Our GENERATION Glossary explains many of the artistic terms you might come across on the GENERATION website and beyond.


Abstract Art

Art in which there is no attempt to depict things existing in the world. The word is particularly used from the twentieth century onwards.


A term first used in the 1960s, for a strand of theatre and literature, which emphasised the nonsensical, illogical or irrational. It is sometimes associated with dark humour or satire. Absurdist ideas were a recurring feature of radical culture of the twentieth century but the term is particularly associated with post-war theatre and with the playwright Samuel Beckett.

Art Deco

Taking its name from the major exhibition of decorative arts held in Paris in 1925, art deco was a design style of the 1920s and 1930s, using geometric or stylised shapes and bright colours.

Art Nouveau

Decorative art style popular in Europe and North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is characterised by flowing lines based on plant forms.


A term for culture that challenges tradition through experimentation and innovation. Originally a military term, in the arts it is particularly associated with radical movements in visual art, literature and music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


A general term for European art, music and architecture from the seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries. In art it particularly refers to works with a sense of movement and theatricality.


An influential German school of art and design founded in the German city of Weimar in 1919 under the architect Walter Gropius. It was based on workshop training rather than academic studios and is a celebrated attempt to bring diverse arts and craft into unity for functional design. The school moved to Dessau in 1925, housed in a famous building designed by Gropius. It moved to Berlin in 1930 before closing in 1933 due to pressure from the Nazis.


The production of a sculpture by use of a mould to make a copy, usually in a more durable material, of the original work. The term is used to describe both the process and the resulting object.


A broad term used to describe the history and culture of Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece and associated civilisations in the area of the Mediterranean during the period from the eighth century BC to the fifth century AD.


A term to describe artists who work in groups or pairs to produce a single body of work, for example the Canadian artists General Idea who began working together in the 1960s or the British artists Gilbert and George. Collaborative working might be temporary between artists with individual careers, or a long-standing group of artists often working under collective identity or name.


An image made from found materials, such as photographs, paper or fabric, glued to a surface, sometimes with additional painted or drawn elements. It is an art form particularly associated with the early twentieth century art movements Dada and Surrealism.

Conceptual Art

Art in which the idea is more important than the finished product or visual form. It emerged in the 1960s and was often concerned with the nature of art itself and the use of language.


A geometric, abstract style founded in the early twentieth century in Russia by Vladimir Tatlin. The movement reflected the machine age through its use of new technology and materials and applied its theories to architecture and design as well as fine art. Exiled artists such as Naum Gabo helped to spread the constructivist ideas.


A movement in painting first developed by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Instead of painting a figure or object from a fixed position they represented it from multiple viewpoints.


A radical artistic and literary movement that was a reaction against the cultural and political climate that supported the First World War. The Dadaists took an anti-establishment attitude, questioning art's status and favouring performance and collage over traditional art techniques. Many Dadaists went on to become involved with Surrealism.


A general term for art that refers to the real, visible world, used more specifically for the representation of the human figure.


A collective of international artists formed in 1960 by the artist George Maciunas. Their name means ‘flowing’ in Latin, and they aimed to break down barriers between art and life by staging avant-garde musical performances and anti-art events which closely involved the public. Among the various group members were Nam June Paik, John Cage and Yoko Ono.


The art and architectural style that dominated Western Europe during the medieval period. Its buildings are characterised by pointed arches, strong vertical lines and elaborate window structures.


A term used for the composition or performance of a passage of music without preparation or musical text. Improvisation is a key characteristic of jazz, and in the second half of the twentieth century was used by many avant-garde composers in performance. It has a big impact on several abstract painters.


An art practice developed in the second half of the twentieth century that broke away from the view of a sculpture as a singular object to be looked at. Instead, artists create groups of objects or an environment that may surround the viewer. Many are temporary or created for a particular location.


A water-based material used in sculpture and casting which combines a gypsum powder compound with acrylic resin.

Land Art

A movement beginning in the 1960s that sought a direct engagement with nature, creating artworks in and with the landscape.

Life Model

A model for ‘life drawing’, the drawing of a human figure, usually nude, from observation.


A print produced in a similar way to a woodcut, but using a layer of linoleum, sometimes mounted on wood. As a cheap and easy way of producing prints, linocuts are often used by amateur artists, but the method was also used by artists like Picasso.


This term was first used in relation to twentieth century paintings, which were notable for their austerity or simple geometric forms. From the 1960s onwards it was used to describe an art movement, mainly of American sculptors such as Donald Judd and Robert Morris, who worked with simple, often repeated, forms and industrial materials.


A broad term used to describe the various movements in art, architecture, literature and music from the late nineteenth century to the 1960s. Modernism in visual art involved a break from traditional values and styles, and the development of new forms in art and society believed to be more suitable to the industrial age.


An image made with a single colour.


A combination of images from different sources brought together to create one new whole. The term can be used in relation to film, photography, or handmade images, or any combination of these.

Monumental Sculpture

A term to describe all kinds of large-scale sculptures from ancient civilisations to modern times. Most recently it is understood to mean the kind of large sculpture that is found in public places to commemorate important people or events.


A distinctive element in a work of art or design

Performance/Performance art

Works in which the actions of the artist, or a performer, constitute the art. Artists have used performance techniques throughout the twentieth century but the term 'performance art' is usually applied to works from the 1960s onwards.


An extremely detailed form of naturalistic art, often based on photographs. The style is particularly associated with a type of North American painting of the 1970s.

Pop Art

An art movement of the 1950s to the 1970s that was primarily based in Britain and the United States. Pop artists are so called because of their use of imagery from popular culture, such as comics, advertising or commercial packaging. They also introduced techniques and materials from the commercial world, such as screen-printing, to fine art practice.


A set of psychological ideas and therapies developed in the closing years of the nineteenth century and most closely associated with the work of the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis places an emphasis on childhood experiences and on conflicts between conscious and unconscious drives. Its ideas have had a significant impact on art, including the importance placed on dreams and the unconscious and techniques such as free association.


A term coined by the artist Marcel Duchamp to describe an existing object that is taken from its original context and regarded as a work of art.


A form of sculpture where the image or design projects from a flat surface.


A period in European culture from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries in which the visual arts flourished. It is particularly associated with Italy, where it began, though the term applies elsewhere. It is noted for a revival of interest in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.


The depiction of a person or object in a work of art

Residency/Artist’s Residency

A term used to describe the opportunity for artists to work away from their usual location or circumstances. An associated idea is that of the Artist-in-Residence, placing artists in a particular location such as an institution or workplace.


Relating to Romanticism, a movement in art, literature and music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that rejected restraint in favour of emotion and individual expression.


A method of making prints by forcing ink through a screen on which a stencil is placed. Traditionally used for commercial printing, it has been taken up by artists since the 1960s when it was used extensively in Pop Art.


A term used particularly since the 1960s to describe art made with a particular location in mind, whether inside or outside. The work may be made at that location or made for it. Site-specific art may be an intervention in a specific place, environment or landscape.

Stijl, De (The Style)

De Stijl was the title of a Dutch art and design journal edited by Theo van Doesburg from 1917 to 1932 that gave its name to the movement associated with it, which included the artist Piet Mondrian. It was concerned with finding a harmonious balance in life and art, and the associated visual style is simple abstraction, characterised by strong horizontal and vertical lines and primary colours.

Still Life

A painting, drawing or photograph depicting inanimate objects.

Studio ceramics

A term for ceramics or pottery that is handmade by artists or artisans in the studio rather than mass-produced in a factory. Studio ceramics can include tableware or small sculptures where all, or most, of the stages of making are undertaken by an individual artist.


A group that understand its own culture as different from, or sometimes against, the mainstream culture of a larger group. Subcultures often define their membership through music, distinctive dress or speech.


Based on personal feeling, emotion or taste.


An aesthetic concept often applied to landscape painting since the eighteenth century. It describes scenes that excite a sense of awe by evoking the overwhelming vastness of the world.


A literary and artistic movement founded by the poet André Breton in 1924. Many of the associated artists, such as Max Ernst and Jean Arp, had previously been involved with Dadaism. The movement sought to challenge conventions through the exploration of the subconscious mind, invoking the power of dreams and elements of chance. Traditional artistic values were challenged by the combination of diverse elements in collages and sculptural assemblages. The movement is also notable for the collaborations between artists and writers evident in the Surrealists' many publications.

Trompe l’Oeil

This term, from the French meaning ‘to deceive the eye’, is used to describe a form of illusionism used by artists to trick the viewer. It often involves the extremely realistic representation of an object in three-dimensions.


Relating to an imaginary state or place where everything is perfect. The term was invented by Sir Thomas More in the book Utopia (1516).

Share this feature: