Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Modernism and Modernity

The term “modern” has gone through various evolutions and definitions. The word has been used from the 16th century, and for hundreds of years was generally regarded as simply meaning “contemporary”, or “current”. This was why, from 1843-1860, John Ruskin in his writing Modern Painters used the term to refer to the painters of his era, the Pre-Raphaelites, who we would no longer consider “modern”.

However, by the end of the 19th century, “modern” began taking on a new meaning; an idea of being better than before; improved; radical; progressive. This change paralleled with a dramatic transformation in society, which was instigated in 1760 following the industrialisation of the United Kingdom and other areas of Europe. Society no longer revolved around villages in rural areas; the city became the ideal destination for modern experience, and thus hundreds upon hundreds of people moved there from their countryside homes. As well as this, new means of communication and transportation came into existence in the form of trains, telephones and cinema. Towns and people who were previously totally disconnected became accessible. Our relationship with the world and with each other completely evolved, inevitably affecting our own subjective consciousness.

“Modernity”, then, is this period of change, and “modernism” is the term used to describe expressions of modernity in the form of art. People lived in crowds, and thus had to express themselves in ways that they could identify themselves as individuals, in ways that were novel and innovative, yet still retained the sense of truth (which is distinct from realism) associated with the movement.

When we think of the subjective experience, we come close to understanding modern art and experience of modernity.


In the context of film and animation, the key feature of modernity was a focus on technology. Modernists embraced the new technologies that were being made available. Photography and filmmaking offered a form of expression quite different to painting, and thus offered a new challenge to artists (painters responded to this by abandoning realism for expression and symbolism).

One of the first notable inventions was the kaiserpanorama, a circular arrangement of images inside a rotating drum which, should the customer pay a fee, would be viewable through a lens.

This proved a key point: that people are prepared to pay to, sedate and still, look at subjects depicted in art, and not the subjects themselves.

This in a way defines our modern approach technology: television, film, internet, etc. acts as our means of experiencing the world, rather than us going out to experience it in person, which of course holds both negative and positive connotations. We could see it as ultimately leading to a life lacking in communication and bonding, with a total dependency on computers, or as a limitless supply of opportunities and forms of expression.


One way in which modernity inspired film was to challenge previous conventions of storytelling, i.e. having beginning, middles and ends, solid characters, settings and some form of plot. The following of strict traditions and religion which had been prominent throughout time beforehand was becoming gradually less present due to the discoveries and experiments of science and philosophy, and thus influenced an era of “liberation of the unconscious”.

"Rather than attempting to represent a) the world, b) thoughts, c) feelings, d) relationships (or anything else) the modernist writer and artist attempt to draw attention to the way representation organises our often very different experiences of the world, thoughts, feelings, relationships and everything else.  For this reason, art and writing becomes less like a way to something else (as a window provides a clear view to the other side of a wall) and more like something you have to take notice of for itself (the window is now like a stained glass one)."

This was especially seen in Surrealist cinema, an area I’m particularly interested in, which taps into illogical conventions. One of the first Surrealist films is Luis Buñuel and Salvidor Dali’s Un Chien Andalou  (1929), which was inspired by the dreams of Dali and their mutual fascination with the human psyche.

Despite analysis of the film, the creators stated themselves that "no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted”, and thus includes many bizarre moments including the slicing open of an eye juxtaposed with the moon, ants crawling from the hole in a man’s hand, and the sudden appearance of two grand pianos containing rotten donkey corpses, amongst many other inexplicable things.


Other notable products of modernism include science-fiction, a result of society’s romantic imaginings of the future of technology, as seen in the 1927 expressionist film Metropolis. Expressionist films are distinguished by their focus on stylisation and symbolism, and construct an imaginary space. Metropolis is also an early example of dystopian fiction, where society exists in a heavily repressed and controlled state. Dystopia is still widely seen today, in films such as V for Vendetta and games such as Half-Life 2.

Another movement in film was abstraction. Abstraction was influenced by modernism’s desire to act against trends, abandon ornament, and create designs which are simple and geometric, and thus netural; this way, they would never go “out of fashion”. Abstract art attempts to create a timeless form, and film focusses on the inherent qualities and experiences of rhythm, light and simple shapes. They could be described more as experiences as they have no narrative or acting.

 Hans Richter's Rhythmus 23 (1923) and Oskar Fischinger's Motion Painting No. 1 (1947)


Modernity inspired a constant fascination with new technology, as previously mentioned, and this is particularly relevant with animation.

One of the earliest instances of animation, Matches: An Appeal (1899) by Arthur Melbourne-Cooper used stop-motion to animate a matchstick figure writing onto a wall. As stated in the below video, the result caused a sensation.

Animation, particularly three-dimensional animation is primarily concerned with utilising new and exciting technologies in ways that haven’t been seen before; to enthral viewers with a unique experience that they couldn’t witness in any other form. It has done so for decades and still does today, with stories set in vast, sprawling natural settings like Finding Nemo, and those with fantastical, monstrous creatures like in Spirited Away.

These films are, in many ways, timeless, as they transport you to a totally “imagined” world, where the mundane and everyday life is forgotten. That is what makes animation so special to me.


My new understanding of modernism will certainly help me in my future creation of films. It’s inspired me to be more aware of what I’m expressing, and the unique experience of my work, rather than falling into the conventions of a certain genre, story or trend. However it does raise some questions about how much more advanced the technologies can become... Creative industries nowadays are frantic about going "against the grain", but if everybody does it, how much can you really stand out? Particularly in an era where the ubiquitous internet means that almost every person can express themselves publicly. 

But, perhaps most importantly: looking back to a time when artists were excited and eager to learn and explore the new possibilities available in their craft, and comparing it to today where so much is digitally and automatically set, worked out, coloured in, etc. for you, modernity has inspired me to be conscious of the roots of film, games and animation, and in turn be totally passionate about all aspects of the mediums, and the process of creating.

1 comment:

  1. Really good notes, make sure you keep adding to this thread, it's hard to go back later and try and remember.