I had heard the term “modern art” being used to describe, more often than not, abstract art. Thus, in my head, art that focused on colors, textures, and shapes, rather than accurate depiction, was considered modern art. However, that’s not the whole story; it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Modern art forms a part of a much larger cultural movement that dates back to the twentieth-century – Modernism. As the word suggests, Modernism took shape around the belief in the progress of society and was a revolt against the traditional values of realism. It was based on a ‘utopian vision’ of society that arose from the extensive changes taking place in Western society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Put on your top hats and bowler hats as we visit the late 1800s.
It’s 1859, and Charles Darwin has published his book, “On the Origin of Species”, that talks about how ‘organisms evolve with changes in heritable traits’, i.e. the theory of natural selection. You come across this book and you start to question the certainty of religious beliefs. Not long before this, Karl Marx wrote “The Communist Manifesto” that threw the spotlight on to the conflicts present within the capitalist system, and introduced the concept of socialism. Now, you may not agree with all that these thinkers had to say, not everyone did; but they made you think, and question the “mottos” of the past. And that is what formed the basis of Modernism. The “modernists” rejected the religious and moral codes existing not because they did not believe in God, but rather because they found the rules to be arbitrary, restrictive, and controlling of human feelings. They planned to reshape and create a new environment with the help of new-found knowledge and free from past baggage.
By 1900, the world had been exposed to several inventions and technological wonders – the combustion engine, the automobile, the x-ray, the radio, the airplane, and more. This advancement in technology meant that the world was constantly evolving and was considered to be the key to a utopian world. However, this was not the only basis for Modernism. There was also a change in the way humans perceived the external world. F.H. Bradley, a British philosopher, refuted the ‘Newtonian principle’ that reality is absolute, irrespective of the observer. He defined the identity of objects as “the view the onlooker takes of it”. This is also held up by Albert Einstein’s ‘theory of relativity’, which states that “there is no such thing as universal time and thus experience runs very differently from man to man”. In addition to this, philosophers and psychologists worked on understanding the human psyche. For instance, Carl Jung’s Theory of the Collective Unconscious talked about certain universal patterns of behavior that are determined by race, and are expressed in myths, fairy tales, etc. Similarly, Henry Bergson contrasted the concept of chronological time (as measured by clocks) with that of lived time. The notion behind how an old song can trigger a memory and let us re-experience the past was given by Bergson’s Time and Free Will.
It wasn’t just thinkers and scientists, but writers and artists too, who broke away from the traditional ways of their fields during Modernism. Owing to the dynamic technology and exposure to fresh takes on reality and consciousness, artists of the twentieth century explored various “isms” – impressionism, fauvism, expressionism, cubism, futurism, surrealism, etc. Art was no longer limited to the literal representation of objects but expressed the artists’ perception. The First World War also furthered the cause of Modernism as people wanted to either forget or at least re-interpret history. The focus was shifted to the basic elements of art and design. Clause Monet’s Water Lilies focused on capturing the movement of water and reflection of light (Impressionism); Georges Braque (Violin and Candlestick) and Pablo Picasso (Girl with Mandolin) emphasized the two-dimensional surfaces, ignoring the traditional practice of perspective (Cubism); the works of Vincent van Gogh (The Starry Night) and Edvard Munch (The Scream) explored the expressive qualities of colors and lines and broke away from the plain depiction of nature (Expressionism).
By the 1930s, Modernism was flourishing. Theatre, books, and architecture, all served to establish the idea that the world was evolving. Modernism touched its peak with Abstract Expressionism, which can be characterized as arbitrary paint splashes on large canvasses. Jackson Pollack’s process of using imagery and non-imagery through the method of dripping paint onto stretched canvas, staining and brushing, crossed any prior boundaries in the world of art. However, the factor that gave birth to Modernism, was also the most controversial aspect of it. Modernism’s rejection of tradition and focus on freedom of expression ended up alienating a majority of the public. Thus, from the 1960s, the way we defined “modernism” changed. It was replaced with “Postmodernism” that restructured modernism and adopted an objective approach, leaving behind the subjectivity built in the Modernism period.
Although Modernism was short-lived, we can experience its effect on society to date. The architecture of the buildings we live in, the chairs we sit on and the graphic designs that have become so popular, all are the products of Modernist ideology. Modernist architects looked to industrialize the construction process and focus on affordable housing (need of the hour during wars), which led to steel, concrete, and glass being put to use in all the buildings of the future. Moreover, the works of artists of the Modernism period still hold a place in today’s world; the art, the literature, the music. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway are a few of the landmark works of modernist literature. And to quote an example of Modernism showing up in recent times – Money Heist. The Salvador Dali masks, which have formed an iconic part of the Spanish series, serve as a symbol of resistance; much like Dali’s Surrealist art that strived to disrupt the norm. Thus, there is no denying that Modernism was one of the most influential movements of the twentieth century.