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The Difference Between Modern and Contemporary Art

The Difference Between Modern and Contemporary Art

When discussing the difference between modern and contemporary art it is important to tell the story of Gustave Courbet, a French painter who spearheaded the Realist movement in the 19th century

Courbet challenged the Romanticism concept of most of the famous artists of his time. He stayed strong to his beliefs, which was painting only what the eyes could see. The Cubists and Impressionists were some of the many artist groups that took the influence of his ‘independent mind’ which helped them to blossom and improve in their artworks.

Modern Art v/s Contemporary Art – Key Differences at A Snapshot

  1. Modern art refers to art that began in the 1880s. Contemporary art describes the works of artists still living and creating artworks.
  2. Modern Art is revolutionary by its origin (anti-romanticism), while Contemporary art is revolutionary for the freedom and magnitude of experimentation by the artists
  3. Modern Art is more self-expressive, while Contemporary Art pays attention to society, thus known for its social impact
  4. Modern Art is primarily made on canvases, while Contemporary Art is on every medium that you can think of – video art, tech-enabled artworks, object design, graphical arts
  5. Modern art focuses on the subjective representation of the chosen themes, while Contemporary Art takes a strong stand on social, political and cultural aspects of the world

A story to be told to explain the difference between modern and contemporary art, so let’s understand this in a bit more detail

How Courbet Buried Romanticism, and Gave Birth to Modern Art?


Gustav Courbet – A Burial At Ornans

Just like his famous “A Burial at Ornans” painting, Gustav Courbet stayed true to his perception of realism and only ‘painting what he could see’.

The painting was the burial of Courbet’s uncle in a small French town called Ornans and the picture did not have any exaggerated visual details.

Emotions like grief and mourning were not displayed. Unlike customary Romantic paintings that show emotions and surrealism. It stayed true to its realism.

The Romanticism style became famous during the 1849-50 eras when art was still made with traditional methods. This was the time Courbet painted and released the “A Burial at Ornans” painting and critics did not like the work, especially it’s strange size which stood at 10 feet by 22 feet.

He painted real people who were actually present at the burial instead of art models.

“The Burial of Ornans was in reality, the burial of Romanticism”  Courbet eventually concluded.

None of his friends, family, or loved ones could have predicted the success and fame the painting brought to the art world. His different style sealed his name as the ‘first modern artist’ and it began the introduction of the ‘Modern Art Period’

What is Modern Art?

When we hear the word modern we begin to think about new, trendy, and fashionable things in the world.

“Modern Art” can simply be described as the style and philosophy of artworks produced during the 1890-1960 era.

In other words, the style applied many concepts of Modern Art but it made more emphasis on social, economic, and political matters. This was possible with the use of new materials and components in producing art. The main aim of Modern Art was setting aside the customary traditions of the past world and focusing on a new approach in identifying and assessing the current issues of the world.

How Modern Art introduced us to a new era of Art?

Modernism movement introduced many fresh concepts and ideas into the world of art.

As a result, many artists of that time started exploring dreams, symbolism, and personal iconography as their main style. Some other artists began to test the use of coloring and non-traditional materials.

Many known artists such as Pablo Picasso took this influence, and he introduced a new style of painting with the Modernism. It was called cubism which was known for its geometric forms. This then evolved over the years up to the 1830s.

The invention of art photography and film cameras then provided artists with new ways for the world illustrations and sceneries in their works.

Modern Art is used to conveying the era of ‘Modernism’, a time where art is described with various terms ending with ‘ism’s’ such as; Fauvism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Dadaism, Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism, Pop Art, and many other art movements.

All of it formed the foundation of Modernism Art. These art movements were influenced by a number of factors like; African and Asian Art, Light, Culture, History, etc.

Some of the most well-known ‘Modernist Masters’ include; Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, Andre Derain, Henri Matisse, Henri de Toulouse, Piet Mondrian, Raoul Dufy, Maurice de Vlaminck, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Wassily Kandinsky, and Édouard Manet just to name a few.

Read 10 Top Modern Art Paintings

What is Contemporary Art?

By definition, Contemporary Art refers to the work of arts made since the aftermath of World War II and is used to describe the works of artists still living and creating artworks.

All the way to the year 1910 when the term was first to use, art critic Roger Fry founded the Contemporary Art Society in London.

After World War II, the term was used to define the art movement.

Critics described it as an era where ‘modern art’ was no longer contemporary enough to have a positive effect on the younger generations.

Throughout history, the term contemporary can also be traced back to the time of Modernism, but it was a special type of art that did not describe a specific period.

Instead, it was only based on current matters like social, economic and political issues.

Characteristics of Contemporary Art

The era of Contemporary works of art produced experimental works that affect a wider range of social, economic, and political issues.

This idea reflected the issues that affect the world today, which are in the form of racism, globalization, oppression, poverty, feminism among many others. Over the last 30 years, we have witnessed a growing list of artworks that bring about awareness of the most important and urgent matters. They were all highlighted by video art, salons, object designs, graphical arts, and social media.

Contemporary art also looks like tackling and exposing more issues that will occur in the future. This is one of the most striking differences between Modern and Contemporary art.

For one who will love to explore both modern and contemporary art, there are many places in the world to see and experience it all. Take, for example, New York, which is one of the largest cities in the USA, is home to some of the richest museums with countless breathtaking works.

What will the Future of Art be?

Thanks mostly to the advent of new technology, art has become more accessible to more audiences and artists. Despite all the great things this world has to offer, the future will not be immune to unpleasant eventualities that might occur.

With the emergence of more of these technologies, today is true, a great time to become an artist. Read about must-see art museums for contemporary art.

For the deep-thinkers and highly creative minds, you can reach your dreams and create a series of artworks all by yourself. This can enable you to impress even the most hardcore Modern Art enthusiast by making them appreciate Contemporary art more.

What Gustave Courbet has done in the past can very well be replicated by none other than you.

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13 thoughts on “The Difference Between Modern and Contemporary Art

  1. Jim says:

    Good article but throwing around terms like “non-deserving artist” and “trash art” is far too subjective to define the parameters of what contemporary art should or should not depict or do. Gone are the days when contemporary art had to adhere to ground rules. Today anything goes. There are no more isms to react to and artists no longer have to depict the ills or mores of the world around them. While modern art mirrored the skin of the world, contemporary art has and continues to show what’s underneath by being overtly message oriented, by being ambiguous and allusive, and sometimes revealing intrinsic qualities felt and seen only by the artist and/or viewer. My point is that obviously you have certain standards and expectations of contemporary art as well as what you think the role of a contemporary artist should be and why. Bare in mind that you make up a segment of critics whose concerns are small in comparison to millions of other artists, curators, gallerists, art critics, and patrons. In short you can pigeon-hole contemporary art and turn it into your own personal manifesto but expect only a few followerstoherald your viewspoint.

    Bottom line: at the end of the day any and all visual art has to be worth looking at. Anything additional the viewer experiences is icing on the cake.

  2. James Findle says:

    Nice article, truly enjoyed reading that.

    I’m interested in getting to know more about
    “it will take more than better judgment and art appreciation to crawl out of the curatorial jumble just to discover the great ones”

    Could you tell us more on how to find a way in that?
    Many thanks

  3. namrah rafiq says:

    good collection of history

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  6. I’m a little confused about the difference between contemporary art and modern art. I somehow interchange the two since they have a lot in common. As someone who is a newbie in art appreciation, I’m glad to have come across your article. I had no idea that the Contemporary era produced works that affect a broader range of social, economic, and political matters. This is interesting since you’ve mentioned that it tackles the issues that are still intact today such as racism, oppression, feminism, etc. Since I’m still learning about the art itself, I’m collecting paintings from different eras which is why I’d like to shop for contemporary paintings.

  7. We absolutely love your blog and find a lot of your post’s to be just what I’m looking for.
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  8. Afzal Ibrahim says:

    Thank you!

  9. Afzal Ibrahim says:

    Thank you!

  10. Afzal Ibrahim says:

    Hello Jim – Totally understood your feedback and I appreciate your honesty! I have reconsidered my position (obviously after thorough research) and have made necessary edits. Thank you

  11. Afzal Ibrahim says:

    Thank you

  12. Afzal Ibrahim says:

    Thank you

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