An Easy Guide To Art Movements & The Buzzwords You Need To Know
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— Updated on 30 July 2021

An Easy Guide To Art Movements & The Buzzwords You Need To Know

— Updated on 30 July 2021
Sera Bozza
Sera Bozza

Danny: And I always confuse Monet and Manet. Now, which one married his mistress?” 

Tess: Monet.” 

Danny: “Right, and then Manet had syphilis.” 

Tess: “They also painted occasionally.”  – Ocean’s 11 (2001)

If you’re anything like me, the only things that stuck from high school art classes were Van Gogh cutting his ear off and Andy Warhol frequenting Studio 54 on the reg. A solid foundation, for sure, but it’s never too late to add some sharp one-liners to keep up in the art game.

For the artist, it was always about self-expression and love for the craft, but for their patrons, collectors, and the rest of us, art can be as complex as it is alluring.

Today, most observers of art auctions have little idea why the works are significant, only that they are expected to break new records on the floor. And for many, including the uninitiated, that is a good enough reason to invest (learn more about The Art Market here).

While few of us will ever fork out millions on an original piece from one of the artists below, a little knowledge can help you beat your neighbourhood pretentious art flog at his or her own game.

To start with, let’s begin with the stand-out art movements from the last century or so…

Impressionism, 1860 – 1890, France

Impressionists worked outdoors because they became obsessed with light and how it made even the most derelict streets of Paris appear more romantic. They used visible and rapid brushwork to capture light’s fleeting effects.


Post-impressionism, 1886 – 1905, France

Post-impressionists cared more about expressing their own emotion over how things actually looked – probably because they were all lugging some hefty psychological baggage.


  • Trust-fund baby and workaholic Paul Cézanne

Fauvism, 1900-1935, France

Fauves Matisse, Derain, and de Vlaminck formed the OG Wolfpack. They shared a studio and named themselves the ‘Wild Beasts.’ They also believed art should be more about self-expression than truth and gave colours alternate meanings.


Expressionism, 1905 – 1930, Germany

Before Xanex, these artists self-medicated with swirling brushstrokes. Expressionists translated all the feels and anxiety of the modern world, through lonely figures and intense strokes. They felt modern society was leaving the individual behind.


Cubism, 1907 – 1914, France

The world was a bit shook with Cubism, whose fragmented and flattened scenes gave the middle finger to the world’s concept of beauty. Subjects were abstracted to show the viewer multiple angles of the subject happening at once.


  • Army runaway and Cubist’s other guy Juan Gris

Dada, 1916 – 1930, Switzerland

Dada was like that emo kid in your class trying to make an anti-art statement. Dada had no rules, not even regarding theft… Duchamp’s toilet was ripped off from Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Ironically, their ‘non-art’ is now very famous ‘art’.


Surrealism, 1920s-onwards, France

Surrealists bowed down to Sigmund Freud, whose research on the unconscious inspired them to share the weird and wacky depths of their minds. Their dreamy, nightmarish scenes combine bizarre objects and forgo any rationale.


  • Accountant and pessimist Joan Miró
  • Traumatised soldier and dabbler in hallucinogenics Max Ernst

Abstract Expressionism, 1940s, USA

Americans like to think the world always revolves around them, but this was the first movement where New York City really took centre stage. Abstract Expressionists used bold gestures like dripping, splattering, or layering to translate their heavy hearts -especially post-WWII.


Pop Art, mid-1950s, UK/ USA

This one is easy. It was intended for us ordinary people to just get. Pop Artists merged low and high brow art by appropriating recognisable images from popular culture and advertising, and mass producing them.


Anything from today onwards loosely falls under the heading of Post-Modernism, and honestly, my guess is as good as yours. It’s a bit of a bloody free for all. The best I can offer is to take some cues from Will Ferrell.

And as for the buzzwords…

If you’ve exhausted fun facts about the work’s era, you can comment on basically any aspects of the work itself and sound like a pro – because the whole thing about art is that it is subjective. You may sound like a douche, but, if you’re using the vocabulary right, you’ll never actually be wrong…

Assuming the artist has considered most of the points below, you should always be wondering, why they made that choice, as part of your interpretation.


Colour refers to the hue and intensity. Are there a few colours, too many colours, is it colour-intensive or lacking in vibrancy? Do they flow well, or are they clashing?

Shape and Form

Form relates to length, width, shape, and depth that images appear. What is the sense of depth, and, is it realistic? Is it flattened down to 2D or hyper-exaggerated to 3D?


The tone is the lightness or darkness of a piece of art. Overall, is the work shaded as dark or light, consistent, or changing? Is it easy to decipher what is happening, or is the tone too muted?


The arrangement of individual elements to form a cohesive piece. Is there a sense of depth? Is it spacious or cluttered? Symmetrical or unbalanced? Is there positive and negative space?


Texture is about the surface of the work, anything that you can see and/or touch. Is there a trace of how the artist made the work? Or lack thereof?


The visual focus of the work. Is the subject indoors or outdoors? Truthful, mythical, or dreamlike? Landscape, natural, or man-made?


The materials the artist used to create the work. Is it a painting, drawing a mixture of different mediums, photography, digital media, glasswork, sculpture, wood, or ceramic?


The size of one object concerning another object. Are elements depicted truthfully or are some given greater importance? Can relate to the dimensions of the artwork itself and its comparison to the viewer. 

At the bare minimum, if you don’t have much to contribute, most art is about rejecting big ideas and the existing status quo, or adopting other people’s opinions and pushing them further.

Sprinkle in a couple of the above before excusing yourself to say hi to the curator. None the wiser.

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Sera Bozza


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