At times, the words we use to define and describe art can be confusing, none more so than contemporary art. The word contemporary is strictly definable; it’s current, it’s modern, it is of the present. However, don’t let the name and definition fool you; Contemporary art and Modern art are two separate things altogether, each referring to their own set of artists and styles, as well as encompassing two drastically different eras, each with their own forms of interpretation, and relying on different cultural touchstones. So what is Contemporary art?

Contemporary Art – A Definition and History

To define contemporary art, it’s important to start with what it isn’t. Contemporary art is not modern art, though it is of this modern era. Modern art refers to the periods between the 1860s and the 1970s, encompassing Impressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism, with much more of introspective focus, in part using the past to make sense of the present. While Contemporary art can certainly be Impressionist, Cubist or Surrealist in style and execution, these styles and movements firmly belong to the era of Modern Arts. At the end of the 1960s, phrases such as ‘Post-Modernism’ began entering the cultural lexicon when talking about the arts, carrying with it the notion that the Modernist movement was over, and something new and exciting had formed in its stead (more on that later!).

With that distinction made, we can now begin to examine what Contemporary art is. Contemporary art can be defined as practically any piece of art made between the 1970s and the here and now, with Pop Art, popularised by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, considered by many to be the loose beginning of the Contemporary era. With Pop Art being a cultural launch point for Contemporary art, we see vibrant colours being employed far often than before this time, though, vibrancy isn’t always necessary. Contemporary art covers every medium and style employed by artists, from paintings to sculptures, performance art to installations, and even photographs and video art, Contemporary art is eclectic and diverse in execution.

Further defining Contemporary art is the optics of it. While Modern chose to focus on the past to explain the present and took a more inward look at the artist’s intentions, Contemporary art employs a different approach. Contemporary art tends to be more abstract in nature, relying on the viewer to infer their own meaning from the piece, and while there are pieces that are created as statements and reactions, even these pieces allow for diversity in examination.

Contemporary art tends to have a much greater focus on the world around it, drawing from contemporary situations and ideas to form a piece seeped in social and political commentary. Since its inception, Contemporary art has been employed the world over to challenge the viewers preconceived notions of the world around it, by channelling the subjects it sprung from to form a coherent piece. Covering subjects such as Feminism, Globalisation, and Militarism to name but a few, Contemporary art is not just a product of the present, it is a reaction and a reflection of the world it has sprung from.

 

light before the storm by Clare Riddington Jones

Light Before The Storm by Clare Riddington Jones

 

Light before the storm is an acrylic piece presenting a stretch of the Australian East Coast, either just moments or hours before an impending storm. Given the nature of contemporary art, there are several ways one can look at this piece. First and foremost, it can be enjoyed simply for its beauty and quality, but furthermore, as is the way with Contemporary art, it begs the viewer to begin asking questions about our place in the world.
The vibrancy of the colours and the varied use of techniques from various style, coming together to sculpt this view, cement its place as a contemporary piece.

 

Midnight Muse by Sandra Michele Knight

Midnight Muse by Sandra Michele Knight

This oil piece utilises abstraction to help accentuate the focused subject, The Muse. The background is vague and indistinct, using colour to imply where light would fall, in an almost Impressionist style, but without the strong distinct brush strokes. The small runs of paint in the top corners give a sense of the world melting away, while The Muse captivates the viewer, drawing their attention back to the foreground and subject.

 

Out Of The Blue by David Clare

Out Of The Blue by David Clare

Out of the blue is another piece that uses abstraction to create a sense of the contemporary, portraying a mountain range that, as the name implies, is seemingly appearing out the blue. The variety of techniques used to develop this oil piece draws upon influences of the past, to support this calming vision, such as the textured layering of paint helping to inform the impression of stones and crags forming from the mountain, and the range and depth of shapes define the landscape, from the lighter shades forming the sky to darker shades above implying the formation of clouds, or below, to show the fall of the range into the valley below.

In the here and now, Impressionism is applauded and appreciated for its uses of colour and light. Its ability to capture and convey how starkly different a subject is under different lighting is a style emulated to this day, standing strong after more than 150 years. But what exactly is Impressionism? How is it defined and where did it come from?

To understand Impressionism, one must look back to its history to see how the style developed and grew, in the face of repressive and stifling institutions, and in the shadow the post-industrial pre-modern world.

A short history of the Impressionist movement

The impressionist movement began in France, during 1860’s, though wouldn’t flourish into full fruition until the 1870’s. Artists Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renior, Alfred Sisley, Frederic Bazille and Eduoard Manet would meet weekly at a café near Manet’s studio to discuss technique and style, often taking trips to the country to paint in the open air together. This ran counter-current to the traditional trends, where artists would only typically sketch their subject in the open and paint in a studio, Manet’s group of artists, who met under the name of the ‘Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers’, painted the landscapes they visited, focusing more on the colours at play and the shifting light of the day, rather than the subject displayed, opting to slap wet paint on wet paint, and mix on the palette and canvas, affording them the speed needed to catch the shifting lights.

The traditionalist art schools of the era rejected this emerging style off the cuff, criticising the pieces as looking unfinished, and decried the subject matter; contemporary and leisure life, portrayed through still life, landscapes, and views of bustling streets and quiet cafes. The rejection had left little room for the Impressionists to showcase their work, until the April of 1874, when they self-funded their own exhibition in the photography studio of Felix Nadar. At the time, the entire affair was considered revolutionary, from the artworks, to the décor that they hung in, to the purchasing of works right off the walls.

Critics and art academics lampooned the event, and one such criticism of Claude Monet’s ‘Impression Sunrise’ (the work was declared ‘impressionistic’) gave the growing movement its name; Impressionism.

Ultimately the Impressionists would run 8 exhibitions between 1874 and 1886, though the core group of artists than began the exhibitions did not show work at every one of them. Eventually, they would go their separate ways, focusing on their own careers, either moving onto new styles, or refining the Impressionist style.

Defining the style

As mentioned above, the defining characteristics of Impressionism were its subject and style. Unlike the traditionalist art at the time, much technical focus was dedicated to hiding the artists hand and strokes, as well as glazing the canvas and paint upon completion. However, courtesy of Manet, Impressionism uses drastically different techniques. Brush strokes are much shorter, and more spontaneously placed, helping to convey the feeling and sight of moving and reflecting light.

Colour was often used in ways that hadn’t yet been considered at the time. Given the propensity to paint at times of transient light, artists would place wet paint on already wet paint, blending the edges of colours and giving everything a softer look, as outlining of the painting’s subjects was avoided. Outside of Manet’s works (who never referred to himself as Impressionist); artists would eschew the shade of black in favour of colourful vibrancy, reflecting the deep colour changes of transient light.

The layers on layers of paint, as well as the staccato brush technique leads to a uniquely textured final piece, where each moment of the artists hard work can be seen. While the process of Impressionist work is typically quick, the quality and care that has gone into each piece is immediately obvious.

Some examples from Art Selectors

Below are some of our selections from our Impressionist collection to help you gain further understanding of the Impressionist movement, as well as showcase some truly compelling pieces:

Fieldscape no. 5 by Joseph Villanueva

Fieldscape no. 5’ is a prime example of Impressionist art. From the prominent brushstrokes forming prominent clouds, and suggestive wisps of such, to the textured beauty of the tilled field below, one can see how the layers of paint have been added to give untold depth to the piece. It doesn’t just feel like the land stretches off into the horizon, but that the sky is incalculably deep. The touches of blue poking out from underneath the upper layers of paint suggest puddles, as if only recently rain had fallen upon the field.

 

Like a moth to flame by David Clare

Like A Moth To Flame by David Clare

As with ‘Fieldscape no. 5’, ‘Like a moth to flame’ features the prominent display of short brush strokes to give depth and presence to the sky and the clouds forming over a deep, calm and beautiful sea. The deep blue of the sea contrasts with the pink upon the clouds, hinting that the day is drawing to its close, and its use of colour and light is a fine example of classic Impressionism.

 

A Stitch In Time - Plein Air by Michelle Keighley

This piece exemplifies the use of layers within Impressionism to define shape, depth and weight. The darkness of the leaves offset by the whiteness of the sky allows the subject in the foreground to ‘pop’. As mentioned above, darker colours are usually avoided, but in this piece are used to great effect, giving the branches of the trees weight, and a sense of mass. The leaves are formed with strong, well defined brush strokes, in classic Impressionist fashion.