Writing About Modernist Painting Outside Western Europe and North America

  • James Elkins (Author)

    James Elkins is E.C. Chadbourne Chair of the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His research focuses on the history and theory of images in art, science, and nature.

Identifiers (Article)


The history of modern painting is conventionally told following a trajectory from European artists like Manet, Cézanne through Picasso and artistic styles ranging from expressionism, surrealism, cubism, and other avant-garde movements and stylistic trends on to abstract expressionism. Art historians all over the world share this conventional narrative, although it is the uneasy confluence of several Western master narratives that largely exclude the artistic production evolving in processes of modernization elsewhere in the world. Consequently, painters fostering a modernist idiom for example in China, India, South-America or even Eastern Europe appeared - and still appear until today – if at all - as agents of a “belated modernity.” At best they are credited with the pursuit of an “alternative modernism,” which still harkens back to the Euro-American centre as its main reference point. More often, they are dismissed in art critical and historical accounts as derivative in their attempt to emulate this centre.
I argue that in the age of economic, media and cultural globalization after the end of the Cold War, there still exists no critical approach to modernist painting that is effectively free of the Eurocentric and universalist master narrative of western modernism, even though a strongly multicultural art-critical, art historical and curatorial literature has developed that intends to look beyond western Europe and North America. It seems crucial to continue to engage the main trajectory and the entire institutional, critical, and historiographic apparatus that supports it, as outmoded and ideologically limited as they may seem, because they still underwrite the conditions under which modernist practices can appear as history. This paper collects and examines the approaches that are currently in use, in order to further conversation on the subject.


Academic discipline and sub-disciplines
Art history
modernism, global art
How to Cite
Elkins, J. (2010). Writing About Modernist Painting Outside Western Europe and North America. The Journal of Transcultural Studies, 1(1), 42–77. https://doi.org/10.11588/ts.2010.1.1928