When was modern?

In the first of a three-part series, we investigate the idea of modernism in various regions after a century of the beginning of the movement in the West.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Feb 28, 2022

From an art historical perspective, the idea of modernism is an important departure in how creative practitioners, visual artists in particular, approached their practices. It marked a distinct departure from anything traditional – in the approach and style of the works, or the value they stood for. Recently, I was reminded to have completed ‘a century since modernism’ and very quickly it became evident that western hegemonic attitudes prevailed. The period, underlying events that triggered a movement, and the very emotions expressed through the practices have not been consistent throughout the world. And therefore, there are significant variations in how the concept of ‘modern’ is understood in various regions and communities.

Black Square, 1915, Oil on linen canvas, Kazimir Malevich | STIRworld
Black Square, 1915, Oil on linen canvas, Kazimir Malevich Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What was Modernism in western art history
Post-industrial state of being

Industrialisation and the subsequent development of faster technologies led to the development of what we understand as modernity today with respect to the West. It came to being through the development of communication technologies in particular, from telephones to stock markets. The development and spread of industrialisation also denoted a shift and further proletarianisation of the working class. It was also the period defined by the end of World War I.

“Though many people routinely complain about the pace of life, and though some try to organise against it, this has never, thus far, translated into a positive social philosophy potent enough to displace speed from its central position in the cultural imagination. Acceleration rather than deceleration has been the constant leitmotiv of cultural modernity.”

The Culture of Speed, John Tomlinson, Sage Publications

La Danse, 1910, Oil on Canvas, Henri Matisse| STIRworld
La Danse, 1910, Oil on Canvas, Henri Matisse Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Aspects like a radical change in the arrangement of human cohabitation owing to urbanisation, thereby impacting the social conditions, life-politics, emerging and rapidly growing working class became potent sources for creative expressions. The Russian Revolution was an important cultural marker in the history of modernity.

“The Russian Revolution of 1917 signalled an important shift towards the avant-garde. Poets adopted radical new poetic forms, glorified the new machine age or harkened back to the pre-historical roots myth, and experimented with invented, abstract language.”

Douglas Clayton, J. "Russian Modernism (1890–1934)." The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism: Taylor and Francis, 2016

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Oil on Canvas, 1907, Pablo Picasso | STIRworld
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Oil on Canvas, 1907, Pablo Picasso Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Perspective on African ideas of modernism
Influence of Colonialism

Moving away from the ideals of realism and enlightenment values, artists in the Western Modernity oeuvre often looked to ideas of ‘primitivism’ which translates to taking from Eastern and African influences in order to reflect on the failings of the era of enlightenment. Perhaps this is a simplification, but the World War formed a cataclysmic historical setting for artists to start responding, starting with artistic movements such as Surrealism, Dada, Futurism, and Fauvism.

“Primitivism in modern art designates a range of practices and accompanying modes of thought that span the period from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century and cut across manifold artistic styles and groups. … Modern artistic Primitivism refers, above all, to the ways in which western artists valorised and drew upon aspects of so-called ‘primitive’ art and cultures in their works, ideas, and lifestyles. They employed selective formal and thematic elements that they believed were characteristic of the arts and cultures of not only small-scale, native, non-western peoples, but also of larger-scale, more highly organised non-western societies, … and European vernacular means of expression. Even more frequently, these artists freely intermixed such elements and invented others that suited their conceptions of the ‘primitive’, generating hybrid forms and cultural features.”

Basu, Priyanka. "Primitivism." The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism: Taylor and Francis, 2016.

Dynamism of a Cyclist, 1913, Oil on canvas, Umberto Boccioni| STIRworld
Dynamism of a Cyclist, 1913, Oil on canvas, Umberto Boccioni Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“As with other pioneers of African visual modernism, such as Skunder Boghossian, Dumile Feni, Gerard Sokoto, Ibrahim El Salahi, and Malangatana Ngwenya, Ernest Mancoba had his share of a life charted in exile. In Mancoba’s case, the apartheid system forced him into exile. Starting in the late 1930s, he moved first to Paris and then led an itinerant life in other European cities. In Europe, he was interned by the Nazis and then barred from returning home by the end of World War II due to the rise of apartheid in South Africa. ... In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said notes that an exploration of the twentieth-century history and sociology of the western metropolis reveals the strong presence of students, writers, and artists from previously colonised territories, including Africa, and in Paris, London, Rome, and other European capitals. Their intellectual production is essential to any reconsideration of what constitutes global modernity as it overlaps with that of their contemporary European counterparts, and their intellectual and cultural production can in no way be analysed as merely reactive assertions of separate native or colonised subjectivity. ... Hence, the claim to modernity, as suggested by Rasheed Araeen, is better understood as being open and not necessarily limited to a universalised European construct or monopoly.” 

Salah M. Hassan. African Modernism: Beyond Alternative Modernities Discourse, South Atlantic Quarterly 109:3, Summer 2010

Fountain, 1917, readymade sculpture,  Marcel Duchamp| STIRworld
Fountain, 1917, readymade sculpture, Marcel Duchamp Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Modern in India
The idea of a newly formed nation, post-independence

The British exited in 1947 leaving newly formed and divided countries – India and Pakistan. The young nation grappled with issues of putting together a framework to build and run the country, self-reliance and creating a republic. Under the vision of the first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the creative practitioners too questioned the idea of India. The Progressive Artists’ Group was formed by six founder members, FN Souza, SH Raza, MF Husain, KH Ara, HA Gade, and SK Bakre. They committed themselves to synthesis concepts from Indian traditions layering with the popular European styles of cubism and expressionism. The modernists also actively broke away from ideas of classical style of the Bengal School to create cutting edge work that could be engaged at a global level. 

“The founders of the Progressive Artists Group often cite ‘the partition’ as impetus for their desire for new standards in India, starting with their new style of art… Their intention was to ‘paint with absolute freedom’ for content and technique, almost anarchic, save that we are governed by one or two sound elemental and eternal laws, of aesthetic order, plastic co-ordination and colour composition.”

Ratan Parimoo and Nalini Bhagwat: Progressive Artists Group of Bombay: An Overview over The Spirit of Late 1940s and Early 1950s

Progressive Artists’ Group | STIRworld
Progressive Artists’ Group Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Are there unifying elements in modernism?
Formalist enquiries / Experimentation and Representation / Photography

Moving away from the Realism and Romanticism of the previous century, Modernism looked beyond naturalistic representation of the world, to one that is dominated by colour and form. In the movement towards and around abstraction, the Russian Constructivists looked to the basic formations in the world and their representational values in the form of shapes and colours, towards a new spiritualism. The Dadaists looked outside of representational form towards the absurd. The Surrealists tapped into the unconscious supposedly, bringing new kinds of composition and subject matter to the fore. Experimentation was a key element after the development of photography, as there was no longer a need to represent the world as it was. It was also a reaction to the absurdity and violence of the Wars, that the artistic form evolved. Futurism depicted movement and speed, in the face and in support of Fascism. Cubists rejected representational form in order to bring in dimensionality. What underlies all of these movements is a complex history. However, the past was no longer held as an ideal, but modernism instead looked towards the future.

Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, 1910, Oil on Canvas, Pablo Picasso| STIRworld
Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, 1910, Oil on Canvas, Pablo Picasso Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(Research support: Sukanya Deb)

Also read:
Part II: Exploring the work of four modernists who have been undervalued in art history

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