The Modernist Movement

Picasso's Portrait of Daniel Henry Kahnweiler 1910

Picasso’s Portrait of Daniel Henry Kahnweiler 1910

“That is what you are. That’s what you all are…All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation” –  Gertrude Stein

One of the major struggles of any artist is how to best process the world around her. Be it through a novel or painting, the artist strives to make sense of what she is perceiving. It is looking back after some years have passed that we are able to see a commonality that exists between various artists and thinkers. The Modernist Movement has intrigued me for many years, and while I’ll get to the details in the near future, I thought it best to provide some context and background first.

The Modernist era runs roughly from the turn of the century until the beginning of World War II. The thing about any sort of movement, be it cultural, artistic, or political, is that it’s tough to pin down exact dates. So, when we say the Modernist period runs from 1900-1940, you have to imagine some years bleeding over on either side. While most scholars agree that the beginnings of Modernism were in the late 1800s, the end date is always a bit tricky. In my mind, however, there is enough of a divide from work produced during the depression and work produced during and after the war to have a (relatively) clear cut division.

Modernism in a nutshell is a reaction to a rapidly changing world. In my mind it was two major world events that best defined the cultural mindset of the Modernist period. The late 1800s brought us the Industrial Revolution,

The lack of labor laws during the Industrial Revolution resulted in many children working in horrible unsafe conditions.

The lack of labor laws during the Industrial Revolution resulted in many children working in horrible unsafe conditions.

and early in the new century a host of Western countries were involved in a horrifying World War. Both of these events radically changed the culture and attitudes of the people that lived through them, for both good and ill. The Industrial Revolution enabled more goods to be produced faster than ever, it allowed for quicker modes of transport, and brought more jobs than ever before. It also exposed people to the horrors of an unregulated factory and to the horrible human costs of these products and transport.

While the Industrial Revolution certainly had it’s negatives, it also brought a lot of amazing things to the world that have significantly changed the way we live. It’s hard to find the positives in the First World War, however. Though there were some staggering technological advances (it began with horses pulling guns to the front and ending with tanks and mustard gas) all these marvels were created with one purpose; kill as many people as possible. And kill they did, and in horrible, dirty, and ruthless conditions. One only need read the accounts of Wilfred Owen,

Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon, or Erich Maria Remarque to get a very real and visceral idea of the horrors that these young men experienced.

The common thread between these two major world events is that they both brought about radical changes to the world, and, most importantly, how we view ourselves. It was found that we, as humans, are capable of so much and showed the best and worst of what we can be. Coming on the heels of the much more traditional Realism movement, the Modernists began seeing the world as a much more complex place, and humans as far more compelling creatures than ever before. It was in the art, writing, and philosophy that the major figures of the era began grappling with how to best represent this ever changing and far more complex world.

In the coming weeks I’m going to look at several major Modernist figures and their work. I’ll do my best to hit as wide a breadth as possible, from Ernest Hemingway and his Lost Generation to some of the lesser known (yet still vital) artists and thinkers.


The Lost Generation

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