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20th Century Art Lesson Ideas

written by: Lynn-nore Chittom • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 9/11/2012

Learning about 20th Century art can be a fun and expressive experience for your art students. This lesson plan teaches various 20th Century art movements through the use of representative artists as an inspiration for student creativity.

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    20th Century Creativity

    Studying 20th Century art should be a fun experience for the teacher and the students. Most art from this time period is bold and expressive and more easily reproduced in student work than art from previous periods. The best way to teach art from this period is to provide students with sample pieces that represent the various movements and inspire them to create their own original work based on the themes of the period. These 20th Century art lesson plans do just that.

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    One of the earliest movements in 20th Century art was the French fauvist movement. Although it was a short-lived movement, the change in technique from realism and impressionism toward artistic interpretation and a bold use of color became foundational ideas within the larger modern art style. A representative painter of fauvism is French artist Henri Matisse. Matisse used bold, vivid colors to express feelings and emotions within his art. He used very little blending and favored the use of simple shapes over more elaborate detail. Sample paintings by Matisse include Portrait of Madame Matisse, Woman with a Hat, and The Young Sailor II.

    Students should use crayons, markers, or paint to create an image in Matisse's fauvist style.

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    All good 20th century art lesson plans should include an examination of cubism and the representative works of one of its founders, Pablo Picasso. The cubist movement began around 1905 and lasted through the 1920s. The earliest forms of cubism were in the analytical cubist movement. The predominant theme of analytical cubism was a reduction of images from their natural appearance to their basic structures and forms. In analytical cubism it is often challenging to find the actual subject in the finished work, because the image has been so distorted and broken down. A good example of analytical cubism is Picasso's Portrait of Wilhelm Uhde. When teaching analytical cubism, students should be encouraged to find an interesting subject and break it down into shapes. Following this example of Picasso, students are paired up to do drawings of one another in analytical cubist style.

    A later movement within cubism became known as synthetic cubism. This form of cubism employed the use of multiple textures, shapes and images to create completely new art pieces. This was the earliest use of collage work in a major art movement. Picasso's Portrait of a Girl is an excellent example of synthetic cubism. The image is first broken down into shapes according to the cubist movement and then depicted through the use of various pieces of paper.

    For these 20th Century art lesson plans, students will need a variety of newspaper and magazine clippings as well as textured paper to create a piece in the synthetic cubist.

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    Over time concepts of cubism gave way to surrealism and images of the absurd. The key to surrealism is its absolute departure from reality. While many surrealist images include recognizable parts, the whole is often confusing and difficult to understand. Each individual artist within the surrealist movement seemed to focus on specific elements in this bizarre movement. One such surrealist was M.C. Escher who is best known as the artist of the impossible stairs. One of his most famous pieces, Relativity, depicts a variety of stairwells which are entirely intertwined and connected, yet completely impossible to navigate. The finished piece looks as if it needs to be repeatedly rotated to be seen correctly.

    Students trying their hand at surrealism in Escher's style should view Echer's work to get ideas beyond just the stairs. Rulers and pencils are best suited for Escher's style.

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    Abstract Expressionism

    While surrealism stepped away from logic, abstract expressionism stepped away from the significance of a subject matter and focused almost entirely on the whims of the artist. Works of art in abstract expressionism often do not reflect any recognizable images, but rather demonstrate elements of the process of art, such as brush stroke or use of color.

    One of the most controversial artists in the abstract expressionist movement was Jackson Pollock. His decision to lay his canvas on the floor and build a walking grid above it from which to drop and splash his paint has been a constant source of contention among art critics. Despite their reactions, his work offers some of the best examples of the abstract expressionist movement and should definitely be included as a key feature for 20th Century art lesson plans. Pollock's piece No. 5 is an excellent example of his work.

    Teaching abstract expression can be messy, but fun. A creative alternative to Pollock's grid dripping method is having the students paint with the straws. Tables surfaces should be covered with newsprint and painting papers should be tacked down with masking tape. Students dip their straws in tempera paint and place droplets onto their paper and blow the paint around. The emphasis on process combined with the beautiful abstract results help to capture the nature of abstract expressionism.

    20th Century art lesson plans which focus on style and history are certain to keep students engaged in the process of learning.