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This beautiful tree explains modern art history

The tree below, drawn by Miguel Covarrubias in 1940, is an amazing way to visualize the history of modern art in the West. It traces the different schools that sprang up, from post-Renaissance France to surrealists like Salvador Dalí.

You can click on each of the red icons in the image to learn more about the different branches:

The history of art is a connected history. (Miguel Covarrubias, Creative Commons via the David Rumsey Map Collection)

Because it stops in 1940, the tree fails to account for abstract expressionism and other post–World War II movements. But the organizational structure alone reveals a surprisingly large amount about the way art has evolved, including:

  • Covarrubias's map mainly looks at the Western canon, though it becomes broader and more inclusive over time. While the tree's roots and base feature primarily French artists, the top leaves are a global affair.
  • Artistic schools have become more aesthetically diverse. No educated art fan would ever mistake Delacroix for Courbet — but an untrained eye might. Yet the differences in later schools are far more stark, even to an outsider. Marcel Duchamp's urinal and Tristan Tzara's poetry and performance art are wildly different, yet both are considered Dada.
  • The canon evolved quickly. The first version of this map was published in Vanity Fair in 1933, but Covarrubias's 1940 version required the addition of Salvador Dalí. Part of the update was probably due to Dalí's currency — it was easier to see him as important because he was making headlines in 1940. But his inclusion also demonstrates how rapidly the new canon evolved. To borrow Covarrubias's metaphor, modern art "grew leaves" more quickly than the art it branched off of.
  • All art is intertwined. The tree lends itself to branching schools, but Covarrubias doesn't let his illustration get in the way of an obvious truth about art: regardless of their primary style, artists work together, borrow from each other, and grow in tandem. Artists like Marc Chagall aren't relegated to one lonely branch of the artistic tree — though Chagall's lineage can be seen as an outgrowth of van Gogh, Picasso's cubism winds its way over as well. That interconnectedness isn't a coincidence, either.  It makes each branch stronger and allows new leaves to spring from unexpected places.

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