The Important Artists and Works of Avant-Garde Art

Progression of Art
Gustave Courbet: The Painter's Studio (1854-55)

The Painter's Studio

Artist: Gustave Courbet

This painting, depicting the artist seated with brush and palette in hand as he contemplates the landscape he has been painting, is intended as a metaphor for the life of the artist. Courbet subtitled the work: "a real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life." The artist is framed by a nude model, representing a muse and a small boy symbolizing innocence, while the room is filled with various recognizable figures. Charles Baudelaire, the noted poet and critic, is seated on a desk reading in the far right, among the cultural elite, while on the left are various figures from all aspects of society. The artist said he intended to represent "society at its best, its worst, and its average." As he further explained, "it's the whole world coming to me to be painted. On the right, all the shareholders, by that I mean friends, fellow workers, art lovers. On the left is the other world of everyday life, the masses, wretchedness, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, people who make a living from death."

A pioneer of Realism, Courbet was to define the movement by saying, "Realism is democracy in art." As the art critic Linda Nochlin puts it, "he saw his destiny as a continual vanguard action against the forces of academicism in art and conservatism in society." After the 1855 Paris World Fair's jury refused to exhibit this work, Courbet opened The Pavilion of Realism, his own exhibition, where he also presented The Burial at Ornans, which had also been rejected. Aided by his patron, Alfred Bruyas - also portrayed in The Painter's Studio - Courbet's exhibition represented an act of defiance to the official venues. It also prefigured the later development of the Salon des Refusés and all of subsequent 20th century exhibitions created by avant-garde movements in defiance of traditional venues.

Nochlin notes the importance of this work to the avant-garde: "it is not until seven years after the 1848 Revolution that the advanced social ideals of the mid-nineteenth century are given expression in appropriately advanced pictorial and iconographic form, in Courbet's The Painter's Studio. ...Courbet's painting is 'avant-garde' if we understand the expression, in terms of its etymological derivation, as implying a union of the socially and the artistically progressive." In summary, Nochlin describes The Painter's Studio as "a crucial statement of the most progressive political views in the most advanced formal and iconographic terms available in the middle of the nineteenth century."

Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Édouard Manet: Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863)

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe

Artist: Édouard Manet

Édouard Manet's shocking landscape work, showing two fully clothed men taking lunch on the grass with a nude woman, famously caused a scandal when it was displayed in the 1863 Salon des Refusés, an exhibition for works rejected by the official Paris Salon. Although Manet never fully aligned himself with the avant-garde imperatives of the Impressionist painters, a younger group of artists who saw him as something of a mentor, with works such as Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, he certainly broke down many of the doors that later avant-garde artists would stream through in their quest for the new.

This painting was avant-garde in two senses, rejecting both the stylistic tenets of the era and its bourgeois social and moral norms. In the first case, the large size of the canvas was at odds with its apparently mundane, modern subject-matter, the image presented on a scale normally reserved for historical and mythological scenes. The tonal qualities of the piece were also peculiar: brash and artificial-seeming, the harsh light and shadow jarring with the apparent outdoor setting (Manet famously never shared the Impressionists' enthusiasm for painting en plein air) and drawing the eye to the massed white flesh of its central subject. And much of the background brushwork seemed informal, almost half-finished, as if the composition were drawing attention to itself as such: a mere conceit or fiction, discarded on a whim before completion.

But it was the subject-matter of the work that was truly shocking. Nude women were an acceptable component of academic art provided they were presented in the context of a historical scene, such that the nudity was somehow at a moral and intellectual distance. Manet's scene presented a nude body without any of the veneer of historical narrative, which made it more real and shocking to its audiences. With this gesture, he paved the way for the increasingly unabashed focus on (female) nudity and moral transgression that defined the avant-garde endeavors of coming decades.

Oil on canvas - Musée D'Orsee, Paris

Claude Monet: Impression, Sunrise (1872)

Impression, Sunrise

Artist: Claude Monet

Claude Monet and the Impressionists formed the first avant-garde movement to achieve international success and fame. In this work, from which the term "Impressionism" was indirectly derived, Monet captures a sunrise in the port city of Le Havre, the family home to which he had returned for a holiday. The elemental blue and orange color palette, combined with the quick, spontaneous brushwork, is designed to convey the visual impression made by the scene at a particular moment in time, rather than picking it out in all its detail. This revolutionary approach was not, in Monet's case, accompanied by radical social views, but it forced him into a position of oppositionality to mainstream culture and the art-world that was quintessentially "avant-garde."

Monet had met a number of other young painters in the studio of the painter Charles Gleyre in 1862, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, and Alfred Sisley. These artists, joined by others such as Berthe Morisot and Camille Pissarro, formed the backbone of the Impressionist movement, which practiced its ideas for many years - under the informal tutelage of the older painter Édouard Manet - before finding commercial success. After their continual rejection by the Paris Salon, Monet and his fellow Impressionists formed their own society to fund and exhibit their work. Impression, Sunrise was amongst those displayed in its first exhibition in 1874, where it attracted the ire of many critics, including Louis Leroy, whose ironic play on the term "Impression" in its title formed the origin of the movement's name.

Though the method of depicting the natural world that Monet and his compatriots developed is now very familiar to us, at the time it was revolutionary to relay the details of a scene in such a quick and intuitive way, as it was to paint on-site, or en plein air, as Monet did in order to create Impression Sunrise. The formal advances of Impressionism, and its necessary opposition to received social and cultural norms, set the terms for the development of avant-garde art over the coming century and a half.

Oil on canvas - Musée Marmottan Monet

Pablo Picasso: The Three Musicians (1921)

The Three Musicians

Artist: Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso, one of the founders of the Cubist movement, had been creating avant-garde artworks since the 1900s. However, this painting from 1921 evokes especially effectively the idea of the radical social milieu with which the avant-garde was often associated. The large canvas depicts three musicians, two of them portrayed as figures from Commedia dell' Arte. The Harlequin figure on the right is thought to represent Picasso who often portrayed himself as the trickster character of the Italian theater, while the central figure in white is thought to be Guillaume Apollinaire, the prominent critic of avant-garde art and close friend of Picasso's. Dressed as Pierrot, the figure plays a musical instrument but conveys melancholy alienation, On the right, dressed as a monk, is the figure of Max Jacobs, the poet and close friend, who had joined a Benedictine community at St.-Benoît-sur-Loire. In effect, the painting is partly a nostalgic evocation of the artist's youth.

Beginning with his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), a radical proto-Cubist work, Picasso became a leading avant-garde figure, as he and Georges Braque developed Cubism, working through its iterations of Early Cubism, Analytic Cubism, and Synthetic Cubism. As a result, as the contemporary art curator Jessica Stewart notes, "Cubism is one of the most well-known avant-garde movements...Figures were broken into geometric shapes, colors were brightened and simplified, and collage was incorporated for an innovative result that continues to shape art today. In fact, looking at a timeline of art history, Western visual culture can be split clearly into two pieces - before and after Cubism."

There are two versions of this painting, and both are interpreted as marking the end and culmination of Picasso's Synthetic Cubism phase. The figures are painted but resemble paper cutouts, pieced together like jigsaw puzzles out of varying broad planes of color and patterned paper. Spending the summer with his family at Fontainebleau, Picasso painted a series of paintings, including these two, which also referenced Commedia dell' Arte imagery and the influence of theatrical design as he had been working with the noted theatrical producer and director Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes.

Oil on canvas - The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Kazimir Malevich: Black Square (1915)

Black Square

Artist: Kazimir Malevich

This famous work consists of a black square against a white background. Examined more closely, the work reveals the fine cracks of the surface, as the pigment has aged, as well as brushstrokes and a fingerprint. However, it was the way that the work reduced the picture plane to a single, elemental geometric form that made it both a radical departure into abstraction and a singular moment of the avant-garde. The painting was exhibited at The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10 in St. Petersburg in 1915 as if it were a Christian icon, elevated and displayed in the corner of the room as was customary in Russian homes. Malevich described the work as "the first step of pure creation in art," the "embryo of all potentials." The black square became the implicit building block in his subsequent paintings.

Whereas the Cubists had broken down the centuries-old law of the picture plane, Malevich saw avant-garde art as leading the way to a new culture by freeing itself from the obligation to represent reality altogether. In his 1915 essay, "From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting," Malevich argued for the "the liberation of objects from the obligations of art," describing Suprematism - the movement which he led - as an evolution of Cubism, which had not gone far enough. "A painted surface is a real, living form... The forms of suprematism, the new painterly realism, already testify to the construction of forms out of nothing, discovered by intuitive reason. The cubist attempt to distort real form and its breakup of objects were aimed at giving independent-life of its created forms." The wider context for Malevich's work was the movement of Russian Constructivism, and the atmosphere of revolutionary ferment in the years preceding the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In reducing the picture plane to the absolute minimum of formal elements, and in tying his work to a revolutionary social moment, Malevich offered with his Black Square an exemplary instance of avant-garde invention.

Art critic Rosalind McKever notes that: "the argument may seem academic, but time is central to avant-gardism as an arbiter of quality. The military term refers to those sent ahead of the ordinary troops, those going first, who will inevitably be followed by the masses. The value in an avant-garde artwork comes, in part, from it being first. Malevich's Black Square is a perfect example, not least because Malevich himself dated the work, which is thought to have been painted in 1915, to 1913, confirming the importance of being first. When Malevich repeated the work in the 1920s as geometric abstraction had taken hold; the aesthetic value of the later versions may be barely distinguishable, but their art-historical and potentially therefore their market values are wholly different."

Oil on canvas - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Hannah Höch: Cut with a Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany (1919)

Cut with a Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany

Artist: Hannah Höch

This pioneering collage by the Dada artist Hannah Höch uses clippings from newspapers and magazines to convey the absurdity and corruption of contemporary German culture. As Anahid Nersessia notes, for Höch "the collage is a highly suggestive act of bricolage, a piecing together of materials that come to represent the fragmented nature of the culture from whose debris they are drawn." The work exposes the cultural polarities and fissures of post-war Berlin. Among the clippings are recognizable images of artist Käthe Kollwitz, silent film star Pola Negri, and political thinkers and leaders, including Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. In the lower right corner, a small map of Europe depicts the countries where women have the right to vote.

As art historian Heidi Hirschl Orley writes, Höch was "known for her incisively political collages and photomontages (a form she helped pioneer)", in which she "appropriated and recombined images and text from mass media to critique popular culture, the failings of the Weimar Republic, and the socially constructed roles of women." Höch's innovative use of photomontage to fundamentally challenge social, cultural, and aesthetic traditions made her a leading figure of early Dada, and an exemplary avant-garde figure in the more socially engaged sense of the term. In Berlin in 1920, she exhibited this work, as well as others, at the First International Dada Fair in 1920, where her work was acclaimed, even though her male colleagues had originally attempted to discourage her from participation.

The use of photomontage became widely influential and was adopted by subsequent movements throughout the 20th century, from Surrealism to Fluxus. As Heidi Hirschl Orley notes, "Höch's bold collisions and combinations of fragments of widely circulated images connected her work to the world and captured the rebellious, critical spirit of the interwar period, which felt to many like a new age. Through her radical experimentations, she developed an essential artistic language of the avant-garde that reverberates to this day."

Cut paper collage - National Gallery, State Museum of Berlin


Number 1

Artist: Jackson Pollock

This monumental painting, with its energetic swirl of rhythmically applied layers and lines of industrial paint, exemplifies Jackson Pollock's "drip painting" technique, which gave birth to the movements of Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting in North America in the 1940s. Placing the canvas on the floor and flinging paint onto it with a variety of implements, Pollock sought to achieve a kind of unity with the work-in-progress to muster the emotive energy needed to complete it: "on the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting."

Clement Greenberg said of this work that "beneath the apparent monotony of its surface composition it reveals a sumptuous variety of design and accident." Abstract Expressionism, and particularly the work of Pollock, was viewed by Greenberg as the pinnacle of avant-garde art, as it had broken through to autonomous abstraction, divesting itself of all social concerns. By this reading, Pollock's work exemplifies avant-garde art in its formal rather than conceptual sense. Contemporary art historian Donald Burton Kuspit echoes Greenberg's reading with a more critical tone, noting that "formal abstraction initiated by Picasso and the Cubists reached its extreme in the emergence of the avant-garde American art, Abstract Expressionism, in the 1940s."

Pollock's approach reflected his view that "new needs need new techniques." Many subsequent avant-garde artists - and indeed many previous ones - followed a similar dictum, but Pollock's drip painting approach was particularly akin to the contemporary Japanese movement of Gutai. Founded by Shozo Shimamoto and Jiro Yoshihara, this group created experimental works that blurred the boundaries between performance, painting, and installation art. As gallerist David De Buck said: "they all wanted to break the traditional brush and move more into action painting and painting a different style, so Shimamoto actually threw vessels, glass bottles, cups filled with paint onto the canvas." This and countless other examples indicate the significance of Pollock's work in defining the course of the avant-garde across the latter half of the twentieth century.

Enamel and metallic paint on canvas - The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles


Theater Piece No. 1

Artist: John Cage

While teaching at Black Mountain College, an experimental art school in North Carolina which was then a hub of neo-avant-garde activity, the composer John Cage created this score for a multimedia performance, which was to include a number of leading avant-garde artists and writers, including the choreographer Merce Cunningham, the pianist David Tudor, the poet Charles Olson, and the painter Robert Rauschenberg. Cage orchestrated the piece but chance was to play a determining role in what was simply called "The Event."

Trained as a composer, John Cage is famous for his chance and graphic scores, which are stripped of the conventional notations of the musical page and invite spontaneous responses from performers. Amongst his most famous scores is 4'33" (1952), which consists of a set of blank staves. Cage himself gives a memorable recollections of the Black Mountain College performance given the same year: "at one end of the rectangular hall, the long end, was a movie, and at the other were slides. I was on a ladder delivering a lecture which included silences, and there was another ladder which M.C. Richards and Charles Olson went up at different times... Robert Rauschenberg was playing an old-fashioned phonograph that had a horn, and David Tudor was playing piano, and Merce Cunningham and other dancers were moving through the audience. Rauschenberg's pictures [the White Paintings] were suspended above the audience...They were suspended at various angles, a canopy of paintings above the audience."

The work, subsequently referred to as "the first happening", exemplified the concerns of the Neo-avant-garde, and was considered to be a prototype for the multimedia performance art of Fluxus and other movements, as it incorporated prose, poetry, live music, dance, recorded music, art works, film, and photographic slides. Later teaching at the New School in New York City, Cage influenced Allan Kaprow, who pioneered the Happening as a form, as well as other performance artists including Al Hansen and George Brecht. Cage's work was also important to the development of Conceptualism, and Minimalism, and he became an important (though controversial) figure within classical music, his introduction of chance into composition influencing Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre, Boulez, and Philip Glass, among others.


Imagen de Yagul

Artist: Ana Mendieta

This color photograph shows the artist, nude and covered with foliage and white flowers, as she lies in an indigenous pre-Columbian tomb made by the Zapotec people. The foliage that obscures her upper body seems animated, as if vigorously growing out of her form. She becomes anonymous, a figure of both death and fecundity.

This work was part of Mendieta's Silueta Works in Mexico 1973-1977, a series containing over 200 pieces, all of them involving her laying on the ground, making an imprint with her body, or merging with the elements, such as the foliage in this photograph. The series is considered a pioneering work of several avant-garde movements, including Land Art, Body Art, and Performance art. As art historian Laura Roulet writes, Mendieta's work "encompasses the full range of avant-garde 1970s movements - conceptual, performance, earthwork, feminist, and identity art...Much of Mendieta's output involved negotiating and transcending boundaries, some the result of geographic displacements, others imposed by an art world that still categorized work by gender, ethnicity, media, First World versus Third World, and as high or low art."

Mendieta described the series as follows: "I have been carrying on a dialogue between the landscape and the female body (based on my own silhouette) I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature). Through my earth/body sculptures I become one with the earth I become an extension of nature and nature becomes an extension of my body." Her work's innovation was connected to both aesthetic and cultural change, as she stated, "My art is the way I reestablish the bonds that tie me to the universe."

Chromogenic print - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas

"Avant-Garde Art Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 04 Mar 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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