Modernism, Postmodernism and the Destruction of Hierarchy
Modernism was a Western philosophy that viewed the traditions of the past as limiting to the new emerging order of the late 19th century. Old hierarchies came under attack and the visual arts did not escape. Let’s take a look at how the dismantling of previous structures in visual language was manifested in Modernist and Post Modernist art. As usual I’m generalising and giving a broad overview, with a linear view of history. This is intentional so as to get the point across in as few words as possible.
Manet is the the father of Modernist painting. ‘Olympia’ depicts a nude woman lying on a bed looking at the viewer. She is clearly nothing epic as the title suggests, but in fact a prostitute in a brothel, which implicates the viewer as a customer. Here Manet has severed the traditional hierarchy of divine myths and legends getting channeled through the painting to inspire aw in the viewer. We are now earth-bound, in a simple transaction for the purposes of pure carnal pleasure. There is no history to the subject matter, the colour palette is dull and the paint handling unpolished. Divine inspiration is gone, and the relationship between the viewer and the subject matter has been flattened.
Another traditional hierarchy in Painting was the spatial relationship between the viewer and the painting. Generally this relationship placed the viewer in front of a ‘window’ onto an illusionistic world that receded somewhat logically from the foreground to the background as an extension of the viewer’s space from his feet into the distance. Cezanne’s paintings began to dismantle this ‘hierarchy of space’ by closing the distance between foreground and background through interlocking planes that would usually have been used to differentiate objects from one another. He also systematised his brush strokes to given an ‘all over’ effect that compromised the separation of foreground and background. Spatial hierarchies are literally becoming flattened into an ‘equalised’ sense of composition. The viewer of the time increasingly found themselves standing in front of something more resembling a wall than a window.
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