Modernism is the cultural movement that swept across the world during the late 19th century until the end of the 1970's

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"That each new phase of Modernist art should be hailed as the start of a whole new epoch in art, marking a decisive break with all the customs and conventions of the past." - Clement Greenberg ( Accessed 26th April 2014)

Modernism is the cultural movement that swept across the world during the late 19th century until the end of the 1970's. Modernism is linked to the modernisation of the world coming into the 20th century, it was the "need for new and different" (Weston, 1996, Introduction) that influenced the world in a time of social and economic change. Modernism is not limited to one movement, in fact it encompasses "Cubism to Constructivism , abstraction to atonality" ( Weston, 1996, Introduction), the subject matter is indeed very broad. Modernism was not only limited to the arts but included a vast range of practices such as literature and music.

However Modernisation did not just start at the end of the 19th century out of the blue. We could say the change started to happen during the Renaissance. In other words Renaissance was the first period of change. Renaissance ideas helped the 19th century industrial societies to grow and develop, and they attempted to "formulize and rationalize the natural world". (Crouch, 1999, Page 14- 15) Painters, for example Giotto, started to experiment with perspective along with sculptors such as Ghiberti. ( accessed 18th April 2014) These were followed and improved on by artists such as Donatello. ( accessed 18th April 2014) The Renaissance also explored a new kind of architecture that looked at the "cultural sense of the rational". (Crouch, 1999, page 14)Geometry that was seen mostly in the Roman era started to replace that of Gothic architecture where structure was somewhat abandoned. (Crouch,1999, Page 14) There was also of course the advancement of printing which enabled books to be printed, ideas to be conveyed and it had a strong use to modernist typographers. (Crouch, 1999, Page 14)

The Renaissance period was closely followed by the Enlightenment period. This began in the 17th century (Crouch, 1999, page 10) in Europe and is occasionally known as the Age of Reason. (Crouch, 1999, page 15) The Enlightenment took place throughout a range of fields such as science, politics, economics, astronomy, medicine and philosophy. ( accessed 17th April 2014) Key players such as Descartes and Barach de Spinoza started off and added to the idea that the world was separated into spiritual and material, this was after open debate about the explanation of the law and ideology that has been shown in the Bible. It started to change the way people saw and thought about life, John Locke and Issac Newton revolutionised ideas in Europe with the rejection of the Cartesian view and the discovery of gravity. (Crouch 1999, Page 16) The "unknown" ( Crouch 1999,Page 16) was now seen as the provider of a web of information . ( Crouch 1999,Page 16) "The World was now being investigated and objectified in a way previously unthought of." (Crouch, 1999, Page 16) People had started to have ideas and opinions on subjects and has started to have a voice. ( accessed 17th April 2014) Effectively The Enlightenment sparked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.( accessed 17th April 2014)

The Industrial revolution was also a key player in the beginnings of Modernisation. It marks the moment when all that was "manufacturing, transportation and technology" ( accessed 14th April 2014) started to grow and take shape "in Western Europe, North America, and eventually the world." ( accessed 14th April 2014) These changes led to profound modifications in the social, economic, and cultural conditions of life. ( accessed 14th April 2014). The Industrial Revolution was the provider of "New forms, materials and purposes for the practitioners of the visual arts" (Crouch, 1999, Page 19) It made materials easily and quickly manufacturable in large quantities, and the invention and production of railways made them easily transportable. (Crouch, 1999, Page 21) The Enlightenment changed the way in which people though and the Industrial Revolution gave them the materials to do this.

As people viewed this time of change, they too started to change with it. Artists begun experimenting with new materials and new techniques. Painters such as Edouard Manet's Le Dejuner sur l'herbe (1863), were scandalised due to their subject matter. ( accessed 14th April 2014)

Before the 19th century artists were mostly commissioned to make art by wealthy patrons and important institutions. This art did not contain what the artist wanted to depict in their work but included mostly religious or mythological scenes that would influence and guide the viewer. However during the 19th century artist started to make art about objects, items and people that interested them: what they had direct experience of. This was enhanced by the publication of a piece by Sigmund Freud called The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) that built the idea of the subconscious mind, this led to artists exploring dreams and also symbolism. ( accessed 14th April 2014)

The 20th Century did see a lot of political, economic and cultural events, that would highly influence the practice and ideology of artists. These included some horrific events such as the wars, the holocaust, and the nuclear bombings but also some advantageous ones such as the civil rights movements or the evolution of medicine, film and technology. All of these factors, big or small, devastating or constructive played a role in the progress and construction of the modernist era. The 20th century also saw the introduction of Bauhaus in 1919. ( accessed 26th April 2014) The Bauhaus was a school of art and design in the city of Weimar opened by Walter Gropius, a German Architect and fused together the practices of art and design in many different fields. ( accessed 26th April 2014) The aim was to help the students create objects that would be "useful and beautiful" ( accessed 26th April 2014) and conform to the new way of living. After several changes of director, the political system of Germany began to take its toll and as a consequence of this and insecure finances, the Bauhaus relocated to Berlin where it closed down in 1933. However the Bauhaus produced several pioneers of the modernist movement including Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Josef Albers. ( accessed 26th April 2014)

To better understand the era of modernism, I will study three works of art by three different modernist artists.

The first piece of Modern art I will explore is Guitar by famous Spanish born artist Pablo Picasso. Picasso was a pioneer of the movement Cubism which is the rejection of the traditional way to show perspective. Cubists aim was to show many sides of an object or landscape from various viewpoints and therefore perspectives. They achieved this by creating series of geometric forms which they placed together to create space. ( accessed 1st May 2014) We could say the piece Guitar was also part of his work in this movement. The artwork itself measures 77.5 x 35 x 19.3 cm in total and it is made from new age industrial revolution materials : sheet metal and wire. (The Museum of Modern Art, MoMa Highlights, 1999, The Museum of Modern Art: New York). He completed this piece between 1912 and 1913 in Paris on the eve of the First World War which would begin a year later.

Picasso's piece is in fact the same size and shape as a real guitar (The Museum of Modern Art, MoMa Highlights, 1999, The Museum of Modern Art: New York) and it's constructed of "a shallow arrangement of planes to be viewed from the front". (The Museum of Modern Art, MoMa Highlights, 1999, The Museum of Modern Art: New York) It is currently on exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York where it was given as a gift of the artist.( accessed 15th April 2014) Picasso did not conform with the kinds of sculptures that have come previously. Before, sculpture had mainly been centred about the subject of nature ( accessed 14th April 2014) and man and often showed human form". (The Museum of Modern Art, MoMa Highlights, 1999, The Museum of Modern Art: New York) We can take the example of the Venus de Milo by Alexandros ( accessed 14th April 2014) currently on exhibition at the Louvre in Paris which is a sculpture of Aphrodite made out of marble. ( accessed 14th April 2014) It not only depicts a personage but also has a story. In Picasso's case he was clearly eager to try something new. Humans themselves made guitars so there was no essential need to make a guitar sculpture, ( accessed 14th April 2014) even when talking to critique André Salmon about his whole collection of Guitar pieces, Picasso says "It's Nothing, It's el Guitare". ( accessed 14th April 2014) Concerning Picasso's use of materials, he uses sheet metal and wire, this makes a high contrast with materials mainly used in the past such as marble or bronze. Before sculpture was mainly carving and modelling a solid, (The Museum of Modern Art, MoMa Highlights, 1999, The Museum of Modern Art: New York.) Picasso however put different pieces together instead of deducting from a material. ( Hilton, 1976, Page 115) He was the first person to do this and set a revolutionary step that changed the "Nature of Sculpture" ( Hilton, 1976, Page 115) for the years that followed. ( Hilton, 1976, Page 115) The materials of his choice were in fact used for building materials or roofing materials in Paris around the early 20th century, these metals were industrially produced at this time, ( accessed 15th April 2014)and we can assume they came from a factory. The metal has gained a red/brown oxidation layer( accessed 15th April 2014) which has been a consequence of the ageing process of these metals. However his use of materials together gives this piece a feeling of cubism as we are shown all angles of the guitar. In fact Picasso took inspiration from the tubular eyes of an African Grebo mask to create a cylinder where on a guitar there is usually a void using this hole we can see right through the sculpture, it is spacious and has no solid centre. (The Museum of Modern Art, MoMa Highlights, 1999, The Museum of Modern Art: New York) Picasso was the first to change the way sculpture was created for the modern era ( Hilton, 1976, Page 115) he took new materials and a new way of thinking and put it into practice. Even though we can still see elements of earlier work and his influence and movement coming into play in this sculpture, he has very much created a work that has changed the way people look and consider what sculpture actually is. For him the idea was simple, yet to us it seems such a complex thought for an artist who was primarily a cubist painter. Picasso seems to have taken not only sculpture but cubism to a whole new level.

Although not one of his first "ready-mades", Fountain by French artist Marcel Duchamp, is notably one of his most famous. When he created this piece, he "created a defining moment in the history of Modern Art. (Munday, 2008, Page 24) The piece was created in 1917 in the United States of America amidst a period of war in Europe and is "widely seen as an icon of the 20th century." ( accessed 15th April 2014) The object is a porcelain urinal in white and measures although unconfirmed, 360 x 480 x 610 mm. ( accessed 15th April 2014) The urinal itself is nothing that one would call out of the ordinary, the only thing that would distinguish it from other urinals is the words R.Mutt on the side and the year 1917. On display the urinal is laid flat, this was Duchamp's first idea for its public display, ( accessed 15th April 2014) however due to the loss of the original, (there are now fifteen replicas in existence that have been authorised by Duchamp. ) ( accessed 15th April 2014) Fountain is now displayed in an upright position at the Tate Modern in London ( accessed 15th April 2014). It is part of Marcel Duchamp's series of work called appropriately the Ready-mades.

A ready-made is an everyday manufactured object that is called a work of art by the artist. ( accessed 15th April 2014) In this instance Duchamp has taken a urinal and signed it R.Mutt. Duchamp's aim was to move away from previous tradition approaches to painting in order that he would show the abstract importance to a piece of art that would attract the viewers attention "through irony and verbal witticisms" ( accessed 15th April 2014) unlike the previous attraction of aesthetics and technical precision. ( accessed 15th April 2014). He proved in some ways that art did not have to be beautiful ( accessed 15th April 2014) Duchamp wanted to bring his art into a new era, he did not aim to please people but to put forward a alternative view of art. In terms of pleasing people, although this was not his aim it seemed this is what he had to do to enter the art world. He entered his piece Fountain to be displayed at the Society of Independent Artists, however the board directors who had an obligation to accept any piece by any of the board members took it upon them not to accept the piece Fountain in their exhibition. ( accessed 15th April 2014)This proves it has an element of a piece of Modern art. The society board members were clearly looking for something of aesthetic and something that encompassed previous tradition, we could say that Fountain broke all of those boundaries and Duchamp has created something that would revolutionise the art world. Duchamp wanted us to in fact question in a more philosophical manner: what is art? ( accessed 15th April 2014) Duchamp chose the urinal and all the other objects in the Ready-Made collection because of their day to day, mass production element. This resulted in him making sure that mass production items and materials would be a strong resource in the field of art. ( It has been said that Duchamp had the most profound response to the development of new artistic materials brought into play by the industrial age. ( Mink, 2000, Page 7)

Duchamp classified his work as sculpture ( accessed 15th April 2014), but just as Picasso's Guitar this did not come under the traditional definition of sculpture up to this point. We could also say that both Duchamp's Fountain and Picasso's Guitar are made from the materials of the manufacturing era : In Picasso's case Steel and Wire and in Duchamp's case he is taking something being mass produced in a factory. These points again highlight the modernity of both pieces.

Duchamp's piece really did revolutionise the way in which people categorized art. His own unique proposal started to spark a still current question in the art world, what actually is art. This question has been used again and again and now it seems that just about anything can be classified as art. Fountain is a piece that in my opinion started off a completely new liberty in the art world. Even today Fountain has a huge impact on creators and designs and has really opened the mind of those touched by it.

Another highlight of the modernist era was the movement of Surrealism. Surrealism was the movement that followed Dada, it influenced artists to draw with their mind and unconscious in order to create a different more modern work. ( accessed 16th April 2014). In some cases that of which they had direct experience, previously mentioned in my introduction to modernism, taking their ideas from Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) that discussed the idea of subconscious mind and dream exploration. ( accessed 14th April 2014)

One of its main participants was Salvador Dali. In 1936, Dali created the piece Lobster Telephone, this work was simply two completely unrelated objects being placed together producing a piece that was both " playful and menacing". ( accessed 16th April 2014) The piece itself measures "178 x 330 x 178 mm" ( accessed 16th April 2014) and is made of "steel, plaster, rubber, resin and paper" ( accessed 16th April 2014)Steel especially is a material of the Industrial Revolution, and just as Duchamp and Picasso have done, the sculpture was not made from carving into marble or bronze. Another factor is that again we can say just as Duchamp's Urinal that the Telephone that Dali used is a mass produced manufactured object. We can almost say that Dali's Lobster Telephone is a readymade, just as Duchamp emblazoned his urinal with the signature R.Mutt, Dali added a Lobster to his telephone. The Lobster Telephone was a commission piece for Edward James, a British poet and collector who was fascinated in Surrealism pieces and took an interest in Dali's work, he also commissioned a work called Mae West lips sofa the year after. ( accessed 16th April 2014) In total four telephones were created for use in James' manor house, now all of these telephones are in galleries around the world. ( accessed 16th April 2014) Dali's aim was to astound the public, originally he called the piece Aphrodisiac Telephone ( accessed 16th April 2014), the word aphrodisiac meaning "arousing sexual desire." ( accessed 16th April 2014) Dali was deeply interested in the connection between food and sex and it was for this reason that the Lobsters sexual organs which are located in its tail are placed right above the mouthpiece of the telephone. ( accessed 16th April 2014) This recurring theme of sex throughout his painting were due his "strong feeling of sexual inadequacy", ( accessed 16th April 2014) Dali was also rumoured to have practiced voyeurism and autoerotism ( accessed 16th April 2014) which we could link to his sexual opinions on objects.

Dali was, in my opinion, was trying to put across his own ideas about sex and showing a more sexually liberating idea to the public . During the period when this piece was created, sex ,although acknowledged, was still somewhat a tender subject. Before the 20th century, sex was not considered a "public or respectable ideal even for married adults." ( accessed 16th April 2014) In the 1920's and 1930's sexual freedom was becoming more and more common and in order to change this sexual educators in fact tried to get physiologists and socialists to give evidence that sex before marriage did threaten a youth's chances of a fulfilling marriage. ( accessed 16th April 2014) Dali touched on the subject of sex even in his earlier works such as The Persistence of Memory, in which the long eyelashes of the creature could be seen as sexual, ( accessed 16th April 2014) and the hanging watches as a fear of impotence. (Gregory, 1976, Page 2319)

I personally feel that the reason Dali's piece is considered Modernist is the way it was trying to give people a new way of thinking and looking at the world. Not only was he aiming to revolutionise the way we thought about sex but he was also putting two household objects together that had never been put together in such a way before. Even though Duchamp has mixed two objects together, he meanings did not encompass the same social meanings as Dali's.

Although these pieces were created years apart from each other and each highlighted a different movement of the modern era, we can still see strong connections that make them modernist pieces. Firstly their use of materials in all cases were very much products of the Industrial revolution, steel wire, porcelain, and also manufactured objects such as the telephone and the urinal. All the artists had started to discover different ways of creating art that no longer conformed with the traditions that had come before them. They all intended in a way to shock people and to make people look on art in a whole new light. I think that this whole effect is primarily due to the rate in which the world has started to change and evolve since the year 1900 and somewhat before and I do not doubt that art has been a contribution to this evolution. It can still be debated whether modernism is still happening because artists are producing new ideas and suggestions everyday and in some cases these still get rejected by the public. Although people are now much more open to alternative means of art, most of what gets created could still be considered as breaking the traditions, even if these traditions are modernist.

So in conclusion, what actually is Modernism? From looking at examples and textbook definitions, Modernism is the period of change. It is when artists moved away from traditions and customs and decided to take into their own hands what they were creating. Even though, in Duchamp's case, sometimes their art was rejected. Modernism has changed the way people of today look at art and it has broadened the response to the every impending question what is art?. In my personal opinion I feel the leaps and bounds that were taken from the beginning to the end of modernism and the drastic changes that happened even between movements proves that modernism is without a doubt the biggest rediscovery and revolution of art to date.

Guitar - Pablo Picasso (1912-1913)


Fontain - Marcel Duchamp (1917)


Lobster Telephone - Salvador Dali (1936)




Mink, J (2000) Duchamp: Taschen : Köln

Munday, J (2008) Duchamp Man Ray Picabia : Tate Publishing: London

Crouch,C (1999) Modernism in Art, Design and Architecture: Macmillian Press Limited: Hampshire and London

Weston,R (1996) Modernism : Phaidon Press Limited: London

The Museum of Modern Art, (1999) MoMa Highlights,The Museum of Modern Art: New York

Hilton,T (1976) Picasso : Thames and Hudson LTD : London


Gregory, C, The Great Artists, Dali : Marshall Cavendish Volume 7 Number 73 (1986)

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