What is the difference between modern art and contemporary art?

The first way to distinguish them is chronological, since modern art precedes contemporary art. So let’s start with modern art. The first signs appeared at the end of the 19th century, when painters broke with tradition. They seek to free themselves from heavy norms. They will work to deconstruct the reference systems of the fine arts: imitation of the model, fidelity to nature, the idea of ​​beauty, the harmony of colors, the hierarchy of genres… all these academic canons are rejected. 

The great figures of this rupture are Courbet, Manet, Cézanne… They are still attached to the profession of the painter, but they transform it: the subjects of the paintings, the ways of painting evolve visibly. Then other painters, sculptors (but also musicians) explore the possibilities offered by their medium (and their imagination): the Fauves will exploit color (Derain, Vlaminck…),

Can we say that from the 1950s, all works are contemporary art?

Not quite ! Because the chronology is not enough to delimit modern art and contemporary art. Thus, an artist whose career spans several decades can maintain his modern purpose, and work in the so-called “contemporary art” period. The abstract painter Pierre Soulages is a good example of this phenomenon: he began to paint in the 1940s. He still works today, in the midst of contemporary art, but his painting has remained in a modern context.

It is necessary to combine the analysis of the artistic approach with the chronology to identify (roughly) what is modern and what is contemporary.

What explains the advent of modern art?

Let’s look at modernity in general: we can see that it applies to a much broader domain than the sphere of art. Modernity is basically a tendency that we have to modify the conditions of our existence, almost at all times; modernizing is a vital energy possessed by human beings, which is part of their functioning, a kind of drive.

In art, the same principle exists: reinventing the way of using painting or sculpture, for example, is a feature of modernity.

In any case, the historical context and technical advances also play a role; for art, the invention of the photographic process obviously weakens the recourse to painting; industrialization transforms the perception of the world, fascinates, introduces a new perception of space-time. Artists were also influenced by scientific research: the example of Chevreul’s work on color (published almost at the same time as the invention of photography) had a strong impact on the Impressionists.

Politically, the 1914 war will be felt as a cataclysm, a source of despair for the younger generation; this war will generate extreme artistic actions, through the Dada movement in particular, which takes root in this despondency.

How long will modern art last?

Modern energy will be effervescent in Paris until World War II, when art and artists will move massively to New York. Modernity will be theorized at that time in New York by two main critics (Greenberg and Adorno) who, despite slight differences will finally defend an art obsessed with abstraction, seeking to cut the viewer from reality, called the abstract expressionism.

And after the war, does contemporary art begin?

Indeed, the young artists emerging after the generation of abstract expressionists also need innovation! Certain socio-political factors that weigh on the population will be used by the artists: consumer society, moral and social weight, commitment against the Vietnam War… the young artists of the 1960s had the desire to reconnect art with life, just as they wish to free morals. Abstract art appears to them as empty, sterile, and bourgeois.

What are they going to invent?

This time the artists are not limited to a liberation of form. The work of art must largely meet the public, escape the art market, and often leave the traditional mediums (painting, sculpture) to provoke a burst of social emancipation. Art crosses disciplinary boundaries: dancers, musicians, painters, sculptors cooperate and experiment, create performances and concerts, videos flow in. Supports, materials and techniques are diversifying. Everyday objects and new techniques are used in paintings and sculptures (pop art). The presentation, the distribution are also questioned: ephemeral works are interesting for these anti-capitalist artists, because they cannot be marketed. Other fields are explored, such as language,

So, contemporary art would be a crossing of borders between disciplines?

Yes, this aspect is very important for contemporary art: sound, dance, video, installation… To this must be added this very strong diversity of materials and techniques: a contemporary work can take on all imaginable forms! It is a new ideology, which can be described as existentialist, which seeks to bring art closer to everyday life, encouraging everyone to make their life a work of art.

But to remind that art cannot be categorized, I would say that there was almost all of that in the Dada movement, in 1919… and that a work from 1919 can hardly integrate “contemporary art”.

Similarly, if we look at the 1980s, we see a return to painting, in Europe and the United States: this is the post-modern movement.

In fact, painting in the 1990s or 2000s is a gesture steeped in history on the part of artists who know the criticisms made of painting.

Today, when almost everything has been tried out, there is this “sub-layer” in contemporary practices, which no longer seeks so much to demolish as to “take at an angle”. No practice is rejected, everyone assumes their artistic singularity and often, we are not limited to one area.

Are there techniques, once devalued, that would be taken up by today’s artists?

I am thinking of ceramics, which is experiencing an intense revival , and once again of painting, the revival of street art, without forgetting drawing, which benefits from fairs and shows after having been considered as a preparatory practice. Performance, a very dated expression, has been omnipresent for a decade…

URDLA with the print is exactly here: to offer an artist to try out a new technique, to offer him to “let himself be transformed by the technique.” It’s a unique chance to benefit from the know-how of the technicians and the welcome of a team. The guest artists understand this well. Pierre-Damien Huyghe says that technique “gives us the ability to achieve something that is waiting to be achieved.” I believe that this great openness is the heart of the creative purpose and staying in a workshop as rich (technically, historically, humanly) as URDLA plays an important role in the career of artists.