What is Avant-Garde? Definition, History, and Examples

This is a guide covering Avant-Garde.

Avant-garde is a ubiquitous term in the art world, but, ironically, it is also the most misunderstood.

Historically, it wasn’t solely associated with art. It was art with a social commentary and a criticism of traditions.

Over the twentieth century, however, avant-garde began to acquire a purely artistic meaning. It is characterized by breaking away with conventional norms of society, culture, and art. 

Avant-garde is responsible for redefining our notions of what is acceptable and what is not. It defines the aberration of art against the established order of things. 

In this article, we will look at the definition and meaning of avant-garde, its examples, and some prominent avant-gardists. So let’s first start with the description. 

What is Avant-Garde (Definition)?

Avant-garde is a French word that literally translates to ‘vanguard’ or ‘advance guard’. 

The word has militaristic connotations and refers to the contingent of forces within an army that is sent ahead of the others for reconnaissance or initial attack. 

With time when the term acquired its artistic connotations, it came to be associated with artworks that represented a radical breaking away from traditional practices or standards. 

So in a kind of metaphorical sense, avant-garde in art is the advanced guard that pushes the boundaries of art. It is generally considered offensive to the sensitivities of the time and downright rebellious. 

Vanguard

What is an Example of Avant-Garde?

Avant-garde does not represent a single movement. All the movements in art that have changed the way we think of art at any given time are considered avant-garde for that time. 

Having said that, the work of the famous Realist artist Gustave Courbet is generally considered to be the beginnings of avant-garde art. 

The modernist movements from the 1850s onwards are considered to be avant-garde art because they upended traditionally-set norms. 

Movements like Cubism, Fauvism, Dadaism, Expressionism, and Surrealism et cetera, were all considered radical for their time, and hence, can rightly be characterized as examples of avant-garde art. 

For examples of avant-garde artworks, take a look at these seven examples of avant-garde according to Moma.

Gustave Courbet

Why is it Called Avant-Garde?

As mentioned before, avant-garde literally translates to an excursion away from the set path or an expeditionary force that is sent beyond a boundary for reconnaissance or initial attack. 

The meaning of avant-garde has been shaped by this important characteristic.

In essence, the avant-garde artists are like the expeditionary forces that have expanded the horizons of our society’s thinking, consciousness, traditions, culture, and standards. 

By rebelling against the status quo, they have introduced ideas that have advanced society, promoted radical reforms, or introduced innovative concepts to our collective thinking. 

What are the Avant-Garde Characteristics?

The characteristics of the avant-garde are evident from its definition. Any art that rejects the established norms is avant-garde art. 

It is characterized by words like innovative, experimental, progressively radical, and daring. It was also meant to be a rebellion against the status quo. 

In the formative years of the avant-garde — the nineteenth century — it was chiefly associated with social change, or social change brought about through the expanding consciousness of society.

So in those years, avant-garde art meant the art that had social change as its main objective, and artists were the pioneers that would lead humanity towards realizing loftier goals. 

Movements like Dada, Realism, Anarchism, and Constructivism are said to be the initial drivers behind social change. This was meant to be offensive to the snobbish elite of the society. 

From the twentieth century onwards, the avant-garde has been primarily associated with stylistic innovations in the art that may or may not have social change and reform as its ultimate goal.

How did Avant-Garde Originate?

The term ‘avant-garde’ was first coined by Henri de Saint-Simon in his book titled Literary, Philosophical, and Industrial Opinions, published in 1825, that called upon the artists — along with scientists and industrialists — to bring about a social change in society. In the book, Henri de Saint-Simon writes about the artists:

“We artists will serve you as an avant-garde, the power of the arts is most immediate: when we want to spread new ideas we inscribe them on marble or canvas. What a magnificent destiny for the arts is that of exercising a positive power over society, a true priestly function and of marching in the van [i.e. vanguard] of all the intellectual faculties!”

Avant-garde is a breaking away from the established practice of painting mythological figures; the modernist artists painted subjects that were ordinary.

Gustave Courbet was the first to do this by painting scenes from ordinary life. Courbet’s infatuation with realism and realistic subjects is depicted in all of his paintings. Take a look at the painting The Desperate Man by Courbet.

Similarly, the abstract expressionists broke away completely with tradition when they started painting in lines, shapes, colors, or dripping paint (Jackson Pollock’s signature style).

The Desperate Man

What Period is Avant-Garde?

The avant-garde period started with Gustave Courbet’s Realism artworks till the final years of the abstract expressionist era in the 1960s.

Usually, avant-garde is associated with modernism, and the modernistic movements in art, and the term has a general modernistic connotation. 

In between the time period from the 1850s to the late 1960s, there are many art movements that influenced the thought of the times. 

Some of these movements were driven to produce a social change or reform society through the artworks by challenging the existing beliefs of a society.

However, avant-garde’s distinction as a catalyst for social change morphed into an artistic and stylistic innovation on the purely artistic frontier. 

Abstract expressionists, who are also considered avant-garde artists of their time, were more interested in the work and the process of the art rather than its social implications. 

Who are Popular Avant-Garde Artists?

Here is a list of popular avant-grade artists along with mini-biographies. 

1. Georgia O’Keefe

She is often called the ‘Mother of American Modernism’. In the early 1920s, she was considered an iconoclast of American painters with her somewhat abstract style.

She had a fascination for the flowers and often painted flowers in a subjectively abstract style. 

2. Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali was a renowned Spanish painter who was known for his Surrealist style. His paintings are highly creative and evoke a sense of shock and awe.

His most famous painting is the one with melting clocks titled The Persistence of Memory that was completed in 1931.

3. Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso was also a Spanish painter who is said to have cofounded the Cubist movement in art along with the artist Braque in 1907.

Pablo Picasso, unlike other artists, created many artworks ranging in the thousands. Apart from painting, he also did sculptures, ceramics, and design.

His artwork is a testament to his versatility and encompasses many styles from Cubism to Abstract Art.

Final Remarks

Avant-garde is a misunderstood term partly because art movements have sought to claim it for themselves to the exclusion of others.

In reality, however, avant-garde characterizes any movement in art that seeks to bring about innovation, stylistic change, or social reform through the use of art.

Avant-garde can be any art that is responsible for bringing about an expansion of our psyche, consciousness, ideas, and breaks the established practices of any given era. 

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