The first in a 3-part series that traces the historical and cultural influences that spurred the rise of modernism from the flames of conflict in early 20th century Western Europe.
In the fall of 1938, the incoming class of architectural students at Harvard University sat in eager anticipation of the arrival of their new professor, Walter Gropius. His arrival in New England, his presence on campus, as well as the completion of his new, ‘modern’ home in nearby Lincoln, Mass., were the culmination of a long and sometimes dangerous path in search of free, creative expression that had been precipitously wrested from him five years earlier. He had been a resident of Germany until 1933 and the one-time director of the Bauhaus school, in Dessau, when Hitler’s SS troops arrived at the institution, on April 11th of that year, to shut it down and disperse its ‘decadent and subversive’ faculty. Jewish members of the staff were retained and questioned and all were threatened, if they continued on their path of instructing and encouraging students with their radical, ‘modernist’ art and architectural design curriculum. fine arts magazine
Tracing the events that account for Gropius’s journey from Germany to Harvard Square requires a comparative look at political and cultural history in Germany and nearby England and France, going back to the mid-19th century. It also requires gaining a broader perspective on the intimate and inseparable connection between artistic movements in those neighboring Western European countries and the sea-change in the socio-political climate that engulfed these same nation-states, in the decades leading up to, and immediately following the birth of, the 20th century.
While the focus of this exposition will be on the birth of modernism (a descriptor for an artistic or aesthetic movement), it is important to differentiate it from modernization. Modernization has its roots in progressive improvements in manufacturing, transportation, agrarian output and the increasingly important role of the city as a consolidation center for a skilled labor force. “[Modernization] consists of a chain of 30 or 40 related changes, each link of which forms a necessary component in the total operation. It certainly includes…the ‘Industrial Revolution’, which is taken to be just one vital part…of the total process. By general consent, modernization was first experienced in Great Britain…but it soon spread in ever-widening circles to the Continent—first in the ports and then in the capital cities and then across the countries that received the industrial stimulus. Modernization must be seen as a motor of change, not as a static sum of its component parts. [Like an aircraft], the engine of industry needs to ignite and gain momentum, reach a critical point of take-off and then pass into an entirely different mode of motion. [While, in 19th century Europe], industry advanced rapidly in the north and western regions…Germany was seen as the exception to the rule. Britain’s industrial efforts, for example, had benefitted from colonization, with access to sources of food, raw materials, cheap migrant labor and as capital markets for manufactured goods.”
“Germany, though a dynamic country lying in the northern industrial zone, was prevented for reasons of politics [Bismarck’s resistance to colonization] and timing from acquiring a commensurate collection of colonies. Once Germany was united in 1871, it forged close economic links with the countries of Eastern Europe, thereby compensating itself for its colonial failures. Whereas, in former times, the divide between Western and Eastern Europe had largely been religious and political in nature, it now assumed strong economic overtones” (Davies 764-765).
For purposes of this exposition, German modernization and its modernist art movement will be compared and contrasted to that of England and France during the same period (1850-1938). It is particularly instructive as a study in socio-cultural development, emerging as it did from political opportunism posed by nationalistic movements of the period (some of which are discussed here). But, unlike related political movements and the emerging body of inventive visual and literary works found in neighboring countries, during the decades leading up to the Great War (1914-19), the German artistic community eventually came to embrace radical or liberal elements, posing a direct and immediate threat to the political ambitions of an aspiring power class and thus, would eventually fall victim to violent suppression or elimination.
In both England and France, in the decades leading up to the second decade of the 20th century, forms of art expression transitioned and thrived as an effective voice for the avant-garde, persisting and even evolving through periods of social change, political transitions, armed conflict and economic crises. To a lesser extent, Russia, too, experienced a ground-swell in artistic experimentation and innovation in the same period. But, even the dramatic and far-reaching effects of the Bolshevik revolution and Lenin’s rise to power did not have the profound and devastating effect on the self-defined ambitions of a community of artists, artisans, writers and musicians, as was the experience for many in Germany, during the period of the Second Weimar Republic (1919-1933).
Modernism defined: Various experts can mark the beginning of the Modern Era at different points in history. Some would argue that the empowered individual was first recognized with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215; others, with the Renaissance and the rise of Florentine arts, letters and science; still others, the Reformation and the subsequent weakening of the Catholic Church on portions of northern Europe and, eventually, England. Yet others would focus on the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, with the early attempts by Newton to dispel prevailing myth and sophistry to be found in his Principia Mathematica (1685-6), as well in the philosophical writings of Hobbes, Locke, Hegel and Rousseau:
“Rousseau is authoritarian, but the authority he favors is explicitly distinguished from mere power; it is based on conscious and vocal assent, and is offered as something wholely consistent with liberty…for authority [between liberty and authority] is a form of potency which rests on the credence of those who respect it, and Rousseau insists that if authority is to be legitimate, the credence and acceptance must be universal and unconstrained. There is no resemblance between Rousseau’s republic and the actual systems of twentieth-century totalitarian states…” (Dunn 34).
Still others mark the birth of modern times with the successful American and French revolutions, defining the Rights of Man and yielding (in the case of America) an empowered and self-directed republican polity, unburdened by centuries of European-style territorial conflict and time-worn political entanglements.
In truth, the modern impulse hinged on no single event, but emerged gradually and imperceptibly over time. By the beginning of the 19th century, western nations were at a tipping point and “the combined influence of social democratization, industrialization, colonial expansion, widening trade, sizeable professional armies and population mobility toward cities and away from rural lifestyles marked the beginning of a new, rapidly-unfolding period in history” (Poggi 91). The Modern Era, with its far-reaching power to shape everything from individual enfranchisement to the rule of kings was underway.
During that same period in the arts, radical breaks with the past and concurrent search for new forms of expression were occurring. Modernism saw the dawn of a renewed period of experimentation in creative pursuits. In an era characterized by industrialization, rapid social change, advances in science and the social sciences (e.g., Marxism, geology, Darwinism, theoretical physics), modernists felt a growing alienation incompatible with urbanization, alienation from nature, the obfuscation of the individual in the machinery of mass production and the conventions of institutions of learning and established taste, which seemed locked in the past. The modernist movement was fueled in its various forms by a reaction to industrialization and urbanization and by the search for an authentic response to a much-changed world.
Stylistic shifts toward the avant-garde in literature, poetry, painting, music and theater were well underway in the second half of the 19th century. By the period 1880-90, most artists and intellectuals on the Continent had come to terms with the radical changes that technology, scientific discovery, industrialization, urbanization, the emergence of a powerful middle class and the weakening—if not utter disempowerment—of the ruling class, were playing out in daily life. “The modernization of established and emerging nations was occurring at bewildering speed and, for the cultural elite who embraced it, there was a pervasive climate of exuberance, idealism, confidence, the belief that there was plenty of territory [in the continents of Africa, Asia and the Middle East] to ‘explore’, and above all, the sense that art, in the most noble and disinterested way, could find the necessary metaphors by which a radically-changing culture could be explained to its inhabitants.”(Hughes 9).
Before moving to a detailed examination of the emergence of modernization in Germany, it is useful to briefly explore the course of events in neighboring England and France in the 1800s. The core premise of this document is that the evolution of innovative artistic styles during this period was a response, in large part, to:
1. a more open, prevailing political climate at that time, with shifting rules of law (liberalization);
2. easing of suffrage regulations with associated free will and self-determination;
3. a movement toward more egalitarian forms of governance, in response to the rise of the merchant/industrial class and;
These factors, among others, allowed the intellectual community to move away from regimented and regulatory institutions (officially-sanctioned école, academé and sociétiés) and standards of performance that, historically, would be tantamount to exclusion or expulsion by recognized authorities and successful practitioners in their respected disciplines.
Modern thought and expression were wrenched from the grip of deeply-embedded Classical traditions of motif and narrative. Greek and Roman Revivalism was part-and-parcel of Enlightenment thinking. Re-invented notions of classical perfection were the standard-bearer that reached as high as representative governance under the Laws of Man (…that [Man] seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are ready to unite, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates” (Locke, 2nd Tr. 123), to the design elements of a column or lintel holding up the portico of an English country manor, to the expected representation of biblical and/or allegorical themes in painting and poetry as the raison d’etre for an artist or writer’s career. Choosing to break from these societal norms was risky, indeed. Apart from rejection by one’s professional colleagues and ridicule by critics and the public-at-large, financial hardship was also a cold reality. The story of this revolution in the arts is intricately woven into the political event of the time. Indeed, art history is truly the history of art in the context of the social and political events surrounding it at the time.
Art- The democratization of feeling
Among its European counterparts, England led the way in the trend toward modernist thinking in the first half of the 19th century, as industrialization redefined both the landscape and the social order. In this regard, Huntington’s observation that modernization in the form of increased production, mechanization and social mobility as a destabilizing force unless government can correct for these changes, is correct:
“Social and economic change—urbanization, increase in literacy and education, industrialization, mass media expansion…undermine traditional sources of political authority and traditional political institutions combining legitimacy and effectiveness. The rates of social mobilization and the expansion of political organization and institutionalization are low. The result is political instability and disorder. The primary problem of politics is the lag in the development of political institutions behind social and economic change” (Huntington 5).
While many in England of the 1820s were calling for a radical redefinition of the role of the common man in governance, the actual transition towards expanded rights and protections was felt incrementally, with the Workers’ Rights Act of 1832 and in worker’s strikes that seemed to herald (but did so less traumatically, and over a 50-year period), a change in rule-of-law that would ultimately and incrementally redefine the power-base of the landed gentry in favor of increased enfranchisement and suffrage for the property-owning and working classes.
Poets like William Wordsworth dramatically broke with the poetic traditions of the 18th century and composed lines written about and for the common man. William Blake illustrated his writings with mythic and god-like figures bathed in amorphous light (see: ‘God with Adam and Eve in the Garden’, 1832); described by a contemporary as, “a man who had seen God and talked to the angels” (Johnson 591). The poet, Matthew Arnold was one of the first to capture the cadence of urban existence in his writing, mourning the loss of a private, country reverie for the anonymity of city life.
“Among the artists who were active during this period was one whose work stands out as particularly illustrative of the ‘new vision’ for a ‘new time’. William Turner painted in a bold, new way—emphasizing atmospherics through diffuse color—with objects and people portrayed at the mercy of nature (right, ‘Slave Ship in a Storm’, 1840). He placed human beings in many of his paintings to indicate his affection for humanity, on the one hand, but also their vulnerability and vulgarity amid the ‘sublime’ nature of the world, on the other. His rendering of the sublime (reflecting awe, savage grandeur and a natural world un-mastered by man), was evidence of the power of God–a common theme for this period. The significance of light was, to Turner, the emanation of God’s spirit. For this reason, he refined the subject matter of his later paintings, leaving out solid objects and detail and concentrating on the play of light on water, the radiance of skies and fires—a precursor to ‘impressionism’ and, therefore, a forerunner of the French movement, some thirty years later” (Becket 124) .
Politics- “The most beautiful and imposing and touching spectacle ever seen.”
Royal succession and progressive political policy in 18th and 19th century England opened the door for English arts to step off in important new directions. Following closely the progress of Enlightenment Era scientific exploration and innovation (geology, astronomy, chemistry, botany), as well as men and women of letters, English aristocracy viewed such accomplishments as matters of national pride, especially when they provided a competitive edge on the world stage over arch rival, France. Cultural vibrancy characterized the Georgian Courts (1740-1837), including the interim Regency Period (1811-1820), with active financial support for research in the arts and sciences. With the assent of Queen Victoria to the throne (1837-1901) along with her consort, Prince Albert (d. 1861), English culture had set an unalterable course for a celebration of modern innovation:
“In 1831 John Stewart Mill asserts, ‘We are living in an age of transition.’ In the same year Thomas Carlyle writes, ‘The old has passed away, the new appears not in its stead; the Time is still in pangs of travail with the New.’ …England of the 1830s had been in progress for many decades…[sharing] a sharp new sense of modernity, a break with the past that…responded to their sense of historical moment with a strenuous call to action…self-consciously distinguished form the attitudes of the previous generation.” (Norton: 981)
London’s Hyde Park was the host location for the crystal palaces of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (“Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations”). Its prime movers were Prince Albert, himself President of the Society of Arts and public servant, Henry Cole (inventor of the Christmas card). Albert, speaking in both English and German, declared the exhibition to be a, “true test of the point of development at which the whole of mankind has arrived…the union of the human race.” The Queen, awed by the influx of technology and people to London from around the world, called it, “the greatest day of our history, the most beautiful and imposing and touching spectacle ever seen…” (Weston: 23)
The literary art, in particular, would continue to flourish under Victoria and well into the early decades of the 20th century, under Edwardian rule. The decade of hardship, sacrifice and loss of life brought about the Great War and its mechanization of death, as well as the inexorable march toward national industrialization at the expense of the pastoral English countryside would deeply affect and inspire the work of writers like Ezra Pound, J.R.R. Tolkien and musicians like Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughn Williams.
The early gains in the movement toward modern style in English visual arts was somewhat stalled in the second half of the 1800s by Victorian conservatism and a reversion back to a sentimental and allegorical representation of country life style, in the wake of urbanization (see: James Webb, ‘Stricken Vessel’, 1880). Public demand for this type of genre painting was soon supplanted by the camera. But, the eyes of the word would soon turn to France and a group of artistic rabble-rousers who would steal the spotlight from the English. It would be another hundred years before the English artistic community made a serious play for the world stage.
Art- Caught in the act of capturing light on canvas
The history of modern art began to evolve, in earnest, in Paris in the 1860s. It was a movement founded by a small group of artists as a reaction to, and in protest of, the rigid traditions favored by institutions such as the Academie des Beaux-Arts and other state-sponsored écoles. These institutions annually sponsored exhibitions of paintings their juries viewed as ‘acceptable’ in their eyes, marking the paintings that were rejected with a large red ‘X’ and the word, ‘refusé’.
In 1863, Edouard Manet exhibited his painting Dejeuner sur l’herbe (right) at a self-organized public event called, the Salon des Refusés. The painting was immediately controversial, but the heavily-attended event drew wide public attention to the work of a group of radical artists. They were challenging traditional modes of studio painting, by working outside (en plein air), while representing everyday and often, vulgar scenes in a style that broke from accepted notions of perspective, modeling, and subject matter. The movement gained more attention when, in April, 1874 a group of artists (without Manet), called Societe Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs began regularly exhibiting outside of the official salon system. That same year, the disparaging term, Impressionism, was coined by a critical journalist, Louis Leroy (Dempsey 114).
So, while conservative critics panned their work for its unfinished, sketch-like appearance, more progressive writers praised it for its depiction of modern life. Edmond Duranty, for example, in his 1876 essay La Nouvelle Peinture (The New Painting), wrote of their depiction of contemporary subject matter in a suitably innovative style as a revolution in painting. In the late 19th century, their work was already being recognized for its modernity—embodied in its rejection of established styles, its incorporation of new technology and ideas, and its depiction of modern life.
The last of the independent exhibitions in 1886 also saw the beginning of a new phase in avant-garde painting. By this time, few of the participants were working in a recognizably Impressionist manner. Most of the core members were developing new, individual styles that caused ruptures in the group’s tenuous unity. Pissarro promoted the participation of Georges Seurat (example, detail, here) and Paul Signac, in addition to adopting their new technique based on points of pure color, known as Neo-Impressionism. A young Paul Gauguin was making forays into Primitivism. Other styles, spun off of Impressionism, marked the progression in artistic thinking that led into the first two decades of the new century for France. Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Symbolism, Dadaism and Surrealism all arose out of a constantly re-evaluated sensibility about color, form and subject matter shaped by the modern life-style, while in turn, desiring to use artistic means to redeem humanity in the face of war and discover a previously-unrevealed side of human nature that offered some hope for the future.
The ultimate expression of the fragmentation and objectification of the human form came from a Spanish artist, living in a cold-water garret in the heart of a poor neighborhood in Paris at that time. In 1907, Pablo Picasso delivered his personal manifesto regarding the beauty and repugnance of the underbelly of civilization in a style of his own invention, Cubism. His, Les Demioselles d’Avignon , spoke to a number of themes: depersonalization; depravity; distortion of face and form to achieve purity of line; invented anatomy; liberties with color and perspective and bold social commentary. It was a single painting that would do what none other had been able to do until that moment—redefine the playing field for the world of art (and those who viewed it) for decades to come. “Cubism became the ultimate statement about the spirit and collective psyche of the time: unified, coherent and embraceable, but under a new set of rules…rules established by a world in flux and not easily embraced in accordance with 19th century principles of order and tradition” (Samu 38).
Politics- “L’Empire, c’est la paix”
Between 1795 and 1866, France was the second most populous country of Europe, behind Russia. Unlike other European countries, France did not experience a strong population growth from the middle of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century. Until 1850, the population was concentrated in the countryside—a phenomenon that would persist until the rural devastation of World War I drove increasing numbers to the cities looking for opportunity.
But, beginning during the Second Empire (1848-1870), a trend toward urbanization could be seen. Unlike in England, industrialization was a late phenomenon in France. “The Napoleonic wars had hindered early industrialization and France’s economy in the 1830s (limited iron industry, under-developed coal supplies, a massive rural population) had not developed sufficiently to support an industrial expansion of any significance. French rail transport only began hesitantly in the 1830s, and would not truly develop until the 1840s. By the revolution of 1848, a growing industrial workforce began to participate actively in French politics, but their hopes were largely betrayed by the rise to power of Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte as self-appointed emperor (Napoleon III, left) in 1852 and the establishment of the Second Empire. The loss of the important coal, steel and glass production regions of Alsace and Lorraine in a disastrous war with Otto von Bismarck’s Prussia in 1870 would cause further problems.”
“Paris, on the other hand continued to function as the cultural and political center of the French universe. In its early years, the Napoleon regime was authoritarian in nature, curbing most freedom of the press and assembly. But a number of events would destabilize the Republic during that twenty-year period, including ill-conceived foreign policy, numerous wars and population unrest, as France lost influence with its hostile and competitive neighbors, Prussia, England and Russia “(Pinkney 97). In spite of this, the country was moving inexorably toward the modern era, with industrialization, urbanization, economic growth and the massive re-design and reconstruction of Paris by engineer and architect, Baron Haussmann.
Historically, France had reached a cultural ‘tipping point.’ Governmental pre-occupation with foreign matters, internal unrest by liberal and populist elements, a shift toward more representative parliamentary rule and the relaxation of censorship in the 1860s cleared the way for a small group of artists to test the waters of the tradition-bound academic establishment and come forward with a new and controversial style of painting. It was during this period of broad dissatisfaction and the imminent failure of the Second Republic that French Impressionism was born.
With the collapse of the Napoleonic Regime in 1871, political chaos continued to plague the French. “The repression of the bloody Commune (1871-75) which followed and the ultimate stabilization of the government as the Third Republic brought with it a wave of social reforms and progressive movements. Women’s rights, a Marxist-inspired socialist movement, efforts at separation of church and state and a cooling off of international conflicts through a series of treaties and détentes would characterize the French home front in the last quarter of the 19th century” (Williams 72).
While many of these agreements would later serve as entanglements that would drag France into a world war and as the country remained deeply divided, politically, the latter years of the century and the first decade of the next would, nevertheless, be known as the belle époque for the emerging middle and intellectual classes, centered in Paris. In 1889, the Eiffel Tower was completed to celebrate the centenary of the revolution. Rising above the city to a height of 1056 feet, it was a technical marvel and a symbol of the power of industrialization and the Modern Age.
“The late 19th century—the cradle of modernism—did not feel the uncertainties about the machine that we do [today]…and very few visitors to the World’s fair of 1889 had much experience of the mass squalor and voiceless suffering that William Blake had railed against and Friedrich Engels described. In the past [early 19th c. artists and writers] had represented and caricatured the machine as an ogre, a behemoth, or—due to the ready analogy between furnaces, steam, smoke and Hell—as Satan, himself. But, by 1889, the ‘otherness’ had waned and the World’s Fair audience tended to think of the machine as unqualified good, strong, stupid and obedient…controlled by Reason in a world of infinite resources […] Perhaps this happened because, more and more, people were living in a machine-formed environment—the city (Hughes 11).
With its World’s Fair and Tour Eiffel (right, under construction in 1888)) as the centerpiece of France’s pre-eminence on the world stage, French art was also brought to the attention of museums and collectors in both Europe and the United States. Initially shunned by the established artistic community as outcasts and ‘rejects’, artists like Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Renoir and others were celebrated for their genius and unique perspective on the world.
Modernism, symbolized by the Impressionist School of painting, succeeded for two principle reasons: First, it grew and flourished in France through periods of political strife and upheaval, because the French valued their cultural roots and found ways to celebrate their artists and artistic traditions. Paris, itself, was to serve as a cultural centerpiece, where its cafes and bistros would be the gathering places for artists and writers: personalities that would later come to dominate the world of 20th century arts and letters. This trend would persist until the final days of World War II, when the locus of cultural influence would shift westward to New York.
Secondly, and for a reason that extends beyond the city limits of Paris to encompass the increasingly mechanized and urbanized Western World of then (and now!), its success and longevity is something fundamental to the Impressionistic aesthetic—it is art, through its loose brushwork and indefinite forms—that captures the ephemeral and irretrievable moment, when nature, memory and the senses are perfectly aligned. Color, form and the visual narrative on canvas, all manage to break free from the limits of the hard-edged and alien world of commerce and urban confinement, to float in the dense atmospherics of the artist’s imagination and the pristine expanses of a natural world. For the modern city-dwellers of fin de siecle Paris, London, Vienna, Rome, New York and elsewhere, Impressionism evoked images of a world, then only vaguely recalled.
But, for that brief moment, Paris, poised at the dawn of a new century, was positioned at the center of the cultural universe, looking only to the future.
by Richard Friswell, Executive Editor
In Part 2 of this series, the emerging German Empire and its role in supporting and then crushing its artistic community will be explored.
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