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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