Modernism in Art: Making it New
What is Modernism?
Modernism was an intellectual, cultural, and artistic movement characterised by a profound shift in creative thinking. Commonly thought of as beginning in the mid 19th Century, it was a response to the rapid societal changes brought about by industrialisation, urbanisation, and the tumultuous events of the 20th Century, including both World Wars. The principle around Modernism is perhaps best encapsulated by Ezra Pound’s famous dictum ‘Make it New’; it was a creative reinvention, a rejection of the old, established norms and an exploration of the new, the experimental, and the avant-garde. The aesthetic hallmarks of Modernism can be seen today in the works of many Unit London artists. For example, in the psychological portraiture of Ryan Hewett, the colour field works of Helen Beard, the pop compositions of Kristof Santy, and the Cubist inspired paintings of Heesoo Kim.
Core Principles of Modernism in art
- Rejection of Tradition: Modernism was a rebellion against the traditional artistic forms and values of the past. It rejected the aesthetic of realism, and the academic conventions that had governed art for centuries.
- Embrace of Innovation: Modernist artists championed innovation and new techniques. They sought to capture the essence of the rapidly changing world around them, using new materials and methods to do so.
- Exploration of Individualism: Modernism celebrated the individual artist’s unique perspective and voice, emphasising personal expression over conformity to established norms.
- Engagement with Social and Political Issues: Many Modernist artists engaged with the social and political issues of the time, using their art as a platform for commentary and critique. They often sought an aesthetic that was in some way aligned with the industrial present.
The Diverse Styles of Modernist Art
Modernist art is incredibly varied, encompassing a wide array of styles and movements. From Futurism to Dadaism, Bauhaus to Surrealism, each movement had its own unique visual language, material characteristics and intellectual goals. Some of the most prominent styles within Modernism include:
Fauvism emerged around 1905 and is often associated with artists like Henri Matisse and André Derain. Fauvist artworks are characterised by their bold, non-naturalistic use of colour and simplified forms. Key aspects of Fauvism include:
- Vibrant Colour Palette: Fauvist artists used vivid – often primary – colours, usually applied straight from the tube, to create intense emotional impact. They believed colour could evoke powerful feelings and sensations.
- Simplified Forms: Fauvists simplified shapes and figures, reducing them to their essential forms. This abstraction was a departure from traditional representation.
- Emotional Expression: Fauvism aimed to convey emotional intensity through colour and form rather than realistic representation. The non-representational works of Matisse, for example, are often described as psychologically charged, fizzing with emotive energy.
Cubism, pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque around 1907, is one of the most influential movements in Modernist art. Key features of Cubism include:
- Geometric Abstraction: Cubist artists broke down objects and subjects into geometric shapes, emphasising the use of cubes and other geometric forms. They presented multiple perspectives simultaneously in a single composition, challenging the viewer’s perception of reality.
- Analytic and Synthetic Phases: Cubism evolved through two phases – the Analytic phase, characterised by monochromatic palettes and complex fragmentation of subjects, and the Synthetic phase, where artists began to use collage, incorporating real-world materials like newspaper clippings and fabric in their work.
Expressionism emerged in Central Europe in the early 20th century, with artists like Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele. It’s mainly characterised by a focus on conveying raw and intense emotions. Key elements of Expressionism include:
- Emotional Intensity: Expressionist works often feature distorted and exaggerated figures, landscapes, and colours to convey heightened emotional states. This distortion aimed to reflect the inner turmoil of the human psyche.
- Subjectivity: Expressionism is deeply subjective, reflecting the artist’s inner thoughts and feelings. It often explores themes of anxiety, alienation, and the darker aspects of human existence. This focus on trauma, both personal and collective, is heavily linked to the wars in the first half of the 20th Century.
- Influence on Film and Literature: Expressionism had a significant impact on literature and film, with Expressionist themes and aesthetics being incorporated into German cinema – like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari – as well as the works of authors like Franz Kafka and Vladimir Nabokov.
Abstract Expressionism, which emerged in the 1940s in New York, is a distinctly American movement. Perhaps most associated with Jackson Pollock, Abstract Expressionism emphasised emotional and spontaneous feeling through non-representational compositions, and was seen as a particularly masculine form of artistic expression. However, this reading is being corrected over time as the works of Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner and others are increasingly revered. Key characteristics of Abstract Expressionism include:
- Gestural Brushwork: Abstract Expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning used dynamic and gestural brushwork, often employing techniques such as dripping and pouring paint onto the canvas.
- Emotional Release: These artists saw art as a means of personal catharsis and self-expression. Their works aimed to convey inner emotions and subconscious thoughts. For example, Pollock’s earliest memory was of his father urinating on a rock in the desert of Cody, Wyoming – a masculine vision that would go on to inform his work
- Two Major Styles: Abstract Expressionism can be divided into two major styles: Action Painting, characterised by energetic and gestural brushwork, and Color Field Painting, championed by Mark Rothko, known for its large, solid areas of colour that evoke deep emotional responses.
Pop Art emerged in the 1950s and reached its peak in the 1960s, primarily in the United States and the United Kingdom. It is characterised by its celebration of popular culture, consumerism, and everyday objects. Key aspects of Pop Art include:
- Celebration of Popular Culture: Pop artists, such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, drew inspiration from everyday consumer products, advertisements, and mass-produced items. They elevated these mundane objects to the status of high art.
- Use of Repetition: Repetition is a common feature in Pop Art. Artists often repeated images or motifs to emphasise the ubiquity of mass-produced goods in contemporary society. This repetition was also mirrored in the production of works; printing and editions began to take on a more central role in contemporary art.
- Bold and Vibrant Colours: Pop Art frequently employs bright and bold colours to capture the eye and make a statement. These colours are often used in flat, graphic compositions.
- Irony and Critique: While celebrating popular culture, Pop Art also contained an element of irony and critique. It was sardonic, questioning the role of mass media, consumerism, and celebrity culture in shaping society.
Minimalism emerged in the 1960s and is characterised by its simplicity, reduction of form, and emphasis on the purity of materials. It sought to strip art down to its essential elements. Key features of Minimalism include:
- Use of Space: Minimalist artworks often engage with the surrounding space, creating a sense of presence and interaction. They may be site-specific, taking into account the architecture and environment in which they are displayed.
- Purity of Materials: Minimalist artists prioritise the use of industrial materials, emphasising their inherent qualities. This results in works that feel raw, and free from ornamentation.
- Focus on Experience: Minimalism encourages viewers to engage with the artwork on a sensory and contemplative level, bringing installation art to the fore.
- Influence on Contemporary Design: Minimalism has had a significant impact on contemporary design, architecture, and even lifestyle choices. Its clean, functional aesthetic is evident in modern interior design and product design.
The Impact of Modernist Art
Modernist art had a profound and lasting impact on the world of art, culture, and society as a whole. Its influence can be charted when viewing the progress made around artistic freedom, cultural transformation, technology and globalisation. As we look back on the myriad of styles and movements that defined Modernism, we gain a deeper understanding of how this era of artistic exploration has shaped the world of art and culture, leaving an indelible mark on contemporary society.