The canon of the western art has a varied and long-lived history. Throughout the ages, artistic schools and modes of expression have been documented and studied, giving us access to all the masterpieces we know and love today. These eras and periods spanned anywhere from several hundreds of years to mere decades, but each has been incredibly important in the development of western art as a whole. This article is by no means an exhaustive list of important periods, but hopefully, by sketching out the most influential periods, we can begin to see the ongoing story of the history of western art.
Referring to all the types of art around the world created by ancient civilizations, from Greece and Rome to India, China, Mesopotamia and more, this era of art covers every ancient, literate culture (as pre-literate cultures fall under Prehistoric Art). Ancient Art is less an ideological classification and more one that revolves around specific time frames for specific cultures. The western art represented in this category contains a variety of elements, including devotional material to deities, which were incredibly plentiful.
Covering an extremely broad range of both time and location, this category, unfolding over perhaps one-thousand years of art in Europe (as well as North Africa and the Middle East), this overarching term has within it multiple classifications that maintain the cohesion of the western canon. Represented by distinct art styles of a variety of regions becoming nations and cultures, the Medieval era of western art was an incredibly diverse and expansive period. Stemming mostly from the Roman Empire and the iconographic representations of Christendom, works of art in this period were utilized devotionally and produced in a variety of media from stained glass and sculpture to metalwork and mosaics.
By blending the, at the time traditional, heritage of Roman aesthetics with the alien and powerful “barbarian” traditions, a stunning artistic tradition grew and the period itself became a wonderful blend of these two elements. The interplay between classical elements with the new and bizarre world of the “barbarian” would create stunning works of delicate genius. While ending with the Renaissance hundreds of years after its inception, the tradition of realistic depiction would thrive and carry on for generations after it.
Emerging as its own distinctive movement around the start of the 15th century, Renaissance art (as well as other similar developments in areas such as literature, music, philosophy, and science) made itself known as a creative force by blending new scientific methods and knowledge with noble, ancient traditions. Philosophies of equality and freedom were being espoused at the time and quickly spread around Europe, affecting the populace and western art. This historical period marks the transition of Europe out of the Medieval and into the Early Modern.
It was a time of significant education and enlightenment, due in part to textual availability, the acquisition of advanced mathematics, and the advent of the printing press. These revolutionary ideas had a profound effect on their world as a whole and would forever shape the future of the continent.
The Baroque Era
Emerging around the beginning of the 17th century, Baroque was a dynamic period utilizing grandeur, exaggerated motion, and incisive details in order to shock and awe its audience. Continuing in the religious tradition, the Baroque era artists were encouraged by the Catholic Church itself due to the way it communicated spiritual and religious themes. The era is characterized by a projection of triumph, power, and control, and even the architectural examples of this era are extremely grand in nature. Opulence, size, and effect were keystones to this movement and to the heart of the western art that was made during this period.
Drawing heavily upon the influences of the ancients, this form emerged around the mid 18th century in Rome and quickly spread all over Europe. The Neoclassicism characterized itself by rediscovering Greco-Roman ideas and spread throughout cultural outputs, from everything from the visual arts, theatre and music to literature and architecture as well. This western art movement coincided with the Enlightenment and continued on through the century, competing in part with the Romantic movement.
With an aesthetic based on simplicity and symmetry, values which were integral to the artistic output of, for instance, Rome and Ancient Greece, the Neoclassical artists produced fantastic works of art based on models that were available to both the ancient world and the, at the time, contemporary.
Romanticism characterized Europe near the end of the 18th century, with a ‘golden age’ between 1800 and 1850. The emphasis on emotion and individualism brought highly intense and personal subjectivity to western art, which caused the Western canon to shift from the inspirational, godlike devotions to the more immediate and personal self. Romanticism also was characterized by revering nature itself more than any specific subject, as well as its warm glorification of nostalgia. A very politically-relevant movement, having been partially inspired by the industrial revolution itself, and the increasing scientific examination of nature, the Romantics emphasized the subjective self as the source of artistic experience and expression and placed a new emphasis on this internal world.
Impressionism – Western Art heritage
The late 19th-century movement, made most famous by Claude Monet, is a movement dedicated to the representation of ordinary subject matter through the lens of a variety of unusual (at the time) techniques. By utilizing accurate depictions of light, thin brushstrokes, movement, and more, the Impressionists believed that they could tie together and harness crucial elements of what it means to be a human (both perceptually and experientially) and put a new perception on life around them.
Monet is the figurehead of this movement not only because of his brilliant pieces but also because of the name of a particular work, “Impression, Sunrise,” which was extremely controversial in western art circles.
Sharing many qualities of the former Romantics in terms of subjectivity and emotion, Expressionism emerged as a powerful modernist style around the end of the 1800s to the early 1900s. Utilizing perspective, subjectivity, and emotion, this era is characterized by intensely idiosyncratic and personal experience represented, usually, through abstracted, distorted images. It was more important for Expressionists to not only capture an objective reality in their work but express the world in a subjective, evocative perspective.
While deeply synonymous with feelings of despair and frustration, this western art style was developed and popularized as a type of avant-garde reaction.
A broad header for a variety of forms, concepts, and stylistic choices, Abstract art is interesting in conveying meaning using visual language and suggestions as opposed to literal representations. Realism has been an incredibly significant component of western art since its inception and by the end of the 19th-century, it became necessary for artists to break this trend and seek out new ways to represent their world in art.
Portrayed in varying degrees, from, for instance, Picasso’s Cubism to Mondrian’s geometric lines, the departure from the real world expressed by the Abstract Art movement lies on a spectrum with some artists differing in ‘level of abstraction’ to others. It is with this range that the movement became such a huge force: by utilizing the imagination and evocative techniques of a variety of artists, Abstraction became a defining force for the early 20th-century and remains with us to this day.
Emerging in the UK in the middle of the 20th century, Pop Art is a mass-movement that intended to bring together popular culture with high-culture and distribute it cheaply to as many people as possible. Pop art is often characterized as well by its uncanny ability to strip context (and to have its contexts stripped) from a variety of works in order to be used in unrelated or isolated forms. Utilizing everything from comic books to soup cans, purveyors of this technique were extremely interested in the combination of mundane life to the high-culture of the western Art world.
Leveraging itself heavily on the use of irony and an almost self-aware cynicism in terms of mechanical reproduction, pop art grew into a force to be reckoned with due in part by its increasing popularity for the common person. Often seen as a refutation of abstract expressionism, this western art movement is still very much alive in its own way.
Also considered Contemporary Art or Post-Modern Art, this technique is the current norm of the art world and is characterized by its almost complete concern with the conceptual and less about the traditional aesthetic and material concerns of previous periods of art. Installations can be created by anyone, anywhere, utilizing basically anything, as long as the concept is strictly adhered to. “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” is one of the fundamental concepts put forth by Sol LeWitt.
Encompassing everything from Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” to the various street demonstrations in any major city, the movement is truly almost media-less, and no definite, concrete medium has been established. Indeed, the idea itself becomes the medium, in a way, and the outward expression of the idea has become almost redundant.
Western art is a constant evolution and it impacts many future trends.