The turn of the 20th century was a time rife with change, chiefly in the way in which people began to perceive civilization as a whole and its overall goal. The outbreak of World War I, or the supposed War to End All Wars, and the unprecedented devastation that ensued challenged the foundations of many cultures’ belief systems, which led to a great deal of experimentation and exploration by artists with morality and in defining what exactly Art should be and do for a culture. What followed from this was a litany of artistic movements that strived to find their places in an ever-changing world.
Often thought of as a necessitous precursor to the plentiful art movements formed under the Modernist umbrella, Post-Impressionism had its start in the waning years of the 19th century. It was made famous by the unforgettable works of Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh, and others, as they focused on extending the limitations of the movement’s predecessor, Impressionism, by investigating techniques that would allow them to gain a purer form of expression, while, in most cases, retaining Impressionism’s use of bright and fantastic colors displayed with short brushstrokes. Post-Impressionists, unlike many members of other art movements, mainly composed their artworks independently of others, thus, allowing them to experiment in varying directions, from intensified Impressionism, as characterized by van Gogh, to pointillism, as seen in Seurat’s most famous work Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–86).
This famous avant-garde movement is credited with being one of the first of its kind to prosper at the start of the 20th century. Pioneered by Henri Matisse, Fauvism owed a significant debt to Impressionism, as it exhibited vibrant colors in order to capture landscapes and still-lifes. However, it became its own movement as Fauvists, such as Matisse, instilled a heightened sense of emotionalism into their paintings, often utilizing crude and blatant brushstrokes and vivid colors straight from their tubes that at first appalled audiences. It was the overly expressiveness of these raw and basic techniques that led art critic Louis Vauxcelles to christen such painters fauves (“wild beasts”). Other notable Fauvists include André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Georges Braque, the latter evolving from the unclad emotionalism of Fauvism to create the more structured and logical focuses of Cubism, which is viewed as being a direct descendent of Fauvism.
Possibly the best-known art movement of the Modernist era, Cubism has come to be associated with one name in particular, Pablo Picasso. However, it should be duly noted that Georges Braque was also a leader of the movement and that he and Picasso worked so well off of one another that, at the height of Cubism’s reign, their paintings are practically indistinguishable from one another. It’s often noted that Cubism was ushered in a definitive movement with the revelation of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), which shows nude women in a fractured perspective and which demonstrates a significant African influence. However, the movement did not receive its name until 1908, when, art critic Louis Vauxcelles (again!) depicted Braque’s House at L’Estaque as being fashioned from cubes. The central aims of Cubists were to discard the conventions of the past to merely mimic nature and to start in a new vein to highlight the flat dimensionality of the canvas. This effect was achieved through the use of various conflicting vantage points the paint pictures of common objects such as musical instruments, pitchers, bottles, and the human figure. As they progressed in their work, Braque and Picasso adopted the use of a monochromatic scale to emphasize their focus on the inherent structure of their works. Though commonly associated with painting, Cubism had lasting effects on many sculptors and architects of the time.
Perhaps one of the most controversial movements of the Modernist era was Futurism, which, at a cursory glance, likened humans to machines and vice versa in order to embrace change, speed, and innovation in society while discarding artistic and cultural forms and traditions of the past. However, at the center of the Futurist platform was an endorsement of war and misogyny. Futurism—coined in a 1909 manifesto by Filippo Marinetti—was not limited to just one art form, but in fact was embraced by sculptors, architects, painters, and writers. Paintings were typically of automobiles, trains, animals, dancers, and large crowds; and painters borrowed the fragmented and intersecting planes from Cubism in combination with the vibrant and expressive colors of Fauvism in order to glorify the virtues of speed and dynamic movement. Writers focused on ridding their poetry of what they saw as unnecessary elements such as adjectives and adverbs so that the emphasis could rest on the action of infinitive verbs. This technique in conjunction with the integration of mathematical symbols allowed them to make more declarative statements with a great sense of audacity. Although originally ardent in their affirmation of the virtues of war, the Futurists lost steam as the devastation of WWI became realized.
A specifically English artistic movement, since its mouthpiece was the famed London-based magazine Blast, Vorticism followed in the same vein as Futurism in that it relished in the innovative advances of the machine age and embraced the possible virtues of dynamic change that were to follow. It was founded right before the start of WWI by the celebrated painter Wyndham Lewis and the ubiquitous poet of the Modernist period Ezra Pound. However, whereas the Futurists originated in France and Italy and then sprawled out over the continent to Russia, Vorticism remained local in London. Vorticists prided themselves on being independent of similar movements. In their literature, they utilized bare-bones vocabulary that resonated in likeness to the mechanical forms found in English shipyards and factories, and, in their writings as well as their paintings, Vorticists espoused abstraction as the only way to sever ties with the dominant and suffocating Victorian past so that they could advance to a new era. However, Vorticism, like Futurism, struggled to cope with the incomprehensible destruction during WWI that was a result of the new machines which they so highly praised. As WWI came to an end and valued Vorticists, namely T.E. Hulme and Gaudler-Brzeska, died in action, Vorticism shriveled to a small few by the beginning of the 1920s.