Art Appreciation Topic IX:Early 20 th Century Art c.1900-c.1945
Art in the Early 20th Century: Early British Modernism (c.1900-c.1915) Early U.S. Modernism (c.1900-c.1929)Pre-War Vienna and German Expressionism (c.1900-1930s) École de Paris Fauvism (1905-1907) Cubism (1907-1920s) Futurism, Orphism and Rayonism (c.1909-c.1916) The Birth of Abstract Art Constructivism (1915-mid 1920s) Dada (1915-c.1922) Bauhaus (1919-1923) Surrealism (1920-late 1940s) Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Objectivity”; 1923-early 1930s) Avant Garde in Britain and the U.S. Realism and Figurative Painting in the U.S. and Europe Naïve Painting Mexican Art
Art changed completely in the 20th century. With thebirth of Modernism, a rapid succession of “isms” followed,movements in which artists rejected naturalism—representingthe physical world realistically—and academic art—with itsemphasis on classical traditions. Instead, they experimentedwith technique and form, questioning the very nature of art andhumanity. At the turn of the century, the dramatic winds ofModernism swept over the English Channel, exciting ageneration of British painters and sculptors—before World War Idestroyed the spirit of optimism. Virtually the whole generationof British Modernists were educated at the Slade School of FineArt in London. Founded in 1871 by Felix Slade, it overtook theRoyal Academy as the most important art school in the country. British Modernism reached its height just before WorldWar I. Conventional subject matter began to be superseded byabstract painting and sculpture, including non-representationaleasel paintings, colorful geometrical images and sculpturereduced to simplified forms. The boldness of British Modernism,however, was shattered by the war, and with few exceptions,the work of this generation of artists declined markedlyafterwards.
The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel, Spring 1915 by Roberts
By the end of the 19th century, the U.S. had forged itsown history, and writers had succeeded in creating a distinctiveAmerican voice. To do the same for painting, artists opted toengage with the new realities of city life and the challengingideas coming from Europe. Around 1900, America experienced rapid populationgrowth and urbanization. City life became the central theme ofa group of young realist painters who became known as the“Ashcan School” because they depicted the unglamorous life ofstreet life. They were the first representatives of U.S.Modernism, although their style was conservative by Europeanstandards. Many American artists went to Paris or Rome to studyfine arts, and visiting exhibitions played a key role in changingthe American art world. By the end of the 1920s, a number ofAmerican artists had been influenced by the most advancedEuropean tendencies. The forms of Modern art could beequated with the machines that were transforming Americanlife. Fragmentation in the paintings of some artists of theperiod reflect the hectic bustle of city life, while others cameclose to total abstraction.
Beginning at the turn of the 20th century, Pre-War Viennawas the epicenter for music, literature, and the visual arts. The citybecame a magnet for free-thinking artists from across Europe. At times, this cultural environment led to conflict andscandal. A pulsating metropolis of nearly two million inhabitants,Vienna was also a deeply divided city. While the poor were packedinto tenement buildings, the aristocracy, barons of commerce, andsenior civil servants lived in splendid apartments. By 1900, an extensive program of public works had beencompleted, providing an underground train system, new tramways,public buildings, and electric street lighting. Much of the newconstruction was designed in the “Jugedenstil,” the German termfor Art Nouveau. Working alongside architects, leading artistsdesigned interiors with Symbolist motifs, such as elegant floralpatterns and sinuous female forms. Vienna was also a vibrant café society, where artists andtheir friends met to discuss projects, artistic events abroad, and thecontroversial ideas of the day, such as those of Sigmund Freud, theViennese founder of psychoanalysis. Upright Viennese citizensbelieved Freud’s theories concerning primal sexual urges and themeaning of dreams were immoral. It was in this realm of sex andnudity that artists would engage in battles with Viennese notions ofdecency.
In the early 20th century, the classical ideals of academiesand the rapidly aging Art Nouveau style held artistic vision inGermany in a stranglehold. Inevitably, any new movement wouldhave to be violently different, and that movement wasExpressionism. What distinguished German Expressionist artwas its emphasis on the highly personal psychological andemotional response of the artist to the subject, and not the subjectitself. A handful of young architecture students from Dresdenformed “Die Brüke” (“The Bridge”), naming their group after theGerman philosopher Nietzsche. They shared Nietzsche’s view thatmany was a bridge to a better world—and because Dresden wasfamous for its bridges. Their bright, acid colors—set against eachother to create a sense of edge—and heavily distorted outlinepushed art decisively away from naturalism. Almost at the same time, another style of Expressionismwas being formed in Munich, which took its name from an almanacpublished by the group of artists called “Der Blaue Reiter” (“TheBlue Rider). Believing that creativity was not found in academic art,they printed pictures of ancient Egyptian artifacts, children’sdrawings, and the newest artistic innovations alongside each other.They sought to return society to a state of harmony that they felthad been lost in the process of modernization.
There had not been an artistic hub like Paris sinceRenaissance Florence, and from 1904 to 1929, it was themost important artistic center. Of all European cities, Parishad by far the largest art market with upward of 100 privategalleries. In time, the notion of a specifically Parisian artisticphenomenon arose: an École de Paris (“School of Paris”).Foreign painters, sculptors, art dealers and publicists fromabroad descended on the city and settled among theresident French artists, both native Parisians and those whohad arrived from the provinces. However, this school was not an art movementlinked by a manifesto, training, or shared political views.Rather it was a group of artists who were united by a desireto follow a bohemian lifestyle, share their experiences, andchoose, if they wanted, to attend Paris’s numerous artacademies and open studios. In this way, a wide variety ofartists found common ground.
Fauvism exploded onto the Paris art scene in 1905.Its bright, pure colors, flattened perspective, and simplifieddetail signalled a new era. Unwittingly, a small group ofFrench artists had developed the first modern art movement. The Fauves were a group of friends who sought amore dynamic way of depicting nature. They experimentedwith bold, non-naturalistic color and applied their paint inshort, energetic strokes, which prompted them to be dubbed“Les Fauves,” or “Wild Beasts.” For all the impression of wildness, however, theFauves soon revealed they were more interested in solid,permanent structure than violent expression or theimpressionist “fleeting moment.” Pure color—sometimessoftened with a touch of white—was applied in little dabs andstrokes. The canvas was left bare in places to act as coloritself. By 1906-07, the parameters of Fauvism had shifted toinclude line to define shape and larger blocks of more mutedcolor. The human form replaced landscape as the focal pointof their paintings. Some of the Fauves stayed with theiroriginal style, but their approach was generally less daring.
In the space of just a few years, Cubism overturned many ofthe visual conventions that had dominated Western art since theRenaissance. Initially the project of a handful of painters working inParis, it laid the groundwork for innovative art for over 50 years. By the beginning of the 20th century, Europe’s most advancedpainters were becoming less concerned with creating an illusion ofdepth and volume in their work. Artists had grown increasinglyaware of alternatives to art of the Western tradition and how itchallenged Western art’s ideas of naturalism and beauty. Byexperimenting with representations of objects and space, Cubismbroke down these conventions by representing their subjects interms of block-like forms. Cubism eventually evolved from complex and fragmentedforms that were shattered and reconstituted on the picture surfaceto simple flat planes of color and abstract forms. Most Cubistpaintings used a limited range of colors, preferring to concentrateon the analysis of form, but late Cubism became more colorful andexuberant. The lack of concern for subject matter has led to Cubismbeing described as an attempt to achieve a kind of “pure visualmusic.” Rather than seeing the subject from a single point of view,painters combined different angles and aspects of a subject. Theimages created have to be deciphered, requiring the viewer tobecome an active participant.
In the years before World War I in Europe, the Futurists, theOrphists, and the Rayonists all believed that a new form of art wasneeded for changing society. Although their theories were not the same,they all pushed painting in the direction of totally abstract art. The development of Futurism (1909-c.1916) overlapped with thatof Cubism. Futurist painters proclaimed themselves “the primitives of anew and transformed sensibility.” They combined some elements ofNeoimpressionism (such as pointillist brushwork) with photographicanalysis and the fractured forms of Cubism. They also usedunnaturalistic color to heighten the impact of the work on the viewer,and “force-lines” to convey movement and draw the viewer into thepicture. Orphism (1911-c.1914) was a term coined by the criticGuillaume Apollinaire in 1912 to describe a more colorful and abstractform of Cubism associated with music. Orphist artists were inspired bycomplementary color theory to develop increasingly abstract paintingsbased around color blocks and discs, and were a key advance towardartistic abstraction. Rayonism (1912-c.1914) was a short-lived Russian movement,which attempted to synthesize the discoveries of Cubism, Futurism, andOrphism into a single artistic language. Characterized by rhythmicallyinteracting shafts of color, Rayonist paintings provided a crucial step inthe development of Russian abstract art.
Art without subject matter was a revolutionary concept in theearly 20th century. Identifiable people and objects were replaced byfloating shapes—some resembling creatures, other geometric—blocks ofcolor so big that they filled an entire canvas, and vertical and horizontallines. In the first decade of the 20th century, Fauvist and Expressionistartists had removed the connection between the colors they used torepresent nature and nature itself. The Cubists had divided objects intomultiple planes, challenging dimensions of space, and the Futuristschallenged concepts of time. Until 1910, these artists had kept within the bounds of concretereality—they had depicted recognizable subjects. The biggest leap of allwould be removing any reference to the world of identifiable objects.The foundation of art was reproducing some facet of the world as theartists saw it. It would be no simple matter to take the decisive steptowards abstraction—art without representation. Abstract artists were united by one urge. They wanted tooppose the self-limiting material values that they felt dominated societywith a new, profound set of spiritual ideals. Their approach to creativitywas steeped in ancient philosophy, esoteric Eastern beliefs, and newmystical writings. Music, which was abstract, ordered, and emotionallycharged, provided a guide for abstract artists.
Composition in Red,Black, Blue, and Yellow by Mondrian
When the Russian Revolution took place in 1917, there wasalready a group of progressive artists prepared to help build a newcommunist society. Such a task required a new artistic languagethat could encapsulate the ideals of the revolution, and thatlanguage was Constructivism. Constructivism can be traced to Vladmir Tatlin’s achievementafter visiting Picasso’s Paris studio in 1914. Tatlin’s achievementwas to transform the painted Cubism that he saw there into “realmaterials in space.” He began by making wall-mounted “paintedreliefs” that employed metal, string, and wood projecting out of thesurface. By 1915, he was creating free-hanging sculptures, in whichnatural materials were used for their color, texture, and shape. The emphasis on materials became more meaningful afterthe workers’ state had been established. Wood, metal, glass, andplastics were used in industry, so when artists used these materials,they were cementing their bond with the working people. By 1919,Constructivism had gained the Communist Party’s backing. By 1920-21, however, a political division developed betweenthose Constructivists who believed that artists should maintain apersonal involvement with the creative process, and those whobelieved that artists were “intellectual workers.” This led to someartists leaving Russia for the West to make “pure art,” while thosewho remained placed their talents at the service of the new regime.
Dada was a richly subversive art movement that developedat the time of World War I as a protest against bourgeoisconventions and the folly of war. The aim of the Dadaists was todestroy traditional values in art and to create new art to replace theold. Dada started in 1916 in Zurich where Hugo Ball, a Germanactor, musician, theatrical producer, and playwright established asmall music hall called the Cabaret Voltaire. He was soon joined byother émigrés, and the group chose the name Dada—French for“hobby horse”—randomly from a French-German dictionary. The Dadaists loudly rejected the old artistic structures andset out to scandalize and outrage their audience. They composed,printed, and performed nonsense poetry and songs, and producedimagery and objects designed to shock the viewer. More than anyprevious art movement, Dada rejected established institutions. When the war ended, the Dada spirit quickly spread toCologne, Berlin, and Hanover, then finally settled in Paris. By 1921,most of the important Dadaists had gathered in the French capitalaround the poet and critic André Breton. Dada challenged the rules of art. Everyday objects as art,political collage, the use of chance and playful metaphysics—allthese energized the movement. The Dada group dissolved in 1921,but many of the artists went on to become Surrealists.
Founded in Germany in 1919, the Bauhaus Schoolof Art and Design was the vision of modernist architectWalter Gropius. Established in the city of Weimer, theBauhaus (“Building House”) school aimed to overcome theprejudice that raised high art over lowly design. The school survived shortages of funds, politicalinstability, and occasional internal divisions. It was twiceforced tor relocate and produced just 500 graduates in 14years, yet it was the 20th century’s most influential schoolof design. Classes were held in workshops withapprentices taking a compulsory preliminary class beforemoving on after six months to train in the field of theirchoice. Students studied color theory, practical use ofmaterials, draftsmanship, painting, and photomontage.After 1925, the school’s focus shifted from craft toindustrial design. New products, such as ceiling lamps,cantilever chairs, and furniture suitable for office or home,were designed by Bauhaus technicians and produced bycompanies who owned large-scale factories.
Surrealism started as a literary and political movement buthad a profound effect on art, photography, and film. Influenced bythe political writings of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud’s work onpsychology, it aimed to uncover the repressed subconscious usingdreamlike imagery that challenged perceptions of authority. The Surrealist movement was started in Paris by the poetand critic André Breton, who published the first SurrealistManifesto and launched the journal La Révolution Surréaliste in1924. Breton and his fellow writers wanted to free the imaginationby tapping into the unconscious mind through automatic writing, aprocess of free association, in their poetry and prose. Breton found support for his ideas in the visual arts.Although there was no single style of Surrealist art, there are twodominant strands: strange objects in dreamlike settings to create ahallucinatory effect, and those using free association, which theSurrealists called automatism. The latter was achieved by suchmeans as staring at a pattern until a hallucination occurred. The Surrealists sometimes incorporated photography intheir work as they were able to link the real and surreal bymanipulating photographic techniques, or simply using it to isolatethe unexpected. Taboo-breaking images of sexuality, violence, andblasphemy also were common.
When Expressionism’s passion was nearly spent, andangry Dada risked becoming merely chic entertainment, Germanart had to take a long hard look at itself and the role it played insociety. Neue Saclichkeit (“New Objectivity”) was just that look.Also known as New Realism, this movement was characterized bya newfound attention to the realistic representation of objects ina detailed way. There was no specific style, nor even a shared politicalperspective, though certain artists were deeply angered bysociety’s callousness and wished to place their art at the serviceof their indignation. New Objectivity is perhaps best seen as areaction to what had gone before. The unifying subject that artists were concerned with waspeople. They painted either portraits with a cool, analyticaldetachment or groups of figures, often at social gatherings. Somemade searing social commentaries by juxtaposing individuals ofradically different social status in the same frame to showdisgust with social division or with human rottenness. Otherartists painted with a desire to reveal what they felt behindsurface appearances, creating art with a sense of nostalgia,almost melancholy, in their arrangements of classically posedfigures.
Between the wars, Britain and the U.S. produced avariety of avant-garde artists. They looked to Paris andEuropean modernism for inspiration, but they produced art thatreflected their own national backgrounds. Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth were at theforefront of the British avant-garde movement. After travelingthrough France and visiting cutting-edge artists, in 1933 theyhelped establish Unit One, the first British modernist movementto embrace art, design and architecture. Unit One organizedexhibitions across Britain, which sparked debate and polarizedopinion on modern art. British avant-garde painters andsculptors tended toward abstraction, but they also continued thetradition of British landscape art. Two American artists—Alexander Calder and StuartDavis—were also connected to the European avant-garde. Bothartists lived in Paris in the late 1920s. The random motion ofCalder’s steel and wire sculptures was influenced by Dadaistsand Surrealists, but they were also indebted to American folkart. Davis was inspired by Cubism, but his subject matter wasdistinctly American. Unlike his British contemporaries, Daviscelebrated the urban world in joyous, decorative paintings thatdepicted modern buildings, neon lights, street signs, posters,and commercial packaging.
In the 1920s and 1930s, a number of artists resisted the trendtoward abstraction, preferring to work more conventionally while stillreflecting contemporary life. Figurative painters in Europe andAmerica continued the tradition of Realism, but in several diversestyles. Both painting styles portray social reality and truth rather thanaesthetics and ideals. Many 20th-century painters reflected their timeperiod in the choice of subject matter and in the styles they adopted,continuing a tradition of representational art that still exists today. Realist and figurative painting had two principle sources: 19thcentury social realism by previous artists who were concerned withrepresenting everyday working life, and the revival of the classical stylein Europe following World War I, a tendency associated with nationalismand political conservatism. As well as nostalgic rural genre paintingsand landscapes, there was an emergence of realistically-depicted urbanscenes and interiors reflecting an ever increasing industrializedenvironment and the psychological tensions of the modern world. In America, the realism of the Ashcan school was followed by agentler and more nostalgic figurative style during the Depression yearson the part of the American regionalists, although it would resurfaceagain in other artists. Precisionist painters were influenced byphotography, but many also developed their own naturalistic style.Representational painting in Europe also had regional variations, butsome form of realism continued into the 20th century across most of thecontinent.
With the revolutionary changes in art at the start of the 20thcentury came a reappraisal of previously dismissed genres, includingNaïve painting, sometimes confusingly known as Primitive art. Thelack of training of Naïve artists was recognized as a strength ratherthan a shortcoming, giving their work a refreshing spontaneity anddirectness. Naïve painting can be loosely defined as the work of artistswith little or no formal training, but it does not imply an amateurstatus. When this style entered the mainstream of fine art, it wasadopted by formally-educated artists, who might be more properlylabeled “pseudo-” or “faux-naïve.” Naïve artists were largely untouched by trends in the artworld. Their influence on mainstream art, however, has beenconsiderable. Unlike many 20th-century artists, Naïve painters areoften motivated by their interest in a subject. Frequently, there is apreoccupation with the past. Although some have aspired to emulateacademic painters, the common stylistic elements come from theirlack of training in conventional techniques. The composition is oftensimple and instinctive, sometimes to the point of being wildlyunstructured. This unsophisticated quality is intensified by a lack ofscientific perspective. Naïve paintings are also frequently crowded with detail—especially awkwardly drawn figures—contrasting with flat areas ofpaint. Combined with a tendency to use bright, unnaturalistic colors,this gives Naïve art a vitality and a childlike innocence.
Fueled by protest after centuries of colonial occupation,Mexican art is a rich blend of diverse sources, and reflects acomplex mixture of historic and social factors. European influencesbecame a point of contention at the beginning of the 20th centuryafter the Mexican Revolution (1910-20) challenged artists to form aunique national identity. From panoramic murals to modest still lifes, Mexico’s peopleand culture were at the ideological center of art production. Lookingat their Pre-Columbian past and indigenous populations with fresheyes (now freed from European value judgments), Mexican artistsbegan to incorporate the nature, people and culture around theminstead of emulating foreign trends. Art that focused on all things Mexican became an importantpart of the search for national identity. American Indian holidays,costume, and folk art became a source of inspiration. These motifswere often mixed with references to ancient gods, religiouspractices and the distinctive Mexican landscape. Some artists alsoportrayed the cruelties and injustices of the Spanish Conquest. Although no one style was ever promoted or followed,Mexican art retains a distinctive look and a unique color palette.Moreover, the far-reaching influence of Mexican muralism on artthroughout Latin America and all over the world cannot beunderestimated.