Research task: Flatness

We were asked to research how the illusion of space in pictures declined in the 20th century in favour of flatness. There was a lot of information out there so as I did my research I tried to capture key moments, artists, movements etc. across a timeline that I mapped out from the 18th century to present. This helped me trace the introduction of flatness and how it shaped artists’ work which then went on to shape other artists’ work as time passed.

On the basis of this mapping I then tried to map the main movements and the key artists in an order that helped me make sense of it all and which I then followed as best I could below in trying to work out all the entry points!

What was interesting is how global events and politics shaped this. Flatness was something that was already used in Japanese Ukiyo-e art in their prints, usually produced on wooden blocks which first started in black and white and then took on colour (iTravelWithArt, 2019). However, it was not widely know until Japan was opened up to the West in 1853 again after having been closed for 200 years. This was managed through pressure from Western forces vying for trade opportunities (Japan – The opening of Japan, 2019). This was just in time to influence the impressionist movement (Dean, 2019) which started around the 1860’s with the appearance of Japonism, coined as the study and fascination of Japanese art by the French journalist and art critic Philippe Burty in an article published in 1876 to describe the strong interest for Japanese artworks and decorative items (Kiama Art Gallery, 2015).

As you can see from the examples below, the key features of Ukiyo-e prints were that they focused on the everyday, unusual viewpoints, often included calligraphy, had assymetrical composition but in particular had limited depth and flatness and used flat areas of colour and very little chiaroscuro. (Kiama Art Gallery, 2015)

Monet, Manet, Degas, Van Gogh, Gaugin all from in and around the impressionist and post-impressionist movements were influenced by this in their work in different ways. “Japonisme transformed Impressionist art by demonstrating that simple, transitory, everyday subjects could be presented in appealingly decorative ways. The Impressionists, and Post-Impressionists, admired the use of flat, decorative shapes, bright colours, and asymmetrical compositions which assisted them in exploring new ways of painting and printmaking” (Kiama Art Gallery, 2015).

Within impressionism (1865-1885)

Impressionists worked to capture the immediate impression of a particular moment. “This was characterized by short, quick brushstrokes and an unfinished, sketch-like feel. Impressionist artists used modern life as their subject matter, painting situations like dance halls and sailboat regattas rather than historical and mythological events.” (Invaluable, 2018). Monet, considered the main driving artist behind impressionism, painted a number of bridges over ponds in his Waterlily series. He claimed that the quality of Japanese art that “evokes presence by means of shadow, the whole by means of a fragment“. (Kiama Art Gallery, 2015).

Manet would collect Japanese prints and even incorporated prints into his paintings. For example, the Japanese screen in the background to his portrait of writer Emile Zola. Degas doesn’t have obvious aspects of Japonisme but many of his works are “deeply infused with what he considered to be Japanese principles of composition and perspective”. For example, using the elongated canvas, emphasis on asymmetrical diagonals of the wall, the large color planes, and the use of aerial perspective in ‘Dancers in the rehearsal room’ all build on the characteristics of Japonism. The pose of the ballet dancer bending over is directly borrowed from Japanese artist Hokusai, who often composed his figures in movement. Degas adopted this approach to his figures for a sense of spontaneity which was a big part of his style. (The Art Story, 2013).

Within post-impressionism (1885-1910)

Post-impressionism (1895-1910) evolved from impressionism and focused more on subjective visions and symbolic, personal meanings rather than observations of the outside world like the impressionists (Invaluable, 2018). Impressionists or artists influenced by impressionism morphed into post-impressionists. For example, the aspect of flatness was very evident in Gaugin and Toulouse-Lautrec’s work where they use a lot of flat areas of colour. (Kiama Art Gallery, 2015). Gauguin began to be decorative in the overall composition and harmonies, no longer using line and colour to replicate an actual scene, as he had when he was an Impressionist. For example, Gauguin’s Old Women or Arles painted in 1888 has a group of women moving through a flattened, arbitrary landscape in a sad procession. (Cooper, 2019). Gaugin was also close to and inspired by Van Gogh. Van Gogh was considered a tortured artist and who also reflected his emotional state in his post-impressionist artwork. Van Gogh also collected Japanese artwork, sometimes reproduced it and used a lot of flatness and colour. For example, ‘The Bedroom’ is very flat, uses outlines and moves away from realistic impression towards trying to invoke a sense or feeling of rest and sleep. (The Art Story, 2012)

Toulouse-Lautrec was influenced by Degas and Japanese Prints too and who also captured moment in an original way, combining more abstract line and flat blocks of colour and cropping figures to bring energy to his paintings. See for example, ‘Equestrian: at the circus’. (Alan Curtis Birnholz, 2019) Georges Seurat was another post-impressionist who used a lot of flatness even to depict movement. See ‘The circus’ which was his last painting before he died which has areas of colour blocks, outlines and a 2D effect despite the movement of the various figures.

But the premier of post impressionism was Paul Cezanne. Cezanne is credited “with paving the way for the emergence of twentieth-century modernism, both visually and conceptually. In retrospect, his work constitutes the most powerful and essential link between the ephemeral aspects of Impressionism and the more materialist, artistic movements of FauvismCubismExpressionism, and even complete abstraction.” (The Art Story, 2011). Japanese influence can be seen strongly in ‘Mont Saint-Victoire’ which depicts a mountain landscape in a very flat 2D way giving equal importance to colour and form.

Fauvism (1900-1935)

Fauvism was the first movement considered to be ‘modern art’ and was inspired by post-impressionists like Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat and Cezanne among others. ‘Fauves’ were artists who admired these older artists’ emphasis on personal expression and their work went even further into more simplified forms, intense colours and which therefore drew specific attention to the inherent flatness of the canvas or paper. The immediate visual impression of the work is “to be strong and unified”. Fauvism was a precursor to Cubism and Expressionism (Wolf, 2015). Matisse was the main leader of this group of artists. The greatest ‘colourist’ of the 20th century, he sought to use colour as the foundation for expressive and decorative paintings. Rather than using modeling or shading to lend volume and structure to his pictures, Matisse used contrasting areas of pure, unmodulated color, incorporating the inherent flatness of Japanese art. Just take ‘La Danse’ as a clear example of pure colour blocks and extreme flatness. (The Art Story, 2011a)

Expressionism (1905-1920)

Expressionist art also sought to draw from within the artist, using more distortion of form and again strong colours to display anxieties and raw emotions and feelings in general. Take Edvard Munch’s very flat and intense “The Scream”. Munch had mental health issues and also sought to explore this expression in his works.

An interesting addition to Expressionism was English self-taught painter Alfred Wallis whose naive understanding of space led to what is desired as a kind of ‘instinctive impressionism’ since he did not have a understanding of 3D space and depth. This meant that he wasn’t constrained by ‘reality’ and thus presented objects and scenes in ways that expressed their emotional and thematic significance to him – very much part of the ‘form-follows-feeling- approach of the expressionists. (The Art Story, n.d.)


Expressing emotion, feeling and the push towards modernism that came with the 19th Century ended up taking art further and further towards abstractionism. One of the pioneers of abstract modern art was Russian artist Kandinsky who “exploited the evocative interrelation between color and form to create an aesthetic experience that engaged the sight, sound, and emotions of the public.” He essentially believed that total abstraction offered the possibility for profound, transcendental expression and that copying from nature only interfered with this process. He aimed for his art to be universally understood, symbolic and pictorial and his work inspired the Bauhaus and Abstract Expressionists after WW2. (The Art Story, 2013b)

Ben Nicholson was an abstract and still life painter from the UK who built on Cubist Picasso and Braque’s influence (see Cubism below) to bring back still life and landscape into abstractionism which had been neglected for more political subject matters by most other artists of the time linked to the Great Depression and the World Wars. Take ‘Birch Craig (Summer)’ that is a very flat abstract collection of colours that make up an image of the English countryside. (The Art Story, n.d.). He also discovered and was inspired by Alfred Willis’ expressionist paintings who also depicted many landscapes. The would eventually work together in a small group of artists called the Saint Ives School who all settled in Cornwall to do their painting.

Cubism (1907-1914)

Going even further than previous movements, Cubism was established by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque who rejected the concept that art should copy nature and created more radical fragmented pieces through abstraction and thus further emphasising flatness and 2D by also adding geometric forms or objects and multiple vantage points to the point that sometimes you really cant tell the subject matter! I am not a massive fan of Picasso but I was surprised to hear that he also invented collage, which I love! Take the Demoiselles d’Avignon is discernible but very flat for example. (Invaluable, 2018).

Offshoorts of cubism took the form of Orphic cubism by the likes of Sonia Delauney which took to the theory of marrying color to form in order to achieve visual intensity on the surface of the canvas. Delauney’s ‘Yellow Nude’ shows how she was influenced by impressionists and post-impressionists and retains the flat 2D approach (The Art Story, 2016).

De Stijl (1917-1931)

This movement was pioneered by two Dutch abstract artists Piet Mondrian and Theo Van Doesburg. Originating as a magazine on abstractionism, it became a full movement which advocated for a visual language consisting of precise geometric forms (primarily straight lines, squares and rectangles) and primary colours. For me this is just direct abstractionism that is not based on taking a subject matter and going through a process of abstracting it / unlike Cubism. I like this even less than Cubism but again the flatness aspect is very clear with Mondrian’s ‘Composition II’. (Wolfe, 2019)

From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism

Kazemir Malevich was born in Kiev in 1879 and was a revoluntionary whose concept of Suprematism sought to develop a “form of expression that moved as far as possible from the world of natural forms (objectivity) and subject matter in order to access “the supremacy of pure feeling” and spirituality” (Wikipedia Contributors, 2019b). Reading an article he wrote, it’s very clear that abstraction was about freedom from the confines of classic styles of painting and drawing what is ‘seen’ and all about ‘feeling’ for him:

“To reproduce beloved objects and little corners of nature is just like a thief being enraptured by his shackled legs. Only dull and impotent artists veil their work with sincerity. Art requires truth, not sincerity. Objects have vanished like smoke; to attain the new artistic culture, art advances toward creation as an end in itself and toward domination over the forms of nature” He even went as far as to say that “The artist can be a creator only when the forms on his picture have nothing in common with nature“. (Malevich, 1915)

The most iconic of his paintings is the simple, abstract black square on white (1915) and is considered one of the most seminal works of modern art and abstract art. This square is meant to represent the experience of pure non-objectivity in the white emptiness of a liberated nothing. It’s also VERY flat :).

Flatness and modernism of Art

Art critic Clement Greenberg actually believed that flatness was an essential and desirable quality in painting (Wikipedia Contributors, 2019). He was born in 1909 and died in 1994 and thus came of age on the back of the influence of all of the above-mentioned movements that had essentially kick-started the ‘modernism of art’ that took hold at the beginning of the second half of the 19th century.

Thus flatness was a key aspect to modernism and many artists and critics basically felt that for painting to be relevant to modern life, it needed to “throw off the tradition of illusionistic depth and historical narrative and instead re-establish the flat surface of the canvas. Painting was no longer an illusionistic window to look through but an announcement of its construction out of canvas and paint.” (The Art Story, n.d.) Greenberg was a big promoter of this idea and helped make the case for abstract expressionism. Indeed, “Greenberg did not consider abstraction to be an artistic style, but the specific nature of painting itself, as the artist emphasizes the two-dimensional flatness of the canvas and the paint represents nothing other than paint. He felt that a painting that included narrative content or figuration had been invaded and weakened by literature or sculpture”. I’m not sure I agree with this but fully understand how this helped propel modernism and flatness in art through abstract expressionism to pop art, conventional art, minimalist art right up to contemporary.

Abstract Expressionism (1940s-50s)

This movement builds on Surrealism (1917-1950) which was based on breaking into imagination and breaking away from a rationalist mindset and thus gave way to epic surreal paintings like Dali’s melting clocks. I would say that you can find flatness here in Surrealism throughout though I would also say it was not the aim of this movement as so much is also painted realistically and with tone and sometimes with depth and which is mainly related to the subject matter and that is should be surreal and dreamlike. However, abstract expressionism emerged after WW2 focusing on spontaneity and improvisation to create abstract works of art which for me are also extremely flat. Take Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings which feels almost like you are looking at a textile or pattern with zero depth and which runs off the canvas. I’m not a fan but I completely unstrung the originality and where his greatness lies in “developing one of the most radical abstract styles in the history of modern art, detaching line from color, redefining the categories of drawing and painting, and finding new means to describe pictorial space”. (The Art Story, 2009)

Then there is Mark Rothko’s block of solid colours which I like more as I prefer the simple soft forms and the fact that there is so much simplicity that you can just enjoy the emotion of the colour. Still very flat! (The Art Story, n.d.)

After Abstract Expressionism

From the 1950s onwards, more art movements popped up from Pop Art (Andy Warhol) Op Art (Bridget Riley), Conceptual Art (think glass of water on a shelf = a tree), Arte Povera (using easily accessible materials) etc. all of which continued using abstractionism for different means and where flatness still arises but which also saw the come back of 3D on the basis of using sculpture or engaging with landscapes, cityscapes at a massive scale or creating art out of rubbish or second hand things. Flatness at this point, I think, became an element that an artist can chose to use depending on what the artist wants to achieve and was no longer the ‘only’ way to be ‘modern’ in art. I believe this only continued by the time the 1970’s came around and where what we understand as ‘contemporary’ art started and continues to date. You can see a plethora of styles, genres, influences, digital art and technologies and where flatness continue to exist and be a choice for artists but where its not something that is considered a must to be ‘modern’. Clearly flatness had a massive impact on art through the ‘modernist’ movement and I definitely have got a better understanding of this and how art progresses and inspires throughout history more broadly. What I would like to try to do now in my own work is be much more conscious of flatness and abstractionism and at some point try to bring this into my work where I can so that I can find my own style or at least loosen up my careful very realist style. Maybe I can get myself to somewhere in the middle: away from realism, more impressionist but not so abstract that it loses all steps!


Reference list

Alan Curtis Birnholz (2019). Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec | Biography, Artwork, & Facts. In: Encyclopædia Britannica. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].

Cooper, D. (2019). Paul Gauguin | Biography, Artwork, & Facts. In: Encyclopædia Britannica. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].

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Invaluable. (2018). Art History Timeline: Western Art Movements and Their Impact. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].

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The Art Story. (n.d.). Alfred Wallis Paintings, Bio, Ideas. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].

The Art Story. (n.d.). Ben Nicholson Artworks & Famous Paintings. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].

The Art Story. (2009). Jackson Pollock. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].

The Art Story. (2011a). Henri Matisse. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].

The Art Story. (n.d.). Mark Rothko Paintings, Bio, Ideas. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].

The Art Story. (n.d.). Medium Specificity & Flatness – Terms and Concepts | TheArtStory. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].

The Art Story. (2011b). Paul Cézanne. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].

The Art Story. (2012). Vincent van Gogh. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].

The Art Story. (2013a). The Japonism Style – Important Paintings. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].

The Art Story. (2013b). Wassily Kandinsky. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].

The Art Story. (2016). Sonia Delaunay. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].

Wikipedia Contributors (2019a). Clement Greenberg. [online] Wikipedia. Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].

Wikipedia Contributors (2019b). Kazimir Malevich. [online] Wikipedia. Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].

Wolf, J. (2015). Fauvism Movement Overview. [online] The Art Story. Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].

Wolfe, S. (2019). Art Movement: De Stijl. [online] Artland Magazine. Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].

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