The When and How of Modern Art

Over and over again, there have been debates surrounding the origin of modern art. Some believe it to have originated in the initial years of the 20th century while others claim that modern art refers to contemporary art which has its roots in the recent past, i.e. around 1950. According to the Tate, modern art begins in 1900.It cannot be that one fine morning in 1900 gave way to modern art. The inception of modern art can be much ahead of 1900. In 1863, Édouard Manet painted Olympia- a portrait of a Paris prostitute. Many critics claim that Manet’s style in the painting is queerly flat, displaying lack of emotion and even of desire. This off-the-track painting is regarded to be the pioneer of modern art by some critics. But if Manet bore a different style then how can one classify the radicalism of The Death of Sardanapalus (1827)- an orgy of sex and drugs floating free of pictorial gravity?On a rational level, there is one artist who can truly be called modern- the Spanish artist, Francesco Goya. Known for his depiction of madness and war, Goya continued to surprise his admirers till his death in 1828. However, Italy can take the entire debate even further back to the disturbing realism of Caravaggio, who died in 1610.If modern art is all about originality and novel experiments, then Michelangelo (1475-1564) stands unparalleled. It was he who pioneered the idea of artistic originality. If the current generation artists pride themselves on abstract art, then Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà is none the less abstract than Brancusi.Herein rests the irony. Once you push modern art to Michelangelo, the term becomes meaningless. Every generation tries to break away from the past. When we admire art as modern, we do so because it appears to be urgent and meaningful in the current scenario. The same can be applied to a cave painting or a Frank Stella sculpture.

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