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How would you describe the impact of the First World War on Modernist visual practices?
The aesthetic phenomenon of Modernism, wide-reaching as that term is, can be historically defined as a period that began around 1860, with Manet generally accepted as the first Modernist painter, and came to an end around 1940 – although the murky cross-over between modernism and post-modernism, and the ubiquitous nature of both terms, means that some historians see Modernism stretching to the 1970s.
The term applies retrospectively to a wide range of movements, including Futurism, Dada and Cubism, which broadly sought to distance themselves from the values and stylistics of Classicism. In a general aesthetic sense, modern art is often concerned with essential properties of the potential of colour and flatness, and over time a fading interest in subject matter can be witnessed. In fact, in a more specific sense, Modernism can be seen to refer not just to a style or styles of art, but to the philosophy of art as well.
From a historical viewpoint, Modernism can be seen as the reaction of art – at least of the progressive artist – to the post-industrial world, a world in which the machine came to be as prominent and ubiquitous as man, and indeed it was in the largest European metropolises, where the tensions of social modernity were most prominent, that the earliest incarnations of Modernism in art appeared.
However Modernism is a wide and watered down term, associated with a myriad of differing, and often opposing movements. What draws them together is that they respond to the same situations of the modern world, of the industrialisation of society and the cataclysmic watershed of the First World War.
Christopher Witcombe talks of the period of enlightenment in the 18th century, which preceded the advent of Modernism:
“Progressive 18th-century thinkers believed that the lot of humankind would be greatly improved through the process enlightenment, from being shown the truth. With reason and truth in hand, the individual would no longer be at the mercy of religious and secular authorities which had constructed their own truths and manipulated them to their own self-serving ends. At the root of this thinking is the belief in the perfectibility of humankind.”
According to Witcombe, the roots of modernism lie in the ideals of the Enlightenment, and this is where we can see the new roles of the artist begin to take shape. Essentially, the overarching goal of Modernism, of modern art, has been “the creation of a better society”. But as we shall see, the moralistic idealism of the Enlightenment was not the preferred form for the Modernist movement, which was dragged through the mill of the industrial revolution, and, following hot on its heels, the First World War. There was a sense from the conservative modernists that the way forward was to be guided by existing institutions. The progressives, on the other hand were “critical of institutions as restrictive of individual liberty”.
In the 20th century, progressive modernism was thrust into the spotlight, leaving conservative modernism in its wake, with many people sceptical of its artistic merits. The conservative painters of the 19th century attempted to reflect and exemplify a kind of moral Christian virtue, and believed this to be a vital contribution from art to society – the representation of a model of social values to which everyone could aim. Conservative modernism, however, was looked down upon by progressives as an unambitious celebration of the values of the ruling class. Art, progressives argued, should be forward thinking, challenging, as well as socially responsible, whilst conservatives offered little more than a rosy re-hashing of the sepia past.
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So whilst the conservatives wished to continue existing institutions and favoured a gradual development, progressives criticised ruling institutions and searched for radical upheaval.
In the first 10 years of the 20th century, a rapidly escalating political tension and a distrust of and anger toward the social order began to permeate much of European society. The socio-political evidence of this lies in the Russian Revolution and the prominence all over Europe of aggressive radicals. In the art community, this growing unease can be seen in the trend toward a radical simplification of previous stylistics, and in some cases, complete rejection of previous practice. Young painters such as Matisse and Picasso began to cause shockwaves with their embracing of non-traditional perspectives, a re-hauling of the rules of representation as an aesthetic theme, taking risks that even the Impressionists had not dared. At the heart of this new movement was an affection for disruption, and a progression away from Realism, and this began to give a new dimension to the term Modernism.
Progressive Modernism was thrust into the spotlight, leaving conservative modernism in its wake, with many people sceptical of its artistic merits. The conservative painters of the 19th century attempted to reflect and exemplify a kind of moral Christian virtue, and believed this to be a vital contribution from art to society – the representation of a model of social values to which everyone could aim. Conservative modernism, however, was looked down upon by progressives as an unambitious celebration of the values of the ruling class. Art, progressives argued, should be forward thinking, challenging, as well as socially responsible, whilst conservatives offered little more than a rosy re-hashing of the sepia past.
So whilst the conservatives wished to continue existing institutions and favoured a gradual development, progressives criticised ruling institutions and searched for radical upheaval. Whereas painters like Turner had been respected members of society’s greatest intelligentsia, seen as contributors to the greater good of society, the progressive Modernist saw the deification of traditional values and social structures as stifling, and therefore the artist took on a new persona, that of the righteous revolutionary, and we can see an example of this in the movement known as Futurism, a movement which had its own self-styled manifesto, published in Le Figaro, in an attempt to provoke, incite, and recruit the like-minded.
Futurism, like much of 20th century Modernism, was based upon a rejection of the past, and this attitude came to the fore with progressives with the advent of World War One – which represented a cataclysmic failure of the conservative ideals of tradition. For many progressives, the Great War presented an almighty coming together of man and machine in the most morbid possible way, a futile mechanised massacre, which contrasted bitterly with the Modernist treatment of the role of the machine in beauty, and its faith in technology. This was clearly not the way to a healthier society. It has been said that World War One marked the failure of modern art, and a watershed for the emergence of the post-modern.
The artistic community took it upon itself to lead the way, as it were, in the post-war society, given the catastrophic failure of many public institutions. After the war, there grew a kind of social vacuum, a sense that there was a lack of people and institutions to believe in. Many artists felt that it was therefore the responsibility of art to orient the collective social aspiration, to shape a new spirit in the wake of such destruction, and the delegitimisation of so many hopes and values. In this way, the Modernist art of the post-war era was at once ultimately moral, hopeful, and rooted in a deep social conscience, but also vividly subversive and challenging in its (many) aesthetic forms – like the best art, the best music, and the best literature, its moral heart lay in its readiness to challenge and confront the spectator.
Characterised deeply by the residing antagonism of the industrial revolution, there came about a kind of collective conviction that traditions, institutions, and social frameworks were not perpetual, but rather that they were open to continuing re-evaluation and subjugation, and this attitude can be witnessed in Tristan Tzara’s movement Dada, which gave perhaps the most radical voice to the post-war Modernist. The Dadaists were not content to simply ‘make art’, they wanted to affect all corners of society, to take part in the revolutionary changes which were the inevitable result of the chaos after the War. The aims of the artist became to negate all social and aesthetic traditions, to make every work a new and marginal expression, and better to be bitterly divisive than quietly dormant. Moreover, every artistic manifestation was a form of didactic interaction with social and historical change.
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So the First World War represented a huge failure of the previous status quo, culminating in the most excruciating and fruitless deaths of millions across the world. A generation of young artists had witnessed men and boys, many at first-hand, perish defending slivers of earth. Machine warfare had become an accepted horror of reality: the dubious honours of war – valour, courage, and heroism, had been sourly debased by the impersonal brutality of the tank and the machine gun. In the face of such fundamentally unthinkable horror, the funds of Realism seemed to be empty, and the view that the human race had been steadily climbing some moral ladder toward enlightenment became utterly banal. As Christopher Witcombe says, “The First World War, at once, fused the harshly mechanical geometric rationality of technology, with the nightmarish irrationality of myth”.
And so in the 1920s and onward, Modernism became one of the defining movements of the era, whereas before it had been mostly a minority taste, its luminaries more heard of than heard. As a result of its new found prominence, the mood shifted towards a replacement of the older status quo with a base of new methods. Modernism began to reach prominence in Europe in such pertinent movements as Dada and Surrealism. The tendency under the umbrella of Modernism became to form separate “movements” and develop systems separate to each other – aside from Dada there was the “International style” of Bauhaus and Socialist Realism. By the 1930s, Modernism had entered the Jazz Age, and labels such as “modern” or “hyper-modern” began to proliferate, and the term Modernism began to lose its resonance, like butter scraped across too much toast.
After World War Two, consumer culture became the focus of the Modernist artist, as the focus shifted from the graphic, morbid horrors of the two Wars to the more palettable horrors of the popular culture invasion, and the aesthetic outrage of post-war modernism came to be replaced by an aesthetic of sanction. This combination of consumer and modernist cultures led to a total overhaul of the meaning of the term modernism, and can be seen as the beginning of the contemporary form of Postmodernism, replete with its self-referential fixation – as the lines between elite culture and consumer culture had become blurred, and a movement based on the rejection of tradition had become a tradition itself.
- Arnason, H. H., History of Modern Art New York: Harry N. Abrams, 4th edition, 1998
- Atkins, Robert. ArtSpoke: A Guide to Modern Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1848-1944. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993
- Chipp, Herschel B. Theories of Modern Art Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968 and 1989
- Malcolm Bradbury, Modernism 1890-1930, London: Penguin, 1991
- Christopher Witcombe, What is Art?, http://witcombe.sbc.edu/modernism/artsake.html, 2000
 Christopher Witcombe, What is Art?, http://witcombe.sbc.edu/modernism/artsake.html, 2000
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