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7 stages of modern art

While theorist Francis Fukuyama was infamously projecting “Western liberal democracy” as a political supremacy to conquer all others leading into the 21st century, a less determinate declaration of a new dawn was occurring in the art world with the proclaimed end of modernism. This reach for a creative closure was an attempt to mark an end to a sense of eternal artistic progress to accompany the parallel advances within technology. In fact, it had begun a few decades prior to the Millennium and even given a date, place and time within the field of architecture as a resurfacing of old aesthetic habits and classical themes helped to render the dominant language of “the new” a thing of the past.

This heresy on the part of artists sought to unequivocally contradict the rules and beliefs of modernism that had developed over the previous century and explore the areas of inquiry that the avant-garde art establishment had attempted to consign to history. Appropriately, this signalled the return of history painting itself with artists like Anselm Kiefer restoring figuration in giant-scale landscapes that carried a clear narrative connection to his nation’s (Germany’s) actions in the Second World War, albeit through a prism of mythology and Jewish or Christian theology and with a range of unorthodox natural materials that complimented his earth-toned oil palette.

One of the common trends among the art that sought to move away from modernism was a commitment to ambiguities and the layering of meanings. The ‘new’ works – if they would accept such a title – certainly retained modernism’s faith in high theories. One of the British-based American painter RB Kitaj’s guiding aims was to “re-complicate” his work, while Philip Guston horrified the abstract expressionists in the New York School by reintroducing a range of cartoon symbols and other objects of metaphor to debunk the purity of abstraction in recording the hand and intentions of the artist. How to reconcile ideas of authenticity in an era ever-increasingly lived through information technology became a dominant area of inquiry for many artists. Sigmar Polke’s response was to draw on all the methods of collage – cutting, juxtaposition, repetition etc. – that had been explored throughout the century to create what appeared imitation works, but laced them with irony to undermine notions of purity within art.

The blurring of low and high culture which had fascinated so many of the pop artists continued to be explored but accompanied by new theories of reality to describe the world the icons were presented in. Photographs and mass-media images continued to inspire people like Gerhard Richter, who made calculated theoretical shifts from the social realism he had trained in. Others found ground in trying to understand how inherited cultural identities could exist in a new century that was most popularly seen as “globalised” by the spread of communication lines like mobile phones and the internet. More than 150 years after painters had attempted to break away from the tyranny of the establishment to explore the landscape and pre-empt “modern art”, those creating artworks or exploring artistic themes at the “dawn of a new Millennium” were trying to find a role or come to terms with a multi-layered and ever-changing terrain.

The story of modern painting

Chapter 1. Capturing the elements

Chapter 2. Alone in the city

Chapter 3. Age-old rebellions

Chapter 4. New ways of seeing

Chapter 5. Unsettling visions

Chapter 6. Traumatic responses

Chapter 7. Out with the new