Modernism

Erin Wolf

Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Figure 1. Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Modernism was an artistic movement that was a response to drastic changes in society between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries. It was characterized by a break with tradition and a rejection of academicism in the arts. The period is most notable for a reflective shift in artists’ focus toward experimentation with materials, processes, and techniques. In general, modernism tends to prioritize the formal innovations of a work of art over content.

The dominant shifts in the visual arts that constitute modernism were a turning away from naturalism toward abstraction with an experimental use of color, line and movement designed to stimulate emotional responses.1 The explorative nature of early 20th-century science and philosophy also influenced the arts of the period. Modernist movements such as Dada and De Stijl were not just artists’ groups; they were also ideological approaches to art making which incorporated larger social, philosophical, and political questions.2

Rather than presenting the viewer with a picture based on well understood rules and a known subject, modernist often left the meanings of their works open. Art became a way for the artist to present an argument for a new, more subjective approach. The viewer is likewise liberated, now being tasked with interpreting the abstract message, incorporating their own perspective and experiences.3

Multiple movements emerged throughout the 20th century, and cohesive group identities were a means to articulate modernist goals.4 What defined a movement was that a group of artists were often engaged with writers, poets, philosophers, and composers in exploring a shared concept in different mediums while borrowing thoughts and achievements from each other.5 In general modernism evolved into a self-reflective experimentation that would take simplification and abstraction to their logical conclusions and essentially remove any reference to content altogether.6

The work of Piet Mondrian, founder of De Stijl, is an especially cogent example of modernism. Mondrian worked during a period within the history of modernism when pure abstraction had been well established as its dominant language. He defined his contribution to modernist theory as Neoplasticism, with paintings that sought to “express relationships plastically through oppositions of line and color.”7 In that sense, his work can be seen to refer to no other subject other than the act of painting itself (self-reflexivity is a very modernist concept).  While it appears to be exclusively focused on formal principles, the harmony and balance Mondrian sought to express in his paintings was an utopian response to the chaos unleashed by WWI. His work offers a vantage point from which the imbalance of the human condition could be recognized.  Thus, it a reminder of how modernism needs to be understood as a response to its historical moment, not as an internal dialogue within the history of art.

Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43) [Figure 1], a late work by Mondrian, is focused on the relationships between line and color.  A grid of lines, made up of block of primary colors, frame larger rectangles of the same colors, an operation echoing the relationship of the canvas’s own boundaries to its content.  Our perception of these shapes and colors are determined by the dynamic relationships between them, which reject hierarchies, including the most basic one between figure and ground.  The composition is open. Lines appear to move beyond its frame; this centrifugal energy increases the painting’s interaction with the space around it. The entire surface is treated as a unified whole, and the physical flatness of the canvas is embraced. Visually, one might consider the work as a culmination of modernist theory—i.e. high modernism—and the starting point for subsequent postmodernism.

Although Mondrian felt that subject matter was a “hindrance,” the title of this painting refers to a form of jazz music he associated with New York city, where the work was painted.  The pulses of color—red, yellow, and blue, interrupted by light gray—suggest the syncopation of jazz and its improvisational nature, as well as the pulsating lights of Broadway.

 

 

Footnotes

  1. Christopher Butler, Modernism: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, July 2010), 17.
  2. Ibid., 12.
  3. Ibid., 11.
  4. Ibid., 11.
  5. Ibid., 15.
  6. Ibid., 19.
  7. Piet Mondrian, “Dialogue on the New Plastic,” DeStijl, Leiden, February and March 1919, Art in Theory (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2009): 284.