For many, art of the early 20th century occupies the border between chaos and creativity. Bold, colourful, enigmatic statements characterise the art of the period, breaking the classical vision of beauty and replacing it with passion, disorder and spontaneity. As war, revolution, sweeping social change and technological discoveries forever changed the most fundamental rhythms of European life, the resultant fear, uncertainty and vulnerability felt by many found expression in a myriad of new and unconventional art movements. The names of this period are well known – for example, Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and René Magritte – but their work deserves to be understood through the context of their time.
At the dawn of the 20th century, the dominant art movement in Europe was Impressionism, popularly characterized by soft, pastel colour palettes depicting pastoral landscapes and scenes of everyday life. As the 20th century progressed, Impressionism gave way to intense, vivid colours and chaotic geometry in movements such as Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism and Surrealism.
Paintings in these styles were shockingly emotional, even provocative, often portraying pure abstracted expression rather than mundane realism. Contrary to Impressionism, these new movements showed the surrounding world not through the eyes of the viewer but through the subjective lens of the artist’s mind.
Such subjectivity reflected the chaos and change sweeping Europe at that time; The Industrial Revolution brought hopes for a brighter future and greater prosperity. Soon after that, rivalry between European powers erupted in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War. As a reflection of contemporary events, art increasingly became a means for escapism, a way to abstract life and escape the difficulties of the human condition. Shortages, fear, uncertainty, new rules and restrictions, separation from friends and families. It seemed that all the progress and promise of the Revolution was put to work against humanity, rather than to advance it. Thus contemporary artists began to question and experiment with themes of reality, space and time, seeking to transcend the events in the world around them. In this context, the myriad avant-garde movements that found inspiration in this time period evolved. Four such movements highlight the eccentricity of early 20th century art:
• In Cubism, which originated in Paris between 1907 and 1914, instead of presenting objects from a single viewpoint, the artist broke up what he saw and reassembled it in an abstracted form often applying faceting or simplification of geometric forms.
• Constructivism, which originated in Russia in 1915 and continued to be an inspiration for artists in Germany, focused on the rejection of autonomous art. Art had to have a social purpose, a clearly written evocative message.
• Futurism originated in Italy in 1910-1920, with parallel movements in Russia. It glorified technology, modernity and aimed to capture the energy and dynamism in art.
• Surrealism as a movement was officially established in 1924. Colourful, intense artwork presented illogical scenes, non-existent creatures sometimes with photographic precision.
There is no doubt that the 20th century art requires a change of perspective. The movements of this period reflected vast economic, industrial and social changes. In this sense, such movements may be understood as a very human reaction to a turbulent world. To fully appreciate such artwork, it is important to engage with the reality of the world in which it was created.
Author: Tania Bogdanova, student KLC UK.