What is Modernism? A Guide to Art, Literature and Design

Henri Matisse (1869-1954); Liseuse au Bouquet de Roses Henri Matisse (1869-1954); Liseuse au Bouquet de Roses (Bonhams, November 2019).

Along with new trends in culture and society, political agendas, technological advances in industrialism, and scientific discoveries during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, new methods of thinking and creating emerged. The Modernism time period, which influenced art, design, literature, and philosophy, led to an immense cultural transformation.

In the years following World War I, societies distanced themselves from the aftermath of wartime, becoming industrialized and advanced. Cities began to experience quick growth, while their residents — especially artists, writers, and philosophers — adopted different views and beliefs. In fact, the definition of modernism reflects a shift away from traditional art, philosophy, religion, literature, and daily life. Modernists, however, were not creating a new Age of Enlightenment. They were, in fact, against this certain way of thinking, and many even rejected religion.

Poet Ezra Pound’s famous 1934 line, “Make it new!” came to symbolize the forward-thinking approach and characteristics of modernism. It meant doing away with an outdated past and embracing, as the Tate Modern describes, “ideal visions of human life and society and a belief in progress.”

What is Modernism in Art History?

Modernism in art encompasses various techniques, styles, and media. However, the underlying defining principles hold true in art that emerged from the movement: a rejection of history and traditional concepts like realism, innovation and experimentation (shown in abstract shapes, colors, and lines), and an emphasis on new materials and techniques. 

Juan Gris, Portrait of Pablo Picasso, 1912

Juan Gris, Portrait of Pablo Picasso, 1912. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

One common characteristic of modernism was self-consciousness as it related to art and social traditions, which led artists to experiment with form. Techniques that specifically drew attention to the creation process itself, and the specific materials used, were also characteristic of the period.

Examples of Modernism in Art

Beginning in the late 1900s, artists played with new materials and techniques to create works they believed better portrayed modern societies and daily life. From early modernism in art came Impressionism, followed by Expressionism, and later Fauvism, Cubism, and abstract art. Below are brief definitions of each influential Modernist movement: 

  • Impressionism: a 19th-century movement characterized by small, thin brush strokes, open composition, and emphasis on the accurate depiction of light, ordinary subjects, and perceived movement in time and space. Key influencers include French artists Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Édouard Manet, and Paul Cézanne.
  • Expressionism: an early 20th-century movement that initially emerged in poetry and painting and originated in Germany. Expressionists present the world solely from a subjective perspective, portraying distortions meant to evoke meaning or emotional experience instead of physical reality. Notable Expressionists include El Greco, Wassily Kandinsky, and Edvard Munch.
  • Fauvism: the artistic style of les Fauvres, French for “the wild beasts,” which was a 20th-century group of modern artists who painted with strong colors and strayed away from the more realistic values of Impressionists. André Derain and Henri Matisse became known as the leaders of the Fauvist movement, which lasted from around 1904 to 1910.
  • Cubism: an avant-garde movement that began in Europe in the early 20th century. It is considered the most influential art movement of the 20th century, and revolutionized painting and sculpture. Started by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, it involved the representation of three-dimensional forms (origins of the movement can be seen in Paul Cézanne’s later works). Cubists like Picasso became famous for depicting broken up and reassembled objects, in abstract form with multiple viewpoints.

Today, the terms modernism and modern art describe the succession of art movements including those mentioned above. Following Fauvism and Cubism, abstract art – art that incorporates complete, partial, or slight abstraction, or a departure from realism in representation – extended into other movements of the mid-20th century.

By the 1960s, abstract art was widespread, and modernist ideas across art, literature, and design were considered dominant. 

Making it New: Modernism in Literature

James Joyce, Ulysses, First Edition

James Joyce, Ulysses, First Edition. The Manhattan Rare Book Company.

The modernist movement in literature, or literary modernism, involved experimentations among writers with new forms and expressions. Starting with Ezra Pound’s “Make it new,” the movement in literature covers technological advances, changes in culture and society, and the transition into the 20th century.

Early Modernist writers, like their artist counterparts, stemmed away from traditional values and abandoned their duty of representing mainstream culture and ideas to the public. Instead, they developed the concept of the unreliable narrator. Writers also addressed discoveries introduced by Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and others. Thus, other techniques in literature emerged like stream-of-consciousness, multiple points-of-view, and interior monologue.

Gertrude Stein, 'Tender Buttons,' 1914

Gertrude Stein, ‘Tender Buttons,’ 1914. Sold for $4,200 via Christie’s (December 2005).

Modernism in literature began with works like Joseph Conrad‘s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, and later Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 short story Winesburg, Ohio, which became known for plain-spoken words and characters’ psychological insight. Another notable modernist writer is James Joyce, famous for his 1922 novel Ulysses which uniquely described events over a 24-hour period in his protagonist’s life. This piece of literature came to define the Modernist approach to fiction.

Other instrumental works of the period include T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land, fragmented and lacking a central narrative, and Gertrude Stein’s 1914 book Tender Buttons, which was also fragmented and incorporated multiple perspectives. It has thus been compared to her good friend Pablo Picasso’s Cubist paintings.

While moving towards the new, modernist writers and musicians made reference to past works by employing techniques like reprise, rewriting, revision, and parody. 

Modernist Architecture and Design

The Modernism movement also expanded into architecture and design. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, employed Modernist principles in his belief that as advances in technology turned older, traditional buildings turned obsolete. Elsewhere, Swiss-French architect and designer Le Corbusier saw buildings as “machines for living in.” As cars, or “machines for traveling in,” replaced horse-drawn carriages, modernist designs should, too, move on from older structures.

Seagram Building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Seagram Building, New York, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Photo by Jo Baert via Wikimedia Commons.

Following this belief, Modernist designers rejected traditional decorative motifs, emphasizing (as did painters and sculptors of the era) materials used in building, and geometric forms. Two prime examples of Modernist buildings include the Wainwright Building, built in 1890-91 and complete with ten stories. Later, built from 1956-58, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York became known as the pinnacle of Modernist high-rises.

In contrast to elaborate pre-war designs, Modernist furniture, too, was largely undecorated. Designers emphasized comfort and functionality, and furniture pieces were designed to be affordable and mass-produced thanks to industrialization. Two important movements that involved such furniture types included the German Bauhaus and the Dutch De Stijl.

In Modernist furniture design, new materials beyond wood were used, including steel and plastic. The use of neutral colors, especially in chromed finishes and in leather, was also popular. In addition to architects and furniture designers Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, famous furniture makers of the era included Eileen Gray, who made pieces with elegant, clean lines, and Marcel Breuer, who was popular for his tubular steel structures.

Modernism vs. Postmodernism 

While some experts believe that Modernist principles live on, now well into the 21st century, others believe it evolved into late or high modernism. Postmodernism, on the contrary, emerged in the mid-to-late 20th century and symbolized a deliberate departure from Modernist values. It involved a wide range of approaches in art, literature, design and beyond. 

Postmodernism is often defined by attitudes of skepticism, irony, or rejection of modernist ideologies. Postmodernists, who rose to the spotlight in the 1980s and ‘90s, critiqued concepts like truth, human nature, science, reason, morality, and social progress. As Tate Modern describes it, “Because postmodernism broke the established rules about style, it introduced a new era of freedom and a sense that ‘anything goes’. Often funny, tongue-in-cheek or ludicrous; it can be confrontational and controversial.”

Postmodern critiques and attitudes covered the sciences, economics, architecture, feminist theory, literary criticism, and art movements in contemporary art and beyond. Deconstruction and institutional critique were common schools of thought during the period. Artists of the movement experimented with conceptual, digital, and performance art, among other styles. Jeff Koons is one such prominent postmodern artist.