By Isaac Tanner-Dempsey
Fig.1 Edvard Munch , The Scream (1893)
After the terror of World War 1, rapid technological advances and radical changes were occurring in the industrial, social and political world. Women were becoming allowed to vote, new economic conditions of the emerging Industrialization of the Western world meant that people had more freedoms and educational opportunities. People were moving from working on the land (for landowners of the wealthy upper classes) to crowded industrial cities and these changes were to radically challenge the ‘traditional’ art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organization and daily life.
The term Modernism reflects the above changes but more specifically, it has come to define the ideology of the artistic movement of that time. “Make it new” wrote the poet Ezra Pound in 1934 and these famous words reflect the modernist movements approach to the old ways, which they saw as obsolete.
Contemporary artists believed that art must reflect life in the socialist revolution and speak to a contemporary audience. The Modernist movement broke away from traditions in thinking, society and art. A new era was starting. The Modernist movement developed into two spheres which came to be known as, ‘high’ and ‘low’ modernism. The high represented the intellectual and the low the more day to day which was more able to be accessible to the masses. In the fine arts, High Modernism was dominated by two streams, Geometrical abstraction and Expressionism. Geometrical abstraction includes Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Minimalism. Expressionism includes Fauvism, German Expressionism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Low Modernism has come to mean the practical application of a new set of influences upon society.
First termed ‘Avant Garde’ meaning experimental and innovative, Modernism completely rejected the prior ideas of realism in art. It did not make use of the works of the past believing them to be outdated and no longer useful or relevant. Modernism also rejected the separation of people by social class as well as the idea of an all-powerful Creator. This was the time of Darwin (who challenged the idea of an almighty God and the Garden of Eden). What was known by Western society prior to the industrial revolution and had been in place around humankinds known memory was dissolving. It was believed that art would have to also radically change. Thus, in the first twenty years of the 20th century many writers, thinkers, and artists broke with the traditional ways of creating and understanding, literature, painting, and music. The results were abstract art, atonal music, and the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique in the novel.
Like many movements, there was both an intellectual aspect to Modernism and a more practical aspect. These were respectively named, High and Low Modernism. This essay will explore these two aspects of Modernism and the impact they have both had upon society, art and graphic design, and will explore which has ultimately been more influential.
‘High’ Modernism was Innovative and experimental in its nature and often abstract. High Modernism was based on deeply held intellectual challenges, ideas and theories, which account for the radical and extreme nature of its forms. High Modernism rejected traditional and historical beliefs holding instead to the ideological philosophical utopian desire for a better world and unity among all of the arts.
Born in an age of industrialization Modernism saw the potential of the machine and the power in industrial technology and stripped off ornamental or decorative elements focusing on geometric and rectilinear shapes. Modernism embraced abstraction.
“[High] Modernism was not conceived as a style, but was a loose collection of ideas. It was a
Term that covered a range of movements and styles in many countries, especially those
Flourishing in key cities in Germany and Holland, as well as in Moscow, Paris, Prague, and later,
New York. All of these sites were stages for an espousal of the new and, often, an equally
Vociferous rejection of history and tradition; a utopian desire to create a better world, to reinvent
The world from scratch; an almost messianic belief in the power and potential of the machine
And industrial technology; a rejection of applied ornament and decoration; an embrace of
Abstraction and a belief in the unity of all arts. … All of these principles were frequently
Combined with social and political beliefs.”(Christopher, 2006)
Examples of High Modernism are Bauhaus, Expressionism, Futurism, Vorticism, Cubism and Surrealism. High Modernism may be distorted, unnaturally and arbitrarily coloured, expressing hyper real scenarios of what things may have looked like in an alternate abstraction of reality.
Expressionism developed as an avant-garde style around 1900 before the First World War. “Expressionism overlaps with many major 'isms' Futurism, Vorticism, Cubism, Surrealism and Dada making it difficult to define” (Sherrill E. Grace,1989). Its aim was to express the meaning of being alive rather than the physical reality. To distort reality for emotional effect as seen in the painting ‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch(Fig.1) In Franz Marc’s painting (Fig.2) we see the forest in the forms of the deer although there is no actual forest in the painting. It is as if we simply guess we are in a forest by the colour and the cubist unrealistic shapes that surround the animals.
Kirchner (Fig.3) was strongly influenced by African and Polynesian art and this led him to both simplify his forms and brighten his colours.
Fauvisism (1900-1920) Possibly the most well-known Fauvist was the post-impressionist Paul Gaugin (Fig.4) who proposed that colour could be used to visually translate emotions.
Cubism(1907-1914) Objects were broken up by the Cubists, “small multi-faceted areas, show different viewpoints, no coherent sense of depth, the background and object interpenetrate one another to create shallow ambiguous space” (James Lourie, 2010) Natural forms became simplified into cylinders, spheres and cones. Pablo Picasso had a phase where he painted in this way and is known for his ‘cubist’ works of which he was an initiator of in 1907. It is characterized by the reduction of natural forms into fragmented parts, which became abstract and often geometric.
Bauhaus: (1920-1940) a school of art and architecture in Germany. It combined art with craft and in this was revolutionary. There was also a belief that art could help to improve society not just reflect it.
Surrealism :( 1920- ) Emerging from cubism, but was influenced by the new field of Freud's psychology. The ideas were around the conscious and unconscious merging to create a new reality.
By the 1930’s Modernism had become part of popular culture. The ideas and changes from industrialization had been absorbed into day-to-day life and society. This state of being which was now the norm became known as low Modernism. Urbanization of populations was ever increasing. Ordinary people had adopted many new technologies. Electricity, telephone, the radio and automobile had become a part of their daily lives. This created jobs, time and consumerism. Social changes created livelihoods for a population who would work with, repair, use and live with these technologies. Urbanization brought with it new social norms, families became more nuclear and this changed relationships between parents and their children. Smaller families meant more access to education, health and wealth.
Low Modernism was strongly influenced by High Modernism but rejected or had no knowledge of many of its intellectual and radical ideas. It has become the term used to describe how day-to-day life was experienced. Mass production fueled much modernist innovation. Changes that had come about in Western society now were recognized and developed into theories that were studied in universities.
Modern ideas in art started to appear in commercials and logos. The famous London Underground logo, designed by Edward Johnston in 1919(Fig.5) was an early example of this and shows, clear, easily recognizable and memorable visual symbols.
Low Modernism takes some of the same ideas but tones down the abstraction. Low Modernism is more easily understood making it available to a wider audience of viewers. It is a modification of high Modernism, which meets commercial demands for commercial purposes e.g. advertising, posters and consumerism in general. Low Modernism is removed from any ideological ideas that are attached to high Modernism. It is also influenced by other facets of society, politics, culture, education, urbanization, not only artistic. Examples of Low Modernism were Art deco, Pictorial Modernism, War Posters, Dada, Graphic design.
Graphic Design: The popularity of posters for advertising came about as a direct result of the technology that printed mass designs by the printing press.
Pictorial Modernism: Focused on the total integration of image and word. The style included Plakastil, Art Deco, and War posters. Bold but simple lettering, which streamlined messages in order to clearly communicate and visually persuade. Graphic designers and illustrators expressed the modern era but with passion striking colors for clarity and often-abstractive decorative and ornamental flourishes of carried geometry over from art nouveau. (Fig.6)
War posters: These posters that were able to easily and cheaply reach ‘the masses’ were of huge importance. During World War 1 (1914-1918), Posters were used for propaganda, and the power the poster had in visual persuasion was established. Each ‘side’ of the war (Germany, Austria and Italy) versus –The Allies (France, Britain and its empire, joined by the USA from 1917) used very different styles. The European based followed the simplistic Plakatstil, which became associated with communism and fascism. The allies’ posters were more illustrative and figurative. Propaganda posters worked from several psychological bases, raising the patriotic sense of being in a team, fighting as one against the evil enemy. Showing the strength and heroism of those who fought and sought adventure in foreign places fighting against adversity. It also could influence in depicting the enemy as evil and animalistic, which helped to dehumanize and provoke moral outrage in the distancing as “other’ (Fig.7)
Dada :( 1916-1922) Dadaism was an art movement that came about as a reaction against war. They were associated with the far left and were early points of influence in street art. Dada was embraced by poets, writers, artists and actors, enjoying fun and rejecting reasoning and logic. Dada concentrated its anti-war politics by rejecting prevailing standards in art through anti-art cultural works, demonstrations and street theatre.
Art Deco: (1920- ) this style influenced design across the spectrum, architecture, lamps, kitchenware, interior design, fashion, graphic arts and film. It used a linear symmetry rather than the flowing organic curves of its predecessor ‘art nouveau’. It was influenced by many different styles of the modernist era including, Cubism, Constructivism and Neo Classical design. It also drew inspiration from Aztec and Egyptian forms.
Conclusion High Modernism was more influential
High Modernism was born of intellectual ideals and ideas whilst Low Modernism was influenced by High, but watered down and determined by the market. It had elements of and was a simplistic version of High Modernism and it had lost the depth, understanding and the reasoning behind its design. It was simply copying the rejection of tradition that had developed out of the philosophies and the radical thinking of High Modernism. Therefore, Low Modernism was born out of High, without it, it could not have come to being or into existence. Mass production lost sight of the true insights behind the art, intelligence, bravery and passion of people like Picasso, Munch, Van Gogh and the rest of those who had revolutionized the very face of what we now take so much for granted. The impact of colour upon our emotional states, the shape of an image and its power to draw us in or repel, the underbelly of humanity as shown in the rawness of the scream. We have not lost sight of these ‘fathers and mothers’ who gave us the way we see the world today and we thank them for it.
Christopher Wilk (2006) Modernism 1914 – 1939: Designing a new world, London: V&A Publications (pp. 14-15)
Sherrill E. Grace (1989) Regression and Apocalypse: Studies in North American Literary Expressionism, Toronto: University of Toronto Press (p.26)
James Lourie (2010) Modern Art Timeline: Retrieved from http://jameslourie.com/modern-art-timeline/
Author Unknown (2012) The Edward Johnston Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.ejf.org.uk/
Robert Scholes (Unknown) Paradoxy of Modernism. Retrieved from http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/excerpts/scholes_paradoxy.pdf
Perceptive Graphic Designer thinking out of the box for discerning clients.