Henri Matisse, The Dance, 1910, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. At the beginning of the 20th century Henri Matisse and several other young artists including the pre-cubist Georges Braque, André Derain, Raoul Dufy and Maurice de Vlaminck revolutionized the Paris art world with "wild", multi-colored, expressive landscapes and figure paintings that the critics called Fauvism. Henri Matisse's second version of The Dance signifies a key point in his career and in the development of modern painting.[1]
Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater, Mill Run, Pennsylvania (1937). Fallingwater was one of Wright's most famous private residences (completed 1937).

Modernism is a philosophical movement that, along with cultural trends and changes, arose from wide-scale and far-reaching transformations in Western society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among the factors that shaped modernism were the development of modern industrial societies and the rapid growth of cities, followed then by reactions of horror to World War I. Modernism also rejected the certainty of Enlightenment thinking, and many modernists rejected religious belief.[2][3]

Modernism, in general, includes the activities and creations of those who felt the traditional forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, philosophy, social organization, activities of daily life, and sciences, were becoming ill-fitted to their tasks and outdated in the new economic, social, and political environment of an emerging fully industrialized world. The poet Ezra Pound's 1934 injunction to "Make it new!" was the touchstone of the movement's approach towards what it saw as the now obsolete culture of the past. In this spirit, its innovations, like the stream-of-consciousness novel, atonal (or pantonal) and twelve-tone music, divisionist painting and abstract art, all had precursors in the 19th century.

A notable characteristic of modernism is self-consciousness and irony concerning literary and social traditions, which often led to experiments with form, along with the use of techniques that drew attention to the processes and materials used in creating a painting, poem, building, etc.[4] Modernism explicitly rejected the ideology of realism[5][6][7] and makes use of the works of the past by the employment of reprise, incorporation, rewriting, recapitulation, revision and parody.[8][9][10]

Some commentators define modernism as a mode of thinking—one or more philosophically defined characteristics, like self-consciousness or self-reference, that run across all the novelties in the arts and the disciplines.[11] More common, especially in the West, are those who see it as a socially progressive trend of thought that affirms the power of human beings to create, improve and reshape their environment with the aid of practical experimentation, scientific knowledge, or technology.[12] From this perspective, modernism encouraged the re-examination of every aspect of existence, from commerce to philosophy, with the goal of finding that which was 'holding back' progress, and replacing it with new ways of reaching the same end. Others focus on modernism as an aesthetic introspection. This facilitates consideration of specific reactions to the use of technology in the First World War, and anti-technological and nihilistic aspects of the works of diverse thinkers and artists spanning the period from Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) to Samuel Beckett (1906–1989).[13][14][15][16][17]

While some scholars see modernism continuing into the twenty first century, others see it evolving into late modernism or high modernism.[18] Postmodernism is a departure from modernism and refutes its basic assumptions.[19][20][21]

Early history


According to one critic, modernism developed out of Romanticism's revolt against the effects of the Industrial Revolution and bourgeois values: "The ground motive of modernism, Graff asserts, was criticism of the nineteenth-century bourgeois social order and its world view [...] the modernists, carrying the torch of romanticism."[5][6][7] While J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851), one of the greatest landscape painters of the 19th century, was a member of the Romantic movement, as "a pioneer in the study of light, colour, and atmosphere", he "anticipated the French Impressionists" and therefore modernism "in breaking down conventional formulas of representation; [though] unlike them, he believed that his works should always express significant historical, mythological, literary, or other narrative themes."[22]

A Realist portrait of Otto von Bismarck. The modernists condemned realism

The dominant trends of industrial Victorian England were opposed, from about 1850, by the English poets and painters that constituted the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, because of their "opposition to technical skill without inspiration."[23]:815 They were influenced by the writings of the art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900), who had strong feelings about the role of art in helping to improve the lives of the urban working classes, in the rapidly expanding industrial cities of Britain.[23]:816 Art critic Clement Greenberg describes the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as proto-Modernists: "There the proto-Modernists were, of all people, the pre-Raphaelites (and even before them, as proto-proto-Modernists, the German Nazarenes). The Pre-Raphaelites actually foreshadowed Manet (1832–83), with whom Modernist painting most definitely begins. They acted on a dissatisfaction with painting as practiced in their time, holding that its realism wasn't truthful enough."[24] Rationalism has also had opponents in the philosophers Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55)[25] and later Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), both of whom had significant influence on existentialism.[26]:120

However, the Industrial Revolution continued. Influential innovations included steam-powered industrialization, and especially the development of railways, starting in Britain in the 1830s,[27] and the subsequent advancements in physics, engineering, and architecture associated with this. A major 19th-century engineering achievement was The Crystal Palace, the huge cast-iron and plate glass exhibition hall built for The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. Glass and iron were used in a similar monumental style in the construction of major railway terminals in London, such as Paddington Station (1854)[28] and King's Cross station (1852).[29] These technological advances led to the building of later structures like the Brooklyn Bridge (1883) and the Eiffel Tower (1889). The latter broke all previous limitations on how tall man-made objects could be. These engineering marvels radically altered the 19th-century urban environment and the daily lives of people. The human experience of time itself was altered, with the development of the electric telegraph from 1837,[30] and the adoption of standard time by British railway companies from 1845, and in the rest of the world over the next fifty years.[31]

But despite continuing technological advances the idea that history and civilization were inherently progressive, and that progress was always good, came under increasing attack in the nineteenth century. Arguments arose that the values of the artist and those of society were not merely different, but that Society was antithetical to Progress, and could not move forward in its present form. Early in the century, the philosopher Schopenhauer (1788–1860) (The World as Will and Representation, 1819) had called into question the previous optimism, and his ideas had an important influence on later thinkers, including Nietzsche.[25] Two of the most significant thinkers of the mid nineteenth century were biologist Charles Darwin (1809–82), author of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), and political scientist Karl Marx (1818–83), author of Das Kapital (1867). Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection undermined religious certainty and the idea of human uniqueness. In particular, the notion that human beings were driven by the same impulses as "lower animals" proved to be difficult to reconcile with the idea of an ennobling spirituality.[32] Karl Marx argued that there were fundamental contradictions within the capitalist system, and that the workers were anything but free.[33]

Odilon Redon, Guardian Spirit of the Waters, 1878, charcoal on paper, Art Institute of Chicago

The beginnings in the late nineteenth century

Historians, and writers in different disciplines, have suggested various dates as starting points for modernism. Historian William Everdell, for example, has argued that modernism began in the 1870s, when metaphorical (or ontological) continuity began to yield to the discrete with mathematician Richard Dedekind's (1831–1916) Dedekind cut, and Ludwig Boltzmann's (1844–1906) statistical thermodynamics.[11] Everdell also thinks modernism in painting began in 1885–86 with Seurat's Divisionism, the "dots" used to paint A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. On the other hand, visual art critic Clement Greenberg called Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) "the first real Modernist",[34] though he also wrote, "What can be safely called Modernism emerged in the middle of the last century—and rather locally, in France, with Baudelaire in literature and Manet in painting, and perhaps with Flaubert, too, in prose fiction. (It was a while later, and not so locally, that Modernism appeared in music and architecture)."[24] The poet Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), and Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary were both published in 1857.

In the arts and letters, two important approaches developed separately in France, beginning in the 1860s. The first was Impressionism, a school of painting that initially focused on work done, not in studios, but outdoors (en plein air). Impressionist paintings demonstrated that human beings do not see objects, but instead see light itself. The school gathered adherents despite internal divisions among its leading practitioners, and became increasingly influential. Initially rejected from the most important commercial show of the time, the government-sponsored Paris Salon, the Impressionists organized yearly group exhibitions in commercial venues during the 1870s and 1880s, timing them to coincide with the official Salon. A significant event of 1863 was the Salon des Refusés, created by Emperor Napoleon III to display all of the paintings rejected by the Paris Salon. While most were in standard styles, but by inferior artists, the work of Manet attracted tremendous attention, and opened commercial doors to the movement. The second French school was Symbolism, which literary historians see beginning with Charles Baudelaire (1821–67), and including the later poets, Arthur Rimbaud (1854–91) Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell, 1873), Paul Verlaine (1844–96), Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–98), and Paul Valéry (1871–1945). The symbolists "stressed the priority of suggestion and evocation over direct description and explicit analogy," and were especially interested in "the musical properties of language."[35] Cabaret, which gave birth to so many of the arts of modernism, including the immediate precursors of film, may be said to have begun in France in 1881 with the opening of the Black Cat in Montmartre, the beginning of the ironic monologue, and the founding of the Society of Incoherent Arts.[36]

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). Picasso is considered to have re-invented the art of painting. Many of his friends and colleagues, even fellow painters Henri Matisse and Georges Braque, were upset when they saw this painting.

Influential in the early days of modernism were the theories of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Freud's first major work was Studies on Hysteria (with Josef Breuer, 1895). Central to Freud's thinking is the idea "of the primacy of the unconscious mind in mental life," so that all subjective reality was based on the play of basic drives and instincts, through which the outside world was perceived. Freud's description of subjective states involved an unconscious mind full of primal impulses, and counterbalancing self-imposed restrictions derived from social values.[23]:538

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was another major precursor of modernism,[37] with a philosophy in which psychological drives, specifically the "will to power" (Wille zur Macht), was of central importance: "Nietzsche often identified life itself with 'will to power', that is, with an instinct for growth and durability."[38][39] Henri Bergson (1859–1941), on the other hand, emphasized the difference between scientific, clock time and the direct, subjective, human experience of time.[26]:131 His work on time and consciousness "had a great influence on twentieth-century novelists," especially those Modernists who used the stream of consciousness technique, such as Dorothy Richardson, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf (1882–1941).[40] Also important in Bergson's philosophy was the idea of élan vital, the life force, which "brings about the creative evolution of everything."[26]:132 His philosophy also placed a high value on intuition, though without rejecting the importance of the intellect.[26]:132

Important literary precursors of modernism were Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–81), who wrote the novels Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880);[41] Walt Whitman (1819–92), who published the poetry collection Leaves of Grass (1855–91); and August Strindberg (1849–1912), especially his later plays, including the trilogy To Damascus 1898–1901, A Dream Play (1902) and The Ghost Sonata (1907). Henry James has also been suggested as a significant precursor, in a work as early as The Portrait of a Lady (1881).[42]

Out of the collision of ideals derived from Romanticism, and an attempt to find a way for knowledge to explain that which was as yet unknown, came the first wave of works in the first decade of the 20th century, which, while their authors considered them extensions of existing trends in art, broke the implicit contract with the general public that artists were the interpreters and representatives of bourgeois culture and ideas. These "Modernist" landmarks include the atonal ending of Arnold Schoenberg's Second String Quartet in 1908, the expressionist paintings of Wassily Kandinsky starting in 1903, and culminating with his first abstract painting and the founding of the Blue Rider group in Munich in 1911, and the rise of fauvism and the inventions of cubism from the studios of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and others, in the years between 1900 and 1910.

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