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ArtPrintCritical dictionary

Modern Art

Delfim Sardo

The definition of modern art has been the object of multiple interpretations: one moment modern art is understood as art from the modern period, that is, art that arises with the Renaissance period, the next it is understood as the art of the Enlightenment, or as art that in the 19th century breaks with the academy’s cannons to come to propose a complex process of ruptures in the avant-garde of the 20th century. Recent art history frequently assumes this option, understanding modern art as that which is drawn in impressionism to come and develop itself with cubism, the Dada movement and the Russian avant-gardes from the first three decades of the 20th century. Some tendencies are common to these developments: issues concerning the pictorial representation, a new understanding of space, a new aspect that comes from the affirmation of photography and film and finally, the appearance of a new artistic device – the exhibition – located in a new institution - the museum of modern art, the biggest example being the Museum of Modern Art in New York, inaugurated in 1928 (Fig.1).

Keywords: reprodutibility of image; art, image technique; Picasso and Altamira; primitive art; roots of art


Modern art has been the object of a permanent reconfiguration of its frame, whether in aesthetic or ontological terms or as an historical category. In general terms, the biggest difference in the perspective of the modern derives from the application of categories from Art History. According to these categories, modern art is the modern period, having its beginnings in the Renaissance - , or it is understood as modernism – a point of view that has come to obtain a particular acceptance in the Anglo-Saxon environment (namely in the American context, because it is a cultural context, unlike in Europe, that does not directly come from the Renaissance).


In this context, it is generally accepted today that the big field that is normally called modern art began in the 19th century, as a result of profound changes in the painting practice (which the invention of the photograph is not foreign to), and which has its first expression in the impressionism context, culminating in the avant-garde processes that transformed European art during the first three decades of the 20th century. Generally speaking, we can state without much margin for error that modern art includes a series of radical projects that appear in the form of diverse modernisms, including a Mannerist moment of the actual modernism that appears in the form of avant-gardes. In general terms, Modernism is an artistic formulation that tries to think and evaluate the conditions of a modern practice in art, building diverse artistic paths that propose to test the limits of its own artistic practice.


Therefore, the modern in the 19th century is contemporary to the important changes in the visual regimes that appear from the creation of a new form of capturing an image and of its fixation from a chemical of light (the photograph) influencing the historical practice of image (the painting) in the sense of autonomization of the experience of the verisimilitude or, quite the contrary, of the realistic incorporation of the moment. The artistic modernism, in its various versions, is built around a new paradigm that is related to the reproducibility of the image. Until the invention of the reproducible photograph from a negative, almost all the images of the world were artistic; from that moment on the proportion inverts itself, the artistic images constitute a small segment of the many images that are part of everyday life. Therefore, the big task of modern painting is to find its own field, defining its transcendental, that is, its possible conditions that no longer go through the uncertainties of the painting in its historical tradition: to build an image that calls for a “suspension of disbelief” (a formula devised by Coleridge that describes the way, before the artistic practice, we can place in suspension our disbelief in order to assume processes or systems of representation that do not combine with the perceptive or cognitive realism as true, but that they are in the protocols that art defines with us), from the qualities of light/dark, the use of perspective and the production of trompe l’oeil devices, as well as the definition of the pictorial space, etc.


The pictorial modernism that is drawn from the first years of the 20th century abandons these qualities to test the viability of the painting from the break of verisimilitude processes of image according to verification of the conditions of possibility of the actual pictorial image. In this context, the first big modernism moment appears with Picasso’s and Braque’s cubism, that is, as the possibility of producing a system of pictorial representation that breaks with the usual conventions of the practice of medium painting according to a new representation system of space. More important than cubism, however, is the invention of the collage as a device that builds an image from a combination of visual elements that come from different places, disassembling the trompe l’oeil process and proposing an image that is not based on a suspension of disbelief, but precisely on a demonstration of processes that are part of the actual image. A collage, on the other hand, constitutes an equivalent of the still image to the invention of cinematographic assembly that would make the creation of a new space-time cinematic unit possible, thus defining the rules of the diegetic film, as would become clear with Sergei Eisenstein. The second fundamental aspect of modernism resides in the destruction of the boundaries of artistic disciplines in order to constitute a new and ample category, “Art” in substitution of painting, sculpture, design, etc. This holistic perspective knows a first modern and cumulative version that can be recognized in the Wagnerian project of Gesamtkunstwerk, as well as in the total work of art dimension found in the Vienna Secession project directed by Gustav Klimt.


Nevertheless, it would be with the “Great Russian Experience” (the artistic developments that take place in Russia and later in consequence of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917), between 1915 and 1927, that the borders between the artistic disciplines would be systematically questioned. It is in this way that the works of artists like Vladimir Tatlin, Malevitch, Lazar Lissitzky and Rodshenko, as well as of Diaghilev (in dance), Moisei Ginzburg (in architecture) or Dziga Vertov (in cinema) are important contributions for the definition of an art that is situated in the crossroad between artistic disciplines and that it has its ultimate focus on the capacity of political intervention and on the way new fields are established from transversal concepts, globally from a new spatiality.


In a derisive way, the Dada movement began in 1915 and quickly established throughout important centres in Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York and (above all) Zurich – where Cabaret Voltaire was born and directed by Hugo Ball. It would build a web of forms of artistic intervention in which the word, the poster, the manifest, political intervention and the cultural critique mixed together with the use of painting and the recent discovery of collage to propose a radical and contradictory approach to art.

Out of a strictly Dada context, Marcel Duchamp defines a new artistic device that would mark the 20th century in various ways: the ready made, that is the appropriation of objects of everyday use that, modified or not, are seen as works of art by the artist’s (aesthetic, he adds) decision. This manufacturing resignation as sine qua non condition of the existence of the work of art constitutes as one of the most important acquisitions of modern art, along with distrust in relation to the decorative quality of the artistic work – denial that is evident in not only Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) of Pablo Picasso, but also in hybrid works of Russian constructivists.


Simultaneously, in the field of artistic disciplines (in painting and sculpture) the abstraction route by various forms and diverse typologies was found, namely with Mondrian and later with the De Stijl movement (in the Netherlands and Germany), or with the Supermatists (Russia) – a process that should be connected to the constitution of modern linguistics with Roman Jacobson.


Thus, modern art, in the first decades of the 20th century, is based on a group of paths that are in good part, divergent but that have in common an attempt to define the possible conditions of the art itself, at times attempting to find a field outside the art itself for the development of its radical processes. One of those routes is the passion for the primitive: that, prior to art and aesthetics, may contribute to the reconstruction of the artistic building based on a utopia of truthfulness. It is in this way we can understand Picasso’s and Matisse’s African fascination, but also the invention of a hypothetical language originated by Kurt Schwitters ( in Ursonatte, the enormous phonetic poem), as well as in the establishment of the foundations of anthropology with Franz Boas (with Primitive Art, from 1927), or the works of Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille (Fig. 2).


Lastly, modern art possesses two fundamental devices: the Museum of Modern Art, the first and biggest example being the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which opened its doors in 1929, and the systematization of the exhibition as artistic device. The first, along with the Landes Museum of Hanover directed by Alexander Dorner, lays the foundations of modern art by performing the first musealization of living artists from critical and historiographical criteria, transporting modern art to the interior of the museological system – and establishing the scientific parameters of museography of modern art.

The appearance of the exhibition as a device clearly affects the work of art, introducing the question of the set-up as the last of the conditions of possibility of the work and the first in the relationship with the spectator. The exhibition with its rules, procedures and protocols creates the ultimate frame for the work of art, building a context of relationship and inter-relationship for the modern enjoyment of the work of art.


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