Defining Art History

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At the National Gallery in London this summer, there was a major exhibition called “Inventing Modern Art”. I love the title. For many, Modern Art is something pretty much recognized and established in most art history books in a similar framework.  It normally starts off with Post-Impressionism, with Van Gogh and Gauguin as prelude, then turns to a highlight on Cezanne, then Fauvism, Cubism, Dada …, it ends with Abstract Expressionism, or Pop Art for some. Of course, the ‘modern art’ here is very much limited to a certain kind of anti-mainstream art produced during a certain period in the West, mainly in Europe and later on in the United States. Within these narrow boundaries, there are still many questions to ask about this ‘history of modern art’, such as who constructed (or fabricated) it, and on what basis it is constructed? If Impressionism is a term invented by a critic, who invented Modern Art?

The exhibition at the National Gallery, as I had hoped, would be able to provide some different perspectives. But I was disappointed, for it pretty much follows the similar pattern as written in most art history books. It was nevertheless nice to visit because the exhibition included some important works from private collections that are not normally seen in public museums.

In the early 20th Century, some art people were aware of the new developments in art. The idea of art in the modern era prevailed but the definition of such new artistic expression remained ambiguous and fragmented. It took two curators to finally compose and construct it. The prelude was introduced by Roger Fry, a British artist, critic, and historian who later became the Curator of European Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Not only did he recognized Post-Impressionism as a significant turning point, he also coined Cezanne as the father of Modernism, setting an important introductory chapter to the history of modern art. Fry’s position at The Met apparently helped to consolidate his belief among the public in this new development.

The vagueness of something called ‘modern art’ was finally fully constructed when an institution was officially established with an unprecedented name – ‘Museum of Modern Art’ (MoMA). By 1923 in New York, the name ‘modern art’ was not only established but was endorsed by a substantial enforcement of a museum with its collection and exhibitions. It took an outstanding figure named Roland Barr, the founding director of MoMA, to implement the concept of ‘modern art’. Barr was one of the very few people teaching Modern Art in the United States before he worked at MoMA. The configuration of Modern Art, as we understand and read in most textbooks today, is strongly influenced by his composition. His contributions, however, are much more than that. He expanded the definition of Modern Art to include film, photography, architecture and design in the museum collection and display, which gave visitors a new understanding of this new thing. This is a classic case to demonstrate that an art or cultural mediator is always much much more than just an administrator.


Oscar Ho is Adjunct Associate Professor of Cultural Studies, CUHK. He was formerly the Director of the MA in Cultural Management Programme (2006 – 2020). Visit