Modern Art (1900–50)
First Things First...
When the twentieth century arrived, artists had every reason to believe that they were entering a totally new and unique modern age. Philosophers like Henri Bergson were expanding and collapsing our concept of time, and Sigmund Freud’s theories were opening new paths to uncharted segments of the human mind. The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century brought modern conveyances in its wake like the automobile, the airplane, and the electric elevator, which went hand-in-hand with steel-and-glass construction in birthing the skyscraper—the emblem of the modern city. Life had never been faster.
This heady moment, evidenced in both intellectual and popular culture, truly led artists to believe that they were part of a project to both invent a new visual idiom for the modern world and to simultaneously question preexisting ideas of what art could and should be. Often, this stance was further radicalized by historical events and the encroachment of political affiliation. In Russia, the Soviet Revolution of 1917 changed the tenor and motivation of an already nascent avant-garde. In Mexico, the Revolution of 1910–20 was the catalyst for an entirely new movement. In Germany, the Weimar Revolution of 1918 opened an ideological space for the Bauhaus to form. The Great Depression in the United States diminished the purchasing ability of certain art-buying patrons and created new conditions for art in the 1930s. And, of course, World War I (1914–8) and World War II (1939–45) had staggering repercussions for art and life across the globe. As our lecture on Art Since 1950 (Part I) largely generates in the post-WWII sphere, chronologically, this lecture ends closer to 1945.
The main obstacles, then, for this lecture, will be
- surveying the myriad avant-garde movements that found inspiration in this time period, while
- giving students perhaps their first introduction to abstraction, which can throw off those conditioned to seeing recognizable forms in art.
Some suggestions on handling these two issues:
- Be frank in setting your students’ expectations: Communicate the above information first—”Think of how fast everything started moving around 1900. The days of a two-hundred-year artistic phenomenon with agreed-upon conventions like the Renaissance are over.” Then point out that, though this lecture will necessarily be a survey, there are a host of related movements, artists, and factions worldwide that could be explored by students outside of class. Create, perhaps, a textual slide in your PowerPoint that lists these movements and artists as a reference for students wishing to see more. Then, give your students a set of broad themes to allow them to talk across the movements rather than delving too deeply into any one. I will suggest several in Content Suggestions, below.
- As for abstraction, a good way to frame this material is to start your students with a simple idea: Modernism proposed that a painting or sculpture could be more than a relatively simple, mostly recognizable reproduction of something existing in nature. Once art was detached from that aim, its most basic formal elements (line, color, and depth, for example) became available for free experimentation.
Some themes central to artists in the period from 1900 to 1950 that could frame this lecture include:
- Art as more than a mere visual representation of objective reality: why is there such a shift in the visuality of art around 1900? What motivating factors are there?
- Art as the depiction of modernity: how do representations of the modern city often define modern art? What sorts of visual tropes allow us to discern an artist’s attitude toward modernity and the new city?
- Art as a means of social or political engagement: how does art continue—from a trajectory started in the middle of the nineteenth century—to approach issues of social justice or to allow politics into its form and subject matter?
- Art as a reflection of history: how do historical events or changes direct the course of art in the early twentieth century?
These key themes can be explored in an hour and fifteen minutes through a variety of examples, including:
- Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers, 1906
- Henri Matisse, Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life), 1905–6
- Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Street, Dresden, 1908
- Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913
- Pablo Picasso, Family of Saltimbanques, 1905
- Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon), 1907
- Umberto Boccioni, Simultaneous Visions, 1911–2
- Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913
- Hugo Ball performing the sound poem Karawane at the Cabaret Voltaire, Zürich, 1916
- Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917
- Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier), Still Life, 1920
- Gino Severini, Armored Train, 1915
- Gino Severini, Two Pierrots, 1922
- Pablo Picasso, Three Women at a Spring, 1921
- Piet Mondrian, Lozenge Composition with Red, Gray, Blue, Yellow, and Black, 1925
- El Lissitzky, The Constructor, 1925
- Herbert Bayer, Poster for Bauhaus Exhibition, 1923
- Marcel Breuer, “Wassily” Chair, 1925–6
- André Masson, Battle of Fishes, 1926
- Postcard, World’s Fair, Paris, 1937
- Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937
- George Bellows, Cliff Dwellers, 1913
- Georgia O’Keeffe, City Light, 1926
- Aaron Douglas, From Slavery Through Reconstruction from the mural cycle Aspects of Negro Life, 1934
- Jackson Pollock, Full Fathom Five, 1947
Abstract Expressionism: a movement in the United States—exemplified here in the work of Jackson Pollock—that sought to express universal primal, psychological, and emotional human values through mostly large-scale abstraction after World War II.
Abstraction: the attempt to distill art’s most basic underlying forms from nature, abstraction, or abstract art, typically begins from a recognizable figure and converts it into more basic elements of geometry, form, or color.
Arbitrary color: non-naturalistic color applied to a form or object.
The Ashcan School: a group of like-minded artists from the United States in the early twentieth century—exemplified here in the work of George Bellows—who painted Realist scenes in a direct, impressionistic manner.
Automatism: Automatic drawing or painting occurs when the artist makes an attempt to remove the conscious mind from the act of creation, through doodling or applying paint to a surface in a haphazard or unplanned manner. This was a Surrealist response to Freud’s thesis that the Unconscious is the root of artistic creativity.
Bauhaus: Built on the influences of Expressionism, Neoplasticism, Constructivism (among others), the Bauhaus—exemplified here in the work of Herbert Bayer and Marcel Breuer—was a revolutionary new take on the traditional art school model, bringing the fine arts (painting, sculpture, and architecture) and the applied arts (typically, design fields like furniture, stained glass, woodworking, printmaking, and so on) under one roof and one curriculum.
Biomorphic: typically applied to Surrealism, biomorphic implies the creation of abstract “lifeforms” that arise as the result of automatic drawing or painting.
Constructivism: usually divided into two camps (Russian and International), Constructivist art was made possible by new, industrial forms and materials wed to geometric forms and an idea that the artist should also be an engineer, constructing a new and radical modern world. Exemplified here in the work of El Lissitzky in the Soviet Union, this was linked to socialist ideals; internationally, artists were more concerned with Constructivism’s formal and material possibilities.
Cubism: a semi-abstract movement in early twentieth-century (mostly) French art—exemplified here in the work of Pablo Picasso—that continued the formal project begun with Paul Cézanne’s analysis of form, often geometricizing figures and collapsing traditional naturalistic notions of depth and perspective.
Dada: A set of ideas more than a coherent movement, Dada has been referred to as an “anti-art” movement due to its iconoclastic nature and its tendency to critique and question the very principles underlying the commissioning, creation, and dissemination of art. Begun in Zürich in 1916 by a group of pacifist artists, the spirit of Dada quickly took root in Paris, New York, and Berlin, among other places. It is exemplified here in the performance of Hugo Ball and the readymades of Marcel Duchamp.
Expressionism: with a capital ‘E’, a German-derived semi-abstract movement of the early twentieth-century—exemplified here in the work of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Wassily Kandinsky—that used color and form to express internal or extra-pictorial qualities such as psychology, spirituality, and emotion. As such, it stands as a sort of antidote to nineteenth-century French Impressionism, which sought to recreate outward sensations. With a lowercase ‘e’, expressionist or expressionistic art indicates an attempt to express a greater or deeper value not seen in the exterior appearance of an object.
Fauvism: a semi-abstract movement in early twentieth-century (mostly) French art—exemplified here in the work of Henri Matisse—that used bright, often unmixed colors in an effort to create a direct means of expression separated from earlier naturalistic trends.
Futurism: a semi-abstract movement in early twentieth-century Italian and Russian art—exemplified here in the work of Umberto Boccioni—that took the vibrant colors of Neo-Impressionism and Cubism’s fragmenting of form and space and used those to create an art concerned principally with themes of motion, speed, and dynamism.
Harlem Renaissance: a cultural blossoming of African-American arts that originated in New York City after World War I.
Neoplasticism (also known as De Stijl): an abstract movement founded during the interwar period in the Netherlands—exemplified here in the work of Piet Mondrian—that proposed simplicity, order, and functionality built on the most basic geometric forms (horizontal and vertical lines) and the most basic colors (the three primary tones, black, gray, and white) toward the possibility of reaching universal values in art.
Purism: a semi-abstract movement in interwar France—exemplified here in the work of Le Corbusier—that proposed geometry and simplicity as underlying principles of art, proposing the need for originality and creation based upon these orderly bases. Purism sought to overturn the primacy of Cubism in the Parisian art scene after WWI.
Primitivism: a trend within Modernism wherein Western artists either a.) worked in a “naïve” or “untrained” style in an attempt to approach a more basic, direct means of expression or b.) looked to non-Western forms of art to escape what was seen as the cul-de-sac of the Western tradition.
The Return to Order: a retrograde interwar trend across Europe (but focused, perhaps, in France) toward naturalistic art, wherein artists turned away from “decadent” abstraction toward traditional values of beauty, proportion, and order.
The Stieglitz Circle: a constellation of artists grouped around the photographer-gallerist Alfred Stieglitz and his 291 Gallery—exemplified here by Georgia O’Keeffe—that formed an early, semi-abstract avant-garde in close dialog with European artistic developments in the early twentieth-century United States.
Surrealism: a movement in interwar France—exemplified here in the work of André Masson—that sought to render a “higher” reality accessible by the unleashing of the Unconscious or, often, the analysis of dreams.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA): a program in the United States under the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt that provided work for a number of artists during the Great Depression, most notably on government-funded mural projects for federal, state, and municipal buildings.
The First Wave: Modernism before World War I
The Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne was credited by two of Modernism’s pioneers—Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso—for laying the groundwork for twentieth-century art. Among other things, his depiction of objects from multiple viewpoints and his use of color as a building block for form (rather than as a necessary attribute of form) led both to the fracturing of form in Picasso’s Cubism and the use of arbitrary (non-naturalistic) color in Matisse’s Fauvism. The Large Bathers, painted in the year of Cézanne’s death, was a radical departure from naturalism. The hard outlines around his female figures emphasize the two-dimensionality of the canvas while contrasting visually with the passage of color from one form to another. It is clear, for example, that certain brushstrokes move from one figure to another across what should be their outline. As such, color has been liberated here from the form that carries it, and the forms themselves are built up by Cézanne’s constructive brushstrokes.
Cézanne’s canvases, however, were still linked to patterns of nineteenth-century naturalism in how they allotted color to objects. Matisse’s departure in Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life) took Cézanne’s separation of color from form to its logical extreme, using color as a purely expressive medium divorced from optical sensation. It can also be used to introduce the idea of Primitivism in twentieth-century Modernism: at a moment of rapid industrialization and modernization, artists like Matisse chose to paint “naïve” works of art in a manner that suggests a natural state of simplicity. In The Joy of Life, yellow, blue-green, and pink nudes dance, sing, and frolic in an untouched, multicolored Eden. By alternately exaggerating and simplifying forms, Matisse made artistic choices that emphasized the canvas as a two-dimensional support for the harmonious juxtaposition of color rather than any sort of accurate representation of nature.
While some critics recognized the passion and vitality of Matisse and his followers’ new direction (the name of his movement Fauvism derives from the French for “wild beast”), others challenged Matisse for painting in this radical idiom, and his reaction said a lot about the new territory of Modernism. Responding to charges of ugliness made about his Blue Nude of 1907, Matisse famously quipped: “If I met such a woman in the street, I should run away in terror. Above all, I do not create a woman, I make a picture.”
This idea—that art could be about something greater than mere representation—marked a radical shift that was taken up by two of Modernism’s major movements, Expressionism and Cubism. Expressionism, largely a German invention, was represented by two major groups: Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter.
Die Brücke (The Bridge) was formed in Dresden in 1905 and incorporated figural distortions, a Primitivist directness of rendering, and an expressiveness of color that linked it to Fauvism. In Street, Dresden, Die Brücke founder Ernst Ludwig Kirchner uses those ideas to express feelings of alienation within the modern city. A simple and telling exercise: ask your students to make two columns, one for adjectives describing The Joy of Life, and one for adjectives describing Street, Dresden. While The Joy of Life is an idyllic scene of healthy bodies in natural harmony, Kirchner’s scene reports the mask-like, made-up faces of women in the too-tight city street environment. Though these women address the viewer, their eyes are blackened, implying an inability or unwillingness to make basic human connections. A concern over the effects of modernity and the city on the human psyche was a leitmotif of Expressionist thought.
Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) was formed in 1911 in Munich and focused on the possibility of pure abstraction (art without recognizable objects). The leader of Der Blaue Reiter, Wassily Kandinsky wrote an influential treatise entitled On the Spiritual in Art in 1910 that, among other things, argued that abstraction offered a universality that representation could not, and that color acted autonomously from form as a carrier for spiritual values thought to be lost in the experience of modernity.
Kandinsky’s Composition VII provides an excellent opportunity to explain the sometimes difficult concept of abstraction to students. If, as Kandinsky suggests, color could exist outside of form, what would it look like? Kandinsky and his followers were fond of comparing visual art to music. Consider terms mutually used to describe art and music, like tone, harmony, and—for Kandinsky—the names of his paintings themselves: Composition, Improvisation, Study (Étude). Music, in the eyes of the Expressionists, was the perfect metaphor for abstract art; though it has form and tone, though it can be felt and heard, its forms cannot be seen.
They can, however, be written, notated, and visualized. Someone can wear a “loud” shirt, Matisse created “harmonious compositions,” and Kandinsky—in Composition VII—painted an extremely “cacophonous” scene. Though the forms here are all but unrecognizable (scholars have read certain of Kandinsky’s canvases as apocalyptic scenes with abstract imagery culled from the Book of Revelations), the artist communicates clamor (again, one has to reach for sound as an analogy!), conflict, and violent energies through his manipulation of form and color separated from objective reality.
This connection between modern art and music was not lost on the Cubists, who regularly included guitars, pianos, and violins in their compositions (Georges Braque’s Homage to J.S. Bach comes to mind), or the Futurists or Dadaists who followed them, for that matter. However, initially, the Cubist analysis of form came directly from Pablo Picasso and Braque’s study of Cézanne. A comparison between The Large Bathers and Picasso’s pre-Cubist period Family of Saltimbanques makes that visual debt immediately apparent through Picasso’s choice of palette, his handling of paint, and construction of forms through small, rough brushstrokes.
By the time he painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon), however, Picasso had clearly pushed beyond Cézanne’s experimentation into a new visual idiom. Though he included a clever reference to the older artist’s penchant for painting off-kilter still lifes from multiple perspectives (the small arrangement of fruit not-quite-sitting in their crescent-shaped bowl on an awkwardly jutting table at the foot of the canvas), Picasso shattered Cézanne’s unified composition into hard-edged facets. This is how, for example, it is possible to see the women he represented both frontally and in profile. It was this unique style—emphasizing the hard geometry underlying Picasso’s form—that caused critics to refer to the new painting style as Cubism. Several of the women’s faces are also replaced with or modeled on African masks that Picasso saw on display in ethnographic museums, indicating his own use of Primitivism to find new forms of expression and to divorce his modern art from the Western artistic tradition.
The visual innovations of Cubism and Expressionism catalyzed artists across Europe who sought to express the modern age in their art. In Italy (and later, Russia), Futurism embraced modernity, specifically seeking to incorporate advances from science and industry into their multifaceted production. The “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” published by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909 (after a life-changing event wherein he ran his car off the road and flipped it into a ditch) was the first in a series of dynamic, combative, and incendiary texts published by the movement’s artists, who moved into a vast array of artistic media: literature, theater and set design, painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, photography, toymaking, clothing, film, and so on. Their bellicose rhetoric and celebration of the modern machine did not stop on the artistic level, either; the Futurists cried loudly for Italy’s intervention in the first modern, mechanical war (World War I), and most of the original coterie of Futurist artists fought for the Italian Army. Sadly, two of the most important early Futurists (Umberto Boccioni and Antonio Sant’Elia) died as a result of their involvement.
Before his death in 1916, Boccioni was perhaps the most influential artist in the movement, as a painter, sculptor, and writer who largely penned the “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting” in 1910. Simultaneous Visions encapsulates many of the major themes of Futurism. Spurred on by the maddening pace of modern life, the Futurists believed in the concept of simultaneity: that time happened all at once, rather than as a series of discrete moments, and that forms—as a result—were also unbound, interpenetrating and exerting force on each other. Here, a woman looks from a staggering height off of her balcony onto the city street below. The street and its commotion, indicated by force lines that slice across the canvas, belong spatially to the balcony; meanwhile, the woman’s face, repeated frontally and hovering over the buildings across the street, belongs spatially to the street. This radical handling of perspective and the dynamism it creates is analogous in Futurist thought to the velocity of everyday life and was often compared to the telescoping whirr at the corners of one’s vision when they rode in a car, train, or airplane.
Boccioni also wrote the “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture” in 1912, in which he declared that a sculpted object, far from a discrete whole, must incorporate all those elements of its environment that act upon it. His Unique Forms of Continuity in Space attempted to do exactly that, showing the development of a figure striding in forward motion. Though the upright figure has powerful legs that cut the air, creating swirling vortexes, its face and chest are largely caved in, suggesting the forces resisting its progress. Was Unique Forms an allegory for Italy’s quest to define itself as a modern nation? Was it a modern man-machine, ready to leap into battle? Was it, as Boccioni suggested, a response to Marinetti’s claim that a roaring car engine was as beautiful as the Nike of Samothrace? Whatever the case, the iconic sculpture has become one of Italy’s most celebrated modern works, even appearing (as the result of a popular phone-in vote!) on the country’s version of the twenty-Eurocent coin since 2002.
Dada arrived on the European scene in 1916 at a small nightclub called the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, Switzerland. The artists who met there were largely pacifists who relocated to the neutral country during World War I, and their uproarious, playful, and iconoclastic performances (indeed, Dada is often referred to as an “anti-art” movement) laid heavy criticism on the bourgeois society and economic forces they blamed for the war. While it embraced modern art, then—Cubist and Expressionist paintings were exhibited at the Cabaret Voltaire, and Futurist sound poems and manifestos were declaimed—Dada agitated for the destruction of the commercial art institution, using performance to create art that could not be commodified. Dada stood for an embrace of the irrational and original versus traditional concepts of reason and tradition.
Hugo Ball’s Performance of the sound poem Karawane exemplifies this bent. The performance occurred in 1916 and is known by photographs and reproductions of Ball’s poem. Written in a nonsense language meant to mimic certain African dialects (an unfortunately racist, if well-intentioned attempt to reach for inspiration beyond the Western canon), Ball created Karawane to be spoken aloud rather than read silently, and he thus emphasized the phonetic qualities of the words rather than their meaning. In the photograph, he stands wearing a “Cubist” costume, with a cylinder around his torso, another atop his head, a conical wrap around his shoulders, and a pair of bizarre angular gloves lengthening his fingertips. His performance of Karawane, then, should be read as much as a celebration of modern art as it is a takedown of the hallowed Western intellectual bastion of reason, which—for the Dada group—was not worth much, when it ultimately created machine guns, tanks, bombs, and other devices to more efficiently kill millions in a devastating war.
As an idea, Dada spread quickly, spawning factions across the globe. Marcel Duchamp was an artist whose work was closely associated with Dada who worked between Paris and New York. His artistic maneuvers—often meant to directly question the most basic assumptions of art itself—placed him among the most important artists of the twentieth century. Perhaps his best-known work is his Fountain, which caused an enormous controversy upon its “creation.” In 1917, Duchamp purchased a urinal from a hardware store, signed it “R. Mutt 1917,” and submitted it to the Society of Independent Artists’ annual exhibition. Though the committee for the exhibition claimed that it would accept and show all properly submitted works, they rejected Duchamp’s Fountain, causing an uproar in the artistic community.
The committee’s verdict rode largely upon the fact that Duchamp did not manufacture the work himself. Duchamp, who had been producing “readymade” works of art since 1914 by repurposing existing objects, claimed that the urinal was art, and he was supported by an anonymous editorial that was circulated at the time that read:
“Whether Mr Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object.”
Duchamp’s intervention became the fountainhead for a number of important questions regarding the status of art itself. What is a work of art? Who gets to decide? If the artist gets to decide what a work of art is, then is choosing a work of art significantly different than creating it? Can an idea—not an object—be a work of art? In raising these questions, Duchamp generated the idea of conceptual art, which didn’t require any evidence of the artist’s making. This opened the floodgates of what could be considered “art” to a staggering degree.
At the End of Class...
Smarthistory on Global Culture