Modernism refers to the style and ideology of art produced between the 1860s and the 1970s.

As traditional art forms had become outdated due to industrialisation, the modernism art movement emerged in Western Europe out of a need to reject tradition and embrace the political, social, and economic change of the industrial age.

Modernism & Social Class

In stark opposition to their predecessors of the academic movement, the radical modernists, often referred to as “progressives”, were critical of political and religious institutions.

Regarding institutions as restrictive of individual liberty, they used their art to challenge all authority, reject conservative values and reflect the injustices of contemporary society.

Focusing on the plight of the poorer ranks and the smugness of the middle class, the progressive modernists painted pictures vividly showing the exploitation of the poor and the ills of a society caught up in the past. In doing so, they intended to educate the public on the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality.

The Avant-Garde Movement

Progressive modernism soon came to be referred to as the avant-garde movement. Modernists consciously rejected tradition and saw themselves as leaders of the future.

However, following the catastrophic failure of the First World War, the avant-garde’s faith in science and technology as a path to a better world was proved to be very wrong, prompting the emergence of the Dada movement and post-modernist modes of thought.

Following their failure, the avant-garde movement became very liberal, placing an even stronger focus on freedom of expression and the demands of equality.

Evolution of Modernism

Soon it was pronounced that art should be produced not for the sake of the public, but for art’s sake.

That said, they went strongly against the idea that art should be made to instruct, moralise, or delight, and it was soon spoken of in terms of colour, line, shape, space and composition.

It was argued that while the function of art is to preserve the values and sensibilities of humankind, it should try and detach itself from the wicked influences of the technological culture. Eventually this led to the notion of modernist art being practised entirely within a closed formalist sphere and separated from the real world.

As artists were seen to have the ability to express the finer things of modern life through a “purely visual” form of expression, modernism achieved a self-referential autonomy.

Art was soon seen to act as a tool from social betterment, thus it needed to be understood by as many people as possible.

With the “true” meaning behind the image deemed the most important aspect, some artists went to great lengths to search for this essence of art.

Noteworthy Modernist Artists

Distracting elements were stripped away from images, as in the work of Wassily Kandinsky, and basic elements were enhanced, as seen in Piet Mondrian’s approach in Composition A, 1923.

However, while many modernist artists were preoccupied with depicting truth through their art, abstraction was a path to another goal. It involved the stripping away of the material world and alluded to the world of spirit. The art of Pablo Picasso best epitomises this.

The Downfall of Modernism

Despite the success of progressive modernism in depicting truth and the essence of art, towards the end of the twentieth century, it became riddled with doubt as more conservative modernists fell under the influence of the church.

The modernists continued to see tradition and the past as stifling to the expression of freedom and following the events of World War Two, Vietnam and Cold War, it was seen to be flawed, corrupt and directionless. Their optimism in the future or any sort of future for mankind was increasingly difficult to maintain.

Though Modernism had almost become an obsolete form of expression, it did not die out completely, but instead paved the way for Postmodernism which was in many respects, a revision of modernist ideals.

Other Art Movements

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