A dispute known as the “Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns,” dominated the intellectual life of Europe between 1683 and 1719. The crux was the issue of whether the moderns (i.e. those now living in the eighteenth century) were morally and artistically superior to the ancients (i.e. ancient Greeks and Romans).
The argument introduced an important dichotomy that still remains fundamental to our own understanding of modernism; that is recognizing the division between traditional conservative forces, who supported the argument for the ancients, while the more progressive forces sided with the moderns.
To understand the inspiration for the various ‘modern’ movements in art, design and style we need to begin during the early nineteenth century and examine the work of Viennese born painter, designer, craftsmen, historian Austrian Josef Danhauser [1805-1845]. He saw himself as a thoroughly modern man.
When his father died in 1829 at Vienna he set out to bring his families furniture factory into an era of modernity. He found himself designing whole rooms and did so by placing an emphasis on simplified forms, stylisation of motifs and paring down elaborate decoration.
He wanted clarity of form, relying on the inherent beauty of the materials he used for furniture making, which included richly grained woods. Comparatively to what had gone before, his was a revolution in simplicity.
The furniture factory he founded was prodigiously successful. 130 workers were employed in manufactduring furniture and gilt, silvered and bronze ornaments. The range of furniture he designed for pursuing a happy domestic life was founded on the former shapes of the neoclassical style.
The rooms Josef Danhauser designed had more in common with Hollywood or Paris they were so visionary in style. Some 2500 designs reveal his distinctive style and the wallpaper and fabrics he designed reveal that he anticipated the modern movement in design history by nearly a century.
The industrial revolution of the nineteenth century rapidly changed the face of the western world. By the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe, England and America immense wealth generated a youthful society with different priorities and objectives. They were clamouring for the very best life could offer and their aspirations, expectations, outlook and morals were very different from that of their parents.
At the time England was indisputably the greatest and richest nation in the world with no rivals seriously threatening its trade and industry. The upper and middle classes were enjoying the fruits of this supremacy.
Life without industry is guilt, and industry without art is brutality author and art critic John Ruskin 1819 – 1900 declared. He became a moral guide or prophet, if you like during the latter years of the nineteenth century in England.
Ruskin resented social injustice and the squalor that was a direct result of the ‘greed is good’ mentality that accompanied the unbridled capitalism brought about by the ongoing success of the Industrial Revolution. It led him, as Cambridge’s Biographical Dictionary states, to expound a sort of Christian communism for which his critics denigrated him.
His only regret it seems at the end of his long life was that he had not, like St. Francis, denuded himself of his own wealth.
However his influence was profound on his contemporary colleagues and the next generation of artists and craftsmen. It is they who would lead the way towards establishing Le Style Moderne.
Our image of a wallpaper design by Danhauser could be straight out of the Art Deco period of the 20th century, not dating from the 1820’s as it does. Its stylized motifs are like those taken up in the 1920’s and 30’s with great alacrity.
Modernism is a term the art and design community of our contemporary western world has adopted to describe a diverse range of architectural and interior decorative styles, as well as applied and graphic arts created between approximately 1880 and 1940 on an international scale.
The design movements and styles generally embraced under the collective term Modernism are known in the world of design history and the decorative arts as the Arts and Crafts 1875-1915A, L’Art Nouveau (1890-1910), Northern European Jugendstil (1899-1910) Vienna Secession (1897-1906), Wiener Werkstatte (1903-1933), German Bauhaus, Modernists (1919-1933), Art Deco (1906-1940) and the Union des Artistes Modernes (1929-1940).
The dates are a guide, as styles overlapped each other at their creation, and again at their demise.
Vienna’s art world in the latter years of the nineteenth century finally accepted the leadership role of England and its designers, such as Arts and Crafts design leader William Morris and Scottish designer Charles Rennie Macintosh.
They fought hard to combat goods being produced by the machines of the Industrial Revolution by championing hand manufacturing. Charles Rennie Mackintosh cultivated a rigorous formal economy of design, which appealed to the members of the newly established (I 897) Viennese Secession.
It was painter Gustav Klimt, whose brilliant individualism dominated the era. He led the group of primarily young Viennese artists, painters, sculptors and architects as they seceded from the prestigious Kunsterhaus (Artists House) to set up a Society of Austrian Artists – the Vienna Secession.
They staged their first exhibition in March 1898. Their aims were purely aesthetic and founded in the Coffeehouse culture of that august city and the decorative arts magazine The Studio, which was devoured in all the capital’s stylish cafes.
In 1900, Secession leaders Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffman and Josef Maria Olbrich invited Mackintosh to join in exhibiting with them at the 8th Vienna Secession exhibition, to critical acclaim. They were impressed by Mackintosh’s austere aesthetic, His exploration of line and taste for monochrome was much admired and received a great deal of critical acclaim.
Vienna was struggling to leave behind the conservatism of the past to eagerly embrace contemporary ideas and change under the influence and leadership of its artists, intellectuals and scientists, who were helping to imagine a very different future.
Modernism demanded a distinction between interior architecture and decoration and a preference for open planned living. Modernist interiors were meant to be devoid of applied decoration.
They sought to concentrate solely on geometry, uninterrupted lines and form.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century rivals America, Germany and Japan threatened Britain’s manufacturing power. At home industrial unrest and the growing feminist and socialist movements were part of a general, and protracted crisis.
The population of the United Kingdom was 41.5 million in 1901, twenty percent living in poverty. Emmelline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903 and it gained an international focus for militant action in the campaign for women’s suffrage. In Britain the Children’s Act of 1904 finally banned employment of children between nine at night and six in the morning.
The Ritz Hotel at London with its high Mansard roof, street arcade and simplified classical stonewalls was built in Piccadilly (1903- 1906) and its rooms were in a seventeenth century French Chateau style.
Its Palm Court decor was a keynote of the marvellous confectionary palaces built all over Europe and England in these halcyon days, or the 13 years, preceding World War 1, something incidentally we only know in hindsight.
Within the years from 1895 to 1906 more buildings were built than ever before in Britain’s history. Speculative developers, who employed both run of the mill, designed houses, hotels, offices and factories and talented architects in an attempt to invent a new sought after British style.
They were the ones who held sway. Idealists such as William Morris had championed good design for the poor but were overwhelmed by the fact it was only those of affluence who could afford to subscribe to what he offered.
The King Edward VII Galleries at the British Museum were the most elegant of all the Beaux Arts influenced Edwardian classical buildings in London. They won a knighthood for their architect Webb J.J. Burnet.
While great public buildings were passing through the decade of the High Baroque the Neo Georgian style in architecture was also being revived heavily in the suburbs.
This was a decade where the expansionist and imperialist features of the previous century were displayed to excess, one in which the political tensions and economic frailties of the present century before World War I became apparent.
Radical change was required.
Spanish draughtsman, painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) became a dominating figure in early twentieth century French art. Together with French painter Georges Braque (1882-1963) he founded classical Cubism. Braque worked with Picasso from 1908 to 1914 to explore their ideas thorough it’s various phases.
Picasso’s first wife Olga Stepanovna Khokhlova was a Ukrainian-Russian dancer. She was one of the many women who shed their restricting corsets, cut their hair, raised their hemlines and set out to find what feminine freedom and being modern was all about following World War I.
When his association with Braque ended Picasso designed costume and sets for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, which was touring the world influencing art and artists everywhere. Picasso was above all an innovator.
World War One would mark the great divide in the age of the moderns. The upheaval of war brought artists face to face with an alternative, either a clean sweep and hope of a reformed society, or alternatively the retention of a privileged art in the service of an elite and moneyed class.
The foundation of the Union des Artistes Modernes (UAM) in 1929 gave the fledgling group cohesion and exhibition venues of their own. Their designers included Jean-Michel Frank, Pierre Legrain, Francis Jourdain, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Eileen Gray, Sonia Delaunay, Charlotte Perriand, Jean Pulforcat, Rene Herbst, Jean Prouve, and Pierre Chareau.
The Art Deco style was not a return to the past or an imitation of it, but rather a need deeply felt, of that to invent a new form of classicism, to ward off the threat of a civilization wholly dominated by industry and technics.
It drew on purity of form and refinement and its cabinetmakers applied an opulent mix of newly fashionable and exotic materials to a plethora of equally exotic and rare timbers, the like of which had not been seen before and of such quality had not been seen since the cabinetmakers to the old ancien regime had held the title ebeniste du roi.
The Art deco interior is many things to many people such as the grand salon of Emile Jacques Ruhlmann in his pavilion at the 1925 Paris Exposition.
The 1925 L’Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris after whom the Art Deco Movement, or modern style has been named, was conceived in 1907 but rescheduled many times as the first World War came and went.
Most European countries participated, except for Germany, although the influence of its very influential Bahaus School (19191- 1933) led by artist instructor Marcel Breur who had to flee the country when the Nazi’s closed it in 1933, was strong.
Art Deco was the last truly sumptuous style, with shagreen covered furniture, and striking sheer textiles punctuated by plush padded furniture by Joseph Iribe or made from exotic timbers and inlaid with mother of pearl.
Another group of designers born out of rebellion, this time against the perceived excesses of mainstream Art Deco.
Taking their cues from the WW, arts and crafts and other simplified styles, Modernists were concerned principally with the least complex method of fitting “form to function”.
Their hero Le Corbusier used materials without any elaboration. They initiated the use of chromed or nickelled tubular or flat steel as frameworks for their furniture, with painted slab steel construction, plain veneers, leather or skin upholstery.
In Germany, the Bauhaus school was already in existence, since 1919, under Walter Gropius, and subsequently fostered the considerable talents of Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer, amongst many others.
Suppressed by the Nazis in 1933, many Bauhaus Modernists left for the U.S.A to create the “International School” of architecture so fundamental to design today. The German pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona Exhibition, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), was the finest expression of pre-WWII German modernism.
During the 30’s Paris became the great destination of Americans, lured by its romantic classicism a mixture of lots of the old plus some of the new…the ancients and the moderns.
Modernist settings abounded in chromed metal and leather chaise lounges, pure white walls, sleek modern floors with carpets woven with geometric motifs and simple, squared off end tables surmounted by abstract or primitive sculptures.
England gained a reputation for over 200 years for the sheer quality of its ‘sterling’ silver, which was highly regulated to retain its quality and stamped by its makers.
During the age of ‘modernism’ at the highpoint of the industrial revolution in England, production of silver plated objects reached a zenith of popularity. Dr Christopher Dresser had a rage for simplicity – a lack of complexity – with no embellishment or difficulty and he was completely radical in his age.
A botanist, designer and writer Christopher Dresser became in many people’s estimation, one of the best ‘industrial designers’ whose guiding principle was surely, less is more, is brilliantly revealed in this Soup Tureen made for the burgeoning upper middle class market.
There was a host of permutations in between from opulence to minimalism, making new and exciting statements. World War Two would however, change the face of the world forever and bring Modernism to a screaming halt.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013