Notes from The Heart House

Brainy single-payer blog testing the waters on business, media, art and culture with the occasional critical theory slant.

Modernist and Postmodernist Reading of Impressionism

The modernization of society in the nineteenth century owes its genesis to the industrial revolution, whose technological advancements and the solidification of a new world economy changed elements in the ordinary life of all classes of people. Some conditions that were altered in the process of modernization included employment, public areas, transportation, and art. For art in particular, the change was that artists began to negotiate the real world with their work, and this new shift of attention in the art world from the allegorical to the true and natural is known as modernity. Moreover, art entered a movement known as modernism in which artists began to deviate from former traditional aspects of art, such as content and technique.

Modernity seems a natural precursor to modernism, where, in observing a new world of technological advancement and modernized societal atmosphere, art has its own unique response to the new urban subject matter by evolving its own form through change in earlier formal technique. Some significant changes in technique of modernism are sketchier brushwork, a greater concentration on color as representation of nature, and a decrease of dramatic content. From modernism a new school of thought and trend in art criticism began which is now known as Modernism.

Two paintings that illustrate modernity and the transfigured modernist style of painting that originates from the modernization of society are Edouard Manet’s The Railway (1873) and Claude Monet’s The Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil. (1873) Although both works follow a long line of tradition, specifically that Manet’s work is a genre painting and Monet’s painting is a landscape painting, they ultimately diverge from these older traditions. The expectations of formal and earlier academic painting included the painting of allegories, idealized images, and settings distant from their own culture, but in modernism the subject matter reverts to contemporary settings of their new modernized society from these illusory settings of paintings of old.

For instance, the introduction of the railroad in the nineteenth century vastly altered the lifestyle of most metropolitan cities including Paris, and its predominance shows: in these two paintings both Manet and Monet drew from the presence of the locomotive in their lives for subject matter. In both The Railway and The Railroad Bridge Manet and Monet integrate trains seamlessly into the surroundings of their settings. The Railway is abstruse in its setting at a train station, but the viewer notices its entity as quickly as he notices the two human figures. There is no sign of a railroad car, but the telltale steam from its engine pervades the entire picture. Here the breakthrough from traditional subject matter towards the modernist style is clear: the scene is of an insignificant moment in time and of little historical or symbolic importance. (Frascina, 102) Stylistically, Manet also departs from tradition, for instance in his representation of the older girl her face is not idealized to fit a prototype of the “perfect” woman. There are other technical ways that Manet’s work differs from older models, but we shall discuss them later in a Modernist account of this painting.

Monet is also an artist of modernity and modernism. His deceptively conventional landscape painting The Railroad Bridge is in fact also a great departure from past artistic traditions. The usage of a train in the picture is indifferent; Monet does not portray the train with Romantic drama, instead it too lacks symbolic or historical significance of human drama. Instead, Monet concentrates on harmonizing technology and nature, the unintrusive bridge and the train looking as serene as the sky and river, while the smoke from the training blends in placidly with the sky and clouds. Furthermore, Monet includes a human presence in the painting but in a very minimal degree. The result of that is another deviation from traditional art, where the emphasis in a painting lies mainly with human figures.

The development of modernity and modernism naturally led to a need for a new, different understanding of modern nineteenth century painting as those by Manet and Monet than traditional interpretation, and in answer, Modernism was conceived. Modernist critics began to judge art with a new set of interpretive rules and advanced the notion of art for art’s sake. Clement Greenberg, a premiere Modernist art critic, contends that, in a system of art for art’s sake, art evolves autonomously in its own genres irrespective of historical and sociological influences, and to an extent the idea is valid. (Frascina, 13) To continue with Manet’s The Railway, it clearly distinguishes itself from traditional subject matter as earlier noted and furthermore, the features of his thin paint and sketchy brushwork also repudiates the traditional idea of a “finished work.” For Modernist critics, The Railway can be seen strictly as a natural response to all previous movements of painting such as Romanticism or the Renaissance, rather than a conglomerate of both artistic tradition and socio-historical and social influences.

For painting specifically, Modernism finds pride in its one distinct virtue different from all other art forms, namely, the two-dimensional flatness of canvas. Rather than using paint to create the illusion of depth as with the old masters of the past, Modernism experiences modern painting as works that expose the two-dimensionality of painting. One way to accomplish this is to reject the illusion of depth, and as a result, perspective and spatial distance, two valued attributes to painting, lose their affectivity, and viewers are made aware of the fact of only two dimensions. (Frascina, 84) The Railway is an example of the inclusion of two-dimensionality in a work. The iron bars that Manet paints across the entire canvas makes the illusion of depth impossible, (Herbert, 29) and the ambience around the two figures is created in irregular, sketchy brush-strokes, making the architecture and bridge in the background behind the iron grillwork hard to discern. Additionally, it allows the canvas to show through. (Frascina, 162)

Other departures from preceding paintings that The Railway exemplifies are the disregard for the accurate representation of shadows and a more active use of color. Specifically, Manet omits traditional gradations of gray to represent shadows, relying instead on his color pallet to indicate such changes in shadows of light. The face of the girl reading has no blacks or greys evident of shadows, instead different shades of pink and flesh tones are used. The dress of the little girl beside her also illustrates this use of color for shadows, Manet does not paint elaborate folds in the fabric to enhance the illusion of shadows and naturalness, rather Manet simply uses pleasant variations of blues and violets to indicate change in light. In the Modernist account, the unmasking of the flatness of painting and a new function of the color spectrum are methods by which modern painters branch themselves off from earlier painting.

But it is to be argued that Modernism is not enough to fully understand modernist painting. It does not make room for other aspects of The Railway. For instance, Modernism cannot explain the relationship between or the function of the two figures in the painting. Why does Manet turn the little girl away from us, and what is her relationship with the reader, if at all? And why is the reader looking directly at the viewer?

Postmodernism, a new system of interpretation following Modernism allows us to answer these questions about Manet’s composition. Not only does the postmodernist movement assess modernist painting, but it also evaluates Modernist aesthetic values. (Frascina, 143) Unlike Modernism, postmodernism recognizes the influence of social structures on modernist painting, and do not give credence to the idea that painting is a self-directed form separate from socio-historical and cultural changes. (Frascina, 128) Through the inclusion of the influences stemming from Manet’s new urban environment, postmodernism can indicate numerous reasons for his choice of composition in The Railway. With the advent of the railroad and the modernization of Paris, civilians increasingly found themselves near strangers yet also privileged to see the public stage of random, spontaneous instances of contemporary life. (Frascina, 9-10, 55) The Railway is one of Manet’s efforts to capture one of these ephemeral, evanescent encounters with fellow urbanites. The girl reading the magazine is indeed looking directly at us, thus including us as part of the painting. As we look at her, we recognize ourselves in the place of the typical citizen in contemporary life, the anonymous passerby glancing over even as we are moving. Additionally, Manet intentionally makes the relationship between the two figures ambiguous to reiterate the sense of one fleeting moment in time, when such details are lost and poignancy is unclear. (Herbert, 28) For postmodernism, this popular theme in modernist painting during the 1870s certainly would never have occurred had the artists not been exposed to such experiences constantly in their real every day life. (Frascina, 10)

A further differentiation between Modernism and postmodernism is their examination of the technical progressive use of sketchy brushstrokes. For postmodernism, the element of sketchy brushstrokes is not only to impart the value of the canvas, but is also an attempt by artists to convey the sense of a spontaneous moment in time. For post-modernists, originality is less important than the idea of a first response, hence the mottled and thin appearance of brushstrokes. They reflect a sense of urgency to catch a moment before it vanishes, and impart the impression of an intense concentration of simply getting all the paint on the canvas before the image is lost. This newer style of loose brushwork is ultimately another response of artists to depict the fluidity and fleeting temporal value of their contemporary life.

The modernization of Paris transformed the entire city and the lives of its dwellers, and art was transformed along with it. Moreover, through these new innovations of modern art, new interpretive theories of Modernism and postmodernism were founded. All these developments contribute to how we see art now, and we are the inheritors of a new understanding of the value of art as well as an even more enhanced appreciation for art: for its form, its function and its revelations to us about the human condition and its relationship with the world.

Texts of Reference

Frascina Francis, Blake, Nigel, Fer, Briony, Garb, Tamar, Harrison, Charles. Modernity and Modernism: French Painting in the Nineteenth Century. Yale University and The Open University, Hong Kong, 1993.

Herbert, Robert L. Impressionism: Art, Leisure, & Parisian Society. Yale University, Hong Kong, 1988.


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About the Author

Stella Tran graduated in the Liberal Arts with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Grinnell College and developed her professional experience in knowledge discovery and new media technology at Yahoo! Inc. (Read more.)
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