Monday, 23 January 2012



At the turn of the 20th century there was great change in western society with huge leaps in our understanding of the sciences, the human mind, weapons and our place in the universe. These changes where brought about by the minds of people like Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein who changed the way we viewed the world and each other. These changes resonated in the visual arts as well with the beginning of modernism, which rejected conformity and tradition and looked fully into the future with a form over function mentality. Artists and illustrators began to create work for the common man in a style that was simple and understandable, many movements sprang up which believed in these core principles as well as a strong believe that all men where created equal. One of these movements was constructivism, which developed in 1913 Russia; its aesthetics changed the art world and can still be seen in todays graphics and illustration with its jagged, abstract shapes slanting in bizarre directions. In the propaganda and posters of the day the workingman was illustrated as a hero and a utopian vision was depicted with factories, cars, plane, trains and modern machines. The constructivist style truly spoke a universal language, which is a sharp contrast to art of the last century, which depicted those with money for those with money. Such art came from movements like art nouveau with its flowing shapes and angelic women or realism where the style was heavily steeped in traditional techniques. In the fine art world there was also a great change happening with artists like Picasso, Duchamp and Mondrian turning traditional art practice on its head with artistic movements like Futurism and cubism which where brought about with the invention of the camera. The western world was changing at an ever-quickening pace into the world we are living in today and modernism depicted that change.


Alexander Rodchenko's poster for Battleship Potemkin
In this illustration by Alexander Rodchenko we can see how the use of bold shapes and clear clean typography was used to get the message across. The image of the machinery and weapons illustrated to the people the power and forward thinking of their country and inspired them to take part in the effort for development. The guns look as if they are coming towards you and they lead the eye in and up the to the type which was the most import thing to the illustrator as the constructivist ideology was function over form.

John Hartfield

In this humours satirical photomontage of Hitler, John Hartfield gets his point across with a simple composition with only a few images used. Many people at the time would have found this funny but a serious message is still illustrated as Hitler’s power was growing in Germany and the threat of war loomed. A picture can say a thousand words; this one says a lot more and speaks a universal language.

George Grosz

In this satirical illustration we see George Grosz’s interpretation the injustices that where going on at the time with the rich businessmen looking almost demonic and truly evil. The weight of line in the foreground breaks up the image well and only after we have looked at the ugly figures in the foreground do we see the suffering figures in the background and the money the businessmen are hoarding away from them.

Graham Sutherland

Graham Sutherland, one of Brittan’s most influential artists had an extremely abstract approach to the British landscape finding the most bizarre shapes in the environment he was studying. He took this abstract approach to the posters he did as well which have thrown off all the classical techniques of the previous century. This illustration for shell is shocking to the viewer with its extreme dark shadows and razor sharp clouds.

Paul Colin

In this illustration we see a pianist playing at two very abstract pianos, which break the image up into bold shapes. The illustrator puts down only what he felt necessary for the image to get the feeling and meaning across. All information that is not necessary to the function of displaying information is discarded.

Quotes and citations

“The new society might have a use for propaganda and design, but none for paintings and monuments.” (Bell J, 2007: 388)

I chose the quote above because I feel it sums what was happening in the art and design world at the time. Illustrators and artists where producing work that the every day man could understand and appreciate instead of the heavily traditional art of the last century like art nouveau with its curvy shapes and floral patters or romanticism with its fantastical dreamlike landscapes and romantic scenarios.

“Let us then create a new guild of craftsmen without the class distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist! Together let us desire, conceive, and create the new structure of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity...” (Gropius W, 1919: 1)

I chose this statement as I think it illustrates the general feeling of artists and designers at the time who where tired of the stale old traditions of their art schools. Many leading artists of the day where expelled from their colleges for having radicle art and ideas as modernism was trying to be everything art wasn’t before.

“ educate men and women to understand the world they lived in and to invent and create forms symbolizing the world” (Bartram, 2004, p. 11).

This statement about the beliefs of Bauhaus students and tutors is a very modernist believe as they made objects and art with a function over form belief, simplifying objects to their most abstract form.
Critical analysis

Modernism was not one single movement and had no set of rules or manifesto. This makes it hard to write about as a single thing especially when its concerning illustration. It was many movements with many artists spanning a great length of time.

When I think of modernism I think of the beginning of the 20th century and the entrance into a new age of machines and science. I imagine angles and bold shapes that mirrored the machinery and weaponry of the day. I have gone through the essay with the words of Louis Sullivan in my head "form ever follows function". This famous saying makes me think of Bauhaus and the constructivist posters which where used to get across a point to the viewer and not to bother with aesthetics. Since looking into these posters and other modernist work I being to think that some of these pieces of work are more beautiful in their own right than much of the art from the previous century. They have incredible compositions and give such a real feeling of power and presence that I thoroughly enjoy. I love the speed and machinery depicted in the work of the futurists and I find the movement in them far more enthralling and athletically enticing than most of the romantic painters of previous generations.

“The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects..” Adolf Loos, 1908 cited in Banham R, 1999: 18)

I chose this quote as I feel it sums up what I have envisaged modernism to be. I do feel though that the minimal and the strive for form over function can be a beautiful thing which one may not at first fully respect.


Unknown. (). Modernism. Available: Last accessed Sunday, 22

Kat Davis. (Sunday, 28 February 2010). Otto Dix. Available: Last accessed Sunday, 22

Adrian Searle. (Tuesday 10 February 2009). At full tilt. Available: Last accessed Sunday, 22 January 2012.

Joerg Colberg. ( Sep 17, 2008). John Heartfield. Available: Last accessed Sunday, 22 January 2012.

Unknown. (2000). Graham Sutherland . Available: Last accessed Sunday, 22 January 2012

Nick Finck. (October 29, 2001). Form vs. Function: Finding the Balance. Available: Last accessed Sunday, 22 January 2012.