What is it to be Modern? Modernism in the early 20th Century – Aotea Store

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What is it to be Modern? Modernism in the early 20th Century

Towards the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century, a philosophical movement grew out of a rejection of the status quo as being outdated and hindering progress in the newly emerging environment of industrialized societies and urbanisation. It was a new way of thinking about everything from art to literature, religion, architecture, music, politics, philosophy and even conventional morality.


The driving force behind Modernism was the idea that everything had to be rethought. The carnage and brutality of the First World War and the Russian Revolution resulted in a widespread belief that humanity needed new approaches to heal the human condition.

It coincided with tremendous social changes and cultural upheaval in society, especially after the First World War with the emergence of democracy in many countries, distrust of authority, questioning of religion, the increasing emancipation of women, stronger rights for workers and better living conditions for many.

The rapid advance of science and technology in the early 1900s was transformative. New discoveries and inventions were happening all the time. Electricity, the combustion engine, the incandescent light bulb, automobile, airplane, radio, X rays, antibiotics, vaccines etc were tremendously energizing and liberating, producing a new found confidence in the power of the individual rather than the old existing power structures.

Liberated from past restrictions Modernism released an explosion of new creative energy which demanded a re-examination of everything. By rejecting the old conventions and traditions, Modernists believed they were part of a revolutionary movement, rejecting the old ideas which were holding back progress and finding new, sometimes quite radical ways of expressing themselves (e.g. Surrealism, Cubism and abstract art, Atonality in music, Symbolism in poetry and stream of consciousness in literature, and architectural form).

In all its forms, Modernism promised a much less restricted future, it stressed freedom of expression, experimentation, simplicity of form, and the democratization of art and design making it functional and affordable.

Architects and Designers who were keen on exploring the use of new materials trialled different styles with many saying they followed no particular style. Many, excited by the new possibilities provided by the technology of the day and inspired by the efficiency of mechanization, envisaged design recreated in terms of a machine. Function would determine form and had an aesthetic of its own. Ornamentation and decoration were seen as irrelevant and anachronistic. Homes could become ‘a machine for living in’ and the aim was not to decorate life with embellishments but to simply organize it. Design emphasized functionality, a simplification of form with clean lines, open plan interiors and no clutter. Architectural Modernism with its low cost and functionality still influences the design of buildings today, particularly Government and institutional buildings, shopping malls and some high rise apartment blocks. A sub movement within Modernism became known as Brutalism with its massive concrete block aesthetic dwarfing human scale.

Musicians sought to develop a new musical language breaking with past conventions and experimenting with composition and sounds which provoked and challenged audiences’ preconceptions of harmony, rhythm and melody.

In art, the old rules of perspective, color and composition were discarded, realism was rejected, forms were often reduced to shapes, colours and symbols, and viewers were often challenged to question their own preconceptions. Artists depicted subjects in new intuitive ways as they perceived them behind their actual physical appearance.

Although it is difficult to define Modernism in precise terms as it encompasses so many areas, and also the period it ended, it is generally described as continuing through the Second World War and mid 20th Century, peaking in the 60s before becoming so institutionalized that it was replaced by Post Modernism. However, its legacy remains with us and its influence of function over form, experimentation, and reduction of unnecessary ornamentation, is still embraced and can still be seen everywhere today.