The paintings and sculptures in this gallery give a taste of the diversity of 20th-century art: from expressive paintings of human figures, to abstracted still lifes, to entirely abstract compositions of colours and forms.

Since 1900, European artists have challenged the idea that creating ‘realistic’, figurative art was the ultimate achievement. Through a series of radical art movements, they redefined the concept of art, and introduced new materials and techniques. Featured artists such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Barbara Hepworth, and Pablo Picasso all pushed artistic boundaries in different ways, and drew inspiration from philosophy, psychology, literature, music, and traditions beyond Europe and North America.

Modern and contemporary ceramics, and silver work, are displayed in the corridor outside the gallery.


The IN FOCUS series in this gallery presents special loans and works from the Ashmolean’s collections for short periods of time. Through the rotation of works the display aims to remain exciting also for regular visitors.

The two IN FOCUS artworks currently on display are Tom Phillips' Salman Rushdie, 1993 (below), and  Magdalene Odundo's Asymmetrical 'Betu' Series I, 2019 (below).


Portrait of Salman Rushdie by Tom Phillips
Magdalene Odundo's sculpture in the In Focus display of the Modern Art gallery

About the artist and artworks

Tom Phillips (1937–2022)
The prolific artist Tom Phillips studied literature at Oxford in the 1950s. This powerful portrait of Salman Rushdie reflects Phillips’s enduring interest in the novelist, and the use of text in his work.

Bordering the charcoal sketch of Rushdie is a line from the author’s poem 6 March 1989, titled after the date that a fatwa was issued upon him by the Ayatollah Khomeini: ‘Still, nameless-and-faceless or not, here’s my choice: / not to shut up. To sing on.’

Following a near-fatal attack last year that resulted in the loss of an eye and the use of a hand, Rushdie has continued to speak out publicly against violence and censorship, as fearlessly portrayed here by Phillips. 

Magdalene Odundo (b 1950)
The studio potter Magdalene Odundo brings a sculptural sensibility to traditional crafts learned from master ceramicists – primarily women – around the world.

Alluding to her indefinable artistic identity, she has called herself ‘a woman, from Kenya, who makes pots.’

Odundo hand-builds her vessels in a technique first learned from Gwari potters in Nigeria, and smooths them into bodily forms. She fires the pots unglazed using an alchemical Pueblo method to achieve a lustrous and organically burnished finish. Odundo’s work has been exhibited in both craft and fine art contexts, including at the Hepworth Wakefield Museum, the former studio of sculptor Barbara Hepworth in St. Ives.