Modernism in the Early 20th Century

Rodchenko. Books! The original Lilya Brik 1924


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.

In terms of music, there are few composers who might be considered impressionists, but Claude Debussy and Erik Satie seem to respond to the mood of the period.

Light and gentle, naïve and instinctive, Satie’s Three Gymnopedies (1888) is representative of the impressionist’s movement. But Satie’s performance instructions used words such as painfully, sadly, gravely. There is also a reference to the Pagan in Satie’s work, it describes a world devoid of Christianity.

In many way the piece represents the calm before the storm of the 20th century.

Pictorialism is another movement which occupied the period towards the end of 19th century. It was a brief movement largely expressed through photography. It tried to legitimise photography as an art form. Pictorialism drew from impressionism for its inspiration. It was part of a more general movement called naturalism.

Focusing on the rural idyll, Pictorialism was largely a myth. Henry Emerson’s Gathering Water Lilies, for example depicts workers on the Norfolk Broads. in fact there is no reason why they should be gathering water lilies, there was no market for them. It was yet another way of celebrating the work ethic. Pictorial photographers employed artistic methods, mostly post production techniques in the darkroom and new printing techniques. It aspired to be accepted as a true art form. The Pictorialists wanted to make each image unique, handmade.

The Viennese Secession was a brief movement which reacted against the closed arts institutions of Vienna in the late 19th Century. The movement was started by Gustav Klimt and brought together naturalists, modernists and impressionists.

Inspired by the arts and crafts movement, including William Morris, the movement was the inspiration for the French and Belgian Art Nouveau movement. Harking back to times prior to mass production, the Secessionists celebrated the hand made and wanted to elevate true craftsmanship. With an aesthetic which was inspired by the organic, women became representative of nature. But, as Peter Conrad in his book Modern Times, Modern Places (1999) has noted ‘Art Nouveau wished to establish heaven on earth; instead it created artificial paradises.’

Perhaps the most representative of the movement in the field of architecture was Antoni Gaudi’s buildings in Barcelona. They are idiosyncratic and eccentric; they exemplify the feel for the organic and look like they are made of bone and sinew not concrete and stone.

The 20th century came to epitomise the breaking of ties from over sixty years of Victorian stuffiness and moral righteousness. It opened up new ways of thinking. New technologies, scientific inventions and new theories of reality allowed the Edwardian see things in a different light. Edweard Muybridge’s experiments in movement is perhaps a good example of this. It represented what Walter Bejamin would later refer to as the optical unconscious.

The 20th century is described as the machine age, but it could just as easily be described as the century of what it meant to be human.

For the arts, there had never been a more exciting age to experience, art movement after art movement competed to redraw the map of visual representation. For philosophy new questions generated new theories of being and new ways of describing our experience with the world.

The early 20th century marked a period when colonial powers in Europe were waning. It also marked a period of intense interest in the exotic. The far flung corners of the colonial world became an area of fascination and study in Northern Europe. The new Edwardians were fascinated by the pagan rituals of native African cultures. In terms of the visual arts Rousseau, Matisse and Picasso among others  were inspired by the primitive artefacts brought back from the colonies.

In music, Igor Stravinsky shocked audiences in 1914 at the premiere of his groundbreaking work ‘Le Sacre du primitemps’ (The Rite of Spring). It was to epitomise the new abstractions emerging in the early 20th Century.

In the visual arts, Cubism determined the new vision of fragmentation. Multiple viewpoints became conflated onto one flat surface. Objects and figures in three-dimensional space were represented in two dimensions resulting in something akin to reflections from shards of a shattered mirror. The figure in Cubism became disorganised, unbounded, non representational. Painting freed itself from the figurative and invested in way of working which embraced pure form.

Fragmentation of a different sort was introduced by Sigmund Freud. Freud was a Viennese doctor who, at the turn of the century, created a whole new branch of psychology called psychoanalysis. Though now largely overshadowed by cognitive psychology, Freud changed forever the way we look at ourselves. He used psychoanalysis to treat patients with neurosis and psychosis, conditions that he concluded, started in childhood.

Psychoanalysis works with theories of the unconscious and the ways it acts with the conscious. The unconscious is that of which we are unaware in our everyday lives; memories, dreams and suppressed feelings.

Freud asserted that we are driven by our unconscious and our primal drives such as sex and death. He developed the idea of the ID and the Ego. The ID being our primitive illogical unconscious whilst the Ego is that which reacts to external reality and is rational.

Freud alerted us to the fact that there is no clear distinction between being mentally healthy and mentally sick; for him, we are all struggling to recover.

The beginning of 20th century could be defined as the time when God died and the universe began, especially during the period following the catastrophy of the First World War. A new Avant Gard movement, led by Filppo Marinetti called Futurism attracted artists who placed their confidence in the emerging technologies of the 20th century. They were artists who Boccioni termed,  ‘The primitives of a completely renovated sensitiveness’. In 1909, Marinetti celebrated the change in the physical world declaring in his First Futurist Manifesto that ‘Time and Space died yesterday.’

The new century was further turned upside down when Albert Einstein published his theory of General Relativity in 1915. Einstein  fused time and space which Newton had treated as separate. He introduced revolutionary ideas about time, space and gravity and introduced the possibility of black holes. Time increasingly became a philosophical problem and Henri Bergson amongst others explored the notion of lived time. Time became the fourth dimension, but one which appeared conceptually unstable. Appearances were being called into question, the Gestalt psychologists had demonstrated a mistrust in the elements which make up the visual world, instead drawing us to a holistic world of perception which was also being explored through the field of phenomenology by influential philosophers such as Edmund Husserl,  Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

When the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian government in 1917, a revolution ensued which resulted in a newly formed Soviet Union. This created the need for mass communication. Visually dynamic posters were created to communicate the activities of the new social state to the proletariat.

The revolution initiated a huge building programme in the newly formed Soviet Union where communications and electrification of the country became its main priorities. Constructivism was born. Constructivists questioned the fundamental properties of art and asked what its place should be in the new society. The Soviets rejected the work of art as a unique commodity and instead saw it as a collective activity where photography, graphics, animation and film were used as powerful visual tools for communication.

Symbolism was used to great effect in the new Soviet Union. Propaganda posters were used to create unity. Photomontage became a powerful method of visual communication. New developments in mass printing enabled inexpensive colour publications. Photomontage appropriated this imagery by using it as its raw material. The constructivists compared the artist to an engineer, arranging materials scientifically and objectivity. The camera became a vital tool of the new Soviet mission. New viewpoints were found and dynamic compositions reflected the energy of the new social experiment. For photographers, the new Leica provide freedom from the cumbersome and restrictive tripod. Social life became fluid in the new communist state. This was not just a social revolution, but a revolution of perception. Viewpoint, light and shade were used to create high contrast dynamic images. New printing technologies enable gutting edge graphics, glorifying the achievements of the new Soviet state.

The soviets embraced the documentary possibilities of photography and were seduced by its objectivity and its status as the purveyor of truth. But this soon became corrupted through post-production manipulation, officials who fell out of favour with the Polit Bureau were simply airbrushed out of the photograph,s and therefore out of Soviet history.

The Soviets immediately recognised the extraordinary power of cinema to recorded and reenact the achievements of the communist programme.  Serge Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin 1925, tells the story of 1905 mutiny and failed first revolution. The film is rich in powerful visual metaphors. In the scene on the Odessa Steps, a woman’s umbrella becomes transformed into a shield, the crowd are literally crushed and driven down the steps in a metaphorical suppression, shadows of the attacking government forces are literally cast over the unarmed masses. A baby in a pram represents the pure helplessness of the oppressed proletariat as it falls, helplessly down the step. The film’s use of cuts from wide viewpoints to close-ups was indeed revolutionary.