Back to the future: new art and the modernist revival

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Modernist reflections: the role of art

German art now
Marinetti: Zan Tum Tum

Modernism's own reaction to the past, though intense, was a reasoned one. Endlessly underpinned by critique and theory, of all the catalysts which have changed the face of western art, modernism was probably the most widely discussed by those who effected the changes.

Gert and Uwe Tobias, twin brothers principally known for their largescale wood-cut prints, not only reflect modernist aesthetics in their imagery, but also echo the function and value that printed matter held for many of its movements.

Blast - the Vorticists
Blast: the Vorticist manifesto

Experiments with graphic design and, especially, typeface, formed a central aspect of early 20th century art, allowing for statements both visual and lexical that were cheaply reproducible and easy to disseminate. The wide array of manifestos, pamphlets and essays promoting modernist thought are almost as fundamental to its evolution as the experimental artworks themselves.


Which leads to an important question. At what point did twentieth century artists start to sidestep critical frameworks, seemingly placing little priority on the intellectual definition of their own work?

Although copious debate exists regarding the work of Jeff Koons, for example, little of value has been provided by Koons himself, who is notorious for the incoherence of his comments regarding art in general.

Other major players in the late 20th century art field such as Murakami and Hirst generally fare little better. By contrast, even the remarkably recalcitrant Warhol, whose practice these artists selectively emulate, provided some sort of basis to his thinking with 'The Philosophy of Andy Warhol' (1975).

The inference here is not that lack of intellectual rigour fails to meet some kind of suppositional standard; but as art history constantly demonstrates, artistic prerequisites are a shifting, mercurial notion largely set by artists themselves.

And according to new German art, the contemporary zeitgeist has altered to favour substance just as highly as style.


Artistic values: modernism and morality

Artists at the start of the 20th century may have been calling for radical change, but in one overwhelming respect they maintained an inviolable link with generations past.

And this was a belief in art as a guiding principle, a morally responsible endeavour with specific social, political and even spiritual roles to perform.

German art now and the modernist tendency
images © Bernd Ribbeck

Bernd Ribbeck's carefully crafted works (left) seem to bear salient characteristics of early geometric abstraction, but his stated sources of inspiration are, in fact, far removed from conventional movements.

Instead, he cites mystic artists such as Sweden's Hilda af Klimt or Switzerland's Emma Kunz, (below left) for whom art-making was an intrinsically spiritual process (even though both uncannily mirrored early developments in abstraction almost exactly as they were taking place).

Emma Kunz and her influence on Bernd Ribbeck
Emma Kunz

Dani Jakob, mentioned previously, has also created works in which the legacy of these artists and their singular view of artistic meaning forms a key reference (below).

Yet the exponents of modernism itself were likewise visionaries in their own way. For Ribbeck, a further influence is 'die glaserne Kette' - the so-called 'Crystal Chain' of correspondence which took place between a small group of architects and artists from 1919-1920.

Exchanging visions of an ideal society and the form its architecture should take, their unfettered attempts to redefine a possible future are steadfast in their utopian concern.

Dani Jakob
image © Dani Jakob

The fact that one of the group's members was Walter Gropius, who began his own transformation of the Weimar School of Arts and Crafts into the Bauhaus the same year the letters were begun, underlines the profoundly ideological aspect of his endeavour.

The moral, spiritual and intellectual value of art was never in doubt for any modernist; nor even to the Soviets or Nazis who eventually set about repressing 'bourgeois' or 'degenerate' production in favour of heroic realism attuned to party propoganda.

Of course, it can always be argued that the increasing superficiality of late 20th century art is precisely what made it relevant to a society in which traditional values were fast being replaced by more mercenary concerns; and for this reason it will always remain both valid and fascinating.

Michael Bauer - modernist influence
image © Michael Bauer

It's also clear that, for all its utopian fervour, modernism was time and again doomed to see its faith in progress shattered, not least by two world wars (painter Michael Bauer (left) is perhaps the most explicit in this respect, sullying his canvases with smudges of paint and pairing the clarity of Kandinsky-esque motifs with grotesquely misshapen human forms).

The point, however, is that whereas pioneers of modern abstraction fought to redefine a status quo, much recent art has simply chosen to reflect a prevailing one, actively supporting practices that amount to little more than commercial enterprise.

Artists themselves now appear to reject such complacency, and to prove it, turn to a movement which was shatteringly new yet retained key values. The modernist revival pays homage to the past, not merely in visual terms, but through identification with its intellectual aims; re-embracing a movement that was earnest in its attempt to re-define a world in flux.

If a new, more conscientious era in art practice is about to dawn, German artists are once again leading the way.

Mike Brennan, January 2009

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