Art History for Chapter 12:
The Westerner’s Burden: Imperialism and Nationalism, 1810 to 1918
Art historians date the beginning of Modern Art to the end of the Nineteenth Century and the turn of the Twentieth. Previously, art historians could talk of periods of Classical, Renaissance, even Baroque art as representative of a general style. No longer. Modern artists have access to and explore all times and trends. With the end of patrons to please, they pursue their own vision, offering their creativity to the whims of fashion and the marketplace.
This period, of course overlaps the industrial revolution. Nationalism encouraged governments to promote artistic works that reflected great heroes and important events from the past of a particular nation-state. This art usually remained in the tradition of naturalistic and realistic portrayal of nature as it looks to the human eye. Imperialism brought artistic works from all across the world to the attention to European artists, some of whom used these foreign forms in their own creations. These artists continued on the more interpretive path set by the impressionist and post-impressionist art of the nineteenth century. The result was a continued fracturing of artistic creativity into various trends and schools. Paris emerged as the capital of Western, if not world-wide, art by the end of the Nineteenth Century. Artists and writers of many nations flocked to the city and learned from one another.
The rise of popular media also began to replace high art. Pop culture, with movies, photo magazines, radio, record players drew the attention of lower and middle classes. The elites were only too happy to claim the high art for themselves, using it to emphasize one of the few distinctions between class not based on wealth.
Art from newly colonized and exploited Africa, Asia, as well as archeology from Pre-Columbian America inspired a movement and style called Primitivism. These artists embraced the less-naturalistic simplistic forms as boldly simple.
The movement quickly evolved into a larger style was called Expressionism. This art adopted primitivist perspectives, played with bold color, distortions and angular exaggerations of natural forms. They often used these styles to show human isolation and conflict with modern society.
In France the Fauves (or “Wild Beasts”) in German countries the Blaue Reiter ( or “Blue Rider”) and Brücke (or “Bridge”) groups pushed expressionist art first.
Perhaps the most famous expressionist work is by the Norwegian Edvard Munch, known as The Scream (1910). The artist said, “I hear the scream in nature.” Its cry from the heart still resonates more than a century later. It was stolen in 2004, but recovered two years later.
Yet another important artistic movement, Cubism (1907-1940) built on the geometric interpretation of Cezanne. Cubists rejected the simple viewpoint of linear perspective. They both broke down forms into geometric shapes and showed different views and angles at the same time.
The work of art that many art historians say launched this movement, if not all twentieth-century art, is the Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (“The Ladies of Avignon”) finished in 1907 by the Spaniard Pablo Picasso (b.1881-d.1973) , illustrating women in a brothel of Barcelona.
Another ground-breaking work of Cubist art was the Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp (b.1887-d.1968), first shown in Paris in 1912 then in the New York Armory show in 1913. There it caused a scandal of shocked viewers. Not that it is lewd in its nudity—indeed its hard to recognize a naked woman in its frozen sequence of movements in a moment.
ABSTRACTIONISM (1910-) finished the break with naturalism and realism. Abstract art was unconnected to recognizable objects from experience and nature. Art became non-representational: lacking any connection to visual reality.
One of its earliest proponents was Wassily Kandinsky (b.1866-d.1944), a Russian who painted in Germany. At first he painted in a more expressionist style, he shifted to non-representational colors in lines and blobs, many called improvisations. He even wrote a book theorizing his efforts to abandon centuries of artistic tradition.
It would become even more popular after World War II, as ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM.