What do all the ‘isms’ mean?

Rachel Healy gives a comprehensive timeline of art styles from the 19th Century to the present day

Paintings are displayed collectively in museums and galleries according to their common art movements. While the earlier art movements were often labelled retrospectively, in modern times the artists frequently coined the terms themselves. In each period, artists reacted to social, political and religious issues. New styles were slow to develop until the nineteenth century when the Industrial Revolution resulted in major developments in scientific knowledge and technological advancements. After this time, new ‘isms’ appeared much more regularly.

Romanticism (1800-1850)

During this period, artists were not reliant on patrons and therefore were free to choose their own subject matter. In rejecting the idealised, decorative and fanciful depictions of the bourgeoisie in the previous style of Rococo Art, artists began painting dramatic events in nature with a poetic style of expression. J.M.W. Turner’s atmospheric paintings are the epitome of this style in the inclusion of moving sky and changing light.

Realism (1850-1890)

The Realists, such as Jean-François Millet, toned down the turbulence of the Romanticists and depicted scenes of everyday life in unidealized landscapes. The artist highlighted peasants in unfair working conditions and used an earthy palette. Loose brushwork was prominent and paint was thickly applied.

Impressionism (1867-1886)

The invention of portable oil paint tubes allowed artists to paint en plein air, or outdoors. In order to capture the ever-changing light and reflections on water, artists such as Claude Monet used brisk, free brushwork, to achieve the fleeting moment.

Neo-Impressionism (1886-1935)

The Neo-Impressionists, such as Georges Seurat and Vincent Van Gogh, took loose brushwork a step further with Divisionism and Pointillism. The artist placed dots of pure colour side by side, creating an optical mixture whereby the viewer would mix the colours in the mind’s eye. The vigorous, swirling brushstrokes created movement and emphasised colour over line.

Fauvism (1904-1910) 

Colour, as a mode of expression which was separate from reality, was foremost for the Fauvists. The artists chose strange colours for emotional impact and decorative effects. The forms were deliberately crude and the simplicity of line and shape were emphasised. Henri Matisse’s The Green Line is a perfect example of the aims of this movement.

Expressionism (1905-1920)

Expressionism was born out of the paradox of urban living, whereby the artist was alone in a crowded city. The artist’s anxiety of the human condition is apparent in Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Expressionist art is personal and subjective. The aim of Expressionist art was to evoke moods, feelings and ideas. 

Cubism (1907-1914)

Cubists, such as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, were primarily inspired by African Art in the use of sharp angles, earthy colours and multiple viewpoints. Also influenced by collage work, Cubism developed to become more abstract and two-dimensional with emphasis on lines, tones and surface texture.

Futurism (1909-1914)

Artists such as Giacomo Balla wanted to break from the past and glorify the modern world of industry. Futurist art was angular and busy. The paintings and sculptures often referenced machines and suggested movement, speed and violent action.

Dada (1915-1920s) 

The name, ‘Dada’ was chosen for its nonsensical sound and association with childhood. This movement’s essence was ‘anti-art’. Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal upside down, signed it and called it Fountain, in the attempt to make fun at the idea of art. 

De Stijl (1917-1931) 

‘De Stijl’, which simply means ‘style’ in Dutch, was founded by Piet Mondrian. The artists of this movement were interested in creating harmony and balance in an austere abstract style, devoid of any representations of natural objects. Primary colours and geometric shapes were characteristic of the style.

Surrealism (1920s-1950s)

Paintings depicting bizarre, distorted and erotic scenes from the imagination, the unconscious mind and dreams were features of the Surrealist style. Among the Surrealists was Salvador Dalí, who took the anti-rational approach in his hand-painted dream scenes, famed for melting clocks and elephants on stilts.

Abstract Expressionism (1943 onwards)

Inspired by existential philosophy, artists favoured the process of creating the painting over the meaning of the work. Art was created spontaneously by artists, such as Willem de Kooning, who applied paint with violent and aggressive brushstrokes unconsciously.

Action Painting (1950s)

Action Painting went a step further than Abstract Expressionism. Artists from this style believed that the painting should act as a recording of an event. Jackson Pollock put the canvas on the ground, rather than on an easel, and flicked and dripped paint using different tools to create varied textures on the surface. The finished product was the result of a performance.

Neo-Dada (1960s)

In a revolt against Abstract Expressionism, artists such as Jasper Johns reinforced the theory that the subject matter and the meaning were more important than the process of the painting. The artworks used mass media in an anti-aesthetic approach to create juxtapositions and contradictions. The viewer’s interpretation would ultimately determine the artwork's meaning, rather than the intention of the artist.

Pop Art (1960s)

Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans and silkscreen prints of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe epitomise Pop Art, which was a reaction to consumerism and popular culture. The art movement encompassed art beyond traditional boundaries to include film, video, photography, the written word and advertisement design. 

Op Art (1960s)

Optical illusions, hallucinatory impressions, movement and vibrations were part of this style, and featured artists such as Bridget Riley, who experimented with geometric forms, monochromatic colours, line and perspective to produce sensations of movement and colour for the viewer.

Conceptualism (1960s onwards) 

Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt described the movement by saying, “The idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art”. As well as painting and sculpture, this style includes photography, performance, sound and video.

Minimalism (1960s)

Minimalism was formed as a reaction against Abstract Expressionism’s subjectivity, illusionism and metaphorical associations. Minimalist artists, such as Donald Judd, favoured geometric forms and systemic methods. The style is clear and simple with a limited palette.

Contemporary Art (1960s to present)

Art movements from the 1960s to the present day are given the umbrella term, ‘Contemporary Art’, and include painting, sculpture, photography, video, installations, performance and video. In the future, Contemporary Art will inevitably too be divided into distinct styles and movements retrospectively.