Modernism Essay

This essay has a total of 4792 words and 24 pages.


. Introduction
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Modern Art , painting, sculpture, and other forms of 20th-century art. Although scholars
disagree as to precisely when the modern period began, they mostly use the term modern art
to refer to art of the 20th century in Europe and the Americas, as well as in other
regions under Western influence. The modern period has been a particularly innovative one.
Among the 20th century's most important contributions to the history of art are the
invention of abstraction (art that does not imitate the appearance of things), the
introduction of a wide range of new artistic techniques and materials, and even the
redefinition of the boundaries of art itself. This article covers some of the theories
used to interpret modern art, the origins of modern art in the 19th century, and its most
important characteristics and modes of expression.

Modern art comprises a remarkable diversity of styles, movements, and techniques. The wide
range of styles encompasses the sharply realistic painting of a Midwestern farm couple by
Grant Wood, entitled American Gothic (1930, Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois), and the
abstract rhythms of poured paint in Black and White (1948, private collection), by Jackson
Pollock. Yet even if we could easily divide modern art into representational works, like
American Gothic, and abstract works, like Black and White, we would still find astonishing
variety within these two categories. Just as the precisely painted American Gothic is
representational, Willem de Kooning's Marilyn Monroe (1954, private collection) might also
be considered representational, although its broad brushstrokes merely suggest the
rudiments of a human body and facial features. Abstraction, too, reveals a number of
different approaches, from the dynamic rhythms of Pollock's Black and White to the
right-angled geometry of Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue (1937-1942, Tate Gallery,
London) by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian , whose lines and rectangles suggest the mechanical
precision of the machine-made. Other artists preferred an aesthetic of disorder, as did
German artist Kurt Schwitters, who mixed old newspapers, stamps, and other discarded
objects to create Picture with Light Center (1919, Museum of Modern Art, New York City).

Thus 20th-century art displays more than stylistic diversity. It is in the modern period
that artists have made paintings not only of traditional materials such as oil on canvas,
but of any material available to them. This innovation led to developments that were even
more radical, such as conceptual art and performance art—movements that expanded the
definition of art to include not just physical objects but ideas and actions as well.

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II. Characteristics of Modern Art
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In view of this diversity, it is difficult to define modern art in a way that includes all
of 20th-century Western art. For some critics, the most important characteristic of modern
art is its attempt to make painting and sculpture ends in themselves, thus distinguishing
modernism from earlier forms of art that had conveyed the ideas of powerful religious or
political institutions. Because modern artists were no longer funded primarily by these
institutions, they were freer to suggest more personal meanings. This attitude is often
expressed as art for art's sake, a point of view that is often interpreted as meaning art
without political or religious motives. But even if religious and government institutions
no longer commissioned most art, many modern artists still sought to convey spiritual or
political messages. Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky , for instance, felt that color
combined with abstraction could express a spiritual reality beneath ordinary appearances,
while German painter Otto Dix created openly political works that criticized policies of
the German government.

Another theory claims that modern art is by nature rebellious and that this rebellion is
most evident in a quest for originality and a continual desire to shock. The term
avant-garde, which is often applied to modern art, comes from a French military term
meaning "advance guard," and suggests that what is modern is what is new, original, or
cutting-edge. To be sure, many artists in the 20th century tried to redefine what art
means, or attempted to expand the definition of art to include concepts, materials, or
techniques that were never before associated with art. In 1917, for example, French artist
Marcel Duchamp exhibited everyday, mass-produced, utilitarian objects—including a bicycle
wheel and a urinal—as works of art. In the 1950s and 1960s, American artist Allan Kaprow
used his own body as an artistic medium in spontaneous performances that he declared to be
artworks. In the 1970s American earthwork artist Robert Smithson used unaltered elements
of the environment—earth, rocks, and water—as material for his sculptural pieces.
Consequently, many people associate modern art with what is radical and disturbing.
Although a theory of rebellion could be applied to explain the quest for originality
motivating a great number of 20th-century artists, it would be difficult to apply it to an
artist such as Grant Wood, whose American Gothic clearly rejected the example of the
advanced art of his time.

Another key characteristic of modern art is its fascination with modern technology and its
embrace of mechanical methods of reproduction, such as photography and the printing press.
In the early 1910s Italian artist Umberto Boccioni sought to glorify the precision and
speed of the industrial age in his paintings and sculptures. At about the same time,
Spanish painter Pablo Picasso incorporated newspaper clippings and other printed material
into his paintings in a new technique known as collage . By the same token, however, other
modern artists have sought inspiration from the spontaneous impulses of children's art or
from exploring the aesthetic traditions of nonindustrialized, non-Western cultures. French
artist Henri Matisse and Swiss artist Paul Klee were profoundly influenced by children's
drawings, Picasso closely observed African masks, and Pollock's technique of pouring paint
onto canvas was in part inspired by Native American sand painting.

Yet another view holds that the basic motivation of modern art is to engage in a dialogue
with popular culture. To this end, Picasso pasted bits of newspaper into his paintings,
Roy Lichtenstein imitated both the style and subject of comic strips in his paintings, and
Andy Warhol made images of Campbell's soup cans. But although breaking down the boundary
between high art and popular culture is typical of artists like Picasso, Lichtenstein, and
Warhol, it is not of Mondrian, Pollock, or most other abstract artists.

Each of these theories of course, is compelling and could explain a great many strategies
employed by modern artists. Yet even this brief examination reveals that 20th-century art
is far too diverse to be fully contained within any one definition. Each theory can
contribute a part to the puzzle, but no single theory can claim to be the solution to the
puzzle itself.

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III. Origins
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Art of the late 19th century anticipated many of the characteristics of modern art noted
above. These include the idea of art for art's sake, the focus on originality, the
celebration of modern technology, the fascination with the "primitive," and the engagement
with popular culture.

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A. Impressionism
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Modern art's celebration of art for art's sake was initiated by French artists associated
with impressionism , including Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Berthe
Morisot. Abandoning direct references to religious and historical subjects, many of the
impressionists broke away from the French art establishment in the 1870s and exhibited
their paintings independently, anticipating the modern desire for independence from
established institutions. In painting scenes of everyday life, especially life in local
bars and theaters, the impressionists anticipated modern art's interest in popular
culture. In depicting railroads, bridges, and examples of the new cast-iron architecture,
they anticipated modern art's fascination with technology. And by pioneering new artistic
techniques (that is, applying paint in small, broken brush strokes) and by intensifying
their colors, they anticipated the modern fascination with originality. By exhibiting
quickly executed works as finished paintings, they forced the public to reconsider the
sketch, no longer as a preliminary exercise, but as an end in itself, thereby anticipating
the tendency of modern artists to change and expand the definition of art.

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B. Postimpressionism
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In the last two decades of the 19th century a number of artists who had been inspired by
the impressionists' style and technique reacted strongly against the impressionist
example. These artists, who were eventually called postimpressionists , established a
number of alternate approaches to painting, each of which was to have remarkable
repercussions for 20th-century art. Paul Gauguin , for instance, rejected the
impressionist technique of applying touches of color in separate, small brushstrokes in
favor of using large areas comprised of a single color bound by heavy contour lines. This
innovation had an impact on Matisse and scores of later artists who used color as an
expressive device rather than as a means for copying nature. In 1891 Gauguin decided to
settle on the Pacific island of Tahiti, motivated by a desire to leave Western
civilization and embrace a simpler form of existence. His work there contributed to the
modern fascination with non-Western art.

Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh , a friend of Gauguin, used both color and brushwork to
translate his emotional state into visual form. In addition, he infused his paintings with
religious or allegorical meanings (black crows as symbols of death, for example),
countering the impressionists' emphasis on direct observation.

The work of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch was based on the assumption that painting could
sacrifice truth to nature for expressive purposes. Munch used harsh combinations of
colors, distorted forms, and exaggerated perspectives to give visual form to the
alienation of the individual in modern, industrial society. The works of Gauguin, van
Gogh, and Munch laid the groundwork for the later development of expressionism in
20th-century art.

Other postimpressionist artists reacted against impressionism in a different way. French
artist Georges Seurat sought to raise art to the level of science by incorporating the
latest theories about light and color into his work. He divided color into its
constituents (purple into blue and red, or green into blue and yellow, for example) and
applied these colors to his canvas dot by dot. His method, called pointillism, was meant
to eliminate all intuition and impulse from the activity of painting.

Another postimpressionist, Paul Cézanne , sought to introduce greater structure into what
he saw as the unsystematic practice of impressionism. Objects appear more solid and
tangible in his paintings than in the works of his impressionist colleagues. But despite
this increased solidity, Cézanne did more than any previous artist to destabilize the
integrity of form through subtle distortions and seeming inaccuracies in his many
still-life paintings. Objects do not rest comfortably on their bases, vases seen from the
front have rims seen from above, and the horizontal edges of tables, when projecting from
either side of a tablecloth, sometimes do not match up. It is almost as if Cézanne was
dismantling the very solidity he meant to reintroduce to the depiction of objects.

Cézanne also introduced a radical innovation in works such as his Mont Sainte Victoire
(1902-1906, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City): The edge of the mountain opens up
to allow areas of sky to penetrate the otherwise solid mountain. With this simple device,
Cézanne decisively changed the course of art history. Two physical entities—earth and
sky—believed to be distinct and separable were now made interchangeable. The world as it
is seen and experienced, Cézanne seemed to say, is not as important as the laws of picture
making. After Cézanne's example, the world of reality and the world of art began to drift
apart. The fragmentation initiated by Cézanne's work spearheaded Picasso's later
experimentation with form and invention of cubism.

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Cultural historians have related the fragmentation of form in late-19th- and
early-20th-century art to the fragmentation of society at the time. The increasing
technological aspirations of the industrial revolution widened the rift between the middle
and the working classes. Women demanded the vote and equal rights. And the view of the
mind presented by the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, stipulated that the human
psyche, far from being unified, was fraught with emotional conflicts and contradictions.
The discovery of X rays, physicist Albert Einstein's theory of relativity , and other
technological innovations suggested that our visual experience no longer corresponded with
science's view of the world.

Not surprisingly, various forms of artistic creativity reflected these tensions and
developments. In literature, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf experimented
with narrative structure, grammar, syntax, and spelling. In dance, Sergei Diaghilev,
Isadora Duncan, and Loie Fuller experimented with unconventional choreography and costume.
And in music, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky composed pieces that did not depend on
traditional tonal structure.

Music not only took its place among the most experimental of the arts, but it also became
a great inspiration for visual artists. Many art critics in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries were influenced by German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich
Nietzsche , who had proclaimed that music was the most powerful of all the arts because it
managed to suggest emotions directly, not by copying the world. Many painters of the
late-19th-century symbolist movement, including Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau , tried to
emulate music's power of direct suggestion. By including abstract forms and depicting an
imaginary, rather than an observable, reality in their paintings, Redon and the symbolists
paved the way for abstract art.

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A. Fauvism
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The idea that art could approximate music is reflected in Henri Matisse's Red Room
(Harmony in Red) (1909, State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia), a painting
whose subtitle is borrowed from musical terminology. From Gauguin, Matisse borrowed large
areas of unvaried color, simplified shapes, and heavy contour lines. The simplicity of
Matisse's drawing style relates to Gauguin's fascination with the art of non-Western
cultures. Matisse also employed the abstract designs of carpets and textiles, reinforcing
the flatness of the painting rather than attempting to create the illusion of depth. His
interest in these designs demonstrates the influence of forms of creativity not often
associated with fine art.

Although Red Room was intended as a pleasing image of middle-class domesticity, Matisse's
manner of depiction was considered highly revolutionary, especially in the way he assigned
intense colors to objects arbitrarily and not according to their appearance in nature. A
scandalized contemporary critic declared Matisse and his fellow artists—André Derain,
Maurice de Vlaminck, and Georges Braque (of France), and Kees van Dongen (of the
Netherlands)—to be fauves (French for "wild beasts"). This derogatory term became the name
of their movement. Fauvism lasted only from about 1898 to 1908, but it had an enduring
impact on 20th-century art.

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