Reflections on modernism and Post modernism

Posted on by Ben Hodson

Modernism has forever transformed society, culture and the context within which all contemporary art is made.  It was a fundamentally floored but equally neccessary transition to come through.  The reaction to postmodernism has opened up the space in which an art can be practiced and freed the artist to question and challenge everything.  I am an artist in the tradition of Jeremy Deller.  His practice is based around the bringing together of concepts, projects and mediums. He regularly breaks conventions, works cross platform and cross media.  My own practice is similarly varied. This breaking down of barriers and moving across mediums is certainly a result and fruit of postmodernism, although I do not support much of its theoretical elements. In searching for context for my own work I find myself identifying with elements of altermodenism, metamodernism and remodernism.  Fundamentally I believe that art should interact, comment and even try and change the world, whilst still providing space for enjoying the shear beauty or challenging concept of a piece of art.  Art and cultural history will show how we characterise this current phase we are currently in.  Some even argue that since postmodernism, that even defining movements has become impossible.  Whether that is true or not, I hope that the art made today in this broken world we live in is celebrated for its ability to bring about positive change. 


Posted on by Ben Hodson

To understand modernism, it is worth first putting it in the context of the run up to the way of thinking called pre-modernity.  Pre-modernity in the widest sense was characterised by a time when there was ultimate truth and this truth exists outside of the individual.  There is also authoritative sources of this truth, which were largely religious scriptures and texts.  Art mostly responded and commented on these ultimate truths.  Pre-modern western art was still predominantly based on religious themes.  This was also before a lot of key changes in the west: - it was pre-enlightenment, pre-industrialisation, pre-colonialism and even pre-individualism.  All of these large cultural shifts that came dramatically affected the environment in which art was created and viewed. With the shift towards modernism came a far more logical and scientific outlook.  What was lost was some of the mysticism and the sense that there is more to existence then just what you could explain or prove.  This longing to bring back some of these elements led the way for post-modernism.

Explaining modernism

Posted on by Ben Hodson

Modernism as a term can be used to describe a number of different time frames and movements.  This can range from anything since the Renaissance 14th -17th Century (which interestingly coincides with the rise of capitalism) or since the mid – 19th century until the mid 20th century or even a specific style of art. For the purpose of this essay we will concentrate on the term as it is usually referred to in terms of art history.  Most modernists were utopian idealists, who believed that the new modern way of thinking would bring progress for the future.  This was built on scientific process and it reasoned that for something to exist you must be able to prove it. A modernist might reason, I will only believe what I can see and do.  “I think therefore I am.”( Descartes, 1985) This famous quote by René Descartes seems to me to sum up a lot of modernist thinking.


In terms of Western art, modernism originally gained pace from around 1850 with a succession of movements from the realism of Gustave Courbet, to its climax in abstract art in the 1960’s. Modernism self-consciously rejected old ways of doing things in exchange for the art of the present.  It proposed new methods on the grounds that they were better suited to the present.  It was characterised by constant progression, innovation and the notion of pure aesthetic experience. Some modernists argued that the universal meanings and truths in life could be communicated through the formal qualities in a piece of art work.  A few other key themes began to characterise it, including concepts of originality, newness, abstraction and of the artist expressing themself.  It was counter consumerist and mass culture. The literary critic Paul De Man explains it like this; “Modernity exists in the form of a desire to wipe out whatever came earlier, in the hope of reaching at least a point that could be called a true present, a point of origin that marks a new departure.” (De Man,1969).  This lead to the notion of the avant garde or the “forward guard”. It was first developed and embraced by modernist artists as a way to identify the cutting edge of contemporary art, design, writing and philosophy.  This promoted the idea that the forefront of art is and should be exclusive. It requires a highly developed sense of taste or aesthetic sensibility to understand it. It becomes elitist.

Artist: László Moholy-Nagy, the photogram & Modernism

Posted on by Ben Hodson

László Moholy-Nagy Photogram (Oval study) 1926

László Moholy-Nagy

In modernism, there are only a select few who are associated with the development of ideas and practises in the medium of photography.  However, one of these fathers of modern art is Hungarian born, László Moholy-Nagy.

Maholy-Nagy and his wife, Lucia Maholy, continually experimented with the photographic process and they soon developed a way of exposing light sensitive paper with objects overlaid on top of it, called a photogram.  I was fortunate to witness first hand a It is one of these photograms that we will now discuss.  “Oval study”/Photogram 1926 (above) was created while Maholy-Nagy was still at the Bauhaus in Germany.  The technique involves no negative and therefore has no need for a camera.  The photographic paper is directly exposed either using the enlarger or a lamp as the light source.  This technique puts the emphasis onto the artist and removes the human-machine relationship the photographer usually contends with.  This photogram has been created using a number of different objects which have been added and removed at different stages of the exposure.  Maholy-Nagy had complete control over the arrangement of objects and the manipulation of light.  It is too hard to hazard a guess at the identity of the specific objects.  However, there appears to be an egg shaped object, alongside some long thin lines, which almost mimic guitar strings.  This photograms heightens our intrigue by posing endless questions behind his intentions, leaving it open for each individual’s own interpretation. 

The egg shape appears to be the most striking of the objects, not just because of it’s shape but how Maholy-Nagy leaves it stationary/exposed for the longest amount of time creating a dominant glow. As for the rest of the photo, the overall impression is one of drama, which is heightened by the strong contrast.  He purposefully moves each item as he exposes it to the light which in turn creates an eerie feel through the faint shadows/silhouettes it leaves behind. This gives a more three-dimensional feel to the objects, drawing them out of the photogram.

As well as the egg, are eyes are also drawn by his clever mix of hard line formation and soft tones. The lines lead our eyes very naturally from the bottom right to the top left. (Left) I have inverted the tones to put emphasis on the main shapes, forms and compositional elements.  The composition does not fit into normal photographic compositional rules, such as the rule of thirds, which Ansel Adams pioneered at a similar time.  However, I find the image has a great deal of pictorial rhythm  

His careful use and arrangement of the objects please a pure aesthetic desire for both the artist and us the viewer.  This photogram is a prime example of modernist ideals in practise.  To explain this, there is first a need to explore what modernism is.   

In Western art, Modernism self-consciously rejected the past as a model for the art of the present.  This is where the route of the name modernist or modern art comes from.  Modernism proposes new forms of art on the grounds that these are better suited to the present time.  Therefore, it is characterised by constant innovation and progression.  Maholy-Nagy was noted for having these characteristics and his teachings strongly backed up these ideas.  Modernists believed that one could communicate the universal meanings of life through the formal qualities in a piece of work.  Throughout modernism the belief in these formal qualities and the notion of a pure aesthetic experience were major themes.  Modernism originally gained pace from about 1850.  It usually refers to the succession of art movements that critics and historians have identified from the realism of Gustave Courbet, to its climax in abstract art and its developments up to the 1960’s.  By this time Modernism had become a dominant area of art and soon provoked a reaction which was quickly dubbed Postmodernism.  Having said this, many critics still recognise that forms of late modernism still remain right into the 21st century, although the main ideas have been increasingly challenged.

As I have previously stated, there are only a few photographers who were associated with the avant guard of modernism. The cubist and dadist inspired photogram experiments of Christian Schad had in turn inspired the American born, Man Ray.   Man Ray pushed the creative and technical possibilities of this process which he dubbed “rayographs”.  Through his famous photograms, Man Ray became recognised as a major international influence and was associated with artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia. Like Maholy-Nagy, Man Ray started out using paint and even sculpture instead of the photographic process. However, he soon went onto push the boundaries of light manipulation and is now recognised as one of the great masters of the photographic medium.  There are a few other artists/photographers which are worth mentioning, however, Man Ray has interesting similarities in his work, to that of Maholy-Nagy.  It is interesting that Maholy-Nagy claimed that he discovered the photogram without knowing the works of either Man Ray or Christian Schad.

As a technique I enjoy the process, as an artist I find him inspiring.  However, as an athesetic I find most modernist or specifically mimilaist styled imagery such as this lacking something.  I think this is due to a lot of my ideals have been shaped by post-modernism.  I do not concider myself or my own work post-modernist, but I do beleive that art needs to engage with the world and its issues.

Either way you cannot reject the importance he has had on the modern history of photography.

Further references:

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy: The Art of Light by Oliva Maria Rubio, Vicenzo Vitiello, Hattula Moholy-Nagy and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (Sep 30, 2010)

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy: The Photograms by Herbert Molderings, Renate Heyne, Hattula Moholy-Nagy and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (Jan 31, 2010) Accessed November 2010, used for historical records and biographical information.