The history of art is replete with figures that have shaped culture at large as well as many of our own personal paradigms. To narrow the viewfinder to a mere ten is not an easy task – nor does the result imply an exhaustive treatment. Although, as an introductory overview, there are ten famous twentieth century artists that call for special mention. These are painters that have shaped the course of cultural history through their own introductions of novel artistic styles or influences on the collective artistic sensibility. They are pioneers in every sense of the word and offer new perspectives on life and how we may find our place within it.
Picasso’s influence on the history of art is well documented. He’s credited with inventing an entirely new style of art: Cubism. His work gained an abstract inflection while maintaining the essence of his subjects. Through this metamorphosis something new emerged. His art is infused with a sense of dynamism and a visceral aliveness that didn’t often translate in more realist renderings. His sculptural works carried the same fresh approach to artistic representation, solidifying his place in the cultural history of Europe and, indeed, the world at large.
Basquiat came up in a time of cultural flux. He was surrounded by the melee of artistic influences informing 1970’s Manhattan. With rap, punk, and street art emerging and coalescing into early iterations of hip-hop, he was moving through a maelstrom of artistic development. Basquiat’s work took all these elements in to produce his unique brand of street art, which by the 1980’s had leapt onto the canvas while retaining his classic brusque and brazen aesthetic. This move from street culture to the annals of art history is what he’s largely remembered for. Basquiat exposed a new vanguard of artists drawing from the very cultural lifeblood of the moment.
Today we look back on Dalí as the master of Surrealism. He came by these strange artistic realms honestly, his work fuelled by a life lived with great abandon and no small measure of chemical enhancement. Dalí’s art was plucked directly from his subconscious, which he mined as a cornucopia of wild, wonderful, and often bewildering psychic artifacts. His paintings and sculptures are also infused with natural, cultural, and mythological elements that artfully immerse his work in the flow of our collective consciousness.
Kandinsky can be credited with introducing us to a purely abstract form of art. We owe a debt also to Hilma af Klint for this, though Kandinsky was better poised for wider reception in the cultural climate of the time. He was a Russian art theorist who put his ideas to work through painting. They took the form of expressive technicolour forms and explosive linear proclamations. The result is an entrancing style of art that draws the viewer in to decipher deeper messages.
Monet is a household name for good reason. He’s largely considered the maestro of Impressionism, conjuring ethereal scenes of life and landscape, while capturing the ephemeral impressions they leave on us. His paintings are not realistic, perse, though they reach a deeper place through heightening the colours, forms, and movement in a scene. And so, Monet gives us access to the heart of what it is to lay eyes on something that strikes us as sublime, bottling that initial impression for us to reignite when we view his work.
Kahlo is something of an icon, especially in her native Mexico. She drew heavily from the culture of the place, rearticulating it through her paintings with clarity and poignancy. Her works also touch on autobiographical themes, reflecting the many trying experiences which plagued the course of her relatively short life. Kahlo’s paintings use the visual language of naïve folk art to explore identity as it pertains to class, gender, and race in postcolonial Mexico. Her works are celebrated for their elements of Magical Realism, playing into longstanding cultural narratives that brought richness and intrigue to her art. Kahlo was a self-taught, somewhat accidental painter that came to represent a beautifully complex constellation of cultural and personal forces.
The name, Mondrian has become synonymous with geometric displays of intersecting linear planes, with carefully contained blocks of primary colour. His theories around art were exacting. He sought absolute purity in abstraction, removing his paintings from the practical and the real in order to engage with a universal aesthetic lexicon. Mondrian’s approach was coined De Stijl, and it soon gathered steam in artistic circles, rippling out of Mondrian’s native Netherlands to spread across Europe. He worked with the goal of opening access to universal beauty, reframing his viewers’ relationship to aesthetics and setting new parameters for engaging with art.
Pop Art emerged at the hands of Warhol, inciting equal parts fascination and perplexity. His work existed at the intersection of art, advertising, and the burgeoning inclination to ‘celebritize’. It stood as a cultural commentary, but also as fuel for the proverbial fire. Warhol developed his own brand and came to personify his body of work. He produced everything from films, to paintings, to prints. He even founded Interview magazine as well as managed and produced the music of experimental rock band, The Velvet Underground. We know him today as a symbol of the raucous artistic culture of 1960’s New York. Warhol was a jack of all trades and a harbinger of what was to later become the art market norm, diversifying his offering and skewing it towards collectability.
Matisse introduced us to the bold, chimerical style that came to define the Fauvist art movement. His subjects were imputed with inflections of colour that, though unnatural, often mirror deeper qualities and somehow appear fitting. This artistic approach morphed into colourful, schematic works of art with a graphic leaning. Later in life, Matisse turned to working with cut-outs as painting became difficult for him. This period produced the unique organic shapes that we’ve come to associate with him. His influence took art in a new and experimental direction which has undoubtedly born influence on graphic art specifically, and the cultural sphere as a whole.
Pollock was a pioneer in the Abstract Expressionist art movement. He propelled the style forward by shifting the emphasis onto process over product. His art unfolded through his own unique drip technique. He would move intuitively, rigorously splicing the canvas with dashes of wet paint, interspersing the scene with splatters and drips as he felt fit. It was a rigorous, immersive practice that produced highly charged works of art that reflected the peripatetic, if frenzied state of the artist’s mind. Pollock’s work was characterised by its genesis, cutting a new swath stylistically as well as altering our sensibilities around the hierarchy of product versus process.
Text by Annabel Colterjohn