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 The Evolution of Modern Art

by Alex Brown 

                   

1.0      INTRODUCTION

 

While Product Design and Architecture rolled through the Industrial Revolution towards their Modern Movement state in the 1920s, Art too was going through a similar revolution. From its Classical or Romantic state painting was gradually shifting towards a semi-abstract state where its components of form, colour and subject matter were taking on a life of their own and becoming independent of one another. 

 

The term 'Rationalism' was used to explain the disintegration of the Classical tradition which took place in Design from the 18th century. The same process can be found in Art and with the same result: the disintegration of the Classical tradition in painting and sculpture. Ultimately this meant that the photographic realism of traditional or academic paintings dissolved into fragments of form, flashes of pure colour and unreal (surreal) subject matter. 

 

This breakdown of the Classical tradition from say 1850 onwards, would lead to Impressionism, Post-Impressionsim, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Dada, Constructivism and a whole range of other styles all the way up to the present day, each analysing and exploring some different aspect of painting. (Curiously enough, the Modern Movement in Art, results in an explosion of different styles unlike Design and Architecture which tend towards a single unified 'Modern' style).

 

2.0       THE FORCE OF RATIONALISM

 

Rationalism as used here is a concern with PROCESS rather than fixed things, ideas rather than objects. It is essentially critical and dynamic. Critical in the sense that it regards all fixed things (paintings, products, tradition & authority) as mere reflections of a dynamic process - THOUGHT OR IDEA - which is the true reality. History in this sense is the unfolding of the IDEA in time.

 

When authority and tradition are MISTAKENLY taken to be the ultimate reference points for design or painting (or anything else), Rationalism sees this as a way of trying to hold back the process of history; trying to fix it in time (the past and tradition) or space (the academic authority). It is at times like this that Rationalist criticism attempts to break open the acceptance of these secure and comfortable myths and allow development to take place. This is what it did with Architecture and Design. It also took place within the field of Art.

 

3.0      THE CLASSICAL TRADITION IN ART

 

It is obvious what the word 'Classical' means when applied to architecture and other designed products (furniture, interiors, etc). It means the use of Greek or Roman architectural details. But what does this term Classical mean when applied to painting? It can be understood as a particular approach to the purpose and technique of painting. Some of the characteristics of this approach (sometimes called the Romantic) are:

 

a)        Photographic realism in painting technique.

b)        Usually 'heroic' or moral subject matter.

c)        Rich mixtures of colour. No colour is pure (again realism).

d)     The picture frame is treated as a WINDOW on a real scene. The painting represents a  supposedly real event.

e)       The 'function' of the painting is firstly, contemplation of the scene depicted and only  secondly to deal with the beauty or experience of the painting itself. It is the CONTENT of  the painting - its subject matter - which is primary, not the painting itself.

 

 

The key issue here is that the TECHNIQUE OF PAINTING and the existance of the painter himself is repressed or hidden in favour of the representation of the scene. The paintings look like coloured photographs. Painters who deliberately or mistakenly expressed the brushstrokes in a painting were criticised for being unskillful. (Brushstrokes drew attention to the SURFACE of the painting rather than the SUBJECT).

 

4.0       DESIGN = FUNCTIONALISM; ART = PROCESS

 

If Rationalism means PROCESS, then the process of a painting is first revealed in the brushstrokes. The painting is no longer a 'window' on reality - it is reality. The painting itself becomes the experience as the picture plane is broken up, fractured. (Like cracked glass in a window - we cannot see through the window; we see the window itself and not the view outside). We can now see the painting process and technique (and the hand of the artist) in the brushstrokes.

 

If Rationalism produced the concept of FUNCTIONALISM in Design, then when applied to Art, Rationalism produces revealed PROCESS.

 

Functionalism and Process are equivalent because they are both concerned with dynamic processes, activities, operations and the making of the object.

 

5.0       FORM, COLOUR AND SUBJECT MATTER

 

A painting is made up of three basic dimensions: FORM, COLOUR and SUBJECT MATTER. In Classical painting these three components were fully coordinated to produce the final realistic image. What happens when the painting is subject to Rationalist analysis by painters themselves? Some concern themselves with developing the Form, some with the Colour and some with the Subject Matter. The result of these experiments is that by the 1920s, Art had split into several different styles of painting each concentrating on a different aspect of the painting process.

 

6.0       IMPRESSIONISM: EXPERIMENTS IN COLOUR

 

Experiments in painting were taking place in the 1870s Paris where a new style of painting: IMPRESSIONISM was being created which first challenged the 'photographic realism' and the fake heroism of the Romantic - Classical period. The central point about Impressionism is that it explored the use of COLOUR in painting. Rather than mix colours together to imitate the colours of the real world, the Impressionists tried to maintain and emphasize the purity and power of colour itself.

 

The Impressionist technique was that individual pure colours were applied separately as individual points or brushstrokes. Two things happened:

 

1.        The painting dissolved into a million points of coloured light. The shapes were determined  by colour changes rather than definite sharply-drawn lines.

 

2.       The hand of the artist was revealed in the individual brushstrokes used to apply the  pure  points of colour.

 

The smooth surfaces and precision of Classical art were now transformed into soft, blurred flashes of coloured light which gave the Impressionists their name. These paintings were seen by observers as fleeting 'impressions' of their subject. Impressionism as a movement was, without doubt the most important artistic revolution since the Renaissance.

 

It fractured the Classical picture plane and set the artist free to explore painting as a means of self-expression and individual experiment. The first artist to use this impressionist technique was Eduard Monet (1835-1920), soon followed by others:including: Renoir, Pizarro, Seurat, Degas.

Whether as points or individual lines of colour, each of these artists built up the final image of the painting out a million separate brushstrokes. More significantly, colour could now for the first time be explored as an artistic dimension and experience on its own.

 

Colour had at last been freed from the domination of the subject matter and from reality.

 

7.0       THE POST IMPRESSIONISTS

 

If Impressionism had introduced a whole new way of seeing reality and art - AS COLOUR AND LIGHT, the power of the brushstroke (and in the process had rejected Classical Realism), what could be the next step in the development of Art? The next step was taken by a group of painters generally called the Post Impressionists (1890 -1904). Three of them: Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin are particularly important because from their work one can trace almost all the developments of Modern Art till the present day.

 

Each one of them carried out a radical investigation of one component of the total painting: Cezanne explored FORM; Van Gogh explored COLOUR; Gauguin explored SUBJECT MATTER

 

a)        Cezanne's work would lead to CUBISM  (geometric planes and fragments)

b)       Van Gogh's work would lead to EXPRESSIONISM (pure expression of colour)

c)     Gauguin's work (amongst others) would lead to SURREALISM (manipulates subject matter  in a symbolic or dreamlike way)

 

From these initial experiments one can trace the future evolution of art in the following way:

 

d)         Cubist concerns with Form would lead eventually to MINIMALISM

 

(Minimalist artists sought to escape from the over-commercialized world of the art market and return art to the making and contemplation of 'PURE OBJECTS' which had no aesthetic or inherently valuable attributes. Minimalism strips away all obvious 'artistic' suggestions in order to focus on the pure, untreated, un-designed form of the OBJECT itself. The result was the presentation in galleries of simple pieces of wood, bent metal, glasses of water and so on, as neutral, objects of experience. The logical extension of this position would also involve installation and performance art - a celebration of the PURE EVENT).

 

e)       Expressionist concerns with pure colour would lead to ABSTRACT ART

 

(This style, aka Abstract Expressionism - totally abstract in nature (no subject matter) -was a radical American development of the Expressionist school of painting in Europe where colour had become a powerful independent force in painting. Continual development of this approach by American artists led to the final dominance of colour over all other aspects of the painting surface including the elimination of the subject matter. That is, 'non-representational'. The painting became a pure colour composition. As spontaneous expressions of the artists unconscious mind to be experienced purely through colour.)

 

f)           Surrealist concerns with symbols and icons and would lead to POP ART

 

(Surrealism had shown that familiar objects could be given visual power by changing the context in which they were seen -  making them unfamiliar. in the United States - the ultimate mass culture society this technique was used to create a new kind of art.

 

The raw materials and subject matter of Pop Art are the NON-HEROIC everyday items of the 20th century Consumer Culture: cult images, soup cans, the flag, comic characters, the face of the President, etc. All of these easily-accessible images found in the home and the supermarket are given a new power by manipulating the colour, number or scale of the object. In a century which saw the rise of television and the movies and the instant images of advertising, Pop Art sought to match the mass medium aspect of the new consumer culture in terms of its accessibility to popular understanding, its immediacy and its 'boldness' of image. Pop Art tried to emulate the multiple images thrown at the observer by the mass media and to de-sentimentalize art from its Romantic associations by using techniques of shock).

 

8.0       PAUL CEZANNE (1839-1906):

 

'The father of Modern Art' developed a method of painting which took the delicate brushstrokes of the Impressionists and enlarged each of them into geometric slabs of colour. The soft flickering image of the Impressionist painting become the STRUCTURED PLANES OF COLOUR locked together in the painting like a jigsaw puzzle. Cezanne attempted to reconstruct the accidental and enormously complex forms of nature into into a coherent geometry for the painting. At the same time his colours were as rich and vibrant as the Impressionist.

 

Cezanne was such a master of both colour and form that later painters of very different schools would claim him as their influence. But it is clear that his geometric forms directly influenced and triggered the work of the Cubists who came after him. He was the "visionary and primitive of a new art" which had still to come.

 

9.0       VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890)

 

If Cezanne is geometric form, Vincent Van Gogh is pure expressive colour. He said:

 

"Instead of trying to reproduce what is exactly before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily................I am trying to exaggerate the essentials of things and leave the obvious vague". and: "A sun, a light which for want of a better word I must call pale sulphur - yellow , pale lemon, gold. How beautiful yellow is".

 

Van Gogh was only thirty seven when he shot himself, but in the last four years of his life between 1886 and 1890 he changed the history of art. A deeply emotional man, he expressed himself through the most dramatic and extraordinary use of colour - giving future painters the freedom to use it expressively - and showed the way emotion can be expressed by purely optical means.

 

Colour, applied in curved and plastic brushstrokes, dominates everything, including the line and form. The influence of Japanese prints is there too - the work of Hokusai perhaps in Van Gogh's 'Starry Night' painting. This is not the precise colour combinations of the Romantics, but a wild and uncontrolled colour which is a pure EXPRESSION OF EMOTION. After Van Gogh, the use of colour would never be the same again. The Expressionist school of painting would be the result.

 

10.       PAUL GAUGUIN (1848-1903)

 

Here is the man who gave up his comfortable life as a banker, left his wife and children to become a painter. Worked for a short and violent time with Van Gogh and finally left France for the Pacific island of Tahiti. This is the brilliant fugitive known as Paul Gauguin.

 

He too was influenced by Japanese prints (Hokusai, Hiroshige & Utamaro) and particularly their use of flat planes of pure colour. He was also influenced by the ideas of the Symbolists - a literary group dedicated to a more spiritual and emotional content in art and to fantasy, allegory and the dream - the symbolic world.

 

At first his painting was Impressionist in style but moved towards sharply drawn, flat, richly-coloured and sometimes patterned planes. Gauguin said he "wanted to paint like children" and his art has a naive quality: a deliberate simplicity, awkwardness and disregard for proportion. True to his Symbolist theories, Gauguin's work has a childlike, dreamlike (symbolic) and surreal quality.  These qualities are expressed in his paintings of the natives of Tahiti - his island paradise and its childlike 'noble savages'.

 

Gauguin's work stepped out of reality into another strange dimension. He would manipulate and

distort real images to achieve an unreal or SURREAL image.

 

11.0    MODERN ART TAKES OFF

 

The combined efforts of the Impressionists and the Post Impressionists (the genius of Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin) had broken the spell of Classic-Romantic painting. The way was open for a series of artistic experiments and developments which could not be stopped. In a wave of different styles, European artists pushed the possibilities of colour, line, geometry and imagination to new artistic limits. The Modern Movement in Art had arrived. A whole series of new artistic styles followed amongst which were:

 

Cubism, Expressionism (Fauvism), Surrealism, Dada, Futurism and Constructivism.

 

The differences between these styles depended on which aspect of painting each artist chose to explore: Form, Colour or Subject Matter. The starting point for exploration of each of these areas had already been established by Cezanne (Form), Van Gogh (Colour) and Gauguin (Surrealism). Once that had been done, the Rational unfolding and exploration of PROCESS - the technique of painting - became self-propelling and, like an exploding star, the different bits shot off in different directions.

 

12.0   CUBISM: DECONSTRUCTING THE FORM OF THINGS

 

"Treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone", said Cezanne.

 

Two painters - Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque - took that as their starting point and between 1908 and 1914 created a new movement in painting: CUBISM. As the name suggests, the key aspect of Cubism is geometry where there is a ruthless reduction of the forms of the world to their fundamental geometric shapes.

 

When Braque painted a landscape of houses, trees and hills, all details are edited out, shapes simplified and colour reduced to ochres and dark greens. All the forms are locked together on the surface of the painting and conventional perspective is eliminated in favour of a flat 'projection'. This cubic/geometric style of painting is applied to all the forms of the world including human figures and is called 'ANALYTIC CUBISM' where forms are analysed and deconstructed and their parts are re-arranged for the picture plane. Multiple views of the same object could be included and the whole picture plane fractured into a geometric jigsaw of facets and planes.

A later development of Cubism known as 'Synthetic Cubism' used collage techniques to build up the image and the style began to shift towards an abstract compositional technique. Parts of conventional objects could still be recognized: wine bottles, tables, guitars, newspapers, etc, but all simplified in their geometry and tightly locked together on the picture plane. Cubism represented the most radical change of style in painting since the Renaissance.

 

13.0    A NOTE ON CUBIST SCULPTURE

 

If the world of painting could be transformed, deconstructed into geometries - cubes and planes and RE-ASSEMBLED into a total image, so too could the world of SCULPURE. If anything, the solid masses of sculpure could more easily reflect the cubic geometries developed by Braque and Picasso. With the sculpture for a still life or a human figure the elements are again reduced to their fundamental forms - rendered semi-abstract and recomposed as a whole AND DIFFERENT figure. This is what Picasso succeeded in doing.

 

In his sculpture 'Violin and Bottle on a Table' (1915), Picasso radically concieved of the new sculptural object, using humble materials such as painted wood, string and tacks. Vague clues about the musical instrument remain - the sound hole, the painted strings and the table is represented by part of a moulded chair leg, but the work moves dramatically towards the abstract state.

 

14.0     EXPRESSIONISM: THE WILD BEASTS OF COLOUR

 

"Pale sulphur-yellow, Pale lemon, Gold. How Beautiful lemon is", says Van Gogh watching the sun sit in a pale blue sky, with white clouds and green trees.

 

Or what about red trees, with blue outlines and a purple sky with yellow clouds? Since Van Gogh's work, COLOUR WAS LIBERATED from the subject and the form. Free to express whatever the artist wished it to express, whether as an act of violence on the eye, a shock, a caress or a joke. It is not for nothing that the French Expressionists were called FAUVES, which means 'wild beasts'. At the time, (around 1905), their use (or abuse) of colour was shocking to the conservative art critics.

 

If one placed an Impressionist painting on the wall beside a Fauvist painting, the Impressionist painting would be blown off the wall by the explosion of colour beside it.

 

The most significant French Expressionist (colourist) painter is, without doubt - Henri Matisse. One might almost say he 'invented' Fauvism. The liberation of colour which took place between 1904 and 1907 was largely his doing and in particular his images of the French Mediterranean coast greatly influenced the other Fauves, such as Derain, Dufy, Vlaminck and (for a short time, even Braque, the Cubist). But the Expressionist did not have a theory of art as such, only an approach and attitude to colour.

 

Colour now flows up to and over the edges of the forms and bears little or no relation to the 'real' colour of objects. Contrasting colurs clash against one another on the picture surface. Colour as an independent, self-propelling force in the painting. It is also worth noting that the brushwork of the Expressionist is very casual and take-it-or-leave it. The colour is everything.

 

15.0     SURREALISM: THE ART OF THE DREAMSCAPE

 

"When Reason dreams, Monsters are born", said the painter Goya.

 

Underneath the rational world of Neo-Classicism, the comfortable world of Impressionism, the fiercely analytical world of Cubism and the Expressionist world of pleasure, lay the "dark side" of the mind: mystery, melancholy and fear. It was a world of phantoms conjured up during the sleeping hours. It was the world of DREAMS.

 

If Cubism explores the possibilities of Form, Expressionism the possibilities of Colour, then SURREALISM explores the possibilities of subject matter in art. How could the content of art - its subject matter - be pushed further - made to express more than just trees, human figure, bowls of fruit and so on? How could it be made to PROVOKE the senses and offer a new way of looking at the world? The way was to produce a clash of realistic images in unexpected or even shocking confrontations. The point is to destroy the expected and probable relationship between things as in the strange and sometimes threatening world of the dream. This is the technique of Surrealism, and its goal: "to produce a beauty of  strangeness, born of unexpected meetings of word, sound, image and person" In this sense beauty is the CREATION OF A NEW REALITY.

 

"The chance meeting on an operating counter of a sewing machine and an umbrella".  Chance, memory, coincidence, dream and desire meet in this new reality - this un-reality, this sur-reality in a disturbing collision of images.

 

The leader of the Surrealist group in the 1920s was Andre Breton who had worked in a psychiatric hospital during the First World War helping shellshocked patients analyse their dreams and nightmares. For him, (as for the great psychiatrist SIGMUND FEUD), the dream was the instrument for gaining access to the "parallel world" of the Unconscious - the forbidden and repressed areas of the mind. To discover and reveal through Art a whole world of powerful symbols and strange relationships which can alter the way we look at the 'real world'. 

 

See the work of De Chirico, the first major Surrealist painter with his strange, sunfilled, silent empty streets and squares, cardboard architecture, shadowed arcades and faceless statues like tailors manniquins.

 

Or the work of Max Ernst, a world of children threatened by nightingales. What kind of world is this where the song of a bird inspires terror? Ernst could compress a great deal of psychic violence into a small space - a booby-trapped toy.

 

This is the stuff of nightmares, of course. dredged up from the depths of the mind and brought to view. The unamed terror and anxiety of the night is revealed.

 

16.0     THE MAD SANITY OF MAGRITTE

 

With his dry, matter-of-fact and even boring style of painting, Rene Magritte (1898-1967) produces an atmosphere of THREAT. Using the most ordinary and even banal items, a pipe, an apple, serious men in business suits, a hat, birdcage and so on Magritte produces works of dreamlike impossibility.

 

Imagine a painting of a business man standing in front of a mirror. His image in the mirror shows - not his face - but his back! Or, see his painting of an ordinary pipe with the words - "this is not a pipe" written underneath. What is it then? Well, it is a PAINTING of a pipe. Or, in another painting, a painting on an easel stands in front of a window. The painting is of a view through the window behind the painting. Pictures within pictures within pictures.

 

Where is the substance of things, the hard reality that we can rely on to make us feel comfortable? In the work of Magritte there is no comfortable space. Everything keeps sliding from one disturbing scene to another. The purest form of Surrealism is that of understated and boring objects combined in impossible relationships.

 

17.0     SALVADOR DALI: HIGH PRIEST OF THE SURREAL

 

A 'soft watch', a body tearing itself apart, a giant hand coming up through the ground carrying an egg, fried eggs and giant lobes of flesh supported on crutches, desert landscapes red in the sun. All these images and more painted in the most perfect academic style can be found in the work of the arch-Surrealist, Salvador Dali (1904-1991).

 

Like his famous Art Nouveau compatriot Antonio Gaudi, Dali was a Spaniard from the city of Barcelona. His desperate and unrestrained imagination produced hell-like images where perfectly painted (and totally impossible) parts of things exist side by side in a desolate desert or ocean floor. As Dali says: "these are hand-painted dream photographs".

 

Dali - who became the most well known artist this century after Picasso - defined his methos as an "agressive principle of subjectively distorted visions and the cultivation of delusional thought patterns".

 

In effect Dali intended to paint like a madman. And, he wrote: "I believe that the moment is near when by a procedure of PARANOID THOUGHT it will be possible to bring about a total confusion and discrediting of the world of reality".

 

Along with his Surrealist companions, Joan Miro and Max Ernst and, of course, Rene Magritte, Dali sought to explode the comfortable perceptions of those who look at paintings. With an understanding of modern psychology, Dali and the others produced work which was meant to provoke UNEASE.

 

17.0     FUTURISM: THE ART OF SPEED AND DANGER

 

"We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness". "We will glorify war - the world's only hygiene". So says, the Futurist high priest Fillipo Marinetti (1874-1944).

Marinetti virtually invented Futurism - part lyrical genius, part organ grinder and part Fascist orator. His ideas affected the whole Modern movement in art in Europe up till the start of the First World War in 1914. Futurism was essentially an Italian movement.

 

Marinetti's great love was the MACHINE. Marinetti's great hate was THE PAST. For him a new dynamic age had been born - the AGE OF THE MACHINE, the Age of Power, which required a new kind of human being: a Futurist human being. And the machine he loved the most was the motor car.

 

"We say that the world's magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty; the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned by great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath - a roaring car that seems to run on shrapnel - more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace." And: "We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure and by riot".

 

In the same way that the Surrealists wanted to destroy unthinking standard ways of looking at things, so the Futurists wanted to destroy the past, history, ancient monuments, old cities, old art, sentimentality. The world had to be totally reconstructed along new Modern (Futurist) lines and in a state of continuous dynamic and revolutionary energy.

 

The problem was how to represent this energy and movement in a static medium like art. A problem that was solved by the Futurist artist: UMBERTO BOCCIONI. Part influenced by the 'deconstructed' forms of Cubism and part by new advances in photography which pictured OBJECTS IN MOTION, Boccioni, by giving the successive positions of a figure on one painting, produced the multiple linework paintings that became the 'trademark' of the Futurist movement.

Like a trail of lines behind an advancing figure - the memory of its movement through space - and like the Cubist work, the painted form is deconstructed by this movement. Boccioni applied the same 'blurring' technique to his sculpture where the form of the moving figure is swept back behind the figure 'moving quickly through space'; like a wind blowing the clothes of the figure.

 

This great Futurist belief in the power of technology and giant machines, war, dynamism and revolution came horribly true in 1914 in the slaughterhouse of the First World War with men pitted against machine guns and tanks.

 

18.0     DADA: THE ART OF THE ABSURD

 

"Repelled by the slaughterhouse of the World War, we turned to Art". (Jean Arp).

 

"This morning I visited the the place were the streetcleaners dump their rubbish. My God, it was beautiful. It would be a real pleasure to take you there and to a few other places that are a real pleasure for the artist". (Vincent Van Gogh, quoted by Dadaist, Kurt Schwitters).

 

The colossal battles of the First War - millions dying on the battlefield sent a feeling of disgust through intellectual and artistic circles. What could be the appropriate emotional and intellectual response to this insanity and mass murder? An art of tragedy perhaps, or, in the case of DADA, an Art of total and complete PLAY AND SPONTANEITY and an expression of the total absurdity of the real world. Again, as with the Futurists, a new world must be created - but not of (killer) Machines, but of childlike joy, nonsense and playfulness. This was a rejection of serious, middle-class, middle brow, socially-committed, hero worship, art as beauty and art as investment Art. The purpose: TO DE-MYSTIFY ART.

 

Through stage-happenings, NONSENSE THEATRE, mock rituals, games, free poetry, strange costumes,spontaneous EVENTS of all sorts and general MADNESS, Dadaist artists created an art of childhood and chance centred around the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Switzerland.

 

The Dadaist 'painter' Kurt Schwitters produced Cubist-Constructivist-inspired collages of JUNK collected from the streets. Marcel Duchamp painted a moustache and beard on the famous Mona Lisa. He also produced a series of 'ready-made' objects for display in art galleries: a urinal, bottle rack, a bicycle wheel, and so on. His theory: if these ordinary objects are displayed in an art gallery, they must be Art! Also the world was already full of 'interesting' objects, the artist need not make any more. Just choose a ready-made one and this act was an act of creation.

 

19.0     REMEMBER.............

 

Dada, inspired by Futurist dynamics and the cry for roaring anarchy, and Cubist deconstruction, collage and assembly techniques can be seen as another fragment of the splintering of Art that took place between 1905 and 1920.

 

Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Constructivism, Surrealism and Dada all burst on the scene during this revolutionary period and in 1914 the most violent and bloody war occurred which killed millions of people including many artists, and changed the political and social face of Europe:

 

Revolutionary Art, World War, machines, drastic social change: the Russian Revolution. Nothing would remain the same. In 20 years there would be another war.

 

20.0     CONSTRUCTIVISM: ART AS PROPAGANDA

 

"Art is a powerful means of infecting those around us with ideas feelings and moods. Agitation and propaganda require particular acuity and effectiveness when they are clothed in the attractive and mighty forms of art". (Lunacharsky: Soviet Minister of Education, 1918).

 

The Russian Revolution of 1917 (provoked by massive Russian losses in the War), had destroyed the Russian Royal family and swept away the Middle Classes. Now, the only patron of Art would be the State. And, for the State the purpose of Art was REVOLUTIONARY PROPAGANDA. That is, art to inspire the masses to work, to believe in the new political system and to build the New Society. Art was no longer to be the exclusive privelage of a few middle class knowledgable patrons, nor was it to be the decadent art of the past. It was to be a totally new art: a PEOPLES ART.

 

The most radical artists - Marc Chagall, Malevitch and El Lissitsky were placed in charge of the Art Schools. A new Higher Art School was formed in Moscow which became the Bauhaus of Russia - the most advanced art school anywhere - and it became the centre of Russian Constructivism.

 

The most influential Constructivist artist was VLADIMIR TATLIN (1885-1953). More dynamic in form than the Cubist and as committed to Technology and 'Machine Art' as the Futurists, Tatlin's work is a pure abstraction of spirals, multiple planes and 'common' materials of glass, concrete and steel. More direct are the revolutionary posters of El Lissitsky: red wedges, black and red rectangles, the power of the diagonal and totally abstract.

 

By the 1930s, the Russian dictator Stalin had banned all Modern, abstract art. In its place he and artistic conservatives demanded Social Realism, monumental, classical and easy to understand art. No thought required. The great Russian Modern Art experiment was over and the artistic hacks from the academies went back to painting romantic, heroic and 'comfortable' paintings. Not until the 1970s was Modern Art officially allowed to exist in the Soviet Union.

 

21.0     SUMMARY

 

By the 1920s, the new artistic reality in its many versions was firmly in place, the freedom of colour, the geometries of form and abstraction had established themselves as entirely valid methods of artistic representation. Art no longer pretended to represent a classic, moral reality - a window on the world. Art could now (re)present itself as the experience.

 

End                                                            

 

 

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