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Summary Article: MODERNISM
from Dictionary of Visual Discourse: A Dialectical Lexicon of Terms

‘Twelve-tone music is a brilliant attempt to reimpose order and lawfulness on music, which was falling into subjectivity and arbitrariness. It aims at strict objectivity, strict composition’ Thomas Mann, ‘Letter to Alberto Mondadori’, 19 June 1950, in 1975: 429

The experiences and practices associated with the modern movement in painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry, fiction, and so on, from around 1870 to 1940. Modernism is frequently analysed as the aesthetic equivalent of capitalist-industrial transformations in economic and social life (Brettell, 1999). Theories of aesthetic modernism typically trace the modernist attitude or style to Charles Baudelaire's Le Peintre de la vie moderne and his own poetic work Les Fleurs du Mal (first published in 1857). Understood as a restless energy and experimentalism, modernism would include the major currents of modern painting from Realism to Surrealism - Impressionism, Fauvism, Vorticism, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Dada, De Stijl (‘The Style'), Constructivism, Agitprop, Abstact Expressionism, Imagism, Surrealism, Dada, and so on (exemplified by the diverse art works of Monet, Manet, Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Klee, Duchamp, Ernst, Dali, Breton, and others). It also includes literary innovations associated with the modern movement in literature from around 1850 to 1930 (including the writings of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Woolf, Djuna Barnes, Blanchot and Kafka), and avant-garde movements in decorative art, architecture and other fields of visual culture (Art Deco, the Bauhaus founded by Walter Gropius, Russian Constructivism, the International Style, and so on). If we need works that articulate the aesthetic vision of modernism as a ‘tradition of the new’, then we might cite Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) and T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland (1923) and Four Quartets (c. 1935-42) in poetry, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1906-07) in painting, and Arnold Schönberg's Pierrot lunaire (1912) and Ivor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (1913) in music. The most visible instances of the modernist aesthetic are found in architectural forms influenced by architects like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) and Le Corbusier (pseudonym for Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, 1887-1965).

  • Baudelaire, C., The Painter of Modern Life, and Other Essays (1964).
  • Brettell, R.R., Modern Art, 1851-1929 (1999).
  • Nicholls, P., Modernisms (1995).
  • Turner, J., ed., From Expressionism to Post-Modernism (2000).
  • Whitford, F., Bauhaus (1984).
  • Wolfe, T., From Bauhaus to Our House (1981).
  • © Barry Sandywell 2011

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