Shock of the View
Dadaism * Surrealism * Pop Art
The 20th Century has been a turbulent time for art and artists. Struggling to keep up with an ever-expanding society, artists have been hard pressed to create any movement that seems to carry longevity to them. Gone are the days in which art movements such as the Renaissance or the Baroque last for decades upon decades. With the dawning of the 20th Century, modernism as artistic formula hit its stride, encompassing numerous minor artistic genres that only last for a few years. As the face of modern society has changed due to advances in technology, theory, and societal conflicts, so too does the art of the modern age undergo massive transformations, embodying the artist’s awareness of these self-same advances. Three of the more prolific movements of the 20th Century have been Dadaism, Surrealism, and Pop Art. All three are movements based heavily on artistic responses to war, technology, and popular theory of the time. By examining the society by which these art movements were born, one can better understand what Dada, Surrealism, and Pop Art truly is. Furthermore, by introducing an example of each artistic style, a point of comparison will be created allowing one to better understand the physical, compositional, and theoretical differences between each movement.
The early portion of the 20th Century was rife with political and social upheaval. Staring down the barrel of the first true World War, artists began to see that “the machine, which had been a source of optimism and euphoria, could no longer be considered a positive instrument, not even a neutral tool, but rather an agent for undeniable devastation” (Larinde 10). While these nations prepared for war, a handful of self-imposed exiles fled their nations in the face of heated nationalistic pride. Taking refuge in neutral
Where the term ‘Dada’ originated is not clearly known. The popular rumor us that these artists simply opened a dictionary and the first word at the top of the page would be their artistic term (
Dada is first and foremost an art form that seeks to reform the suffering and destruction of war through protest (Tansey 974). Dadaists sought to turn the art world upside down by creating artistic renderings and staging exhibitions that were designed to shock and outrage the viewer by their “lack of artistic convention” (Ibid.). In
It wasn’t until the 1920’s that Dada would become fully developed in their new arena: post war
There is no definitive style to Dadaist art. More than anything, the Dadaists shared an attitude towards the world at large that was emoted in their imagery and their behavior. Dada is the prevailing atmosphere of “meaningless malevolence” coupled with its disregard for the ordinary canons of artistic design (
By being the artistic voice of anti-art, the Dadaists liberated themselves from age-old conventions and a whole new world of artistic possibilities opened up. The Zurich Dadaists saw art as a practical means of “self-revelation and catharsis”, and that the images they produced that rose out of the conscious or subconscious mind had a truth of their own (Tansey 974). These truths were independent of the world of conventional vision. For them, art emerged to play an important new role in the expression of the different contexts they were now formed, and the free imagination of the artist could draw on materials deep in the human consciousness (Tansey 974). By this, the Dadaists endorsed the psychoanalytical views of Jung and Freud creating a new expression of a reality that were no less real because they were psychic (Tansey 974). Thus, Dadaists reveled in their outlandish pranks and jests, which they described themselves as being “cerebral revolver shots” (Tansey 977).
The Berlin Dadaists, more serious by comparison than their
Possessed, as we were, of the ability to entrust ourselves to ‘chance,’ to our conscious as well as our unconscious minds, we became a sort of public secret society. . . . We laughed at everything. . . . But laughter was only the expression of our new discoveries, not their essence and not their purpose. (We used) chance to restore to the work of art its primeval magic power and to find a way back to the immediacy it had lost through contact with … classicism. (qtd in Tansey 977-978)
Chance played a big role in the creation of the collages and photomontages of the Berlin Dadaists. These artists took to pasting images and words from postcards and catalogs and books together to create an image. These montages owe a debt to chance for two reasons. One because they were created almost entirely out of “found” materials (therefore chance plays a role in what was found and how it could be correlated), and in the practice of some Berlin Dadaists of merely gluing the various images or words onto a canvas based upon where they fell (Tansey 978). Further, the Dadaists were innovative in their use of photographs. Raoul Hausmann states that Dadaists “were the first to use photography to create, from often totally disparate spatial and material elements, a new unity in which was revealed a visually and conceptually new image of the chaos of an age of war and revolution” (qtd in Tansey 978).
Automatism in Dada art is the process of yielding yourself to an instinctive action of painting or drawing or sketching (Tansey 978). Automatism hinges on establishing a set of conditions ahead of time, such as the size of the paper and medium, within which an Automatist work would be executed. Dadaists such as Jean Arp specialized in Automatic drawings. By working within Automatism, the artist seeks to deny the operation of reason, which is seen as a learned or conditioned response (Tansey 977). Thus, Automatism must rely more on understanding the unconscious and trusting in what you feel rather than what you have been taught.
While Dada was a movement based on nihilism and buffoonery, it has left a legacy to the later generations of artists. Automatic Drawing, the act of spontaneous doodling, would anticipate the American abstract art styles of the 1940’s (
One of the most prolific Dadaists was Marcel Duchamp. Born in 1887, Duchamp was a French painter and a major proponent of Dada. In 1914, Duchamp “bought and inscribed on a bottle rack, thereby producing his first ready-made, a new art form based on the principle that art does not depend on established rules or on craftsmanship” (“Mona Lisa” part 2). This radical idea precedes the Dadaist movement by 2 years. This one act helped to portray Duchamp as a rejecter, and the young, post-war protesters saw Duchamp as an almost mythical figure. Rejecting the norm was of paramount importance to the young Dadaist movement and Duchamp personified this (Cabanne 154). No one was more iconoclastic than Duchamp in the heyday of Dada (Ibid.). His form of anti-art, already established in his ready-mades, is seen perhaps no better than in his work L.H.O.O.Q.
This work, also commonly called “Mona Lisa with a Moustache”, was created in 1919. The work is quite simple. Duchamp bought a post card with the image of the Mona Lisa on its cover. Duchamp, with pencil in hand, scribbled a moustache and goatee on the image, creating another ready-made. The postcard, measuring 7 and ¾ inches by 4 and ¾ inches, was embossed with the letters L H O O Q along the bottom base of the postcard. While appearing to be quite simple, the undertones of this little work are quite serious. The image faithfully captures Leonardo’s masterpiece in all its grainy, faded glory. The Mona Lisa sits, hands crossed before her. She is dressed in a dark blue robe, the folds of the drapery evident in contrasting grades of light and shade. The face is pristine with the slightly curled smile that makes the Mona Lisa such a famed portrait painting. The background is a collection of grays and blues, creating a landscape of rocky outcroppings and twisting rivers that flank the Mona Lisa on either side. Her figure, triangular in its shape, dominates the foreground of the image, the soft illumination of her face is ringed by cascades of falling hair that escape the confines of her robe and hood. The three dimensional composition of the work reflects the touch of an artist of Leonardo’s caliber. Duchamp’s scribbled moustache, thin with the edges sweeping upwards, is easily seen. It’s dark, pencilled coloration contrasts sharply with the much lighter color of the Mona Lisa’s face. Further, the goatee lightly pencilled and sweeping together in a dark point erupting from the apex of the chin stands sharply against the light coloration of the face. The changes that Duchamp has made to Leonardo’s composition are merely cosmetic and are easily remedied if desired. But, the work itself, regardless of its simplicity, stands as important for another reason.
The Dada movement was one that crowed about anti-art. That same design to reject art also led to a rejection of artists of any artistic genre or age. Thus, what might be construed as a simple prank by Duchamp, in actuality has a much deeper meaning. In the years leading up to the Dadaist revolution, artists had almost universally revered the works of the great masters, especially those of the Renaissance. They were seen as untouchable by society; men and women whose works were so invaluable that no fault could be found and no criticism tolerated. The great artist, long dead, was seen as a divine creator (Hughes 66). As Hughes states, Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q is a “gesture by now synonymous with impish cultural irreverence” (Ibid.). For artists who had no problem poking fun or lambasting artists of any age, Duchamp’s ready-made satirized the “sacro-sanctity of this renaissance icon” (Larinde 12). This is even further driven by the peculiar title of the work. “ The coarse title – LHOOQ pronounced letter by letter in French mean: ‘She’s got a hot ass’ – combines with the schoolboy graffito of the moustache and goatee” (Hughes 66). Duchamp’s use of an image that had been reproduced so often that it had become trite, helped to knock down the seemingly inaccessible reputation of Leonardo. By mocking one of the most famous paintings in history, Duchamp created an image that is rather typical of Dadaism, “a rebellion against traditional… habits and values” (“Mona Lisa” part 1). While the basic premise might have been quite simple, Robert Hughes looks deeper at this work, assigning a psychology to it. Hughes believes that by giving “male attributes to the most famous and highly fetishized female portrait ever painted is also a subtler joke on Leonardo’s own homosexuality (then a forbidden subject) and on Duchamp’s own interest in the confusion of sexual roles” (Hughes 66). Whatever the case may be, Duchamp’s mock up of the Mona Lisa definitely stands as a Dadaist piece, both rejecting the classical masters and utilizing a semblance of chance and automatism in the creation of this piece (the chance of simply buying this post card and the automatic, spontaneous doodling that created the facial hair).
In the wake of the decline of Dadaism, a new artistic movement, Surrealism, began to flourish. Surrealism, however, grew in many aspects from what the Dadaists had created. The Dada poet Andre’ Breton was heavily involved in the manifestoes and direction of the Dada movement. His views on the direction that Dada was going and the direction he felt it should be going in were at odds with some of the more “traditional” Dadaists (if there even could be said to be such individuals). This was no more evident than in his very public differences with Tristan Tzara. Breton called for a world congress of Dadas to decide the direction that the modern artistic movement should take (
Breton had not served during World War I. He worked in a hospital caring for shellshock victims (Hughes 212). Here, Breton helped patients to analyze their dreams, an experience that Breton himself said “constituted…almost all the groundwork for Surrealism…interpreted, yes, always, but above all liberation from constraints – logic, morality, and the rest – with the aim of recovering their original powers of spirit” (qtd in Hughes 212). Breton began then to try and give these dream interpretations form in literature, as in poetry or fiction. In fact, Surrealism as a movement originated as a literary movement in 1924 (
Rejecting Tzara and the more conservative Dadaists, Breton “soon assembled a circle of friends, some touched by Dada, but all sharing certain common preoccupations: mainly, a belief in the supremacy of poetry and a loathing of the parental generation whose values had led to the insensate slaughters of the war” (Hughes 213). Together with fellow poet Soupalt, Breton began to explore the dimensions of the inner psyche through “automatic writings” (
Born out of the desire to capture dream imagery and the shadowy spectres of the unconscious mind, Surrealism is an art form that sought to give form to the formless. Primarily a pictorial art, Surrealism was heavily based on the Freudian idea that the mind contains fathomless, hidden depths (Matthews 533). In essence, one could say that Surrealist art wanted to create images of reality that would include truths hidden in the inner mind. In doing so, Surrealism would grow to capture hallucinations, fantasies, and dream imagery that would create a visual sensation far more startling than Dada. By this very definition, the natural enemies of Surrealism would be logic and reason. The purpose of Surrealism was to “merge dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality” (
The first artist to adhere to the Surreal was Giorgio de Chirico. De Chirico was the founder of and principal master of the Metaphysical School of painting that traces its roots back to 1917 (
Decalomania was Max Ernst’s technique of compressing paint to the canvas while the paint was still wet (
The style of Surrealist painting falls into two categories. The first is Realistic, sometimes called Veristic; the other is Abstract (
In many ways, Surrealism, like Dada, was a lifestyle or an attitude than a definitive style. Their subject matter was at times dark and controversial. The titles for their pieces were equally bizarre. Typically ambiguous, Surrealistic art titles were purposefully designed to create an uneasy relationship with what the viewer of the art object actually sees (Tansey 983). Using titles that were rife with contradiction between image and word delivered a “blow to the mind” of the viewer – knocking them off balance as to what their rational minds expect to see, and the images placed before them (Ibid.). Much of the impact of Surrealist work begins with the title and the realization of being hit with a seemingly cerebral bullet, one that immediately puts at odds an awareness of the incongruous and the absurd in what is pictured (Ibid.). This may be no more evident in “The Rape” by Rene Magritte.
Rene Francois Ghislain Magritte (1898-1967) was a Belgian painter who created very provocative and sometimes shocking Surrealistic paintings. By 1927, Magritte had already begun to paint as a Surrealist. “A meticulous and skillful technician, he is noted for works that contain an extraordinary juxtaposition of ordinary objects or an unusual context that gives new meaning to familiar things. This juxtaposition is frequently termed magic realism, of which Magritte was the prime exponent” (“The Rape” part 2). Compared to many other painters in the Surrealist school, Magritte was tame by comparison in his personal life. “Yet this stolid enchanter possessed one of the most remarkable imaginations of the twentieth century” (Hughes 243).
Traditionally, painting had has its share of mythmakers and storytellers. Magritte’s work stands slightly askew, as his painting seemed secondary to the story being told (Hughes 248). His work, however, did not consist of “ slices of life or historical scenes. They were snapshots of the impossible, rendered in the dullest and most literal way: vignettes of language and reality locked in mutual cancellation” (Ibid.). Things hidden and things obscure seemed to be what fascinated Magritte.
The Rape, also called Le Viol, was executed in 1934 with oils on canvas. It measures 28 and ¾ inches by 21 and ¼ inches. The painting is one that reveals what at first looks to be a face flanked with a full head of brown, feathered-back hair with red highlights. The hair is not particularly long, but is thick and wavy, sweeping away from the plane of the face. The head itself rests upon an unusually long neck, which disappears at the base of the canvas to the joint of the right shoulder. The face of the figure, however, is not what we expect. The eyes have been replaced by small, but prominent female breasts. The nose has become the navel and the mouth has been replaced by a triangular patch of pubic hair, roughly the same shade and coloration as the hair upon the head. The crown of the triangle points down towards the chin. Quite obviously a human female torso, the face of Magritte’s work now takes on a whole new meaning, especially in light of the title.
Further aberrations abound. There are no eyebrows and no ridge where a nose would be placed. Instead, we have a very smooth torso complete with a line that would indicate the joining of the muscles of the abdomen running from between the eye/breasts to the nose/navel. The face/torso is pale with realistic shadows that play across the left side of the head and a curving shadows that runs down the neck, just to the left of center, meeting at the thorax. The face and neck dominate the painting, consuming almost the entirety of the image save for a space several inches in length where the top of the head ends and the peak of the canvas begins. The background is a simple gradation of deep blues at the top of the canvas, to bands of lighter blues to greens to nearly white where the sky meets the horizon of the land. The land, if it can be called thus, is a long, flat expanse of neutral grays where it meets the sky, to nearly black where it meets the base of the canvas. There is no sun, stars, moon, foliage, or animals in the image. Magritte’s work is designed to lock our attention on the “face” and nothing else.
Why did Magritte choose to create this? Magritte had “an obsession with the covered faces which. . . haunt(ed) him” says Naomi Elias. “In such hidden images Magritte was able to hide emotions, identity, conversations and thoughts of the subjects he painted” (Elias). The Rape was produced several times by Magritte in several versions and mediums between the years 1934 and 1948 (“The Rape” part 1). The image was so scandalous when it was first released that it was displayed at an exhibition “in a private room and shown only to initiates” (The Rape” part 1). The subject matter, while extremely controversial even today, was not altogether taboo to the Surrealist painter. Sex was “one of the great Surrealistic themes; but Surrealism was only interested in one kind of sexual freedom, the man’s, and a heterosexual man’s at that” (Hughes 249). This seems to be reinforced by the love Surrealist artisans seemed to hold for the works of the Marquis de Sade. Sade was a “blasphemer, an atheist, a traitor to his class, the aristocracy – no wonder Sade had such an appeal to the Surrealists, who were also atheists, blasphemers, and traitors to their class, the bourgeoisie” (Hughes 249).
Magritte’s painting of The Rape may be one of the best examples of the Surrealist celebration of heterosexuality. As Hughes states, The Rape is a
…magnificent protest against fixation and fetishization, where the woman’s face turns with frightful clarity into the ‘genital face’ whose blind, mute, and pathetic sexuality has a truly Sadeian character. In general, the image of woman in Surrealist art had no real face: she was always on a pedestal or in chains. Her preferred form was mannequin, itself…a somewhat compromised object… (Hughes 249-250)
Magritte creates a dream-image of what, perhaps, woman might be perceived as or amount to in the Surrealist world – objectified and left without voice, identity, or pity. Elizabeth Wright contends that Magritte's imagery in The Rape is a “metaphor…signifying desire and an invasion of the other’s desire: The Rape” (qtd in he Rape” part 1). One could contend that the image is one by which a Surrealist man may see a woman: nothing more than genitalia. But, by the very title, could Magritte be sympathizing with the plight of women and rejecting the Surrealist manifesto in regards to women? The possibility is there. Magritte, in a letter, addressed the meaning of perhaps this very work:
Questions such as “What does this picture mean, what does it represent?” are possible only if one is incapable of seeing a picture in all its truth, only if one automatically understands that a very precise image does not show precisely what it is. It’s like believing that the implied meaning is worth more than the overt meaning. There is no implied meaning in my paintings, despite the confusion that attributes symbolic meaning to my paintings. (qtd. in “The Rape” part 2)
The overly sexualized nature of this piece, and many Surrealist painting by and large, may be the leading difference between this art style and Dada. Considering that Surrealism grew out of many Dadaist styles and forms, it is no wonder that there are more similarities than perhaps obvious differences. Essentially, if Dada is the art of the rebel who is sick of the state of the world, then the Surrealist is the artists who seeks to bring to light the sickness in their own inner selves. Duchamp claimed that anything could be art, hence his ready made Mona Lisa. Further, by the simple addition of a scribbled moustache and beard, Duchamp’s piece readily embodies the Dadaist spirit. Magritte’s image, darker and yet more glaring, reflects wonderfully the legacy of the Dada’s, that anything could be art, while adhering to Surrealist take on women and the desire to create images of the bizarre that erupt from someplace deep within the psyche of the artists. But Surrealism is not the last art style to liberally borrow from the Dada’s. Pop Art owes a great deal to the trail blazed by the Dadaists too.
After World War II, a vast increase in the production and availability of consumer goods inundated the
Pop Artists concerned themselves with creating an art to represent the feel of mass society. As a result, their subject matter of choice came from mass culture and commercial design as, these were considered by Pop Artists as being essential aspects of their visual environment (Sporre 453). They used the images, artifacts, and styles of American advertising as “emblems of the sumptuous, materialistic side of life. . . .The images spoke of unimaginable richness and surfeit, especially to foreigners” (Tansey 1057). Pop Art, then, is an art that adopts the look and technique of mass advertising, borrowing from such inspirational sources as billboards,
Pop Artists…take familiar images from the manufactured environment as the basis for their art. Pop was not a single group, but a number of individuals who all accepted the central premise that popular culture is a valid subject for serious art. The source of their imagery is the mass media – the slick magazine , the comic book, the TV images, newspaper ads and billboards -- and the imagery itself is the whole of the visual field of originating in the artificial, urban environment. Their statements are neutral, but of such nature as to compel the viewer to ponder the multiple levels of meaning made possible by their imagery and then to take a stand. (Larinde **** 23)
Quite obviously, there is no deeper belief in the spiritual, metaphysical, or philosophical per se. This stands outside of the rebelliousness of Dada based on their raging philosophy against the societal undercurrent of World War I, or the desire to bring to life the unconscious world as the Surrealists would. Pop Art was an art of the here and now and presented a sometimes humorous, sometimes optimistic, and sometimes inane view of the modern world of mass consumption.
Pop Art style reflected the awareness of the mass media. Pop Artists typically worked in two dimensions and rejected the modernist belief that spiritual values may be expressed in nonrealistic works (Matthews 566). Their works used a mixture of mass media imagery mingled with gestural (sic) paintings and “found” objects (Tansey 1057). This mimics the Dada principle of creating collages of imagery together or using “chance” to find/drop the correct object in its correct place. Some Pop Artists rendered advertising images with commercial art techniques while others used Pop motifs to pose questions about the nature of verbal and visual symbols (Tansey 1057). Pop Art has a tendency to create large-scale images to serve additional impact. In this monstrous images, Pop Artists would use repeated images to reflect the mass packaging of modern society, or emphasize some object or truth through sheer size in order to get us to not only see but also acknowledge those elements we might otherwise ignore (Russell 442). In this way, the viewer might finally become aware of images they see in the modern world for the first time. The images they show are presented without satire or antagonism; they simply are (Ibid.). This is what contributed to the success of Pop Art, due in large part to “its use of easily recognizable images, an iconography of commerce and culture as widely known in the modern world as earlier symbols tied to religion and government had been in pre-modern society” (Tansey 1057).
Roy Lichtenstein (1923 – 1997) was one of
Well, it is an involvement with what I think to be the most brazen and threatening characteristics of our culture, things we hate, but which are also powerful in their impingement on us. I think art since Cézanne has become extremely romantic and unrealistic, feeding on art; it is utopian. It has had less and less to do with the world, it looks inward…
--Roy Lichtenstein on Pop Art—(qtd in
Lichtenstein is considered to be the most formal of the Pop Artists. This can be suggested though many of his works like Drowning Girl, painted in 1963. Executed with oils and synthetic polymer paints on canvas, Drowning Girl measures 67 and 5/8 inches by 66 and ¾ inches. It is a massive image rich with pathos but ironically shallow. The massive head, right shoulder, and left hand of a young, blue-haired woman emerges through a churning deluge which threatens to drown the poor lass. Prominent black eyebrows frame closed eyes, again with prominent black eyelashes. Transparent tears framed by heavy lines pour forth from here eyes. Obviously in distress, the girl is in fear of drowning in the sea of light blue waves highlighted by fields of black and tips of white to create striking effects of texture for the water. The water is presented as a mixture of Art Nouveau and Japanese Hokusai (Coplas 16). The girl dominates the better part of the work, her head placed slightly above the center of the piece, her mouth open. While we would assume she would be gasping for breath and much more animated, the girl stands almost defiant/calm in light of her situation. The enlarged use of Ben-Day dots help to create a fine modeling of form, realistic “comic-book” flesh tones, and agitated background waves (Hamilton 393). This helps to create a very compelling effect of seemingly monotonous repetition. These repeated dots serve to intensify the hypnotic impact of the enormous face, “distorted by violent emotions but projected by emotionless, almost mechanical means” (Ibid.). There is no sign of land or sky in the background, the woman is completely locked in the element which will likely spell her doom. Most interesting to this and other Lichtenstein pieces, is the inclusion of a word bubble. Long the staple of comic books, word bubbles are superimposed over the overall image and allows the reader of the strip to read the thoughts or aural mutterings of the various characters. In this case, the girl is thinking: “I don’t care! I’d rather sink -- than call Brad for Help!”. This simple set of lines completely changes our perception of the work as we now realize this lass had a lovers quarrel, yet stubbornly refuses to call to ‘Brad’ for help even if it means her life. The use of the word bubble makes the image much more concrete for us and not only points immediately to the intended irony of the work, but also serves to make ourselves aware of our own indifference to the girl’s impending death (Coplas 15-16). This ability makes the viewer suddenly realize the skillfully pictured “double entendre…and our own disquieting lack of concern” (Coplas 15).
What, then, do Dadaism, Surrealism, and Pop Art have in common? The same thing that Cubism, Fauvism, Impressionism, Minimalism, Expressionism, and Earthworks have in common: Modernism. All of these art ages, many discussed in the two sections of this very report, are modernist art movement. Stella Russell’s text defines Modernism as: “Early twentieth-century American movement that rejected traditional art values in favor of radical new European styles” (491). This is far too limiting a definition. If one is to define modernism based on the premises presented in Robert Hughes’ Shock of the New, then one must exercise opinion and associations created by Hughes’ own words. Modernism, (in the opinion of this writer) must be traced back to the closing of the Romantic age and the dawn of the Impressionists. The reason for this is that the three primary forces which were needed to create a modernist art movement, only began then in the much latter half of the 1800’s. These three forces were a rise in technology, a change in the social and political strata in
Technology has played perhaps the greatest role of the three, in large part affecting and effecting the other two. It begins with the rise of industrialism and the invention of a revolutionary device: the camera. The creation of the camera allowed for the quick and detailed capture (albeit in black and white) of landscapes, people, still-life’s, group, portraiture, etc. It allowed the camera to capture as much realism and depth and clarity as the best photo-realist paintings. Impressionism was a direct response to that – an attempt at capturing the same reality of the world in the amount of time a camera takes to capture said image. It was their attempt at capturing the fleeting moment. However, aside from the obvious schism between the speed accuracy of a camera versus the time consumption and “bare-bones”, technical accuracy of a realistic painting, even aside from Manet and other Impressionist’s attempts at capturing light in paint, one sees this as really the start of painting for the sake of painting. Photography may be able to reproduce life accurately, antiseptically, but paint adds depth, dimension, color and texture that celluloid couldn’t at the time. Technology also allowed the painter the means of escaping the studio for the first time and paint and work and create in the openness of the world. If this is not a break from traditional Western Classical values, then nothing is. Impressionists were taking an awful risk in challenging the established norms, but had they not, modernism as it stands today may not exist and visual arts may have suffered in the long run.
Technology also directly led to the art styles of the Cubists, Minimalists, and Pop Artists. Cézanne was the first to work an art style that related to the boom in technology in his time. Technology had shown to all men and women very clearly that the world was much more vast and infinite than once accepted; there was no single perspective or point of view available to look at the whole of the technological world. Cézanne tried to capture an awareness of this when he “insisted on an empirical act of fresh perception to clear away the cobwebs of the past ideologies of Classicism, Romanticism and Naturalism in order to structure a new vision of a world defined as infinite and dynamic” (Larinde 8). Cubism took this idea and ran with it, rejecting even newly established Impressionist styles that seemed progressive and radical in their time. Creating images based on multiple perspectives and the outright segmenting of large subjects and objects, Cubism helped to create an art style infinitely dynamic and radically different from classical style. Further, technology boomed following World War II, and the mass production of synthetic consumer goods boldly announced both that technology had come into its own and detailed its impending legacy on the arts. Pop Arts and Minimalism were born out of this time, striving to show how commercialized the world had become. Minimalism heralded this development by creating an art style that focused on the here and now, typically using discarded waste or some object like street signs or what not as the primary image in their art. Their painting became one-dimensional and this matter of fact declaration was the “total denial of any aspect of romanticism and its accompanying multiplicity of levels of meaning” (Larinde 21). This made art equivalent to a consumer product and innovators such as Warhol presented their art as just that. The further technology proceeded, the less aware we became of the nuances of our own society. Pop Art shows this in their renderings of white flags that infuriate Americans or their capturing of evident tragedy designed to make us uncomfortably aware or our own apathy.
Social and political changes in the face of awakening nationalistic pride also served to change the arts. The Expressionist movement was one that mirrored the immense anxiety of a world on the brink of catastrophic conflict just prior to World War I. If there had been any lingering notions of Romanticism and Classical form and values, they were crushed by the end of World War I. Until that time, the age-old notions of fighting in a grand and chivalric war for God and country still reigned supreme in the poetry of pre-war
More frightening to consider is how technology itself led to the changes outlined above. Technology had created the means to destroy, annihilate, corrupt, and savage society. The “progress” that technology made in saving people’s lives was nothing compared to the leaps and bounds it had made in taking people’s lives. The Expressionists were sensitive to this development and that was one of the inspirations/phobias that they used in the execution of their vision. Even architecture in the styles and codices of men like Mies van der Rohe utilized the progress that technology had wrought in building materials. Yet, while the Expressionists considered technology and the social currents of their time to be hazardous, van der Rohe and his architecture was the last gasp of the utopian society the Expressionists knew would be soon destroyed. His “International Style” led to a radical change in building designs, utilizing steel beams to create box-like skyscrapers that would precede the “modern corporate image, a symbol of power that imposed itself upon the needs of the populace rather than accommodate them” (Larinde 14). The innovative premises of the International Style would give rise to the Bauhaus and through their efforts, would come to spread the ideology of the International Style so that it became the dominant architectural expression of technological and cultural progress after World War II. Their skyscrapers would become living monuments of a valid and progressive modernism, one that rejected the means of age-old architectural conventions so successfully, that the world would scarcely be recognized by those old masters of the classical Western Ideal if they were to walk the earth today.
Finally, the desire to break away from western “traditional art”. Almost every art style we have mentioned (and even those we haven’t ala Op Art and Futurism, etc.) broke away from the conventions of traditional art forms either out of necessity or choice. The clearest example of this is the Dadaists. They felt so betrayed by the world at the time of World War I, that they felt alienated from not only the familiar aspects that society had given them for so long, but they also felt alienated from art itself. Believing that the world had destroyed any notions of reality and social and cultural identity, the Dadaists felt that the world of the old masters had failed them. In their mean-spirited rejection of their own artistic past, the Dadaists are probably the most prolific example of a style that rejected not only all the heritage and legacies built into art by such men as Michelangelo, Raphael, Rubens, or David, but outright rejected itself. Dada was a revolt against the past, the present, and the future in every respect. They hated what they thought technology had done to their world. They hated what they thought was a betrayal by their own governments and cultures against them. Their art broke away from the traditional norm out of necessity, not due to the advances of a camera, or the anxiety of the world around them. Their bold statement, radical even by today’s standard (especially when you consider they spat in the face of 2000 years or so of established Western Heritage) paved the way for more abstract expressions like Surrealism, more commercial minded expressions like Pop Art, and more naturalistic expressions lie Earthworks. Anyone would be hard pressed to not find some traces of Dada influence of any major art styles since its rise and fall. Ironically, the Dadaists probably hate that.
Just what is modernism? That is the question posed in the end of this paper and prompted by the very document responsible for the creation of this essay. If I may be allowed to wax intellectual for a moment…answering this question was one of the single hardest concept questions ever posed to me. I truly felt challenged in trying to create a viable answer to this query. All the books and internet answers or definitions fell short, not living up to or including what I consider to be a major factor in the creation of Modernism. Robert Hughes states that it was the 1970’s which finally recognized modernism as its official culture (366). While it may be true that
Cabanne, Pierre. The Brothers Duchamp.
Coplas, John. Roy Lichtenstein. Praegar Publishers,
Elias, Naomi. “Surreal Encounters”.
Hamilton, George Heard. 19th and 20th Century Art: Painting * Sculpture * Architecture. Harry N.
Abrams Inc. Publishers,
Hughes, Robert. The Shock of the New. Revised Edition. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Larinde, Dr. Noreen. Humanities 570. “Key Periods and Movements: Contemporary Art”. Course
Matthews, Roy T. and F. DeWitt Platt. The Western Humanities. Third Edition. Mayfield Publishing
“Mona Lisa with a moustache L.H.O.O.Q”, Part 1 – Marcel Duchamp’s Most Disrespectful Brush
“Mona Lisa with a moustache L.H.O.O.Q”, Part 2 – Marcel Duchamp’s Most Disrespectful Brush
Russell, Stella Pandell. Art in the World. Fourth Edition.
Sporre, Dennis J. The Creative Impulse: An Introduction to the Arts. Second Edition. Prentice-Hall,
Tansey, Richard, Horst de la Croix and Diane Kirkpatrick. Art Though the Ages. Ninth Edition.
“The Rape”, Part 1 – Magritte’s Scandal.
“The Rape”, Part 2 – Magritte’s Scandal.