Existentialism in Modern Art: Meaning & Significance
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 7 min read


  1. What is existentialism?
  2. History of existentialism in art
  3. Key themes in existentialist art
  4. How existentialism impacts modern art
  5. Examples of existentialism in modern art
  6. Why existentialism matters in art

Art is a powerful language, one that can convey profound messages and stir deep emotions. It's a mirror to society, reflecting its joys, sorrows, and confusions. One such reflection is the concept of existentialism in art—a philosophical idea that has seeped into the canvas and defined a whole era of masterpieces. Let's immerse ourselves in the intriguing world of existentialism and its role in art.

What is existentialism?

Existentialism is a philosophical theory that became popular in the mid-20th century. It emphasizes individual existence, freedom, and choice. It's a way of thinking that focuses on the experience of the individual, asserting that "existence precedes essence". But what does that really mean? Let's unpack this.

Existence precedes essence

At the heart of existentialism is the belief that existence precedes essence. In simpler terms, we're born first, and we create our purpose or "essence" later through our actions and decisions. Unlike a painting, which has an intended purpose or essence from the moment the artist starts to paint, we humans have the freedom to shape our own destiny.

Freedom and responsibility

Existentialism emphasizes the freedom of individuals to shape their own lives. But with great freedom comes great responsibility. This means that you are responsible for your actions and decisions. It's like being an artist with a blank canvas—you're free to paint whatever you want, but you're also responsible for the final artwork.


Authenticity is another fundamental theme in existentialism. It refers to living in a way that is true to oneself, and not conforming to societal expectations or norms. It's about being the artist of your own life, not a replica of someone else's masterpiece.

Understanding existentialism can be like trying to interpret a complex piece of abstract art—it can seem confusing at first, but once you grasp the key themes, it becomes a fascinating exploration of human existence. Just as the theory of existentialism has influenced many aspects of life, it also has a profound impact on art, giving birth to a new genre known as 'existentialism in art'. But more on that later!

History of existentialism in art

The seed of existentialism in art was planted in a time of great upheaval. It was during the aftermath of World War II, a period that left many questioning the meaning and purpose of life. Let's take a walk down the lane of history to understand how this philosophical theory shaped the world of art.

Post-World War II: The birth of existentialist art

Existentialism as a philosophy reached its peak during the mid-20th century, right after World War II. This was a time when humanity was grappling with the horrors of war, and many people were questioning the very meaning of life. It was in this environment that existentialism found its voice in art. Artists began to express the chaos, confusion, and despair they saw around them, resulting in deeply emotional and thought-provoking works.

The influence of existentialist philosophers

The theories of philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean-Paul Sartre heavily influenced the existentialism in art. These philosophers challenged conventional wisdom and encouraged individuals to seek their own unique path in life, a theme that resonated with many artists. Their works became a canvas to express these existentialist ideas, promoting individual freedom, authenticity, and self-determination.

The rise of abstract expressionism

Existentialism in art gave birth to a new art movement—abstract expressionism. Painters like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko pioneered this movement, creating artworks that were less about depicting the physical world and more about expressing emotional and psychological states. Their works were often intense, raw, and spontaneous, embodying the existentialist belief in personal freedom and authenticity.

The history of existentialism in art is a testament to the power of art to reflect society's deepest fears and hopes. It's a journey through a tumultuous period in history, a period that gave birth to some of the most powerful and provocative artworks of the 20th century.

Key themes in existentialist art

Existentialism in art isn't just about abstract shapes or bold strokes. It's about conveying deep philosophical ideas through visual expression. Let's explore some of the key themes that define existentialist art.

Individual Freedom

One of the most central themes in existentialist art is individual freedom. It reflects the existentialist belief that each person is free to make their own choices and create their own path in life. In art, this often translates to a focus on personal expression and individual creativity.


Authenticity is another major theme in existentialist art. This is about being true to oneself, rather than conforming to societal norms or expectations. You'll often find existentialist art that rejects traditional artistic conventions in favor of a more personal and authentic creative vision.

Existential Angst

Existential angst — the anxiety that comes with the freedom to choose one's own path — is a common theme in existentialist art. This can be seen in artworks that depict themes of fear, despair, or loneliness. It's a way for artists to grapple with the uncertainties and complexities of human existence.

Absurdity of Life

Finally, the absurdity of life is another common theme in existentialist art. This reflects the existentialist belief that life has no inherent meaning, and that it's up to each individual to create their own purpose. In art, this might be represented through chaotic or nonsensical imagery, reflecting the seeming absurdity of life itself.

These themes are not just philosophical ideas, but reflections of our everyday experiences. They challenge us to confront our fears, question our assumptions, and ultimately, understand ourselves better.

How existentialism impacts modern art

Existentialist themes have found a comfortable home in modern art, shaping it in unique and impactful ways. Let's see how the influence of existentialism in art has affected the modern art scene.

Shift in Artistic Expression

Existentialism has led to a noticeable shift in how artists express themselves. Since existentialism values individual freedom and authenticity, modern artists are now more focused on conveying their personal experiences and perspectives. This has led to a rich diversity of styles and techniques in modern art.

Emotional Depth

With existentialist art often exploring themes of angst and the absurdity of life, modern art has become a conduit for artists to express deep emotional experiences. This has added a layer of emotional depth and complexity to modern artworks, making them more relatable and impactful for viewers.

Provoking Thought

Modern art influenced by existentialism aims to provoke thought and introspection. By presenting viewers with complex themes and challenging ideas, it encourages us to question our own existence, purpose, and values. This introspective nature of modern art makes it a powerful tool for personal and societal reflection.

Breaking Conventions

Existentialist art's emphasis on authenticity has influenced modern artists to break free from traditional artistic conventions. This has led to a wave of innovative and boundary-pushing artworks that challenge our preconceived notions of what art should look like.

In short, the impact of existentialism in art has been profound, shaping modern art in ways that allow for greater expression, emotional depth, and thought-provocation. It's a fascinating blend of philosophy and artistry that continues to evolve and inspire.

Examples of existentialism in modern art

Over the years, many modern artists have used existentialist themes in their work to explore the human condition. Let's look at a few examples of how existentialism in art has manifested in modern art pieces.

Alberto Giacometti's "Walking Man"

Alberto Giacometti's sculptures, particularly "Walking Man," are excellent examples of existentialism in modern art. The emaciated figure, stripped of all non-essential elements, represents the isolation and loneliness of the individual in the modern world. Giacometti's work forces the viewer to confront the stark reality of our existence.

Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks"

Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" is another striking example. The painting depicts individuals in a late-night diner, each absorbed in their own world. The sense of alienation and disconnect between the people in the painting reflects existentialist themes of isolation and the struggle to find meaning in a seemingly indifferent universe.

Francis Bacon's "Screaming Popes"

Francis Bacon's series of "Screaming Popes" paintings are imbued with existentialist dread. The distorted faces, filled with anguish, reflect existentialism's exploration of anxiety, despair, and the absurdity of existence.

Yayoi Kusama's "Infinity Mirrors"

Finally, Yayoi Kusama's "Infinity Mirrors" installations provide a contemporary example of existentialism in art. The endless reflections create a sense of infinite space, echoing existentialist themes of infinity and the insignificance of the individual within it.

These examples highlight how existentialism in art continues to influence modern artists, providing them with a rich tapestry of themes to explore the complexities of human existence.

Why existentialism matters in art

Existentialism in art isn't just a stylistic choice or a trendy buzzword—it's a profound exploration of the human experience. But why exactly does existentialism matter in art? Let's discuss.

Reflection of Human Experience

At its core, existentialism in art aims to reflect the fundamental aspects of human experience. It explores themes like freedom, isolation, and the quest for meaning—issues that we all grapple with in our lives. This makes existentialist art deeply relatable and emotionally resonant.

Challenge to the Viewer

Existentialist art doesn't just represent reality—it challenges it. By presenting raw and often disconcerting images of existence, these artworks compel us to question our assumptions about life, society, and even ourselves. It provokes thought, stirs emotions, and can even inspire change.

Freedom of Expression

Existentialism in art also represents the ultimate freedom of expression for the artist. It rejects strict rules and conventions, allowing artists to explore their individual perspectives and unique visions. This can lead to groundbreaking and innovative artworks that push the boundaries of what art can be.

Cultural and Historical Significance

Lastly, existentialist art holds significant cultural and historical value. Many existentialist artworks act as mirrors to the times they were created in, reflecting societal concerns and the human condition in different eras. This makes existentialism in art a valuable tool for understanding our past and present.

In conclusion, existentialism in art matters because it's more than just a style—it's a lens through which we can explore the depth and complexity of human existence.

If you're intrigued by the concepts of existentialism in modern art and want to explore the roots of classical painting in contemporary art, we recommend checking out the workshop 'Classical Painting in the Modern Day' by Eric Drummond. This workshop will help you understand how classical techniques and ideas can be incorporated into modern art, enriching your creative practice and broadening your artistic horizons.