Modernism Guide: Characteristics, History & Art Movements
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read


If you've ever wondered about the ins and outs of modernism, you've come to the right place. This blog post is like a map that will help you navigate through the fascinating landscape of modernism. We'll explore its characteristics, delve into its history, meet some key figures, and even take a look at its influence and legacy — it's all here in our comprehensive modernism guide.

What is Modernism?

Modernism, simply put, is a cultural movement that swept through the arts, literature, and even architecture. It started in the late 19th and continued into the early 20th century. This period was an exciting time of rapid and radical change. The essence of modernism, if we were to boil it down to a single sentence, is about breaking away from tradition and exploring new ways of thinking and expressing.

Let's break down the definition of modernism a bit more:

  • Modern character or quality of thought, expression, or technique: Modernism encourages fresh, innovative ideas. It's all about thinking outside the box, expressing in ways that challenge the norm, and using techniques that are anything but traditional.
  • A style or movement in the arts that aims to break with classical and traditional forms: Modernism in the arts is like a rebel. It decided to throw away the rule book of classical and traditional forms and create its own rules. This is why you find abstract paintings, free verse in poetry, and experimental music during this period.
  • A movement toward modifying traditional beliefs in accordance with modern ideas: Modernism also seeped into the way people thought and believed. It encouraged questioning old beliefs and replacing them with ideas that better matched the modern world.

So, the definition of modernism isn't just about a change in art or literature, it's a shift in the way we think, express, and view the world. It's about embracing the new and letting go of the old. If modernism were a person, it would be the one coming up with novel ideas, shaking things up, and inspiring others to think differently.

Characteristics of Modernism

Now that we have a clear understanding of the definition of modernism, let's dive into the distinctive characteristics that define this cultural movement. You might start to notice some of these traits in the art, literature, and architecture around you!

  • Rejection of Tradition: Modernism is like a teenager rebelling against their parents — it's all about rejecting the past and tradition. Instead of following the tried and true paths, modernism paved its own way, embracing change and innovation.
  • Embrace of the New: If modernism were a device, it would be the latest smartphone model! It's all about embracing the new, the innovative, and the groundbreaking. This eagerness for novelty seeped into everything from art to architecture.
  • Experimentation: Try, try, and try again — that's the mantra of modernism. Whether it's experimenting with form in literature, color in art, or design in architecture, modernism is all about pushing the boundaries.
  • Fragmentation: Modernist works often give you a sense of fragmentation — a jigsaw puzzle waiting to be solved. This characteristic reflects the complex, disjointed reality of the modern world.
  • Focus on Inner Self: Modernism places a spotlight on the inner self. It's all about exploring individual consciousness, emotions, and thoughts. You'll often find this focus on the inner world in modernist literature and art.

These characteristics paint a clear picture of modernism — it's a movement that refused to sit still, always pushing forward, always evolving. And in doing so, it forever changed the way we think, express, and create.

History of Modernism

The history of modernism is a fascinating tale of change and revolution. It's like an action-packed movie, with plenty of twists and turns! So, buckle up, and let's journey back in time to explore the origins and evolution of this dynamic movement.

Modernism didn't pop up overnight — it was a response to the rapid changes and challenges of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Think of it as the world's reaction to a massive growth spurt. Industrialization, urbanization, and technological advances were transforming society at a dizzying pace. And with these transformations came a new way of seeing and understanding the world — modernism.

The beginnings of modernism can be traced back to the late 1800s. This was a time when artists and writers started to experiment with new forms and techniques, breaking away from traditional norms. This period — often referred to as the birth of modernism — saw the emergence of groundbreaking works that challenged conventional wisdom and expectations.

The early 20th century marked the peak of the modernist movement. This was the era of the "lost generation" — a term coined by writer Gertrude Stein to describe the disillusioned post-World War I generation. During this time, modernist ideas and styles flourished across various disciplines, from literature and art to architecture and music.

By the mid-20th century, modernism began to give way to postmodernism — but that's a story for another time. What's important to remember is that modernism was a powerful force that shaped the way we think and create. It wasn't just a historical period — it was a revolution of ideas and expressions that continues to influence us today.

Key Figures in Modernism

Ever wondered who were the masterminds behind the modernist movement? Let's meet some of the key figures who shaped modernism. They were like the superheroes of their time, each with their unique superpowers, which were their innovative ideas and styles.

First off, we have Pablo Picasso. You probably know him for his famous painting "Guernica", but Picasso's influence extends far beyond this single work. His innovative approach to form and perspective — known as cubism — was a game-changer in the art world.

Next up is James Joyce, a literary genius who turned traditional storytelling on its head. His novel "Ulysses" — with its stream-of-consciousness technique — is a landmark of modernist literature. It's like taking a trip inside the human mind!

Let's not forget Virginia Woolf. With her novel "To the Lighthouse", Woolf redefined the narrative structure of novels and explored the complexities of human consciousness. She was a pioneer in using the interior monologue, giving us a deep dive into her characters' thoughts and emotions.

In the world of music, Arnold Schoenberg stands out. He introduced the twelve-tone technique, reshaping the way music was composed and understood. It's like he gave music a new language!

These are just a few of the many figures who left their mark on modernism. Each of them, in their own way, redefined their disciplines and expanded the definition of modernism. Their bold ideas and daring experiments continue to inspire artists and thinkers today.

Modern Art Movements

Alright, let's talk about some of the most influential movements that made modern art what it is today. Each of these movements added their own flavors to the definition of modernism.

First up is Impressionism. This movement was all about capturing the fleeting effects of light and color. Picture yourself sitting in a café in Paris, looking at a Monet painting, and getting lost in the beautiful play of light and shadow. That's Impressionism for you!

Then came Cubism, sparked by the genius of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Imagine looking at an object from multiple angles at the same time, then piecing it all together in a kind of geometric puzzle. Sounds intriguing, right? That's what Cubism is all about.

Following Cubism was Futurism. This movement embraced the energy and dynamism of the modern world. Think speeding cars, roaring planes, and bustling cities, all depicted in a way that makes you feel the rush of progress.

Surrealism, in contrast, delved into the realm of dreams and the subconscious. It's like stepping into a Salvador Dalí painting where melting clocks and floating elephants are the norm. Surrealism invites you to look beyond reality and explore the mysteries of the mind.

Each of these movements, with their distinct styles and principles, broadened the spectrum of what art could be and deepened our understanding of the modernist ethos. So next time you're in an art gallery or browsing an art book, you'll be able to spot these modern art movements and appreciate their contribution to the definition of modernism.

Influence and Legacy of Modernism

Now that we've explored the movements that shaped the definition of modernism in art, let's dive into the influence and legacy of modernism itself. It's not an exaggeration to say that modernism has left its fingerprints all over our world.

From architecture to literature, from music to film, the ripple effects of modernism can be felt everywhere. It's like a secret code that once you know it, you start seeing it everywhere. So, let's start decoding!

In architecture, modernism championed simplicity and functionality. Picture buildings with clean lines, open spaces, and lots of glass. Think of the famous glass house by Philip Johnson. It's more than just a house - it's a brilliant example of modernist architecture that embodies the spirit of the era.

In literature, modernism brought about a shift in narrative perspective. Instead of a single, all-knowing narrator, authors like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce experimented with multiple viewpoints, stream of consciousness, and fragmented narratives. This was a game-changer and deeply resonates with our understanding of the world.

Modernism also left a profound impact on music and film. It invited musicians and filmmakers to break free from traditional forms and explore new territories. From the atonal compositions of Arnold Schoenberg to the non-linear narratives of Jean-Luc Godard's films, the imprint of modernism is unmistakable.

Understanding the influence and legacy of modernism helps us see the world in a new light. It's like wearing a pair of modernism-tinted glasses that reveal the depth and complexity of our cultural landscape. So, next time you come across a sleek skyscraper, a mind-bending novel, an avant-garde film, or an experimental music piece, remember: you're witnessing the enduring influence of modernism!

Modernism in Other Disciplines

Modernism, with its spirit of experimentation and innovation, has not just influenced the arts. It's also made its mark in other disciplines. Let's take a closer look at how the definition of modernism applies to fields like philosophy, psychology, and even technology. Curious? Let's dive in!

Think about philosophy. Modernism brought about a shift in how we understand and interpret reality. Instead of adhering to established beliefs, modernist philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre encouraged questioning and skepticism. They explored ideas around individual freedom, existentialism, and the meaning of life. Their ideas continue to shape philosophical debates today.

Now, let's switch gears and talk about psychology. Modernism played a huge role in shaping the field of psychology as we know it. How, you ask? Well, think about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. They dared to explore the human mind in ways that were unheard of. Their ideas about the unconscious mind, dreams, and human behavior are fundamental to modern psychology.

Finally, let's talk about technology. You might be wondering, what does modernism have to do with technology? Quite a bit, actually. Modernism is all about breaking away from tradition and embracing innovation. This spirit of modernism has inspired countless technological breakthroughs. From the invention of the telephone to the development of the internet, the influence of modernism is hard to miss.

So, whether you're studying philosophy, exploring psychology, or simply using your smartphone, remember: the spirit of modernism is right there with you. It's not just a term from your art history book—it's a way of seeing and understanding the world!

Modernism vs. Postmodernism

Let's now move from the definition of modernism to its successor—postmodernism. These two movements share a timeline, but they're quite different in terms of perspective and approach. Ready to clear up the confusion? Let's do it!

Modernism, as we've discussed, is all about breaking with the past, embracing change, and seeking new ways of expression. It values individuality, innovation, and the pursuit of absolute truth. On the other hand, postmodernism takes a step further—or, some might say, a step back.

Postmodernism challenges the very ideas modernism stands for. It questions the existence of an absolute truth and rejects the idea of a single narrative. For postmodernists, truth is subjective and reality is constructed by individuals. It's like looking at a picture—each viewer might see something different, and they're all correct in their interpretations.

But wait, doesn't this make postmodernism sound a bit chaotic? Well, it can be. But it's also liberating. Postmodernism allows for multiple truths, multiple narratives, and endless possibilities. It's all about celebrating diversity, questioning authority, and embracing uncertainty.

So, there you have it—the definition of modernism and its contrast with postmodernism. Two movements, two perspectives, shaping the way we perceive, interpret, and create. Which one resonates more with you? Or are you, like many of us, somewhere in between?

If you've enjoyed learning about the Modernism Guide in this blog post and would like to explore how classical painting techniques have evolved into the modern day, don't miss the workshop titled 'Classical Painting in the Modern Day' by Eric Drummond. This workshop will provide fascinating insights into the adaptation of traditional painting methods and their place in today's art world.