SOAS University of London

Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts

Comparative Avant-Gardes: Global Perspectives in Modern Art

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2019/2020
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 2, Year 3 or Year 4
Taught in:
Term 1
This course introduces students to influential theories, artists and movements associated with the avant-garde, a term which translates from a French military phrase, but which has come to designate pioneering artists and groups in the modern era. However, it addresses this term and its uses beyond the Euro-American spaces in which “the avant-garde” is presumed to have transformed paradigms of art-making and the artist’s role in society. We will question how the avant-garde has been identified within comparative frameworks of modernism and the emerging politico-aesthetic relationships that responded to critical technological and geopolitical developments in the twentieth century. In addition, we will query how avant-gardes have been perceived as spearheading and/or expanding practices and discourses associated with primitivism, realism, surrealism, abstraction, Fluxus, and new media. A comparative approach across global contexts will also reveal alternative articulations of the avant-garde in relation to religion and spirituality, nationalism and regionalism, notions of indigeneity, and methodological concerns such as the calligraphic. With case studies drawn from sites in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, Australia, and the Middle East, this course emphasizes unexpected interconnections, exchanges, and sites of the avant-garde.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module student will be able to:

  • Articulate and question prevalent theories of the avant-garde
  • Demonstrate familiarity with a broad purview of important modern and contemporary art movements and artists across a global comparative context
  • Demonstrate critical literacy in visual and textual materials drawn from art theory and criticism
  • Explain the significance of comparative study in expanding the geographical and critical scope of existing Euro-American art historical narratives
  • Demonstrate skills in oral and written presentation applicable to careers in academia and other art-related professions in museums, galleries, auction houses, art law, and consulting agencies.


  • One two hour Lecture

Method of assessment

  • One 500 words formal analysis (worth 9%)
  • One 500 words article precis (worth 9%)
  • One  2 000 words bibliographic essay (worth 32%)
  • One two hour exam (worth 50%)

Suggested reading

  • Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
  • Goldwater, Robert. Primitivism in Modern Art. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1986.
  • Li, Victor. The Neo-Primitivist Turn: Critical Reflections on Alterity, Culture, and Modernity. University of Toronto Press, 2006.
  • Mercer, Kobena, ed. Discrepant Abstraction. MIT Press, 2006.
  • Munroe, Alexandra. Japanese Art After 1945: Scream against the Sky. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1994.
  • Myers, Fred R. Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art. Duke UP, 2003.
  • Nelson, Robert S., and Richard Shiff. Critical Terms for Art History. 2nd ed. University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  • O'Brien, Elaine, ed. Modern Art in Africa, Asia, and Latin America: An Introduction to Global Modernisms. Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
  • Risatti, Howard, ed. Postmodern Perspectives: Issues in Contemporary Art. Prentice Hall, 1990.
  • Wood, Paul, ed. Art of the Twentieth Century: A Reader. Yale University Press, 2003.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules