Avant-Garde Art
Definition, Meaning, History, Experimental Painting, Sculpture.

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Avant-Garde Art


What is The Meaning of "Avant-Garde"?
History of Avant-Garde Art (1400-2000)
- 1400-1900
- Early 20th Century
- Mid-20th Century
- Late 20th Century
Who Is The World's Most Avant-Garde Artist?
Which are the Most Avant-Garde Paintings of the 20th Century?
Which are the Most Avant-Garde Sculptures of the 20th Century?


What is The Meaning of "Avant-Garde"?

In fine art, the term "avant-garde" (from the French for 'vanguard') is traditionally used to describe any artist, group or style, which is considered to be significantly ahead of the majority in its technique, subject matter, or application. This is a very vague definition, not least because there is no clear consensus as to WHO decides whether an artist is ahead of his time, or WHAT is meant by being ahead. To put it another way, being avant-garde involves exploring new artistic methods, or experimenting with new techniques, in order to produce better art. The emphasis here is on design, rather than accident, since it seems doubtful that a painter or sculptor can be accidentally avant-garde. But what constitutes 'better' art? Does it mean, for instance, painting that is more aesthetically pleasing? Or more meaningful? Or more vividly coloured? The questions go on and on!

Examples of Art Works

Apocalypse Now (1988)
Private Collection
By Christopher Wool a contemporary
exponent of word art - one of the
avant-garde styles of the 1980s.

Contemporary Sand art, one of the
new forms of avant-garde expression.

For an explanation of the
aesthetic issues surrounding
visual arts and crafts, see:
Art Definition, Meaning.
For a guide to artforms,
see: Types of Art.

For a general guide to forms
of non-representational art,
see: Concrete Art,
or Non-Objective Art.
For a list of styles, see:
Abstract Art Movements (1870-2000)
For a list of works, see:
Abstract Paintings: Top 100.

Perhaps the best way of explaining the meaning of avant-garde art, is to use the analogy of medicine. The vast majority of doctors follow mainstream rules when treating patients. (Similarly, most painters follow traditional conventions when painting.) However, a very small group of doctors and researchers experiment with radically new methods. (This group corresponds to avant-garde artists.) Most of these new methods lead nowhere, but some change the course of medicine for ever. (Picasso and Braque's Cubism had a similar effect on art.)

Radical Even Subversive

The term was reportedly first applied to visual art in the early 19th century by the French political writer Henri de Saint-Simon, who declared that artists served as the avant-garde in the general movement of social progress, ahead of scientists and other classes. However, since the beginning of the 20th century, the term has retained a connotation of radicalism, and carries the implication that for artists to be truly avant-garde they must challenge the artistic status quo - that is, its aesthetics, its intellectual or artistic conventions, or its methods of production - to the point of being almost subversive. Using this interpretation, Dada (1916-24) is probably the ultimate example of avant-garde visual art, since it challenged most of the fundamentals of Western civilization.

History of Avant-Garde Art

The Italian Renaissance was probably the single most avant-garde epoch in the history of painting and sculpture. Figures from the Biblical Holy Family were represented in an entirely natural manner - a radical departure from Byzantine, even Gothic, artworks. In addition, nudity became not only acceptable, but the noblest type of figurative imagery - witness Masaccio's Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1426, Brancacci Chapel, Florence) by Masaccio, and the hypermodern bronze sculpture David by Donatello (c.1440, Bargello Museum, Florence).

Despite a brief flourish from Caravaggio, who reinvigorated the humanistic trend in painting with his peasant-like depictions of Christ and other members of the Holy Family, (and Giuseppe Arcimboldo with his fruit and vegetable portraits), the hypermodern traditions of the Renaissance were gradually replaced by repetition, imitation and total conformity. The great European Academies of Fine Arts, supported by the Catholic Church, introduced a set of unbending rules and conventions, which artists ignored at their peril - deviants were refused entry to the Salons and other official exhibitions. Perhaps only in Holland was there a genuine spirit of artistic exploration, notably in the form of intensely evocative portraiture by Rembrandt, and the new type of genre painting exquisitely rendered by Jan Vermeer and others.

Not until the dust settled after the French Revolution did artists really begin to experiment again. It began with landscape painting. A new plein-air tradition was initiated by Corot and others from the Barbizon School; the German symbolist painter Caspar David Friedrich injected his landscapes with a new form of romanticism; and the genre was taken to even higher and more extraordinary levels by the English genius JMW Turner. History painting, too, became avant-garde with works like Goya's Third of May, 1808 (1814, Prado, Madrid), which had no heroes and no uplifting message.

The next really avant-garde school was Impressionism, - the first major movement of modern art - which turned colour conventions upside down. All of a sudden, grass could be red and haystacks could be blue, depending on the momentary effect of sunlight as perceived by the artist. Today, Impressionism may be seen as mainstream, but back in the 1870s the public, as well as the arts hierarchy, were scandalized. As far as they were concerned, grass was green, and haystacks were yellow - and that was that.

Avant-Garde Art of the Early 20th Century

The first three decades of twentieth century art gave rise to a wave of revolutionary movements and styles. First, came Fauvism (1905-8) whose colour schemes were so dramatic and anti-nature that its members were dubbed 'wild beasts'. Then Analytical Cubism (1908-12) - probably the most intellectual of all the avant-garde movements - which rejected the conventional idea of linear perspective in favour of greater emphasis on the two-dimensional picture plane, scandalizing the arts academies of Europe - along with visitors to the Parisian Salon des Independants and the New York Armory Show (1913) - in the process. Meanwhile, in Dresden, Munich and Berlin, German Expressionism was the cutting edge style, as practised by Die Brucke (1905-13) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911-14), while in Milan, Futurism introduced its unique blend of movement and modernity.

Five important dealers in avant-garde art, in Paris, during the period 1900-30, include Solomon R Guggenheim (1861-1949), Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939), Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979), Paul Guillaume (1891-1934) and Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979). In Germany, the great centre of the expressionist avant-garde, was Walden's Sturm Gallery.

But the most iconoclastic movement of all time is perhaps Dada, founded by Tristan Tzara (1896-1963)which ignited in Zurich in 1916 before spreading to Paris, Berlin and New York. Dadaists rejected most, if not all, bourgeois values of visual art, in favour of a heady mixture of anarchism and hypermodern innovation. The latter included a number of subversive ideas which are now seen as relatively mainstream, such as the creation of junk art from 'found objects' (Duchamp's 'readymades'), and the introduction of 3-D collage (Schwitters' Merzbau). Dada artists may also be said to have invented Performance Art, and Happenings, as well as Conceptual Art, more than fifty years ahead of their postmodernist successors. Dada's less intransigent successor was Surrealism, which amused but ultimately failed to maintain the momentum for change. After Dada, arguably only the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, with his De Stijl style of geometric abstraction (neo-plasticism), was authentically experimental. In plastic art, the avant-garde was ably represented by the modernist Constantin Brancusi, the Futurist Umberto Boccioni, the Kinetic artist Alexander Calder, and Barbara Hepworth the Yorkshire sculptress who, in her celebrated 1931 work Pierced Form, introduced the 'hole' to the art of sculpture.

Avant-Garde Art of the Mid 20th Century

Avant-gardism during the 1940s onwards, came in fits and starts. This was partly because abstract art dominated, and there was very little about abstraction that was fundamentally new. In America, it's true, Jackson Pollock (1912-56) invented action-painting; Mark Rothko (1903-70) invested his abstract compositions with colourful emotion, while Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman invested theirs with narrative; but by the mid-60s abstraction was a spent force. Minimalism streamlined it and attempted to inject it with a more high-powered message, but the public weren't really interested. They much preferred Pop art - the new 60s aesthetic which suddenly made art accessible again. However, except for a few exceptional multi-media artists, like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, and possibly the sculptor Claes Oldenburg, Pop art remained trendy but predictable. (For more, see Andy Warhol's Pop Art of the sixties and seventies.) In Italy meanwhile, during the late 1960s, the humble raw materials used in the assemblages, installations and performance art of Arte Povera reinforced the experimental nature of the movement, while in America both the wooden assemblage art of Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) and the 'accumulations' of Arman (1928-2005) added to the pop culture. Meantime, in Europe, during the 1950s and early 1960s, a taste of avant-gardism was provided by the experimental artists Jean Dubuffet (see Art Brut) and Yves Klein, as well as the Swiss sculptor and Jean Tinguely (1925-91) who joined Alexander Calder in developing kinetic art.

An influential figure in American avant-garde art of the 1940s and 50s, was John Cage (1912-92), the composer and printmaker. Noted for his revolutionary musical composition 4 minutes 33 seconds (which contained not a single note of music!), Cage lectured at Black Mountain College and influenced artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.

Avant-Garde Art of the Late 20th Century

Postmodernist art arrived during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It led to the appearance of brand new forms of contemporary art, much of which was almost, by definition, avant-garde. These new artforms included: Feminist art popularized by Judy Chicago (b.1939) and Carole Schneemann (b.1939); Art Photography, exemplified by Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89) and Nan Goldin (b.1953); also Installation art, exemplified by Joseph Beuys (1921-86), Bruce Nauman (b.1941), Christian Boltanski (b.1944), Richard Wilson (b.1953), and Martin Creed (b.1968); Video art created by Bill Viola (b.1951) and others; Conceptual art, typified in works by Sol LeWitt (b.1928), Eva Hesse (1937-70), and Joseph Kosuth (b.1945); Performance art and its associated style of Happenings, exemplified by Allan Kaprow (b.1927), Yves Klein (1928-62), Wolf Vostell (1932-98), Gunter Brus (b.1938), Hermann Nitsch (b.1938), Gilbert & George, and the Fluxus movement. For a non-commercial contemporary art form, see: Ice Sculpture - arguably the latest word in "found objects." One of the latest creative fashions is an extreme form of Body art, exemplified by the high risk performances of the Serbian artist Marina Abramovic (b.1946).

For information about the top venues for avant-garde art around the world, see: Best Galleries of Contemporary Art.

The late 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of a UK avant-garde group known as Young British Artists (YBAs), whose members included the Turner Prize Winners Mark Wallinger (b.1959), Rachel Whiteread (b.1963), Gillian Wearing (b.1963), Damien Hirst (b.1965), Douglas Gordon (b.1966), Chris Ofili (b.1968), and Steve McQueen (b.1969). Another controversial member was Tracey Emin (b.1963). These young postmodernist artists attracted huge controversy for their challenging, even subversive, approach to their subject matter and use of materials (elephant dung, maggots, dead shark, human blood) - which shocked both art critics and the public. Even so, their avant-garde approach revitalized British art and won them a huge following, including the patronage of Charles Saatchi, Britain's leading collector or contemporary art, along with numerous exhibitions at the famous Saatchi Gallery, and the Sensation exhibition (1997) at the London Royal Academy.

For other exhibitions of postmodernist works around the world, see: Best Contemporary Art Festivals.

Who Is The World's Most Avant-Garde Artist?

An impossible question to answer, so I'll just give you our top candidates. These include: JMW Turner (a painter arguably 50 years ahead of his time); Claude Monet (the first revolutionary of modern painting); Ilya Repin (the first painter to capture the authentic detail of life in Russia); Picasso (for his mastery of figurative and abstract art in almost all media); Marcel Duchamp (the pioneer of Dada and Object Art, from which Conceptual Art emerged); the husband and wife team Christo and Jeanne-Claude (empaquetage, or packaging); Andy Warhol (the first and arguably greatest postmodernist); Gilbert & George (living sculptures); Damien Hirst (art's greatest self-publicist) and of course the graffiti terrorist Banksy. In architecture, top candidates include: Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) (1887-1965), the functionalist utopian architect and pioneer of Brutalism; and Frank O. Gehry (b.1929), the champion of Deconstructivism in both America and Europe.

Which Are Most Avant-Garde Paintings of the 20th Century?

Here are our suggestions, listed in chronological order:

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) by Pablo Picasso
Harmony in Red (1908) by Henri Matisse
Nude Descending a Staircase No.2 (1912) by Marcel Duchamp
Black Circle (1913) by Kasimir Malevich
Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (1936) by Salvador Dali
Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-3) by Piet Mondrian
Number 6 (1948) by Jackson Pollock
Yellow and Gold (1956) by Mark Rothko
Blue Monochrome (1961) by Yves Klein

Which Are the Most Avant-Garde Sculptures of the 20th Century?

Here are our suggestions:

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (bronze) (1913) by Umberto Boccioni
Fountain (urinal) (1917) by Marcel Duchamp
Bird in Space (bronze) (1923) by Constantin Brancusi
Merzbau (3-D collage) (c.1930-43) by Kurt Schwitters
Pierced Form (1931) by Barbara Hepworth
Fur Cup (1936) by Meret Oppenheim
Presidential Portraits, Mount Rushmore (1941) Gutzon Borglum
Horse (bronze) (1950) by Marino Marini
Sky Cathedral (painted wood) (1958) by Louise Nevelson
Homage to New York (exploding construction) (1960) by Jean Tinguely
Untitled (Stack) (lacquered iron) (1967) by Donald Judd
A Thousand Years (installation) (1990) by Damien Hirst
Apple Core (1992) by Claes Oldenburg
Puppy (Plants, wood, earth) (1992) by Jeff Koons
My Bed (installation) (1999) by Tracey Emin
227: The Lights Going On and Off (conceptual art) (2001) Martin Creed
Controller of the Universe (tools and wire) (2007) by Damian Ortega

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