Modern Art and Music

Modern Art and Music marked a departure from old forms and old values, much as philosophical thinking and physics had marked a departure from the old tried and true. Modernism meant constant experimentation for new kinds of expression in both music and art. Man people (yours truly included) find modern art disturbing and ugly; yet many scholars believe that it will constitute one of Western civilizationís great artistic eras.

Architecture and Design: The new principle of architecture was functionality; buildings should serve as much as possible the purpose for which they were erected. Architects and designers were forced to work with engineers, town planners, and even experts on sanitation. Ornamentation which contributed no functional use was discarded, and beauty was to be found in efficiency. Said the Swiss genius Le Corbusier: "a house is a machine for living in."

The United States took the lead as it had no rigid building tradition as had existed in Europe. Louis H. Sullivan used cheap steel, reinforced concrete, and electric elevators to build skyscrapers and office buildings with almost no exterior ornamentation. His student, Frank Lloyd Wright built truly modern houses with low lines, open interiors, and mass produced building materials.

American ideas inspired Europeans to follow suit. The primary European design was work of the German school known as the Bauhaus, which combined the study of fine art with applied art in crafts such as printing, weaving, and furniture making. It stressed functionalism and good design for everyday life. Among the accomplishments of the Bauhaus movement were the Lake Shore Apartments in Chicago which symbolized the triumph of steel frame and glass wall modern architecture in the great building boom after the Second World War.

Modern Painting: Modern painting grew from a revolt against French impressionism. Modern artists left the exact copying of objects to the photographers, and rather tried to capture momentary overall feeling or impression. By 1905, art took on an abstract, nonrepresentational character after World War II. These so called "postimpressionists" wanted to know and depict worlds other than the visible world of fact; they wished to portray unseen, inner worlds of emotion and imagination. Examples include:

Vincent van Gogh and The Starry Night: in which he attempts to paint the vision of his mindís eye, depicting flaming cypress trees, exploding stars, and a comet like Milky Way.

Paul Gauging, who believed that form and design were important in themselves and a painter, need not try to represent objects on canvas as the eye actually saw them.

Paul Cťzanne, who told a young painter, "You must see in nature the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone. He moved away from traditional three-dimensional perspective toward the two-dimensional plane.

Pablo Picasso, a Spaniard, founded the cubism movement which concentrated on a complex geometry of overlapping lines and sharply angled overlapping planes. The modern movements were finally consolidated in the 1920ís and 1930ís into two movements: Dadaism and Surrealism. Dadaism, derived from the French word, "hobby horse," or "rocking horse," a deliberately nonsensical name, attacked all accepted standards of art and behavior, and rather emphasized the outrageous. An example is a depiction of Da Vinciís Mona Lisa with a mustache and an obscene inscription. Another consists merely of a urinal. Surrealist paintings indicated a world of wild dreams and complex symbols where watches melt and giant metronomes beat time out. An example is Picassoís Guernica, a twenty six foot long mural describing the age of anxiety. It was inspired by the Spanish Civil War, and commemorated the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica by fascist planes which killed one out of eight inhabitants of the town in a single night.

Modern Music: As in modern painting, composers were attracted by the emotional intensity of expressionism. Igor Stravinsky, in his ballet, The Rite of Spring featured pulsating, dissonant rhythms from the orchestra and an earthy representation of lovemaking by the dancers on stage. Many people saw it as a shocking, pornographic, enactment of a fertility rite, and when first performed in Paris by a Russian ballet company in 1913, it almost caused a riot.

Irrationality and violence seemed to pervade opera and ballet after the First World War. Many abandoned traditional harmony and tonality. Musical notes in a given piece were no longer united and organic by key; rather they were independent and unrelated. To the ordinary listener, the "pattern" of music seemed like no pattern at all; only a highly trained eye studying the musical score could find it. This "atonal" music was largely rejected by audiences until after the Second World War, as they were accustomed to the harmonies of classical and romantic music.

Movies and Radio: Commercial standardized entertainment in the form of motion pictures and radio replaced traditional village amusements, and captured the attention of the vast majority of people. Only a minority of "highbrows" found the new changes in art and music appealing.

Moving pictures were first shown as "peep shows," usually risquť performances, often shown in small machines known as Nickelodeons or Penny Arcades. Among them were "What the Butler Saw." The first movie houses were an experiment in Los Angeles in 1902, and included short, silent action films such as The Great Train Robbery, which lasted eight minutes. Movie factories were first set up in New York and later Los Angeles which turned out two short films each week. Among the full-length features before World War I were an Italian production of Quo Vadis, and the American Birth of a Nation.

The United States became the dominant force in the silent film business during World War I. Among the more famous portrayals were the Keystone Kops, which was noted for frantic automobile chases, pie fights, and bathing beauties. Famous film stars were Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks, and Rudolf Valentino, the heartthrob of many American women. The king of the silver screen in the 1920ís was Charlie Chaplin who played the part of a lonely tramp.

Motion pictures became the mass entertainment of the masses until after World War II. In Britain, one out of four adults went to the movies twice a week in the thirties, and two in five went at least once per week. Movies offered ordinary people an escape from the reality of everyday life, a form of escapism. Millions went to see Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, as well as Mickey Mouse and friends.

Among the more famous male performers of the time was the American W.C. Fields, who played the part of a drunk (which he was in real life.) Fields was famous for outrageous expressions, such as "any man who hates dogs and babies canít be all bad." He once commented that he never drank water because "fish make love in it." The city of Philadelphia often was the butt of his jokes, in fact his tombstone reads: "Better here than Philadelphia."

Radio became possible with the invention of wireless communication by Guglielmo Marconi in 1901 and the invention of the vacuum tube in 1904, which permitted the transmission of speech and music. The first major broadcast in Europe was on June 16, 1920, when the world famous soprano Nellie Melba sang from London in English, Italian and French. She was heard all over Europe simultaneously.

National broadcasting networks were soon set up in all major countries. Parliament set up the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), but elsewhere in Europe, the government controlled radio broadcasts directly.

By the late 1930ís three out of four households in Britain and Germany had at least one radio. Sadly, it lent itself quite easily to political propaganda, and was used effectively by Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler to reach mass audiences. Radio was not the only means of mass indoctrination, however. Movies were also used for this purpose, particularly in the Soviet Union. Lenin himself encouraged the development of Soviet Film making, believing that it was essential to the social and ideological transformation of the country. The communist view of Russian History was portrayed in a series of movies by director Sergei Eisenstein, among them Ivan the Terrible, and Battleship Potemkin. Adolf Hitler ;used a talented young woman, Leni Riefenstahl to produce a documentary masterpiece, The Triumph of the Will based on the Nazi party rally at Nuremberg in 1934. The film showed joyous crowds welcoming Hitler and mass processions of Nazi fanatics. As did Eisensteinís films, Riefenstahlís work demonstrated the potential danger of mass manipulation to which movies and radio lent themselves.