Modernism in Context


This blog will discuss the concept of modernism and how it functions in the discourse of art history. It will do so by using different art criticism examples and examples of the formalists art. It will make use of Clive Bell’s reading, Art (1914), Schiff’s reading; Cubism, in Concepts of modern art: from Fauvism to Postmodernism (1997) and Greenberg’s reading; ‘Modernist painting’, in Art in theory 1900-2000. An anthology of changing ideas (1992). The blog will begin by explaining what modernism is, key concepts within in before finally putting it in context with the rest of the world at the time.

The term modernism needs to first be separated from the term modern. Modern means something that is current and new, whereas modernism refers to a specific time period which has already past. Currently we are in a post-modern era. However, as stated by Harrison (1996) “‘modernism’ is the substantive form of the adjective ‘modern’, while the condition it denotes is virtually synonymous with the experience of modernity”.

The concept of art modernism has tended to function in three different ways. The first one is used to distinguish characteristics of western art culture (mid 19century till at least mid 20th century). (Harrison, 1996) The second phase is to distinguish specifically to the modernist traditions to the high art and low art. The aesthetic merit is of importance when the socio-historical meaning is less important.


Concepts of modernism 

Modernism is an historical period, it can be dated to 1910-1939 roughly, if you had to put dates to it. Modernism began when particularly artists began emerging with modernist ideas. Ideas however were born in the 1870’s when some radical critiques on western tradition and western values. It ended because of war, where there had to be a new set of issues in western culture to be addressed. (Western History II, 20113).

Modernism can also be referred to as a state of mind, therefore not restricted to any historical time frame. State of mind=radical rejection of tradition. Modernists want to divorce themselves from the past and free themselves from philosophical, moral and spiritual traditions and of course art traditions. Therefore, the state of mind embraces the NEW, inventive, experimental. Characteristic of modernism is ‘being original’ (cult of the new). Modernism was fairly optimistic as they were excited about the advance of the technological progress. However, after world war, ideologies, culture, religions were breaking down, the idea of the enlightened utopia was shattered. Modernism embraced that fragmentation (cult of fragmentation). (Western History II, 20113).

Modernism was also coined as the self-criticism era. The idea was started with Kant, when he even began critiquing criticism. Once one has criticized all there is to criticize; religion, culture art, everything, people began to purify what they believed. This purification process mean one can self-define what one is. (Greenburg, 1992). According to Harrison, it was a time when sooner or later everything would be brought to ‘the market place’ to have its value established and to become a commodity.

Modernism in terms of art was grounded in the rejection of classical styles. It is in many ways a way of revising or renewing the language and curriculum of art and culture in general. (Harrison, 1996).

How modernism functions in art history

Art movements that fall under ‘modernism’ are; impressionism, post-impressionism, cubism, pop art, Dadaism, fauvism, expressionism and surrealism. What differentiated these painting styles was that they shared flatness and two-dimensionality with no other art practice. The use of photography or the development thereof has largely influenced the way art moved forward as artists no longer had to/wanted to create what the camera can already capture – therefore the more experimental art developed.

Harrison – what an artwork needed

Harrison describes modernism to be a special kind of ‘aesthetic’ form with the integrity of having a social-historical relevance. The aesthetic does not necessarily have to reference the topic of work that it aims to address. Therefore, an artist is a critic whose judgments reflect a specific set of ideas or belies about art and its development. I think this is in contrast to the art created before modernism which made reference to a specific object, such as a portrait of a king. (?)

There were some general guidelines that Harrison identified; firstly, that nothing mattered as much as the aesthetic merit of an artwork, secondly, the criticism the artwork made about the world was important in terms of historical development which also connect other works of the highest merit and thirdly if the aesthetic judgments are in conflict with moral or political commentary, the aesthetic judgment becomes a secondary issue.

How modernism was different

What modernism changed in terms of art was that the focus shifted from the subject to the artist and the method of application. Therefore, the practice or the medium was put into question (Harrison, 1996). There was a continuing pursuit of aesthetics standards that had been set by art previously and those standards were being revised. It was governed by the self-critical procedures addressed by the medium itself. Another significant quality that modernism gained was that it stripped the images to their bare essentials, as seen in Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (Figure 1). According to Golding (1997) the break of the traditional “perspective was what resulted in ‘simultaneous’ vision- which was the fusion of various views of a figure or object to a single image.”

Figure 1: Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon 

Themes are most obvious in modernist art. E.g. Picasso’s break in forms and having the Demoiselles d’Avignon in African masks and square shapes= breaking tradition and norms. Most notable is the movement away from realistic depictions of human figures. He experimented with a new method, which later was defined as cubism. (Western History II, 20113).

More dramatic example of modernist art is in the works of Marcel Duchamp, 1917, Fountain (Figure 2) the urinal. It radically changed the notion of what art is. He was one of the founders of the movement known as Dada, in America. In some sense Fountain was a declaration of hostility not only to art audiences but also to art itself. The artwork opened up a gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, the gap still exists today. (Western History II, 20113). According to Harrison, modernism blurred the lines between classical, academic and conservative types of art but also the link between those kinds of art and popular and mass culture.

Figure 2: Duchamp’s Fountain

Flatness in Modernism

Another quality that modernism held was that it turned to being flat. The flatness was characteristic against the old masters who tried to create optical illusions of space and depth. However, the modernists artists only wanted to where one can look and only travel with the eye, making it a solely visual experience. In the works of George Braque, his work emphasizes how the flatness is telling us that any space made behind he the foreground is the creating of the artist and it is tangible in the real world. (Golding, 1997).

Figure 3: George Braque’s Violin

Cubism (Golding)

Cubism began when Picasso and Georges Braque worked together on a collaboration, after Picasso had finished Demoiselles. In the early stages images were fragmented and analyzed and to a certain extent abstracted. Later the process was reversed – the abstraction was first created and worked up towards the representation. Cubist artists wanted to face the artist with their initial confrontation of having to work on a flat canvas, therefore they relate their work back to the flat canvas. Atmosphere and tone are neglected, forms are drastically simplified and objects in the foreground are given the same value as those at the back. All this for a new sense of space and freedom. The new qualities made a decretive break from the naturalistic forms of previous art movements. It was also referred to as the ‘heroic; period. Both artists were very careful to balance between representation and abstraction which they sought to maintain. They also chose to intentionally avoid all forms of symbolism. (Vast contrast to the Victorian times before them.) They relied heavily on the influences of African art, such as the traditional Negro African face masks.

However, according to Golding (1997), arguably the giant of Cubism is Juan Gris who later joined the movement and made the most influential decisions and ground breaking concepts within it. His work also began with the simultaneous vision and then progressed onto his so called mathematical period where his paintings used geometric instruments to compose his intricate designs. The drawings were significant because they possibly achieved a harmonious composition in a purely abstract from.

Figure 4: Juan Gris’ Portrait of Picasso

Cubisim was inicially not well received and highly misleading by the public, howveer in later years it achieved to gain an even wider audience than before. Cubism was an art of experimentation and had gone a long way to destroy the barriers between abstraction and representation. It had developed and original, anti-naturalistic kind of figuration.

Art criticism/formalist art (5Marks)

To be able to criticize modernist art one first has to understand Bell’s concepts of significant from and aesthetic emotion. Bell (1914) says that all systems of aesthetics are based on personal experience, therefore aesthetic judgments are subjective and matter upon personal taste. He says that for a work of art to be considered as one, it has to possess both these qualities. There are of course many that do not, he therefore doesn’t consider them to be artworks, they are merely works without either ‘significant form’ or ‘aesthetic emotion’. An example of this would be a ‘descriptive painting’ which only has suggestions of emotions that convey information.  He also makes the differentiation between aesthetic emotion and ‘beauty’ describing how beauty is often associated with desire and therefore is not a good word to use aesthetic emotion for. Bell does reference the Italian futurists, explaining how their work uses form to convey information and ideas, i.e. Their artworks lack aesthetic emotion; however, they are not meant to promote aesthetic emotions. Because they lack aesthetic emotion, they works are not considered works of art. He suggests that primitive at has the clearest characteristics of both properties. An artwork that achieves both these qualities has a universal appeal and is eternal.



Throughout understanding what modernism is, it may be important to mention that ALL art movements tried to be so unlike previous art movements and be ‘liberated’ from other art movements. However, each time, this expectation is disappointed and it becomes clear that the same demands are made on the artist and the spectator. (Greenburg, 1992). Therefore, the modernist art movement in many ways failed to do what it had implied to.


Bell, A. 1914. Art. [O]. Available:

Harrison, C. 1996. Modernism, in Critical terms for Art History, edited by RS Nelson & RSchiff. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Golding, J. 1997. Cubism, in Concepts of modern art: from Fauvism to Postmodernism, edited by N Stangos. London: Thames and Hudson:50-78.

Greenberg, C. 1992. ‘Modernist painting’, in Art in theory 1900-2000. An anthology of changing ideas, edited by C Harrison & P Wood. Oxford: Blackwell: 754-760.

Western Humanities II. Youtube. [O]. Available: Accessed on 1 June 2017.

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