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By breaking with the past and rejecting tradition, modernism had a huge effect on visual communication. Beginning in the 1880s and reaching its peak between 1910 and 1930, modernism gave way to new forms and styles of literature, art, architecture, and design with its complete departure from the styles and structure of the past. In relation to our course of study, the aspects most influenced by modernism include architecture, art, and design.
In order to fully understand how modernism changed the face of visual communication, it is important to define the term and its accompanying characteristics. Modernism is defined in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy as a “movement or climate of ideas, especially in the arts, literature, or architecture, that supports change, the retirement of the old or traditional, and the forward march of the avant-garde. More specifically, adherence to the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment.” In no longer adhering to the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment, modernists rejected the idea of the Creator. Political and social changes in the Western world lead to “visual art and design experienced a series of creative revolutions that questioned long-held values and approaches to organizing space as well as the role of art and design in society . . .The traditional view of the world was shattered.” (Meggs, 2006, p. 248)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines other characteristics of modernism, which include “intense self-awareness being an essential characteristic or value, allied to modernism’s complex engagement with avant-garde status. Other values that consistently underpin modernism include a propensity to create ‘culture shock’ by abandoning traditional conventions of social behavior, aesthetic representation, and scientific verification; the celebration of elitist or revolutionary aesthetic and ethical departures; and in general the derogation of the premise of a coherent, empirically accessible external reality (such as Nature or Providence) and the substitution of humanly devised structures or systems which are self-consciously arbitrary and transitory.”
In architecture, modernism gave rise to the use of new building materials such as concrete, glass, and steel, with skyscrapers becoming a symbol of modernist architecture. Modernist design in architecture emphasized straight lines, simplicity and clarity of form, open-plan interiors, and the absence decorative motifs. Machines were also highly influential to modernists.
The style of modernist architecture was called the International Style, a name given by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson. Working in this style were Mies van der Rohe, who used a “machine aesthetic” in his designs, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbussier who pioneered the idea of “form follows function.” Not all customers were intrigued by the new style. Gay (2008) writes of modernist architects, “in their urgency to make things new, modernists enjoyed the most varied sources of inspiration, and no other short stretch in the history of their craft has ever been quite so rich in groundbreaking departures from what most clients still wanted . . .” (p. 282) However, modernist architecture has prevailed.
In regards to art, modernist artists felt that by rejecting the traditions of the past, for example Romanticism, grand manner, and history painting, they were opening themselves up to new ways of creating art. Influenced by impressionism, modernism gave rise to influential artistic movements such as surrealism, cubism, and Dada. Artists active at the time include Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and Marc Chagall, all of whom broke from the norm. The biggest impact of modernism on art is the way in which artists began adapting to international styles as opposed to smaller schools. Artistic styles became much less influenced by an artist’s nationality or geographic location. In its departure from tradition, modernist art hugely impacted art as we know it today and paved the way for future movements such as pop art and minimalism.
Modernism had an impact on many areas of design. As aforementioned, modern design emphasized straight lines, simplicity and clarity of form, and the absence decorative motifs. As other design styles had done before, modernist design had a message and a philosophy behind it. These design elements can be seen in advertising and graphic design of the time, such as posters by Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters. Modernism also had a great effect on furniture design. Many architects such as La Corbussier, Gerrit Rietveld, and Mies van der Rohe also designed furniture. Even many decades later, modernist design has become iconic and lasting influence. Iconic pieces such as van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair are seen everywhere, in museums, on TV, and for sale in furniture galleries.
Modernism, which eventually gave rise to postmodernism, was a highly influential movement. Many aspects of design today including but not limited to furniture, advertising, architecture, still employ the principles of modernism. Modernism critiqued the traditions of the past, favored new ideas, and has spawned many other movements in reaction to it. To conclude, modernism is a movement that changed the way people saw, interpreted, and thought about elements of visual communication.
"Modernism" World Encyclopedia. Philip's, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Simmons College Libraries. 16 November 2009 http://0-www.oxfordreference.com.library.simmons.edu/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t142.e7671
Gay, P. (2008). Modernism: The lure of heresy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Meggs, P. B. & Purvis, A. W. (2006). Meggs’ history of graphic design (4th ed).
New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Vargish, T. (1998). Modernism. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved November 13, 2009, from http://0-www.rep.routledge.com.library.simmons.edu/article/N033
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