Monday, January 27, 2014

Modernism (pt. 1)

The other great painter of this time produced artwork of a slightly different style, one which stemmed from Realism and anticipated Impressionism but did not strictly adhere to either.  Édouard Manet was a Modernist.
The aftermath of Victorian industrialism was the creation of an entirely new world at the expense of the former.  Old, natural landscapes gave rise to mass mechanization.  The construction of factories and larger cities was altering the terrain of the Western world, requiring the "Modern man" to adapt to a new setting for survival.  Steel mills would replace pastoral landscapes, and the oil and grime of major cities (such as London, which, during the Victorian Era, was just filthy) would blot out man's connection to the terra firma, nature, Mother Earth, and, in a way, God.  Technology, which the Romantics had feared would replace humanity, was completely overtaking Europe's socioeconomic culture by the latter half of the 19th century.  This and the 20th century were ages in which scientific innovation skyrocketed on an exponentially increasing "J"-curve scale—and these advancements still continue to soar to this day (don't they, Apple users).  Modernism arose from the tragic separation which philosophers distinguished between man and nature, the innocent and the corrupt, the morally upright and the morally obscure.  It was the developing philosophy of the time which took into account the tragic loss of the old Romanticism of rural, countryside utopias but accepted this new, highly industrialized urban metropolis as the present reality which mankind sadly but inevitably must learn to live in. 
The world was completely changing in an unprecedented way.  Scientific inventions that would forever revolutionize modern life were being produced at a mounting rate.  The typewriter, the telephone, the motion picture camera, the machine gun, the gramophone, the internal combustion engine, the automobile, Coca Cola—these are just a few of the discoveries introduced in the latter half of the 19th century, and with these physical innovations came the expanded philosophy of the Modern mind.  Paradigm shifts of unequivocal proportion were being published nearly every decade.  In 1859, Charles Darwin published Origin of Species; Gregor Mendel's studies on genetics were published the following decade; in 1873, James Clerk Maxwell published his treatise on electromagnetism; and at the end of the 1890s, Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams was published.  Western history was advancing at a rapid pace the likes of which had never before been witnessed.
The atmosphere brought on by all of these great advancements was decidedly less positive.  In the latter half of the 19th century, prostitution in England rose to an all-time high; cities all across Europe became dirtier; and crime increased.  The effects of industrialism, then, were not specific to the scientific community alone.  The entire scene of everyday life was changed, to the point of an almost unrecognizable world, and painting had to change along with it.  Modernism, then—and the word invokes such a broad meaning, infamously difficult to define; so we're not using it here so much in its most comprehensive sense as we are using it in the context of its relation to art and art history—Modernism grew from the need of the "Modern man" to assimilate to this new environment and re-assess, so to speak, the world around him.  Most outspokenly, the French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote on this subject of the changing Western world and the new rules that sort of needed to be "invented" in order to operate within its foreign structure.
In a significant essay for the history of art entitled The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire described the way in which art needed to change to match the speedily advancing times and rapidly increasing industrialization.  His was a new conception of what an artist should be, and to describe this new type of artist he coined the term flâneur.  Baudelaire defined a flâneur as a "man of the world," an observer who spends his time in the crowds and masses to get a feel for what people are really like and what the world is truly about.  This individual connects to his fellow humans, is popular among crowds—a man of the people—and he uses his observations of daily public life to arrive at both personal and universal truth.  The actual word in French indicates someone who strolls idly around; Baudelaire's flâneur does spend the majority of his time as a bystander or spectator among the multitudes, but he does so in a more philosophical sense, seeking larger insight about mankind.  Because nature has been engulfed by this late-Victorian industrialization, the new sector for the discovery of profound, universal truth lies in the city, the metropolitan circle, with the collective organism, la foule, which lives and breathes in as flighty and energetic a manner as the forces of nature themselves.  The effect of so many people in a single urban environment Baudelaire likened to a "kaleidoscope."  Baudelaire argued that a true artist could never become bored in the presence of people, since therein would be found all of his inspiration, interest, and insight in the world.  After all, life is always active, kinetic, moving forward in a constant immediacy that, if you don't pay attention and keep up with it, is gone in a flash.  Studying the old masters was well enough, but newer generations of painters, Baudelaire wrote, would do well to live in medias res and address their art to the contemporary issues of their own present environment.  Truth was now to be found in the moment, given that the constant of nature (remember Thomas Cole's Course of the Empire) had been done away with and replaced by this new, industrialized, Modern world.

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