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  • Gavin O'Donoghue

Modern Art v Contemporary Art: Explaining The Difference

How do we distinguish modern and contemporary Art?" Newcomers to the art market frequently ask that question. Thankfully, art historians have thoroughly described the transition between these two art styles. This section outlines the main differences as we look at the most representative works of modern and contemporary Art.


It isn't easy to pinpoint precisely when modern Art began. However, there rests a general consensus that the roots of modern art lie in mid-19th century France. Artists like Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), Edouard Manet (1832-1883), and the Impressionist movement broke into new grounds by defying the prevailing academic traditions, instead pushing for a naturalistic representation of the world.

Edward Manet's 'Déjeuner sur l' herbe' is one of those revolutionary examples. It was first exhibited at the 1863 Salon des Refusés, a famous exhibition in Paris where all of the rejects from the official Salon exhibition were assembled. There, it generated laughter and outrage.

The public was most upset by the "ordinary" setting. The painting depicts a nude woman in the company of two men dressed in everyday attire, enjoying a picnic in the grass. It completely ignores the classical and mythological tradition, causing the woman's nudity to be perceived as inappropriate. Furthermore, critics needed help to wrap their heads around the unrealistic representation of the woodlands.

Éduard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l’ herbe, 1863, oil on canvas, Musée d’ Orsay, Paris.


While Manet's work distressed critics, it paved the way for the Post-Impressionists. They distinguished themselves by their choice of subject matter and their rejection of a collective form of seeing. Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) was one of the leading Post-Impressionists; his work focused on the lines, planes, and colors that comprise nature, resulting in a more abstract picture.

The Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine, Paul Cezanne


Inspired by Cézanne's endeavors to free the Art of painting from its representative role and instead focus on pure forms, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) pushed the boundaries of abstraction even further.

'Les Demoiselles d' Avignon' (1907) is perhaps one of the most characteristic examples of this transition. The painting depicts five female nudes, yet their forms have been fragmented and interwoven with the equally jagged background. Through this painting, Picasso completely abandoned the traditional concept of a unified pictorial space for the first time in history.

The painting laid the foundations for the Cubism movement, in which a subject is fragmented into its geometrical components and often represented from several angles simultaneously. Although the Cubists hyper-fragmented their subjects, the forms always remained recognizable.

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon, 1907, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Fuelled by his interest in philosophy, religion, innovative scientific theories, and music, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was one of the first artists to paint in an entirely non-objective manner, exemplified by 'Composition VII' (1913). This painting displays the artist's elimination of pictorial representation through a tumultuous rolling of shapes, colors, and lines, demonstrating no discernible point of departure in portraying recognizable subjects.

Even though the artistic ambitions of Manet, Cézanne, Picasso, and Kandinsky differed, all of their work is considered Modern Art. Modern Art presented an aesthetic response to modernity, to fundamental societal changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of the modern capitalist economy.

As a result, artists began breaking down forms and questioning the symbolic role of paintings. This slowly developed through a series of artistic movements. Besides Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Cubism, activities such as Symbolism, Fauvism, Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism also belong under the umbrella of Modern Art.


Most art historians will pinpoint the late 1960s as a significant turning point for the art world. Generally speaking, Art created after this time may be considered Contemporary Art, including conceptual Art, performance art, minimalism, pop art, and video art. In the late 1960s, the underlying concept became more important than the work's aesthetic qualities.

Art received more attention than the final product for the first time in history. That process sometimes required the audience's participation.

But it was also the meaning and the cultural value of Art itself that artists questioned. A celebrated example is Yoko Ono's protect the persecuted project. This is installation artwork featuring a boat to represent and highlight the plight of immigrants and refugees.


Much Art produced in the last thirty years is also connected to social and political issues. The work' Sirens of the Lambs' (2013, fig. 8), made by the street artist Banksy, shows puppet animals peeking out of a truck, squeaking with fear. It forms a blatant critique of the casual cruelty of the food industry.


First of all, Modern Art and Contemporary Art are from two different periods. The Modern Art period includes work from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, roughly from 1880 through the 1960s. Modern Art is also often an expression of individuality. In comparison, Contemporary Art focuses more on social impact, with society as the primary focus. It can also be said that Contemporary Art focuses on the present and the future, and Modern Art refers to an era that has been passed.

We hope this article has provided you with a better understanding of the differences between these two art styles.

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