A Brief History of Modern: Part Three [The Advent of Abstract Art: Futurism, Suprematism, & De Stijl]

The decade following the advent of Cubism may well be the most active, vital, and significant decade in all of Modern Art. This decade saw the spread of Cubist influence across Europe, the blending of Cubist and Fauvist ideas, and the synthesis of Cubist approaches with the diversity of European aesthetic, cultural, social, and political traditions. This was the decade of the “isms”.

An attempt to exhaustively catalogue all of the “isms” of this decade would be a monumental task, far outstripping the scope of these essays. So I will be leaving aside the vast filing cabinets of groups, movements, and styles to focus on what I consider to be the three essential movements of the decade: Futurism, Suprematism, and De Stijl. While all three movements share common roots in Cubism, I will be looking at how each sprung from rich regional traditions to radically transform the vocabulary of Modern Art and effectively free art-making from the tethers of representation.


Fernand Léger, The City: 1919

The list of early adopters of the Cubist model would read as nearly identical to the cannon of early modern masters. The second-wave Cubists – Juan Gris, Robert Delaunay, and Fernand Léger, among others – rapidly expanded Cubism’s vocabulary, integrating dynamic color, collage, and sculptural forms into the purview of Cubist investigations. These artists and their early Cubist works set the stage for the explosion of “isms” that was to come. Exemplary of these works, Léger’s The City brings together Cubist geometry and the wild Fauvist palate in a composition that absolutely fragments the picture plane. Space is simultaneously compressed and expanded, violent shocks of color compete for prominence, and the claustrophobic architecture of the city joins with cluttered advertising spaces to thrust the experience of the modern city upon viewers.

It is just this experience that gave rise to the Futurist movement in Italy. In 1909, the poet Filippo Marinetti published the Futurist Manifesto. This is perhaps exemplary of his assertions:

It is from Italy that we launch through the world this violently upsetting incendiary manifesto of ours. With it, today, we establish Futurism, because we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors archaelogists, ciceroni and antiquarians. For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards.

The Futurists were rebelling. You name it, they wanted to smash it. Surrounded by one of the richest art histories in the world, the Futurists demanded a new art, and more than that, a new world. They wanted out from under the heel of history, whether it be artistic, social, or cultural. They wanted a world without taboo, one in which all that preserved the decadence of the past was abolished and all that glorified future possibility was embraced. Theirs was a vocabulary of the machine, of speed, of violence, of revolution.


Filippo Marinetti, Montage + Vallate + Strade x Joffre: 1915

The Futurists rejected even Cubism as static; the modern world would not hold still for the picture frame, and the future could only be faster still. While Futurist painting extended the Cubist project of representing time, the Futurists truly found its voice in the realm of graphic design. Mechanical reproduction was a perfect match for Futurism’s goals. Marinetti advocated a poetry that rejected even free verse for a form he called parole in libertá (word autonomy). Words were freed of metrical service; any meter came in wild fragments, fighting against each other for space. This, too, extended to the form of Futurist poetry. Words, letters, and phrases were thrust together, each demanding immediate attention. Poems flew around themselves, forming and reforming as they were read. This was the goal of Futurism: an art that never settled upon itself.

While the Futurists looked to the material world, the Russian Suprematists looked inward, to mysticism in their search for a truly abstract art. Or, perhaps better put, they looked to pure abstraction in search of a vocabulary adequate to their inward, mystical considerations. In the words of the critic Pierre Schneider, each painting was, “an annunciation or, better still, an incarnation.” Suprematists sought purity. Kazimir Malevich, the leading Suprematist, put it this way: “in my desperate attempt to free art from the ballast of objectivity, I took refuge in the square.”


Kazimir Malevich, White on White: 1918

While many of Malevich’s investigations—such as his use of primary colors, rectilinear forms, and slanted grids—foreshadowed the formal investigations of the Bauhaus and Swiss Modernism, his most revolutionary works were his ultimately reductive masterpieces. In his White on White Malevich invokes a sublime beauty. While the composition is simple, its off-kilter arrangement produces a subtle tension that disrupts the essential calm. His richly layered surface positively glows with subtle coloration, confronting the viewer with a canvas that positively hums with energy.


Olga Rozanova, Untitled: 1917

Olga Rozanova’s Untitled exemplifies the Suprematist project: within apparent simplicity lies the density of experience. There is no simplicity in the world, in experience; rather we are too often reluctant to look, to see, or as the Suprematists might have it, to feel the profundity that is being. Describing this painting as a green stripe on a while canvas betrays a lazy viewer; the green is composed of myriad shades, the right side of the canvas glows and jumps forward, while the shadowy world of the left side recedes into the depths. Rather than offer up decorative delights, this painting beckons its viewers to lose themselves in its vastness.

As the Suprematists looked inward while moving towards a purely abstract art, the De Stijl movement in the Netherlands looked to nature. The best-known painters of this movement, Theo von Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, drew on early Cubism and the mysticism of the Russian Suprematists to develop approaches that would, in their eyes, bring forth “the expression of pure reality.” Mondrian and von Doesburg saw abstraction as a means to get to the truth of the natural world, to free it of all transitory qualities in favor of its essential foundation.


Theo von Doesburg, Composition in Halftones: 1928

These compositions were not direct transcriptions of any single scene, but drew on the experience of the natural world to form its structures. Horizons, oceans, branches, and sky populate these compositions with relationships of forms and color. These painters sought to represent the harmonies of the natural world rather than the natural world itself. While Cubism abstracted particular things, De Stijl sought, through the use of abstract form, to understand the nature of things. In many ways, the work of these artists paralleled the emerging phenomenological philosophy of Edmund Husserl, “bracketing” all assumptions about the external world in an effort to understand how it is that we experience the world at all.

It must be noted that these movements and ideologies did not occur in a vacuum. In Futurism, Suprematism, and De Stijl we see diverse forms of essentialism; art and ideology become inextricably linked, and not always for the good. Futurism, with its advocacy of violent revolution, embraced the rising Fascist tide in Italy. As would become apparent in course of the 20th century, modern essentialism was a dangerous thing, encompassing Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, and Social Darwinism, all in the service of purity and essentialist ideologies. The notion of purity can produce remarkable ideals, but is an intellectual path that must be tread lightly.


Kazimir Malevich, Flying Airplane: 1915

Futurism, Suprematism, and De Stijl each advocate a reductionist aesthetic, one that does away with inessential attributes in the service of conceptual aims. Each movement has its unique theoretical perspective, but, in each, aesthetics emerge from ideological aims. It is important to note, here, that reduction does not equate to simplification. “Simple” is a word that I would happily abolish from the art lexicon, along with “clean.” There is nothing simple about a Futurist composition, and all it takes is a moment in front of a Suprematist canvas to recognize the enormous complexity of these paintings – you have never seen a white so complex as in Malevich’s White on White. These masterpieces appear simple because their elements come together in such a way that they seem they could only be just so (See Malevich’s Airplane Flying).

For me simple does not equal modern. There is nothing wrong with simple – I love simple – and I am certainly not saying that complexity alone makes something “Modern.” For me, Modern is a conceptual approach, not an aesthetic one. For the Futurist, Suprematist, and De Stijl artists, their efforts were a rejection of previous assumptions, though not necessarily of traditions – all three movements rejected Cubism for being overly tied to an aesthetic agenda, for becoming fixed in its preconceptions. Thus, what Modern means will always change as the world changes: Modern is always about context, not style.

This leads to another of the seeming ambiguities with the word Modern; if Modern involves a rejection of what came before, does that mean Modern is a rejection of all tradition? Not at all. While many modern movements have rejected past traditions, many more openly build upon what came before. If we are to learn anything from the decade of “isms” it should perhaps be that creative possibilities are nearly infinite. From Cubism came both Suprematism and Futurism; I would be hard pressed to find two movements more distinct from each other. While each owed a common debt, each movement sought its own path through the contemporary cultural, social, and aesthetic landscape, and drew upon its unique regional traditions. Modern is not necessary incompatible with tradition; it just recognizes that the past cannot be repeated. The subject of Modern is necessarily now; when it looks back, it does so through the self-conscious lens of its moment.

At this point, I believe we can begin to develop a vocabulary of Modern Quilting. In my opinion, two recent quilts exemplify this emerging conception of Modern: Elizabeth Hartman’s Tokyo Subway Quilt and Denyse Schmidt’s Single Girl Quilt.


Elizabeth Hartmen, Tokyo Subway Quilt: 2010

Hartman’s Tokyo Subway is derived from the map of, obviously, the Tokyo subway, but is not simply a reproduction of it. As von Doesburg and Mondrian used experience as a starting point for their abstracts, Hartman uses the subway map as a point of departure. She brings together traditional considerations and a thoroughly modern reference to produce a spectacular quilt that resonates with vitality, unifying an urban vernacular and traditional techniques. This quilt, remarkably, evokes Mondrian’s last painting, Broadway Boogie Woogie (1943), which Mondrian painted following his escape from a Europe at war with Nazi Germany.


Denyse Schmidt, Single Girl Quilt: 2010

Schmidt’s Single Girl Quilt owes a more obvious debt to a traditional pattern, playing off of the classic Double Wedding Ring. What makes this a Modern Quilt is not necessarily the design, but the context. The percentage of people married in this country has fallen steadily since 1950. (In 1950, 78% of households were married couples; in 2000 that percentage fell to under 51%.***) The Single Girl Quilt is a re-examination of a traditional quilt in the light of the contemporary social and cultural landscape. While it perhaps has a more traditional feel than many other Modern Quilts, it is undeniably Modern in its conception and context.

In both of these quilts we see aesthetic processes self-consciously derived from concerns grounded in the contemporary cultural environment. Here it is not a matter of “looking Modern,” whatever that may mean, but of being part of a dialogue with and about modern life. As the decade following Cubism illustrates, to define a “Modern Style” is a fool’s errand: style is necessarily imitative of the past. The concern of Modern is the now, and its question is what is next.

Up next | A Brief History of Modern: Part Four [Between the Wars: Dada and the Bauhaus]

Previous | A Brief History of Modern: Part Two [Space, Time, & Color at the Turn of the Century: Cézanne, Picasso, & Matisse]

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