On to the Modern Era

The turn of the 19th century into the 20th brought with it a huge paradigm shift. Scientific advancements and rapid urbanization created a world of constant change. The growing cities mixed people of all social classes in a way that had not been seen before. The speed of the steam train would not have been dreamed of only a few years earlier. Time seemed to be rushing by, as if the entire world had begun to spin faster. The two ideas that were most influential in the arts of the day were the alliance of art and science and the focus on the experience of time. Experimentation with these two ideas caused two major stylistic elements to emerge. Expressionism and abstractionism became hallmarks of developing styles.

Artists such as Cezanne had already been questioning traditional picture making by such abstractions as incorporating multiple viewpoints. This reflected the complex social make-up of the growing cities. The Symbolists such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Maeterlinck collaborated to create symbolist drama, dismantling traditional approaches to poetic and musical forms. Their goal was to synthesize the phenomenal world and that of the creative imagination. This turn away from previously established forms is seen in painting, music, drama, sculpture and other arts. The turn away from the physical elements of sound in the case of Debussy and from the structure of language, in the case of Maeterlinck pointed toward the psychological implications of tonal and structural symbolism. Even before the turn of the century the arts like the world from which they emerged, were being dismantled and resurrected in new ways.

Visual Expressionism

As mentioned above, many artists began to look inward, a reflection of the development of psychology, which focusses on the inner self. As such, metaphors were all the rage. The metaphors, seen earlier in Maeterlinck’s poetic drama and heard in the music that Debussy composed for some of it (water as life) began to influence other artists such as Edvard Munch (1863-1944).

Tempera and oil on an unprimed cardboard, The Scream (Les Cri),1910, Edvard Munch
5.3 Edvard Munch, The Scream (Les Cri),tempera and oil on an unprimed cardboard, 1910, 32.6 X 25.9 “Munch Museum.1

The image of The Scream is perhaps the one that Munch is best known for, however, he created several versions in different media. The scientifically influenced experiments continued in his work. He experimented with old and new media, often mixing them as is seen above. Notice that the image is not realistic. No attempt has been made to duplicate nature. The painting does, however, elicit emotion and reveal the inner self. The wavy lines that create the image are reminiscent of the earlier work of Van Gogh. While there is a sense of depth, it serves to isolate the screaming figure more than to reproduce or imitate nature.

Edvard Munch, Funeral March, lithograph, 1897
5.4 Edvard Munch, Funeral March, lithograph, 1897, Thiel Gallery Collection.2

Above Munch experiments with lithograph, a method of producing a limited number of prints from an etched stone surface. As in much of his work the elements of expressionism can be seen. He incorporates strong contrast and leaves the idea of imitation of nature behind. Depth is again used to isolate the image, demanding the attention of the viewer. The image is reminiscent of the work of Sigmund Freud, who identified the subconscious as a place filled with the dark drive that underlies human behavior. Here we see the terror and anxiety that humans experience around the inevitable and uncontrollable end of life. This metaphor describes the endless cycle of humans marching toward their deaths. Notice how the emotions of the victims are nearly all that is revealed about them.

Expressionism has been an important part of so many styles that it can be difficult to pin down. Look for its elements in neoprimitivism, dadaism, surrealism and even in social realism. Expressionistic elements tend to follow the pattern outlined below. Keep in mind that Munch was following his instincts and that this list is based on the development of the Expressionistic style during and after the time in which Munch helped to set the tone that influenced many Expressionists.

  • The focus is psychological rather than natural.
  • Emotional states are often presented in contrasting and even dissident colors or in stark black and white.
  • Metaphor is more important than any specific situation.
  • Shapes are distorted to amplify the emotion being evoked.
  • Art works are often experimental in form or media.
  • Visual arts, music and literature all embraced and used expressionism as a way of capturing the human element in the industrial revolution, which often seemed to leave humans behind, in terms of importance.
  • Rather than describing physical or spiritual events, expressionism tended to describe reactions to those events.
  • These excursions through the human mind created a wide variety of expressionistic experiences but tended to focus on strong and often terrifying emotional experiences.
  • Rather than creating pictures and experiences relating to the outside world, expressionists created paths into the world within the human.


Edvard Munch, The Sun, Oil on Canvas, 1910s
5.5 Edvard Munch, The Sun, Oil on Canvas, 1910s, Munch Museum.3

Notice that Munch again follows most of the criteria laid out above. Unlike the limited palette used in The Scream, Munch chooses to dominate this picture with multiple bright colors. The mood is distinctly different than that of The Scream, and the use of color is a large part of the vibrant effect. He captures the feel of a blisteringly bright day rather than attempting to demonstrate how light falls on objects in a landscape as one would have seen in the paintings of Manet. While this painting makes no attempt to capture the human element directly, the painting is basically Munch’s human reaction to what he sees. He paints they way that the sun feels (emotionally) rather than painting how it looks as it is reflected on the landscape. Much of Munch’s work is dark but he uses a different color palette and more angular lines and shapes here than he does in his somewhat grim depictions of emotions. He painted many works with names like, Anxiety, Separation, Jealousy and The Child and Death. For a more in-depth discussion of the many versions of The Scream, click the hyperlink below:

Munch, The Scream

If you receive an error with the link above, use the following link https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/later-europe-and-americas/modernity-ap/a/munch-the-scream

Expressionism in Music and Dance

One of the clearest examples of expressionism in dance and music can be seen in the Ballet Russe production of Rite of Spring, presented in 1913 in Paris. The ballet revolves around the return of spring and the renewal of the earth, brought about by the self-sacrifice of a young virgin. In a nod to the earlier romantic style she dances herself to death. Igor Stravinsky’s score was typical of his developing style. He used short expressive melodies and unceasing rhythmic vitality. His music was a-tonal and so avoided traditional chords and harmonies. “Stravinsky described The Rite as ‘a musical choreographic work. It represents pagan Russia and is unified by a single idea: the mystery and the great surge of the creative power of spring….”4

The work was originally developed by Stravinsky and Mikhail Fokine, a choreographer whose work tended to fit under the impressionistic style. Fokine was replaced by the younger, more adventurous choreographer, Vaslov Nijinsky. Nijinsky frustrated his dancers and Stravinsky in his attempt to create a style of dance that was fitting for the wild power of Stravinsky’s score. His movements were unlike any that had ever presented in a ballet. Note the oddly positioned feet of the dancers in the image below. This reflects of the strangely angular movement introduced by Nijinsky. He kept Stravinsky’s time by using angular contortions representing the sexual agony of the fawn, danced by the young choreographer himself. Nijinsky’s movements and those of the chorus of dancers succeeded in creating an emotional response in the audience. They were offended by the tortured motion and strong sexual tones of the dance. Nothing seems to have offended them more, however, than the musical score. There was a riot in the theatre that was so out of control that Nijinsky had to stand in the wings screaming out the count so the dancers could continue as the audience rioted.

A posed group of dancers in the original production of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring, showing costumes and backdrop by Nicholas Roerich. The dancers are (left to right) Julitska, Ramberg (en:Marie Rambert), Jejerska, Boni, Boniecka, Faithful
5.6 A posed group of dancers in the original production of Igor Stravinsky‘s ballet The Rite of Spring, showing costumes and backdrop by Nicholas Roerich. The dancers are (left to right) Julitska, Ramberg (en:Marie Rambert), Jejerska, Boni, Boniecka, Faithful.5

As is often the case, the controversy of this ballet generated great interest in these rule breaking artists. That premier at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées ushered in the seeds of modern music and dance. Debussy and many other composers and artists attended the event on that that riotous night and took the ideas home to their own studios. It would not be long before Isadora Duncan, who helped to usher in modern dance, was able to see and speak with Nijinsky. This experiment would have far-reaching consequences. For an excellent introduction to the Expressionism and the influences on it, please click the hyperlink below:

Influences on Expressionists short article

If you receive an error with the link above, use the following link https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/early-abstraction/expressionism1/a/expressionism-as-nordic?modal=1


While all art is abstracted, artists had in the past attempted to imitate or reproduce nature, making the viewer forget that they were viewing a flat surface or a metal or stone object. The specialization and experimentation of this new era of change influenced how artists saw their art and how they shared their ideas. While expressionism focused on the inner emotional life, abstractionism tended to be more intellectual.

Abstractionism most often included the following:

  • A detached analytical approach to picture making
  • Selective use of shapes and lines not intended to imitate nature, often angular
  • Imagination and invention are focused on the mechanics of a picture
  • The arrangement of elements such as color, shape and texture is dominant over natural imagery
  • Subjects chosen from nature are reduced to their primal elements
  • Those elements may be arranged as though seen from different angles
  • Natural images are reduced and refined, giving them a sense of order that is not seen in nature
  • The natural subject that the image is drawn from may or may not be evident
  • Early on subjects were observable but later the images were imagined

In earlier periods a painting reflected the world from which it came. These reflections were of a shared reality, the world outside of the individual, even outside of the painter who presented it. As the world was redefining itself using science and industry as a base, painters too began to redefine their art. The traditional purpose of painting was being challenged. The invention of photography and of easier, more accessible methods of reproduction further challenged the need for painters and their products. The same application of science that was making the pace of invention and innovation surge forward provided a new approach to painting. What if art were to be reduced to its elements as a way of discovering new ways of using its building blocks? If art was to continue to reflect this new complex urban world, shouldn’t it also reflect the incessant change that was propelling modern culture to new uncharted territories? Shouldn’t the multiple viewpoints that urban life made so apparent also be seen in art?

Nature was no longer the primary focus of people as they moved away from an agrarian society. Large numbers of people were moving to densely populated areas removed from nature. Many artists now sought to distance themselves from nature by eliminating their need to imitate it. Instead, partially as a reaction to developments in psychology and partially as a reaction to the need to redefine themselves, they began to present new realities that reflected the inner world of the mind, rather than imitating the world seen outside of the human being.

This process had already begun with 17th century painters like Cezanne. These beginnings were also seen in the work of Vincent Van Gogh, although in a much less scientific way. Artists joined the masses as everyone rushed about trying to figure out how they could best fit into this new world of smoke and steam.

Expressionistic art is also abstracted in ways that were not previously seen in painting. While these two approaches, Expressionism and Abstractionism, differed in many ways, there was a great deal of overlap. It is primarily the intention of the artist that determines whether intellectual abstraction or emotional expression will be dominant in a particular work.Many artists were experimenting, and they often worked in multiple styles throughout their careers. As the world became more complex, and was in a constant state of change, so were the people attempting to create art that was relevant to it. Keep an eye out for both approaches to making art as you work your way through the variety of possibilities being explored in this new modern age.


1 Photo by Google Art Project. The Scream. Edvard Munch, Public domain, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/86/Edvard_Munch_-_The_Scream_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
2 Photo by Svenska. Funeral March. Edvard Munch, public domain, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a7/Edvard_Munch_Funeral_March_Thielska_297M64.tif
3 Edvard Munch. The Sun, scanned from, Woll’s Edvard Munch: Complete Paintings, public domain.https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/de/Edvard_Munch_-_The_Sun_-_MM.M.00964_-_Munch_Museum.jpg
4 Magnum, John. “The Rite of Spring.” La Phil. HYPERLINK “https://www.laphil.com/musicdb/pieces/4796/the-rite-of-spring”https://www.laphil.com/musicdb/pieces/4796/the-rite-of-spring
5 Scanned from First Nights: Five Musical Premieres by Thomas F. Kelly. Yale University Press, New Haven 2000. Originally published in London, 1913, in the magazine The Sketch. public domainhttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/67/RiteofSpringDancers.jpg


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PPSC HUM 1023: Modern Civilizations by Kristine Betts and Kate Pagel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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