Modernism & Avant-Garde

Movements are formed around a core – an idea, ideal or ideology through word or picture, the principles on which the respective movements are founded (Heller, 2003).


Modernism is the concept used to describe an extremely diverse range of innovative and experimental practices, covering the period from 1880 to 1939 (Wallace, 2011). It is less than a single, consistent ‘movement’ than a retrospective, multifaceted category which is categorized by the invention, dissolution and recombination of genres and their boundaries (Wallace, 2011). Modernists sought to find new forms to express their understanding and vision of modernity. Paul Cézanne is often regarded of the founding figure of this revolutionary movement of the early twentieth century (Wallace, 2011).

“All things, particularly in art, are theory developed and applied in contact with nature. Painting is not only to copy the object, it is to seize a harmony between numerous relations”. Paul Cézanne

Four criteria to describe modernism includes aesthetic, self-consciousness or reflexivity; simultaneity, juxtaposition or ‘montage’; paradox, ambiguity and uncertainty; and ‘dehumanization’ or the demise of the integrated humanist self, as explained by Eugene Lunn. Some  examples of modernism include the Eiffel Tower, Charlie Chaplin movies and works from Pablo Picasso (Wallace, 2011).

Modernism is “the moment at which art stops making sense” (Wallace, 2011, p. 14).

Postmodernism implies a current relationship with modernism; the prefix refers to a period stretching from the early 1960’s through to the present (Wallace, 2011). The term is often used to denote a condition of contemporary culture (Wallace, 2011).


The term ‘avant-garde’ translates to advanced guard (Hollis, 2001). Its first use as a cultural term is associated with French socialist Henri de Saint-Simon (Wallace, 2011). Avant-garde artists were seen as crucial members of the elite that would lead societies into future transformation (Wallace, 2011). The movement gained momentum in the nineteenth century gave rise of innovative art while challenging the values of the establishments (Wallace, 2011). This movement was characterized by the desire to rupture tradition and attack the institutions through fragmented, curious collections, unexpected juxtapositions and the interaction between random findings.

Salvador Dali was a key artistic in the avant-garde movement. He was a master of surrealism, which took the avant-garde movement to a whole new level.

The avant-garde movement disappeared when people began to market, sell and ultimately approve of the work and the artists. Andy Warhol was the last of the dying breed and the movement died shortly after they did. The avant-garde movement roughly ended around 1970.

Avant-garde is clearly distinguished from modernism by virtue of the latter’s determination to undermine the institution of art (Wallace, 2011).


The foundations of modern art were laid by the avant-garde movement (Hollis, 2001). The internet has had a major impact on the transmission of ideas to large audiences all over the globe (Heller, 2003). The principles of modernism and avant-garde are visible in current design (Hollis, 2001). Traditionally, words and the alphabet were used symmetrically in a hierarchy of importance (Hollis, 2001). Current, designers often push boundaries to shock their audience and create higher visual interest. Modernism and avant-garde movements influenced design principles in our postmodernist era.

By Katie Solon

Useful Links

These links offer information on artists and movements.


Wallace, J. (2011). Beginning modernism. New York, NY: Palgrove Macmillan.

Hollis, R. (2001). Graphic design: A concise history. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson.

Heller, S. (2003). Merz to emigre and beyond: Avant-garde magazine design of the twentieth century. New York, NY: Phaidon Press Limited.


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