modernism in art

late impressionism through surrealism

Backlash: the 1930s

Works and concepts from this topic won't be on the exam,

but it does tie up some interesting strands we've been covering in the second half of the course,

and we'll briefly cover it in class as a sort of 'coda' to Modernism.


• SH video, Paul Troost, House of (German) Art

• SH essay, Art in Nazi Germany

• SH video, What is: Degenerate Art?

• selection from a speech on art by Adolf Hitler

• YouTube video, Socialist Realism - Soviet Art from the Avant Garde to Stalin

• SH essay, Irina Stepanova, The Results of the First Five-Year Plan

key terms and concepts: totalitarianism, retour à l’ordre, Social(ist) Realism, Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) Exhibition, propaganda (agit-prop)

This topic is about two waves of reaction against the radical innovations of Modernism: a 'retour à l'ordre' (return to order) in the 1920s, and an even broader rejection of Modernism by the rising totalitarian governments of the 1930s.

• How was the retour à l'ordre of the 1920s associated with World War One? How did this result in a rejection of especially geometric abstraction and mechanomorphic imagery, and a turn toward more 'humanistic' and even sentimental content and traditional, naturalistic styles? (Remember, though, that the 1920s also was the heyday of Léger, Purism, Mondrian, and the Bauhaus, so this 'retour à l'ordre' was by no means universal).

• What is totalitarianism? Why do totalitarian governments tend to want to rigorously control cultural production, including art?

• What was the 'rhetoric' of the Entartete Kunst and Great German Art exhibitions held in Munich in 1937? Why did Hitler and the totalitarian Nazi government of Germany in the 1930s reject Modernism? What values did they associate it with? What was Hitler's preferred style of art, and why?

• How did the attitude of the totalitarian Communist government toward Modernism change in the later 1920s? Why did Stalin reverse the Communist government's early embrace of Suprematism and Constructivism? What kind of art did he think would best serve to further the cause of the Revolution?

Notice the irony that two governments that are nominally opposites on the political spectrum (Fascism and Communism) both embraced the same conventional, naturalistic style called Socialist Realism, showing heroic, capable, and contented workers looking vaguely up and off into the distance, as though contemplating the glorious future of their state and its people.

Ironically, American art of the 1930s and 40s exhibits similar qualities. This is the idea of America celebrated (some would say fabricated) by Norman Rockwell and TV shows like Leave it to Beaver, with its roots in small-town midwestern society; in the 'first wave' of white, Western European immigrants; and “traditional” family values (2 kids, dog, picket fence, father works, mother stays home, everyone is cisgender and straight ...).

Picasso, Woman with Child on the Seashore, 1921

Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibit, Berlin, 1937

Great German Art Exhibit catalog cover, 1937

Soviet Pavillion, Paris Universal Expo, 1937

Arno Breker, Readiness, 1936

Vavara Stepanova, The Results of the First Five-Year Plan, 1932