During the active years of Édouard Manet (1832-1883) and the impressionists after him in France; the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1848) and William Morris (1834–96) in Britain, the Industrial Revolution had spread across Europe. The impact of the Industrial Revolution was far-reaching. Mechanised production processes, the invention of machines to replace labour, the development of mass produced products in a much shorter time, the shortened wait for everything – all these changed society dramatically. City boundaries expanded towards suburban and country areas. Machines also changed the pace of daily life. Steam trains and boats replaced horses. The world and everything in it suddenly moved a lot faster. In the art world, the invention of photography in the 1820s created an unprecedented challenge for artists to review the conventional techniques such as realism and the subject matter.
Politically, Europe was dominated by this revolutionary spirit. This was signified by the French Revolutions, first started in 1789 and then in 1830 and 1848. The revolutionaries’ aim was to overthrow the rule by monarchies and establish a democratic state. There was an outcry for new reforms and liberation from aristocratic control. The whole of Europe was shaken by these revolutions. Political changes led to economic changes. This “promise of progressively increasing wealth for all offered by the political economy of capitalism, and the hope for the realization of rationality in the minds and actions of men held out by Enlightenment philosophy” (Oxford Art Online 2013) shaped the nineteenth century Europe.
This forms a backdrop to illustrate the epoch that artists such as Édouard Manet and William Morris lived in and is the kind of modernity that they faced. Steve Edwards pointed out that ‘modernity’ is often referred to “the forms of experience generated by the capitalist transformation of social life” and ‘modernism’ is the “artistic form” to project these new experiences. (Edwards, 2012, p.53). So what is the modernism developed by artists of this time? There’s a stark contrast between Britain and France. We shall look at the differences and identify similarities in the areas of formalities of art form (lines, shapes and colours) and the subject matter.
Although Britain was pioneering the Industrial Revolution, Paris was dubbed as “the capital of nineteenth century” (Wood, 2012, p.17) because of the many new ideas fermented here in response to modernity. One of the leading representatives of the modernism development in Paris was Édouard Manet. Manet was and is seen by many art critics as an important pioneer in modern art. The American modernist art critic Clement Greenberg (1909–94) focused on the technique that Manet used and cited him as a departure from old to modern. In 1965, Greenberg wrote “Modernist painting” about Manet’s work Olympia exhibited in Paris about a hundred years earlier. He pointed out the different technical elements that were groundbreaking in Manet’s work. The conventional high art taught within the European academies of art at that time emphasised the techniques of how to create depth on canvas by using underpaint and contrasting colours. The aim was to depict dramatic effect and achieve verisimilitude (likeness) of objects. But in Manet’s Olympia, one saw a much flatter illustration of a modern day prostitute staring with an unsettling gaze directly at the audience. There was not much perspective or depth created in the painting. The dark colour to the rear of the room is only loosely illustrated behind Olympia as a vague background. It is not immediately obvious to the viewer that there is a cat sitting at the corner. According to Greenberg, “modern art began with Edouard Manet, who was the first to recognise or emphasise the contradiction between illusion and the flat support of the canvas.” (Edwards, 2012, p.3)
This breakthrough from the restraint of creating subject matter methodically within a canvas frame was followed by the impressionists after Manet. Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was one of them. In Gauguin’s The Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) (1888), the traditional way of illustrating perspective and depth is even more broken down. There is no obvious foreground or background, no gradual lighting to show the obvious break of spatial recession. Every perspective seems to jump out to the viewer all at the same time. The frame of canvas is no longer a guideline. The characters are seen cropped on the edges. This breakthrough in the formalities of painting is seen as a response to modernity and break from the old established way. But Paris as a cosmopolitan city was also under the influence of the increasing pressure from internationalization. Manet’s new presentation techniques carried a certain degree of likeness to Japanese art, whose flatness, high horizon and cropped image on the edges served as a relativity for the Parisian artists to ponder. The response from the artists in Paris to modernity was not just within the European context. As Wood put it “Modernity was measured not just against a European past but also against a non-European present” (Wood, 2012, p.26)
In Britain, it was a very different story. Although the British artists shared the same rebellious sentiment of the artists in Paris to turn their back on the academic canon, they took a different route. Instead of immersing themselves in modernity like their Parisian contemporaries did, they chose to withdraw from it. Seven artists founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) in 1848 in London as a response to the industrial modernity. They saw any tradition stemming from the Renaissance as an artistic and moral decline. They called for a return to Christian teachings and the care for the poor as a fight against capitalists. John Everett Millais, one of the seven founders of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, created Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop (Christ in the House of His Parents) in 1850. The “intense colours, relatively flat surfaces and ostensibly unidealised form” (Edwards, 2012, p.79) used in the painting signified pre-Raphaelite art.
A follower of PRB, William Morris (1834–96) responded to a machine-driven world by emphasising the beauty of handicraft creation. He was against the concept of distinguishing high art and simple craftsmanship promoted during the Renaissance. He used his dynamic design and vibrant colours to portray a happy society, where labour found pleasure in work. His view was supported by the English art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900): “It is verily this degradation of the operative into a machine, which, more than any other evil of the times, is leading the mass of nations everywhere into vain, incoherent, destructive struggling for a freedom of which they cannot explain the nature to themselves.” (Ruskin, 1903, p.261)
While the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and William Morris were focusing on their Christian and socialist ideological responses to modernity, they did not establish or experiment with the formal technical elements in art like the Parisians did.
Another aspect reflecting modernity in art is the chosen subject matter. Although, there was a heated debate about the function of art either being a story teller like poetry or should art be treated purely as a technical form and artists can freely explore the technical elements such as brush strokes, colours, perspective without worrying what they want to say in a painting. This `autonomous’ approach was also a response to modernity and a decry against the Salon, which regarded painting as a sister of poetry. The art academies also regarded historical events, classical mythologies as high art. But artists in Europe were going in a different direction from the academic canon. When asked to include angels in a painting for a church, French painter Gustave Courbet (1819–77) is said to have replied ‘I have never seen angels. Show me an angel and I will paint one.’ This echoes what Edwards observed: “the inclusion of found materials played a fundamental role in modern art.” (Edwards, 2012, p.2)
This modern approach to art was supported by the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), who promoted the idea of “heroism of modern life”. The classical tradition advocated ethereal beauty. To Baudelaire, “all forms of beauty…contain an element of the eternal and an element of the transitory” (Baudelaire, 1846, p.249). It is this concept of `transitory’ that encapsulates the works of Manet and the Impressionists. The fleeting moment, the uncertainty, the unsettling present were evident in their works. Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1881-82) shows a barmaid with a perplexed gaze towards the viewer of the painting. But from the reflection in the mirror behind her, one can tell she is serving a male customer. The mirror reflection shows her bending forward to serve her client in a much more hospitable way than her blank and emotionless reaction facing the viewers. At that time, it was a common knowledge that a lot of barmaids sold sex as well as drinks. It is a very unsettling scene for the viewers. But for T.J. Clark, the gaps, oddities and spatial dislocations, the awkwardness of the barmaid’s facial expression and the reflection is to provide “parallels for modern experience”, “ambivalence and uncertainty as equivalents for modern life” (Edwards, 2012, p.59) The works by other Impressionists such as Monet’s water lilies were also seen as capturing the fleeting, transitory moments of modern life.
In Britain, artists responded to modernity by choosing subject matter which reflects their opposition to the industrial change. The artists of Pre-Raphaelist Brotherhood were drawn to medievalism as a point of contrast to the modern world. John Everett Millais’ Mariana (1851) depicts such moral teachings. Inspired by Tennyson’s poem of the same name, Mariana is seen to have been doing embroidery work, which signified a very feminine element of a home-bound value namely patience. Her action of stretching her neck is thought to have signified Pre-Raphaelist Brotherhood’s projection of mankind’s boredom with modern life. The woman’s frustration of mundane work, her confinement in a restricted environment and the intense desire for a release were used to symbolize PRB’s frustration about modern life. On the other hand, William Morris chose nature as a starting point to respond to the machine world. A majority of his decorative patterns were inspired by nature: flowers, leaves and plants. Edwards observed that “Morris’s designs are wild and dynamic; they imagine an overcoming of social contradictions in an allegory performed `through twists and turns of plants’” (Edwards, 2012, p,81)
Modernity in the nineteenth century triggered different responses from artists in Britain and France. In response to the invention of photography, artists in Paris experimented with new techniques in order to break away from the constraint posed within a canvas frame and find a new visual language to distinguish painting from photography. Manet also mocked the visual culture of photography by creating Olympia in mimicry of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538; Florence, Uffizi). In Britain, mass production of prints and photographs promulgated print capitalism. The visual language which appeared in newspapers and magazines depicted a new visual culture. Vulgarity unavoidably was part of it. In response to that, Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood called for a medieval revival of a visual culture in moral teachings. William Morris used nature to project modern twists and the longing for a harmonious natural world, which is free from the capitalists’ tyranny and where creativity and craftsmanship would be treasured. As Morris himself put it “There’s nothing which could come of it that could satisfy the aspirations of men set free from the tyranny commercialism.” (Morris, 1884, p.263)
Although both societies did respond drastically to modernity, while Paris’s response can be seen as avant-garde, Britain’s response was looking backward. Edwards observed that Britain was ahead of other European countries in the Industrial Revolution. Capitalist modernity had been around for a longer time in Britain than in France therefore, the feeling of uncertainty and awkwardness depicted in art was not as dramatic as their French counterparts. But this numb `blasé attitude’ (Simmel, 2012, p.268) as George Simmel puts it may due to excessive reactions to constant sound, speed, pursue of pleasure and the attractive sights of metropolitan life. So instead of reacting directly to the fast pace of modernity as did Manet, the British longed for the stable past.
Baudelaire, Charles (1846), `On the Heroism of Modern Life’ (from The Salon of 1846) in Chapter 17avant-garde and modern world: some aspects of art in Paris and beyond c.1850-1914, Art & Visual Culture, A Reader, Edited by Angeliki Lymberopoulou, Pamela Bracewell-Homer and Joel Robinson, Open University, Milton Keynes, 2012
Edwards, Steve (2012), ‘Introduction: Stories of Modern Art’ in Art & Visual Culture 1850– 2010, MODERNITY TO GLOBALISATION, Edited by Steve Edwards and Paul Wood, Open University, Milton Keynes, 2012
Edwards, Steve (2012), `Victorian Britain: from images of modernity to the modernity of images’ in Art & Visual Culture 1850– 2010, MODERNITY TO GLOBALISATION, Edited by Steve Edwards and Paul Wood, Open University, Milton Keynes, 2012
Morris, William (1884), `Useful Work versus Useless Toil’ in Chapter 18 Victorian Britain: from images of modernity to the modernity of images, Art & Visual Culture, A Reader, Edited by Angeliki Lymberopoulou, Pamela Bracewell-Homer and Joel Robinson, Open University, Milton Keynes, 2012
Oxford Art Online [online], Modernity, available at http://www.oxfordartonline.com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/subscriber/article/grove/art/T058788?q=modernity&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit
(accessed 7th April 2013)
Ruskin, John (1851-1853), `The Nature of Gothic, The Stones of Venice’ in Chapter 18 Victorian Britan: from images of modernity to the modernity of images, Art & Visual Culture, A Reader, Edited by Angeliki Lymberopoulou, Pamela Bracewell-Homer and Joel Robinson, Open University, Milton Keynes, 2012
Simmel, George (1903), ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ in Art & Visual Culture A Reader, 2012, Edited by Angeliki Lymberopoulou, Pamela Bracewell-Homer & Joel Robertson, Open University (2012), Milton Keynes
Wood, Paul (2012), ‘Avant-garde and modern world: some aspects of art in Paris and beyond c.1845-1914’ in Art & Visual Culture 1850– 2010, MODERNITY TO GLOBALISATION, Edited by Steve Edwards and Paul Wood, Open University, Milton Keynes, 2012