An Examination of Modernism with Reference to Several Works of Art

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The terms 'modern', 'modernity' and 'modernism' are commonly used to

specify a break in history, marking a definition between the present

and the past, between the fashionable and the out of date, and carry

as part of their meaning an almost criticism of tradition. By calling

himself a 'modernist', the artist is instantly free to work on a clean

plate, without the limitations of tradition with its set of rules or

its fixed criteria.

It is commonly thought that the Modernist movement was only properly

established during the late nineteenth Century, being triggered by

ground breaking developments in the areas of science, technology and

the economic market. Art was suddenly discovered to be an increasingly

useful tool in science, whilst technology was developing new means of

reproducing graphic images that widened and spread the use and

influence of art. At the same time, the growth in market and social

consumption was turning art into a product to be sold, rather than

commissioned. These three factors created a need for a new form of

art, which like capitalism was in a constant state of change.

Other factors that triggered the development of modernism include a

?major cultural shift from a time-honored aesthetics of permanence,

based on a belief in an unchanging and transcendental ideal of beauty,

to an aesthetics of transitoriness and immanence, whose central values

are change and novelty?[1]. Since Roman times and even during the last

half of the seventeenth Century, beauty was still looked upon as a

transcendental, fixed model of an ideal. Artists might have considered

themselves above their masters, but only in conjunction to the belief

that they had a better grasp and wider knowledge in conveying this


It was only during the late eighteenth Century and early nineteenth

Century that a new ?aesthetic modernity? arose, under the title

?romanticism?, bringing with it the first signs of a reaction against

the laws of classism. Romanticism scrapped the idea of a timeless

ideal beauty, replacing it by a ?sense of presentness and immediacy?[2].

Time, under a capitalist civilization, was looked upon as a

relatively precious commodity, measured socially, and with the ability

to be sold or purchased in the market. This Change of culture also

brought about a different idea of self, which in relation to time,

referred ...

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...t because we have keener vision

or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on

their gigantic stature.?[3]

I think I am justified to say that the Modernists no longer wanted to

be the ?Dwarves on the shoulders of giants?. Quite the opposite. These

were a new breed, anxious to stand on their own two feet, not afraid

to start from naught, in order to concentrate on the now and create

pure and unrestricted Modern art.


- "Modernism", by Charles Harrison, Tate Gallery, Millbank London, 1997

- "Theories of Modern Art", by Herschel B. Chipp, California, 1968

- "Five Faces of Modernity", by Matei Calinescu, Durham1987

- "The Story of Art", Professor H. W. Janson, New York University, 1950

- "Modernism's History", by Bernard Smith, New Haven and London, 1998

- "The Originality of the Avant-Garde and other Modernist Myths", by Rosalind

E. Krauss, London, 1985


[1] "Five Faces of Modernity", by Matei Calinescu, Durham, 1987

[2] "Histoire de la Peinture en Italie", Stendhal, 1817

[3] "The Metalogicon", trans. By John of Salisbury, Gloucester, 1971
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