Arts and Architecture

What is Modernism?
Answered by Kim Williamson
  • Kim Williamson

    Kim Williamson

  1. For many, understanding Modernism is difficult because the very definition is misleading:"modern artistic or literary philosophy and practice; especially: a self-conscious break with the past and a search for new forms of expression" [source: Merriam-Webster]. Using this definition, isn't modernism everything that's happening now in contemporary times?

    Thankfully, art critics have drawn a line in the sand, calling Modernism the period between around 1860-1970 with Post-Modernism following that. Now that the timeline is settled, what exactly is Modernism and what made it significant?

    Modernism is a movement that permeated many disciplines, including painting, sculpture, dance, music, literature and philosophy, and was influenced by politics, scientific and technological innovation, and the Industrial Revolution. The guiding principles of this movement were a break from old traditions, continual advancement and the fact that art should be valued for being art [source: National Gallery of Art]. Modernists celebrated the talents and abilities of mankind -- intelligence, creativity, radical thinking -- and didn't succumb to traditional limits [source: Tate].

    One of the earliest Modernist painters was Edouard Manet. Arriving on the art scene in between Realism and Impressionism, Manet painted what was before him; a perfect example is his "Olympia" (1863) in which he painted a French courtesan. This inflamed audiences, not only because of the subject matter but also because Manet painted her as she was -- bold, brash and unashamed. Predecessors would never have chosen this subject, but if they had, it would have been a lovely, classical nude. This is the first of many examples where artists broke from traditionally accepted standards.

    Impressionism came next, where artists were criticized for not painting actual subjects, but just impressions -- in reality, they were distinguishing between what we see visually versus how our brains process that stimuli, showing the impact scientific knowledge had on the arts [source: The Art Story]. With this, the floodgate of avant-garde movements broke loose and the "isms" poured forth. Post-Impressionism flattened space; Fauvism played fast and loose with color; and Cubism shattered traditional ideas of perspective. Artists took every opportunity to break free from accepted teachings and techniques. Dada is a great example of modernism. Affected by almost every avant-garde movement to come before it, Dada was so multi-faceted that even Dadaists couldn't agree with themselves. According to artist and author Steven Farthing, Dada was about freedom of expression and anti-leadership so it was an almost anything-goes philosophy on art.

    Some prolific artists of Modernism are Pablo Picasso, best known for Cubism, Salvador Dali, a surrealist painter, the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, Pointillist George Seurat, as well as artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Piet Mondrian, famous abstract artists from the latter half of Modernism.

    Given all the artists and styles of the movement -- and those mentioned are barely the tip of the iceberg -- it's easy to understand why Modernism is a continual subject of discussion and debate by art historians and critics. Basically, Modernism encompassed almost all of 20th-century art.

    But, Modernism was not just about painting. Architecture, literature, dance, sculpture, philosophy, music -- the list of disciplines influenced by Modernism is a lengthy one. When it came to tossing out tradition, nothing was immune. For example, Modernist Architecture saw the rise of international style in the 1930s. In this genre, architects used modern materials like steel, glass and concrete to create clean, stream-lined structures. These creations demonstrated the intelligence and progress of man [source: Paradis].

    Modernism describes a very diverse, vast collection of the arts and related disciplines, with each phase of the movement attempting to do something previous people had not.

    A museum employee walks up a stairway framed by Andy Warhol's cow wallpaper at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
    A museum employee walks up a stairway framed by Andy Warhol's cow wallpaper at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

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