In an amusing short story, Satyajit Ray narrated a funny incident in the life of an artist. This artist had worked for several days on an oil painting that he titled ‘The Somnambulist’, and which he wanted to submit as his entry in a competition sponsored by the Academy of Fine Arts of the state government. On the last date of submission, instead of sending his painting, by mistake he dispatched the cloth that he had used to wipe and clean his brushes. However, the organizers considered that dirty cloth to be a modern art work and selected it for the first prize!
For most of us, this incomprehensibility is the underlying criterion for any work of art to be classified as ‘modern art’. It goes to an extreme that whenever we fail to understand any artwork, we label it as modern art!
Therefore, it is pertinent to take a pause and try to understand what exactly is modern art and how is it different from traditional art. I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Prof. Soumik Nandy Majumdar, Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan, who gave some insight into the basics of modern western art. Here I discuss some elementary concepts that I learned from his talk.
The biggest difficulty in understanding a piece of modern art is that one cannot relate it with the forms and features of the world around us. Even if human forms are depicted here, they are mostly distorted and one can easily see that they are quite far off from actual human form in terms of anatomical details and body proportions.
The first aspect in which modern art differs from traditional art is in its subject matter. The traditional art concerned itself mostly with the upper class subjects — the rich and the powerful, whereas in the modern art we come across depiction of common people in everyday situations and feeling ordinary human emotions. The industrial revolution and the accompanying changes in society also had a great influence on the subjects of art works. Thus we see industrial towns, factories, modes of transport, working class, and so on getting more prominent and important place in paintings. In addition, political and social changes also influenced the subjects and the ideas depicted.
The second aspect of modern art is the approach of depicting the subject i.e., the technique, the way of applying colours, handling the tools and so on. Advanced technology and scientific development lent further ideas, scope and techniques to modern art, which is ever increasing in terms of range and variety.
Most importantly, the basis of modern art is in ideas and concepts, which may or may not be abstract in nature. In Prof. Majumdar’s words, “Modern art is an interpretation of reality, instead of an imitation of reality.”
P.S.: You may have a look at my recent art works on this website.