Giuliana and the Sunflowers, 1987 - Jamie Wyeth - A Movement Towards Contemporary Art

A Movement Towards Contemporary Art | Part I

Written by Shreya Garg

Painting over the centuries has been used as a mode of expression, be it someone’s personal experience or a representation of society at large. Over the years, paintings and other forms of art like sculpture have been associated with aesthetics and beauty, often judging the artist on the basis of his skill, precision and aesthetic value.

1. From Realism to High Modernism

Realist paintings traced back to 1850’s tried to capture people as they were, in their natural surroundings coming as close to reality as possible. They were life-like, depicting people and situations with truth and accuracy, revolting against exaggeration of emotions and the subject matter as seen during the Romantic Movement.  This stark contrast between the painting styles can be seen in realist paintings by Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet and romantic paintings by Eugène Delacroix and Philipp Otto Runge. Gustave’s first exhibition in the 1830s called the “Slice of Life” scandalized the Parisians with their depiction of ordinary bodies and a naturalist attention to human body and form became central to these painters.

Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners, 1857, Oil on Canvas, 33 × 44” 


Gustave Courbet, Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet, 1854, oil on canvas, 50.78 x 58.66”


Eugène Delacroix, Death of Sardanapalus, 1827, Oil on canvas, 145 in × 195”


Philipp Otto Runge, The Morning, 1808, Oil on canvas

Beginning of the 20th century saw rise of modernism, majorly as a result of development of industrial societies and World War. People began to question the defined and became more self-aware leading to a lot of explorations with materials, form, and the very nature of painting itself. Mediums like poetry, painting, theatre, were used to express the turmoil faced by society. One of the most famous artists of this era, Pablo Picasso made paintings in cubist style abandoning the previous forms of representation known to the art world. Focus shifted from skill, accuracy in paintings to forms, emotions and methods of representation. Like Picasso said “Painting is a blind man’s profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen”. This radical shift had a very strong impact on the times to come, giving the art world a new direction.

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, oil on canvas, 96 x 92”

2. New Kids on the Bloc

Contemporary art or the art of today, deals with issues of the modern society. Apart from producing artworks valued for their aesthetic quality, an array of contemporary artists critique social, political and personal issues. They provide social commentary on gender equality, freedom, environmental issues, health, feminism, war, peace, globalization which are sensitive to today’s generation. The subject matter, concept and its medium of representation have become more important than the pure aesthetic value of an artwork. Questions like, “what is the painting or artist trying to convey?” sprout up in a viewer’s mind when they look at a painting which does not appear to be comprehensive in the first glance. Giving an experience to the viewer or a thought that he carries along concerns most of the contemporary artists. Considering this scenario, a lot of artists still focus on generating beautiful pieces of art with their prime concern being aesthetics, making the context a secondary matter.

Art world today deals with varied number of mediums of expression than ever seen in history. Technological advancements have intricately been woven in the fabric of art, making the two inseparable in contemporary times. Moving beyond sculpture, interactive installations which make use of creative technology are widely seen and are a part of contemporary art culture as much as paintings. Mixing different mediums to produce something new, using discarded material, making artworks that destroy themselves with time, ephemeral art, sound art, or video art. Apart from different mediums we see art in different forms such as performance art and architecture.  Looking at some of the contemporary artists like Vibha Galhotra who for example makes mix-media sculpturesinstallations, videos and photographs to comment on the shifting topography of the world caused by human exploitation. She uses delicately sewn ghungroo beads to show urban landscape. She sees herself as a part of the restructuring process and constructs these massive installations to show the same.

Vibha Galhotra, Neo Camouflage, 2008, digital print on fabric and vinyl, mannequins, shoes, and belts, dimensions variable (site specific)


Vibha Galhotra , Beehive, 2008, brass ghungroos (trinklets), cloth, variable

Similarly voicing her social concerns Tayeba Begum Lipi, a Bangladeshi artist uses razor blades to explore feminist issues of marginality and representation of the female body, addressing social contradictions. She often questions the sexual stereotypes that dominate women’s lives in Bangladesh and beyond.

Tayeba Begum Lipi, Let’s Take a Break, 2013, stainless steel made razor blades, stainless steel sheet and water, 64 1/5 × 28 × 23 3/5”

Contemporary art, as we see today gives the artist complete freedom. It spins stories with its infinitely vast trunk of materials, styles, stories, histories, and techniques opening the artist to new beginnings and newer possibilities, only leaving us with a thought of a world which itself could be called an artwork.