Figurative and Abstract: Early Modern Art in the 20th Century
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Figurative and Abstract: Early Modern Art in the 20th Century

Art in the 20th century.Modern art denotes neither a specific period in art history nor an international style, but rather an artistic attitude.Like this period's history, the development of modern art in the first half of 20th century in Europe is characterized, on the hand, by deep fissures, and on the other, by huge innovations and fundamental changes to an entire generation of young artists.

Modern art denotes neither a specific period in art history nor an international style, but rather an artistic attitude.Like this period's history, the development of modern art in the first half of 20th century in Europe is characterized, on the hand, by deep fissures, and on the other, by huge innovations and fundamental changes to an entire generation of young artists. Moreover, two world wars, the Russian Revolution, fascism, and the prohibition and destruction of the modert art in Nazi Germany created significant obstacles. The title of a 1925 book, Die Kunstismen ("The Isms of Art"), illustrated the central challenge to characterizing modern art. There was no longer a uniform style for the period; rather, art was fragmented into numerous "isms": Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Simultanism, Constructivism, Dadaism, Verism, Surrealism, and New Realism.

The notion of the avant-garden is part of the history of modert art. It is no accident that the concept was adapted for the art world from a term used in warfare. The term avant-garde designated bold reconnaissance troops; hence, avant-garde artists were supposed to march at the forefront and foster growth. The avant-garde is always in forward motion. In a fast-paced dynamic such as this, the avant-garde skirmishes and clashes with other and itself, pursuing one style after another, and creating -ism after -ism. This unprecedented outpouring of creative powers put an end to the practice of copying the natural world. The first half of the 20th century is generally seen as shaped by the two great themes of the "abstract" and the figurative," as well as constant redefinition and expansion of artistic concepts.

Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism

Wassily Kandinsky "Composition VIII" 1923

The decisive shift toward modert art came in 1914 with the beginning of the World War I. The early avant-garde formed almost simultaneously in Dresden, Munich, Paris and Rome. In 1905, Ernst Ludwing Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Eric Heckel, and Karl Schmidth-Rottluff cofounded Die Bruke, making the beginning of German Expressionism. Rooted in Gothic and Romantic art influenced by van Gogh and Matisse, this antibourgeois movement was shaped by a dramatic simplification and the desire to liberate color from the constraints of the natural world. In 1911, focus shifted to metropolitan life in Berlin, where most Expressionists were living. In Munich, Kandinsky, Munter, Alexei Jawlensky, and Marianne von Werefkin, as well as Marc, Macke, and Klee, pursued similar goals of liberating color and simplifying form. At the end of 1911, the group Der Blaue Reiter was formed. Its influences derived from folk art, Parisian Cubism, and the Naive painter Henri Rousseau. In 1910, Kandinsky began to paint his first abstracts, venturing into a spiritual, mystical world of pure expression.

Artillerymen (Das Soldatenbad), 1915. Oil on canvas, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Meanwhile, the Cubist experiments with form fragmentation, begun by Picasso and Braque in 1907, were advancing in Paris. Leger developed a style using simple geometric forms, while Delaunary explored Cubism with the bright, urban color palette of Orphism.

The catalyst for the independent variations of abstraction can be traced to Italian Futurism. Artists such as Boccioni and Balla wished to depict the simultaneity of sensations and the mutual pervasiveness of space and time. In 1915, the Russian artist, Malevich, succeeded in raising a variation of Cubo-Futurism to abstract Suprematism, while other Russian post-October Revolution artists developed a left-wing revolutionary Constructivism, and the Dutch De Stijl movement developed a markedly geometric abstraction.

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