The work of psychologists Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche contributed to the ideal of re-beginning in particular. Simply expressed, they shared the belief that all humans function according to fundamental, intrinsic drives. They believed internal human psyche determined perception, opposing the traditional concept that perception is an objective interpretation of the external environment. Jung termed this the “collective unconscious” . Artists were greatly influenced by this theory and thus sought to reconnect with their base, innate drives. The Surrealists reflected such sentiments in that they sought solely to make art conceived via their subconscious, which they held was the only source of truth and meaning. The eye is therefore a frequent motif in Surrealist art, promoting the concept of “sightless sight.” For example, the title of one of Rene’s Magritte’s paintings is “False Mirror,” 1928, (See Figure Three) and features an open, yet vacant eye, since it is filled with a commonplace, cloud-filled sky. He thus suggests that people only truly see by connecting with their subconscious, disengaging from their external environment.
There was also the simple fact that Victorian artists were being exposed to many examples of alternative art practices. Chinese art was introduced to Europe in the early 1700s. Commodore C. Perry and the American Navy opened Japanese works in the 1850s, following the establishment of trade routes. Flooding into Paris and Europe, it challenged and modified traditional Western conceptions of art. In 1880 painted, prehistoric caves were discovered in Spain, dating back thirty thousand years. Additionally, art from previously unknown or ignored cultures such as Africa, Asia and Polynesia were entering the European market. Considering the liberal developments in other professions, artists were much more willing to accept, indeed, were excited by these differences. The majority of art from Non-Western culture was, at least from a Western perspective, abstract. It was evident therefore that it was in fact the traditional academics of Western art that were in the minority with regard to their mocking attitude to abstraction and its ability to facilitate a new beginning. Considering this, Modernists were also given great confidence and inspiration to pursue their ideals of artistic innovation and the liberation of the bourgeois.
The threat and results of World War One were other, connected factors in the Modernists’ desire to reconnect with fundamental emotions, or to start again, albeit for a more sombre reason. The Modernists viewed the sheer destructive nature of the Great War as irreconcilable evidence of the failure of Victorian values. Logic and reason had proven futile. Artists therefore wished to begin again, to forge a new age. The Dada movement pursued this ideal most radically, seeking to become childlike and innocent, removing all elements of reason and logic. Essentially, they sought to change the ordered, structured philosophy of the period. Thus, the Dada movement’s artistic theory is characterised by abstraction, chance and impossibility. This is evidenced in the work of Jean Arp, who randomly threw pieces of paper onto a sheet and then glued them where they fell. Similarly, “Bicycle Wheel”, 1913 (See Figure Four) by Marcel Duchamp, was a ‘ready-made’ that is, beginning simply with ‘found objects’ and then arranged by the artist. Such theory and practice defied the careful, deliberate theories adhered to by traditional, academic artists.
Herein lies a major paradox of the Modernist movement. Many of its proponents claimed a desire to reconnect with basic drives, or to recapture innocence. Simultaneously, however, the thought processes involved in conceiving these movements were highly complex and sophisticated. Some movements, such as the Surrealists, even wrote manifestos analysing their artistic theories. Obviously, the typical child, the epitome of innocence, does not critique their own work, nor do they have a defined purpose when they make art. This renders movements such as Surrealism and Dadaism somewhat contradictory. Whilst they sought to capture the subconscious, chance and randomness, they had to engage with the logical, external world to formulate and clarify this aspiration.
These factors culminated in the quintessential element of Modernist philosophy - the ‘avant-garde’, or, the advanced guard. Essentially, this means to constantly seek progress and innovation - to be the most original. A number of aspects of the Modernist context contributed to this mindset. One significant factor was the endurance of the concept of ‘secular humanism.’ This belief began in the Renaissance and advocated the “autonomy of the individual” , that is, the ability of a person to achieve any goal if they apply themselves. ‘Secular humanism’ also affirmed that knowledge was the primary tool for upholding human rights such as liberation and individuality. It therefore appealed to Modernists for two main reasons. Firstly, it encouraged people to strive for individuality and brilliance. This both encouraged and reinforced the Modernists’ belief in self-evaluation. To self-evaluate was to analyse a medium to gain the most innovative and provoking effects possible. As ‘secular humanism’ affirms people’s ability and potential, Modernists largely approached art from a positive perspective. This is not to say that they made simplistic, escapist art, but that they mainly approached their practice optimistically, confident that they were challenging traditional aesthetic principles. In the 1960’s the American critic Clement Greenberg wrote, “The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline - not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” Additionally, ‘secular humanism’s’ emphasis on knowledge as the key to liberation reflected and clarified Modernists’ desire to liberate the public from conservative Victorian values. By exhibiting innovative and intentionally shocking art, the Modernist hoped to communicate to and encourage liberal thought in the bourgeois. Equally, the rigid class hierarchies of the Victorian era would have greatly offended the liberal, egalitarian-minded Modernists. Such a situation inspired them to emancipate the working classes from their oppressed status.
The complement of the Modernists’ belief in progress and the ‘avant-garde’ was their contempt for popular culture. Consumerism rose to an enormous level in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, affecting also the rise of popular culture such as Hollywood and Pop Music. Popular culture was despised since, “most manufacturers try to make products that will be marketable by appealing to preferences and prejudices,” whereas the Modernist sought to challenge and undermine traditional thinking. Despite the works of Modernists, popular culture justified its title, attracting mass appeal. Modernists became extremely frustrated. This frustration led to the creation of another paradox within Modernism, the concept of “art for art’s sake.” This meant to make art with the simple goal of aestheticism, abandoning meaning. Wassily Kandisky’s “Composition VIII,” 1923 (See Figure Four) demonstrates such aloofness, being comprised of solely line, shape and colour. It does not seek to comment on contemporary issues, but to connect with a deeper, spiritual element of art. Kandinsky hoped to achieve this by removing all recognisable material elements from his composition. Modernists believed the success of popular culture demonstrated inferior taste on the part of the middle class. Despite contradicting their goal of liberating the bourgeois by retreating within themselves, the Modernists acted thus. It has been proposed that, “modernism in literature and art functioned to sustain an elite culture which excluded the majority of the population.” This argument is made potent by the fact that the Soviet Union and the Nazi Party, both institutions that rejected elitism, also rejected Modernism.
The breadth of Modernist theory resulted in an immensely diverse and somewhat confusing period. Whilst committed to progress and the emancipation of the bourgeois through knowledge, Modernists were often highly elitist artists. Their frustrated, fixed views regarding the divisions of high and low culture created largely aloof cliques that failed to engage the majority. Having said this, it cannot be denied that the innovations and inventiveness driven by the Modernists has greatly altered the course of artistic development. Factors such as World War One, the influx of non-Western art to Europe and significant developments in classical and social science, psychology and philosophy posed enormous challenges to traditional thought. These changes affected Modernist artists enormously. Through these advances, ways of thinking were nurtured that caused artists to break from traditional, academic art; broaching bold, new practice.
1. Class handouts (Numerous).
2. Edward Lucie-Smith, “Visual Arts in the 20th Century,” first published by Laurence
King Publishing, Hong Kong, 1996.
3. Laurie Schneider Adams, “A History of Western Art,” first published by McGraw-Hill
in 1994, London.
4. H.W. and Dora Jane Janson, “The Picture History of Painting,” first published by
Thames and Hudson, London, 1957.
Figure One: Claude Monet, “Regatta at Argenteuil,” 1874
Figure Two: Jackson Pollock, “Blue Poles,” 1952.
Figure Three: Rene Magritte, “False Mirror,” 1928.
Figure Four: Marcel Duchamp, “Bicycle Wheel,” 1913.
Figure Five: Wassily Kandinsky, “Composition VIII,” 1923.
Britannica 2000 (CD-ROM), published by Britannica Encyclopaedia inc
As quoted at .
As quoted by Christopher Witcombe at .
Clement Greenberg, as quoted by Charles Harrison in the chapter of his book entitled “Modernism,” which was issued as a class handout.