An Essay on Modernism

Following is an art history essay from my second year core Modernism course. It seemed to do reasonably well in marking, so I figured I may as well publish it. The length restriction was 1200 words, and so as the marker rightly suggested, it can become a little point-like (what happens when you’re editing down).

Question: To what extent is modernism a response to the Industrial Revolution? Did it replace the classical style of pre-industrial Europe? In your answer you may refer to a range of practices, including architecture, ceramics and photography.

Modernism is a tacit realisation that the overwhelming direction of the arts since the beginning of the Renaissance had run its course. Sculptors had made stone look as much like flesh as possible. Painters had made the flat surface of the picture plane as convincingly deep as the horizon, and builders had replicated the Greek temple and Roman arch for everything upto the metaphorical garden shed. The time of illusion through technical dominance of materials was drawing to a close (along with that of the craftsman who wielded that dominance), and a new era of honesty and sincerity to materials and function was dawning. Modernism therefore, is both a response to and enabled by, the industrial revolution.

In painting, the new industrial processes provide a wider variety of premixed paints in resealable tubes. In architecture the new industrial technologies enable construction on scales that had previously been impossible. The great contradiction for architecture, is that while engineers used the new materials and technologies to great effect, the decorative style and look of buildings throughout the industrial revolution barely changed from previous pre-industrial styles. If anything, the industrial revolution enabled their further entrenchment by facilitating the mass production of the very handmade details that had defined pre-industrial styles.

Baudelaire stated in his commentary on the universal exhibition of 1855 ((“Ask any good Frenchman who reads his favourite newspaper every day, in his favourite cafe, what he understands by progress, and his answer will be: steam! electricity! gas lighting! – miracles unknown to the Romans; he will say these discoveries are ample proof of our superiority over the ancient; such is the depth of darkness that exists in this poor mind, such the weird confusion there between the material and spiritual order of things. The poor man has been so americanized by zoocratic and industrial thinkers that he ha quite lost sight of the notion of the differences that mark the phenomena of the physical and the moral worlds, the natural and the supernatural.” – The Universal Exhibition of 1855:  the Fine Arts)) that reliance on modern industrial measures of progress, such as more nutritious food, ignores the importance of what I can only interpret as spirituality and God. Further, that past achievements offer no guarantee of progress for the future. His attitude seems to illustrate the post-enlightenment separation of the creative arts from science and rationalism.

This attitude seems to have been common amongst the French arts culture of this era. In Paris, a group letter ((“We come, we writers, painters, sculptors, architects, lovers of the beauty of Paris which was until now intact, to protest with all our strength and all our indignation, in the name of the underestimated taste of the French, in the name of French art and history under threat, against the erection in the very heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower, which popular ill-feeling, so often an arbiter of good sense and justice, has already christened the Tower of Babel. … To comprehend what we are arguing one only needs to imagine for a moment a tower of ridiculous vertiginous height dominating Paris, just like a gigantic black factory chimney, its barbarous mass overwhelming and humiliating all our monuments and belittling our works of architecture, which will just disappear before this stupefying folly. And for twenty years we shall see spreading across the whole city, a city shimmering with the genius of so many centuries, we shall see spreading like an ink stain, the odious shadow of this odious column of bolted metal.” – Protest against the Tower of Monsieur Eiffel. Le Temps, February 14th, 1887. Sourced from Le Tour Eiffel)), criticising Eiffel’s tower and signed by many significant arts identities was published in the Le Temps newspaper as construction began.

Eiffel’s response ((“For my part I believe that the Tower will possess its own beauty. Are we to believe that because one is an engineer, one is not preoccupied by beauty in one’s constructions, or that one does not seek to create elegance as well as solidity and durability? Is it not true that the very conditions which give strength also conform to the hidden rules of harmony? … Moreover there is an attraction in the colossal, and a singular delight to which ordinary theories of art are scarcely applicable” – Gustav Eiffel Interview Le Temps, February 14th, 1887. Sourced from Le Tour Eiffel)) was essentially to claim that a beauty is inherent to any structure who’s form provides strength. He also perhaps gives suggestion to one of the real issues – Eiffel was an engineer, not an “artist”. Architects considered themselves among artists, and they stuck with tradition.

As evidenced at all times of great progress and change it seems there is an almost inevitable anti-progress counterstroke. As Leon Trotsky observed in his essay “What Is National Socialism?” ((“Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters.” – Leon Trotsky. The Modern Thinker, October 1933. Sourced from marxists.org.)), people have a tendency to seek the familiar comfort of the past, of the certainty of tradition even when making greatest use of the products of the very modern forces that so provoke their ire.

One of the major effects of the industrial revolution in Britain was the explosion of both domestic, and civic building. For both these purposes, it was the style and taste of the past that was to be the dominant form.

A major trend of this era, indeed the style that to many is the definition of “Victorian Britain” was Gothic Revival, to which A. W. N. Pugin is considered central. Pugin studied all aspects of Gothic style, and turned these towards furniture and interior, as well as exterior decoration.

In his first architectural pamphlet, published in 1836, he suggests the middle ages as superior to everything that has come since ((“On comparing the Architectural Works of the last three centuries with those of the Middle Ages the wonderful superiority of the latter must strike every attentive observer: and the mind is naturally led to reflect on the causes which have wrought this mighty change and to endeavour to trace the fall of Architectural taste, from the period of its first decline to the present day” – A. W. N Pugin: Contrasts: or a Parallel between the Noble Edifices of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries and Similar Buildings of the Present Day; shewing the Present Decay of Taste: Accompanied by an Appropriate Text. Quoted by Alexandra Gordon Clark in Victorian Architecture P141)). His premise, is that the greatness of Gothic architecture is directly tied to its Catholic Christian inspiration ((“everything grand, edifying and noble in art is the result of feelings produced by the Catholic religion on the human mind … the degraded state of the arts in this country is purely owing to the absence of Catholic feeling” – A. W. N Pugin: Contrasts: or a Parallel between the Noble Edifices of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries and Similar Buildings of the Present Day; shewing the Present Decay of Taste: Accompanied by an Appropriate Text. Quoted by Alexandra Gordon Clark in Victorian Architecture P141)). Further, since classical forms are descended from pre-Christian antiquity, they equated with paganism, and were therefore, bad. French theorist Viollet-le-Duc put the case that Gothic was a completely rational, functional architectural solution, and that glass and iron should be used to meet the architectural challenges of the day ((P109 The Classical Language of Architecture. John Summerton)).

Pugin took his stylistic theory all the way through to construction, rejecting both the idea of Mediterranean temples in the English climate ((“Yet notwithstanding the palpable impracticability of adapting the Greek temples to our climate, habits, and religion, we see the attempt and failure continually made and repeated; post office, theatre, church, bath, reading-room, hotel, Methodist chapel, and turnpike-gate, all present the eternal sameness of a Grecian temple outraged in all its proportions and character.” – Pugin quoted by Alexandra Gordon Clark in Victorian Architecture P143)), and the notion of applying an ornate façade to an architecturally unrelated building behind. He also railed against the neo-Classical idea of designing the outside proportions of a building, and fitting the interior within. Again, it is the modernist idea of form being true to function that draws him to the structured skeletal nature of Gothic, but also the irregular and organic floorplan that comes with working around the practical placement of corridors and stairways, unconstrained by the needs of a specific ratio rectangle.

Although Pugin is credited with the decoration of Westminster Palace, the original designs by Sir Charles Barry are essentially neo-Classical in layout and proportion. Pugin’s Gothic aesthetic was adopted for symbolic reasons. Ironically, despite Gothic being a French style, it was felt to be less continental and more British than the neo-Classical – an important goal for the style that would house the nation’s government.

Despite its pre-industrial style, Westminster was constructed with all the technologies of the industrial revolution, much like the mass housing projects necessitated by the growth of cities, where small luxuries were decorative, and decoration was Gothic. A legacy of this is streets of nearly identical mass-produced houses, adorned with identical mass-produced decorative fixtures attempting to imitate the handmade decoration of the past. This massed sameness and precision is a criticism levelled at Westminster.

Viollet-le-Duc’s call for an iron and glass future was perhaps best answered by Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace of 1851. An evolution of his Great Conservatory of 1837, it housed the Great Exhibition, and displayed the mastery of prefabricated modern materials by the Victorians. Robert Furneaux Jordan suggests ((“Between these two worlds, between materialism and romanticism, it was a cold war. There was very little appeasement. It can never have seemed very likely that those seething, turbulent years of wealth and poverty, cruelty and philanthropy, piety and skepticism, fanaticism and hypocrisy, elegance and squalor, could leave behind them any symbol of their monstrous two-headed nature. In the event they did, and that symbol was the Great Exhibition of 1851.” P159 Victorian Architecture – Robert Furneaux Jordan))  it serves as a metaphor for the Victorians themselves. Aesthetically, it conforms more to the neo-classical, with prominant rounded as opposed to pointed arches.

St Pancras Station, engineered by W. H Barlow, with architecture by Sir Gilbert Scott has a dual nature, its overall aesthetic is Gothic Revival, yet there is a split in materials based upon audience and purpose. The train shed itself, is built of iron and glass. The arches that form the train shed are pointed, maintaining the Gothic Revival theme, rather than the more traditional rounded arch of Classical style. The side walls perform no structural duties. However, like the adjoining Midland Grand Hotel, they are finished in brick and stone. Industrial materials are used for the machine functional, traditional materials are used for the human decorative. This is heightened by the original colour scheme, in which ironwork was painted a vivid light blue ((According to urban75.org)), to contrast with the bright red brickwork. Sydney Harbour Bridge has a similar nature. Giant Egyptian-esque stone pylons at each end serve no structural purpose, but made the bridge look stronger to quell public disquiet and mistrust about the delicate and thin iron building technologies.

To conclude. The era of Modernism – the industrial revolution and the century following, doesn’t look “modern” when viewed through the lens of architecture. While adopting modern construction methods and to varying extents, materials, it would not be until the early 20th century, and buildings like Behrens’ turbine assembly hall for A.E.G ((Commissioned in 1908 – John Summerson)) , that architecture would appear “modern”.

Bibliography

Victorian Architecture: Edited by Ferriday
The Classical Language of Architecture: John Summerson
NAS Modernism Reader: Various
St Pancras: Midland Grand: http://www.urban75.org/london/st_pancras.html
La Tour Eiffel: http://www.tour-eiffel.fr/teiffel/uk/documentation/dossiers/page/debats.html
Marxists.Org: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/germany/1933/330610.htm

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Prove you're human (required) *