contemporary art online course

Many people feel that Modern Art, from 1900 to the present day, is more difficult to understand than art of the past. By looking at and discussing a wide range of works, this course will aim to provide guidelines about how to understand and appreciate Modern Art better and how to discover continuity between the art of earlier periods and our own.

This course will seek to provide guidelines about how to look at modern art, from 1900 to the present day, in an open-minded, critical and analytical way. We shall aim to provide answers to some of the questions most commonly asked about Modern Art of both the earlier and later periods. Why does it appear so different from the art of the past? How should we approach it? What were the changing ideas, which were intended to alter our view of what a work of art could be? Why is craftsmanship apparently a thing of the past? And what are the main issues to be considered in contemporary art?

We shall try to understand why Modern Art happened and some of the cultural, philosophical and historical reasons for it. We shall become more familiar with concepts like Collage and Installation, and discuss why divisions between painting, sculpture, architecture and design have become blurred, making many works hard to categorise. We shall also see that some artists have continued with traditional subject matter, techniques and methods, thus making continuity between art of the past and our own time.

For information on how the courses work, and a link to our course demonstration site, please click here.

Programme details

1. Introduction to Learning Look at Modern Art and Picasso

  • First thoughts
  • Picasso
  • Cézanne and African sculpture
  • New science and thought

2. Modernism

  • Cubism
  • Picasso and photography
  • A comparison between Picasso’s Cubist painting and the more traditional drawing of Ambroise Vollard
  • Modernism and continuity
  • Manet’s modernism
  • Expressionism
  • El Greco and modernism
  • Picasso and Spanish Romanesque mural painting
  • Picasso’s early painting and its Expressionist qualities

3. The Dynamic View

  • Futurism
  • Impressionism and Symbolism
  • Music
  • Sculpture
  • Vorticism

4. Duchamp and conceptual art

  • Duchamp
  • The search for new meanings
  • The ideas of Dada
  • Duchamp and the readymade
  • Duchamp’s legacy in conceptual art. Conceptual Art and the classical tradition
  • Conceptual Art: Recent resonances
  • Conceptual Art and the Old Masters
  • Fantasy Art, Symbolism and dreams

5. Expressionism and Self Expression

  • Reaching the spectator’s feelings
  • Klee’s ideas about Expressionism and Modern Art
  • Expressionism: A shift in emphasis before and after the First World War
  • Confronting reality
  • Abstract Expressionism
  • Confronting memories
  • Confronting oneself: Feminism
  • Confronting oneself: Continued
  •  Sensation and shock

6. New Concepts of Composition

  • Types of collage: papier collé, assemblage and combine
  • Surrealist composition
  • Peinture informelle
  • Pop Art
  • Minimalism
  • Environmental composition
  • Postmodernism in architecture

7. Space and Form

  • Seeing form in terms of space
  • More new interpretations of space and form
  • The unity of art and design: The Utopian ideal
  • Design for living
  • Transparent space
  • Modernism continued
  • Postmodern space and form
  • Free-flowing space and form

8. Light and Colour

  • Expressing light in terms of colour
  • Colour and movement
  • Painting architecture
  • Three-dimensional light design
  • Experiencing real light. Sculpture and colour
  • Light in architecture

9. Traditional subjects

  • The human figure
  • Religious subjects
  • History painting
  • Landscape
  • Still life and portrait
  • Genre subjects
  • Reinterpreting architecture

10. Epilogue and conclusion

  • Surrealism and film
  • Film set design
  • Fine art, film and advertising
  • Photography and fine art

We strongly recommend that you try to find a little time each week to engage in the online conversations (at times that are convenient to you) as the forums are an integral, and very rewarding, part of the course and the online learning experience.

Recommended reading

To participate in the course you will need to have regular access to the Internet and you will need to buy the following paperback book:

Acton, Mary, Learning to look at Modern Art (London & New York, Routledge, 2004) ISBN 0415238129


To earn credit (CATS points) for your course you will need to register and pay an additional £10 fee for each course you enrol on. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online. If you do not register when you enrol, you have up until the course start date to register and pay the £10 fee.

See more information on CATS point

Coursework is an integral part of all online courses and everyone enrolled will be expected to do coursework, but only those who have registered for credit will be awarded CATS points for completing work at the required standard. If you are enrolled on the Certificate of Higher Education you need to indicate this on the enrolment form but there is no additional registration fee.

Assignments are not graded but are marked either pass or fail.

All students who successfully complete this course, whether registered for credit or not, are eligible for a Certificate of Completion. Completion consists of submitting the final course assignment. Certificates will be available, online, for those who qualify after the course finishes.


Course Fee£312.00
Take this course for CATS points£10.00


Mr Gordon Reavley

Gordon Reavley teaches topics in Art History and Visual and Material Culture for Oxford University’s Dept of Continuing Education (OUDCE), and Critical Theory for the University of Nottingham. He has been widely published on American social and cultural history and on the history and theory of art and design.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course you will be able to:

  • Show you understand what to look for in Modern Art.
  • Use the vocabulary or language of looking at Modern Art.

And you will have developed the following:

  • The ability to be an active and questioning spectators.
  • Critical and analytical skills in relation to Modern Art.

Assessment methods

You will be set two pieces of work for the course. The first of 500 words is due halfway through your course. This does not count towards your final outcome but preparing for it, and the feedback you are given, will help you prepare for your assessed piece of work of 1,500 words due at the end of the course. The assessed work is marked pass or fail.

English Language Requirements

We do not insist that applicants hold an English language certification, but warn that they may be at a disadvantage if their language skills are not of a comparable level to those qualifications listed on our website. If you are confident in your proficiency, please feel free to enrol. For more information regarding English language requirements please follow this link:


Please use the ‘Book’ or ‘Apply’ button on this page. Alternatively, please complete an application form.

Level and demands

FHEQ level 4, 10 weeks, approx 10 hours per week, therefore a total of about 100 study hours.

IT requirements

This course is delivered online; to participate you must to be familiar with using a computer for purposes such as sending email and searching the Internet. You will also need regular access to the Internet and a computer meeting our recommended minimum computer specification.

About the author

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