When you think of modern art, it’s likely that you’ll default to one of a few fixed ideas about what it means. Even now you’re likely imagining preserved sheep, unmade beds or abstract figures it’s hard to understand as people. The movement has a long history, however, and it’s worth making the effort to understand it. If you know the context within which any given modern art piece exists, it stops looking so outlandish, and starts acquire meaning, significance and even beauty.
The story of modern art begins in the mid-19th Century, when artists like Picasso and Georges Braque made strides in trying to depict scenes non-literally, stretching their capabilities as artists, as well as the capability of the medium they were working in. It was this technique, this cubism, that laid the foundations for the movement that followed.
Marcel Duchamp was one of the first artists to produce ‘Modern Art’ in the form that we’d recognise it. In the wake of the First World War he rejected most of his contemporaries as producing “retinal art” intended only to please the eye. His stated aim was to produce art to serve the mind, leading to pieces like the Fountain – a urinal made into art because an artist placed it in an art gallery, or the famous painting that is not, it professes, a pipe.
The standard story of modern art sees it grow in France and Spain before leaping first the channel to the UK in the interwar period, and then across the ocean to America, all the while building on what’s gone before, but growing in strangeness as the artists retain their desire to shock and surprise.
Russia isn’t often acknowledged as being a part of the history of modern art, but it has a vital role to play. Even when it was locked behind the Iron Curtain, the USSR had a strong artistic tradition, and even though many artists were locked into producing state propaganda, a modernist tradition flourished.
Zurab Tsereteli built his reputation during the communist years with projects like a series of sculptural, decorative bus shelters, and has since become one of Russia’s most prolific and important artists, with pieces like ‘Break the Wall of Mistrust’ which was gifted to the City of London in 1990, or ‘The Tear of Grief’, formally titled ‘To The Struggle Against World Terrorism’, which was presented to the United States in the wake of the September the 11th attacks.
In Russia, at least, modern art is not an expensive collector’s hobby but a vital part of how it relates to itself and to the world.