Contextual Studies 5: Subject Matter in Early Modernism


  1. What did they paint?
  2. How important was the subject matter?
  3. Were they more concerned with what or how they painted?


Fauve artist’s were the first to prioritise colour in painting. This began in France in the early twentieth century. They were bold with their work, using vivid brush strokes with vibrant colours often applied directly from the tube. Seurat, Study for Bec du Hoc, 1885 Expressive use of colour started with these early artist’s. The Fauvist’s started the trend of using strange, unusual colours. They were described as ‘Wild Beast’s’ by critics.

Post Impressionism by Van Gough was the main influence for this movement. Other artist’s associated with Fauvism include;

  • Henri Matisse
  • Andre Derain
  • Georges Braque
  • Raoul Dufy
  • Georges Rouault
  • Maurice De Vlaminck


Artists: Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Andre Derain (1880-1954), Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958) What do you notice about the work?

All are of bold colour, abstract nature, with a distorted/disillusioned effect created by dabbing the paint onto the canvas.

Matisse, Sculpture with Goldfish, 1913

Matisse, Sculpture with Goldfish, 1913

These all have brush strokes in common, they aren’t disguised. The colours are block, and haven’t been mixed together. They aren’t from a single viewpoint. the perspective is distorted. Detail is reduced, there’s an amount of distortion, and no distinctive shapes. They did numerous landscapes, and portrait’s.

Nature is a huge inspiration for Matisse, He is interested in the human body. He seeks the essential lines when painting, he doesn’t show every little detail. Matisse says art is not a vehicle for a story.

Ruskin, Gneiss Rock, (1853)- This is very realistic, and detailed. Ruskin wanted to translate the work of god into paintings, so it had to be realistic.

Physical appearance (Form) Subject matter

Matisse’s attitude to subject matter: (slides 13 &14)

Giotto, The Lamentation, c. 1306-12

Giotto, The Lamentation, c. 1306-12

‘What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of any troubling subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters …a soothing, calming influence on the mind…’ p.73/38-41



Examples: Braque, and Gris Picasso.

Synthetic   cubism – meaning putting together.

Analytical Cubism – this had lack of colour.

They use dull colours, they’re not trying to draw the eye in with use of colour. There are a multiple musical instruments in early Cubist’s work. The eye must jump around to make sense of the painting. They involve ordinary objects, such as, newspaper, wine, and musical instruments. They are not decorative, and they want the eye to mentally make sense of the parts.

Artists: Georges Braque (1882-1963), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Juan Gris (1887-1927)

What are the characteristics of the work?

  • Bold
  • Geometric shape
  • Colourful
  • Abstract
  • Character
  • Dynamic form
  • Ethereal
  • Complex
  • Distorted
  • Surreal
  • Sculptural
  • Dimensional
  • Chopped up, and rearranged

Physical appearance (Form) Subject matter

Influences: Cubist’s were influenced by African Art, and Cezanne influenced the Cubist’s as he was interested in less, and less detail, and he liked to paint from different perspectives.

Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque are the inventors of cubism between 1907, and 1914, later influenced by the late work of Paul Cezanne, and Pablo Picasso.

Main interest of Cubists:

Fragmentation and arrangement of objects, and figures to create a 3 Dimensional form or illusion.

Points from the text by Braque: (slide 29)

Extracts from Georges Braque ‘Thoughts on Painting’,1917 in Art in Theory, p214-5

3. The charm and the force of children’s paintings often stem from the limited means employed…

4. New means, new subjects.

5. The subject is not the object; it is the new unity, the lyricism which stems entirely from the means employed.

6. The painter thinks in forms and colours.

7. The aim is not to reconstitute an anecdotal fact but to constitute a pictorial fact.

9. One must not imitate what one wishes to create.

10.One does not imitate the appearance; the appearance is the result.

11.To be pure imitation painting must make an abstraction of appearances.

12.To work from nature is to improvise.

14.The senses deform, the mind forms.


Artists: George Grosz (1893-1959) and Otto Dix (1891-1969)

What do the works have in common?

  • Surrealism
  • Abstract
  • Character
  • Distorted
  • Narrative
  • Dimensional
  • Detailed
  • Other-worldly
  • Unnatural

Grosz and Dix were both German, they were showing what life was like after the war. There were multiple amputee’s in the painting’s, this was to show the corrupt world of Berlin. They are not showing hero’s , they are showing the horror of war.

Physical appearance (Form) Subject matter

Attitude to subject matter? (slide 46)

George Grosz, ‘My New Pictures’, 1921 in Art In Theory pp 272&3

You can’t be indifferent in this trade, about your attitude toward the problem of the masses…(p272 I.3&4)

All this painted nonsense certainly can’t stand up to reality. Life is much too strong for it. (p273 I.21&22).

I am again trying to give an absolutely realistic picture of the world. I want every man to understand me. (p273 I.30&31).

I am supressing colour. Lines are used in an impersonal. photographic way to construct volumes. (p273 I.43&44).


The subject matter is dreams, the unconscious and the subconscious. Object’s appear next to each other that wouldn’t usually belong together, in maximisation of juxtaposition. They are abandoned rationalism and relied upon as the unconscious. They were heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud.

Artists: Salvador Dali (1904-89) ,Rene Magritte (1898-1967), Paul Delvaux (1897-1994).

What are the characteristics of the works?

  • Dream like
  • Symbolic
  • Collage form
  • Has a narrative
  • Ethereal
  • Spiritualistic
  • Emotional

Some are like caricatures. The colour is used for expression, and it holds a feeling of moral, and spiritual chaos. Subject matter is important.

Physical appearance (Form) Subject matter

Main concern of Surrealists? (slide 53 – text by Andre Breton)

Extracts from ‘The First Manifesto of Surrealism’ (1924), by Andre Breton, in Art in Theory (pp 447-453)

Under the pretense of civilisation and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy…(p448 I.23-25) …we must give thanks to the discoveries of Sigmund Freud. On the basis of these discoveries…the human explorer will be able to carry his investigations much further… The imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself, of reclaiming its rights. (p448 I.29-34)

Summary: How important was subject matter compared to form?

The subject matter was not important for these artist’s, it was the way the expressed the subject and made their work spell binding, unique and distinctive. It appears that all movements were branching out into multiple areas of modern art, their enigmatic and ethereal expressions were all imaginative and spell bounding in some way with fragmented, dimensional, distortion and rearrangement is intensely evident.


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