Modernism is a cultural movement that generally includes progressive art and architecture, music and literature which emerged in the decades before 1914, as artists rebelled against late 19th century academic and historicist traditions.
Some divide the 20th century into modern and postmodern periods, whereas others see them as two parts of the same larger period. This article will focus on the movement that grew out of the late 19th and early 20th century, while Postmodernism has its own article.
The Modernist Movement emerged in the mid-19th century in France and was rooted in the idea that "traditional" forms of art, literature, social organization and daily life had become outdated, and that it was therefore essential to sweep them aside and reinvent culture. Modernism encouraged the re-examination of every aspect of existence, from commerce to philosophy, with the goal of finding that which was "holding back" progress, and replacing it with new, and therefore better, ways of reaching the same end. In essence, the Modern Movement argued that the new realities of the 20th century were permanent and imminent, and that people should adapt their world view to accept that what was new was also good and beautiful.
Precursors to modernism
The first half of the 19th century for Europe was marked by a series of turbulent wars and revolutions, which gradually formed into a series of ideas and doctrines now identified as Romanticism, which focused on individual subjective experience, the supremacy of "Nature" as the standard subject for art, revolutionary or radical extensions of expression, and individual liberty. By mid-century, however, a synthesis of these ideas with stable governing forms had emerged, partly in reaction to the failed Romantic Revolutions of 1848. Called by various names, this stabilizing synthesis was rooted in the idea that what was "real" dominated over what was subjective. It was exemplified by Otto von Bismarck's realpolitik, by "practical" philosophical ideas such as positivism and in general by cultural norms now connoted by the term "Victorian era".
Central to this synthesis, however, was the importance of institutions, common assumptions and frames of reference. These drew their support from religious norms found in Christianity, scientific norms found in classical physics and doctrines that asserted that depiction of the basic external reality from an objective standpoint was in fact possible. Cultural critics and historians label this set of doctrines Realism, though this term is not universal. In philosophy, the rationalist and positivist movements established a primacy of reason and system.
Against the current ran a series of ideas, some of them direct continuations of Romantic schools of thought. Notable were the agrarian and revivalist movements in plastic arts and poetry (e.g. the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the philosopher John Ruskin). Rationalism also drew responses from the anti-rationalists in philosophy. In particular, Hegel's dialectic view of civilization and history drew responses from Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard, who were major influences on Existentialism. All of these separate reactions together, however, began to be seen as offering a challenge to any comfortable ideas of certainty derived by civilization, history, or pure reason.
From the 1870s onward, the views that history and civilization were inherently progressive, and that progress was inherently amicable, were increasingly called into question. Writers like Wagner and Ibsen had been reviled for their own critiques of contemporary civilization, and warned that increasing "progress" would lead to increasing isolation and the creation of individuals detached from social norms and their fellow men. Increasingly, it began to be argued not merely that the values of the artist and those of society were different, but that society was antithetical to progress itself, and could not move forward in its present form. Moreover, there were new views of philosophy that called into question the previous optimism. The work of Schopenhauer was labelled "pessimistic" for its idea of the "negation of the will", an idea that would be both rejected and incorporated by later thinkers such as Nietzsche.
Two of the most disruptive thinkers of the period were, in biology, Charles Darwin and, in political science, Karl Marx. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection undermined religious certainty of the general public, and the sense of human uniqueness of the intelligentsia. The notion that human beings were driven by the same impulses as "lower animals" proved to be difficult to reconcile with the idea of an ennobling spirituality. Karl Marx seemed to present a political version of the same problem: that problems with the economic order were not transient, the result of specific wrong doers or temporary conditions, but were fundamentally contradictions within the "capitalist" system. Both thinkers would spawn defenders and schools of thought that would become decisive in establishing modernism.
Separately, in the arts and letters, two ideas originating in France would have particular impact. The first was Impressionism, a school of painting that initially focused on work done, not in studios, but outdoors (en plein air). They argued that human beings do not see objects, but instead see light itself. The school gathered adherents, and despite deep internal divisions among its leading practitioners, became increasingly influential. Initially rejected from the most important commercial show of the time — the government-sponsored Paris Salon — the art was shown at the Salon des Refusés, created by Emperor Napoleon III to display all of the paintings rejected by the Paris Salon. While most were in standard styles, but by inferior artists, the work of Manet attracted tremendous attention, and opened commercial doors to the movement.
The second school was Symbolism, marked by a belief that language is expressly symbolic in its nature, and that poetry and writing should follow whichever connection the sheer sound and texture of the words create. The poet Stéphane Mallarmé would be of particular importance to what would occur afterwards.
At the same time social, political, and economic forces were at work that would eventually be used as the basis to argue for a radically different kind of art and thinking.
Chief among these was steam-powered industrialization, which produced buildings that combined art and engineering in new industrial materials such as cast iron to produce railroad bridges and glass-and-iron train sheds, or the Eiffel Tower, which broke all previous limitations on how tall man-made objects could be, and at the same time offered a radically different environment in urban life. The miseries of industrial urbanity, and the possibilities created by scientific examination of subjects would be crucial in the series of changes that would shake European civilization, which, at that point, regarded itself as having a continuous and progressive line of development from the Renaissance. With the telegraph's harnessing of a new power, offering instantaneity at a distance, time itself was altered.
The breadth of the changes can be seen in how many disciplines are described, in their pre-20th century form, as being "classical", including physics, economics, and arts such as ballet.
The beginning of modernism 1890–1910
Clement Greenberg wrote 'What can be safely called Modernism emerged in the middle of the last century— and rather locally, in France, with Baudelaire in literature and Manet in painting, and maybe with Flaubert, too, in prose fiction. (It was a while later, and not so locally, that Modernism appeared in music and architecture). The "avant-garde" was what Modernism was called at first, and the term remained to describe movements which identify themselves as attempting to overthrow some aspect of tradition or the status quo.
Beginning in the 1890s and with increasing force afterwards, a strand of thinking began to assert that it was necessary to push aside previous norms entirely, and instead of merely revising past knowledge in light of current techniques, it would be necessary to make more thorough changes. The movement in art paralleled such developments as the Theory of Relativity in physics; the increasing integration of the internal combustion engine and industrialization; and the rise of social sciences in public policy. In the first fifteen years of the twentieth century a series of writers, thinkers, and artists made the break with traditional means of organizing literature, painting, and music - again, in parallel to the change in organizational methods in other fields. The argument was that if the nature of reality itself was in question, and the restrictions which, it was felt, had been in place around human activity were falling, then art too, would have to radically change.
As Sigmund Freud vividly offered a view of subjective states that involved an unconscious mind full of primal impulses and counterbalancing restrictions, and Carl Jung would combine Freud's doctrine of the unconscious with a belief in natural essence to stipulate a collective unconscious that was full of basic typologies that the conscious mind fought or embraced. This attacked the idea that people's impulses towards breaking social norms were the product of being childish or ignorant, and were instead essential to the nature of the human animal, while the ideas of Darwin had introduced the idea of "man, the animal" to the public mind.
At the same time, and in nearly the same place as Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche championed a process philosophy, in which processes and forces, specifically the 'will to power', were more important than facts or things (although, it must be mentioned that Freud was far more influenced by Nietzsche than the latter was by the former). Similarly, the writings of Henri Bergson became increasingly influential, as Bergson also championed the vital 'life force' over static conceptions of reality. What united all these writers was a romantic distrust of the Victorian positivism and certainty. Instead they championed, or, in the case of Freud, attempted to explain, irrational thought processes through the lens of rationality and holism. This was connected with a general search to culminate the century long trend to thinking in terms of holistic ideas, which would include an increased interest in the occult, and "the vital force".
Out of this collision of ideals derived from Romanticism, and an attempt to find a way for knowledge to explain that which was as yet unknown, came the first wave of works, which, while their authors considered them extensions of existing trends in art, broke the implicit contract that artists were the interpreters and representatives of bourgeois culture and ideas. These "modernist" landmarks include Arnold Schoenberg's atonal ending to his Second String Quartet in 1906, the abstract paintings of Wassily Kandinsky starting in 1903 and culminating with the founding of the Blue Rider group in Munich, and the rise of cubism from the work of Picasso and Georges Braque in 1908.
Powerfully influential in this wave of modernity were the theories of Freud, who argued that the mind had a basic and fundamental structure, and that subjective experience was based on the interplay of the parts of the mind. All subjective reality was based, according to Freud's ideas, on the play of basic drives and instincts, through which the outside world was perceived. This represented a break with the past, in that previously it was believed that external and absolute reality could impress itself on an individual, as, for example, in John Locke's tabula rasa doctrine.
However, the modern movement was not merely defined by its avant-garde but also by a reforming trend within previous artistic norms, as well as arguing that to maintain the high standards of previous accomplishments it was necessary to advance technique and theory. This search for simplification of diction was found in the work of Joseph Conrad. The pressures of communication, transportation and more rapid scientific development began placing a premium on architectural styles which were cheaper to build and less ornamented, and on writing which was shorter, clearer, and easier to read. The rise of cinema and "moving pictures" in the first decade of the twentieth century gave the modern movement an art form which was uniquely its own, and again, created a direct connection between the perceived need to extend the "progressive" tradition of the late nineteenth century, even if this conflicted with then established norms.
This wave of the modern movement broke with the past in the first decade of the twentieth century, and tried to redefine various artforms in a radical manner. Leading lights within the literary wing of this movement (or, rather, these movements) include Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Valery, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, Jean Cocteau, Paul Eluard, Gertrude Stein, Wyndham Lewis, H.D., Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Basil Bunting, Robert Walser, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Federico Garcia Lorca, Rafael Alberti, and Franz Kafka. Composers such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Poulenc and George Antheil represent modernism in music. Artists such as Gustav Klimt, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Les Fauves, Cubism and the Surrealists represent various strains of Modernism in the visual arts, while architects and designers such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe brought modernist ideas into everyday urban life. Several figures outside of artistic modernism were influenced by artistic ideas; for example, John Maynard Keynes was friends with Woolf and other writers of the Bloomsbury group.
In architecture and the arts of design, a search for a recognizably "modern" vocabulary of ornament had been under way since the essays of Viollet-le-Duc and Henry Cole in mid-century; Art Nouveau, termed "Modern Style" by many of its adherents, continued in this vein. A handful of designers like Christopher Dresser managed to eliminate ornament from some industrial design. Adolf Loos' manifesto "Ornament and Crime" (1908, in English 1913) repudiated the work of the Austrian form of Art Nouveau, the Vienna Secession, expressing the idea that the progress of culture is associated with the deletion of ornament from everyday objects, and that it was a crime to force craftsmen or builders to waste their time on ornamentation that simply served to hasten obsolescence. Modernist design retained a moral reaction against ornament.
The explosion of modernism 1910–1930
On the eve of World War I, a growing tension and unease with the social order began to break through - seen in the Russian Revolution of 1905, the increasing agitation of "radical" parties, and an increasing number of works which either radically simplified or rejected previous practice. In 1913, famed Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, working for Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, composed Rite of Spring for a ballet, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky that depicted human sacrifice, and young painters such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse had only recently begun causing a shock with their rejection of traditional perspective as the means of structuring paintings - a step that none of the Impressionists, not even Cézanne, had taken.
This development began to give a new meaning to what was termed 'Modernism'. At its core was the embracing of disruption, and a rejection of, or movement beyond, simple Realism in literature and art, and the rejection of, or dramatic alteration of, tonality in music. In the 19th century, artists had tended to believe in 'progress', though what that word entailed varied dramatically, and the importance of the artist's contributing positively to the values of society. So, for example, writers like Dickens and Tolstoy, painters like Turner, and musicians like Brahms were not 'radicals' or 'Bohemians', but were instead valued members of society who produced art that added to society, even if it was, at times, critiquing less desirable aspects of it. Modernism, while it was still "progressive" increasingly saw traditional forms and traditional social arrangements as hindering progress, and therefore the artist was recast as a revolutionary, overthrowing rather than enlightening.
An example of this trend was to be found in Futurism. In 1909, F.T. Marinetti's first manifesto was published in the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro, and rapidly a group of painters (Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, and Gino Severini) co-signed The Manifesto of Futurist Painting. Such manifestos were modelled on the famous "Communist Manifesto" of the previous century, and were meant to provoke and gather followers while they put forward principles and ideas. However, Futurism was strongly influenced by Bergson and Nietzsche, and it should be seen as part of the general trend of Modernist rationalization of disruption.
It must be stressed that Modernist philosophy and art were still viewed as being part, and only a part, of the larger social movement. Artists such as Klimt, Paul Cezanne and Mahler and Richard Strauss were "the terrible moderns" - those farther to the avant-garde were more heard of, than heard. Polemics in favour of geometric or purely abstract painting were largely confined to 'little magazines' (like The New Age in the UK) with tiny circulations. Modernist primitivism and pessimism was controversial but was not seen as representative of the Edwardian mainstream, which was more inclined towards a Victorian faith in progress and liberal optimism.
However, World War I and its subsequent events were the cataclysmic disruptions that late 19th century artists such as Brahms had worried about, and avant-gardists had embraced.
First, the fantastic failure of the previous status quo seemed self-evident to a generation that had seen millions die fighting over scraps of earth - prior to the war, it had been argued that no one would fight such a war, since the cost was too high. Second, the introduction of a machine age into life seemed obvious - machine warfare became a touchstone of the ultimate reality. Finally, the immensely traumatic nature of the experience made both critical and subjective strands of the modern movement basic assumptions: Realism seemed to be bankrupt when faced with the fundamentally fantastic nature of trench warfare - as exemplified by books such as Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. Moreover, the view that Mankind was making slow and steady moral progress came to seem ridiculous in the face of the senseless slaughter of the Great War. The First World War, at once, fused the harshly mechanical geometric rationality of technology with the nightmarish irrationality of myth.
Thus in the 1920s, and increasingly after, modernism, which had been such a minority taste before the war, came to define the age. There was a subtle, but important, shift from the earlier phase: in the beginning the movement was undertaken by individuals who were part of the establishment, or wished to join the establishment. However, increasingly, the mood began to shift towards a replacement of the older hierarchy with one based on new ideas, norms, and methods. Modernism was seen in Europe in such critical movements as Dada, and then in constructive movements such as Surrealism, as well as in smaller movements such as the Bloomsbury Group. Each of these "modernisms", as some observers labelled them at the time, stressed new methods to produce new results. Again, Impressionism was a precursor: breaking with the idea of national schools, artists and writers adopted ideas of international movements. Surrealism, Cubism, Bauhaus, and Leninism are all examples of movements that rapidly found adopters far beyond their original geographic base.
Exhibitions, theatre, cinema, books and buildings all served to cement in the public view the perception that the world was changing - and this often met with hostile resistance. Paintings were spat upon, riots organized at the opening of works, and some political figures even denounced modernism as being connected with immorality. At the same time, the 1920s were known as the "Jazz Age", and there was a public embrace of the advancements of mechanization: cars, air travel and the telephone. The assertion of Modernists was that these advances required people to change, not merely their habits, but their fundamental aesthetic sense.
By 1930, modernism had won a place in the establishment, including the political and artistic establishment.
Ironically, by the time it was being accepted, Modernism itself had changed. There was a general reaction in the 1920s against the pre-1918 Modernism, which emphasised its continuity with a past even as it rebelled against it, and against the aspects of that period, which seemed excessively mannered, irrational, and emotionalistic. The post-World War period, at first, veered either to systematization or nihilism and had, as perhaps its most paradigmatic movement, Dada.
Since both rationality and irrationality are present to varying degrees in all large movements, some writers attacked the madness of the new Modernism, while, at the same time, others described it as soulless and mechanistic. Modernists, in turn, attacked the madness of hurling millions of young men into the hell of war, and the falseness of artistic norms that could not depict the emotional reality of life in the 20th century.
The rationalistic side of modernism was a move back towards control, self-restraint, and an urge to re-engage with society. Some influences came from Machine Age thought and the idolization of technology. Examples of this approach include Stravinsky's neoclassical style of composition, the "International style" of Bauhaus, Schoenberg's atonality, the New Objectivity in German painting. At the same time, the desire to turn social critique into persuasive counter-order found expression in the beginnings of econometrics, and the rise of societies to reform nations along scientific, and often socialistic, lines. The victories of the Russian Revolution of 1917, with its emphasis, at least in words, on both humane life and rational planning, came to be taken by many as an example of the maxim "I have seen the future, and it works".
However, it must be remembered that these concepts and movements were often in competition with each other, and even in direct conflict. Within modernity there were disputes about the importance of the public, the relationship of art to audience, and the role of art in society. Rather than a lockstep, organized unity, it is better to see modernism as taking a series of responses to the situation as it was understood, and the attempt to wrestle universal principles from it. In the end science and scientific rationality, often taking models from the 18th Century Enlightenment, came to be seen as the source of logic and stability, while the basic primitive sexual and unconscious drives, along with the seemingly counter-intuitive workings of the new machine age, were taken as the basic emotional substance. From these two poles, no matter how seemingly incompatible, modernists began to fashion a complete worldview that could encompass every aspect of life, and express "everything from a scream to a chuckle".