modernism in art

late impressionism through surrealism

Some key concepts


• SH essay, 'Becoming Modern, an introduction'

• SH essay, 'Expression and modern art'

• SH essay 'Modern art and reality'

key concepts: naturalism, chiaroscuro (modeling), linear perspective, orthogonal line, vanishing point, local color, modernity, alternative realism, expression, social agency

One way of identifying modern art is by its rejection of the conventions of traditional art. Be able to recognize the following characteristics or conventions of traditional naturalism in art, all of which are visible in the Thomas Couture painting below:  

chiaroscuro (or 'modeling')

linear perspective (including the related terms 'orthogonal line' and 'vanishing point')

local color

• invisible facture

• moral instruction (or at least nothing that violates traditional morality)

Modernism rejected these conventions (and others), so our first question is, 'Why change? Why not just keep painting the way Raphael painted during the Renaissance in the early 1500s?' There are a lot of different answers to that question, but they mostly boil down into five main reasons:

modernity -- the world has changed enormously since the Renaissance, so we need new art for the modern social conditions that have arisen especially due to the rise of science, technology, industrialization, urbanism, and capitalism.

expression -- the notion that the purpose of art is to capture and convey our inner life (emotions, psychology, spirituality). Traditional art is mostly about showing the surface appearances of objective reality; expression turns inward to express things not visible to the eye.

realism -- the notion that the purpose of art is to be true to objective reality. Traditional art only captures one aspect of objective reality:  the surface appearances of things. The rise of modern science demonstrates that there is a lot to reality that is distorted by ordinary vision or that is simply not visible.

social agency -- is about how art affects viewers' attitudes and behavior:  how it improves or corrupts their moral values; confirms or questions their commonly-held beliefs; reinforces or erodes the authority of their leaders, and so forth.  The social agency of traditional art was to support the status quo; the social agency of modernist art was increasingly to criticize, question, and attempt to alter the status quo.

one other thing -- later, we'll introduce the concept of 'formalism' as a fifth major factor influencing the emergence of modernist art, but it will require some more time than we can give it right now, so concentrate on the other four and we'll come back to formalism when we get to Cézanne and Fauvism ...

Thomas Couture, Romans of the Decadence, French Academic, 1847

(you won't be tested on this work, but use it to remind yourself of the above conventions of traditional naturalism in art)