European Art in the Early 20th Century

The Early 20th Century

The early 20th century was marked by rapid industrial, economic, social, and cultural change, which influenced the worldview of many and set the stage for new artistic movements.

Learning Objectives

Identify how industrial, economic, social, and cultural change set the stage for the art movements of the early 20th century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The first two decades of the 20th century were marked by enormous industrial, economic, social, and cultural developments.
  • International trade brought with it increasing growth and prosperity, along with a rise in poverty and slums in major cities. Urbanization, advances in science and technology, and the spread of goods and information were markers of the times.
  • With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, art became heavily influenced by the desire to abstract life and escape the horrific possibilities of the human condition. Artists began to question and play around with themes of reality, perspective, space, and time.

Key Terms

  • urbanization: The change in a country or region when its population migrates from rural to urban areas.

The first two decades of the 20th century were marked by enormous industrial, economic, social and cultural change. International trade brought with it increasing growth and prosperity, along with a rise in poverty and slums in major cities. Urbanization, architectural advances, increases in technology, and the spread of goods and information were markers of the times. Competition between nations was reflected in attempts to show off advances in technology, business, and architecture, among other things. Prominent scientific advancements of the time included Einstein's Theory of Relativity and Freud's development of modern psychology.

After the relative peace of most of the 19th century, rivalry between European powers erupted in 1914 with the outbreak of the first World War. Over 60 million European soldiers were mobilized from 1914–1918 as countries around the world were called into the conflict. With the widespread death and destruction of the greatest war the world had ever seen, art increasingly became a means for escapism, a way to abstract life and escape the difficulties of the human condition.


A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench during the Battle of the Somme, July 1916: The death and destruction of World War I contributed to the desire of artists to abstract life.

The economic and social changes of the early 20th century greatly influenced the North American and European worldview which, in turn, shaped the development of new styles of art. Artists began to question and experiment with themes of reality, perspective, space and time, and representation. Einstein's Theory of Relativity contributed to the development of cubism, and developments in psychology greatly influenced the subject matter of a number of artistic schools of thought. The rapid rise of technology impacted artists both directly and indirectly, from the invention of new artistic materials to subject matter and themes.


The Fauves were a group of early 20th century Modern artists based in Paris whose works challenged Impressionist values.

Learning Objectives

Contrast the characteristics of Fauvism, as found in the work of Matisse and Derain, from those of its predecessor Impressionism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Fauvist movement, led by Henri Matisse and Andre Derain, officially lasted for only four years: 1904–1908.
  • Vivid color, simplification, abstraction, and unusual brush strokes are hallmarks of the Fauvist style. Fauvist influences and references include Van Gogh's Post- Impressionism and the Neo-Impressionist technique of Pointillism.
  • Gustave Moreau, a controversial professor at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, mentored several of the Fauves, including Matisse, and profoundly influenced their work.

Key Terms

  • Post-Impressionism: (Art) a genre of painting that rejected the naturalism of impressionism, using color and form in more expressive manners.
  • pointillism: In art, the use of small areas of color to construct an image.
  • Fauvism: An artistic movement of the last part of the 19th century that emphasized spontaneity and the use of extremely bright colors.

Fauvism is the style of les Fauves (French for "the wild beasts"), a short-lived and loose group of early 20th century Modern artists whose works emphasized painterly qualities and strong color over the representational or realistic values retained by Impressionism. While Fauvism as a style began around 1900 and continued beyond 1910, the movement as such lasted only a few years, 1904–1908, and had three exhibitions. The leaders of the movement were Henri Matisse and André Derain.

Painting of the Charing Cross Bridge with city buildings in the background and boats in the foreground. Many bright colors are used.

Charing Cross Bridge, London by André Derain, 1906: The vibrant, surprising use of color in this work is characteristic of the Fauvist style.

Apart from Matisse and Derain, other artists included Albert Marquet, Charles Camoin, Louis Valtat, the Belgian painter Henri Evenepoel, Maurice Marinot, Jean Puy, Maurice de Vlaminck, Henri Manguin, Raoul Dufy, Othon Friesz, Georges Rouault, the Dutch painter Kees van Dongen, the Swiss painter Alice Bailly, and Georges Braque (subsequently Picasso's partner in Cubism).

The paintings of the Fauves were characterized by seemingly wild brush work and strident colors, while their subject matter had a high degree of simplification and abstraction. Fauvism can be classified as an extreme development of Van Gogh's Post-Impressionism fused with the pointillism of Seurat and other Neo-Impressionist painters, in particular Paul Signac. Other key influences were Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, whose employment of areas of saturated color—notably in paintings from Tahiti—strongly influenced Derain's work.

Gustave Moreau, a controversial professor at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and a Symbolist painter, was the movement's inspirational teacher. Moreau taught Matisse, Marquet, Manguin, Rouault, and Camoin during the 1890s, and was viewed by critics as the group's philosophical leader until Matisse was recognized as such in 1904. Moreau's broad-mindedness, originality, and affirmation of the expressive potency of pure color was inspirational for his students.

Derain and Matisse worked together through the summer of 1905 in the Mediterranean village of Collioure, and later that year displayed their highly innovative paintings at the Salon d'Automne. The vivid, unnatural colors led the critic Louis Vauxcelles to derisively dub their works as les Fauves, or "the wild beasts," which the artists then appropriated as the title for their movement. The painting that was singled out for special condemnation, Matisse's Woman with a Hat, was subsequently bought by the major patrons of the avant-garde scene in Paris, Gertrude and Leo Stein.

A bright and colorful portrait of a woman wearing a hat.

Woman with a Hat by Henri Matisse, 1905.: This painting was rejected by critics when initially exhibited, but was soon acquired by avant-garde collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein.

Primitivism and Cubism

As one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso is widely known for his involvement in Cubism and Primitivism.

Learning Objectives

Identify Picasso's unique importance to the development of both Primitivism and Cubism in the early 20th century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • 1906–1909 is referred to as Picasso's African period, during which he produced Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and several other paintings incorporating primitivist elements.
  • Picasso was inspired by African artifacts as well as the work of Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin.
  • The formal elements of Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon bridged Picasso's African Period and subsequent Cubist work.
  • Picasso and Georges Braque co-founded the Cubist movement, one of the most influential movements in Modern Art.
  • Cubism stressed basic abstract geometric forms that presented the subject from many angles simultaneously.

Key Terms

  • primitivism: Primitivism is a Western art movement that borrows visual forms from non-Western or prehistoric peoples, a practice that was central to the development of modern art.

African Period and Primitivism (1906–1910)

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the European cultural elite were discovering African, Micronesian, and Native American art. African artifacts were being brought back to Paris museums following the expansion of the French empire into Africa. The press was abuzz with exaggerated stories of cannibalism and exotic tales about the African kingdom of Dahomey. The mistreatment of Africans in the Belgian Congo was exposed in Joseph Conrad's popular book, Heart of Darkness.

Artists such as Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, and Picasso were intrigued and inspired by the stark power and simplicity of styles of "primitive" cultures. Around 1906, Picasso, Matisse, Derain, and other Paris-based artists had acquired an interest in Primitivism, Iberian sculpture, African art, and tribal masks, in part due to the works of Paul Gauguin that had recently achieved recognition in Paris's avant-garde circles. Gauguin's powerful posthumous retrospective exhibitions at the Salon d'Automne in Paris in 1903 and 1906 had a powerful influence on Picasso's paintings.

A nude Hina is seen from behind imploring a dark male spirit.

The Moon and the Earth by Paul Gauguin, 1893: Picasso was greatly influenced by Gauguin's African inspired works like The Moon and The Earth.

In 1907, Picasso experienced a "revelation" while viewing African art at the ethnographic museum at Palais du Trocadéro. African art influenced Picasso's painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), especially in its treatment of the two figures on the right side of the composition. This painting is also considered a protocubist work bridging Picasso's African and Cubist periods. Other works of Picasso's African Period include Bust of a Woman (1907, in the National Gallery, Prague); Mother and Child (Summer 1907, in the Musée Picasso, Paris); Nude with Raised Arms (1907, in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, Spain); and Three Women (Summer 1908, in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg).

The work portrays five nude female prostitutes. The women appear as slightly menacing and rendered with angular and disjointed body shapes.

Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso, 1907: This work is influenced by primitivism and is considered to be one of the earliest examples of Cubist painting.

Cubism (1909–1912)

Cubism, established by Picasso and his colleague Georges Bracque, was marked by a revolutionary departure from representational art. In Cubist artwork, objects were analyzed, broken up, and reassembled in an abstracted form instead of being depicted from one viewpoint. Picasso, Braque, and other Cubists depicted subjects from a multitude of viewpoints to create a greater scope of context. Cubism has been considered the most influential art movement of the 20th century.

A monochromatic painting depicting various objects, including a violin and a candlestick, broken up and reconstructed in a way that makes it difficult to tell what the objects are.

Violin and Candlestick by Georges Braque, 1910: Georges Braque, with Picasso, was one of the founders of Cubism.

Cubism had a global reach as a movement, influencing similar schools of thought in literature, music, and architecture. Particular offshoots beyond France included the movements of Futurism, Suprematism, Dada, Constructivism, and De Stijl, which all developed in response to Cubism. Early Futurist paintings have some commonalities with Cubism: the fusing of the past and the present and the representation of different views of the subject pictured at the same time, also called multiple perspective, simultaneity or multiplicity. Constructivism was influenced by Picasso's technique of constructing sculpture from separate elements. Other common threads between these disparate movements include the faceting or simplification of geometric forms, and the association of mechanization and modern life.

Cubist Sculpture

Just as in painting, Cubist sculpture is rooted in Paul Cézanne's reduction of painted objects into component planes and geometric solids (cubes, spheres, cylinders, and cones). And just as in painting, it became a pervasive influence and contributed fundamentally to Constructivism and Futurism.

Cubist sculpture developed in parallel to Cubist painting. During the autumn of 1909 Picasso sculpted Head of a Woman (Fernande) with positive features depicted by negative space and vice versa. Marcel Duchamp was responsible for another extreme development inspired by Cubism. The ready-made arose from a joint consideration that the work itself is considered an object (just as a painting), and that it uses the material detritus of the world (as collage and paper mache in the Cubist construction and Assemblage). The next logical step, for Duchamp, was to present an ordinary object as a self-sufficient work of art representing only itself. In 1913 he attached a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and in 1914 selected a bottle-drying rack as a sculpture in its own right.

Other Forms of Cubism

Futurism and Constructivism developed from Cubism in Italy and Russia respectively.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate the artistic styles of Futurism and Constructivism from their Cubist origins

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Cubist work represents an artistic subject from multiple perspectives simultaneously.
  • Italian Futurism and Russian Constructivism are two movements that were greatly influenced by Cubism.
  • Divisionism, a technique in which color and light are deconstructed, is an important aspect of Futurist and Cubist work.
  • Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Pierre Reverdy, and William Faulkner all applied Cubist principles to written work.
  • Cubist poets and writers also influenced Dada and Surrealism.

Key Terms

  • futurism: An early 20th century avant-garde art movement focused on speed, the mechanical, and the modern, which took a deeply antagonistic attitude to traditional artistic conventions; (originated by F.T. Marinetti, among others).
  • divisionism: In art, the use of small areas of color to construct an image.
  • constructivism: A Russian movement in modern art characterized by the creation of nonrepresentational geometric objects using industrial materials.


Cubism was an avant-garde art movement of the early 20th century pioneered by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, and later joined by Juan Gris, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Robert Delaunay, Henri Le Fauconnier, and Fernand Léger. The movement revolutionized European painting and sculpture and inspired related movements in music, literature, and architecture. Cubism has been considered the most influential art movement of the 20th century.

A monochromatic painting depicting various objects, including a violin and a candlestick, broken up and reconstructed in a way that makes it difficult to tell what the objects are.

Violin and Candlestick by Georges Braque, 1910: Georges Braque, with Picasso, was one of the founders of Cubism.

In Cubist artwork, objects are analyzed, broken up, and reassembled in an abstracted form. Instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context.


Constructivism was an artistic and architectural philosophy that originated in Russia in 1919. It entailed a rejection of the idea of autonomous art and was in favor of art as a practice for social purposes. Constructivism had a great impact on modern art movements of the 20th century, influencing major trends such as Bauhaus and the De Stijl movement. It is difficult to isolate a particular aesthetic common to the Constructivist philosophy as it is so broad, but it can be roughly distinguished by its use of bright, bold color and geometric designs, especially in graphic design.

The First Working Group of Constructivists (including Liubov Popova, Alexander Vesnin, Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, and the theorists Aleksei Gan, Boris Arvatov, and Osip Brik) developed a definition of Constructivism as the combination of faktura: the particular material properties of an object, and tektonika, its spatial presence. Initially the Constructivists worked on three-dimensional constructions as a means of participating in industry. Later the definition would be extended to designs for two-dimensional works such as books and posters.

Painting does not depict specific objects, but rather a collection of different two- and three-dimensional shapes.

Proun Vrashchenia by El Lissitzky c. 1919: The geometric forms and bright colors in this painting are characteristic of the Constructivist aesthetic.


Futurism was an Italian movement that emphasized and glorified themes associated with contemporary concepts of the future such as speed, technology, youth, and violence, as well as objects such as the car, the airplane, and the industrial city. In 1910 and 1911 futurist painters made use of the technique of divisionism, which entails breaking light and color down into a field of stippled dots and stripes. Severini was the first to come into contact with Cubism. Following a visit to Paris in 1911, the Futurist painters adopted the methods of the Cubists. Cubism offered them a means of analyzing energy in paintings and visually expressing their desired focus on dynamism, motion, and speed. The adoption of Cubism determined the style of much subsequent Futurist painting.

A colorful painting with crisscrossing lines representing sound.

Abstract Speed + Sound, by Giacomo Balla 1913–1914: This is a seminal work from the Futurist movement which was influenced by Cubism.

German Expressionism

German Expressionism refers to a number of related creative movements beginning before WWI and peaking in Berlin during the 1920s.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the importance of the group Die Brücke and artists such as Kirchner, Kollwitze, Schiele, and Modersohn-Becker in the development of German Expressionism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Kathe Kollwitz, Egon Schiele, and Paula Modersohn-Becker are among the independent German Expressionists who were unaffiliated with other Expressionist groups but nonetheless successful.
  • Kollwitz is best remembered for her compassionate series, The Weavers.
  • Many of Egon Schiele's contemporaries found the explicit sexual themes of his work disturbing.
  • Paula Modersohn-Becker is among the first recognized female artists to create nude self-portraits.

Key Terms

  • Weimar Republic: The democratic regime of Germany from 1919 to the assumption of power by Adolf Hitler in 1933.
  • expressionism: A movement in the arts in which the artist does not depict objective reality, but rather a subjective expression of inner experience.
  • Fauvism: An artistic movement of the last part of the 19th century that emphasized spontaneity and the use of extremely bright colors.


Expressionism was a modernist movement, beginning with poetry and painting, that originated in Germany at the start of the 20th century. It emphasized subjective experience, manipulating perspective for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists sought to express meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality.

Expressionism was developed as an avant-garde style before the First World War and remained popular during the Weimar Republic, particularly in Berlin. The style extended to a wide range of the arts, including painting, literature, theatre, dance, film, architecture, and music.

Expressionist painters had many influences, among them Edvard Munch, Vincent van Gogh, and several African artists. They were also aware of the Fauvist movement in Paris, which influenced Expressionism's tendency toward arbitrary colors and jarring compositions.

Die Brücke

In 1905, a group of four German artists, led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, formed Die Brücke (the Bridge) in the city of Dresden. Later members were Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein, and Otto Mueller. The group aimed to eschew the prevalent traditional academic style and find a new mode of artistic expression, which would form a bridge (hence the name) between the past and the present. They responded both to past artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grünewald, and Lucas Cranach the Elder, as well as contemporary international avant-garde movements. As part of the affirmation of their national heritage, they revived older media, particularly woodcut prints. Die Brücke is considered to be a key group of the German Expressionist movement, though they did not use the word itself. The group is often compared to both Primitivism and Fauvism due to their use of high-keyed, non-naturalistic color to express extreme emotion like the Fauvists and a crude drawing technique that eschewed complete abstraction, like the Primitivists.

Der Blaue Reiter

A few years later, in 1911, a like-minded group of young artists formed Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in Munich. The group was founded by a number of Russian emigrants, including Wassily Kandinsky, Alexej von Jawlensky, Marianne von Werefkin, and native German artists, such as Franz Marc, August Macke, and Gabriele Münter. Like Die Brücke, Der Blaue Reiter is considered a major feature of the German Expressionist movement.

Within the group, artistic approaches and aims varied from artist to artist, however, there was a shared desire to express spiritual truths through their art. Der Blaue Reiter as a group believed in the promotion of modern art, the connection between visual art and music, the spiritual and symbolic associations of color, and a spontaneous, intuitive approach to painting. Members were interested in European medieval art and Primitivism, as well as the contemporary, non-figurative art scene in France. As a result of their encounters with Cubist, Fauvist and Rayonist ideas, they moved towards abstract art.

Kathe Kollwitz

Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945) was a German painter, printmaker, and sculptor whose work offered an eloquent and often searing account of the human condition, and the tragedy of war, in the first half of the 20th century. Initially her work was grounded in Naturalism, and later took on Expressionistic qualities. Inspired by a performance of Gerhart Hauptmann's The Weavers, which dramatized the oppression of the Silesian weavers in Langembielau and their failed revolt in 1842, Kollwitz produced a cycle of six works on the Weavers theme. Rather than a literal illustration of the drama, the works were a free and naturalistic expression of the workers' misery, hope, courage, and, eventually, doom. The Weavers became Kollwitz' most widely acclaimed work.

Photo of the sculpture depicting a mother cradling her dead son in a large, empty room.

Mother with her Dead Son by Käthe Kollwitz: This Kollwitz sculpture is a WWII war memorial.

Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele (1890–1918) was an Austrian painter. A protégé of Gustav Klimt, Schiele was a major figurative painter in the early 20th century. His work is noted for its intensity, as well as for the many self-portraits he produced. The twisted body shapes and expressive line that characterize Schiele's paintings and drawings mark the artist as an early exponent of Expressionism. Schiele was influenced by his mentor, Klimt, as well as by Edvard Munch, Jan Toorop, and Vincent van Gogh. Schiele explored themes not only of the human form, but also of human sexuality. Many viewed Schiele's work as being grotesque, erotic, pornographic, or disturbing, focusing on sex, death, and discovery.

A painting of a woman wearing only a pair of hosiery and heels with her legs spread open.

Sitzender weiblicher Akt mit aufgestützen Ellbogen by Egon Schiele: Schiele's depiction of female nudes scandalized his contemporaries.

Paula Mendersohn-Becker

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907) was a German painter and one of the most important representatives of early Expressionism. In a brief career, cut short by her death at the age of 31, she created a number of groundbreaking images of great intensity. Modersohn-Becker studied briefly at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and was influenced by French post impressionists Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin. On her last trip to Paris in 1906, she produced a series of paintings about which she felt great excitement and satisfaction. During this period of painting, she produced her initial nude self-portraits—something unprecedented by a female painter—and portraits of friends such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Werner Sombart.

A nude self-portrait that shows the artist from the waist up, holding flowers and wearing a necklace.

Selbstporträt by Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906: Female nude self-portraits were uncommon subjects in this era.

Abstract Sculpture

Modern abstract sculpture developed alongside other avant-garde movements of the early 20th century like Cubism and Surrealism.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the evolution of abstract sculpture through the periods of Cubism and Surrealism, naming the important works of Rodin, Picasso, Duchamp, and Brâncuşi

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Auguste Rodin is seen as the progenitor of modern sculpture.
  • Picasso and fellow cubist artists developed new means of constructing works of art using collage, or sculptural assemblage using disparate materials. This is known as Cubist constructionism.
  • Surrealism further expanded upon contemporary definitions of sculpture by introducing the concept of the " readymade."
  • Constantin Brâncuşi rejected naturalism in sculpture as well as any form of representational art. His minimal, abstract artworks attempt to depict the essence of an object.

Key Terms

  • abstract art: Art that is not intended to depict objects in the natural world, but instead uses color and form in a non-representational way.
  • naturalism: A artistic movement that seeks to encapsulate reality or familiar experience in which subjects may receive highly symbolic, idealistic, or even supernatural treatment.
  • coulage: Automatic or involuntary sculpture made by pouring a molten material (such as metal, wax, or chocolate) into cold water. As the material cools it takes on what appears to be a random (or aleatoric) form, though the physical properties of the materials involved may lead to a conglomeration of discs or spheres.


Auguste Rodin, along with artists like Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin, developed a radical new approach to the creation of sculpture in the 19th century. Rodin was a naturalist, less concerned with monumental expression than with character and emotion. Departing from centuries of tradition, he turned away from the idealism of the Greeks and the decorative beauty of the Baroque and neo-Baroque movements. His sculpture emphasized the individual and the concreteness of flesh, suggesting emotion through detailed, textured surfaces, and the interplay of light and shadow.

The modern sculpture movement essentially began during the Rodin exhibit at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900. At this event, Rodin showed his Burghers of Calais, Balzac and Victor Hugo statues, along with The Thinker. Though all of these are representational works of art, Rodin's approach to form paved the way for increasingly experimental and abstract art.

The work shows a nude male figure of over life-size sitting on a rock with his chin resting on one hand as though deep in thought.

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin: Rodin's experiments with form, visible in The Thinker, launched modern abstract sculpture.

Influence of Cubism

Cubist sculpture developed in parallel with Cubist painting, centered in Paris beginning around 1909 and evolving through the early 1920s. The style is most closely associated with the formal experiments of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. Others were quick to follow Braque and Picasso's lead in Paris, including Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Alexander Archipenko, Joseph Csaky, Jacques Lipchitz, Henri Laurens, and Ossip Zadkine.

During his period of Cubist innovation, Picasso revolutionized the art of sculpture by combining disparate objects and materials into one sculptural work—the sculptural equivalent of collage in two dimensional art. Just as collage was a radical development in two dimensional art, so was Cubist construction a radical development in three dimensional sculpture.

The surface and structure of this sculpture of a woman's head are broken up into fragmented forms.

Head of a Woman by Picasso, 1909: Picasso was a pioneer in early 20th century Cubist sculpture.

Influence of Surrealism

The advent of Surrealism led to objects being described as "sculpture" that would not have been termed as such previously. Surrealist sculpture made use of many of the same techniques as other forms of Surrealist art, such as games to tap into the unconscious mind such as coulage, a kind of automatic or involuntary sculpture made by pouring a molten material into cold water. As the material cools it takes on what appears to be a random form, though the physical properties of the materials involved may lead to a conglomeration of discs or spheres. The artist may use a variety of techniques to affect the outcome. Involuntary sculpture is described by Surrealists as sculpture created by absent-mindedly manipulating something, such as rolling and unrolling a movie ticket, bending a paper clip, etc.


Marcel Duchamp had a deep impact on the evolution of abstraction in sculpture. He originated the use of the "found object" or "readymade" with pieces like Fountain (1917), a urinal that was displayed as art. Duchamp experimented a great deal with sculpture, creating readymades, assemblages, and kinetic works. His notion that anything can be art that an artist names art is an idea that has resonated throughout many historical and contemporary movements. Though never considered himself to be a Surrealist, he was involved socially with many key members of the movement and his ideas were of influence.

Duchamp participated in the design of the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition, which was held at the Galerie des Beaux-arts, Paris. The show featured more than 60 artists from different countries, including approximately 300 paintings, objects, collages, photographs, and installations. The surrealists wanted to create an exhibition which in itself would be a creative act, and André Breton named Duchamp, Wolfgang Paalen, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, and Max Ernst to help do so.


The work of Constantin Brâncuşi at the beginning of the century paved the way for later abstract sculpture. In revolt against the naturalism of Rodin and his late 19th-century contemporaries, Brâncuşi distilled subjects down to their essences as illustrated by his Bird in Space series (1924). These elegantly refined abstract forms became synonymous with 20th century sculpture.

Brâncuşi's impact, with his vocabulary of reduction and abstraction, is seen throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and exemplified by artists including Gaston Lachaise, Sir Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miró, Ásmundur Sveinsson, Julio González, Pablo Serrano, and Jacques Lipchitz.

A black and white photo of the piece, a porcelain urinal signed “R.Mutt 1917

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp: Duchamp's appropriation of a urinal as a piece of art challenged the prevailing definition of sculpture.

Dada and Surrealism

Dada and Surrealism were multidisciplinary cultural movements of the European avant-garde that emerged in Zurich and Paris respectively during the time of WWI.

Learning Objectives

Identify the origins, characteristics, and political ideologies of Dada

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Dada was a political movement opposed to artistic and social conformity as well as the capitalist forces that led to WWI.
  • Dada artists worked in non-traditional media including collage, photomontage, and assemblage. Dada artist Michel Duchamp pioneered the notion of the "readymade;" everyday objects appropriated for artistic purposes.
  • Dada spread throughout Europe and North America following WWI; by the early 1920s the center of Dada activity was Paris.
  • Dada informed many of the major avant-garde movements of the 20th century century, including Surrealism and Social Realism.
  • Surrealism began in the 1920s and had a lot in common with Dadaism.
  • Surrealist works drew inspiration from intuition, the power of the unconscious mind, and various psychological schools of thought.
  • Surrealist artists and writers regarded their work as an expression of the philosophical movement, with the artwork being an artifact.

Key Terms

  • readymade: Everyday objects found or purchased and declared art. The readymades of Marcel Duchamp are ordinary manufactured objects that the artist selected and modified as an antidote to what he called "retinal art." By simply choosing the object (or objects) and repositioning, joining, titling, and signing it, the object became art.
  • collage: A composite object or collection (abstract or concrete) created by the assemblage of various media; especially for a work of art like text, film, etc.
  • social realism: An artistic movement that depicted social and racial injustice and economic hardship through unvarnished pictures of life's struggles.


Dada was a multi-disciplinary art movement that rejected the prevailing artistic standards by producing "anti-art" cultural works. Dadaism was intensely anti-war, anti-bourgeois, and held strong political affinities with the radical left. For many participants, the movement was a protest against the bourgeois nationalist and colonialist interests, which many Dadaists believed were the root cause of the war, and against the cultural and intellectual conformity—in art and more broadly in society—that corresponded to the war. Many Dadaists believed that the reason and logic of bourgeois capitalist society had led people into war. They expressed their rejection of that ideology in artistic expression that appeared to reject logic and embrace chaos and irrationality.

The origin of the name Dada is unclear. Some believe that it is a nonsensical word while others maintain that it originates from the Romanian artists Tristan Tzara's and Marcel Janco's frequent use of the words "da, da," meaning "yes, yes" in Romanian. Another theory posits that the name "Dada" came during a meeting of when a knife stuck into a French–German dictionary happened to point to dada, a French word for "hobbyhorse." Likely, the origin of the name Dada is another attempt to devalue a system of logic, namely that of language.

Dada began in Zurich in 1916. Key figures in the Dada movement included Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Hans Arp, and Raoul Hausmann, among others. The movement influenced later styles like avant-garde, and movements including Surrealism, Nouveau réalisme, pop art and Fluxus.

A circular plaque with German writing.

Plaque commemorating the birth of Dada movement: This plaque is from the Cabaret Voltaire, the first venue where Dada artists showcased their work in 1916.

Dada was an informal international movement with participants in Europe and North America that employed all kinds of media but are known especially for collage, writing, photomontage and performance. Dadaists worked in collage, creating compositions by pasting together transportation tickets, maps, plastic wrappers and other artifacts of daily life. Dada artists also worked in photomontage, a variation on collage that utilized actual or reproductions of photographs printed in the press. In Cologne, Max Ernst used photographs taken from the front during World War I to comment on the war. Another variation on collage used by Dadaists was assemblage, the assembly of everyday objects to produce meaningful or meaningless pieces of work, including war objects and trash.

When World War I ended in 1918, most of the Zurich Dadaists returned to their home countries, while some began Dada activities in other cities.

A black and white collage made up of words and letters.

Dada poster from 1923: This poster for a Dada soiree references the medium of collage.

Like Zurich, New York City was a refuge for writers and artists from World War I. Frenchmen Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia met American artist Man Ray in New York City in 1915. The trio soon became the center of radical anti-art activities in the United States.

During this time, Duchamp began exhibiting "readymades" (everyday objects found or purchased and declared art) and was active in the Society of Independent Artists. In 1917, he submitted the now famous Fountain to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition. Initially an object of scorn within the arts community, the Fountain has since become almost canonized by some as one of the most recognizable modernist works of sculpture. The committee presiding over Britain's prestigious Turner Prize in 2004, for example, called it "the most influential work of modern art."

A black and white photo of the piece, a porcelain urinal signed “R.Mutt 1917

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp: Duchamp's appropriation of a urinal as a piece of art challenged the prevailing definition of sculpture.

By 1921, most of the original Dadaists moved to Paris, where Dada experienced its last major incarnation. Inspired by Tristan Tzara, Paris Dada soon issued manifestos, organized demonstrations, staged performances, and a number of journals.

While broad, the Dada movement was unstable. By 1924, artists had gone on to other ideas and movements including surrealism and social realism. Some theorists argue that Dada was the beginning of postmodern art.


Surrealism was a cultural movement beginning in the 1920s that sprang directly out of Dadaism and overlapped in many senses. Surrealist works drew inspiration from intuition, the power of the unconscious mind, and various psychological schools of thought. The work often features unexpected juxtapositions, non sequiturs, and elements of surprise.

First and foremost, Surrealist artists and writers regarded their work as an expression of the philosophical movement, with the artwork being an artifact. Leader André Breton was explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was above all a revolutionary movement. Surrealism developed out of the Dada activities during World War I and the most important center of the movement was Paris. From the 1920s onward, the movement spread around the globe, eventually affecting the visual arts, literature, film, and music of many countries and languages, as well as political thought and practice, philosophy, and social theory.

As the Surrealists developed their philosophy, they believed that Surrealism would advocate the idea that ordinary and representative expression was vital and important, but that expression must be fully open to the imagination. Freud's work with free association, dream analysis, and the unconscious was of utmost importance to the Surrealists as they developed methods to liberate their imaginations.

Like Dada, Surrealism aimed to revolutionize human experience, in terms of the personal, cultural, social, and political aspects. Surrealists wanted to free people from false rationality, and also from restrictive customs and structures. Breton proclaimed that the true aim of Surrealism was "long live the social revolution, and it alone!"

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