The Rise of Modernism: Cubism, Fauvism and Abstraction

Topic 5: The Rise of Modernism: Cubism, Fauvism and Abstraction

  • The turn of the twentieth century saw an intensification of previous trends, including the importance of a self-defined avant-garde, the increasing reliance on private collectors as patrons, and the questioning or outright rejection of earlier artistic norms. The outbreak of World War I dramatically reinforced the sense of a revolutionary break with the past, and of the individual's alienation from both traditional culture and modern mass society. At the same time, increasing access to education and cultural resources led to a slow increase the number of female and/or non-white artists.

  • One of the most important artistic developments was the rise of abstract or non-representational art. This took different forms. In Paris, still the center of the Western art world, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque created the style that came to be known as cubism. Cubism pushed the visual experimentation of the Post-Impressionists even further, breaking both objects and the space they occupied into multiple facets or fragments, meant to reflect the disjointed nature of actual visual experience. Other French artists, referred to as Fauvists, drew on Van Gogh's and Gauguin's use of color as a means of expression; the Fauvists, most notable Henri Matisse, painted simplified, abstracted forms in bold, bright colors.

  • An artist of the WWI era who came close to pure abstraction was Wasily Kandinsky, a Russian-born artist working in Berlin. Kandinsky was part of a group called Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), whose members saw art as a way for jaded modern Europeans to find spiritual and cultural renewal. Unfortunately, two of the group's most promising members were killed in the war. Other German artists, such as Ludwig Kirchner and Käthe Kollwitz, continued to work in an Expressionist vein. Another "pure" abstractionist was the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian.

  • All of these movements were influenced by primitivism - a fascination with the art of non-European cultures (and with European folk and outsider art). So-called "primitive" art suggested fresh alternatives to Western visual conventions; it was also seen as more authentic and direct than art of the developed world.

  • At the same time, artists from the new world traveled to Europe, and especially Paris, for their artistic training. Such stylistically diverse artists as the Cuban Wifredo Lam, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and the American Alexander Calder and Edward Hopper spent time in Paris.

  • In the field of architecture, new technology (notably steel frame construction) and the modernist rejection of tradition inspired architecture of stark simplicity, exemplified by the works of Le Corbusier and by the German architects of the Bauhaus school.

Related Links:
Modernism & Post-Modernism Quiz
Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Post-Modernism
AP Art History Quizzes
AP Art History Notes