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.

Background Readings

Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers, 1906.


There are several general surveys that are good as textbooks for large portions of the material at hand, but the most widely accepted are:

  • For a general, all-purpose textbook: H.H. Arnason and Elizabeth Mansfield, History of Modern Art, 7th Ed. (New York: Pearson, 2012).
  • For modern American art: Wayne Craven, American Art: History and Culture, Revised 1st Ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002) or the exhibition catalog David Anfam, American Art in the Twentieth Century (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1993).

Given Modernism’s penchant for short-lived movements preceded by manifestos that expressed their unique aims, Mary Ann Caws’s Manifesto: A Century of Isms (Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 2000) may be a useful source if you would like to have students read such groundbreaking works as the “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,” any of Tristan Tzara’s excellent Dada manifestos, or André Breton’s Surrealist manifestos.

Web resources:

For modern art, The Art is a site that provides matter-of-fact information on a large number of European and U.S. artists during the time period covered by this lecture.

There are also a number of museum websites that provide excellent support for the study of modern art, including, but not limited to:

Content Suggestions

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.


Piet Mondrian, Lozenge Composition with Red, Gray, Blue, Yellow, and Black, 1925.

The Second Wave: Art Between the Wars

World War I had a devastating effect on Europe and on the psyches of every man, woman, and child that it reached. In the arts, there was a decided shift following World War I toward concepts of order, harmony, and beauty to counteract the chaos, division, and ugliness of the war machine. One reason was reconstruction: the trench warfare and artillery shelling of the world’s first modern war truly carved up the European landscape, and recovery efforts required a certain amount of organization. Another was reconciliation: Europe needed to come together and heal after the war, rather than slipping into factions based on wartime alignments. If links could be made, say, to a shared Greco-Roman past (exemplified artistically in notions of order, proportion, and beauty), then that might enable Europeans to see each other once more on common ground.

A third reason could be described as follows to really drive the point home for students: after witnessing 16,000,000 deaths (and 20,000,000 more wounded and disfigured), some early abstractionists deemed it inhumane—even barbaric—to represent the human body as distorted or fragmented in the way that prewar Cubism and Expressionism did. Indeed, there was even a feeling among a small set of intellectuals that World War I was something akin to divine punishment for the decadence of modernity, and that abstraction in the arts was symptomatic of that decadence. Ultimately, all of this pointed to a trend toward order in the interwar period.

Purism is an excellent place to start in outlining this shift. Amédée Ozenfant and Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (later known as Le Corbusier) published the Purist manifesto “Après le cubisme” (“After Cubism”) in 1918, declaring the earlier abstract movement dead and championing stability and inherent order in their art. Jeanneret’s Still Life is a case in point. While every bit as modern as a Cubist canvas (there is no true attempt at naturalism, but instead, a hard-edged abstraction built on solid, geometric forms), there is still a “cleaning-up” that occurs in Jeanneret’s painting that mitigates the confusion and chaos of the more formally challenging Cubism.

Indeed, many of the more radical artists of the prewar period experienced something of a crisis in addressing abstraction after WWI. This formally retrograde movement within prewar avant-garde circles has been referred to as the Return to Order. Without belaboring the point, it is nonetheless instructive and effective to show two works by the Italian Futurist Gino Severini and two by Picasso that indicate the modified stakes in their art before and after the war. Armored Train by Severini is an absolute celebration of the war machine painted soon after Italy’s engagement. The surging, upright (perhaps even transcendent?) form of the train carrying soldiers firing rifles is painted in a host of pastel colors that aestheticize the bravery and violence of combat. Two Pierrots, painted in the aftermath of the conflict, shows Severini at an about-face, painting a naturalistic portrait of two actors from the Commedia dell’Arte theatrical troupe, which began in Italy in the seventeenth century. Picasso’s Three Women at a Spring, seen in comparison to his earlier Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (above) is striking in the geometrically underpinned solidity of its figures, with their powerful, column-like legs (note the “fluting” created by their Roman-style gowns) and stable poses. While it should be noted that Picasso continued to paint in a Cubist style during these years alongside paintings like Three Women, he was nevertheless influenced and affected by the Return to Order.

This is not to say, however, that all attempts at postwar organization and harmony were retreats. Some of the most radical abstraction that Modernism featured was also built around principles of simplicity, order, and functionality. Neoplasticism, also known as De Stijl (“The Style”), began in the Netherlands in 1917 as an attempt to reach universal principles in art by reducing it to its most essential means of form and color. Piet Mondrian’s Lozenge Composition with Red, Gray, Yellow, Blue, and Black, for example, limits itself to horizontal and vertical lines; primary colors; and white, gray, and black: the absence and presence of certain amounts of pigment. By working within these most basic parameters, Mondrian’s work resists recognizable imagery, which always necessarily carries varying meaning based on the culture that produces it. Due to its simple geometry and balance, Neoplasticism was able to move easily from painting into the realms of design and architecture. Indeed, the diamond orientation of Mondrian’s Lozenge Composition causes his horizontal and vertical lines to end in diagonal breaks at the end of the canvas. As there is no frame around the painting, the eye tends to “complete” the dynamic black diagonals by continuing them onto the wall upon which the canvas is mounted. In creating this visual effect, Mondrian essentially created a small painting that nevertheless conditions our experience of an entire wall; beyond its highbrow universal aims, then, this painting cleverly crosses a boundary into practical and functional interior design.

Due to certain similarities between the two, Neoplasticism came into close contact with Constructivism in the 1920s. Constructivism is usually divided into two camps—Russian and International—with Russian remaining politically tethered to social purpose and the ideals of the Soviet Revolution of 1917, and International “freeing” itself to focus more on formal innovation. Despite their differences, all Constructivist art was made possible by new, industrial forms and materials, and that necessary materialism led to geometric forms and an idea that the artist should also be an engineer, constructing a new and radical modern world. El Lissitzky’s self-portrait, The Constructor, perfectly delineates the role of the artist-engineer. First, Lissitzky shows his competency in a host of artistic media: photography and photomontage, technical drawing, typography, and—implied by the compass—architecture. His superimposition of his eye onto the center of his hand indicates the artist’s eye that sees wed to the engineer’s hand that creates. Notably, when Lissitzky “signs” his work, it is in a legible, regularized modern typeface rather than as an ostentatious physical trace of his handwriting. Lissitzky’s self-portrait suggests that the art and society of the future will be one designed by the modern, rational engineer rather than the traditional “genius” artist.

Showing a photograph from the 1922 International Congress of Constructivists and Dadaists in Weimar, Germany is an easy and effective way to explain the truly international spirit of collaboration that took place in the arts during the interwar period. The silliness of seeing these groundbreaking artists hamming it up for the camera also breathes life into their pursuits, showing them as fun-loving individuals in an exciting artistic moment rather than stuffy thinkers working laboriously in studios.

It also provides a wonderful chance to develop the Bauhaus (1919–33) as an influential and essential player in the interwar period. Built on the influences of Expressionism, Neoplasticism, and Constructivism (among others), the Bauhaus was a revolutionary new take on the traditional art school model, bringing the fine arts (painting, sculpture, architecture) and the applied arts (typically, design fields like furniture, stained glass, woodworking, printmaking, and so on) under one roof and one curriculum. Later in its tenure, the original mission statement of art and craft changed to art and technology, as the Bauhaus geared itself more toward industrial production of its modern designs. The “ultimate” work of Bauhaus art, perhaps, is actually the building designed to house it in Dessau from 1925 to 1926 by its first director, Walter Gropius. [Amy Raffel discusses the Dessau Bauhaus in her excellent lecture on Architecture Since 1900.]

A Poster for a Bauhaus Exhibition by Herbert Bayer from 1923 shows how Bauhaus design elements translated into the graphic arts like poster-making. Like the works by Mondrian or Lissitzky, Bayer’s poster incorporated geometric forms (triangles, circles, squares, and regular lines in right angles) to create a dynamic new method of expression that could be easily reproduced and disseminated. Though Bayer experimented with many different font types in his poster, each is bold, regular and legible. Limiting his palette to few colors (again, like Mondrian or Lissitzky might have), Bayer made a bold, attention-grabbing statement with his modern poster design.

The Bauhaus is perhaps best known, though, for the actual products that it produced in its design studio. Marcel Breuer’s “Wassily” Chair, named after painter and eventual Bauhaus professor Wassily Kandinsky (above), used factory-produced tubular steel and canvas to create a sparse-looking but comfortable modern seat. Influenced by the geometry of Neoplasticism and the functionality and industrial bent of Constructivism, Breuer’s famous piece of furniture exemplifies the Bauhaus’s goal of simple, modern, and aesthetically pleasing design. An easy present-day comparison that students might easily wrap their heads around is Ikea, which makes functional, streamlined, artfully designed objects available for public consumption.

One last major avant-garde movement of the interwar period was Surrealism, whose adherents rejected the notions of order and beauty supported above. For the Surrealists, who claimed heritage in the prewar Dada movement, it was exactly that dogged adherence to rationality that had led humanity on an unending pursuit of progress. Following the philosophical concepts of psychologists like Freud, Surrealism claimed precedence for the irrational, for chance, for the uncanny, and for the unconscious. Following Freud’s pronouncement that the unconscious mind was the seat of artistic creativity, the Surrealists sought out to connect with it, whether through automatism (creating without the use of the conscious mind) or the interpretation of dreams (where the unconscious mind, it could be argued, creates on its own time).

Battle of Fishes by André Masson is an example of automatism in drawing and painting. Masson began by splashing and adhesive gesso across his canvas, then sprinkling sand on it to see where it would stick; this integrated a (relatively) uncontrolled element of chance into the work. Working from the forms created by the sand, Masson quickly—and as absentmindedly as possible—doodled drawings on the rest of the canvas, also occasionally applying paint directly from the tube. The unplanned image that emerged was one that Masson read as a violent struggle between two fanged sea beasts. Having fought in World War I and having seen the widespread destruction of French soil, Masson claimed this work sprang from his unconscious mind with the universal truth that nature, left to its own devices, will ultimately reveal the barbarism and nastiness of life.

Indeed, barbarism would be the order of the 1930s. The Bauhaus closed in 1933 under pressure from the Nazis, who objected to the school’s liberalism (it was, at its conception, a decidedly Socialist institution). And indeed, an unfortunate truth of the 1930s is that the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy, Stalin’s declaration against avant-garde art in Soviet Russia in 1932, and the occupation of France by Germany in World War II led to a significant shutdown in artistic activity.

An effective way to explain this succinctly to students is to briefly discuss a postcard depicting the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. Centered around the iconic Eiffel Tower, the postcard shows the German Pavilion on the left (designed by the Third Reich’s main architect, Albert Speer), across from the Soviet Pavilion on the right (helmed by figures of a male proletarian worker and female communal farmer holding a hammer and sickle, respectively). The Constructivist-inspired Soviet Pavilion seems to hurl itself at the Neoclassically inspired German pillar, as the two countries were wary competitors at the moment. Legendarily, Speer paid off a low-level bureaucrat at the World’s Fair to find out how tall the Soviet building intended to be, such that he could ensure that the German Pavilion would be taller. All of this suggests that the countries of Europe were very clear as early as 1937 that a major conflict was imminent.

On this slide in the Slideshow (below), the text below the postcard is a hyperlink to a one-minute promotional video from the World’s Fair that contains extremely powerful imagery that is very effective in driving home the importance of political allegiances at the time and their effect on the art world. A brief shot of the Nazi flag flapping in front of the Eiffel Tower is a harrowing reminder of the French occupation.

And when the video’s narrative of the German and Soviet participation stops long enough for a segment on the low-lying, unassuming Spanish Pavilion, a very poignant moment occurs. The camera pans across Picasso’s Guernica, which was a mural-sized Cubist-Surrealist work commissioned by the Spanish Republican government during the Spanish Civil War. The tiny town of Guernica in the Basque section of Northern Spain had been catastrophically bombed by German and Italian airplanes at the behest of Spanish Nationalist leader Francisco Franco in 1936. The fact that none of this is stated in the video—the silence itself—is telling.

While the video is a time capsule that serves to explain the stakes of the international showdown of WWII, Guernica itself is a powerful antiwar image that might stand here for the powerful international network of propagandistic art during WWII. While students will recognize the Cubist aspects of the work from Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, it should be pointed out that Picasso also used certain biomorphic (resembling living forms) shapes that recall Masson’s automatic images. Indeed, a major piece of Surrealist iconography (one with which Masson would have agreed) was the Minotaur of Greek mythology. Half-human, half-bull, the Minotaur signified for the Surrealists the dual nature of Man as both higher being of reason and instinctive animal. The bull’s head, then, at the left of Guernica‘s sweeping scene of wreckage, alludes to man’s destructive nature, which leaves bodies broken, children dead, and women crying.

Georgia O’Keeffe, City Night, 1926.

Across the Atlantic

Unfortunately, it is not particularly easy to integrate the modern art of the United States into a chronological discussion of European movements, given the entirely different host of historical and sociocultural factors that influenced each. Though certain U.S. artists traveled across the Atlantic Ocean (and vice versa), Modernism took a bit longer to “land” in the U.S. among artists, critics, and the viewing public. There were, however, a number of movements in the U.S. that embraced modernity in the arts, and the country’s economic superiority in the aftermath of WWII (among other things) led to New York City supplanting Paris as the unofficial capital of the Western art world in the postwar period. Though the host of U.S. artists could be fodder for their own lecture, a handful of examples will give students a grasp of major trends.

The states’ first twentieth-century avant-garde movement was the Ashcan School, a cluster of artists trained in Realism whose work often resembles a gritty variant of Impressionism. Where Impressionism celebrated the modern Paris, Ashcan painters tended toward a more Realist depiction of the diverse avenues, storefronts, apartments, and neighborhoods of modern New York City. George Bellows’s Cliff Dwellers is exemplary of this movement’s style and subject matter. Rendered in an impressionistic style with a dark palette of browns, grays, and blacks, Cliff Dwellers offered a glimpse into New York City’s Lower East Side, where European immigrant families lived on the outskirts of the great metropolis. Though the avenue is packed with bodies, and the title of the work implies that these people live on a sort of precipice, Bellows doesn’t stereotype or sentimentalize his figures, giving an honest portrayal of the conditions of lower-class life and suggesting both overcrowding and vitality in his lively canvas.

If Ashcan artists were the U.S.’s first homegrown modern movement, the so-called Stieglitz Circle (a group centered around photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz) was one that actively courted European styles in art. Stieglitz, who fought for photography to be esteemed among the fine arts rather than used for its documentary function, favored works that focused on formal qualities rather than subject matter. [For more on Stieglitz, see Beth Saunders’s excellent lecture on Twentieth-Century Photography.]

Georgia O’Keeffe’s City Night—like Cliff Dwellers—addresses modern New York City, but a comparison of the two shows a drastic difference in its treatment. Where Bellows reported on the relatable livelihood of the city’s ground-level inhabitants, O’Keeffe focused on the sterile linearity and ominous presence of the city’s emblematic skyscrapers. O’Keeffe, who famously left the vertical New York City skyline for the vast, horizontal expanses of the American southwest in her later years, expressed her discomfort with the cloying nature of the modern city in City Night, where the dark, manmade skyscrapers absorb all natural light, dwarfing the moon. If Bellows expressed interest in the scenes provided by the modern city (like, perhaps, Boccioni), O’Keeffe hinted at the alienation it created (like Kirchner). It is connections like these that will reveal to your students how important the modern city was thematically to early twentieth-century artists.

Two important movements in U.S. modernism collide in the work of Aaron Douglas. Douglas was a major artistic figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural blossoming of African-American influence that originated in New York City after World War I. Partly as a result of his prominence, he was invited to work on Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression. This commission resulted in the mural cycle Aspects of Negro Life, featuring several mural paintings representing social, historical, and cultural facets of African and African-American life.

The mural episode From Slavery through Reconstruction uses an abstract visual style in a fiery color palette to heighten the drama of the black experience in the United States. Near the left of Douglas’s wall, black slaves pick cotton, alluding not just to the hardships of African-American bondage, but also to the powerful, if forced contribution that African slaves made to the growth of the United States. While a figure near the right of the composition holds up a scroll with the Emancipation Proclamation that freed African-Americans from slavery during the American Civil War (emphasized by the concentric circles that radiate outward from it), hooded Ku Klux Klan members loom at the left margin, suggesting the terror tactics used by racists during the Reconstruction to threaten and oppress freed slaves. There are, however, hope and celebration in Douglas’s mural, as the powerful central figure points to a city on a hill: perhaps the White House, the Capitol building, or simply some other “promised land,” freed from bigotry, where African-Americans might find refuge. On the right, a jazz trumpeter plays triumphantly for an applauding crowd while a dancer accompanies, suggesting the flowering of African-American culture within the Harlem Renaissance itself. Indeed, the fact that this mural was commissioned by the federal government points to a recognition of the atrocities committed during the era of slavery and a continued push toward the inclusion of African-Americans in the political and cultural life of the nation.

Though these movements and their protagonists were valued internationally, the movement that momentarily positioned the U.S. as the center of the international avant-garde was Abstract Expressionism. The genesis of this “school” of artists was built upon a number of motivators. Many of its artists were influenced by the large-scale works of the Mexican mural movement and the WPA mural project that derived from it. The arrival of a large number of avant-garde artist-refugees from Nazi-occupied areas of Europe in the 1930s brought new techniques and philosophies. Additionally, the growing cultural milieu created by earlier New York City artists set the stage for this “next big thing.”

Jackson Pollock’s Full Fathom Five was one of his first “drip paintings,” for which he became perhaps the most famous artist of his time. His working process involved using brushes, sticks, and paint cans to dribble paint over the surface of a canvas stretched horizontally on the floor of his studio. Dubbed “all-over” painting, Pollock’s approach took abstraction to a level where the completed painting had no defined focal point, giving the eye liberty to travel across the skeins of paint he let fall onto his canvas. He learned these techniques in the experimental workshop of the Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros in 1936 as well as from the automatism of the French Surrealists, several of whom arrived in New York City just before World War II. Pushing painting to the limits of two-dimensionality and non-objectivity prescribed by earlier artists like Mondrian, Pollock and his cohorts imbued their canvases with psychological and emotional values, trying to reach something of a chaotic, primal human universality in the wake of WWII rather than the precise, orderly geometric universality of the pre-WWII avant-garde.

At the End of Class...

Tarsila do Amaral (Brazil), Antropofagia, 1929.

Condensing the heady rush of fifty years of modernity in art to an hour and fifteen minutes has surely forced you to leave out some valuable, game-changing artists, movements, or works. While there are some that could be addressed within Europe and the U.S. (Metaphysical Art, Suprematism, Neue Sachlichkeit, Vorticism, Berlin Dada, Orphism, American Regionalism, Precisionism, etc.), you could also have your students choose from a list of artists or movements from other parts of the world and write a short paper detailing some of the artists’ works and their contribution to their own movements, or how they might have manipulated, modified, adapted, or even subverted the aims of the original movements with which their work forms a dialog. While several “third-world” countries did not have the infrastructure in place for Modernism to catch on by 1950, Latin America has several options for exploration, and other parts of the world retained access to European and American currents:

  • Mexican Muralism
  • Antropofagia (Brazil)
  • Universal Constructivism (Uruguay)
  • Magical Realism, or Marvelous Realism (Latin America)
  • The “Progressives” (India)
  • the “Surrealist” works of Ai-Mitsu or other artists in Japan

Another post-class activity that can be very interesting is to prepare a number of slides that show the art of totalitarian regimes between World War I and World War II. This can allow students to truly understand the formal and historical significance of a freely created work like Picasso’s Guernica and helps to explain the stilted “official” work that was coming out of Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union during the interwar period. A Novecento work by Mario Sironi, or a Fascist-era Futurist work by Gerardo Dottori can give an idea of the classicizing and regime-supporting work created under Mussolini; a painting by Adolf Ziegler or a sculpture by Arno Breker will show Nazism’s backward turn to Neoclassicism; and a painting by Aleksandr Gerasimov or the sculpture Proletarian Worker and Collective Farm Girl by Vera Mukhina (the one surmounting the Soviet Pavilion on the 1937 World’s Fair postcard shown above) can be used to explain how—after 1932—Stalin decreed that only works of Socialist Realism would be allowed from Soviet artists. This should be very successful not only in demonstrating the cultural pitfalls of totalitarian regimes, but also in explaining the heightened political stakes of the interwar period, even in the world of fine art.

Finally, another way to teach this material is through exhibition history. The first half of the twentieth century is filled with momentous, groundbreaking exhibitions, from the Salon d’Automne of 1905 where Fauvism was unveiled to the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Germany in 1937 and beyond. Bruce Altshuler’s The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the Twentieth Century (New York: Harry Abrams, 1994) is an extremely readable and engaging text on this subject; having small groups of students present on each of the exhibitions would quite nearly communicate all the necessary information of this lecture without the professor saying a word.

Further Resources

Smarthistory on Global Culture

Jon Mann (author) is an Adjunct Lecturer at Lehman College, a Senior Contributor at Artsy, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice.

Amy Raffel (editor) is a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has a Master’s degree in Contemporary Art history from the Institute of Fine Arts (NYU) and has taught Introduction to Modern Art as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Lehman College since 2010. Currently, Amy is a genome contributor for Artsy and editor and contributor of Art History Teaching Resources.