Art historians consider that the ideology of modernity arose in response to the changing political, social and
cultural character of 19th century life. To examine modernity closer we have to address some key issues:
• The effects of increasing industrialisation and urbanisation on society.
• That the emergence of a new attitude and a startling new style of painting among artists.
• The universal accessibility of artwork.
The 19th century was a time of technological change, of increased mechanisation and automation. A sense
of optimism about the future and an embracing attitude to technology prevailed. With new advances came
the fantastic growth of cities throughout Western society. The pre-industrial rapidly gave way to a world of
urban and eventually suburban workers.
As new industries developed, people moved to the cities to secure employment. This caused social balances
to shift forming an immense new class, which Karl Marx called ‘the Proletariat’. Another shift came with
the enormous rise of urban shopkeepers, professionals, small business owners and other non-aristocratic
property owners. These people become the most dominant of the classes both economically and socially
and were known as the bourgeoisie.
As retailing expanded, the middle classes became the main consumers. Manufacturing industries began the
relentless exploitation of new techniques, such as electroplating, stamping and moulding. These techniques
combined with new materials, such as gutta percha, papier-mâché and cast iron, produced a wide range of
products that were imitations of more expensive artefacts that previously had remained exclusive to the
aristocracy. These products tended to be detailed and decorative. Designers such as William Morris in
Britain and Hermann Muthesius in Germany criticised the techniques and products for de-humanising the
craftsmen and placing too much emphasis on ornament rather than function. Muthesius in particular felt
that products should be recognised for positive characteristics of modernity, quality and aesthetic
By 1900 advertising agencies, firstly in America then Europe helped to stimulate consumer demand and
create products that were considered desirable. Everyday tastes could be revealed in mail order shopping
catalogues that date from 1872. Mail order companies provided a full range of domestic goods, furniture
and clothing in comprehensive illustrated books. This gave rural communities access to more fashionable
tastes found more commonly in urban areas. The simultaneous development of mechanised transport, and
advancement in communications not only ensured the success of mail order, but also linked cities around
the world. As a result the market for consumer products became more global. Some key inventions that
became fundamental to life in the new century available to the everyday customer included:
• Electric Lighting and domestic appliances
• The telephone, the gramophone and cinema.
• The automobile, which played a key role in making rural and urban communities more accessible to
• The radio and the airplane - both transformed people’s lives in terms of dissolving national and
regional boundaries. The airplane prompted travel and encouraged tourism.
The nature of art also changed, as collectors could be a factory owner or an aristocrat. The church and state
no longer had the monopoly on commissioning works of art, so artists began to experiment with subject
matter and new styles.
Artists rejected the depiction of historical events in favour of portraying modern contemporary life.
Creating images that presented and analysed class relations, family structures and individual anxieties.
Modernist art developed as a series of movements.
The first group could be described as pervasive, lasting for long periods of time, and loosely defined with
shifting membership. Impressionism, Symbolism and Post-Impressionism could be used as examples.
These groups tended to be defined by critics and art historians rather than the artists themselves.
The second groups of movements were shorter in duration and exclusive in membership. This group
featured Purism, Vortism, Dadas and Futurism. Futurism, for example, celebrated technology and
innovation with the glorification of speed.
Artwork became more accessible to the public during the 19 th century. Accessibility developed in three
• Through art museums and exhibitions.
• Through lithography.
• Through the modern medium of photography
T he Louvre museum opened in 1793 leading to the development of new public museums all over Europe.
Works of art in such museums were not modern, but museums were modern creations and had been
developed for political reasons rather than aesthetic reasons. Previously, art had only been available to the
visitor of the right social class. With the opening of public museums came the pressure to nationalise royal
Visits to museums in the 19th century were now a major part of travels of modern artists as they were of
modern tourists. Museums became the mass-culture venues of the era. This was before public access to
sporting venues, before film and television. In 1909 over 150,000 people paid to see an exhibition of the
contemporary Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla Y Bastida at the Hispanic society in New York. More than
20,000 of visitors bought catalogues. 1
Visits to art museums by artists and the rise of the museum art school in western society helped to mould
artistic values in modern artists. Artists learned from museums by studying and copying. For artists, the
museum placed works of art as valuable and significant creations. For the public, museums became places
where art history became available under one roof.
Exhibitions played a key role in art accessibility. Great industrial exhibitions became a current occurrence,
representing or including images of modern technology. Exhibitions were held in culturally diverse
countries and in as far flung places as London and Moscow.
Lithography transformed modern art history in reproducing works of art. It could be true to say that most
modern people see more reproductions in their lifetimes than they see actual original works of art.
Lithography brought artwork into the household and the artist’s studio. For academically trained artists
reproductions became a tool of training and for modern artist’s inspiration.
By using lithography, one could print thousands of identical prints from one original giving the image a
mass audience. The artist’s style could be directly replicated and the industrialisation of image making
created a huge market for mass-produced objects and artwork.
Photography, developed in 1839 with inventors such as William H. F. Talbot and Louis Jaques-Mande
Daguerre. It had a great effect on modern art. Exhibitions began to include the photographic medium.
Photography also sparked societies and publications to be formed worldwide. Public interest in
photography came with the development by Kodak of an easily portable hand held camera. A truly
revolutionary, modern development that began to limit the necessity of the professional artist. With a
Kodak anyone could represent their own world and experiences and as a result births, weddings, deaths and
other events in peoples lives became the arena of the amateur photographer.
Page 69. Richard R. Brettell Modern Art 1851-1929, Oxford University Press 1999.
A driving force of modernist culture was the idea of social transformation through architecture and design.
Architects considered that rational designs would make rational societies and that the human being could be
morally improved with improved housing conditions. Modernist architecture was to be an answer to the
social crisis developing in cities.
Familiar names associated with this modern movement were:
Walter Gropius, Bruno Taut, and Mies Van der Rohe.
Architecture changed from being focused on ceremonial buildings, banks, ministries, museums, railway
stations and palaces to public housing.
Architectural designs were expressed perhaps more in theory than actual finished buildings. Architects like
Mies Van der Rohe designed utopian cityscapes to be functional and ideal in the continuing urbanisation of
society. To the architects involved the very idea of modernity signified a fusion of romance and rationality.
Utopia, representing the romantic visions of the future and the rational use of technology in function and
mass production in the planning and designs of housing.
The Bar at the Folies Bergere, by Edouard Manet 1881-1882.
This is a painting of a modern urban subject from the late 19th century. Nightclubs were a new and
developing phenomenon in Paris at this period.
At first glance the viewer believes that they are seeing a barmaid serving customers drinks. The woman
appears reflected to the right and is serving the man in the top hat. The people behind the barmaid are also a
reflection, as are the bottles on the marble shelf. Study the painting closely and you realise that the back
view of the girl to the right is in the wrong place to be a reflection of the girl in the fore ground. The bottles
do not appear to be the same as those in the front.
The location of the mirror is brought into question. Perhaps the horizontal section across the middle of the
painting is the frame of the mirror, rather than the gilt line under the marble. This would mean that it is only
reflecting the crowd in the background. If that is the case, why is the gold line running in front of the girl
behind and where is the lower half of the body?
If the girl in the centre is not serving the male customer, who is she looking at? Looking at the face of the
barmaid, we the viewer could be the customer. Perhaps the barmaid is not looking at anything. She appears
to be distracted, perhaps lost in her own thoughts, seemingly isolated from her surroundings.
This painting appears to be logical, but is disorientating. Implying uncertainty about the origin of the
woman because of the position she is in. Isolation is a strong theme that is communicated by this piece.
Modern urban life, despite new and improving advances in culture, create alienation and a loss of a sense of
self. It explores the idea that appearances can be deceptive.
Glass Table Lamp: Karl J. Jucker and Wilheim Wagenfeld 1923/24.
This lamp illustrates the Bauhaus programme of the time:
• The use of industrial materials – Metal and glass.
• The revelation of function in every part – the electric cable is clearly visible inside the shaft.
• The promotion of the aesthetic form, which arises from the harmony in the simple geometric forms.
The lamp was handmade despite its more manufactured look. The lamp celebrates industrial design and
technology, promoting electricity as a modern, clean and convenient energy.
It was advertised and included in the ‘Catalogue of Designs’, which introduced the range of Bauhaus
products. In comparison to advertising today, this advert is simple. Merely listing its advantages to
deliberately sell the lamp on its technical merits.
The design is simple: a round base, cylindrical shaft and spherical shade. Two versions of the lamp were
produced, one with a metal shaft and foot and the other with a glass shaft and foot.
The table lamp was a model for machine mass-production. It achieved in its form both maximum simplicity
and in terms of time and materials, greatest economy.
The Fugue Wassilly Kandinsky, 1914.
Kandinsky used colour for emotional expression. A musical term is used as the title and the picture is
abstract as it is without a figurative subject. The term ‘fugue’ is taken to mean a theme taken up by a single
voice or instrument, which is then followed on by different voices, or instruments. You can see how this
works in terms of colour.
The dominant theme is yellow, in many variations of brightness, dullness and intensity. The next
significant colour is blue in many manifestations and is complementary to the yellow. In smaller quantities
are the other colours.
The black creates depth and the white lies on the surface. The shapes do not resemble anything and are
more organic than geometrical. Some are in sharp focus others are blurred. This makes them appear to float
in places. The painting is kaleidoscopic and the feeling of movement is helped by the spectator’s viewpoint
changing from the bottom to the top of the picture. In the lower part you are looking from above and in the
upper half you see from below.
Kandinsky believed as many modernists of his era that subject matter in painting was unimportant. What
was important was to appeal directly to the feelings of the viewer.
It is hard to say what the picture of the Fugue is about or whether it needs its musical title. The colour
relationships are subtle and luminous and communicate a sensation of joy and well being. Kandinsky has
orchestrated his colours to play in harmony as if they were instruments performing in a concert.
Post modernism is a term to describe a late 20 th century style in arts, architecture and criticism that became
a departure from modernism. Post modernists were living in the future that was:
A capitalist, mass consumerist, corporation controlled society. The forces of modernisation were being
blamed for creating alienating societies with increasing divisions between rich and poor. The idea of a
rational society that had been inspired by the age of new technology had ended and disillusionment had
taken its place.
The idea of one authentic style for the modern age was rejected by post modernists in favour of pluralism -
a mixture of styles, new and old. Ornamentation and decoration made resurgence.
Mixtures of high and low culture were the norm in art. Including fine art and commercial art.
In architecture and design, form and function became less important. More emphasis was placed on the
idea of design and architecture communicating messages. As an example, pleasure was communicated
through bright colours and ornament.
Images of artwork had now become instantaneously accessible and had an international audience.
Urbanisation was widespread, multicultural, multi racial and multi media and post modernists recognised
this diversity and responded to it. Although there appears to be no major art movements or styles in the
1970’s much of the new art produced was simply not recognised in the art world. As an example street
murals and graffiti appeared in urban areas and avoided becoming commodities, because they could not be
The attitude that anything was possible prevailed was demonstrated by the content of exhibitions of the
time. Exhibitions, such as Derek Basher’s ’Lives’,2 had collections of material from photojournalism,
family albums, videos, and art created in therapy groups shown in psychiatric hospitals.
The Post Modernist era had an anything goes attitude, in response to the uncertainty of the time and the
uncertainty of the future in the artworld.
Derek Boshier ‘Lives: an Exhibition of Artists whose Work is Based on Other People’s Lives’ from
lecture handout “Cultural Pluralism and Post-Modernism”
Acton Mary Learning to Look at Paintings. Routledge 1997
Brettell Richard. R Modern Art 1851-1929. Oxford University Press 1999
Hughes Robert The Shock of the New. Thames and Hudson 1992
Meechan P & Modern Art – A Critical Routledge
Sheldon J. Introduction.
Taschen Benedict Bauhaus 1919-1933. Bauhaus – Archiv Museum 1990
Westaphal Uwe The Bauhaus. Gallery Books 1991
Whitford Frank Bauhaus . Thames and Hudson 1988
Art Book Kandinsky – The Pioneer of Abstract Art Dorling Kindersely 1999
– His Life in Paintings.
Towards the Twentieth Century – Lecture Handout.
Cultural Pluralism and Post Modernism – Lecture Handout.
Essay: Modernism and Postmodernism
BA Photography Year 1