What Is Modern? When Was Modern?

March 30, 2016

László Moholy-Nagy, cover for Qualitat photo review, 1926

Joost Schmidt, poster for a Bauhaus exhibition, 1923

Our exhibit, Portals, has prompted the following question about time and history in our reference department: in the area of art and architecture, what is modern? The time period, work, or event which first defined the modern in art and design is difficult, if not impossible, to pin down.

Even the word, “modern,” is hard to pin down. Merriam Webster provides as their first definition:

of or relating to the present time or the recent past : happening, existing, or developing at a time near the present time

…but what most readers think of as the modern in art and design is now at least 100 years old. That’s a very rough figure; scholars differ, and the term also changes depending on discipline. Modern in painting is generally acknowledged to occupy a different time period from the modern in architecture.

How do we decide what work, body of work, or event ushered the art and design world into the period of the modern? MOMA’s excellent online guide begins on a wildly general note, stating that “the birth of modernism and modern art can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution.”

Helpfully, John Zinsser, instructor at the New School, has distilled the MOMA view, and he feels it’s more specific: that Cezanne was the breaking entry into the modern. He’s also presented his non-MOMA history, which includes Marcel Duchamp, and yet neither scheme emphasizes the Cubists.

This, however, is primarily about painting, and it’s only two related views of the progression of the modern; for some, Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe, exhibited in 1863 at the Salon Des Refusés, is the significant break into the modern. And what if we expand into other disciplines? Enter the Bauhaus. The architects, artists and designers of the Bauhaus movement made a conscious and formal decision to integrate their design with the modern, industrial world, and they embraced mass-design as a good. Walter Gropius described the Bauhaus mission as follows: “Our guiding principle was that design is neither an intellectual nor a material affair, but simply an integral part of the stuff of life, necessary for everyone in a civilized society.” That’s a truly post-Romantic statement.

Much of the work of Bauhaus designers work still seems fresh: Marianne Brandt‘s tea infuser and strainer (below left) dated 1924 feels contemporary. Mies van der Rohe‘s Barcelona chair, below right, is so fresh that it’s as if the time between the 1920s and the 2010s has collapsed. The Barcelona chair is particularly surprising, like the distillation of a chair, as if we had never understood chairs very well, and are now seeing them properly.

Anni Alber’s rug design, bottom left, and Josef Hartwig’s 1922 chess set, bottom right, also have managed to maintain an astonishingly contemporary feeling for almost 100 years.

For this first installment of What is Modern? When was Modern? we nominate the forming of the Bauhaus Movement as the beginning of the truly modern, in 1919, with the opening of the Bauhaus school.

Investigate with the following from our circulating collection:


About the Author

LANHAM BUNDY is PPL’s Art and Architecture Librarian.