Contextual Studies 8: Materials and Technology

Subject matter in early modernism is more about how something is done than what it was depicting. Meaning the subject matter was secondary to the aesthetics. One key aspect of modernism is that they were very committed to experimentation and progress. They were interested in Avant-garde expression, meaning to be at the front of something and pushing boundaries. Commitment to Avant-garde goes into all aspects of modernism, including materials and technologies.

  1. Traditional materials in art:

Painting: from the 15th century (1400’s) oil paint on canvas, wood or fresco was the main material used for painting.

Sculpture: materials were fairly restricted using stone, bronze, marble and metal.

This sculpture is made of stone and is part of the gothic architecture. It becomes part of the fabric of the building and is very elongated in style.


This a very famous statue made of bronze by Donatello. Bronze is an ancient material, it started to be used in 2000BC. It is a traditional material associated with ancient civilisation, it is a mixture of copper and tin. It is very durable and that is why it is important. It has a special coating on it which is what gives it its colour, on most old sculptures you can see the pattern wares off in certain places, often from people rubbing past.


Here is a 19th century sculpture by Canova. This is made of marble which is considered to be a noble material that is very expensive and fragile in some ways, but once its made it has the feeling of permanence.


Here is another sculpture from the  19th century which is a stone sculpture. Again on a building becoming part of the architecture


This sculpture is from the late 19th to early 20th century and is made with bronze, an early modernist material. There is a very similar statue of Queen Victoria in most towns in England and is usually in stone, sometimes marble. Stone has the feeling of permanence and is a suitable material.




2. Futurist sculpture : Umberto Boccioni (1912)

Main points: the main idea of futurism is about interesting movement like dynamism. The following images are futurist paintings, Italian artists paintings representing the growth of the city. The beginning of the twentieth century saw huge changes to a city living environment and that is what this first painting is about. Buildings and scaffolding visible in the background, horses working on the site with the men to build a new city. Gives a busy and hectic feeling by the use of frantic brush strokes giving the feeling of dynamism, the feeling of movement.

The futurists were all about trying to bring Italy into the modern times, into the twentieth century. They were founded in 1909 right at the beginning of the twentieth century. The ‘Manifesto’ talked about their ideas, it was quite passionate they suggested burning down all the museums and all the works of art in order to drag Italy into the twentieth century as it was focused too much on ancient art such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michael Angelo and they wanted to get rid of all that. It is not surprising that they brought new ideas with new use of materials.

The Dog on a Leash is bringing in dynamism but the speed of sound is more abstract showing the disturbance of the atmosphere as something goes through at speed.

The below images stole ideas from cubism and their fragmentation of movement. Futurists stated things have to change, we have to reflect new city urban life.

The futurists wrote all sorts of manifesto’s, one on women, clothing, food and all other aspects of life that needed to change.


Futurist Sculpture:

 His sculptures are semi-abstract, he say is his text that sculptures should be environmental. He’s saying that sculpture should not be just the object but show the object with what is around it also. So in the above sculpture he doesn’t want to just show the rider, he also wants to show what is in the background which is the house. He has melded together the experience of the horse and rider going past the house. In the same way that the painting try to depict how the air is disrupted by something passing at speed, etc. He is trying to synthesise and give the viewer an idea of what is happening at that moment, all together.


Referring to text; Umberto Boccioni, Extract from ‘Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture’ (1912) in Umbro Appoliona (ed.) , Futurist Manifestos, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973) p64&5.

In very general terms his message is regarding the use of material but materials which are not usually to do with art. The non art material that he suggests are light, and human hair. His idea was to get rid of these traditional materials that are used in sculpting, anything can be used. Up till this point a statue was usually made of one material such as marble or bronze, but he is suggesting combining them and mixing them. He states that the subject matter is not of figurative value, meaning that they don’t have to look real or recognisable form. He’s suggesting an abstract approach to sculpture, he says ‘achieve an abstract reconstruction of planes and volume in order to obtain the form’. It doesn’t have to look like something in the real work. He is very insistent about this.


Interpretation of Head with Window; the frame of the window is visible, looking a little like a cross or crucifix in the background. The head is visible, he is trying to show the whole environment not just a head on its own, but where it is in the room etc.

Head and House with Light; a complex sculpture, it is quite hard to get the narrative. It is evident how this fits in with his manifesto and what he is trying to do. He is trying to put together the object that he is depicting, but in its surroundings in an abstract way. He says its false just to have a solitary object there, because things aren’t ever just a solace object, they are always in an environment.




 The statue on the right is trying to show movement. It is a figure that is taller than a human and is of mechanical features, looks like a robot or an alien.

The one on the left is like a 3D version of a cubist painting. So it is evident to see where he is coming from. Commitment to progress was very important to the futurists and what they were trying to do with sculpture. The aim was to take sculpture on and move it forwards to another stage that reflects modern life and complexity. A real emphasis on change for new technology and new materials.

3. Josef Albers (1888-1976)

Referring to reading; Josef Albers, On My Glass Wall Paintings (1933)

Albers was born in 1888 so he was 40 years old when this text was written. Albers is a very important artist, he attended the Bauhaus School in Germany.  The school was trying to meld and bring together all of the arts and crafts, saying that artist’s should be trained in all of those areas. Albers also designed furniture, glass ware, and he painted making him a multi talented artist. He was the first ex student of Bauhaus to be asked to be a teacher there so he was ahead of his time. From 1922 he was in charge of the glass workshop, which is what he is referring to in his text. He’s talking about the glass paintings that he did.

The text is written with non of the sentences having a capital letter at the beginning of them, He has put full stops but there are no capital letters which is presumably a decision that he made as an experiment to change the writing. He’s talking about sand blasted glass which is a new way of working for him, he’s not talking about traditional use of glass. He’s talking about a new kind of picture. He states in his text ‘they are not assembled but are single panes of glass’ so its not like stained glass, it has got lots of little bits of glass put together. Albers is saying it is a new kind of picture due to the materials he uses. He says ‘it is significantly determined by the materials’. Glass is a difficult material to work with and determines what the picture will look like, you can’t just make the glass do what ever you want. He has to take into account what glass will do. The brittleness and the colour is a limitation for him, he can only get certain colours as he can’t modulate them. He can’t have different colours due to the technique that he is using, which is sand blasting and cutting. It is a single pane picture with another single pane of glass on top. One of the good things for him about these pictures is that they can be mass produced.

Here are some examples of his glass paintings:


They would be described as abstract or partially abstract. The beaker is a vessel for liquid and it is visible, so his work is narrative to some extent. He’s abstracted the form.

A pergola is a structure that is in a garden to grow things over made out of wood or metal. The form is evident, so he is taking a figurative object and he’s abstracting it.



The cable drums are evident. The flying painting could be a flight path, wings of a plane or birds eye view. The paintings are semi abstract as it is visible what they are but probably only if the title is known, otherwise they look abstract. They have limited colours, this is because he can’t modulate the colour, they are not very big they are 36 by 30cm. So they are figurative but abstractive. Albers is using glass not trying to make the glass do what he wants it to do, so the material here becomes as important as the subject matter as it determines what he can do. He’s interested in the properties of the glass material, he wanted a smooth and polished finish that was almost machine like. It is like new art for a new age, he is saying this is a new machine age so I’m going to produce art that is suitable for that kind.


4. Russian Constructivists (1920s)

Russia was a very changed place in the 1920’s as it became industrial and the governance of Russia were deposed, they had to flee some of them were killed and there was a resolution. 1917 was the Russian Revolution, they got rid of the monarchy and said we want a more equal society and was the beginning of the communist regime in Russia. 1917 beginning of the Soviet Union lots of little countries became part of the union. In1921 the government decided that all art produced in Russia must be functional, all art must contribute to building a new nation. They didn’t want artist’s in their studio experimenting, they wanted art for ordinary people. They were interested in Albers and wanted machine art, so they rejected conventional paintings and artist’s who experimented just for their own sake, like the Parisian artist’s. Some artist’s at this time had to leave Russia.


Gabo and Pevsner were interested in experimenting with form, they wanted to create beautiful art. They were told either you bring your art in line with government ideas or you go, so they emigrated to the US. Other Russian artist’s of this time who were called constructivists as they were helping to construct a new Russian nation, a new Soviet Union. They had to make art that were seen as useful or functional, e.g. textile design became very important.

Vavara Stepanova was a textiles designer but did lots of other things also.

Lapsina design contains light bulbs representative of machine and new technology. So textile designs that actually depicted new technology, not flowers, dots or stripes. It clear to see that these artist’s were doing what the government wanted them to which was to show them how our technology is developing. The designs tended to be abstract or depict modern technology.

Dress design was also part of this move to make art functional so artist’s were involved in designing clothing, the idea of communism was that everybody should have access to the same things. These things were produced and then very widely distributed as affordable clothing for everybody.


Here is a work suit designed for women by Stepanova. All of their artistic training went into this functional things. Russian artist’s designed things that were useful and accessible for everybody. George Grosz, after world war 1 in Berlin wrote a statement stating ‘don’t shut yourself off in the studio experimenting, go to a meeting and hear what normal people are saying and make your art express the problems of ordinary people’.


Sports wear was also a big thing as in the Soviet Union they said we want a healthy population so everybody will do sport, and they can wear these fabulous outfits designed by Stepanova. They were very modern and bold designs.


Here is a famous poster designed by Rodchenko. The design is very striking, it was a photomontage for a famous actress in the Soviet Union and she is shouting ‘Books’. There was a propaganda campaign to get people to read and this poster was a part of it. Bold colour, bold design, angular and modernist.

Rodchenko was a graphic artist but also painted, see images below. His paintings tended to be explorations into technology and there was a real move to unite science and art in the Serviet Union. They said our artist’s and scientist’s should be working together on the development of the new nation. A lot of Rodchenko’s paintings reflects ideas of space, science and technology.

This is Rodchenko and Stepanove, they were married. They were a very important couple in the constructivist movement both completely committed to an art that was useful for the society that they lived in.


The work of the constructivists involved architectural ideas that go between sculpture and architecture. There are lots of designs from this time for buildings and stage sets. The news paper kiosk were very futuristic designs and often more to do with spreading information. News papers became very important in the Soviet Union as they wanted everybody to know what was going on, or more their version of what was going on. They were widely distributed and artist’s and architect’s thought of all these new ideas how to do this, how to have mechanised newspaper kiosks. Most of these were never realised and were more like fantasy ideas, they had this idea of a huge screen at the top of the kiosk that would broadcast the news live. They didn’t have the technology for that they were just ideas really.

On the right there are a couple of stage sets, which are huge in scale. Part of this idea of having a healthy and educated population were everyody was equal being able to read, play sport, got to the theatre etc. Lots of artist’s were involved in building stage sets, usually very industrial looking and large scale, using metal and modern materials.


Here is a Stepanove design for The Evening of the Book which was a festival to encourage people to read. These artist’s were involved in a broadening of the idea of what art could be and what kind of materials and technologies it might contain.


Tatlin was a famous constructivist architect and builder. A lot of his designs were based of flying machines, aeronautics and aerodynamic objects. He was also involved with stage design, see image below. He created huge scale, abstract and modern stage designs where there is nothing figurative.

Tatlin also made sculptures. These are fragmented objects that are made form mixed materials both art and non art materials. They look contemporary and it is a relief, which is like a picture but it comes away from the picture, so its a mixture of 3D and 2D. He produced object that are ball based but are 3D also, rejecting ideas of the sculpture or statue.


Tatlin also did all of the other things that constructive artist’s did and below is some of the work clothing that he designed. He also designed stoves due to the cold weather in Russia and this seat. It is contemporary and modern, appears ahead of its time. It came out of his experiments with aeronautics and is made with wood, the technique for bending wood in a way that was very strong and flexible, is a late 19th century thing that Tatlin experimented with see what the pressure points were. He realised that it was much more flexible than people thought it was so he made this seat which has a spring like mechanism.

His main discipline was design and architecture and he designed a Monument. This is a model of it that is large scale for a building that was never built. It was deigned for an event in 1921 which was a congress of communist’s which was going to be in St Petersburg, which was like a rival to the Eiffel Tower. It was going to be 1300ft high which would have been the biggest man made structure in the world, and it was going to be made of steel. It was meant to be a meeting place for international, and national discussion and debate. Inside the structure were going to be three shapes that would be meeting rooms in different shapes, such as a cone, a cube and a cylinder made of glass. The room were intended to rotate, one at the rate of once per year, one once per month and one once per week. It wasn’t built as Tatlin’s ideas were way beyond what was possible in term of resources in Russia at that time.

Artists and works:

Naum Gabo (1890-1977) Antoine Pevsner (1884-1962)

Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956)

Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958)


Materials become part of the art, they become the meaning of it. They are supposed to be noticed and they are not just there to be manipulated into what ever the artist’s want them to be. Non of this replaced traditional materials, there were still lots of artist’s using oil paint on canvas, marble and bronze etc. They didn’t replace them but they displaced them, rejecting the hierarchical ideas.

This entry was posted in Contextual Studies and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s