In this short Q and A, the author of Make It Modern: A History of Art in the Twentieth Century (published November 2022) reflects on some of the broader issues in, and beyond, the major international movements of the period called ‘modern art’.
1. What period do you cover in this book? Where does it begin, and claim ‘the modern’ in art came to an end?
The central concern of the book is the artistic culture of Europe in the period of the two great catastrophes of the twentieth century – the World Wars and the great upheavals that preceded and followed them. The term ‘modern’ is not the only, or the best, descriptor for that era, but it has come to be used conventionally for it. I’m avoiding your question about beginnings and endings here, I realise. But I begin approximately with the sense among artists that Impressionism was finished as a contemporary style or manner; an unspoken feeling that European culture was germinating a crisis of potentially radical proportions.
To be specific: a clash of empires, with Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia all in contention, and a sense that the old certainties, in God, nature, work and family were under threat from a new world of machines, scientific discovery, communications and very unfamiliar patterns of community and urban socialisation.
2. Then ‘modern’ is not the name for unproblematic improvements in art, or a style of any sort?
Precisely not. You could call it a crisis term, one designating a demand for freshness, relevance somehow, for experiment on a quite audacious scale. At other moments it can mean a cleansing of the decks, a wiping away of the dross and lumber of the nineteenth century; a return to earlier beginnings, even stepping outside of Europe and looking in from elsewhere.
Remember that the First World War was initially viewed as a cleansing operation by at least some among the Italian Futurists, who simply thought their country’s culture was out of date.
3. You’ve mentioned Europe, but I notice your book ranges more widely than that. Can you say a word about other geographies, perhaps about the Americas in particular?
Well I think it’s still accepted that Paris, together with other urban centres, notably Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Milan, possibly London, certainly the Russian cities St Petersburg and Moscow, together formed a network for the transmission of ideas and practice in the visual arts around the turn of the century. It is difficult to dispute that what, slightly later, became known as Post-Impressionism spread outwards and inwards along these routes, by word of mouth and by travel, in some complex ways. By the way I refuse to use the term ‘influence’ for these kinds of transmission: We need to find the conditions of receptivity too, the hidden terms on which art spread, gained hold, was adapted to new circumstances.
North America and specifically New York but also the West Coast cities join the story initially by following and adapting European precedent, with American artists travelling to Europe to study and then returning home. Yet it was still European modern art that formed virtually the whole programme of the New York’s Museum of Modern Art, opened in 1929. The story of America’s rise in the power-dynamics of modern art – I’m referring to money, and large doses of enthusiasm – really began in that decade. You will understand that America’s recovery from the Wall Street Crash in the New Deal era, and its relative distance from the Second World War in Europe, left it in a dominant position after 1945, at least as far as patronage and resources are concerned. The South American countries, Argentina and Brazil in particular, also entered the ambit of Western modern art at around that time.
4. And what about Russia? How do we measure the period around the 1917 Revolution for modern art, and how do we reckon with those changes today?
Here lies the hope and tragedy of modern art. The sheer daring of young Russian artists of the First World War period had no equivalent further West. The sense of an impending social revolution, even the necessity of one, was exhilarating and frightening at the same time. Cubo-Futurism, Constructivism and Suprematism, among the many labels for experimental work, set a pattern for post-1917 experiments elsewhere, particularly Germany and Central Europe. The tragic suppression of those impulses in the later 1920s and the 1930s, notably in Russia but also in Germany, Italy and Spain, bequeathed a double problem: one, how to develop that pressure for change and innovation that began in the First World War period, but also how to reckon with various kind of nostalgic or conservative modernity in art in most of the nations of the West. ‘Modern’ therefore has a potentially very wide and flexible meaning. In this book I narrate the experimental vision but less so the recuperative one, except in outline.
5. How did you make choices of which artists and tendencies to cover?
I was guided in part by the works themselves – as well as by the anecdote and gossip that accompanied them – but also the voices of the artists who made them. Contrary to popular belief, many artists we call ‘modern’ wrote extraordinarily well and at great length about their work, often grappling with the recasting of entirely novel visual ideas into words. In that sense ‘modern’ art is a literary phenomenon as much as a visual one.
And yes, I include the voices of the critics too, especially those near to Surrealism, a phenomenon that itself originated in a dovetailing of literature and art. As to the relative importance of individuals, I’ve narrated the inescapably big figures – Rodchenko, Picasso, Dalí, Pollock – but also many others who deserve bringing out of the shadows, both women as well as men. Readers will discover of lot of new work here, all illustrated superbly by our picture team, who did a wonderful job!
6. Make It Modern explores art up until the 1960s. Let’s turn then to your sense of where and when ‘modern’ visual art ended – when would you say the period showed signs of decline?
It’s difficult to frame the right question here, let alone the answer. By the 1950s, at any rate, I think artists were beginning to worry about how you could ‘go on’ as a painter after Picasso and Matisse; how you could go further or do it any better – and no doubt in one sense you couldn’t. Sculptors would turn to new materials such as plastics or steel, but to do what? The enigmatic Marcel Duchamp, a rather poor Cubist painter who worked up a style of irony and game-playing, now became important to some. Dada, we should add, as an attitude of refusal, of mockery – even of itself – having burst into life in Zurich in 1915, returned in the 1950s as a still potent force. It remains foundational today.
In the wider culture too, the coding of information began to emerge in the 1950s and 1960s. I’m referring to some early moves in data-handling and computing. And then together with the physical reconstruction of much of Europe in an atmosphere of Cold War, marketing and the new techniques of consumption ushered in some altered patterns of life for most. In this image-world, this new culture of information, art suddenly had other tasks to perform. Yet even in Pop art and Op, which is where the book closes, it is remarkable that the founding techniques of Cubism, Constructive art, Expressionism, Surrealism and so on provided the formal resources of the most ambitious contemporary artists.
7. Then are artists still ‘modern’ or ‘modernists’ today?
Here, I’ll challenge readers to decide. I’ll just add that today, the first quartile of the twenty-first century, we do seem immersed in a ‘modern’ moment, suspended between radical technical superabundance and the promise of personal freedoms, on the one hand, while on the other, new kinds of personal alienation and even conflict on a nearly global scale. And yet, somehow, ‘modern’ no longer seems the appropriate term.
Read an extract from the book
Make It Modern: A History of Art in the 20th Century is available now. Purchase from Yale and get free postage, or find it in your local bookshop.
Brandon Taylor is Professor Emeritus in History of Art at the University of Southampton and Tutor in History and Theory of Art, the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford. In recent years he has developed a studio practice as a painter and has exhibited in group shows.