Contextual Studies 9: Disciplines in Early Modernism

1. What are disciplines?

Disciplines are types of art such as painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, fashion, graphic design and arts and craft.

2. Importance of materials in Modernism:


Josef Albers

Albers paintings are done on glass, they were different to previous glass paintings as they were layered on top of each other rather than bits of glass put together. They were sandblasted and he was limited by his material by the modulated colour and shape, due to glass being very brittle and could only be cut in a certain way. Albers work was shaped by the material due to its form.

Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse in ‘Notes of a Painter’ (1908) in Art in Theory, p72/l.21-34

Suppose I have to paint an interior: I have before me a cupboard; it gives me a sensation of vivid red, and I put down a red which satisfies me. A relation is established between this and the white of the canvas. Let me put a green near the red, and make the floor yellow; and again there will be relationships between the green or yellow and the white of the canvas…I am forced to interpret nature and submit it to the spirit of the picture.

Matisse uses paint which is a very traditional material but he is letting the material take over. The painting evolves on its own, he starts with the subject matter, but that comes less and less important. Harmony of colour is important for Matisse, the materials and way of using them becomes as important as the subject matter. This is very different to earlier artist’s who produced very polished work, they almost disguised the material in the painting Matisse said it doesn’t matter if you can see the brush strokes, or the canvas through it I’m not trying to pretend that I am not using these materials.


In 1904 at the age of 28, Brancusi decided that the place to be at the forefront of art was Paris. He walked there from Romania, and started working there. He was interested in the art he saw around him. All artist’s were exploring the nature of their own discipline, how it worked, what the materials were etc. exploring this early modernism idea of questioning. Modernism is self conscious, when your self conscious about something you suddenly start questioning yourself, why am I doing that? what else can it do? what do other people think of it? Art at this time started to question itself, what is art? who is it for? what is the role of the artist?

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957)

Portrait of a woman in the same boarding house as him, also a young artist. He’s exaggerating and distorting things to express a certain aspect. The eye area is very big, its not very realistic, its abstract and lacks a lot of detail. He’s narrowing down the detail, it’s very roughly made and he explored this theme with different materials.

Brancusi, Mlle Pogany, 1912/13,14

He gets simpler and simpler with his work. The marble is visible, he’s bringing out the texture of the material he is using. These statue’s are much smaller than his first one’s, the hands are barely visible, they are more abstract form.


Brancusi, Mlle Pogany, 1913/14

Again, his work becomes more and more simplistic, there are no hands at all in these statue. Making the texture more visible, the more minimal they are the more material is visible.

Albers also designed these glass tables that are bold in colour and the materials are noticeable. The cup is modern looking although the design is 90 years old. It can be picked up in different ways, it is simple design and is designed for its function. Reduction to the minimum lines, its all about form and function together.

The chair was a new design, it is very strong and the technique of bending wood was new.

The Bauhaus chair is very simple design made with tubular steel which is seamless.

3. Artists & Disciplines

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946)

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Extracts from Abstract of an Artist (1945), (New York, Wittenborn,1947)

…after the abstract painters found a more direct and elementary way of picture-making…I gave up the use of textures.

An airbrush and spray gun…can produce a smooth and impersonal surface treatment which is beyond the skill of the hand.

I was not at all afraid of losing the ‘personal touch’, so highly valued in previous painting. …I even gave up signing my paintings. I put numbers and letters with the necessary data on the back of the canvas, as if they were cars, airplanes, or other industrial products.


Background: a multi talented artist who was a major figure in the Bauhaus School, becoming director of the preliminary course in 1963. All the artists did this course together and then they were able to specialise, but they had to specialise in something that wasn’t a main speciality. This was a way of trying to train people across the disciplines. 1937 Moholy-Nagy set up the new Bauhaus School which was in Chicago.


Main points from set text:

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Abstract of an Artist, (New York, George Wittenborn, 1947) p. 79-80

Text was set in 1940’s looking back at the 1920’s. He talks about the texture of the painting, the brush strokes draw attention. Textures have a double function, moving away from the very real depiction of something to the texture of painting. He said that there was  a shift from the subject matter, noticing the painting itself. To him all these textures seemed like an over nourished ego, it was all about the artist as an individual and he wanted to get away from that. He gave up textures and moved onto more direct and elementary moving further into textures. He wanted to do something different than the artist’s that came before, he thought their idea’s were obsolete meaning not needed anymore. He wanted to change the values to a machine art of a machine age. He wants to create a more machine like surface, not needing any personal touches. He can mass produce which he states isn’t a treat to creativity as we are in an industrial age now. He ordered paintings over the telephone, moving away from needing the hand to paint.

Examples of work:

He produced paintings which were of ariel view such as ‘Cubist Townscape’ below. He uses a lot of numbers and letters, he was very interested in typography.

Here are some pictures that were done on aluminium.


He also did Photograms aswel which is a camera less technique for producing an image in the dark room by exposing to light. He worked across different disciplines. They look space age in a way.

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)

Ideas about art & the artist:

Schwitters is a German artist, he and Moholy-Nagy shared a studio in Berlin for a while were they worked in different ways and had completely different approaches to disciplines. Schwitters referred to his work as ‘Merz’ that is a made up word and comes from the word commerce. He wanted a word that was unrecognisable to anything else as he said that ‘art should be something that goes across the disciplines and should be without purpose’. He also had an area of his work that did have purpose as he had is own advertising and design agency in Hanover were he lived but he said that his art was without purpose.

Examples of work:

Here are his works that were collage form mixing different materials creating 2D, conventional form.


3D elements are incorporated in these following works. It’s a ‘relief’ which means it comes away from the wall and is 3D. It is an ‘assemblage’ which mixes 2D with 3D by using art and non art materials. He moved from paper collage to putting object within the scene that was more like an assemblage but still wall based.


I take any material whatsoever if the picture demands it…I play off material against material, for example, wood against sackcloth.

Merz stands for freedom from all fetters (restraints like cups), for the sake of artistic creation.

…it was my desire not to be a specialist in one branch of art, but an artist. My aim is the Merz composite art work, that embraces all branches of art in an artistic unit.

I did this in order to efface the boundaries between the arts.

Kurt Schwitters, extracts from ‘Merz’, (1920) in Robert Motherwell (ed.), The Dada Painters and Poets, (Harvard Univ Press, 1979), pp.59-62

Schwitters is talking about getting rid of all the boundaries, talking about something that embraces all areas of art in one unit, bringing it together. Whereas Moholy-Nagy is applying lots of different discipline’s but separately doing interior design, painting and metal work. He’s suggesting putting it all together, it should all be in one art work. And here is an example, his house in Hanover:

In 1923-43 he started building this ‘instillation’ which is sculptural and got bigger and bigger so that it took over his house, know known as an ‘Instillation’. Instillations at art exhibitions are now very common, you can go in something and walk around it so that you are a part of the art work. It is a construction built of different things such as wood, cardboard and metal etc. He lumps it altogether in one overwhelmingly and artistic creation. The house was destroyed when Hanover was bombed but then rebuilt so it still exists today.

Both working in many disciplines but Schwitters is working towards getting rid of all the boundaries between disciplines, he states that he doesn’t want to specialise. He was associated with the Dada movement, which is generally across Europe and into America. A movement which was formed after the 1WW in opposition to rationality. He said ‘being rational got us in in the 1WW by relying upon technology, we want to go back to the imagination’. This was also stated by the surrealists, they also said ‘we are done with rationality, we want to revive the imagination’. The Dada movement was saying ‘Rationality doesn’t work so we’re going to do something that is different’. They did all sorts of strange things. One of the artist’s involved in this movement, Marcel Duchamp, did something called ‘A Mile of String’ were he used a mile of string and put it everywhere so that nobody could actually get into the exhibition. It was that kind of subversive act that the dada artist’s were interested in.

Here are Schwitters picture poems. He published a magazine and he created a logo called ‘Pelican Inks’ as seen below.


Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)

Examples of work:

Duchamp’s Fountain and Bicycle wheel created a shock, they were very new and very different. It is made out of scrap and tat, people would say that this is rubbish, it’s not art, there is no traditional skill involved. He called them ‘Ready Mades’.

Duchamp is an important figure in the 1960’s, he is actually responsible for most modern art that we see now, he was way ahead in some ways with his art.

Examples from text:

He’s saying it was just an idea, so he did it and then calls it ‘Bicycle Wheel’ but it did turn and he liked to look at it. He hasn’t made them he’s just got the objects and then put them together. He didn’t choose these things because he thought they were beautiful, he just chose them. He didn’t care one way or the other about these objects to look at. He wants the viewer to use their imagination and engage the intellect by getting the viewer thinking in a more radical way. He states that we have got to keep putting new things in and challenge preconceptions. It doesn’t have to be that that object then becomes a valuable work of art, he’s saying it doesn’t matter if this urinal gets broken I can get another one and write R. Mutt on it and it will be the same. He’s not expecting these to be aesthetic, they are objects that make you think and are a different idea of art. He went and bought a snow shovel as seen below ‘In Advance of the Broken Arm’. It’s stating that accidents happen during the winter so in advance of that he has the snow shovel. The title makes you think, what’s the question there? He says art can be funny, it doesn’t have to be so serious and profound or watch it and be quiet. It can be a urinal turned on its side that makes you laugh, this is still art.



Marcel Duchamp, extracts from a talk at MOMA in New York (1961)

In 1913 I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn.

In New York in 1915 I bought at a hardware store a snow shovel on which I wrote ‘in advance of the broken arm’. It was around this time that the word ‘readymade’ came to mind to designate this form of manifestation.

That sentence instead of describing the object like a title was meant to carry the mind of the spectator toward other regions more verbal.

Another aspect of the ‘readymade’ is its lack of uniqueness… the replica of a ‘readymade’ delivering the same message



Kosuth belonged to a group called ‘Art and Language’ which was important to Duchamp. Art and Language artist’s showed a real interest. They were interested in putting together image and word. Questioning the nature of the art object its self and whether or not it might be art.

Kruger’s work comes from Duchamp by use of words and bizarre sentences to get viewer to really think and question themselves. He also wanted to provoke the art world, as what he does it turn things on their head. He didn’t like the idea of disciplines i.e. painting and sculpture he’s buying something and showing it as art.



Moholy-Nagy is a multi talented artist that works across all the disciplines but treats them as separate from each other. He’s not saying that one is better than the other but they are separate. Artists like Matisse, Brancusi and Albers form whom the material was important, they said the material and the discipline needs to show the object that you end up with. A painting needed to be very much like a painting, a sculpture needs to be very tactile, you need to want to touch it and recognise the texture of the material.

Schwitters who wants to muddle them all together, he says art should be free of any fetters. We just have one art object.

Duchamp who completed subverts the idea of disciplines and just has a ready made object with no traditional skill incorporated or anything that people would recognise as conventional art.

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