Art of the 20th Century

Europe's tumultuous 20th century spawned a kaleidoscope of cutting-edge art. From Spain to Hungary, Glasgow to Oslo, we seek out all that's wild, colorful, surreal, and just plain fun. The fascinating work of Pablo Picasso leads us through the century's major art styles. And in today's gleaming cities, we see how a persistent artistic spirit connects us with both our past and an exciting future.


[1] Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time, rather than a particular place, we're going thematic and traveling wherever that theme takes us. In this episode, it's the wild and rule-breaking art of the 20th century. Thanks for joining us!

[3] As the 20th century dawned — from telephones and cars to physics and Freud — the world was moving fast. As Europe stepped boldly into the modern age, artists kept up, capturing the accelerated pace of life.

[4 Montage] There was gritty realism, a new eroticism, and expressionism as never before. Fauves went primitive…even primeval. Cubists found new ways to represent reality. Surrealists painted dreams. And Chagall merged it all to create his own fanciful world. Picasso evolved with the century as the art world abandoned representational art for the abstract. And art went totally public…interactive…and into the streets…reflecting our dynamic age with abandon.

[5] As the 20th century dawned — from telephones and cars to physics and Freud — the world was moving fast. Artists kept up, capturing the accelerated pace of life as Europe stepped boldly into the modern age. As the world changed, so did art, fragmenting into a kaleidoscope of new styles.

[6] Atop Paris' Montmartre hill — crowned by the dramatic Sacré-Cœur church — bohemians and free spirits could literally look down on the stuffy, bourgeois values of Paris. Since the days of Renoir, artists gathered here for the low rent, rustic ambience, and to stoke each other's nonconformity…to live carefree lives, with a hint of decadence…and watch can-can girls kick up their heels.

[7, Toulouse-Lautrec, 1864–1901] Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec captured the turn-of-the-century scene. Crippled from youth, Toulouse-Lautrec felt most at home among fellow outcasts: the women of the brothels he frequented, and the performers of the notorious and decadent Moulin Rouge nightclub. He gave them a dignity denied them by society…like this aristocratic-looking dancer…weary of the nightlife yet unable to escape it.

[8] Predictably, Toulouse-Lautrec died young. But, with his unabashed realism — candid subjects, spontaneous snapshots…like dashed-off sketches in paint — he had documented this golden age of artistic rebellion.

[9, Gustav Klimt, 1862–1918; Judith I, 1901, Klimt, Belvedere Palace, Vienna] In opulent Vienna, this simmering hedonism came out in the sumptuous paintings of Gustav Klimt. Klimt favored sensual women — who he depicted as alternately noble…bewitching…mysterious…and dangerous, like this biblical heroine with the head of her victim: a modern femme fatale.

[10, The Kiss, 1908, Klimt, Belvedere Palace, Vienna] Here, Klimt's woman is no longer dominant. Kneeling on a grassy precipice in a vast universe, the passionate couple is engulfed in colorful patterns and the golden glow of their desire. As the two patterned shapes flow together, the figures merge. The only thing that stands out clearly is the woman's face: eyes closed, cheeks flushed, as she succumbs to the pleasure…of the Kiss.

[OC] The early 20th century was a time of new "isms," including Fauvism. With their bold primitive style, the Fauves — or "wild beasts" — brought an untamed spirit to the art world.

[12, Fauvism, c. 1905–1908] The Fauves, led by Henri Matisse, painted with intense and clashing colors…colors that ignored reality. Artists, using thick paint with rough brush work, portrayed more what they felt than what they saw. Fauves painted simple but powerful figures with mask-like faces. This simplification to abstraction is quintessentially modern…modern yet primeval…a celebration of the sheer joy of life. While the movement lasted only a few years — Fauvism helped pave the way for the abstract artists who followed.

[13] A young artistic genius from Spain — Pablo Picasso — was a brilliant example of the creativity that came with the new century. His work showed both where art had come from and where it was headed.

[14, Pablo Picasso, 1881–1973; Science and Charity, 1897, Picasso, Picasso Museum, Barcelona] Even as a teenager, Picasso had exceptional talent — capturing the human anatomy brilliantly, learning the rules he would later break. His early self-portraits show great self-awareness. And his portraits of grizzled peasants demonstrate impressive technique and psychological insight. He could paint realistically while conveying deep feeling.

[15] In this painting, Science and Charity, the doctor — Pablo's father — represents science. The nun represents charity and religion. Judging by the hopeless face and the lifeless hand, it seems Pablo wants to show that death is inevitable.

[16, Motherhood, 1903, Picasso, Picasso Museum, Barcelona] Young Picasso moved to turn-of-the-century Paris, where he went bohemian, making friends with poets, prostitutes, and fellow artists. He experimented with many different styles, painting Impressionist landscapes like Monet, posters like Toulouse-Lautrec, still-lifes like Cézanne, and the bright colors of Van Gogh. Times of grief and depression led to his Blue Period — paintings of society's outcasts, that matched his mood.

[17, Le Bateau-Lavoir, Paris] When he emerged from his blues, Picasso took on his next challenge. Here in Paris, he and his friends created art freed from convention, pioneering a whole new way to look at the world…Cubism.

[18, Seated Nude, 1909, Picasso, Tate Modern, London] With Cubism, increasingly the subject — like, say, a person — dissolves into its visual building blocks. It's like Cubists shattered a three-dimensional reality and then reassembled the shards onto a two-dimensional canvas. Cubism shows "multiple perspectives" at the same time on a flat surface. We might see the front and side view on a single face. The foreground and background blend together into a flat pattern. Increasingly, what mattered was not the subject itself but how we see it. Picasso and his fellow artists innovated bold new styles that freed us to see the world in new ways. The notion of representational art — painting things the way they look — that had guided Europe for centuries was breaking up.

[19] The peace and confidence of that age was also breaking up. While technology had brought progress and prosperity, it also brought the weaponry to kill millions and derail the good old days of the "fin de siècle" or end of the century. There was an underlying sense of anxiety.

[20, Edvard Munch, 1863–1944; The Scream, 1893, Munch, National Gallery, Oslo] Society's darker side was captured by a troubled Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch. On a lonely bridge, an emaciated man claps his hands to his face…and screams. The sound swirls up in twisting lines and lurid colors, blending into the blood-red sky…we literally "see" the man's torment. By fusing the emotional intensity of the post-Impressionists, Munch had captured the simmering anxiety in Europe over what lay ahead.

[21] Expressionism is the general term for art that captured the angst of the early 20th century. Often exploring isolation…and loneliness…its focus was on the emotional experience rather than the physical reality.

[22] When it finally ended in 1918, WWI left Europe demoralized and disillusioned. Artists — many of whom fought in the trenches — captured the horror.

[23] Expressionists expressed their trauma and cynicism with distorted scenes, haunted eyes, thick paint…simple figures with garish colors. They depicted the anguish of a world that had lost its bearings.

[24] In the 1920s, Paris was still the epicenter of modern culture…with art that captured the excitement of the times. Painters like Picasso, writers like Hemingway, and musicians like Cole Porter gathered and jammed. And art was becoming ever more bizarre…even surreal.

[25] Artists known as Surrealists explored the subconscious…deep urges, dark fantasies, weird dreams. Painting landscapes of the mind…with collages of everyday images in jarring juxtapositions, they freed the viewer to connect the dots.

[26] Rene Magritte used his training in advertising to push people's buttons. He painted real objects with camera-eye clarity but jumbled together in provocative ways. People morph into bizarre objects…and stairs lead nowhere. The strange pairing only short-circuits your brain when you try to make sense of it.

[27, Salvador Dalí, 1904–1989; Dalí Theater-Museum, Figueres, Spain] Salvador Dalí of Spain combined surreal dreamscapes with astonishing realism. He purposely chose images — from religious to sexual — that packed the biggest emotional punch. Ever the entertainer, promoter, and trickster, Dalí used his own mausoleum — he was buried right here — to showcase his life's work…both intriguing and disturbing.

[28] Leave it to Dalí to show a crucifix from an angle you never considered. To paint squares that, when you squint, look like Abe Lincoln, a head filled with a candle, and furniture that morphs into the screen siren Mae West. His portrait on the ceiling, with his drawers wide open and empty, declares he gave it all to his art.

[29] Twentieth-century artists, like Salvador Dalí, were pushing the world of art into uncharted territory, where truly anything goes. Art that represented things realistically had long since been mastered. Now artists freed themselves from the limits of realism…to create art that was Abstract.

[30] Abstract artists simplify reality: A person becomes a face on a stick, a mountain a triangle. They are masters of leaving things out — letting us fill in the rest — until the three-dimensional world becomes a two-dimensional pattern of colors, lines, and shapes…patterns that evoke the inner world we all feel — the world of emotions, ideas, and pure beauty.

[31, Marc Chagall, 1887–1985; paintings from Marc Chagall National Museum, Nice, France] The Russian-born painter Marc Chagall used the abstract to create windows into the unseen spiritual world. With deceptively childlike simplicity — heavy outlines, spilling over with brilliant colors — Chagall celebrated nature, and its creator. His scenes, while often biblical, were lighter-than-air collages of his own life as well: his childhood in a humble village…his Jewish upbringing — the idea that God is everywhere, in everyday things. Chagall's mystical world featured flying animals, angels, and lovers twirling blissfully in mid-air. To Chagall, people loving each other mirrored God's love of creation. He wrote, "In art as well as in life, anything is possible, provided there is love." With Fauvist colors, Cubist shards, and a Surrealistic lack of gravity, Marc Chagall created an enchanting world.

[32] In the 20th century, Europe saw the rise of fascist dictators, like Adolf Hitler. As war clouds gathered, Europeans got a foretaste of WWII with the Spanish Civil War. That tragedy inspired the creation of one of the most powerful pieces of 20th-century art.

[33] It was a typical market day in the peaceful Spanish town of Guernica, when suddenly warplanes — courtesy of Hitler's air force — appeared overhead and reduced the town to rubble.

[34, Guernica, 1937, Picasso; Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid] In the wake of history's first saturation bombing, Picasso wove the shattered shards into a large Cubist-inspired painting that told the sad story. A woman looks to the sky, horses scream, a soldier falls — body shattered, sword broken. A wounded woman flees a burning house. A bull — symbol of Spain — ponders it all, watching over a mother and her dead baby — a modern pietà. Picasso put a human face on collateral damage. His painting caused a sensation, throwing a stark light on the brutality of rising fascism…and the specter of World War II.

[35, Vienna] World War II was devastating, with millions dead and entire cities reduced to rubble. But — with the help of generous American aid — Europe bounced back stronger than ever.

[36, La Joie de Vivre, 1946, Picasso, Picasso Museum, Antibes, France; paintings from Picasso Museums in Antibes and Barcelona] As Europe emerged from the rubble of war, so did its art. Pablo Picasso settled on the French Riviera. Like Europe itself, he had a renewed joie de vivre, with a new girlfriend dancing across the beach, and flute-playing creatures celebrating the newfound freedom. With his distinct style, Picasso painted a carefree paradise, where civilized people could let their hair down and indulge in simple, animal pleasures.

[37, The Pigeons, 1957, Picasso, Picasso Museum, Barcelona] All his life, Picasso said, "Paintings are like windows open to the world." These canvases, painted when he was in his 80s, show the joys of the sun-splashed French Riviera. To the end, Picasso continued exploring and loving life through his art. As a child — he told his friends — he was taught to paint like an adult. And as an old man, he had learned to paint like a child.

[38] While Western Europe rebounded from the war, the Eastern half languished under Communist rule. Taking full advantage of the power of art as propaganda, Communism allowed public art only if it promoted its ideology.

[39, Memento Park, Budapest; paintings from Kumu art museum, Tallinn, Estonia] Ruled by the Soviet Union for nearly 50 years, Eastern Europe developed its own culture, and state-sponsored art, called Social Realism. It was doggedly optimistic, realistic yet idealized — sticking with traditional techniques, and never tiring of depicting the Communist All-Stars — Marx…local wannabe Stalins…and Lenin — shown here in his ever-popular "hailing a cab" pose.

[40, Building the Republic, 1952, Lingner, Berlin; Museum of Socialist Art, Sofia, Bulgaria] Censorship was extreme. Art was only acceptable if it promoted socialism and the symbols of its values — the heroic soldier…the obedient worker…the tireless mother…anonymous cogs in the machine, diligently serving the state…art as propaganda. For nearly a half century, this ideology had its day, but, when Communism collapsed, its monuments fell with it, becoming museum pieces.

[41, Fantastic Characters, Miró, La Défense, Paris] With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Cold War was over and Europe was reunited. There was an explosion of even more new styles and forms of expression. Increasingly, in the art world, there were no rules. And, more than ever, interpretation was up to the viewer.

[42, Tate Gallery of Modern Art, London; Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain; ARoS Art Museum, Arhus; and others] Artists — with increasing American influence — were blazing new frontiers in expression. No longer limited to conventional canvases and statues, they worked with nontraditional materials. They traded paint brushes for blow torches. Art played with the eye…it was interactive…it engaged all the senses. Light became art…and so did cartoons. Pop art became high art. Flowers became puppies…little boys became big boys. It was experimental, it was experiential, and it was fun.

[43, Rioja winery, Calatrava; Klee Museum, Bern; Pompidou Gallery, Paris; Rotterdam train station] Architects enjoyed breaking with worn-out traditions. This museum in Paris took the mantra "Form follows Function" to the extreme — with the functional guts of the building — pipes, heating ducts, and escalators — draped on the outside to free up the gallery space inside.

[44, Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain] Europe's cityscapes were energized by bold new designs. Here in Bilbao, the daring design of the Guggenheim Museum spearheaded an urban renaissance. Architect Frank Gehry's groundbreaking design helped set a new standard for architecture. He was inspired by a variety of visions. For instance, to him, the building's multiple forms jostle like a loose crate of bottles. Using cutting-edge technologies, unusual materials, and daring forms, he created a piece of architectural sculpture that smoothly integrates with its environment. With bridges, pedestrian promenade, and art all complementing the building, it's an engaging ensemble making the city both more beautiful and more livable.

[45, Denmark-Sweden bridge; Reichstag Building, Berlin; pyramid entry at Louvre, Paris; Millennium Bridge, London; Opera House, Oslo] Across the continent, infrastructure was state-of-the-art. And venerable old buildings were renovated new — from Berlin…to Paris. Cities outdid each other with architectural daring…from London…to Rotterdam and Oslo.

[46, Psyri District, Athens] Another dimension of Europe's increasingly vibrant urban scene is "street art" — art that's public, out of the galleries, and spilling into the streets. With this, Europe's art world was reaching beyond the privileged and wealthy.

[47, street art in Glasgow, Athens, Plovdiv, Berlin] Street art included everyone in the broader community and gave voice to the voiceless. It generally comes with a social message as it offends, angers, inspires, and amuses — often at the same time.

[48] Random public spaces became the canvas. What began as tagging and street graffiti evolved into a new art form — a way for those on the fringe to make a statement. For example, the remains of the Berlin Wall became the world's longest art gallery.

[49] Glasgow is a great example of how street art can transform otherwise gritty urbanscapes. The city council provided funding for street artists to turn its rough blank walls into an outdoor art gallery. Instead of random tagging, huge city-approved murals catch your attention and invite thoughtful interpretation.

[50] Colin: So this one actually probably represents our patron saint — see the halo in the back of his head. And his name is Mungo. We're near to the cathedral and one of his miracles was bringing a bird back to life.

[51] From Glasgow to Athens, street art is bringing life and color to otherwise dreary neighborhoods and providing a creative outlet for communities.

[52, Statues by Gustav Vigeland in Frogner Park, Oslo] This public park in Oslo, a lovely place to end this look at Europe's art, lets us feel the pulse of Europe today.

[53] People go about their everyday lives amid the wonders of nature, while enjoying art that celebrates the stages of human life…from birth…to love…to death. Its centerpiece is a tangle of figures that rockets skyward.

[54] Art connects us with our past and points the way forward. Like these timeless figures, we're all in this together, spiraling upward and onward toward…who knows? It's the forever unfolding story of our lives — the mystery that finds expression in art.

[55] Europe offers a lifetime of artistic treasures. And the more you understand its art, the more you'll appreciate the society that created it. I hope you've enjoyed…or at least survived…our sweep through the wild and crazy art of the 20th century. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'!