Essential Modern & Post-War Art Terms & Movements — Part I

Harold Porcher’s Illustrated Glossary of Modern & Post-War Movements

In early 2020 I joined Swann and created the Modern & Post-War Art department. This category goes against the grain slightly, as it is typical for auction houses to pair Modernism with Impressionism, and Post-War with Contemporary art. I believe several of the art movements that developed in the decades just after World War II are more aligned with modernist trends and not relative to what is generally trending in the current contemporary art scene. Occasionally I have conversations about the categorization of art with our clients and discover many people are unclear on the meaning of various terms. This is my attempt to offer a linear listing of terms with visual prompts to help define Modernism in some of its major iterations throughout its history.

The Beginning of Modern Art

The term, “Modern Art,” was first used in relation to Édouard Manet’s painting déjeuner sur l’herbe.” The year was 1863, the venue was the Salon des Refusés, Paris. I tend to narrow the bookends on the starting dates to Cezanne breaking away from the Impressionists and finding his own path. Cezanne left Paris in 1870.


Inspired by Paul Cezanne’s unique patchwork style of painting representing shifts in light and color relating to his subject, younger artists, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque began fracturing the picture plane into multiple views of their subject. They limited the palette range to unify the composition. This was the beginning of Cubism. The early years of Cubism are referred to as Analytical Cubism. After 1912 emerged the second iteration, Synthetic Cubism.

Marc Sterling, Untitled (Cubist Still Life), oil on canvas, circa 1925. Sold December 2020 for $21,250.
Saul Schary, Untitled, oil on canvas, 1931. At auction November 30. Estimate $1,000 to $1,500.


In 1905 Pierre Matisse and Andre Derain spent nine weeks in Collioure France creating plein-air paintings while experimenting with color and brushstroke. The resulting artworks when presented in Paris were deemed by critics as the works of “fauves” (wild beasts). The term stuck and influenced many generations of painters.

Suprematism, Constructivism, & Futurism

Many artists were inspired by Cubism, throughout Europe and in the Americas. Eadweard Muybridge’s experiments with photography, advancing our understanding of motion, had an impact on sculptors and painters as well. In Russia, artists developed Suprematism, Constructivism, and Futurism. Italy also had a Futurist movement. In France, there was Orphism alongside the works of Americans in France who spawned Synchromism. And in England, there was the Vorticist.


The Dada art movement was born out of the horrors of World War I. The founding members shared a goal to produce anti-rational art. Amongst them, Francis Picabia, as a reaction to industrial America, created derisive machine drawings. These works held influence, in perhaps an adverse way, on Charles Sheeler and a group of artists deemed the Precisionists. Precisionism began as an American art form rendering the machine age in clean, simplified forms.

Yves Tanguy, Untitled, ink on green paper, 1942. At auction November 30. Estimate $7,000 to $9,000.
Edmund Lewandowski, Life Boat Station #4, gouache & watercolor, 1991. December 2021 for $4,420.


Modern psychology impacted the arts of many disciplines. The Surrealists created art that explored the power of the subconscious. This unconventional art form utilized chance and autonomy to free the individual from traditional methodology in painting and draftsmanship.

André Masson, Untitled, ink on paper, 1939. At auction November 30. Estimate $3,000 to $5,000.
Leon Kelly, Rape of the Sun Virgin, pencil on paper, 1949. At auction November 30. Estimate $1,000 to $1,500.

German Expressionism, Non-Objective Abstraction, & Biomorphic Abstraction

Wassily Kandinsky was an influential innovator and instructor whose involvement with German Expressionism, Non-Objective Abstraction, (using line, form, and color combinations to provoke emotional response), and Biomorphic Abstraction, (shapes inspired by microscopic organisms) shaped the direction of Modernist painting. In 1927 Baroness Hila von Rebay, encouraged by Rudolf Bauer, set sail for New York Harbor with a mission to promote the concept of Non-Objective Abstraction, and find a patron to purchase works by Kandinsky, Bauer, and other like-minded artists. Her efforts would lead to the creation of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art.

Rolph Scarlett, Untitled, gouache on paper, circa 1945. At auction November 30. Estimate $1,000 to $1,500.
Charles Green Shaw, Biomorphic Connections, oil on board, 1939. Sold May 2021 for $7,500.

Many historians conclude that Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings are the culmination of Modernism. I include Color Field, Pop, Minimalism, Op Art, Fluxus, and other post-war art movements as a continuation of modernist concepts. With these indicators noted, I frame Modernism from the 1870s to the 1970s. Part II will explore Modernism in the post-war era.