The 19th Century was a period that raised questions about the nature of vision. It was through experiments in vision that provided the foundation for Modernism.
This interest in vision coincided with the growth of new technologies and a need to understand how we might become ‘components’ of this technology. The 19th century marked a beak from tradition ideas of looking which had not changed since the Renaissance. New instruments made it possible to measure accurately. Vision was very much bound up in the rapid development of the ‘empirical sciences’
The Victorians questioned what subjective vision is, and how it can be standardized in terms of forms of measurement. There was interest in why we perceive things as moving when they are still.
The Second World War ended in 1945, leaving death and destruction in its wake throughout Europe. The Utopia promised by the new technologies of the machine age, resulted in a dystopian nightmare. The fire bombing of Dresden by the Allies in 1945, so evocatively portrayed in Kurt Vonnegut’s Novel Slaughterhouse Five (1969), epitomized the mindless massacre of civilians in a hope to end the war.
The production line which had offered more efficient futures in the 1920’s and 30’s, had ended in the systematic mass murder of six million men, women and children, including 3 million Jews. The Holocaust had ended the faith in the human endeavour to build a better future together.
The First World War was supposed to be the war to end all wars, as we now know, unfortunately is wasn’t. Once it had ended, populations throughout Europe wanted change. Modernists wanted to forget history, instead they strived for a new future.
Modernism would change the world and this would be done through all forms of artistic expression.
Artists, musicians, poets, designers all start to reinterpret the world. A whole host of new ways of thinking emerged, we had entered the era of the ‘isms’; cubism, surrealism, symbolism, constructivism, fauvism and existentialism. All were new way of looking and interpreting. Artists used paint to dramatic abstract effect; architects worked in new ways with new materials and technologies. Designers believed they could design a better world and better society.
The end of the 19th century was a period defined by Romanticism. In literature and in the visual arts there was a reaction against an increasingly mechanised world. Artists wanted to explore the intangible through the exploration of mood, atmosphere and sensation.
Impressionism was a revolutionary movement in art which dealt, at least in part, with the notion of the fleeting glance. In many respects it is the precursor of abstract art, impressionism is not about figurative accuracy, instead it pertains more to mood, atmosphere and emotion. Impressionism was a response to the cultural period. It was the late period of Romanticism where artists were again referencing nature, but a nature imbued with a civilized ideology.