5 Remarkable Art and Design Movements of the 20th Century

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

Ah the 20th century! Le nostalgie…le réminiscence.

Okay, pardon my French, and just focus on the sentiment.

Wait, what’d you say? You feel it too? You too are convinced our lives are empty? You too resist the hollow appeals of consumerism and compare your cubicle with veal crates, unsure which is better?

I’ve got good news and bad news for you. Bad news is you have to constantly switch between the blues and the strong yearning to go back to the good ol days.

Good news is you can look in retrospect the leading art and design movements of the era we left behind and feel alive once again.

Surrealist movement 

Surrealism was the most revered artistic movement of the 20th century, impacting all forms of art – literature, painting, sculpting, even performative art. To call it a movement is to undervalue it. For a lot of artists, it was the ultimate creative nirvana, the farthest stretch of their imagination. Little surprise that it reshaped 20th century art.

It’s fascinating how seamlessly individual artists adopted and customized the movement. Painters like Giorgio De Chirico, Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Joan Miro all had their own brand of surrealism. Just as the stars in the sky are equally bright, they all shined in their own ways.

Abstract expressionism 

So many, including learned art critics regarded it as an offshoot of surrealism. It was not. The two had similarities no doubt but they were distinct in more ways than one. Abstract expressionism was limited to painting. It was also quintessentially American whereas surrealism was very much European.

Expressionism was persuaded by artists who wanted to communicate their innermost desires and emotions. It wasn’t abstract in the beginning and became so only when it started relying more on forms and patterns than imageries. By the end of 20th century, it was an assortment of styles, brushstrokes and techniques, aimed to express complex emotions.


A trendsetter, an early counterculture, dadaism absorbed the toxicity of its time and reflected it in the form of grotesques illustrations. The timeline during which this movement was most active was the early 1900s, shortly after the first world war. The movement emerged as a rebuttal to bourgeois normativity.

A travesty of jingoistic chest-thumping, Dadaism permeated across several artistic mediums in next to no time. Literature, painting, collage and photography – dadaistic ideas never discriminated between art formats. Dada’s use of everyday objects was later incorporated into minimalism. What remained uncopied was the attempt to establish a visceral antithesis to trad art – something unique to the movement.


Almost single handedly spearheaded by Picasso, Cubism brought in perspective the brokenness of reality. The name was derived from cube. Cubist paintings exhibited complicated shapes and imageries with the help of cube-like patterns.

On the surface, Cubism was part art and part geometry. Deep down, it was a much needed recess for moral and social breakdown. Picasso was a genius. His paintings were photomontages of two dimensional surfaces and monochromatic scales of color. At a deeper level, these were amalgams of contrasting viewports, presentation of an alternative and entangled reality. 

Picasso’s artistic gumption overshadowed other Cubist painters, who also produced fine pieces of art. Most famous among them were Georges Braque, Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger and Juan Gris.

Jazz music 

Jazz originated in late 19th century. But its influence in the US pop culture wasn’t visible until the early 1900s. Still carrying the Afro-American damper, Jazz was more than an art form, it signified the triumph of the bottom culture over a straight-laced worldview.

Attempts to pigeonhole jazz into the harlem renaissance failed. There were overlappings but jazz was an indie music style and always had a mellow tone to it. Harlem renaissance, on the other hand, invaded all art forms and was very serious from the get-go, even tied itself to the civil rights movement. Jazz artists like Cab Calloway, Ornette Coleman, Tommy Dorsey and the legendary Miles Davis were simple entertainers and very chilled out people.

French New Wave

Finally, a movement around cinema. We, the moviegoers today are tired of tropes and cliches, of jumpscares and gore. French New Wave can be a refreshing experience for our jaded senses. As a bonus, we can realize how meaningful cinema can be and how powerful of a medium.

Italian neorealism was experimental, breaking the frames of Hollywood’s glam and glow wasn’t easy. But it did so with relative ease and set the stage for French New Wave of the 60s and 70s. The latter not only retained the elements originally possessed by the former but garnished them with postmodernist symbolism, taking filmmaking to a whole new level.

Godard’s contribution to this movement was monumental. Rhetorically speaking, he was Jesus of French New Wave. Other saints and apostles (continuing with the rhetoric) were Claude Chabrol, Éric Rohmer and François Truffaut. French New Wave extended beyond its geographical boundaries and enlisted the likes of Luis Bunuel and Ingmar Bergman.

The movement achieved wonders and world cinema will always be grateful to these filmmakers for their artistic bequest.

Wrapping up

So there you are. The literary pieces of the 20th century, the amazing paintings and sculptures, the movies and the music – all wait for you. Experience them, relieve the time in which they were created. And overcome the blues.



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