Contextual Studies – Lecture Four

Modernity and Modernism:


The Eiffel Tower was built in 1889 to commemorate the beginning of the French Revolution one hundred years earlier. The Eiffel Tower itself is a work of modern art, it was made of iron to symbolise freedom and the industrial revolution that took over Paris. The tower was the tallest standing structure of its time and was designed by an Engineer named Kristof Eiffel. During the planning of the huge monument, Eiffel envisioned his sculpture as a humanoid figure in the center of Paris, the four legs also represent the four corners of the world which projects the message of global modernity. The tower opened to the public nine days after the exhibition. The aerial view gave a whole new perspective to the public, inspiring artists to play with space on their canvases. This historical event is one of many that kickstarted modern art, the new perspective of aerial views also made some critics and artists open to the idea of modernism.

The modernist era made for huge advances in technology, in 1822 (premodernism) the first ever permanent photograph was developed by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce a French inventor. Photography was quite a slow process for the most part of the 19th century. The camera’s were huge and took a very traditional path in terms of art. Only the rich and famous were to be photographed. In 1885, roll film was invented by George Eastman which opened doors to filmmaking and photography. In 1888 photography as an artform became more accessible to the public as the first Kodak box camera was invented. The Kodak camera was small, compact and easy to carry. This changed the world of photography.


In the late 1880’s, machines took over the world and replaced many workers in mills, factories and farms. A lot of people didn’t like the idea of machines, many believed that they would turn on humanity and destroy the world. These sorts of ideologies inspired modern art and are still around in the postmodernist era.

Metropolis (1927)


The Card Players (1881 – 1955) Fernand Leger

There was a new world and it was hitting cities like London and Paris extremely hard. In 1879 the first Edison electric light bulb was produced on a mass scale and houses slowly started to convert to electricity, in 1893 the first Thomas Ford Automobile was invented, in 1892 the diesel engine was invented, in 1895 the first moving image camera was invented, in 1909 the first flight across the English Channel was completed successfully. All of these things made a huge impact on modern art. The creation of the light bulb meant that lighting had changed, artists now started to paint light in orange or blue. The Kodak camera, which was easily acquired stole the limelight and the business from traditional portrait painters which meant that they needed something new. The new modern age had liberated artists from an accurate representation, it allowed them to experiment with shape, size and colour. As the cities boomed, artists were more likely to paint city life rather than rural life. The modern era came out of nowhere, but it took a grip of the world and changed it forever.

I, Robot (2004)

These ideas still inspire works of art even today, this trailer from the 2004 film I, Robot is extremely similar in terms of subject matter. The film is about the takeover of robots, they replace other machines and humans, taking jobs and throwing the human race into a lazy void. However, things go wrong and the robots are evil and attempt to take over the world.

 Obviously at the time of early modernism, technology and the industrial take over happened extremely quickly and it was very new to the world. It scared people because it was so new and it took over rapidly. These fears started to change the way some artists made their art.


The Card Players (1881 – 1955) Fernand Leger

This abstract cubist painting by Leger depicts the broken and fragmented images of soldiers playing card games. Their bodies are made of almost a mechanical looking material, the painting itself looks incredibly industrial in terms of subject matter. Leger belonged to the cubists. Cubists were inspired by sharp shapes and distorted subject matters. Cubist paintings also have more than one focal point, the aesthetics of the painting, more specifically the composition, makes your eyes scan the canvas to take the whole piece in.


Three Women (1921) Fernand Leger

Three women, painted in 1921, is a more figurative painting than its predecessor. The painting itself is still abstract in terms of aesthetics, but the subject matter is much easier to put together. The piece is put together using bright and unnatural colors for the time, much later in the late sixties and early seventies, modern art had inspired the world to embrace its wacky laws and eventually, colors like these became the norm. The piece is made up of patterns which aesthetically are created with distorted shapes. The three women depicted within the painting look extremely robotic due to the emphasised joints.


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