Robert Yee –
The end of 19th century Europe saw the eruption of a new artistic movement that rivaled existing forms of thought. Modernism emerged among certain classes who felt that prior art patterns were too simplistic and conservative in nature. The concept of modernity can be applied to the rise in news ways of creating and interpreting the visual arts. These artists felt traditional art forms were outdated, and new forms should be experimented with. Ultimately, the works of the early modernists were revolutionary in their new forms of thinking and set a new path to modernize the antiquated patterns of prior art movements.
Initially, the movement was popular among young artists, poets, philosophers, and others who questioned the power of the bourgeoisie. Supporters of the movement believed that past art was not up-to-date with the times and lacked creativity. The need for change was driven by the lower class, which felt that they could find truth and freedom in art. Later, the modernist movements became common with the upper-class members of society as well, who sought to experiment with new methods of expression that would make them more elite and disassociate themselves from lower members of society. Such elitists included Stefan George, W.B. Yeats, and Filippo Marinettti.
Opponents of the movement included certain, but not all, monarchs and kings of Europe. Although some were patrons of the new art movements, such as the King of Bavaria Ludwig II, Kaiser Wilhelm II was a notable enemy of new age thought. Wilhelm believed art was useful for improving society and advancing a country as a whole. He criticized the new wave of art for diverging too radically from previous artistic movements. Describing himself as a “sovereign” of the arts, Wilhelm praised the great predecessors of artistic advancement in Ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy; art in Germany only portrayed “misery”, making the German people appear dark and dreary. This new art form did not positively represent the German nation, and it violated the laws of classical art, such as those concerning beauty, harmony, and aesthetics.
Among modernists, there was much discontent over government-controlled groups that created conservative art, such as the Association of Berlin Artists. In response, the Berlin Secession formed in 1898. These avant-garde artists garnered the attention of renowned supporters, including a German-Jewish painter, Max Liebermann, and created a “new canon of ‘modern’ German art.” In one of their declarations, Liebermann identified the group as a revolutionary developer of modern painting. They praised art through the “Secessionist element”, in which individuality of the artwork was highlighted as a cornerstone of the ideal. Often the association promoted Impressionist pieces; their goal was to emphasize, not the talent of the author, but rather the ability “to recreate the impression that nature has called forth in him.” The Berlin Secession also sought to emphasize the glorification of Germany and the German homeland, so as to appeal to Kaiser Wilhelm II. However, they still maintained various qualities that gave them success as creators of modernist artwork. The individualistic nature of the Berlin Secession was common among other avant-garde groups that stood at the forefront of the visual arts.
Another group that emerged from Expressionistic backgrounds was Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in Munich. Founded in 1911 by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, this group featured both German and Russian artists. Their artwork featured notably “south German” patterns, with “softer” and “lyrical” qualities. Munich was seen as one of the most prominent German centers of this new wave of modernism. As an offshoot of Expressionism, the association featured abstract patterns in colorful settings. In their paintings, they attempted to capture feelings and emotions of the soul in their works, which were often spiritual and symbolic. This group, however, was the victim of harsh remarks and criticism. Some saw modernism as controversial because it created new art effects that had never been seen before. Often, it seemed to distort nature in odd ways; as anti-realists, these modernists depicted nature and life in unique shades of colors and lighting. Some saw these pieces as a challenge to the authority of the government; Wilhelm II felt that such art lost “touch with the law of aesthetics and all feeling for beauty and harmony.” The work of the Blue Rider was disrupted by the outbreak of the Great War, when some members were killed in combat and others were deported. However, during its existence, it featured two exhibitions in Munich that caught the attention of neighboring cities and artists. Although their work was short-lived, the principles through which they guided art laid the groundwork for various branches of Expressionist thought.
The artwork of modernism showed urban life: how it was viewed, and how it felt. Cities were complex creatures, which were rapidly increasing during this time period. During the Second Industrial Revolution, there was a boom in economic output and production, notably in England and Germany. Change in both city life and architectural achievements were apparent, such as the growth of monuments and expansion of the electricity. Electricity played a key role in making cities look brighter and more alive. Modernists depicted such concepts in their artwork, attempting to convey the Zeitgeist in cities, which were illuminated by this new force. There was an artistic reaction from new urban life, electricity, and technology. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and other expressionists tried to capture the emotional appeal of the city life in their art. Much of the art featured in the galleries attempted to express, not the real-life state of what they saw, but rather how they felt.
In addition, the pieces of art depicted women in a new light. Women had been better represented in society, such as increased women’s rights movements and the increased enrollment of women in the university system. They were more prominent in everyday society, leaving the house to attend department stores, such as the Bon Marché in France, and played an increasing role in the community. The idea of the “New Woman” was a concept that emerged in the latter decades of the 19th century. Artists such as Charles Dana Gibson depicted this ideal that woman had an increasing pertinent role to society’s well-being. Revolutionary in their ideas, modernists crafted a new image of the female concept.
Ultimately, modernism was a new wave of art that revolutionized Europe. Initially starting as an artist and poet lower class movement, it developed and expanded to the upper classes, continuing to grow in prominence during the 20th century. Various avant-garde associations existed that sought to create their own patterns and styles of artwork. Modernism played a profound impact in the development of a new culture and shift towards modernity in other areas of culture throughout the European continent.