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Analysis out of the box

The origins of Contemporary Art

Analysis out of the boxContemporary Art | From the eve of World War I to the mid 20th century, major artistic movements revolutionize thought and esthetics, blasting apart established forms to create a new permissive space. These movements arise out of the intense intellectual transformations that occur during this period of unprecedented political and social upheaval.

Marcel Duchamp, ’’Fontain’’ © Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y. / ADAGP, Paris
Marcel Duchamp, ’’Fontain’’
© Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y. / ADAGP, Paris

A world in flux

A new perception of space and time

At the 1900 World’s Fair, visitors see a dream on the verge of becoming reality : electricity, speed, automobiles, and cinema. It is a presentation of the most recent technological advances that, in only a few years, will overtake and render obsolete the technological accomplishments of the past.

A new perception of space and time : as they gain speed, railroads create a transportation network that incites nations to open their borders. The airplane and the conquest of the skies give reality to a primitive fantasy. The invention of the radio allows instantaneous broadcasting all over the world. Stephan Zweig, a contemporary, remembers, “Thanks to the worldwide synchronization of our new organizational structures, we were constantly in touch with our epoch. When bombs reduced Shanghai houses to smithereens, we knew it in Europe, in our bedrooms, before the wounded had even been removed from the rubble.” (The World of Yesterday)

The Great War : astounding violence

In counterpoint to their economic development and embrace of modernity, European states exercise their power through a policy of unbridled colonial expansionism. The rise of the German empire and the Balkan crisis render inevitable the First World War that will set Europe ablaze from 1914 to 1918.

This astoundingly violent war wipes away the prior century (with the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian and Ottoman empires), and gives rise to a new world order. The financial ruin of European states provokes a transfer of wealth to the United States. Europe is in the grip of rising mass ideological movements. Bolshevism in Russia, National Socialism in Germany, and fascism in Italy strike down a European cultural tradition coming out of pre-war modernity.

Artists both draw inspiration from and exorcise the demons of this world in upheaval : a new world. It is during this time that “avant-garde” movements are born, a term borrowed from military lexicon signifying a small group sent ahead to explore.

The first modern movements and avant-gardes are born from these intense transformations


Expressionism :
The first new modern movement appears in France in 1904-1905. The Fauves, a pejorative name given by the critic Vauxelles, are born out of Derain’s relationship with Vlaminck and then Matisse. In a June 1905 letter to Matisse, Derain conceives color as, “a material, like marble or wood, in which we can transpose, with its own interior logic.” Their quest to express the principal of life through color, their search for a vital impetus, has to do with their first exposure to African art and Gauguin’s portraits of Polynesian civilizations.

Expressionism continues into Germany. In Dresden in 1905, Die Brücke (the bridge) is founded by Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff, and later Pechstein and Nolde. Here, life force is expressed with greater violence (dissonant colors and contrasts), communicating the desire for a new vision of society.

Cubism :
In 1907-1908 in France, Cubism pushes the questioning of representation even further. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon lays the groundwork, revealing three major influences : Cezanne’s pictorial research, African culture, and the childish naivety of Henri Rousseau. Working together, Picasso and Braque push their research to the threshold of abstraction in 1910-1911 with “Hermetic Cubism.”


Italian Futurism :
The first truly avant-garde posture to express the tensions inherent in modernity is Italian Futurism. In February 1909, the pœt Marinetti, with the artists Balla, Boccioni, Carra, Russolo, Severini and Prampolini, publishes a manifesto in Le Figaro, as Paris is considered the intellectual capital of the day. In deliberately violent terms, he adopts the language of a declaration of war on the past and its traditions, advocating an embrace of the machine, dynamism and speed.
Marinetti lays the groundwork for the first art performances and “happenings.”
Italian futurism continues in Russia with Rayonism (Larionov, Goncharova).

Blaue Reiter :
Almost simultaneously in Munich in 1911-12, Blaue Reiter gives form to the early stages of a new European sensibility. Kandinsky and Franz Marc give the name to a collection of texts on art by artists and to two exhibitions at the Thannhauser (1911) and Goltz (1912) galleries. The movement champions art’s spiritual qualities and brings together divers artists like Paul Klee, Macke, the Frenchman Derain Delaunay, Russians Gontcharova, Larionov, Malevitch and Tatlin as well as the composer Schönberg. This short-lived but important movement witnesses the birth of abstraction.

Abstraction :
A Russian artist-theorist living in Munich then Murnau, Vassily Kandinsky is attached to the dreamlike world of his homeland but also the visions of a new, expressionist modernity. In 1910-1911, he creates a new visual language, beginning with nascent, almost childlike, signs and then improvisational impressions – a language that constitutes a move into ABSTRACT ART.

Meanwhile in Holland, in 1912-1913, Piet Mondrian uses the cubist work of Picasso and Braque as the starting point for creating a new geometric and metaphysical approach to abstraction. De Stijl formalizes his approach in 1917, bringing together artists like Van Dœsburg, Vantongerloo and architects such as Rietveld.
Similarly, in 1919, Walter Gropius founds a new kind of art school : the Bauhaus (literally “construction house”). The Bauhaus brings together art and industry, using abstraction as the basis for developing new ideas in production and functionality. Professors include Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy, Schlemmer and Klee and the teaching is transversal in nature (architecture, graphic design, theater…).

Russian avant-gardes :
A period of intense turmoil in Russia from 1910 to 1920 is mirrored in an unprecedented level of artistic activity spawning three movements. Rayonism continues the research begun by the Italian futurists. Malevich pens the Suprematist manifesto : “By Suprematism, I mean the supremacy of pure feeling in creative art.” This culminates in a metaphysical refusal of representation in the emblematic and iconic Black Square, 1915 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow).
Constructivist artists like Tatlin, Lissitzky and Rodchenko share affinities with Malevich’s abstraction but see their work as more directly accompanying the Communist revolution’s radical social changes.


Marcel Duchamp (born in Blainville, 1887 – deceased in Neuilly/Seine, 1968) :
Son of a Norman notary, artist and chess player Marcel Duchamp will follow a deeply personal and nonconformist trajectory his whole life. Inventing new forms that question the fundamental bases of art, he paves the way for today’s contemporary art production.
In 1912, his painting already evidences an interest for scientific advances and intellectual mechanisms, capturing the progression of a bodily movement in a fractal superposition that disintegrates the very presence of the subject. Unfit for military service, when war erupts in Europe he moves to New York where he has been famous since his Nude descending a staircase (1912) was exposed in the 1913 Armory Show and became a symbol of the European avant-garde. In this permissive climate, he abandons painting and invents the “readymade,” using objects found in his 1913 Parisian studio like a bicycle wheel and a bottle-holder. Others will follow, such as Fountain. He also begins executing a major non-painting project that he has been planning since 1913, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (or The Large Glass) which he will finally finish in 1923. He then devotes himself exclusively to chess, but secretly works on his last piece Given : 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas (begun in 1944 but not exhibited until after his death). Although he chose not to belong to any movement, Duchamp shared concerns with Dadaism and Surrealism.

Dada :
This term, said to have been chosen at random in a dictionary, is evocative of childhood and pronounceable in all languages. Born in Zurich in 1916 in the midst of a the Great War, its initial members are a heterogeneous group of artists and intellectuals : writer and philosopher Hugo Ball, pœt Tristan Tzara, doctor-pœt Richard Huelsenbeck, and painters Hans Arp and Marcel Janco. They meet for entire nights at the noisy and chaotic Cabaret Voltaire, engaging in experiments and scandalous performances.
For Dadaists, the artwork is a living organism drawing energy from the objects and rebus of society. The movement rapidly spreads to Berlin, New York and Paris.

Surrealism :
Like Dada, Surrealism emerges from a global crisis and in opposition to belligerent political ideologies and bourgeois culture. Inspired by psychoanalysis, it cannot be reduced to a classic school of art. Instead, it is a veritable literary and artistic phenomenon, establishing an experimental framework to liberate the mind from rationalism through use of dreams, automatic writing, hypnosis, and the exquisite corpse.
Surrealism is organized around the tutelary figure of writer and pœt André Breton. He theorizes the movement with the Surrealist Manifesto (1924) before affirming its political affiliation with communism in the Second Manifesto (1929).
Most artists, writers and pœts join (or are sympathetic to) the cause, including : Philippe Soupault, Benjamin Perret, Robert Desnos, Raymond Queneau… Max Ernst, Man Ray, Jan Arp, Joan Miro, Dali…
Surrealism spreads quickly throughout the world. Although Le Monde published its obituary in 1969 (three years after André Breton’s death), the movement lives on the contemporary sensibility.

Through their exploration of the psyche, intelligence networks and the imagination, surrealists reveal the significance of drastic transformations taking place around them. They usher in a new space-time that looks a lot like the cybernetic world of today.

Nina Rodrigues-Ely
Publié le 30/08/2007
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Version française

Marcel Duchamp, ’’Fontain’’ © Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y. / ADAGP, Paris

Marcel Duchamp, ’’Fontain’’
© Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y. / ADAGP, Paris