It is arguable that, since the beginnings of the Renaissance in the early 15th century, the world of Western art was long defined by efforts to capture – and glorify – reality. As cultures became introduced again to the classic work of ancient Greece and Rome, techniques were developed to render human forms and natural landscapes in ways exalting these elements, and usually presenting the viewer with painting and sculpture intended to be beautiful and perfectly identifiable. The world, however, underwent immense change from the 19th century on, and technology, warfare, science, and other dramatic developments created new inspirations for artists, and consequently new forms of artistic expression. The Modernist movements, once taking hold, only gained in momentum and innovation. These movements, so contrary to one another, nonetheless share a single quality: they largely discard the classical styles of ages past, and seek different ways of seeing and understanding reality. As the following explores, several examples of Cubism, Pointillism, and Surrealism reveal how are all immensely important genres within modern art, just as each either manipulates or ignores classical technique in order to make dramatic statements all their own.

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Few Modernist movements have had the impact of Cubism, as this style also most radically dismisses classical representation in painting. Picasso, Matisse, and Braque are generally considered the pioneers of the style, which expressed a fascination with space and spatial arrangements, which in turn was due to the theories of physics emerging in the early 20th century (Miller, 2008, 169). However, it is also important to note how the major artists of the era influenced each other, directly and indirectly, and further explored what the new style could be. Juan Gris, for example, was greatly inspired by Picasso, and he created a cubist style all his own. It is, unlike the work of Picasso, intensely structured and formalized, even as it is pure Cubism (Miller, 2008, 169). For example, The Man in the Cafe is a powerful work of the genre, in that the subject and the background are fragment in every aspect of their presentation. Even the man’s face is composed of a large number of angles and layers, and the “idea” of a face is brought to a wide range of meanings. At the same time, however, Gris, unlike other cubists, still reflects some traditional style. From the title to the work itself, there is no attempt to present anything other than the man, clearly enjoying a drink at his cafe. This varies from how artists like Picasso would paint cubist subjects occupying unclear spaces, as in his Guernica; while the painting reveals elements of the violence of war, the setting could be anywhere. With Gris, his subject is positioned in such a way that there is no doubt as to the painting’s being a portrait (Cottington, 2004, 150). In a sense, then, and as The Man in the Cafe illustrates, Gris would combine elements of traditional representation through the “lens” of a cubist perspective.

While the individuality of Cubism cannot be understated, it may be that Pointillism, emerging in the late 19th century, more deviated from classical styles by virtue of its insistence on a single technique of brushwork. The masters of Impressionism, such as Monet, Renoir, and Degas, would mix their colors to create a variety of shades serving to complete the painting’s effect. George Seurat completely departed from this approach and instead concentrates almost exclusively on color. Seurat actually reverses the process of employing color, or instead relies on the viewer’s role in actually creating the visual impression. Famously, his A Sunday on La Grande Jatte is a highly complex work revealing an approach that is virtually scientific. Seurat does not mix colors, but rather applies the pointillist technique to fill his canvas with innumerable dots of color which, when seen from any distance, blend to become other shades (Zakia, 2013, 143). Famously, for example, the reds and blues in A Sunday on La Grande Jatte appear to the viewer as purple. The technique, however, was so different from established styles that the work generated little admiration, and Seurat was accused of sterility (Green, 2003, 41). Nonetheless, as the work discussed illustrates, the departure from classical technique allowed Seurat to move Modernism forward, through enabling the viewer to participate in the work’s effects. His landscape in this painting does reflect realistic dimensions, which may be seen as echoing traditional art. The greater impact, however, lies in how the pointillism creates a fascination through pure technique.

Surrealism is a modernist movement with an ethos all its own, and also with critical connections to the exploration of human psychology evolving in the early 20th century. This is art that defies classical forms in a specific way; it violates, not necessarily the representational images of subjects, but the connections between them (Wood, Johnson, 2016, 132). Magritte, Dali, and other surrealists did not necessarily depart from classical, realistic styles of depicting people and objects. The movement itself actually relies on the viewer being able to know exactly what is being presented, so that the dream-like effect is more pronounced (Green, 2003, 123). At the same time, however, and if there is one quality evident in all of Surrealism, it is a translation of human psychology as complex, often haunted, and presented as subconscious feeling and perception. For example, Salvador Dali’s Inventions of the Monsters, like Picasso’s cubist Guernica, is a representation of war, but one relying on a very different style. The surrealists frequently expressed in imagery forms of dream states, yet Dali often takes this perspective into the nightmare, as in the noted painting. A collection of intensely disturbing images is offered here, from a burning giraffe to mysterious figures in the foreground, seated and handling symbols of death (Art Institute of Chicago). The landscape appears barren and alien, a common element in Dali’s work, just as grotesque images are set beside identifiable ones. The hands of the women in the foreground are skeletal, as a withered arm and hand extend to the neck of the human bust in the center. This Surrealism of Dali is not realistic in any classical way, simply because he combines the real and the unreal, as happens in dreams. Moreover, and reinforcing how psychology so impacts on this art, control and order are set aside (Wood, Johnson, 2016, 132). The suppressed human psyche may be explored here, and in frightening ways not at all reflective of the emphasis on beauty in classical art.

If the nature of all art is to evolve, it becomes clear that Modernist styles were and are determined to take this course. While the skill and beauty seen in classical art endures, the more progressive efforts of artists like Gris, Seurat, and Dali underscore how art may enable new modes of seeing, feeling, and thinking. Whole worlds of international conflicts, psychology, technology, and science were altering cultures in enormous ways, and the world of art in the 19th and 20th centuries responded by taking radically new directions. As the above reinforces, then, Gris’s The Man in the Cafe, Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, and Dali’s Inventions of the Monsters are evidence of the importance of modern art, just as each painting manipulates or dismisses classical technique in order to make dramatic statements all their own.

  • Art Institute of Chicago, n/d. Dali, Inventions of the Monsters, 1937. [Online]. Available at: [1 Jan. 2016].
  • Cottington, D., 2004. Cubism and Its Histories. New York, NY: Palgrave.
  • Green, C., 2003. Art in France, 1900-1940. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Wood, A. M., & Johnson, J., 2016. The Wiley Handbook of Positive Clinical Psychology. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Zakia, R. D., 2013. Perception and Imaging: Photography – A Way of Seeing. Burlington, MA: Focal Press.