After an absence of a busy couple of weeks coming to my blog this morning was a little like returning home; the peering round the door and relief that everything is in place, that there has been no floods or infestations.

Yesterday’s seminar was on modernism and it brought together several strands which gave me a more concise understanding of the subject. I enjoyed the morning as I felt I’d a good foundation from my undergrad course and was able to follow all that we discussed without experiencing that sinking feeling brought on when I’ve no idea what is being said.

Here are my notes, again purely for me …….

Why/when did modernism start?
Freedom from patronage brought about by the collapse of the aristocracy, the French Revolution in 1789, the Industrial Revolution from 1760s.

(c) Science Museum, London ; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Coalbrookdale by Night by Philip James de Loutherbourg1801, Oil on canvas, 68 x 107 cm,  Science Museum, London

The_Iron_BridgeThe Iron Bridge

Built the same way a wooden bridge would have been i.e. with carpentry skills.


Saltaire Mill by David Hockney in Gallery 1853 at Salts Mill

People flocked from the countryside to work in the labour hungry factories – densely built houses.

The notion of individualism arose yet with the need to conform to the norm. No longer people adhered to the natural timing of the seasons and days but to the clock, the loss of the old way of life.


This plate from Edward Baines History of the Cotton Manufacturers in Great Britain (1835) illustrates well what J P Bager observed at the calico printers in Manchester in 1840. However it can be reflected that both Baines’ illustration and Bager’s journal text left out the dirt and unhealthy working
conditions in the textile industry.

The mass production of goods by new technology caused the need for mass transportation.


Barges on the Stour, with Dedham Church in the Distance, oil on paper laid on canvas, 1811, John Constable,
V&A Musuem

The social function of the artist was changing, it was record what was happening in everyday life and not just portraits of the rich and their life.


Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, Joseph Mallord William Turner,1844, Oil on canvas, 91 x 121.8 cm, National Gallery London.

The scene is fairly certainly identifiable as Maidenhead railway bridge, across the Thames between Taplow and Maidenhead. The bridge, which was begun on Brunel’s design in 1837 and finished in 1839, has two main arches of brick, very wide and flat. The view is to the east, towards London.The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844.

sry_rhu_thc0022_624x544The Railway Station by William Powell Frith, 1862, Oil on canvas, 116.7 x 256.4 cm,  Royal Holloway, University of London

Social Mobility = social awareness  which led to desire. The rise of consumerism.


Joseph Paxton’s sketch of the Crystal Palace.

The building used the minimum of materials – the thinnest possible columns – modernity coming to architecture.


The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. Henry Windham Philips


Aeronautic view of The Palace of Industry For All Nations, from Kensington Palace by Charles Burton, England, 1851 – 1852, V&A Museum

More images of Crystal Palace


John Leech, “The Pound and the Shilling,” from  Punch  20 (14 June 1851).
Photograph courtesy The Department of Special Collections, The Knight Library,
University of Oregon.

One of the first Trade Fairs – offering people goods they never knew they needed and open to all. The city ‘gentry’ meeting the country folk.

However this mass production of goods wasn’t greeted favourably by all. William Morris refused to go. He strived for the return of ‘the good old days’. Hand crafted artefacts but the superior quality of hand production meant only small amounts could be produced so the price was high.

william morris-morris&co-1876-snakeshead 2 Snakes head Furnishing fabric, 1876, William Morris (designer) , Thomas Wardle (printer), Morris & Co. (manufacturer) Block-printed cotton

Morris had strict socialist principles and that train of thought was spreading.  Over to Russia.


Self-Portrait with Brushes and a Palette Against a Window Facing the Kremlin, Vasily Tropinin, 1844, oil on canvas, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Matyushin,_Malevich,_Kruchenikh Matyushin, Kruchenykh & Malevich (from left to right), authors of the cubofuturist opera Victory over the Sun.

Poets, musicians, artists collaborated. The upturned furniture symbolised the desire to upturn the world.

malevich010xxView of the 0.10 exhibition 1915 Kasimir Malevich

After the chaos of the Great War and Russian Revolution rationalisation and standardisation, This had been written about in 1908 by Adolf Loos Ornament is Crime.


Walter Gropius’s office, 1923

The founding of Bauhaus

Economy of means
Ahistorical (denying the past)


Wassily Chair 1924…….. still selling today.

Back to France and the French Revolution. The King and aristocracy fell – artists no longer commissioned to portray them so they went out into the street, social commentary.


Liberty Leading the People, Eugene Delacroix, oil on canvas, 260 cm × 325 cm, The Louvre, Paris


Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) A Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877, oil on canvas, 212.2 x 276.2 cm,
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois Photo: ARTstor

Gustave Courbet The Stone Breakers 1849 Oil on canvas – destroyed in WW2


Absenthe Drinkers, Edgar Degas, 1876, oil on canvas, 92 x 68 cms, Musée d’OrsayParis

A snapshot in time – the immediacy of the time.

But new technology also meant artists could paint outside. Monet was fascinated by light. The social function became more philosophical.


Haystacks (Effect of Snow and Sun), Claude Monet, 1891, Oil on canvas; 65.4 x 92.1 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Between summer 1890 and winter 1891, Monet executed about thirty paintings of the haystacks in a field near his house at Giverny. In the midst of this effort, he wrote to the critic Gustave Geoffroy: “I am working very hard, struggling with a series of different effects (haystacks), but at this season the sun sets so fast I cannot follow it. . . . The more I continue, the more I see that a great deal of work is necessary in order to succeed in rendering what I seek.” Although Monet had painted multiple versions of a single subject earlier, Haystacks was the first group that he exhibited as a series; in 1891, fifteen were shown at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris.


Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso, 1907, Oil on canvas, 243.9 x 233.7 cm, MoMA

Teaching us that life is not static – human perceptions arise through movement.


Bavarian Mountains with Village, Wassily Kandinsky 1909

It can be seen what it is – just paint on canvas, soon Kandinsky was abstracting, leaving the remnants of the landscape.


Composition IV, Wassily Kandinsky, 1911, oil on canvas, 159.5 x 250.5 cm, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany

Social function of the artist – the make the familiar seem strange.


Bicycle Wheel, Marcel Duchamp, 1913 . Metal wheel mounted on painted wood stool, 129.5 x 63.5 x 41.9 cm (lost)

The artist doesn’t have to represent anything at all, the concept is enough, the bicycle wheelness is all.

Post modernism is a reaction to modernism – that the five points and reverse them.

Rationality                                                                    Irrationality
Standardisation                                                            Non standardisation
Economy of means                                                       Uneconomical
Non-decorative                                                             Decorative
Ahistorical (denying the past)                                       Referencing the past

And just in time the lecturer’s notes have been e mailed to me.

Notes for Origins of Modernism seminar


The term Modernism is taken for granted, but it’s more complex than it first appears, and so in order that we understand the contemporary arts context – what Nicolas Bourriaud has termed Altermodernism, we need to scrutinise the provenance of modernism as an idea.

In fact, there are theorists who denigrate the whole concept of Modernism, for example Richard Brettell  (see recommended reading) advocates a completely different means of categorising visual work, his terms direct realism and mediated realism avoid the modernist label altogether, and Jacques Ranciere (who theorised Bourriaud’s curatorial practices) argues that the terms modernist and post-modernist are positively harmful! (See his Aesthetics and its Discontents)

Our first task is to identify our own position in regard to what we understand by modernism, and so small group discussions, followed by the sharing of our thoughts with the group at large. This will be followed as usual by a look at some of the ideas discussed, with a slide-show of relevant examples of work:

Slide Show

First of all, it’s useful to distinguish the differences between the development of a modernist period in the design disciplines from that of the fine arts:


Technological innovations resulting in the capability for the mass production of domestic products made possible by the Industrial Revolution. Coalbrookdale, Ironbridge 1779 first iron bridge in the world, constructed using woodwork joints!

The capability of mass production led to the  need for mass distribution networks – canal,  and later railways.

BUT also need for mass consumption – birth of the VisComm professions, nurturing the ‘desire to acquire’ in the mass population!

1851 Crystal Palace, the largest trade fair ever! Joseph Paxton (designer of the Crystal Palace), Henry Cole (who set up what was to become the RCA with the profits from the Great Exhibition)

Not everyone happy about the alienation of labour within an urbanised industrialised economy – William Morris refused to enter the Crystal Palace (aged 17). His aesthetic can be seen to be anti-industrial – hand-craft-based, but his socialist principles had a much greater influence in other parts of the world:

German Werkbund, Russian Revolution October 1917.

Development of a new visual language for a new social order (Malevich, El Lissitsky)

Who in turn influenced Walter Gropius, Bauhaus opened in 1919. The ‘crucible of modernism’, where the 5 principles of modernist design were consolidated:



Economy of Means

Non-decorative (‘Ornament is Crime!’ Adolf Loos)


These inform an aesthetic still with us today.

Fine Arts

French Revolution 1789

Artists free of  royal patronage, their social functions changed:


1 Challenge to the established approach to representation. (All the ‘isms’)

2 Reaction to representation: the attempt to make visible the unrepresentable (Kandinsky, Malevich)

3  The idea of non-representation: the abandonment of a formalist aesthetic: the advent of conceptualism! (Duchamp, Art&Language)

Now we’re in a position to extrapolate from Modernism, the positions of Post-modernism, and eventually, Altermodernism. More in a few weeks, when we’ll correlate artforms with social structures. (See the article ‘Visual Art and Social Structure’ in the journal ‘Visual Communication’ Vol 12 Issue 2 pp207-216 in the library journal files.)


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