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Robin Walz

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Robin Walz

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About This Book

Robin Walz's updated Modernism, now part of the Seminar Studies series, has been updated to include significant primary source material and features to make it more accessible for students returning to, or studying the topic for the first time.

The twentieth century was a period of seismic change on a global scale, witnessing two world wars, the rise and fall of communism, the establishment of a global economy, the beginnings of global warming and a complete reversal in the status of women in large parts of the world.

The modernist movements of the early twentieth century launched a cultural revolution without which the multi-media-driven world in which we live today would not have been possible. Today modernism is enshrined in art galleries and university courses. Its techniques of abstraction and montage, and its creative impulse to innovate and shock, are the stock-in-trade of commercial advertising, feature films, television and computer-generated graphics.

In this concise cultural history, Robin Walz vividly recaptures what was revolutionary about modernism. He shows how an aesthetic concept, arising from a diversity of cultural movements, from Cubism and Bauhaus to Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, and operating in different ways across the fields of art, literature, music, design and architecture, came to turn intellectual and cultural life and assumptions upside down, first in Europe and then around the world.

From the nineteenth century origins of modernism to its postmodern legacies, this book will give the reader access to the big picture of modernism as a dynamic historical process and an unfinished project which still speaks to our times.

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The Problem
During the fall of 1907, the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso invited several friends to his studio in Paris to show them a new painting he had completed earlier that summer. Having recently taken up residence in Paris, the ‘capital of modernity’, Picasso’s star was quickly rising on the Parisian arts scene and his works were on display in various galleries. This new painting, which he called his ‘brothel’, was of a new sort (see Plate 1). The canvas was large, two and a half metres tall and nearly as wide. Angular and two-dimensional images of five naked women, looking more like cut-outs than naturalistic figures, seemed to be pasted against a background of massive, irregular geometric shapes of blue and reddish-brown. Two women on the right wore primitive and abstract masks, concealing their faces. Two other women in the centre of the canvas seemed to be staring directly at the viewer. How was the viewer supposed to respond?
The new painting was a calculated provocation, the result of a methodical and intentional process. Over the course of the past year, Picasso had filled sixteen sketchbooks with designs for this particular painting, and he had made a number of preliminary studies of it. Although he was working out of an established nineteenth-century genre, the brothel painting, this particular work had been accomplished in a new style, completely outside the bounds of inherited traditions. Judgements about it were split. Painters Henri Matisse and André Derain did not like it. The American modernist writer Gertrude Stein, a personal friend of Picasso, found ‘all of it rather frightening’. The avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire dubbed the painting the ‘philosophical brothel,’ intrigued by its combination of visual provocation and opaque meaning. For the time being, however, it remained in Picasso’s studio, known only to a small circle of intimates.
The painting was first placed on public display a decade later, in July 1916, at the ‘Modern Art in France’ exhibition organised by the poet André Salmon. Titled Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, it was Picasso’s sole contribution to the exhibition, and it received very little critical attention. In 1924, at the urging of Surrealist André Breton, art collector Jacques Doucet purchased the painting, after the Louvre Museum had declined Picasso’s offer to donate it. So the painting remained in Doucet’s private collection until his death, when it was sold to an art dealer in 1937. By this time, however, Picasso had become one of the most renowned modernist painters in Europe. Soon, the painting was sold to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City where it was installed in 1939. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon has remained there since and today it is viewed by over two and one-half million visitors annually.
This span of time, between the obscure birth of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to its installation in MoMA, coincides with the period of ‘high modernism’ in European history. During these crucial decades, a constellation of avant-garde artists, writers, playwrights, architects, musical composers, film-makers and intellectuals across Europe engaged in a revolutionary project to set Western civilisation upon a new foundation: modernism. Rejecting classical and traditional ideas of aesthetics, modernists insisted that the arts should be founded upon new forms, practices and values derived entirely from the contemporary moment and oriented towards the future. Many of these modernists also believed that they constituted an avant-garde, an artistic elite who were leading a cultural revolution that would transform not only European culture, but human consciousness, social relations and mass politics as well. While the artistic impulses during the period of ‘high modernism’, from the end of the nineteenth century to the advent of World War II, moved in multiple directions – ranging from Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism to Constructivism, Surrealism and Purism – the goal was the realisation of an entirely new civilisation of modernism.
Today, the notion of modernism has passed into general parlance. Modernist art is a mainstay of contemporary art museums, students learn about literary modernism in university classrooms, scholars critically reinterpret canonical modernist works. Modernist aesthetics have been thoroughly integrated into our contemporary world, part of the cultural air we breathe. When some new work of art or literature debuts, or more common to our daily experience when we are dazzled by newly designed consumer products or digitally generated visual images, such things usually do not shock us. On the contrary, continual innovation in design and creative technique is something we have come to expect. In this sense, culturally we are all moderns, whether or not we understand some particular work of modernist art or literature. Yet the aspirations of the early twentieth-century modernist avant-garde were greater than simply to gain general recognition. These modernists were not seeking popularity or looking to win art competitions, they were utopians who wanted to change the world by making new art. We call that collective project ‘modernism’. The historical results of that effort have been mixed, and the contemporary status of modernism is uncertain.
This book provides a brief cultural history of modernism, supplemented by a selection of short companion readings and illustration plates for further discussion of critical issues raised by key modernist writers, artists, and critics. The first section focuses upon the historical origins of modernism. Throughout the nineteenth century, as industrialisation and the politics of nationalism and imperialism were rapidly transforming European society, many artists and writers grappled with the issue of what constituted a uniquely modern art and sensibility. The rise of Romantic bohemianism, literary Realism, ‘art for art’s sake,’ Impressionism, Symbolism, and the Gesamtkunstwerk ‘fusion of the arts’ provided some of the aesthetic foundations of modernism for the following century. At the dawn of the twentieth century, a ‘perceptual revolution’ across academic disciplines – in physics, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, and literature – marked a significant break in the experience of modernity. In a conceptual shift from the experience of linearity to multi-perspectivity, these fields of knowledge were reconfigured upon new conceptual foundations, an intellectual transformation that was seized upon and further developed by the modernist avant-garde.
The second section concerns the era of ‘high modernism’ in Europe during the first four decades of the twentieth century. At the turn of the century, an early modernist avant-garde began to re-examine and innovate the fundamental modes of expression in such realms as the visual arts, musical composition, and poetry. In the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution, and inspired by the early modernist movements of Futurism and Dada, the avant-garde was radicalised. Modernist movements such as Constructivism, Surrealism, and various schools of modernist architecture, had revolutionary goals beyond merely artistic ones to transform mass society and consciousness. With the rise of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and global economic depression, however, some modernist avant-garde movements moved towards a “return to sobriety” in which political considerations took precedence over aesthetic experimentation. Under such conditions, modernist art was sometimes placed in the service of the state, while under fascism and communism modernism was censured. In response, an even more radicalised political avant-garde intensified its critique of the status quo.
The third section concerns later developments in modernism in the post-World War II era. During the war and in the following decade, the international centre of modernism shifted from Paris to New York, and a modernist ‘neo-avant-garde’ began to emerge beyond the confines of Europe and America. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, the role of the avant-garde was eclipsed by the institutionalisation of modernism in the art museum, the rise of the ‘culture industry’ of mass consumer culture, the attendant ‘pop art’ movement, and the advent of ‘postmodernism.’ The reading excerpts in the documents section of the book and the plate reproductions of art works not only illustrate and provide texture to these chapters, but also provide the reader with materials for further discussion of the complexities and implications of critical issues raised by this history. As a historical caveat, it is important to bear in mind that the treatment provided here is not comprehensive, as modernism is the subject of a vast scholarship. The modernist movements and the avant-garde figures presented in this book, while important and influential, are neither exclusive nor authoritative, and they do not necessarily deserve some heroic status over their artistic, literary, musical and architectural contemporaries. Still, they constitute a representative and synoptic cultural history of modernism.
Today, the historical implications of modernism are not altogether clear. On the one hand, modernist art has been absorbed into the cultural fabric of the contemporary world, which indicates some measure of success at achieving a fundamental shift in Western civilisation. On the other hand, social and political inequities intensely experienced around the globe today suggest relevance for artistic avant-gardes in the twenty-first century. As a historical process, modernism remains an unfinished project.
The term modernism is derived from the root stem ‘modern’, and it is related to the concepts of modernisation and modernity. Yet while sharing affinities with these terms, modernism should not be equated with or subsumed by them. Modernism does not describe a historical period, large-scale transformations in political economy and society, or even a mentality that favours contemporary values over traditional ones. Rather, modernism marks a radical break in European culture to produce what art critic Harold Rosenberg has called ‘the tradition of the new’. In strict usage, modernism is a term of aesthetics, the principles by which a work of art is judged as valid or beautiful. Simply put, modernist aesthetics are different from traditional ones. As both creative innovators and intellectual critics, artists, writers, musicians, designers and architects constituted the vanguard, or avant-garde, of modernism. Rejecting the aesthetic values of their nineteenth-century forebears, the twentieth-century modernist avant-garde sought to set European civilisation upon a new path.
While today we may commonly think of ‘modern’ and ‘new’ as nearly synonymous, this has not always been the case. As a historical term, ‘modern’ refers to European history since the Renaissance and Reformation, so modernism is not synonymous with modern art, which covers the past five centuries. Even the meaning of ‘modern’ has changed over the centuries. For medieval scholars, to be modern was to be ‘current’ (from the Latin modo) meaning one thought contemporary Christian civilisation was superior to late-Roman antiquity. For the writers and philosophers of the Renaissance ‘Republic of Letters’, to be current included being knowledgeable about the prisca sapientia, or the original ‘ancient wisdom’ of the Greeks, Hebrews, Egyptians and other civilisations of antiquity. During the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, the breakdown of traditional science (Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen) was superseded by entirely new knowledge being gained by mathematics, observation, experimentation and global exploration, which was proving to be technologically powerful and commercially profitable. This led to an attitude among the bourgeoisie, a mixture of urban aristocrats, merchants, professionals, and wealthy artisans, that its modern lifestyle and cultural tastes were superior to that of the landed aristocracy and peasantry.
The notion that the modern moment is superior to whatever has occurred in the past began to take root during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. When asked, ‘What is Enlightenment?’ the German philosopher Immanuel Kant responded, Sapere aude! – ‘Dare to know!’ For Kant, the modern, enlightened person thought autonomously for oneself, beyond the limitations of inherited knowledge, authority, custom and superstition. Embracing this new attitude, the writers, artists and intellectuals of the Enlightenment believed that they could help usher in the ‘next stage’ of knowledge and history with their new philosophies. The crowning achievement of the Enlightenment was the 28-volume Encyclopédie edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1751–72). A comprehensive dictionary of all known sciences, arts, and crafts, this encyclopaedia was intended as a comprehensive guide to all the world’s knowledge for the benefit of humankind. This conceit, that a self-constituted elite discovers the truth, and then compiles and uses that knowledge to guide humanity towards realising a better future, would later be characteristic of the modernist avant-garde as well.
In the nineteenth century, the multiple processes we call ‘modernisation’ – the expansion of commercial capitalism through industrialisation in tandem with the rise of the modern nation state and imperialism – completely transformed European society and culture. For most of the nineteenth century, many artists and writers largely defined themselves against the forces of modernisation. Considering their creative spirit superior to industrial production, many nineteenth-century artists and writers railed against the intellectual pettiness of the bourgeoisie and shopkeepers. Instead, they elevated the ‘work of art’ above commercially produced mass culture and regarded the superior artist a ‘genius’. At the same time, modernisation had produced the very marketplace where their art and literature was sold and thereby had the potential to reach a wide audience. Modernisation thus created an intellectual and practical bind for the artistic elite: is creation of contemporary art an elite enterprise elevated above mass culture, or is the challenge for artists to transform mass culture through a more enlightened modern civilisation? The modernist avant-garde of the twentieth century would come to experience this bind intensely.
Still, whether one was a promoter or critic of modernisation, its transformative effects upon social life and the cultural landscape were self-evident. ‘All that is solid melts into air,’ Karl Marx proclaimed in the mid-nineteenth century. The crit...

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Citation styles for Modernism
APA 6 Citation
Walz, R. (2013). Modernism (2nd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Walz, Robin. (2013) 2013. Modernism. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Walz, R. (2013) Modernism. 2nd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Walz, Robin. Modernism. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.