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Updated: Aug 19, 2020


The modernist movement is a comprehensive but a vague term for a movement which began to take hold in the period between the two world wars. Although spirits soared, the economy boomed, and modern conveniences eased the drudgery of daily tasks for the growing middle-class, there is a general disappointment. Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) aptly named young Americans of the 1920s “the lost generation”. It had a wide influence internationally during much of 20th century, like in France from the 1890s until the 1940s; in Russia during the revolutionary years and the 1920s; in Germany from the 1890s and on during 1920s; in England from early in the 20th century and during the 1920s and 1930s; in America from shortly before the first world war and on during the interwar period. Thus, it was a European and transcontinental movement.


Modernism has been driven by various social and political agendas. It was essentially based on a utopian vision of human life and society and a belief in progress, or moving forward. It assumed that certain ultimate universal principles or truths such as those formulated by religion or science could be used to understand or explain reality. The term pertain to all the creative arts, especially poetry, fiction, drama, painting, music and architecture.

In an era characterized by industrialization, rapid social change, and advances in science and the social sciences; Modernists felt a growing alienation incompatible with Victorian morality, optimism, and convention. Modernist ideals were far-reaching, pervading art, architecture, literature, religious faith, philosophy, social organization, activities of daily life, and even the sciences. The poet Ezra Pound’s 1934 injunction to “Make it new!” and “break to pentameter” was the touchstone of the movement’s approach towards what it saw as the now outdated culture of the past. In this spirit, its innovations, like the stream-of-consciousness novel, atonal (or pantonal) and twelve-tone music, divisionist painting and abstract art, all had precursors in the 19th century.


New ideas in psychology, philosophy, and political theory kindled a search for new modes of expression. For artists and writers, the Modernist project was a re-evaluation of the assumptions and aesthetic values of their predecessors. As far as literature is concerned modernism reveals a breaking away from established rules, traditions and conventions, fresh ways of looking at man’s position and function in the universe and experiments in form and style. It evolved from the Romantic rejection of Enlightenment positivism and faith in reason. Modernist writers broke with Romantic pieties and clichés (such as the notion of the Sublime) and became self-consciously skeptical of language and its claims on coherence.

Modern life was faster and more technological, modernist literature addressed to these changes by choosing the fragmented over the unified and abstract over the concrete.While living in Paris before the war, Gertrude Stein explored the possibilities of creating literary works that broke with conventional, syntactical and referential practices. Point of view in the novel became as important as the story itself. Numerous work of literature evoke in this period, especially Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and T.S.Eliot wrote The Waste Land in the shadow of World War I. Shortly after The Waste Land was published in 1922, it became the archetypical Modernist text has rife with allusions, linguistic fragments, and mixed registers and languages. Innovative writers and some of the ‘high priests’ of the movement such as Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein mirrored the breakdown of traditional society in writing that played fast and loose with conventional notions of time, space and consciousness. Socially conscious writers of this period who carried on in the tradition of the naturalists and muckrakers include John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck and Clifford Odets. Other poets most often associated with Modernism include W.H. Auden, Hart Crane, William Butler Yeats and Franz Kafka.

Some of the important characteristics of the literary modernism practiced by writers are

· A new emphasis on impressionism and subjectivity (how we see rather than what we see)

· Concept (movement) away from apparent objectivity provided by such features as omniscient external narration, fixed narrative point of view and clear cut moral positions.

· A blurring of the distinction between genres (so that novel tend to be more lyrical and poetic and poems more documentary and prose-like)

· A new liking for fragmented forms, discontinuous narrative, and random-seeming patchwork of different materials.

· A tendency towards ‘reflexivity’ (so that poems, plays and novels raise issues concerning their own nature, status and role)

The overall result of these shifts is to produce a literature which seems dedicated to experimentation and innovation.


Although many different styles are encompassed by the term, there are certain underlying principles that define modernist art, they are:

· A rejection of history and conservative values (such as realistic depiction of subjects);

· innovation and experimentation with form (the shapes, colours and lines that make up the work) with a tendency to abstraction; and

· An emphasis on materials, techniques and processes.

In painting, during the 1920s and the 1930s and the Great Depression, modernism is defined by Surrealism, late Cubism, Bauhaus, De Stijl, Dada, German Expressionism. Modernist masterful color painters like Henri Matisse as well as the abstractions of artists like Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky, which characterized the European art scene. In Germany, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, and others politicized their paintings, foreshadowing the coming of the World War II. In America, modernism is seen in the form of American Scene painting and the social realism and regionalism movements that contained both political and social commentary this dominated the art world. Modernism is defined in Latin America by painters Joaquín Torres García from Uruguay and Rufino Tamayo from Mexico, while the muralist movement with Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, Pedro Nel Gómez, and Santiago Martinez Delgado, and Symbolist paintings by Frida Kahlo, began a renaissance of the arts for the region, characterized by a freer use of color and an emphasis on political messages.Modernism also generated many smaller movements like Futurism, Imagism, Objectivism, Postmodernism and Surrealism. The end of modernism and beginning of postmodernism is a hotly contested issue, though many consider it to have ended roughly around 1940.







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