this era.



An art movement founded in 1915 by the painters Amédée Ozenfant and Le Corbusier. They published their manifesto “Après le Cubisme” in 1918. They sought to reform the more decorative phase of Cubism to return to the simple and generalized basic forms.


Nineteenth-century French art rejects the idealistic tendency of Romanticism. Artists who led the movement, such as Courbet, concentrated on reproducing what was around them, both socially and in sensory experiences.



A small group of artists in North America in the 1930s and 1940s concentrated on depicting the rural environment of the Midwest. Some of the members include Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, who did his “American Gothic,” and John Steuart.


Influenced by the new European vigor of the 1400s, intellectuals were inspired by humanism and the visual arts with themes such as perspective, legends, and classical stories, both Greek myths, and religion. The Italian Renaissance occurred from 1400 to 1580 when they incorporated Mannerism. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Dürer, and Donatello are some of the most popular representatives.



In the visual arts, literature, and music, Romanticism is defined as a movement against formality that aimed to capture feelings. It became more popular with the Sturm und Drang movement. In Great Britain, the most representative artist was Turner, from Germany Friedrich and France Géricault and Delacroix.


European movement that developed, both in literature and in the visual arts, from 1885 to 1910. It rejected objectivity in favor of subjectivity and promoted synthesis to suggest ideas with ambiguous meanings and powerful symbols. It combined religious mysticism, perversity, and eroticism for the cult of decadence. Some artists were Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes, Fernand Khnopff, Jan Toorop, Hodler, and Segantini.



Based on the postulates of Freud and psychoanalysis, the Surrealists sought to transcend the real from the mind, the imaginary, and the irrational. Through automatic writing and dreams, their images express the most intense emotions, phobias, and fears with a mystique of the unconscious. They use black humor and irony as an ally to make fun of the system, and the pieces tend to have a highly symbolic charge.

Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva

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