The People Who Influenced Modernism

Modernist writers explored the theories of Charles Darwin in a social context.
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Modernism, a broad movement that dominated much of 20th century art, developed in reaction to stale artistic forms and what the Modernists saw as the depersonalization of modern life. Modernists drew inspiration from the philosophical investigations of 19th century writers, in addition to experimental forerunners in their own mediums. An investigation into the key areas of Modernism reveals influences among a variety of 19th and early 20th century thinkers and artists.

1 Philosophical Foundations

Modernists reacted strongly against the belief that material progress always benefits humanity. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer did much to debunk 19th century optimism, and characterized the universe as inherently irrational. Modernists’ questioning of philosophical Rationalism, which took for granted creation's underlying logic, also found support in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose existentialist philosophy held that reality originated and ended in individual experience. Many Modernists took a dim view of religion, and cited the theories of Charles Darwin as the true natural order. Karl Marx’s theories inspired allegiance among modernists who saw capitalism as destructive and degrading to the human spirit.

2 Influences in Literature

Modernist literature sought to explode the confines of realism, and utilized strategies like stream of consciousness monologues. The theories of Sigmund Freud, with the emphasis on subconscious motivations, was influential to Modernist writers. The Russian Fyodor Dostoevsky explored his characters' mental travails and spiritual anguish, a focus that inspired Modernist writers such as Knut Hamsun, Marcel Proust and James Joyce. The American poet Walt Whitman revolutionized the concept of poetic form, and his “Leaves of Grass” served as a foundational text for Modernist poetry. French writer Arthur Rimbaud inspired Modernists with his symbolic poems and unconventional, obscene subject matter.

3 Influences in Art and Architecture

Modernism in the visual arts, often associated with post-World War II Abstract Expressionism, has an extensive pedigree that includes movements like Cubism, Surrealism, Impressionism and Fauvism. These movements can be traced to Edouard Manet, whose experiments in form and color built upon the Pre-Raphaelite’s refutation of realism. Modernist architecture, which includes the Bauhaus group and Brutalist style, sought to dispense with the extravagant indulgences of previous styles. Walter Gropius, the mastermind of the Bauhaus, studied the designs of William Morris, who sought to combine utility with a design aesthetic reflective of the proletarian struggle. Brutalism, embodied in the constructions of Le Corbusier, drew upon Utopian socialism in an effort to bring practical efficiency to urban planning.

4 Influences in Music

Schopenhauer's ideas had an influence on Richard Wagner and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the two composers most responsible for the development of Modernism in music. Rimsky-Korsakov served as the personal instructor of Igor Stravinky, whose “Rites of Spring” stands as one of the most recognizable Modernist compositions. Stravinsky also acknowledged the importance of Wagner, whose bombastic operas embodied the concept of the “total work of art” that Stravinsky himself would elaborate upon. Arnold Schoenberg, the Modernist composer who developed the concepts of atonality and musical minimalism, made his own first experiments in form through interpretations of Wagner’s work.

Douglas Matus is the travel writer for "West Fort Worth Lifestyle" magazine, and spent four years as the Director of Humanities for a college-prep school in Austin. Since 2005, he has published articles on education, travel and culture in such publications as "Nexus," "People's World" and "USA Today." Matus received an Education Pioneers fellowship in 2010 and an MFA from CalArts in 2011.