The history of Western art in 23 minutes: from prehistoric to contemporary

Open Culture readers undoubtedly include more than a few art history majors. You may have once studied the subject yourself – and you may find that you now only remember certain scattered artists, works and movements. What you need is a grand story, a wide story about art itself, which is exactly what you’ll find in the video above from the YouTube channel Behind the Masterpiece. True to its title, “A Brief History of Art Movements” briefly describes 22 stages in the development of art in just 23 minutes and provides a host of visual examples to illustrate it.

The journey begins in prehistoric times, with cave paintings from 40,000 years ago, apparently created “as a way of sharing information.” Then comes the art of antiquity, when increasingly literate societies “began to create the earliest naturalistic images of humans”, not least to enforce “religious and political ideologies”. Religiosity increased in the Middle Ages, when artists “depicted clear, iconic images of religious figures”—as well as their oddly old-looking babies—”and decorated them with extensive use of gold and jewels as a way to attract more people. church.”

When many of us think of art history – whether we have studied it or not – our thoughts go straight to the subsequent period, the Renaissance, when “artists also began to appreciate cultural subjects such as art, music and theater”. They created “portrait paintings, anatomically correct sculptures, and symmetrical architecture,” and the invention of the printing press greatly expanded the pool of potential appreciators. Then, in the Baroque movement, immensely accomplished artists such as Bernini and Caravaggio “emphasized extravagance and emotion,” and other forms followed suit with more intense embellishments of their own.

Eighteenth-century France gave birth to the “playful and utopian” Rococo period, which was followed by the retrospective “interest in newfound simplicity” that characterized Neoclassicism, which was followed by Romanticism, a movement whose artists “looked inward and found inspiration in their own imagination and the nature around them.” It was the leveling French Revolution that created the conditions for the emergence of realism, with its focus on “depicting real people in everyday life,” the kind of subjects hitherto overlooked in great works of art.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the development of art accelerated, resulting in the imperfect vitality of Impressionism, the bold subjectivity of Post-Impressionism, the extreme subjectivity of Expressionism, and the undulating luxury of Art Nouveau. Technology had always been a factor in how art changed, but in the twentieth century – as Cubism gave way to Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism and the Bauhaus – it came to prominence. This brings us to the living memory: movements such as abstract expressionism, pop art, minimalism, and contemporary artists’ tendency to deal in “ideas rather than aesthetics,” all on display in almost any museum you choose to visit. Or at least they are in the museums of the West, because after all there is a whole world of other art histories to understand.

Related content:

Free art and art history courses

An online guide to 350 international art styles and movements: a valuable resource for art history students and enthusiasts

100,000 free art history texts now available online thanks to the Getty Research Portal

An introduction to 100 important paintings with videos made by Smarthistory

One-minute art history: centuries of artistic styles are packed into a short experimental animation

Tate Kids presents introductions to art movements: Cubism, Impressionism, Surrealism and more

Colin Marshall, based in Seoul, writes and broadcastsabout cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter books about cities, the book The Stateless City: A Walk Through 21st Century Los Angeles and the video series The city in the cinema. Follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Leave a Comment