The Tree of Modern Art: Elegant Drawing Visualizes the Development of Modern Art from Delacroix to Dalí (1940)

Select­ing cer­tain fea­tures, sim­pli­fy­ing them, exag­ger­at­ing them, and using them to pro­vide a deep insight, at a glance, into the sub­ject as a whole: such is the art of the car­i­ca­tur­ist, one that Miguel Covar­ru­bias ele­vat­ed to anoth­er lev­el in the ear­ly- to mid-20th cen­tu­ry. Those skills, com­bined with his knowl­edge as an art his­to­ri­an, also served him well when he drew “The Tree of Mod­ern Art.” This aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing dia­gram first appeared in Van­i­ty Fair in May of 1933, a time when many read­ers of such mag­a­zines would have felt a great curios­i­ty about how, exact­ly, all these new paint­ings and sculp­tures and such — many of which did­n’t seem to look much like the paint­ings and sculp­tures they knew at all — relat­ed to one anoth­er.

“Because it stops in 1940, the tree fails to account for abstract expres­sion­ism and oth­er post–World War II move­ments,” writes Vox’s Phil Edwards, in a piece that includes a ver­sion of the Covar­ru­bias’ 1940 “Tree of Mod­ern Art” revi­sion with click­able exam­ples of rel­e­vant art­work.

But “the orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­ture alone reveals a sur­pris­ing­ly large amount about the way art has evolved,” includ­ing how it “becomes broad­er and more inclu­sive over time,” even­tu­al­ly turn­ing into a “glob­al affair”; how “artis­tic schools have become more aes­thet­i­cal­ly diverse”; how “the canon evolved quick­ly”; and how “all art is inter­twined,” cre­at­ed as it has so long been by artists who “work togeth­er, bor­row from each oth­er, and grow in tan­dem.”

You can also find the “Tree of Mod­ern Art” at the David Rum­sey His­tor­i­cal Map Col­lec­tion, a hold­ing that illus­trates, as it were, just how wide a swath of infor­ma­tion design the term “map” can encom­pass. “The date is esti­mat­ed based on the ver­so of the paper being a blue lined base map of the Nation­al Park Ser­vice dat­ed 12/28/39,” says the col­lec­tion’s site. “This draw­ing was found in the papers of B. Ash­bur­ton Tripp” — also a map­mak­er in the col­lec­tion — “and we assume that Covar­ru­bias and Tripp were friends (ver­i­fied by Trip­p’s descen­dants) and that the blue line base map was some­thing Tripp was work­ing on in his land­scape archi­tec­ture busi­ness.”

The leg­end describes the tree as hav­ing been “plant­ed 60 years ago,” a num­ber that has now passed 130. Many more leaves have grown off those branch­es of impres­sion­ism, expres­sion­ism, post-impres­sion­ism, sur­re­al­ism, cubism, and futur­ism in the years since Covar­ru­bias drew the tree, but for some­one to go back and aug­ment such a ful­ly-real­ized cre­ation would­n’t do at all — as with any work of art, mod­ern or oth­er­wise.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 67,000 His­toric Maps (in High Res­o­lu­tion) from the Won­der­ful David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion

The His­to­ry of Mod­ern Art Visu­al­ized in a Mas­sive 130-Foot Time­line

Take a Trip Through the His­to­ry of Mod­ern Art with the Oscar-Win­ning Ani­ma­tion Mona Lisa Descend­ing a Stair­case

Every Exhi­bi­tion Held at the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art (MoMA) Pre­sent­ed in a New Web Site: 1929 to Present

The Guggen­heim Puts Online 1600 Great Works of Mod­ern Art from 575 Artists

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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