War and Modernity: The Twentieth Century Aesthetic

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Art in the twentieth century is wrapped up in notions of modernity. Modernity, in turn, cannot help but be influenced by the two major wars of the twentieth century. While it is often accepted that the modern art movement began in the late nineteenth century, it can be argued that the time between the First and Second World Wars was particularly significant in the development of the movement, which was clearly influenced by social factors and a fragmented sense of identity for those who became known as The Lost Generation. Visual art from the first half of the twentieth century is dominated by the social and cultural circumstances of the era, which included an intensive search for meaning and identity that became represented in art ranging from cubist works by Picasso to street art by those belonging to the sub-culture group of the Harlem Renaissance to the avant-garde readymade sculptures by Marcel Duchamp. The prevalence of modernity as both an art and cultural movement has created its own aesthetic that is difficult to separate from the historical circumstances of the time; these features, however different they manifest in individual works, are pervasive in art from the era.

Much of the art produced before, during and in the wake of the wars that defined the twentieth century have a distinct aesthetic. As Zimmer (2003) explains, “The relationship between people and art is complex and intriguing. Of course, artworks are our creations; but in interesting and important ways, we are also created by our artworks. Our sense of the world is informed by the art we make and by the art we inherit and value, works that, in themselves, encode others' world views. This two-way effect is deeply rooted and art encodes and affects both a culture's ways of perceiving the world and its ways of remaking the world it perceives” (p. 1285). It is not surprising, then, that modern art, particularly of the first half of the twentieth century is reflective of the cultural, social, and geographic implications of the world wars.

World War I is considered one of the most dreadful wars in history due to the gruesome nature of trench warfare and the use of poisonous mustard gas. Before the outbreak of war, young men had the world ahead of them; instead, those who came of age during World War I have come to be known as the Lost Generation. It is often through art and literature of this period that we get the most vivid picture of exactly what was lost. What should have been a time of promise due to the booming economy in America, which of course would peak in the 1920s, turned into a grim portrait of youth around the globe whose lives were uprooted and fragmented by their involvement or proximity to the horrors of war.

The Modernist Art Movement often overshadows the visual art produced simultaneously during the movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, yet this serves well as an example of the modernist aesthetic of struggle and fragmentation. African-American artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Aaron Douglas were part of the latter subculture in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in which they existed both within and without the larger cultural setting. The paintings by these artists seem to be trying to reconcile their historical past--their African roots-- with their cultural present--modern-day America. Often their work depicts a struggle or a theme of the quest for resolution, which manifests through their blended styles and their subject matter, which is often human figures in relation to one another (Duggleby, 1998; Kirschke, 1995). In a sense there is a battle happening within the artists and their creative productions that is reminiscent of the turmoil of the age on both personal and global scales.

The artistic styles of both Lawrence and Douglas are clearly influenced by the mainstream modernist art movement with their use of shapes and cubism; however, their use of vibrant colors and apparently mixed influences from European, to African, to their Harlem landscape, showcase this crisis of identity experienced by many African-American artists.

Famous works in this mode by Lawrence and Douglas are “In the North the Negro had better educational facilities” and “The Prodigal Son,” respectively (Duggleby, 1998; Kirschke, 1995). The latter work by Douglas is accompanied by a story written by another participant of the movement. Both of these artists’ work is narrative in nature, depicting the struggle by African Americans as if it were a life canvas, or a work in progress (Duggleby, 1998; Kirschke, 1995).

The idea of double consciousness, first introduced by W.E. Dubois, as represented in modernist art by members of the Harlem Renaissance is itself a kind of dual identity. This feeling of existing both within and without the mainstream modernist culture is not unique to this specific time in history. Rather, the art of Lawrence and Douglas in the Harlem Renaissance is a visual snapshot of the African American experience that existed long before the modernist art movement and persists now after it--it remains truly modern, therefore, in every sense of the word.

The loss of thousands of young men as the result of a war few really understood sent a rippling effect down through a generation that grew up no longer knowing what the future would mean for them. The odd concurrence of brutal trench warfare overseas in places like France and Germany and the booming economy back in America often resulted in a generation of apathetic teens and young adults who lived a life of escapism through excess in the form of drinking and perpetual travel, much like the characters in the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and their contemporaries--This truly was The Lost Generation, a term coined by fellow writer and artist Gertrude Stein. What this generation lost were its innocence and its identity, and even its tie to place.

The legacy of alienation, fragmentation, and loss as a result of war is evident in so much of modernist art. Art of the avant-garde movement, including the famous cubist works by Pablo Picasso are visual manifestations of the general mood and corresponding aesthetic of the twentieth century, particular as a result of the world wars, which both united nations in their loss and drew them further apart in their conflict. Fry (1988) explains, “the interpretation of Cubism has a great bearing on the understanding of modernism, and the understanding of modernism plays in turn a central role in most of twentieth-century art to this day” (p. 296). Not so different from the struggles of the past and present seen in the works of artists from the Harlem Renaissance are the true cubist works of which Picasso remains the authority.

Fry (1988) breaks down the complex psychology involved in the cubist aesthetic and its relation to past and present as represented in paintings by Picasso: “central to the understanding of Cubism is its relationship to classical draftsmanship and to the mental processes, known as disegno or disegno interno, underlying that draftsmanship. Once again, the central figure is and must be Picasso, for he alone among Cubists was a great draftsman” (p. 297-298). Characteristics which rank Picasso so high in this mode include three characteristics outlined by Fry(1988): A classical draftsman must be involved simultaneously with three factors: what he sees; what he knows as a priori knowledge about what he sees; and what the conventions are, inherited from past art, for drawing what he sees and knows. It is that threefold character of classical disegno (empirical observation, a priori knowledge, inherited conventions) which Cubism, and above all Picasso, lays bare” (p. 298). The conventions reimagined by Picasso and other Cubist artists are concerned with time and place and past and present and an effort to unify the disparate elements of the piece--an apt reflection upon the identity crisis of so many during this period of rapid change, of violence and of movement (Fry, 1988).

Artwork from a bit later in the twentieth century, which received so much criticism from more traditionally inclined art critics, was the work of Marcel Duchamp. Of particular note is his work, “Fountain,” which is made from a toilet bowl--an employment of the idea of readymade objects common in the later pop art of the 1960s. Duchamp, indeed, took this to the extreme. As Housefield (2002) explains, “Generations of critics and artists interpreted the readymades solely as avant-garde acts of anti-art, works that replaced the notion of physical artistic craft with an intellectual act of choice. With the readymades, however, Duchamp engaged questions of geography and landscape not typically associated with sculpture” (p. 477). These notions of time and place evident in earlier work by those of the Harlem Renaissance and even into the Cubist art by Picasso is a symptom of a greater cultural sense of displacement, either as a result of personal struggle with identity or literally though the clashing ideologies which sparked World War I and World War II.

Housefield (2002) claims, “Duchamp used the readymades to translate the cityscape of Paris into sculptural form and to create a familiar landscape in his transatlantic studio. His readymades contributed to modern art's interest in the urban landscape in ways that have not previously been recognized and offer geographers a case study of the potentially complex interrelationships that developed between modern art and geography in the early twentieth century” (p. 478). It is interesting here that this discussion comes full circle to again attempt to understand one’s place in a populated urban environment, much like artists of the Harlem Renaissance, with clashing cultures that in turn make up the fragmented reality of the larger cultural context, regardless of one’s country of origin or current state of residence.

Modernist art is so heavily tied to struggles of identity and the resulting alienation and fragmentation that stem from the difficulty of accepting such monumental horrors as World War I and World War II. As different as the canon of modernist art may be--from the Harlem Renaissance artists to Picasso, to Duchamp--there is an undeniable cultural undercurrent inherent in all of the works mentioned. The twentieth century is a fascinating time to study modernism as both a cultural and artistic movement, which we find cannot be separated from one another.


Duggleby, J. (1998). Story Painter: The Life of Jacob Lawrence. 1st ed. San Francisco: Chronicle.

Fry, E. F. (1988). Picasso, Cubism, and Reflexivity. Art Journal, 47.4, 296-310. Accessed via http://www.jstor.org/stable/776980.

Kirschke, A. (1995). Aaron Douglas: Art, Race, and the Harlem Renaissance.2nd ed. Jackson: U Miss Press.

Housefield, J. (2002). Marcel Duchamp’s art and geography of modern Paris. Geographical Review, 92.4, 477-502. Accessed via http://www.jstor.org/stable/4140931.

Zimmer, R. (2003). Abstraction in Art with Implications for Perception. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 358, 1285-1291. Accessed via http://www.jstor.org/stable/3558221