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Pablo Picasso, Figures on a Beach, 1931| © Nicho Design / Flickr
Pablo Picasso, Figures on a Beach, 1931| © Nicho Design / Flickr

The 10 Most Influential Artworks From The 1920s & 1930s

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Updated: 21 March 2018
The 1920s and 1930s saw the emergence of new European art movements, including Art Deco, Cubism and Surrealism. Art Deco was first introduced in 1925 in Paris and incorporated many geometrical designs. Artists Pablo Picasso and George Braque founded Cubism; an avant-garde movement covering paintings and sculptures. Contrastingly, Surrealism  joined together the concepts of reality and unconscious dreams through artwork; including The Tilled Field by Joan Miro (1923-1924) and Figures on a Beach by Pablo Picasso (1931). Culture Trip takes a look at the most influential artworks from these two defining eras.


New York, Early Twenties (1922 – 1923)

Missouri-born artist Thomas Hart Benton pays homage to his adoptive city of New York in this oil composition, depicting a bird’s-eye view of Madison Square. Internationally renowned as a pioneer of the regionalist art movement, Benton specialised in depicting rural life and studying agricultural farmers and labourers. Inspired by the work of Claude Monet, Benton studied the urban space within New York, Early Twenties depicting sculpted figures who are painted as dark matchstick figures. Filing neatly past against stationary vehicles, they weather the dark storm clouds above the imposing skyscrapers and American flag. The tempestuous climate is set during a period of personal and professional unrest as a left-wing communist sympathiser during The Great Depression.

Menin Gate At Midnight (1927)

Will Longstaff’s depiction of the Menin Gate war memorial in Ypres (also known as Ghosts of Menin Gate) forms part of the collection at The Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The composition movingly captures the spirits of soldiers marching in unison across a cornfield, under an indigo evening sky. Longfield was inspired to paint this composition after attending the unveiling of the war memorial to 350,000 soldiers in July 1927. He witnessed an apparition of steel-helmeted soldiers after attending the unveiling of the war memorial in Belgium and henceforth completed his tribute in one sitting. The red poppies in the foreground represent the blood shed during World War  I and is a fitting tribute to 70,000 commonwealth soldiers ‘missing in action’. The limestone war memorial depicted on the left shows a dark, sinister entrance. Buildings are dotted upon the far horizon (with intermittent light) suggesting that the area is under close scrutiny.

Chop Suey (1929)

Edward Hopper’s picture of social realism is comprised from a composition of multi-coloured geometric rectangles and depicts a scene within a Chinese restaurant. In the centre foreground are two women (both based on Hopper’s wife, Josephine Hopper) who appear to have an ambiguous relationship. They mirror each other’s solitary and aloof demeanour across a bright table in green and purple cloche hats. There is no tactile interaction, and the lady in green hides her hands in a defensive manner under the table, suggesting uneasiness. The four figures depicted are meeting for a social event, but the irony lies in a mutual lack of interest and spontaneity, which leaks through their detached facial expressions. A man in the background talking with a female friend seems to enjoy his cigarette more than his date. Hopper catches the group’s loneliness in a public, open space. Natural and artificial light is seen through the composition; the sun reflects off the billboard directly onto the white tables and the woman in a green top, giving her a ghostly pallor.

History Of Mexico (1929 – 1935)

Funded by the Mexican government, Diego Rivera’s mural took six years to complete, and can be found in the stairwell of The National Palace (Palacio Nacional) in Mexico City. Diego presented a narrative to the public which sympathetically portrayed Indians as the oppressed ethnic minorities, brutalised by the Spaniards. Comprised of four sections, the largest mural pieces stand at 70 feet by 9 metres. The North Wall is dedicated to a representation of Aztec culture, incorporating a symbolic sun (the centre of Aztec religion), a pyramid underneath and an Aztec leader with assorted snakes and jaguars. The West Wall (central section) depicts the history of warfare, with Cortes and the Spanish armies defeating the opposing forces of the Indians and Aztecs. The South Wall represents all that Rivera loved and was inspired by; from the Red communist flag to socialist Karl Marx and artist and wife Frida Kahlo alongside her sister Christina (Diego’s one-time lover). School children are represented in the section; symbolising peace, unity and future progress in society.

The Persistence Of Memory, (1931)

Taking inspiration from the publication of Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in 1932, Salvador Dali’s surrealist painting was created during a period of hallucination that Dali experienced and stemmed from his love of Freud and his teachings of psychoanalysis. A soft melting watch limply hangs off a tree branch in the left foreground, perhaps demonstrating that time is bent out of all proportion. The slug in the centre foreground is representative of Dali’s distinctive profile, a figure overwhelmed by time, framed by insect-like eyelashes. Dali’s trademark use of ants on the face of a clock in the left foreground emphasises the sense of decay and destruction upon the barren landscape. Dali incorporates the rugged landscape features of the Cap de Creus peninsula and Mount Pani from his native Catalonia. Originally displayed in the Julien Levy Gallery in 1932, since 1934 it has been displayed at The Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory © PW McMahon / Flickr

Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory © PW McMahon / Flickr

Fire At The Full Moon, (1933)

Fire at The Full Moon was produced by Swiss-German artist Paul Klee during a period of socio-political unrest across Europe, through the succession of Hitler as German Chancellor. As an art teacher at Dusseldorf academy and a Galician Jew, Klee had suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime who ransacked his house. He lost his job and began suffering from scleroderma, which would eventually prove fatal. The rich composition is constructed through a cubic, geometric tapestry of heavy, coloured blocks representing the vast fields of countryside. A large yellow sun dominates the vibrant landscape overhead in the top left hand corner. A bright red cross adjacent in the top right of the frame has the dual purpose of representing The Red Cross Organisation, but also stands apart as a large ‘headstone’, signifying death.

Migrant Mother, (1936)

Photographer Dorothea Lange movingly captured the worry and desperation of Florence Owens Thompson, a woman who faced an uncertain future as a homeless American citizen during The Great Depression. Then, 32-year-old Florence was a widowed mother of ten and a destitute agricultural labourer. Two of her dejected children hang from Florence’s shoulders, their faces obscured. The baby sleeping is oblivious to her mother’s distress. Florence looks out to her right consumed with depression, with furrowed brows, clasping her chin. This iconic snapshot is one of six that Lange took during Florence’s journey to a pea picker’s camp in Nipomo Mesa, California. Florence arrived to a crowd of 3,500 workers all looking for work, but were unable to find secure, paid employment as the local produce had been destroyed by hazardous weather conditions.

Guernica, (1937)

Pablo Picasso’s cubist mural was originally commissioned for The World’s Art Fair in Paris, 1937. At 11 feet tall and 25 feet wide, Picasso uses monochrome blocks of grey, black and white to reflect the sombre spectre of death and destruction. This abstract composition pays tribute to the 1,600 citizens killed and seriously injured by the 100,000 pounds of bombs dropped by the German Luftwaffe in the northern Spanish town of Guernica. Terrified animals and humans are wide-eyed and opened mouthed with limbs intertwined in the attack. The pain and anguish of the victims is depicted through the shot of a mother with a lifeless child in her arms, screaming in agony at her loss. A male figure lies on the ground in the foreground underneath, his limbs mutilated by fallen ammunition, holding a broken sword for protection. The lightbulb in the top left foreground reflects the ‘artificial’ sun above the darkened landscape full of carnage and destruction. Newspaper cuttings are printed on the limbs of a terrified horse who has been lacerated with a spear in his side. A bull is caught up in the bloodshed, representing ‘El Taro’, the national emblem of Spain.

The Two Fridas, (1939)

Surrealist artist Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait was created in a year of personal turmoil; she had divorced her husband Diego Rivera and had suffered a series of forced abortions (perpetuated from her crippling injuries from her near-fatal bus crash in September, 1925). The Two Fridas are conjoined as twins, linked together through blood supply to the heart, holding hands. On the left we see a Frida in a traditional white tehuana dress (the Mexican colour of mourning), covered in blood from her successful attempts to cut off her bloodline with a pair of pincher scissors. The main artery is cut off, perhaps emphasising her broken heart.  She is supported by the healthier Frida, whose heart is full and whose multi-coloured costume indicates warmth and vibrancy. Frida’s emotional angst is indicated in the background with storm clouds gathering upon the horizon. There is a duplicate picture of The Two Fridas at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Coyoacan, Mexico.

The Morning Star (1939)

Catalan artist Joan Miró’s sense of freedom and escapism from Paris to Varengeville-sur-Mer, Normandy during World War II is reflected through his liberal references to women, stars and birds. Miró began a series of 23 images named Constellations from 1939 (continuing into the early forties) exploring his fascination with power, constellations and the outer universe (which provided a welcome relief from the warfare on land), using astral maps. Miró suggests that he would like to take the form of a bird, away from the bloodshed under the power of Nazi Germany across Europe. Forming an abstract jigsaw puzzle, small slices of primary colours are liberally weaved across the corners of the composition. The background is softly muted with a salmon pink and light blue background.