What is Modernism?






    Modernism is a cultural movement that emerged in the early twentieth century. The turn of the century saw many changes across all areas of the arts and society. In music, art, literature and architecture, creatives tried to align their practices with the newly industrialised world. Modernism broke the assumption that an artist’s role in society was to convey realism, instead illuminating the obscure quirks of a modern world.

    Romantic visionaries like Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler sowed the seeds of musical modernism in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Composers from the Second Viennese School aimed to innovate through redefining what society perceived as traditional music at the time. Developments such as the twelve-tone system allowed for a more ordered method of composing using existing musical elements like pitch, dynamics, and rhythm in a way society had never heard them before. Key European composers from the modernist movement include Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Luciano Berio, and Olivier Messiaen.

    In art and literature, the modernist movement emerged out of a need to reinvent traditions. In a similar way to the change in approach to music, authors, poets and playwrights explored new methods of writing prose. One such example of this new approach to prose is Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘Mrs Dalloway.’ This style of writing was shocking to the public as it was very introspective and highlighted the mundane.

    Virginia Woolf

    Artists such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Georgia O’Keefe found equally new approaches to form and colour in the art world. The invention of photography removed the need for an artist to paint the most accurate picture of an event; art was now a very powerful tool of human expression and artists were able to convey emotions the public had never been confronted with before.

    Modernism in architecture was seen as a way of building whilst removing all ornamentation and superfluous detail. Florid design work of previous styles was removed; gridded facades and simple frontages were now very popular. This can be seen mirroring the movement in music where all extraneous detail was removed in favour of ordered methods of composing. 

    The modernist movement brought shock and change to the creative landscape of the 1900s. It transformed what the public thought music and the arts could be at the turn of the century.

    Oliver Clayton
    Oliver Clayton
    Oliver Clayton is currently reading an undergraduate degree in Music at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire where he studies modern violin with Susanne Stanzeleit and baroque violin with Lucy Russell. Whilst at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Oliver often plays in the Birmingham New Music concert series where he premiers new compositions. Oliver also works as a creative, collaborating on various artistic projects in and around Birmingham. Oliver regularly performs with the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus singing alongside the CBSO. When not playing the violin, Oliver is an avid reader of modern and contemporary fiction and writes commercially. Before attending higher education, he studied German and History alongside Music.
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