The History of Western Art in 23 Minutes: From the Prehistoric to the Contemporary

Among the ranks of Open Culture readers, there are no doubt more than a few art-history majors. Perhaps you’ve studied the subject yourself, at one time or another — and perhaps you find that by now, you remember only certain scattered artists, works, and movements. What you need is a grand narrative, a broad story of art itself, and that’s just what you’ll find in the video above from Youtube channel Behind the Masterpiece. True to its title, “A Brief History of Art Movements” briefly describes, and provides a host of visual examples to illustrate, 22 phases in the development of art in just 23 minutes.

The journey begins in prehistory, with cave paintings from 40,000 years ago apparently created “as a way to share information.” Then comes the art of antiquity, when increasingly literate societies “started creating the earliest naturalistic images of human beings,” not least to enforce “religious and political ideologies.” The religiosity intensified in the Middle Ages, when artists “depicted clear, iconic images of religious figures” — as well as their oddly aged-looking babies — “and decorated them with extensive use of gold and jewels as a way to attract more people to the church.”

When many us think of art history — whether we studied it or not — our minds go straight to the subsequent period, the Renaissance, during which “artists started to appreciate cultural subjects like art, music, and theater” as well. They created “portrait paintings, anatomically correct sculptures, and symmetrical architecture,” and the invention of the printing press greatly expanded the pool of potential appreciators. Then, in the Baroque movement, enormously skilled artists like Bernini and Caravaggio “emphasized extravagance and emotion,” and other forms followed suit with more intense embellishments of their own.

From eighteenth-century France emerged the “playful and utopian” Rococo period, which was followed by the backward-looking “interest in renewed simplicity” that characterized Neoclassicism, which was followed by Romanticism, a movement whose artists “looked within and found inspiration in their own imaginations, and the nature around them.” It was the leveling French Revolution that brought about the conditions for the rise of Realism, with its focus on “depicting real people in everyday life,” the kind of subjects to that point overlooked in major works of art.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the development of art hit the gas, bringing on the imperfect vitality of Impressionism, the daring subjectivity of Post-Impressionism, the extreme subjectivity of Expressionism, and the sinuous luxury of Art Nouveau. Technology had always been a factor in how art changes, but in the twentieth century — as Cubism gave way to Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and the Bauhaus — it came to the fore. This brings us up to living memory: movements like Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, and the inclination of today’s artists to deal in “ideas rather than aesthetics,” all on display in most any museum you care to visit. Or at least they are in the museums of the West, there being, after all, a whole world of other art histories out there to understand besides.

Related content:

Free Art & Art History Courses

An Online Guide to 350 International Art Styles & Movements: An Invaluable Resource for Students & Enthusiasts of Art History

100,000 Free Art History Texts Now Available Online Thanks to the Getty Research Portal

An Introduction to 100 Important Paintings with Videos Created by Smarthistory

One Minute Art History: Centuries of Artistic Styles Get Packed Into a Short Experimental Animation

Tate Kids Presents Introductions to Art Movements: Cubism, Impressionism, Surrealism & More

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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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