Monday, 23 January 2012


Focussing on specific examples, describe the way that modernist art and design was a response to the forces of modernity.

The Modernity era began around 1760 and ended at about 1960. During this time lots of changes occurred which helped us to progress to the world that we live in today, these are often called the forces of Modernity. Here M. Barnard also describes the situation, ‘Every institution, cultural tradition, social class, economic practice and political relationship that had existed before had been fundamentally transformed. In such a context, then, it is only to be expected that European institutions and traditions of art, along with beliefs about art and design, were also profoundly shaken.’ (Barnard, 2005, p.120.) The main change was urbanisation, where people moved from a rural life to one of industry and industrialisation. People’s lives became linked with their shift patterns, which led to less freedom due to them being controlled by their working hours. The split of work and free time made class a lot more noticeable and people’s interaction with each other changed dramatically. Population in these industrial areas also increased as people fled there for work and to be part of the big cultural change. Technology was a new phenomenon during this time with the invention of new materials such as concrete, steel, plastics, aluminium and reinforced glass which led to mass production. On a design level Modernism is associated with innovation and experimental work, focussing on progress and moving on from previous ideas to create entirely new and original developments. Designers of this time took their work very seriously and had the belief that they could change the world for the better and for good. It was also thought that each area of the Arts should remain pure and separate from everything else.

One of the places to be most affected was Paris and by 1900 it was the most progressive city in the world. It was specifically designed to be the most modern city, which is why a renovation called Hausmannisation occurred to ensure this. Paris was developed into an entirely different place to what it once was, large and open boulevards replaced crumbling alleyways and electric street lighting was introduced in an attempt to reduce crime and push the poor out to the suburbs. The effect of this still remains today. There was a strong rivalry between Paris and London during the 1800’s due to the cultural race, new exhibitions would take place across the years. The most significant of these would be the Eiffel Tower, finished in 1889. At 1056 feet it rose above the traditional architecture and was at the time the tallest manmade object on earth. It was said to represent the triumph of the present over the past, which as a statement sums up the main belief of modernity as a whole. The man that created this historic structure was Gustave Eiffel who was 57 at the time The Paris World Fair’s commissioners chose him to take on the job. He was also an engineer not an architect, which could have been the secret of its success, or the fact that The Tower could be viewed by millions of people compared to the select few that attended galleries to view this new modernist art.

Because of this new mantra believed by the majority in the modern world you can see changes in the art of the period, in order for it to stay relevant and fashionable as it can be said that ‘society modernises art’. Although, ‘Modern Art also involves a variety of challenges. Here we may identify three: some art may represent a challenge to the modern world, for example to the persistence of social inequality, or to the way individuals’ lives have been transformed by technology. In addition, modern art may also, involve a variety of challenges to traditional forms of art itself. It follows from this that such art also involves a challenge to conventional forms of response to art… a deliberate challenge to ‘taste.’’ (Meecham and Wood, 1996, p.7) Paris was a city that became an area of study for artists who turned their attention away from myths and wealthy individuals as their subjects for art. Their new focus was not to paint the world but to show the experiences of people in this new, urban environment. For example, this painting by Caillebotte, which depicts a man stood at a window looking out onto the streets of Paris. As you can see the new, modern architecture is visible. The composition has a cropped appearance brought from the invention of photography. This movement really pushed artists into thinking of new styles, for example classical painting followed the rule of thirds but this soon gave way to the idea of cropping. Artists also abandoned realism, as surrealism was something that a camera couldn’t capture. In relation to this here is a piece by French artist Robert Delaunay, an impressive piece capturing the symbol of Modernity in France. Robert Hughes comments on this piece by saying, ‘Delaunay must have painted The Tower thirty times, and he was almost the only artist to paint it at all… ‘The Red Tower’ shows how fully Delaunay could realise the sensations of vertigo and visual shuttling… The Tower is seen, almost literally as a prophet of the future – its red figure, so reminiscent of a man, ramping among the silvery lead roofs of Paris and the distant puffballs of cloud. That vast grid rising over Paris with the sky reeling through it became his fundamental image of modernity: light seen through structure.’ (Hughes, 2000, p.21.) The development of optical science led to experimentation in styles of painting, like dots of contrasting colour. Also, because of the new camera technology new bird’s eye view angles documented a big shift in visual culture. Another innovative painting style was that of staying true to materials, letting paint appear as paint and not trying to use it to represent something else. An example of this is work by American, abstract painter Jackson Pollock who is best known for his ‘drip and splash’ style. To achieve this look he attached his canvas to the floor instead of an easel and discarded brushes for sticks or trowels to manipulate the paint that he poured from a can. You can tell that he used this technique because ‘You cannot get that kind of looping line with oil paint on a brush. (Wood, 1996, p.109) He also commonly mixed in sand, broken glass and other matter. In the example here you can clearly see his style in action, the paint appears very free without any intention to replicate another form or material, which was the purpose of works like this.
As well as Architecture and Fine Art being radically changed these changes also applied to Graphic Design. ‘The roots of modern typography are entwined with those of twentieth-century painting, poetry and architecture. Photography, technical changes in printing, new reproduction techniques, social changes and new attitudes have also helped to erase the frontiers between the graphic arts, poetry and typography and have encouraged typography to become more visual, less linguistic and less purely linear. (Spencer, 2004, p.11) Before the modernist age type had serifs and often had a high stroke contrast. However, this all soon changed with the sans serif style. Type became about appearing simple and stripped down with the main focus being communication not decoration and although this look was around in the 1800’s it wasn’t until the Modernist era that it became popular. During the nineteenth century the monumental changes happening in society went un- recognised by the printing community. As typefaces grew bigger and fatter due to advertising and the competition of production the printer still clung to the small book layout. As time passed designers became more forceful, although printing still revolved around using metal type on a letterpress, the typographers of this era had ideas that would push this process to the limits and discarded the horizontal discipline that moveable type inflicted. They started to look at the composition with the recipient in mind and how they would view it, rather than through the eyes of the producer. Printers now had to tackle very difficult demands of non-linear compositions and way before the development of methods such as photo-typesetting and dry transfer lettering. Another common feature in typefaces was ‘unicameral’ type, where all the text was lower case and the capitals discarded. An example of this is one of Herbert Bayer’s sans-serif fonts called ‘Bayer’. The most popular style of type for the modernists was the ‘Grotesk’, the name was made by William Thorowgood who was the first person to produce a sans serif type with lower case. Akzidenz-Grotesk is perhaps the most famous of this style a modern interpretation of this is Helvetica, which as one of the most successful fonts of all time shows its good design.

As time passed the idea of Modernism faded to become less popular and by the 1960’s it could have been said that it was over and a new era began, Post Modernism.


1.    Laclotte, M, (1987), 'The Musee d'Orsay', London, Thames and Hudson.
2.    Gablik, S, (2004), 'Has Modernism Failed?', London, Thames and Hudson.
3.    Johnson, D, (1987), 'The Age of Illusion: art and politics in France 1918-1940', London, Thames and Hudson.
4.    Bernard, E, (2004), 'Modern Art, 1905-1945), Edinburgh, Chambers.
5.    Meecham, P, (2000), 'Modern Art: a critical introduction', London, Routledge.
6.    Barnard, M, (2005), ‘Graphic Design as Communication’, Oxon, Routledge.
7.    Hughes, R, (2000), ‘The Shock of the New’, London, Thames & Hudson.
8.    Spencer, H, (2004), ‘Pioneers of Modern Typography’, Hampshire, Lund Humphries.
9.    Rodrrigues, C and Garratt, C, (2004), Introducing Modernism, Royston, Icon Books.
10. L, Dawtrey, T, Jackson, M, Masterton, P, Meecham and P, Wood, (1996), Milton Keynes, Yale University Press and The Open University.

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