Humanism in Modern Art: Personal Expression


Humanism in modern art is an influential concept that emphasizes the importance of human values and the agency of individuals.

Humanism played a significant role in shaping modern art. Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence over the acceptance of dogma or superstition. In art, humanism shifted the focus from religious and mythological subjects to the individual human experience and expression.

During the Renaissance period, which is often considered the birthplace of humanism, artists began to incorporate the principles of humanism into their work, creating lifelike figures and scenes that reflected the human experience. This focus on the individual human form and experience continued to develop in the centuries that followed and became a defining characteristic of modern art.

Modern artists, such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Marcel Duchamp, drew inspiration from humanist ideas and used them to explore new forms of expression. They often depicted the human figure in abstract or distorted ways, reflecting the complexity and diversity of the human experience. In doing so, they challenged traditional notions of beauty and representation and pushed the boundaries of what art could be.

Furthermore, the emphasis on individual expression and freedom in humanist thought helped to promote experimentation and innovation in modern art. Artists were encouraged to explore new techniques and materials and to break away from the constraints of academic tradition, leading to the emergence of new artistic styles and movements.

Read About: The Emergence of Renaissance Humanism Art

The Definition of Art: What Does it Really Mean?

Humanism in Modern Art
Édouard Manet, The Luncheon on the Grass. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Art is a complex and intriguing realm, particularly in the 20th century, where artists have dared to break away from conventional norms. But what is art, really? For some, it’s a source of spiritual enlightenment, an aesthetic encounter that ignites a sense of inner tranquility. This encounter can be triggered by a range of stimuli – not just tangible objects or information, but also the harmony of natural phenomena, movements, ideas, and energy.

Art is an embodiment of our humanity, and its success is rooted in the meaningful patterns it generates. It should evoke feelings of beauty, energy, and sublimity. As John Dewey famously stated, art is a reflection of our spirit, transforming matter into new and significant forms. Yet what makes art truly exceptional is its use of form, order, pattern, and design. These elements imbue colors and movements with life, turning the ordinary into something magical.

Read About: The Humanism Theory and Its Influence on Modern Society

Humanism as a Driving Force in Modern Art

Humanism in Modern Art, The Trellis by Gustave Courbet
The Trellis, 1862, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio (Gustave Courbet). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Humanism has had a tremendous impact on modern art, influencing various movements and styles. The individualistic approach to art-making that emerged during the Renaissance is one of the most significant ways that humanism has influenced modern art. Renaissance artists, including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, explored the complexities of human experience and expressed their own unique perspectives on the world through their art. 

This focus on the individual continued to be a driving force throughout the modern era, with artists like Frida Kahlo and Vincent van Gogh creating intensely personal works that reflected their emotional struggles and experiences. The Abstract Expressionist movement, which emphasized individual expression and spontaneity, also drew on this emphasis on the individual, with artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning creating highly abstract works that reflected their unique artistic visions.

Humanism has also influenced modern art by emphasizing the value of everyday life and the experiences of ordinary people. In response to the idealized depictions of life that were prevalent in academic art, Realist artists such as Gustave Courbet and Jean-Francois Millet sought to portray the lives of everyday people in a realistic and honest way, highlighting the struggles and joys of ordinary life. This concept continued to influence modern art, with artists like Edward Hopper and Grant Wood creating works that depicted the experiences of ordinary Americans during the Great Depression. The Pop Art movement celebrated the products and icons of popular culture, elevating them to the status of high art and emphasizing the importance of mass-produced consumer goods in everyday life.

Read About: The Art of Leonardo da Vinci: A Timeless Legacy

Humanism in Modern Art: Balancing Creativity and Responsibility

Humanism in Modern Art
Memory of the Garden at Etten, 1888. Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg(Vincent van Gogh). Source: Wikimedia Commons

As per Conan Mathew’s work ‘What Is Humanistic About Modern Art?’, artists are not mere creators, they are custodians of the human spirit. They bear the moral responsibility to express themselves in a unique and creative manner, bringing to light the darkest corners of our hearts. But their responsibility does not end with themselves, as their work is a medium of communication that speaks to the masses.

As the great thinker Louis Mumford has pointed out, a cult of violence threatens our very humanity. For an artist, this danger lies in the surrender to the irrational and accidental elements of life, which can leave their work devoid of coherence and intelligibility.

The process of creating art is not a solitary endeavor; it is a reflection of the artist’s experiences and the impact of their social context and visual world. Hence, the artist’s responsibility extends to society’s spiritual and aesthetic well-being. If society is corrupt and sterile, it becomes the artist’s duty to hold up a mirror to us, to show us the true reflection of our decadence. But this must be done with responsibility and sensitivity, without betraying the artist’s art and humanity.

An artist is like a wizard who can overcome the demons of life and transform them into something beautiful. They must be balanced and sane, guiding their intuition of love to find the images that make it visible. If an artist cannot conjure up a world of fine perceptions and rich feelings that reinforce the sense of human mastery, then they should remain silent until they can.

In essence, the artist must be a beacon of light, illuminating the darkness of society and stirring the emotions of humanity. Their responsibility is not just to themselves but to all of us. And if they can achieve this, they will be remembered not just as artists but as heroes of the human spirit.

Read About: The Renaissance Artist: Sandro Botticelli

Examples of Humanism in Modern Art

1. Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird by Frida Kahlo

Humanism in Modern Art, Frida Kahlo
Source: Lluís Ribes Mateu via Flickr

2. Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh - Starry Night - Humanism in Modern Art
Source: Wikimedia Commons

3. Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Humanism in Modern Art - Guernica by Pablo Picasso. 1937. Oil on canvas
Source: Wikimedia Commons

4. American Gothic by Grant Wood

American Gothic by Grant Wood. Source: Wikimedia Commons

5. The Scream by Edvard Munch

Humanism in Modern Art: Edvard Munch, 1893, The Scream, oil, tempera, and pastel on cardboard.
Edvard Munch, 1893, The Scream, oil, tempera, and pastel on cardboard. Source: Wikimedia Commons

6. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso, 1907, oil on canvas. Source: Wikimedia Commons

7. The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

Source: Wikimedia Commons


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