The Influence of the 19th Century Intellectual Thoughts on the Modern Arts
The end of the 19th century was a time of relative peace and optimistic faith in technological progress and human productivity. Industrialism provided the economic and military basis for the west’s rise to a position of dominance over the rest of the world and at the same time, took certain impact to the modern arts.
Sigmund Freud’s theories concerning the nature of the human psyche, the significance of dreams, and the dominating role of human sexuality had a revolutionary effect on the beliefs, attitudes, and morals of modern society. They were equally influential upon the arts. In literature, Proust, Kafka and Joyce are representative of the modern novelist’s preoccupation with the subconscious life and with the role of memory in shaping reality. Their fiction reflects a fascination with methods and principles of Freudian psychoanalysis. Stream of consciousness narrative and the interior monologue are among the literary techniques used by modern authors to develop plot and character. In the visual arts, Freud’s impact generated a wide variety of styles that gave free play to fantasy and dreams.
The expressionism of Munch and Kirchner, the metaphysical art of de Chirico, and the fantasies of Chagall examined the mysteries of repressed fears and desires. The dada movement spread the gospel of irrationality in randomly organized words and images. Duchamp, the most outrageous of the dada cultists, championed a nihilistic, antiart spirit that had far-reaching effects in the second half of the century. In 1924, Andre Breton launched surrealism, an international movement to liberate the life of the subconscious from the bonds of reason.
Strongly influenced by Freud, the surrealists viewed the human subconscious as a battleground of conflicting forces dominated by instincts. Miro, and Klee explored the terrain of the interior life in abstract paintings filled with playful and ominous images.
Dali, Magritte, Kahlo, and O’Keeffe manipulated illusions of the real world in ways that evoked the visionary incoherence of the dream life. In motion pictures, Dali, Bunuel, and others devised cinematic techniques that exposed the dark and unpredictable passions of the mind.
In music, Satie embraced mundane sounds with the same enthusiasm that E.E. Cummings showed for slang in poetry and Dumchamp exercised in his glorification of found objects. It was in the expressionistic monodramas of Schoenberg and the sexually charged operas of Strauss, Bartok, and Berg that Freud’s impact was most powerfully realized.
During the second half of the 19th century, as the social consequences of the western industrialism became increasingly visible, realism came to rival romanticism both as a style and as an attitude of mind. The ideologies of 19th century of liberalism, conservatism, Utilitarianism, socialism and communism offered varying solutions to contemporary problems of social injustice and inequity.
In the arts, realism emerged as a style concerned with recording contemporary subject matter in true-to-life terms. Such novelists as Dickens in England, Zola in France, and Twain in America, they described contemporary social conditions sympathetically and fidelity to detail.
Photography and lithography were invented during the 19th century; both medium encouraged artists to produce objective records of their surroundings. By the mid nineteenth century the camera was used to document all aspects of contemporary life as their compositions. In painting, Courbet led the realist movement with canvases depicting the activities of humble and commonplace men and women. Daumier employed the new technique of lithography to show his deep concern for political and social conditions in rapidly modernizing France. Manet shocked art critics by recasting traditional subjects in contemporary terms.
America’s realist painters, including Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer, recorded typically American pastimes in an unembellished, forthright manner. In music, Puccini wrote operas that captured the lives of 19th century Europeans.
On the whole, the varieties of realism in 19th century cultural expression reflect a profound concern reassessment of traditional western values.
Art for art’s sake was neither a movement nor a style but rather a prevailing spirit in European and especially French culture of the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
Of all forms of art, there was a new attention to sensory experience rather than to moral and didactic purpose.
At the same time, advances in optics, electricity, and other areas of science and technology brought attention to matters of motions and light. Theses affected the French impressionists, led by Monet, were equally representative of the late 19th century interest in sensation and sensory experience. These artists tried to record an instantaneous vision of their world, sacrificing the details of perceived objects in order to capture the effects of light and atmosphere.
Paralleling the radical changes in technology and art, the German iconoclast Nietzsche questioned the moral value of art and rallied superior individuals to topple old gods, that is, to reject whatever was sentimental and stale in Western tradition.
Amidst new theories of sensation and perception, the French philosopher Bergson stressed the role of intuition in grasping the true nature of durational reality. He claimed that time is the continuous progress of the past, which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advance. Time cannot be measured in such a quantitative way, it is a quality, not a substance. The application of Bergson’s theory of time to the arts of the late 19th century can be very illuminating. The philosopher often cited the motion picture as an example of what he meant by the perception of duration. The separate frames in a motion picture film are still; but when the series is run through the projector, the mind melds them together in a continuous flow, and they appear to be animated and alive. So also are the separate colors on an impressionistic canvas, the separate scenes in a Maeterlinck play, the separate chords in a Debussy progression-all are molded by the mind into a continuum of time.
In visual impressionism, the eye mixes the colors and in a symbolist poem, the symbolist poets devised a language of sensation that evoke feeling rather than describing experience and let the mind supplies the connecting verbs for the so-called fragments. In Maeterlinck play, the imagination gives the irrelevancies speech and action a dramatic meaning and in Debussy’s music, the ear bridges over the pregnant silences. In sculpture, the works of Degas and Rodin reflect a common concern for figural gesture and movement and left parts of the stone uncut. The postimpressionists van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat and Cezanne moved beyond the impressionist infatuation with fleeting effects. Van Gogh and Gauguin used color not as an atmospheric envelope but as a tool for personal and visionary expression. Seurat and Cezanne reacted against the formlessness of impressionism by creating styles that featured architectural stability and solid, simplified forms.
In all arts, this ceaseless flux leads toward the improvisatory, the consciously incomplete. Each work tries to be a product of inspiration rather than calculation. With visual impressionists, all pictorial substance is broken down into an airy mixture of color sprays, fleeting shadows, and momentary moods.
With industrialization came a specialization in which people were concerned more with fragments than with wholes. Industrial workers were rapidly forfeiting to the machine their place as the primary productive unit. In Mallarme’s ‘Afternoon Faune’, images unfold as sensuous, discontinuous fragments. Similar effects occur in the music of Debussy, where delicately shaded harmonies gently drift without resolution.
During the late 19th century, atomic physicists provided a model of the universe that was both more dynamic and more complex than any previously conceived, e.g. Newton. Einstein produced his special theory of relativity, a radically new approach to the concepts of time, space and motion. Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty stated that since the act of measuring subatomic phenomena would alter those phenomena, the position and the velocity of a particle could not be measured simultaneously with any accuracy.
Therefore, at the onset of the twentieth-century, modern physics had replaced the absolute and rationalist model of the universe with one that seemed chaotic and uncertain.
Paralleling the advancement of atomic physics, Nietzsche’s new philosophical concepts also had a certain impact on the artists. He asked: ‘Is man merely a mistake of God’s? Or God merely a mistake of man’s?’ Agreeing with Nietzsche’s remark that history was the process by which the dead bury the living, Marinetti declared in his manifesto in 1909 that futurism was being founded to ‘deliver Italy from its plague of professors, archeologists, tourist guides and antique dealers.’ All these new intellectual points of view are also mirrored in abstract art.
In the arts, new ways of seeing and listening were being worked out. In painting, for example, the cubist system of multiple visual viewpoints was explored, whereby several sides of an object could be presented at the same time in 2-dimenional space. In sculpture, a new theory of volume was developed, whereby open holes or gaps in the surface suggested the interpenetration of several planes, and the interpenetration of several planes, and the existence of other sides and surfaces not immediately in view. In architecture, the international style used the vocabulary of steel and glass to incorporate in structure of outer and inner space.
Similar developments occurred in literature and music, which found new ways of presenting materials in time dimension. In music, the so-called atonal method of composition was formulated. Such novel organizations of space and time demanded new ways of thinking about the world, new ways of looking at it, listening to it, and reading about it. Abstraction includes such various developments as cubism, futurism, the mechanical style, non-objectivism, the twelve-tone method and the international style of architecture.
From the above brief discussion, one can understand how a form of art is developed through historical course under the influences of sociol and intellectual thoughts. The emergence of Modernism in the 20th century was not a coincidence. It deeply stemmed from human life and thoughts. If one wants to uncover the veil of this artistic process, one should not avoid examinating the history of socio-culture and science in relation to that of the humanity.
David Leung (theorydavid)