Impressionism changed everything. Born of defiance and a rejection of tired traditions, the collective visions of Monet and Manet, Morisot and Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley became (and remain to this day) more popular than any in the history of image-making. If that weren’t remarkable enough, the movement’s nerve and verve succeeded in opening the floodgates to a dizzying proliferation of artistic ideas, ideals and painterly techniques that altered forever the story of art.
The last 150 years have had four times as many art movements as in the previous millennium
Before Impressionism’s emergence in the 1860s, prevailing artistic tastes shifted relatively slowly. One could be forgiven for thinking, over-simplistically, that one dominant school followed another with a kind of fluid inevitability, like the passing of an aesthetic baton from one era to next: the Renaissance handing off to Mannerism, Baroque to Rococo, Romanticism to Realism. But when Impressionism entered the race, suddenly that single lane of traffic divided into many, as separate strands spidered away from the linear path into a spaghetti of creative confusion. The ensuing century and a half witnessed more than four times as many distinct and nameable movements than the entire millennium that came before.
This year alone marks the centenary of the formal establishment of at least three separate artistic schools that emerged independently in three different locations: De Stijl in the Netherlands, Productivism in Russia and Pittura Metafisica in Italy. The first of these, De Stijl, remains familiar to more than merely devoted students of art history. The geometric colour blocks of Piet Mondrian, one of De Stijl’s co-founders, continue to mesmerise. But how many of us can, without the aid of Google, picture in our mind’s eye a work by De Stijl’s Russian and Italian creative siblings – hugely significant interludes in Modern art, but hardly household terms?
For every Expressionist, Cubist, Surrealist and Pop Art legend that our eyes know by heart, there’s a Tonalist, Vorticist, Biomorphist and Maximalist whose imagination rings a bell but whose manifesto slips the mind. What follows is a crib sheet to seven art movements that came and went since Impressionism upset the artistic apple cart – movements you know you know, but can’t quite name.
Synthetism (circa 1877 - 1893)
As their name suggests, Synthetists were interested in unity. Unsatisfied with Impressionism’s sleight of hand, they strove to balance both an object’s appearance and the emotion it provokes, rather than privileging one or the other. The Flageolet Player on the Cliff(1889), a painting by the French artist Paul Gauguin, is emblematic of the style. Glimpsed from a precarious vantage, a girl swings her scythe in time to the romantic notes wafting from the flute of a boy beside her on the ledge-like path. Gauguin manages to capture the vertigo of young love while at the same time remaining faithful to every humid gradation of the day’s dying light.
Tonalism (1880s and ‘90s)
At the same moment that the Synthetists were striking an equilibrium between feeling and form, a group of artists in the US were earning the nickname Tonalists for their tendency to draw a gauzy veil of light-suspending atmosphere across their works. James McNeill Whistler was one of the school’s attendees and so was the spiritually-sensitive George Inness – a devotee of the mystical writings of the Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. Only a whisper of lunar light illuminates the marshes of Alexandria Bay, New York, in Inness’s 1887 canvas, Moonrise. Swaddled in quarter-light, the sodden landscape through which a barely-visible boatman appears to pass from one state of existence to another dissolves into a murky mist before our very eyes.
Purism (1918 - 1925)
Almost as quickly as the Cubist pioneers Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque had established the movement’s epoch-defining principles of fragmentation and multi-perspectivism in the 1910s, there was kickback. Among those putting the boot in were the French painter and writer Amédée Ozenfant and the celebrated French-Swiss architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (known as Le Corbusier). Wishing to restore geometric soundness to objects (and objecting to how fashionable, decoratively, Cubism had become), Ozenfant and Le Corbusier argued for a robust simplicity of forms. Ozenfant’s Still Life with Glass of Red Wine (1921) is a case in point. Where Cubists would merrily smash to smithereens the simplest bottle of red, the Purists saw the world as archetypally intact and brought to the table something reliably solid instead.
Precisionism (1920s and 30s)
Some art schools take things in fresh new directions. Others innovate by unifying. They strive to consolidate the salient ideas of forerunning schools. Precisionism is one of those. Hailed as the first native art movement to plant roots in the United States, Precisionism absorbed principles of rivalrous European manifestos in its evocation of uniquely American themes. Charles Demuth’s iconic I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928) is indicative of the eclectic style. Inspired by William Carlos Williams’s 1921 imagistic poem The Great Figure, Demuth captures the deafening reverberations of a fire engine’s blaring approach in a fierce fracture of colour and sound that is neither Cubist nor Futurist, yet both.
With obsessive attention to the behaviour of light on objects, the Impressionists startled and delighted. Decades later, in the 1910s, a pair of Russian artists, Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, took things to another level by removing material substance altogether while retaining the sharp shards of light that it reflects. The result was Rayonism: shattered meshes of refracted colour such as Larionov’s Red Rayonism (1913). Though convinced their school represented the culmination of all previous artistic movements, Rayonism proved in fact to be merely another nudge toward that impending seismic surge that will strike in the 1940s, Abstract Expressionism, whose epicentre would not be Russia, but the United States.
Synchromism (1910s and 20s)
While the Russian Rayonists were busy stripping form from light, a duo of American artists, Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, were endeavouring to distill a rhythmic eye-music from the silent syncopations of pure colour. They called their project Synchromism and the individual works that comprised it, ‘synchromies’. Russell’s Cosmic Synchromy, painted between 1913 and 1914, is characteristic of the movement’s ambition to record in colour luminous symphonies of seeing: the mute music of the mesmerising spheres.
Lettrism (1942 - )
Where Synchromism coaxed from quiet colour an orchestra of harmonious hues, a later movement, known as Lettrism, sought to sync the competing urgencies of language and image into a merged melody. Conceived in the 1940s by Isidore Isou, a Romanian expat to creatively-feverish Paris, Lettrism (or “Letterism” as Isou preferred) waged its campaign to change the way we experience art on a variety of cultural fronts: from literature to cinema, graphics to politics. Painters enlisted in the Lettrist cause forged a fresh genre of image-making they called ‘hypergraphics’ – a hybrid verbal-visual vision that relied for its effect on an erosion of the boundaries between reading and looking. In Isou’s own painting Hypergraphie, Polylogue, from 1964, an abacus of strange, hieroglyphic-like symbols is slowly blotted out by a huge indecipherable cipher as literal language and the splotches of abstraction slip into a seamless primordial soup of something seen. Through the Lettrist’s integrating eyes, art is the last word.
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