The History of Post-War Art

24-01-2022 BACK

Since World War II, post-war art has become a significant part of the art world. Influenced from many angles, hundreds of established artists produced work in various styles, with the one dominating influence being the end of the World Wars.

Rather than being a defined style, post-war art is a period created by artists worldwide in response to the trauma and events of the wars that they observed or fought in.

Pre-War Art

Before the World Wars of the 20th century, art movements celebrated emotions over logic. For example, romanticism emphasised beauty and awe, even when examining the darker side of human life. In the 1890s, the Art Nouveau style dominated and saw artists drawing geometric and organic forms. Meanwhile, the expressionist movement began in the early 1900s.

Before the World Wars, War in art was portrayed as noble and just, with leaders as heroes on the battlefield. One such painting, Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau, by Antoine Jean-Gros, portrays Napoleon as a shining figure amongst the corpses, blessing the men remaining.

Modern art was first observed in America in 1913 via the famous Armory Show, which astonished many American painters who were unused to anything other than realism. This event inspired many American artists to branch out and create an artistic language of their own.

World War I to World War II

Many artists created works relating to the World Wars, either relating to their own experiences in battle or on the front lines. Their art commonly shifted from nationalistic and patriotic to mournful and pacifistic as they witnessed the traumatising effects of war.

From modernist styles looking to the future to traditional works that reminisced peaceful times gone by, artists explored new materials and techniques to express the chaos during the first World War. Many became disenchanted with the act of war, with Paul Nash, a renowned surrealist and war artist, describing it as godless and hopeless.

During the Second World War, artists represented war as it truly was, painting to capture the battlefield's sights, smells, and sounds. The days of glorifying war were over, and it was instead shown as dirty and visceral, a losing battle for both sides.

As artists painted, art movements that came into being during the wars included:

  • Dadaism - Also known as Dada, this art movement began in Zurich during the First World War. Often nonsensical, Dadaism was a response to the horrors of the war, with artists questioning the facets of a society that could start and prolong the battle.
  • Surrealism - Surreal art is often regarded as searching for freedom, balancing rationality with dreams. Surrealists often used their art to engage in political activism, and many saw it as an art style and a way of life.
  • Bauhaus - The Bauhaus style of art was established in Germany in 1919, with artists bringing their art back into contact with architecture. Bauhaus is a combination of words meaning building (bau) and house (house), and after the first World War, it may have been intended to show that artists were working toward building a new society.
  • Social realism - Artists turned to more realistic art to make their work accessible to the public and portray their subjects as heroes. Realism also served to address the social and political consequences of the first World War and draw attention to the hardships people experienced.


Different artists in different countries responded to the wars in vastly diverse ways. America, a country relatively unscathed by the conflict, emerged as a significant power in the art world, with movements such as abstract expressionism and pop art appearing in the 1950s. Many European avant-garde artists moved to America during and following the war, lending their influence to the American art community.

However, art was different in Europe as countries struggled to reconcile the trauma of war. European artists used their work to explore and re-establish their identity and cope with the beginning of the Cold War, the period of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. Movements exploded simultaneously, ranging from Neo-Dada and pop art to minimalism and conceptual art.

From 1945 onwards, the world began to change rapidly. European colonial systems were being dismantled, the civil rights movement began to grow in the United States, and new technology was consistently being developed. As well as coping with the aftermath of the wars, artists had a vast amount of material to work with, causing art to shift and evolve. New movements also rose and fell, and artists created new identities.


Post-war art is not a defined movement. Instead, it is made up of many movements from across the world in response to the collective trauma left behind by two global wars. Artists were looking for ways to respond to the new world they found themselves living in, and old art styles did not suffice anymore.

At Florence Bell Gallery, we have a collection of post-war art available for purchase. Contact our specialist art consultants today to find out more about the art available.

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